the United States
|Housing and justice|
Mad Housers, Inc. is a non-profit corporation based in Atlanta, Georgia and engaged in charitable work, research and education. The Mad Housers are perhaps best known for a hands-on, pragmatic approach to providing shelter to homeless people, in particular through the design, construction and provision of small (6'x8'x10') frame-and-plywood huts. These shelters, though not meant as permanent housing, provide "privacy, security, protection from the elements, and stability," all of which the organization believes are vital to helping people escape homelessness. Unlike the "sweat equity" required by which some housing programs such as Habitat for Humanity (where inhabitants are required to take part in the construction of their future dwelling), Mad Houser shelters are provided free of any charge or obligation to their inhabitants. The name “Mad Housers” came from the Mad Bomber in New York. The idea was that he struck in secret, just as they came in secret to erect huts for the homeless.
Early history (1987–1992)
The Mad Housers first emerged in 1987, founded by graduate students, Michael Connor and Brian Finkle, of Georgia Tech's College of Architecture to address the problem of homelessness in Atlanta. Their first projects were based on their vision of improving upon other types of marginal housing being erected for the homeless. Even in the early years, the group grew, changed and progressed in physical hut design, group organization and their methods of operation.
Based on their research and plans, Connor, Finkle and three other architecture students built the first hut. It was a small 6’ by 8’ by 6’ plywood box “outfitted with a bed and shelves for [the client’s] belongings”. However, it was dry and kept “out the wind and the rain. This first experiment at housing the homeless was different than their later attempts: they built the house at a particular location and left it there to see what would happen. After two days, someone had claimed the house, moved it to a more concealed location and “reassembled [it] more practically than the prototype”. The group no longer builds haphazardly like this though. They “select clients beforehand, making sure they actually want huts and usually getting them to assist in construction”. They also try to choose their build sites based on where the homeless already live. In the philosophical terminology of Martin Heidegger, dwelling precedes building. The group also became much more efficient in just their first year. They were able to erect a hut in just 20 minutes and began to use salvaged materials to build the huts “cutting the cost from 'the $200 [they] spent on the first hut to $25 to $40 each'”.
The Mad Housers first began their work with no political motives. They were only concerned about the plight of the homeless in Atlanta. Seeing a homeless shelter called “The Center” on the corner of Peachtree and Pine made the plight of the homeless real to Finkle and changed the course of Connor’s research leading to the creation of the Mad Housers. The group was also “completely non-denominational – it was not born out of spirituality.” Pope emphasized the primary mission of the group was to help give the clients a home, not to convert them.
Media and public perception
The way in which the media treated the Mad Housers in the early years is very interesting. The newspaper and magazine articles of the late 1980s tended to emphasize the secretive nature of the organization describing them as “guerilla hut-builders”, a “secret society of sorts,” and having “the air of a fraternity prank”. This image of secrecy was in fact an integral component of the organization for the first couple years. One Mad Houser explained in a newspaper article, “secrecy was necessary […] to avoid arrest and prevent the Georgia Department of Transportation […] from tearing them down”. Today, they are not quite as furtive, but they do still try to remain under the radar for the most part to protect their clients. After the first couple years of absolute secrecy, they began to come into the open and to attract the attention of various media groups and other organizations.
Their site on Techwood was a turning point in their level of exposure. Although the site was difficult to get to, it was visible from the interstate and brought the media into contact with the Mad Housers. One day, a fight broke out between the residents and one person was knifed. The Department of Transportation, who owned the land, decided that it was an unacceptable risk to allow the huts to remain. A debate ensued among the Mad Housers as to what to do about the situation. Pope wanted to go to the media and publicize the injustice of kicking the people out. However, they ended up following Finkle’s suggestion to not make a big deal out of it and simply move the huts somewhere safe. In July 1988, they participated in a demonstration for the homeless at the Democratic National Convention. Since then, they have continued to bring “the plight of the homeless to public attention”. Then, in 1990, an hour-long documentary aired on 90 TV stations around the nation dramatizing the Mad Houser’s work. However Bailey Pope, one of the founders, said that this documentary is not a very accurate representation of the organization.
However, the problem with the increasing amount of public exposure was the fact that their work is technically illegal. There have been several occasions when city officials and the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Affairs have torn down huts considering them “infractions of the law”. Important city events such as the 1988 Democratic National Convention (and presumably the 1996 Olympics) also created tension between the city and the Mad Housers by clearing out several sites. However, the Mad Housers were able to reach an “informal alliance with local officials and the city police”. As one article pointed out, “the mayors seem to have realized these are not normal times. We can't deal in niceties and fine points here”. In a 20/20 interview, Atlanta’s mayor said that the Mad Housers perform “the kind of civil disobedience I can get behind” making a reference to Thoreau. In 1989, the mayor promised them a $30,000 grant, but the group had trouble obtaining the tax exempt status required for them to accept the grant. By 2002, they had achieved tax-exempt status, and were able to work the situation out.
The organization had a major shift in the mid-90s as some of the original Mad Housers left the group for various reasons such as graduating or moving away and the next generation of volunteers joined. Another factor contributing to the lull in the group’s activity was the 1996 Olympics when most of the homeless in Atlanta were removed from the city. Pope said that the group became more focused on maintaining the current huts. While they still built huts, they “became more of a landlord than a development organization.” Frank Jeffers, a longtime member and president of the organization for many years helped develop items such as a cogeneration power generator out of a lawnmower and a wood stove to heat the huts. Today the Mad Housers are still very active in providing shelter for the homeless and have panel builds and hut raisings regularly. They also do site recon trips to find new sites and “winterization” of the huts when they prepare the huts for the impending cold weather. In 2002, to raise awareness about homelessness in Atlanta, they built a hut on the Georgia Tech campus and slept in it that night.
Phenomenology of the huts
Phenomenology, as described by David Seamon, “seeks to understand how people live in relation to everyday places, spaces, and environments.”  This concept certainly applies to the clients of the Mad Housers. Multiple accounts describe how the clients interact with their new space and repurpose it. The clients were skeptical at first about whether it was too good to be true, but once they were convinced, they were very enthusiastic about their new homes. Several articles mention how the clients arrange their personal possessions in their hut with special significance because they did not have that luxury before. Having a hut is a transformational experience for the clients. One hut dweller said “the power of a hut is what it does for your self-esteem. In a shelter, you can't make someone a cup of instant coffee, invite them in, ask them if they read this article or this book. When you have a hut, you can say, 'This is my place.” Another client said, “It's a lot more than shelter, It's a sense of dignity, a sense of space, and a sense of privacy.” Also according to Pope, having huts gave the residents political stature. The communities were given police and sanitation service. Pope realized the extent to which the huts were transformational when he saw one of the clients sitting on his porch watching the sunset. Pope said the man “couldn’t have been happier.”
- Personal Interview: Bailey Pope and Brian Finkle 2007-11-20
-  Mad Housers Hut. Design for the Other 90%. Retrieved on 2007-08-03.
- Anderson, Kristine F. "`Mad Housers' Deliver Shelter for the Homeless :[Orange County Edition]. " Los Angeles Times (pre-1997 Fulltext) [Los Angeles, Calif.] 20 Jul 1989,8. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2007-09-20.
- "Raising the Roof to Aid the Homeless." Atlanta Journal Constitution. 15 March 1988: A,16. Retrieved 2007-09-20.
- "A Holiday for Heroes." Newsweek. 4 July 1988: 34. Retrieved 2007-09-20.
- Morris, Holly. "Atlanta Group's Tents with Privacy Are Big Hit with Hurricane Victims. " The Atlanta Constitution [Atlanta, Ga.] 1 Oct. 1992,A3. National Newspapers (27). Retrieved 2007-09-20.
- Krasner, Mike. "'The Mad Housers' grapples with issue of homelessness :[ALL Edition]. " Telegram & Gazette [Worcester, Mass.] 28 Mar. 1990, D5. ABI/INFORM Trade & Industry. Retrieved 2007-09-20.
- May, Lee. "Almost Homeless: `Mad Housing' in Atlanta Their volunteer-built shacks are in hidden spots but hut-dwellers fear they are living on borrowed time :[Home Edition]. " Los Angeles Times (pre-1997 Fulltext) [Los Angeles, Calif.] 18 Jun 1990,5. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2007-09-20.
- "Homeless Group Vows too Face Bulldozer." United Press International 25 May 1992: BC Cycle. Retrieved 2007-09-20.
- Mad Housers Yahoo Group: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/madhousers 1 April 2002
- Seamon, David. “Body Subject, Time-Space Routines, and Place-Ballets”
- Anderson, Kristine F. "A Hut Resident and a Mad Houser Coordinator." The Christian Science Monitor 14 June 1989,13. Retrieved 2007-09-20.
- "The Power of the Hut. " The Progressive 1 November 1992: 13. Research Library. Retrieved 2007-09-20.