June 19 2014

Transitional Shelter Lessons from San Francisco’s 1906 Earthquake

What does a transitional shelter do? After a disaster happens, many people are left homeless and need immediate shelter. A transitional shelter is meant to help them transition from temporary relief housing to a more permanent dwelling. Now, what does a transitional shelters actually do? Usually, it sits in the same location and inadequate condition for years on end, failing to transition refugees to dignified living. San Francisco is one of the few examples where transitional shelters have accomplished their goal and have grown to be part of the city, where some are still evident after more than a hundred years.

Original Emergency Shacks from San Francisco's Earthquake in 1906

So, what did San Francisco do differently? After the 8.0 earthquake and resulting fires in 1906, most of the city was destroyed and more than 250,000 people were left homeless. Aid from around the country poured in and the army provided families with tents in which they occupied until resettlement could begin. The city was quick to rebuild itself so that many people were able to find permanent housing after a couple years. Transitional shelters, locally known as emergency shacks, were provided for the remaining 15,000 homeless people of San Francisco. The idea was to provide a more substantial shelter that could withstand the winter and be made into permanent housing after slowly paying off the $50 unit cost. After about two years the camps started to close and everyone moved out – with their shacks. People brought the transitional shelters to their new properties all over the city, where they have been upgraded and altered, but most importantly, still in use.

So why don’t all post-disaster situations use this model for transitional housing? Specific conditions facilitated San Francisco’s emergency shelter success and quick recovery; that was plenty of economic resources available, the quality of the unit and land tenure conditions. Most post-disaster shelters remain as minimal tented structures in the early years, which do not provide much incentive to build upon, especially when they do not own the land and are unsure of their future status due to their refugee status. San Francisco was able to transition quickly due to available capital, work and land ownership, unlike internationally displaced people in post-crisis circumstances.

Nowadays the shelters are mixed in with the urban fabric, San Francisco, CA

When resettlement is an option and time is made a priority, using a similar transitional shelter strategy can help people move forward. Addressing shelter in stages, as San Francisco did, seems a better idea than immediately providing everyone with a “one size fits all” response. The architects in charge of responding to the 2010 earthquake in Chile inventoried everyone’s needs before providing more accurate types of shelters to individuals. Today, almost four years later, nearly everyone is permanently housed and those that received transitional shelters are able to adapt them to their needs.

Post-disaster shelters should not be known as “temporary” or “transitional” unless the relief plan and shelter design coincide. Long term shelter planning is needed from the onset of disaster response, otherwise refugees are left in minimal conditions for years on end, making these shelters anything but temporary. Even though San Francisco’s emergency shacks from 1906 are found around the city today, it should be taken as a sign of success rather than one of failure since they were able to transition into the urban fabric and respond to the needs of the user.

How can this example be used to improve transitional shelter schemes in post-disaster response today?

Credits: Images by Tara Whelan. Data linked to sources.

Tara Whelan

Tara Whelan has recently graduated from a Master's in International Cooperation and Sustainable Emergency Architecture from the International University of Catalunya in Barcelona, Spain and is pursuing a career in humanitarian and social architecture. She is originally from Southern Ontario, where she completed her architectural degree in Toronto and has since gained experience across Canada and internationally, working on sustainable and community-driven projects. Her passion in design is inspired by nature as she promotes natural building and hopes to implement its principles in post crisis reconstruction schemes. An avid reader, traveler and blogger, she is excited to learn about and share architectural issues that affect local communities from wherever she happens to be.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, June 19th, 2014 at 9:51 am and is filed under Architecture, Community/Economic Development, Environment, Environmental Design, Government/Politics, History/Preservation, Housing, Land Use, Urban Development/Real Estate. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


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