Faced with the urgent need to create safe housing in the middle of the pandemic, Newark has decided to use retrofitted shipping containers to shelter people living on the streets.

The city has converted seven containers into 20 units, with bunk beds and heaters, which will house individuals or couples. Shower rooms will also be available. City officials said the pilot project was a cost-effective solution to house those who want more privacy than they can get in a congregate shelter, where several people share each room.

“We want to get them [homeless residents] into this place, provide them the services that they need to transition them into permanent housing,” Mayor Ras Baraka said during a press conference on Monday, where he introduced the pilot initiative dubbed Newark Hope Village.

Inside one of the shelters

Officials said they’ve identified 24 people who’ve been staying in Newark’s Penn Station corridor, sometimes in tents, and are considered to be at greatest risk. They will be placed in the new units for 90 days, during which they’ll be encouraged to move into permanent housing using rent vouchers. If they aren’t able to, they will be offered placements at one of the city’s congregate shelters.

The containers will be placed on a lot at Newark Street and Central Avenue. 

According to the latest available data from a federally-mandated count, 349 people live unsheltered in Newark.

The shipping container model has been used in places like Los Angeles as a cheaper alternative to traditional housing. In England, the initiative has faced criticism for being unsuitable for families. 

The shipping container model "just seems like a way to further marginalize people while providing very questionable quality shelter,” said Giselle Routhier, policy director at the Coalition for the Homeless in New York City.

Mayor Ras J. Baraka on March 8, 2021

But Richard Uniacke, executive director at Bridges Outreach, which provides engagement and outreach services to Newark’s homeless residents, said the retrofitted containers will be a solution for some clients who have continuously declined offers to go to congregate shelters.

“This is really a unique opportunity for some of the most vulnerable and perhaps most challenging cases to achieve the ultimate goal of permanently ending their homelessness,” he said.

The $900,000 cost of the pilot project has been funded through the CARES Act, the federal COVID-relief package passed last year, and funding from the state and the city.