You may find yourself living in a beautiful house

And you may ask yourself, ‘Well how did I get here?’ –David Byrne

When Charley Pritchett came home from work one wintry night early this month, about 30 strangers were building him a house under the freeway. As traffic whizzed by overhead, a light snow was driven sideways by a stiff wind through the viaduct. Across the tracks a commuter train headed out of the Loop for the suburbs.

“What shall I do?” asked Charley, a 43-year-old man who until then had been living in a plywood lean-to under an abandoned loading dock. Charley does day labor, and he had spent this Saturday scrubbing the ink-splattered walls around the Sun-Times’s printing presses.

“Tell us you love it!” laughed Andy Patrick, a neighbor of Charley’s. Andy, a 30-year-old marketing consultant who lives in a large loft, met Charley a month ago while walking his dog Bodie, an Australian shepherd, along some abandoned railroad tracks; other loft-living young professionals regularly jog there. A resident of Charley’s locale since April, Andy lives near a community of homeless people living in tents, shacks, cars, and empty warehouses.

When he heard Randolph Street Gallery was sponsoring an exhibit of activist architecture concerned with homelessness, Andy suggested that Charley be the recipient of one of the practical offshoots of the project–a one-person hut originally designed by the Mad Housers of Atlanta. This renegade band of do-gooders builds cheap (and technically illegal) homes for the homeless as “a visible expression of an alternative order, both political and social, on the landscape of urban America.” Two founding members of the group, which claims over 120 huts built to date, were brought to Chicago by the gallery to help assemble a pilot hut.

“We should point it toward Atlanta,” hollered Brian Frinkel, one of the Mad Housers, making a mecca quip. The new tenant had predetermined the hut’s location before going to work that Saturday, clearing off and leveling the site for his 48-square-foot insulated shelter. Unlike the Atlanta models, Charley’s hut came with a wood-burning stove rigged up from an industrial-size metal paint can. A recycled car muffler serves as a chimney pipe.

In Atlanta a seasoned team of Mad Housers can erect a unit in half an hour, after first fabricating the pieces off-site. But it took the first-timers putting together Chicago’s debut hut a couple of hours. A documentary videographer on the scene was recruited to aim her portable light on the interior as darkness fell.

Drawn by the commotion, a couple of homeless men from the area came by and huddled around a trash fire for warmth. Andy realized that one had been an employee of the marketing company he’d run that went out of business two years ago. Eighty people had been put out of work. Now the one Andy recognized lives in a car nearby.

When Andy and the others were through building the shelter for Charley, who used to design and repair mainframe computers, they returned to Randolph Street Gallery for some beers. Charley told Andy, “You know, this is like Christmas to me.”

Randolph Street Gallery’s exhibit and installation was billed as “Counter Proposals: Adaptive Approaches to a Built Environment.” One wall addressed the transplanting of folk architecture from Puerto Rico to vacant lots in New York City. Called casitas, these fancy shacks are meant to stir community instincts by evoking cultural roots. South Carolina architect Christopher Rose displayed plans for the Charleston Cottage, which he “patterned after the local freedmen cottages” from the last century. His design is meant to “debunk the myth that it is uneconomical to build single-occupant homes.” Meanwhile, architect Dan Hoffman contributed “Erasing Detroit,” his “cartographic montage of aerial photographs” documenting the disappearance of Detroit’s inner city.

As part of the event, volunteers also helped bring a couple of the blueprints to life, among them the hut the Mad Housers designed for Charley. As some of them hammered together the hut’s roof, floor, and walls at the gallery, 33-year-old Bailey Pope, the other Mad Houser who’s here from Atlanta, tried to assess the rewards for the builders. “We go out there. There’s nothing. We put up a hut. And it’s like a poem. Someone now has a home–it’s theirs. Then we’re gone.” Although his host in Chicago was an alternative art gallery, Pope insists his huts are not sculpture and not performance art. He even downplays their utility as political commentary.

Pope grew up very comfortably in a three-story house in Ridgewood, New Jersey, and claims he wrote a term paper on affordable housing back in the 11th grade. He graduated from Princeton University with a BA in architecture in 1980 and later got a master’s at Georgia Tech, where he met the other core members of the Mad Housers. They got started in 1987. Today the group numbers around 100. Pope is one of the group’s few architects.

“In recognition of the inability of the existing social order to meet the requirements of those citizens who are unable to compete effectively, we are sponsoring an alternative social order in which competition on economic grounds is irrelevant,” reads the handbook put together by Frinkel, Pope, and crew. “We call that order the Mad Housers.”

“So many people piss and moan that the government’s got to do something,” Pope says. “We just got tired of waiting. It’s an untenable situation we just can’t tolerate. What we started with is the frustration that no one is doing anything.” Doing something wasn’t easy. “A lot of the homeless are suspicious at first. They’ll ask, ‘So what do I have to do, pray with you?'”

The Mad Housers treat homeless Atlantans as “clients” and try to customize each hut to its owner. They inventory 30 standard wall studs, specifying in the handbook that “one should be cut the same height as your client” for use as a gauge. It is later incorporated as an inside ladder.

By definition the homeless are always trespassing somewhere, but the Mad Housers–who sometimes build huts on private property–nevertheless inform their clients about Georgia trespassing laws. For safety in numbers, they cluster a minimum of three huts together. At one site, there are 18 huts together, all illegal in some way.

“Most property owners still don’t know,” Pope says. “People don’t look. That’s part of the protest. Why should someone have the right, by a piece of paper, to control land they don’t even look at? But we don’t try to be a pain in the ass and go to land that’s really in use.” The handbook recommends sites that are “secluded, accessible by truck, close to a soup kitchen, and near a water supply.”

Throughout the handbook a pragmatic touch prevails: “Make burglar bars with short 2×4’s.” “If your palms are tender, as most of us office workers’ are, you will probably want to bring a pair of work gloves.” “Volunteers are not covered by workmen’s compensation.” In a more affected passage, the Mad Housers valorize the roof, the wall, and the door. “As a combination of these three elemental gestures, the hut becomes the occurrence of individual dwelling. It creates a human place, a human’s place.”

As the three “elemental gestures” come together noisily at the gallery, Pope says, “Mayor Andrew Young said about us, ‘This is the kind of civil disobedience we can tolerate.’ It’s so morally correct no one can stop us.” The idea is that the Mad Housers’ attitude will be infectious. The handbook suggests, “By our demonstration to our clients of the possibility of changing the environment, we empower them to make similar changes. The sound and fury of today’s ardent demonstrations do little to assuage tonight’s chill winds.”

After a long Saturday with Pope and Frinkel erecting Charley’s hut, Andy Patrick decided he wanted to start up a Mad Houser group in Chicago. (His own childhood, he says, was a “perfect little upbringing, quite honestly–the all-American stereotype” in suburban Ohio. His father, “a staunch Republican and retired Marine,” saw the homeless as a knee-jerk liberal issue until Andy told him that three-fourths of the men camped out in this industrial wasteland were veterans. His dad sent a box of clothing.)

About 50 people turned up for the first meeting of the Chicago Mad Housers at Randolph Street Gallery. Many in the crowd came after hearing a story on WBEZ about Andy and Charley that morning. Andy began with a brief announcement: “We’re not here to make a major political statement, no. Of course there’s a political statement implied. We’re all political beings, especially in this town. Politics can be detrimental. Let’s just build huts. Period. If you’re here to wave a flag for any other purposes, I’m saying I’m willing to hear it, but I’m not going to get involved.”

He brought things down to a personal level: “I have a friend. I want him to have a home.” Following the Atlanta model, he explained that the one requirement on the part of the person accepting the house is that he must help build it. Then Charley introduced himself and explained, “We’re not trying to break any laws, but we are trying to stop some deaths.” And by the way, “Don’t compare my house to a cardboard box. I call it a house. I don’t call it a hut.”

Andy then asked everyone to introduce themselves. A South Loop resident said, “Like Andy, I take walks in the open land. I go south of Roosevelt and along the Chicago River. I’ve always been amazed that people are living there.” Another man said simply, “For the next six weeks I have a lot of free time.” An architect said he was “dismayed by all the building codes that get in the way of getting anything done.” A woman said, “I was once homeless with two children. Before that, I used to try to make things work in the system, but now I want to make things work with my hands.” Someone else said, “I just like to swing a hammer and pound nails. If I can help someone from freezing to death–that’s great.” Another carpenter confessed that he once spent a year and a half restoring a historic house in Oak Park.

The confessionals started getting more personal. One fellow, aiming a little video camera at the crowd, admitted, “I almost didn’t make it here tonight. But I’m glad I did because I feel so empowered by all this energy. And love.” Another offered, “I’m a painter. I’ve been painting homeless people. They’ve been turning up in my paintings.” One woman announced, “I’m a combat-boot-wearing thick vegetarian rap artist.” (Later she recited a rap containing the lines “Do you listen? Do you listen? America’s hypocrisy ain’t no democracy.”) A woman in the front row explained, “I want to experience beauty within a harsh reality.”

An architecture-school dropout from New York City said he was so “strongly affected by the unbelievable intensity of the homeless problem” that it “induced a state of paralysis” in him. Another man said, “It reminds me of childhood nightmares. Of Germany. This herding of people into shelters. This [hut building] won’t be herding a lot of people into a box and letting them rot.” The only man wearing a tie said, “I take the train in every morning and get to see where Charley lives. I’m tired of getting my guts ripped out. It affects me deeply.”

Charley turned and asked, “What train–the 6:03 or the 6:15? Wave at me next time.” Charley’s friend Pete said he sees the trains go by too. Pete said to the group, “You’ve taught me–the way you people helped my friend Charley.” He went on about helping a homeless woman standing on the tracks with her child in the cold. “I want to be a preacher. And I love each and every one of you for putting my friend Charley under your wing because he’s causing me trouble. Now he brought me breakfast this morning. And he finally can fix potatoes like I do.”

A handful of the workers who built Charley’s hut showed up. “I don’t have finely honed carpentry skills,” one woman allowed. “I brought a pie for tonight, but I didn’t know there would be so many people.” Miraculously, as with the fishes and loaves, there were leftovers of her pie when the meeting broke up.

In mid-November Charley came back to Randolph Street Gallery and joined a small crew who insulated and sealed the City Sleeper, a single-occupancy sleeping chamber. San Francisco architect Donald McDonald originally designed the four-by-four-by-eight-foot structure for homeless men living in a parking lot outside his office. In a broadside, McDonald argues, “The units are NOT housing, hence not subject to building code restrictions.” Yet “they violate all manner of regulations that are not violated when someone just sleeps in a doorway or dumpster.” (Critics have attacked McDonald’s sleeper shelter as an undignified “doghouse”; in response he points to the five thousand 12-by-14-foot temporary houses put up after San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake. He says some are still standing.)

The Chicago crew loaded the Sleeper onto a truck and drove over to Charley’s neighborhood. Philip, the prospective occupant, wasn’t around, which actually made their job easier; his highly protective dogs would not have welcomed a dozen strangers to their turf. As far as anyone knows, Philip has been on the street for more than ten years. Workers at a nearby plant had built him a plywood-and-plastic shelter to take the place of a rustic open A-frame structure he still uses. His friend Charley directed the crew unloading the City Sleeper, leveled with jacks on two-by-fours. Oriented for southern exposure, the unit’s one window, complete with screen for warmer weather, faces the sun. All three structures in a line look like a Field Museum exhibit on the evolution of primitive shelter.

Antibureaucratic and allergic to lengthy meetings, the Mad Housers are unencumbered by doctrinal handwringing. (At the Chicago group’s first meeting, a parliamentary request to segregate smokers–“Can we have no smoking? We’re trying to do some good here. Can we do some good for ourselves while we’re at it?”–elicited scattered groans of impatience.) They’d rather hear the sound of hammers than of demonstrators. The covert charity of the Mad Housers and their allies is bracing. Their simplistic strategy enlists neither publicists nor lawyers.

Although the Atlanta group kept out of the media for a whole year, Chicago’s contingent, barely a few weeks old, was noticed by the press from the start. What was scheduled as a one-hut event has blossomed into a fast-moving organization marshaling volunteer builders and donated materials. But unlike many activists, they don’t depend on the media for their impact; instead, Andy Patrick is wary that press coverage may be counterproductive.

For all its virtues, the Mad Housers’ agenda could lead to shantytowns. Could their do-gooding backfire, creating plywood ghettos? The more visible their handiwork becomes, the more the privacy of their clients is compromised, and the more likely property interests are to take steps against squatters and homesteaders. On the other hand, if people who own or rent finally realized just how many people are on the street, the nonviability of sanctioned shelters might be exposed. After all, it was the dangers and indignities of those facilities that drove the likes of Charley, Pete, and Philip to live under viaducts. As Pete puts it, “I’d rather be cold and happy than warm and sad.”

Charley and Pete live near a hot night spot named Shelter and a warehouse painted with a Cold Storage sign. Although a billboard several blocks away salutes “Da Champs,” Charley and his neighbors have a ground-level view of Chicago’s sports celebrities, who are habitues of China Club after their home games. They spot the tall stars tossing beer cans from their cars in the outlying zones of these elite clubs. Charley resents the way the wealthy treat their home. “We try to keep it neat around here,” he frowns.

“The dignity of a man who owns a house, albeit minimal and illegal, over a man who sleeps on the ground” can be obtained not by “legislated solutions” but by a hut from the Mad Housers, says the manifesto written by Cabell Heyward, one of the group’s founders. It further proposes: “It is not the physical shelter alone which encourages the helpless and depressed to overcome their own circumstances, but rather the associated events–the receiving of a great gift, unconditionally, from people who exhibit concern–the association with the young successful middle class–the camaraderie with persons previously presumed to be unreachable or indifferent.”

Last Saturday as work wrapped up, one volunteer propped debris around Philip’s brand-new City Sleeper to camouflage it. “If it looks like junk, nobody will notice and bother it,” she said. But the crew were already hurrying away, to lessen the attention they might be drawing themselves.

Charley invited everyone over to his house for a quick look. Andy pointed out where the next hut will be placed and said he would drop off some paint for Philip.

Then, by bike and truck, the Mad Housers of Chicago took off, leaving Charley in his world and heading back to their own. The temperature was in the low 50s in both worlds.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bill Stamets.