Home / News / Newark is transforming more shipping containers into homes for homeless people

Newark is transforming more shipping containers into homes for homeless people

Oct 08, 2023Oct 08, 2023

Published Feb 5, 2023


Published Feb 5, 2023


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Newark is among a growing number of cities turning to an unconventional solution for the housing shortage — shipping containers.

Normally used to transport goods and merchandise on massive cargo ships, the long, rectangular metal boxes are being used to build homes for homeless people in Newark, Phoenix, Los Angeles, and several other cities in California and the U.K.

In Newark, New Jersey's largest city, a pilot program launched in March 2021 is expanding to include the construction of a second complex using 22 steel boxes to build a large administrative office and house 20 residents who have no place to call home. The city hopes to open the additional units in March.

Newark decided to pursue the modular construction because it's faster and more cost-effective, said Luis Ulerio, the city's homelessness czar. The current complex is 19 units.

"I always tell folks that the containers are only the material, right? What we're really providing is dignity, space and security, right?" Ulerio said. "These rooms provide that for these individuals."

Luis Ulerio, Newark's Director of the Mayors Office of Homeless Services.

As cities nationwide struggle to find housing for their homeless populations due to increasing demand and rising real estate, some have found a solution in shipping containers, which cost a fraction of the price of constructing a traditional building.

Typically about 40 feet long and 8 feet wide, these metal boxes can be retrofitted quickly and at a much lower cost than building from the ground up, said Ulerio and John Glavin, president of Custom Containers 915, a company based in El Paso, Texas that is modifying the steel boxes for Newark.

"We can build, for example, a two-person studio in about three weeks," he said.

Glavin said the average cost for two studio apartments in a single shipping container is $99,000.

Construction is also underway for two projects in Merced and Tracy in northern California, said Glavin. The Merced project, he said, will be two stories high and have 22 studio apartments for homeless veterans.

In December, Phoenix approved plans to build an 80-unit complex for its homeless population, according to local news reports. The complex is expected to be operational this summer.

In Los Angeles, an 87-unit complex looks like any other modern residential building. The five-story building composed of shipping containers is also being used as supportive housing for homeless people.

Developers are also using shipping containers to build new apartment complexes, student housing and hotels. In Williamsburg, a home made of stacked shipping containers sold for $5 million in 2021.

For some residents already living in modified containers in Newark as part of the pilot program, they like having their own space and prefer not having to share living quarters with strangers, like they normally would in congregate shelters.

"This is like home to me," said Walter Singleton, 68, who has lived in the container home for about a month.

Walter Singleton in front of his home.

Inside his 12 foot by 12 foot room, there is a bunk bed, a nightstand where he keeps his medicine and food, a chair, and a wall hook.

"I have all my clothes hanging. My clean clothes down there," said Singleton, pointing to the storage area under the bed.

The 19 units, which include shared bathroom and shower facilities as well as an administrative office, were built from seven brand new containers placed on vacant city-owned land.

There are two separate containers that house full bathrooms.

The steel boxes, built by Custom Containers 915, cost about $400,000 to $500,000, not including the time and expense city employees put in to prep the site, said Ulerio. Inside the complex, named Hope Village, is a small yard with several wooden picnic tables and a bench for residents’ use.

Timothy Rose's room has a similarly spartan setup, except the 59-year-old added his own personal touches: two small rugs on the floor and a broom in the corner.

For the six or seven months Rose lived on the streets of Newark, he used the broom to clean the area where he settled down for the night and slept on the rugs a furniture shop had thrown out.

"This was a great comfort to me," Rose said. "Even when it got cold, this thing kept me stable, kept me warm, believe it or not."

Timmothy Rose, 59, reads a passage from the Bible.

Newark's Timmothy Rose found himself unhoused last year after his mom and sister died. He has furnished the floor of his container with the two rugs he slept upon while living in Newark Penn Station and outside the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. He also brought to his container the broom he use to use to clean the area where he slept while he was unhoused.

No matter where he lives, the three items will come with him. He wants to be reminded of the difficult patch in his life.

"Most people don't want to remember bad things, but I do because that makes me grow as a person," Rose said. "That way I won't make that mistake no more."

Up until last year, Rose said he was sharing an apartment with his mother and sister. His mom died of stomach cancer and his sister died of heart failure. In the span of a month, Rose lost his entire family and eventually fell into homelessness because he could not afford the roughly $3,000 monthly rent.

"I prefer to have my own, but this beats [being] out there, especially dealing with the cold," Rose said. "Your hands and your feet is the first thing that freeze up on you. Even if you got on gloves, your feet are gonna get cold, especially when the temperature drops."

Kristin Andrejcak, 49, is grateful to have a place to call home, even if it's in a shipping container.

For more than a year, she and her husband were sleeping in a tent near Newark Penn Station and had to contend with inclement weather and people stealing their food and personal belongings.

The only quibble she has is the toilet and shower facilities are in another container and the short walk to reach them in the middle of the night can be inconvenient.

"Especially when it's cold out and you have to, you know, go back and forth — wet and everything," said Andrejcak, a former supervisor for a market research company.

Newark is getting ready to launch its second project, which Ulerio said will have enclosed bathrooms and showers, so residents don't have to go outside to use the facilities. The new complex will be located in the city's South Ward.

Across the Hudson River, New York City is facing record-high numbers of people living in homeless shelters as well as tens of thousands of asylum-seekers sent from states bordering Mexico.

As of Thursday, there were 70,856 people living in homeless shelters managed by the Department of Homeless Services, according to the city's daily count. That number does not include thousands more homeless people living on the streets and in shelters managed by other city agencies.

While other cities are turning to alternatives to conventional housing for their homeless populations, it seems unlikely that New York City will utilize shipping containers in the near future.

"It's tragic that our housing policies have failed so utterly that some municipalities have had to resort to using shipping containers as temporary shelters for those without homes," said David Giffen, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy group.

New York City also faces a unique challenge when it comes to building homes from shipping containers: a lack of inexpensive, vacant land.

Patrick Sullivan, a lawyer who represents both private developers and not-for-profit institutions in zoning and municipal law matters, is skeptical it would work in New York City.

"The challenges are just making buildings that will comply with all of the housing codes, all the laws and regulations that are relevant to housing, not to mention finding available land," Sullivan said. "To my knowledge that has not been a focus of anyone here."

Additional reporting by David Brand.

On a warm day, Tyrell Brown, 35, keeps the door open to his home while he eats lunch. He says he has been living in the village for a couple of months.


Chau Lam reports on homeless and poverty for WNYC and Gothamist. Send tips to [email protected]

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