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A dream dies as Dome Village is dismantled

Residents of the homeless encampment in downtown L.A. are leaving, unable to meet a sevenfold rent hike.

October 29, 2006|Rong-Gong Lin II | Times Staff Writer

It began in 1993 as a utopian vision: to end homelessness in downtown Los Angeles by welcoming the down-and-out into a small urban community of 18 fiberglass domes.

But the dream, founded in an old parking lot next to a freeway onramp, is ending. It is a victim of rising property values and a sevenfold rent increase.

On Saturday, volunteers and residents continued dismantling the world-famous igloos, with most being sold on the auction website EBay for about $3,000 each. The property, which housed up to 35 people at any given time, is to be vacated by 5 p.m. Tuesday.

"It kind of broke my heart," said Chester Ward, 48, a nine-year resident and maintenance manager at Dome Village, gazing wistfully at the faded blue carpet of what remained of his now-domeless home. "But I knew it had to go someday."

Dome Village had paid $2,500 a month for the 1 1/4 acres, not including property taxes, said founder Ted Hayes, a longtime homeless activist who lived in a dome. But last year, one of the owners, Milton Sidley, wrote to Hayes, saying the overall rent would increase to more than $18,300 a month.

That spelled the end of Dome Village.

"The property in downtown Los Angeles has appreciated such a great deal at this point," said Mike Sidley, Milton Sidley's son and attorney for the partnership that owns the land. "It's just no longer economically viable to allow them to remain there."

The dismantling of Dome Village -- near the Staples Center -- ends an era of experimentation in which Hayes tried to prove a point: that homeless people needed their own haven away from skid row.

Shaded by a grove of trees as old as the village itself, each dome -- 20 feet in diameter and 12 feet tall -- offered privacy for men, women, married couples, same-sex couples, families, and even pets. "Each homeless person's dome is his castle," Hayes told The Times in 1993.

"The idea was to create a family environment.... We recognized that people needed to be in a social environment, but they needed a private space," Hayes said Saturday. A $250,000 grant from Arco to help buy the domes, other donations, and an agreement with the land owner allowed the project to proceed.

Residents, who paid $70 to $100 a month, were responsible for chores and could buy and cook their own food in a communal kitchen dome. Also on site was a dome for a library containing computers with Internet access. Other domes housed washrooms and laundry facilities.

The domes were chosen for reasons of convenience: They could be assembled and disassembled quickly. Each was made of 21 sections of curved, lightweight polyester fiberglass, fit together like a soccer ball and sealed with 150 bolts.

It was supposed to be the beginning of a movement. The point, Hayes said, was to create small villages on pieces of land scattered across the region. The idea was to transition them to stable jobs and communities.

Residents lamented the village's dismantling.

"When I got out of prison ... I didn't know where I was going to go," said Ward, the resident who oversaw maintenance and security.

After moving to the village, "I changed my behavior. I have more respect for people. It gave me computer skills. I learned how to read," Ward said. Here, "you got your own little space. You feel so cozy. You feel so cuddly. You can consider this home."

The village began receiving grants from government agencies after its inception, but has had its problems. In its first year, money and donated clothes were stolen, some residents were ejected, and two were arrested on suspicion of kidnapping and rape.

In 2001, a county audit found that dome managers had not verified that tenants were actually homeless before they were allowed to move in. After those problems were corrected, managers were able to retain a $700,000 federal grant.

Hayes said he was unable to achieve his ultimate goal of creating a network of transitional villages for the homeless in which they could graduate to better lives. Hayes said he lacked support from other homeless activists and local officials.

"I couldn't do it. I didn't have the power to do this," said Hayes, a self-declared Republican, sitting in an office chair in his dome office with a computer and portraits of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Condoleezza Rice and Yitzhak Rabin on his wall.

In the meantime, the domes have been selling briskly on EBay, where buyers, marveling over the geodesic design, told managers they want to use them for "granny flats," relaxation rooms or office space.

Tim Jones, 48, of Baldwin Hills said he bought one to convert to a getaway cabin in Big Bear.

Hayes said he planned to live on the Golden Avenue cul-de-sac just outside the village and would hold a news conference Tuesday to highlight the homeless' situation.

"I'm very afraid for the future of America when it comes to homelessness," Hayes said. "We are pushing them into zones where there is no hope."

Hayes said he hoped to find additional land in South-Central Los Angeles to create dome villages, but he and others acknowledged that it would be a challenge. "I would like to say it could be duplicated, but the truth is ... it's not as feasible anymore," said Los Angeles Councilman Ed Reyes, whose district encompasses Dome Village. He praised it for its innovative approach.

"It goes down to basic market conditions," Reyes said.

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ron.lin@latimes.com

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