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How shipping containers in Atlanta became tiny homes for the homeless

People are seen at The Melody, a complex of 40 units offering transitional housing made from shipping containers, in Atlanta, on February 9.
Austin Steele/CNN via CNN Newsource
People are seen at The Melody, a complex of 40 units offering transitional housing made from shipping containers, in Atlanta, on February 9.

By Brammhi Balarajan, CNN

Atlanta, Georgia (CNN) — James “Jimmy” Thompson lay awake on concrete, hoping he’d be able to fall asleep – praying even more he’d wake up in the morning.

His feet, hobbled and pained from living on the street, were a constant burden. At least once or twice a week he says he’d be threatened. What few belongings he still had were constantly at risk of being stolen.

But after a year living on the streets of Atlanta, that pervading fear is gone.

Slowly, the pieces came together. He found and joined a church in Atlanta. A member of the church helped him with his foot pain.

Then thanks to a shipping container turned house, the final piece slid into place – a home.

“All the hard work, prayers and blessings it took to get me here, I’ll never understand,” Thompson said. “But I can be grateful.”

The shipping container – a remnant from Covid-19 used by hospitals for extra space – was refashioned by the city as part of a project in hopes of helping many of the city’s chronically unhoused.

Now, Thompson’s joints don’t hurt from sleeping on the sidewalk. He doesn’t have to take a few hours to warm up in the morning. No longer does he have to lug 50 pounds of his belongings every time he needs to move.

Thompson is embarking on a new beginning.

Reaching the most vulnerable

Tucked into downtown Atlanta, The Melody, named after an Atlanta native who died after a struggle with chronic homelessness, is the city’s latest project providing housing for the unhoused. Made from metal shipping containers, the new tiny homes have anything but a sterile feel to them.

The tiny homes are complete with a bed, sink, shower, refrigerator, oven and microwave. A little window lets tenants look out into the courtyard of red porch chairs and grass. Although the containers are small, tenants joked they felt anything but tiny.

The best part, tenants say? A sense of privacy.

“I want to say it’s made just for me, but it’s made for people like me and others,” resident George Suddeth said.

“I can go in my own room, I can lay down, I can go to sleep when I like,” he added. “I can eat what I like. Nobody messes with you, it’s really a dream come true.”

The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s annual housing report, released in December 2023, showed more than 650,000 people were experiencing homelessness across the nation on any given night – a 12% increase from the year prior. The growth was a continuation of a pre-pandemic rise in homelessness.

The report showed there were more than 12,000 people homeless in Georgia in 2023 – a 15% increase from the year before. The report showed nearly half were living unsheltered.

Meanwhile, a point-in-time count – a yearly initiative where volunteers survey Atlanta neighborhoods and estimate the city’s homeless population conducted by Partners for Home, an organization working to end homelessness – calculated 2,679 homeless people in the city in 2023. The number marked a slight uptick from 2022’s count of 2,017 but a decrease from 2020 when 3,240 homeless were counted.

Shipping containers quickly help housing gaps

The words “Welcome home,” sprawled across the side of one of the units, which resembles a mobile home, greets residents each day. The black shipping container community circles a courtyard with fresh purple flowers and an artificial lawn.

“I was ecstatic, I was excited,” new tenant Sherlyn Freeman said after getting the keys to her unit. “The whole time, I was smiling, excited. That’s what I do every time I go there – it’s mine.”

That first night sleeping in her own bed was “heaven.”

She’s done stints sleeping at a hotel – but nothing, she said, beat having a home of her own.

“Being homeless – I never thought that I would be there. But I was, and it wasn’t a good experience,” she said.

Freeman isn’t alone. The pandemic rise in homelessness caused cities to try a variety of solutions – some temporary and others more lasting – to combat this crisis. Las Vegas turned parking areas into spaces for the homeless in 2020, while Denver created “safe outdoor spaces” for homeless individuals to have an enclosed, safe area to spend the night.

Atlanta was also inspired by other efforts across the country, including modular homes and tiny homes, but wanted something to quickly get people off the streets. Using shipping containers allowed for a four-month transformation to make them into homes, Mayor Andre Dickens said.

Transforming shipping containers has become a popular endeavor for cities across the country as they work to stunt homelessness, including in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, which has one of the largest populations of unhoused people in the country.

In Atlanta, the initiative came from remnants of Covid-19. The state had used containers for makeshift ICU rooms during the pandemic and needed to find a new purpose for the eyesores.

“And that’s how this site was birthed, essentially,” said Cathryn Vassell, CEO of Partners for Home, which worked with the city on the project.

Vassell said the program aimed to help those who were chronically homeless, the most vulnerable people in the system. Tenants start with a 12-month lease, but the system provides permanent housing, meaning residents can stay as long as they like. Residents are asked to pay up to 30% of their income, if they have one, meaning they do not need to pay anything if they do not have a source of income.

The opening of The Melody marked the first 40 units in the city. The city hopes to open 500 additional units by 2025.

“It’s a way for us to help people while they’re experiencing homelessness to have dignity and humane conditions,” Mayor Andre Dickens said.

For Freeman, her favorite part of the day remains when she gets to open the door to her unit with her key – the physical proof this home is hers.

She now hopes to go back to school and is thinking of pursuing a nursing career, where she’s able to help homeless individuals. Most of all, she’s excited to tell her story to others and inspire them to seek help.

“My goal is to tell people my story, to motivate them to get some help and seek the steps to not become homeless,” she said.

Over the years, the little pieces that made up Sherlyn – her favorite color, which used to be blue – have faded away in place of a need for survival. She hasn’t had the privilege of thinking about her favorite things for a long time.

But now, she’s beginning to carve out a path for herself again.

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