This story begins in a strange way, with a visit last month to my famous (thanks mainly to Bill Clinton and Mike Huckabee) hometown, "a place called Hope" in southwest Arkansas.
While my wife and I were there, we had to drive out north of town to the old airport, built during World War II to serve a huge nearby "proving ground" for testing all kinds of weapons and even bombs. The airport is barely functional now, but we didn't care about planes and one of the nation's longest runways. (Apparently Air Force One landed there once.) We wanted to see the evidence of this decade's biggest government boondoggle.
And there it was: thousands upon thousands of mobile homes and travel trailers, parked and lined up neatly for what looks to be at least a square mile around that airport. They've been there since 2005, when the Federal Emergency Management Agency bought them as part of huge, no-bid contracts to provide instant housing relief for victims of Hurricane Katrina, about 450 miles away.
But after that $2.7 billion expense, FEMA discovered the trailers and homes couldn't be used in areas prone to flooding, and Louisiana wasn't interested in setting up huge trailer camps. So the trailers, about 12,000 of them, and more than 8,000 mobile homes have been stored at different sites, and in Hope's case FEMA is paying $25,000 a month to lease the land from the town.
The mobile homes still can be used for future disasters, whether caused by tornadoes or whatever. But those travel trailers are different. Some auctions have been set up, with some selling for $5,000 to $6,000 (far below market value), but in this economy they aren't moving quickly.
So there they sit. And while I was there, all I could think about was how many homeless individuals, couples and families would be so gratified to live inside those trailers.
My next thought was about how several Colorado Springs folks have talked about trying to emulate Dignity Village, the homeless enclave set up in Portland, Ore. (Check it out at dignityvillage.org.) Its surfaced, secure area allows for "homes" in the range of about 200 to 300 square feet, with provided services such as electricity, restrooms, communal cooking and refrigeration, and public telephones.
Dignity Village has been a success since 2001, and we could develop a similar story here. Picking a useful site with access to public transportation would be an essential first step, but given the extremes of our climate, providing a jump-start with living facilities could make a huge difference.
Just imagine, having as many as 100 trailers (or even more) brought here and set up on a paved site with electricity and services available. Just imagine, allowing homeless people to move in rent-free, giving them a chance to restart their lives and creating a destination for groups wanting to help with donated goods, clothes and services.
Yes, there would have to be rules, such as there are in Portland: no violence, no stealing, no alcohol or drugs, no disruptive behavior, and everyone agreeing to help in cleaning and maintaining the area.
How much would it cost? Potentially a lot, but then again, given that FEMA has no other use for the trailers, perhaps one of our representatives in Congress could step in and push for a low-cost solution. Possibly even no charge, just the cost of moving them here. Something also tells me, if all that happened, it would become possible to find a trucking company willing to help with the transporting, and businesses on this end to make sure the trailers are set up and usable.
Some entity, group or nonprofit with understanding of the homeless community would have to take a leadership role. Most likely a foundation or two would have to supply grant money for site preparation and other start-up costs. But with an example such as Dignity Village, combined with perhaps those travel trailers from Arkansas, we might become a role model for others in turning problems — ours and FEMA's — into a solution. I thought about trying to contact Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, as well as Rep. Doug Lamborn, but they obviously have a lot on their plates right now. And we don't need a knee-jerk "no" response.
Besides, we can make sure this idea makes it to the right places, and people, in Washington.
So ... is anyone else interested?