Valley innovators usher in new way to create shelter space with shipping containers

Jul 28, 2023, 4:35 AM

PHOENIX — Valley nonprofit St. Vincent de Paul can now give 20 individuals experiencing homelessness their own dorm-style rooms at a shelter near downtown Phoenix thanks to an innovative style of housing that utilizes shipping containers.

The “XWing” structure is a new approach to adding temporary housing and bolstering shelter space in Phoenix by creating housing out of the containers.

Developed by Arizona-based metal fabrication company Steel and Spark, a single XWing unit is made up of four shipping containers joined together in an “X” shape with each containing either single or double rooms.

The exact configuration can be customized based on the need. They are also fully “off the grid,” meaning they maintain their own solar electrical supply and air conditioning.

That also means there’s no hooking up to water or electrical lines. So as long as the containers can physically fit, the utilities in the area are of much less concern than other housing options.

Steel and Spark also makes auxiliary dwelling units, or “guesthouses,” which were recently identified as another housing solution.

Lead Designer Zach Burns says the XWing was conceived as a solution for people experiencing homelessness. The idea grew from their ADU projects.

“We took that same technology and expanded it to a larger scale that we could use to house the homeless,” Burns said.

Once the pre-built XWing is completed in a factory, it can be installed on-site in just a day.

“We need to come up with new innovative common-sense solutions to get people from unsheltered, to sheltered, to housing. And as you can see, this is very dignified housing,” Phoenix Deputy Director of the Office of Homeless Solutions Scott Hall said.

Dignified is a common word used by city officials and those who are running the space at St. Vincent de Paul.

It comes from the fact that this offers a more individualized style of housing compared to typical shelter beds at the Washington Street Shelter, of which the XWing is currently in the parking lot.

“We have 200 folks in there. Most of those folks are directly from the street,” Jessica Berg with St. Vincent de Paul said. “We want to make sure whoever lives here can be safe behind a closed door. And can take care of themselves behind that closed door.”

People living in the XWing will be referred by case workers or identified by St. Vincent de Paul staff.

It also acts as a stopgap for people who may be ready to leave shelter, but not ready to live without access to key services like mental health support or to the shelter community as a whole.

“People come to us with such trauma, so many barriers,” Berg said. “And so, they get comfortable here, and they have that support…And they might be on-paper ready to move on. But they’re scared.”

Phoenix Vice Mayor Yassamin Ansari is hoping the use of the XWing will spur more communities in Phoenix to find ways to squeeze in extra shelter space or temporary housing.

“You can’t just simply not want to see it in your park or in your neighborhoods. You have to be part of the solution,” Ansari said.

“Whether it’s smaller parcels or larger parcels throughout the city, these can be a great solution to house 10, 20, 40 people at a time.”

One area both Ansari and Hall say they want to see a XWing used is the outdoor shaded shelter approved last month by Phoenix City Council. It’s set to open by September as a mostly outdoor space for tents.

“While I don’t necessarily think we should continue to concentrate all our services downtown, I do want to prioritize indoor shelter space, more than anything,” she adds. “I would much rather see XWings in that space than the lack of them.”

The XWing at St. Vincent de Paul was originally intended to be used at a Phoenix-owned shelter that never saw light of day, after the project was canceled last month because the site failed an environmental review.

Hall says if the XWing is successful here, then it may become a more common approach for the city.

“Let’s see what works, let’s see what is the most sustainable, let’s see what’s the most efficient,” Hall said. “That’s why we’re going to try different things and we’re very excited about this project.”

For now, city officials say it will remain at St. Vincent de Paul until the city has space for it elsewhere.

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Valley innovators usher in new way to create shelter space with shipping containers