Are tiny dwellings a humane alternative for the near homeless?

The New York Times reported on Saturday on the economic crisis in Japan and how small hotel “capsules” are being repurposed as housing for the unemployed. These tiny dwellings are often all that is affordable for Tokyo’s near homeless:

Now, Hotel Shinjuku 510’s capsules, no larger than 6 1/2 feet long by 5 feet wide, and not tall enough to stand up in, have become an affordable option for some people with nowhere else to go as Japan endures its worst recession since World War II.

… continuing …

The rent is surprisingly high for such a small space: 59,000 yen a month, or about $640, for an upper bunk. But with no upfront deposit or extra utility charges, and basic amenities like fresh linens and free use of a communal bath and sauna, the cost is far less than renting an apartment in Tokyo, Mr. [Atsushi] Nakanishi says.

The article describes more of what is included in the $640 per month rent:

Each capsule is furnished only with a light, a small TV with earphones, coat hooks, a thin blanket and a hard pillow of rice husks.

Most possessions, from shirts to shaving cream, must be kept in lockers. There is a common room with old couches, a dining area and rows of sinks. Cigarette smoke is everywhere, as are security cameras. But the hotel staff does its best to put guests at ease: “Welcome home,” employees say at the entrance.

The article fascinated me because the tone of the reporter felt negative to me. However, in my opinion, these capsule hotels seem like a humane housing alternative for those truly in need. They are safe (the article mentions a strong security presence), warm, and provide a permanent address. (Not having an address is a huge disadvantage when seeking employment.) Obviously, they’re not the finest or largest dwellings in Tokyo, but they seem better than the streets or an unsafe, poorly maintained apartment building.

What do you think of these small capsules as semi-permanent dwellings for those in need? I’m interested in reading your reactions in the comments.

(Image from The New York Times. View the complete slideshow.)

64 Comments for “Are tiny dwellings a humane alternative for the near homeless?”

  1. posted by Another Deb on

    I read that article as well and was surprised at the tone as well. When these capsule hotels first came out, I was fascinated at the concept. I wonder what has caused them to become “decrepit” as the article reported.

    I realize that these seem to be employable, recently homeless people who are not raising families in the pods. It seems more like a dorm situation, although I’d be wary of the security of the pod with only a screen to close it off.

    In the case of the many chronic homeless who have mental illness, this would not serve all of their needs. Perhaps some social services could be located in the facility as well. There is potential here.

  2. posted by Amanda on

    I find the pod hotels fascinating. I think they definitely have potential to aid homeless people. As mentioned by another commenter, some homeless have mental illness that might prevent a pod working for them, but it could work for some.

  3. posted by Nancy on

    On the positive side, the pods are clean, safe housing. They remind me of cages in a pet store, except cats and dogs are able to stand up in their units. They seem dehumanizing.

  4. posted by Lucy on

    Having lived at the YWCA long long ago, these pods seem a better alternative to even that, much less street living. Not perfect, not for everyone, but useful and safe.

  5. posted by Julia on

    I thought it was strange that the reporter didn’t mention the fact that many Japanese live in apartments considered tiny by even NYC standards. Capsule hotels are part of a spectrum of smaller living spaces – whether they still feel dehumanizing and cramped, I don’t know.

    I think homeless Americans attitudes toward a capsule home would depend on how long they’d been at it. If your 1800sf ranch home gets foreclosed and you end up in a shelter, you’d most likely be appalled. If you’d been in marginal housing – the Y, SRO hotels, boarding house – or the streets, a clean, safe, warm little capsule might feel a lot better. I’ve lived in small, private spaces and large, communal ones – I’d take the capsule any day!

  6. posted by barbara on

    It’s another idea that has come from science fiction (cyberpunk). We ARE living in the future. It’s not my idea of a good time, but it meets an important need.

  7. posted by Nan C on

    This is all understandable. From the POV of an AA, this is old news, the city is crowded so it makes complete sense in a city. Even if you have a job, cannot afford a home (which by the way is expensive in all of the major cities) and have no children, this is an alternative. This endeavor is in keeping with the Japanese mindset: efficiency, cultural upkeeping (if you’ve ever been to Japan – haven’t you ever noticed that no one drives around in messed cars? it’s because they have 30 to 60 days to fix it before getting a fine/ticket). Now as an American, I couldn’t get into anything that small (also claustrophobic) but on the otherhand, it’s not on the street, one can maintain their dignity.

  8. posted by Splint Chesthair on

    I think these would be perfect for young travelers spending a few days in a new city. I remember being disappointed in having to get a hotel room that would only be used for sleeping. Sometimes I’d neve even make it back to the hotel and it became just a big place to keep a few things. I’d love to drop some stuff off in a locker, spend the entire day walking around the city and then crashing in these pods at night.

  9. posted by Summer on

    Personally, I’d live it one if i had to. Sure, they are small and resemble dog kennels. But if it was between that and a cardboard box on the street, it’s a no brainer. At least they are safe and warm. And, heck, a tv? I’ve had worse arrangements before, I think!

  10. posted by Miriam on

    I was just thinking about this concept the other day – I was watching an interview with a homeless man on our local news (Chicago), and he said that he would never go to a shelter, because he hated the communal rooms and lack of privacy. As small as the capsules are (and I have claustrophobia, so I don’t think I could ever get in one myself) they do provide a viable alternative and, indeed, some actual privacy as well as protection from the elements. I wish we could do something similar here for all our people suffering on the streets.

  11. posted by DeeZee on

    I’ve stayed in these “pods”. They are truly not much different than bunk beds in a communal living space, with an option to close the curtain. $640/month seems steep but in a city like Tokyo, where the cost of living is tremendous, it’s an option that is viable.

  12. posted by Lilliane P on

    Good comments. They sure beat the cardboard box in an alley as has been said.

  13. posted by Jen on

    I’ve volunteered with the homeless community in my neighborhood, and I think this is a viable option. Even among the chronically homeless, there are a number with no mental health issues who choose a street life because they feel the shelters are dangerous. This would also be safer than a room in a boarding house with a disreputable landlord. I think a number of my street friends would jump at the chance to live in a place like this, especially if it was also open during the day (many shelters are not). The cost would be prohibitive, but then it’s the Tokyo market… if it was less expensive than other rental options here it would be welcomed.

  14. posted by Lorali S on

    I read about these pod hotels before when I was younger and the concept fascinated me. After traveling around China and staying in hostels with about that much space, I agreed that it’s a good alternative to staying on the streets or any of the other options noted above, especially if you are on your own and trying to get back on your feet. Of course, if pod hotels were used to help the homeless in America, the idea would have to be adjusted, as Japanese society and American society are very different in many respects. But I think that as a temporary fix to help someone get back on their feet, this is a good idea.

  15. posted by Rue on

    There is no way I could possibly live in one of those. Too confining; I’m too claustrophobic. And I would probably consider it inhumane IF people were actually forced to live in these (though for someone actually CHOOSING this I wouldn’t).

    On the upside, it would have to be better than living on the streets. And if that price tag is substantially cheaper than anything else…why not?

  16. posted by Blake on

    I dig ’em. If only there were doors on them that locked, though…

  17. posted by Anita on

    Seems like a viable alternative to homelessness to me.

    Also: this looks downright luxurious compared to some of the youth hostels I’ve stayed at…

  18. posted by Cathie on

    mmmh, clean, dry, safe, inside. And they provide lockers, showers, a sauna, and clean linens, and an address. I’d say it beats the street any day.

  19. posted by WilliamB on

    I think there’s a lot to be said for a permanent place that is safe, warm, and has shower facilities.

    As has been pointed out, there are many this would not work for. But Japanese culture is different than US culture so it faces different problems. Perhaps violence (a big problem in US shelters and streets) isn’t as big a problem? I also wonder if the comment about lack of good sleep is reporting or the author’s opinion.

    Interesting article, thank you.

  20. posted by Rebecca on

    I think they are too small for American use, but could be the starting point for something good here. I’m thinking of the link you posted a few weeks ago that showed the tiny NY apartment. Imagine a building full of similarly-sized homes near public transit in every major city? It could be a real solution for many people. I agree that they are not ideal for the homeless who battle mental health issues, and I have concerns (especially in America where to be unemployed quite often also means uninsured) about airborne infections, which tend to run rampant in homeless shelters. But to have *a place to call your own*, that is warm and dry? Better than so many other alternatives.

  21. posted by Glenn on

    Having been a working homeless person who has lived out of cars, storage sheds and campers, I think this would have been a simple option if they were available here in the states. The pod hotels offer restroom and shower facilities which are sometimes the most difficult things to find when you have no permanent residence. You also don’t have to spend hours each day or night looking for a place where you won’t get hassled. In my time of need, I wouldn’t have been able to afford one of these capsules, but it is Tokyo and maybe 640 bucks is easy to make there.

    Keep in mind, you don’t really “live” in the pod, you sleep in it. You do your living in the common areas where you are free to walk upright.

    I have long since overcome the difficulties that put me in a homeless situation and now have a house, yard and all the responsibilities that go with the classic American lifestyle. Yet, I still long for the simplicity and efficiency that comes with living in tiny spaces like these.

  22. posted by teresa on

    I find this idea facinating! In the US we are so concerned about stuff and these small abodes make it impossible to hoard a bunch of crap that we don’t really need. I live in South Dakota so this probably wouldn’t work where I live but in larger cities or even college towns what a great idea. Of course if the concept was more geared to US lifestyles, the space was a little larger, tall enough to stand in, a small closet, a window and a locking door this idea might fly.

  23. posted by Red Coyote Hunter on

    You can’t stand up.
    Life in a sardine can.
    Personally, I’d be stir-crazy in a couple of days.
    They say you can get accustomed to anything. Must be true.

  24. posted by Annette on

    They are just the bed portion of a living space. Aside from being enclosed, which I wouldn’t like but are similar to European beds from long ago, they seem a good idea.

  25. posted by JL on

    Let me see…cardboard box and a concrete pillow in freezing temperatures or a real bed that comes with heat, fresh linens, running water and a real toilet seat. I would choose the pod hands down.

  26. posted by Mikey's mom on

    If I was homeless and had that alternative, I’d take it. Reminds me of the movie “Outland”, or the tv show “Lexx”, in both the characters mainly lived in bookshelf-like units.

  27. posted by Meredith from Penelope Loves Lists on

    Wow and double wow! $640/month for a home you can’t stand up in? My neck hurts just thinking about it.

    However, it must be better, and more humanizing, then being out on the street. Fascinating article.

  28. posted by Karoline on

    Strikes me as a fascinating & humane idea. But as someone else said – it’d need minor adjustments in the US. The biggest one being in dimensions — if Wikipedia is accurate, citizens of the US are on average 3 inches (7.5cm) taller than citizens on japan. And we’re probably more than 3″ larger in girth, as we appear to have a heavier population as well. If these booths were extended a half foot in each dimension, I think it would be feasible here. And I think the door would need to be a little more solid… the screen wouldn’t fly here. Sad to say this is not a country with as solid a history of manners and respect for privacy as Japan. (Haven’t lived there, could be wrong.)

    It also strikes me as a sound option commercially, from the landlord’s POV. The only question being would the red tape in major cities be so massive as to make the undertaking impossible.

  29. posted by K Ditzler on

    This situation is still precarious housing. They run out of money, they are not housed anymore. Housing is considered affordable in the US if it costs less than 1/3 of your income. $640 a month for someone unemployed is still a huge burden on your emergency fund, if you have one. I don’t see this is as a viable alternative at all. to find out more about Homelessness in the United States.

  30. posted by Susie on

    I know that $640 a month sounds high, but Tokyo rents rival those of New York for even the smallest dwellings. The biggest difference, however, is that “upfront deposit”. In Japan, landlords typically charge a deposit of 2-3 months’ rent called “key money”. That money has to be paid up front and is non-refundable. So yes, compared to having to shell out around $2000 cash extra, these capsule apartments are a great deal.

  31. posted by Lise on

    I had a similar reaction when I read the article. Seemed far better than tents under bridges to me and while not a permanent solution, it has merits.

  32. posted by Kathryn Fenner on

    I hate tent-camping unless I can stand up in the tent, but loads of people can’t wait to go camping. How is this any worse?

  33. posted by lahope on

    It’s too expensive. It might be OK if there are clean restrooms and showers available, a common area and perhaps a soup kitchen where a couple of nutritious meals could be served/provided every day, plus job/permanent housing placement and mental health services, but certainly at a much lower price and free to the indigent.

  34. posted by Diane on

    Safe, OK.

    But way too expensive to be a truly helpful alternative for most, surely?

  35. posted by ms_brooklyn on

    “The rent is surprisingly high for such a small space: 59,000 yen a month, or about $640, for an upper bunk.”

    I just ceased to complain about NYC rent.

  36. posted by gypsy packer on

    These are a little smaller than a compact truck’s topper, but they have heat and AC. This automatically makes them superior to subfreezing nights and 110-degree interior days. Access to showers and fresh water is a huge plus. The lockers would provide security for those homeless lucky enough to have laptops, an increasing minority since the unemployment rate has jumped.
    The centralization would allow for cleanup people to keep the area sanitary, and get treatment for those homeless who have become incontinent.

    Kennel? Perhaps, but pet dogs live a better life than poor humans.

  37. posted by Julie Bestry on

    As a newly-claustrophobic person (since having an MRI or two), the measurements horrify me. As someone who pays less than that for rent for about 900 square feet, the costs horrify me. And the cage-like atmosphere really does seem dehumanizing.

    That said, given the safety and the availability of hygiene-oriented amenities, if these were subsidized by a governmental agency or charity for homeless people such that they were free or truly low cost (<$30/week), I could get on board with this as a temporary housing solution as an alternative to the unsafe shelters about which we often hear.

  38. posted by Kamil Kisiel on

    Having lived in Japan a couple years ago, I occasionally stayed at capsule hotels when travelling. Far from being a negative experience, I thought they were a great inexpensive alternative to staying at a hotel.

    While the capsules are small, I didn’t have any trouble fitting in to one comfortably despite being 6’2″. They were always extremely comfortable and cleaned on a daily basis. The capsule hotels included a public hotspring-type bath, sauna, and other facilities. Clean pajamas were provided as a courtesy to guests on a nightly basis.

    It may not have been a large or fancy space, but it was certainly homely and comfortable.

  39. posted by timgray on

    It can never exist in the USA because of Corrupt building and zoning laws as well as horribly written and overly broad confined space laws. It is in fact Illegal for someone to enter a walk in closet without wearing confined space safety gear if you follow the letter of the law.

    Unless laws are changed to allow such designs they will never ever exist here in the USA. Hopefully Europe is not encumbered with the silly laws we have here that serve more to inhibit than help.

  40. posted by timgray on

    @glenn you know it’s not required that you live in a 1500-2500sq foot home and own lots of stuff. You can easily live in a smaller home or apartment and save lots of cash. One of my best friends lives in a 600sq foot apartment and is incredibly happy. Plus she has far more money than anyone else we know because her bills are far less due to the smaller space. In fact, if you want to go really minimalist, are very livable for child less couples and single people. It’s uncluttered living at it’s finest! My wife and I are finalizing our getting away from our huge 1800 sq foot home and moving to a 900 sq foot condo. It’s still way too big for us but we wanted a guest bedroom with it’s own bath. Some of our friends think we are nuts, but they waste their weekends and hard earned money taking care of their huge home, huge yard, etc….

    Honestly, if you want to live smaller it is very easy to do and it significantly reduces the chance of ending up homeless again when you don’t have a $3500.00 a month house payment.

  41. posted by Alix on

    I think people are getting hung up on the “pod” thiing. As others have pointed out, it’s merely a sleeping space — you live in the communal spaces. These are more like sleeping compartments on a train. More privacy than bunkbeds, certainly. And since you’re keeping your belongings in a lockers, not as much need for locks.

  42. posted by Alix on

    Wow, sorry for all those typos!

  43. posted by Suz on

    The kennel for my malamute is bigger than this. I’ll let you have it for only $300/mo. Quite a bargin.

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  45. posted by Michelle, Home Staging Pro on

    The pod hotels are better than living on the street, no doubt about it. But it troubles me that criminals, murderers and rapists are treated more humanely and given more space while in prison.

    I’d rather house criminals in pod prisons and give the homeless better living conditions. And no, I’m not saying the homeless should be sent to prision. Just that they be treated as humanely as convicted criminals.

  46. posted by Glenn on

    @timgray – 🙂 Thanks for the info. I am completely obsessed with the downsizing and minimalism. I have seen those tumbleweed homes as well and I really like those designs. If you haven’t already been there, my link to you would be:

  47. posted by Rosa on

    I don’t see how, if there’s no locking door on the sleeping space, it’s safer than a shelter – those have active security too and they’re still not safe (though the locker for your stuff is a step up from most US shelters – your body wouldn’t be safe but your stuff would be.)

    The other thing that keeps people without mental illness out of shelters is sex-segregation rules that separate married couples and put teenaged boys into the adult men’s shelters – are the pod hotels mixed gender? It seems unlikely.

  48. posted by Erin on

    The fact that they look like drawers in a morgue aside, I long for any alternative for the mentally ill homeless that sleep at the trolley stop below my condo. I’m in Southern California and it pains me to watch people try to stay warm in 50 degree weather – I cannot imagine how hard it is in other cities. For those cities that claim they do not have the land (or will not find the funds or the land) for a shelter – this could be a cheaper alternative. It is sad that in our country a quarter to a third of all homeless are veterans – and with the current conflict, that number is likely to increase.

  49. posted by iris on

    I stayed in this capsule hotel when i was in Japan!!! It was actually much more plesant than the sound of it. It was super clean and comfortable and offer quite a good level of privacy. The problem is that the lockers provided was quite small and the bigger bags have to go to the common storage room.

  50. posted by Ellen on

    I find the Japanese ‘pods’ a fascinating solution. I have to say, I am equally fascinated with how a vast majority of Americans are obsessed with having swathes of square footage for their houses and apartments. Many of the ‘tiny’ houses and apartments that receive negative comments for being too small are pretty standard sizes for houses in the rest of the world… I live in the UK in a terraced house suitable for a family of four plus but my American friends are aghast at how anyone can possibly live in such a space on their own, let alone with a family!

  51. posted by Mel on

    How would forcing people to go to a dingy shelter be any better? At least this is on their own terms. I think people are getting their priorities out of order. I totally agree with Ellen. More square footage does not equal more happiness.

  52. posted by Marie on

    Even looking at the picture of that guy rammed in there is giving me the sweats. Claustrophobics say no!

  53. posted by klutzgrrl on

    As others have said, it’s a reasonable option. I also remember seeing these in the press when they first came out.

    What amazes me is this guy with an economics degree, who is applying for law school, being unemployed and homeless! How lucky I am with my useless arts degree, with a home of my own and a decent job!

  54. posted by Jim DuBois on

    I always wanted to try staying in a pod hotel, since I first saw pictures from Japan many years ago. Would I want to live in one? Not when they are so expensive (at least compared to apartments near me), but if they were the cheapest thing around, maybe.

  55. posted by Kairisika on

    I think this is totally awesome. For a lot of people, they really do just need a roof over their head to sleep, somewhere to shower, and kill a few hours. This satisfies that. It’s not like anyone is being forced in – anyone who thinks it’s so dehumanizing as to prefer a park bench is still free to choose the park bench. I suspect few do.

  56. posted by mythokia on

    It certainly is a viable alternative to conventional housing if you don’t own much, since all we really need is a place to sleep at the end of the day. What really is a home but a place to store all our stuff?

    However, for $640, that price is exorbitant.

  57. posted by Samantha on

    I think it is fantastic! The price is the only thing that is unreasonable. If I was homeless I would be happy to have one of these pods. Far more private that shelters. I first became aware of these pods when looking into small houses.

  58. posted by E on

    re: price: Cost of living in Japan is approximately 4x what it is in the US. You are not comparing apples to apples when discussing the price.
    re: dog kennels: The difference is, dogs have to live in theirs. These are only for sleeping in; you can get up and out whenever you want.
    I think it’s genius.

  59. posted by Roy Berman on

    “Cost of living in Japan is approximately 4x what it is in the US.”

    You’re spouting complete nonsense. I’m from New Jersey and currently live in Kyoto, one of Japan’s major cities. It costs less to live here than back home. People still have an idea of Japanese prices based on the peak of the bubble around 1988, which has no relation to today’s situation.

  60. posted by Kaori in Tokyo on

    These hotels are exists since long time ago.
    People drinks after work,I mean,after work in Japan is not after 5PM.(I was so surprised while I went to one is in office 3 minites after 5PM)

    And,most of us go to office using train,so,at late night,people use these space just for sleep.Even cannot sleep well,We don’t care so much.

    This is very small country,so rent is high,but we all have national health insurance,and not so many homeless people like in US.
    You may surprised our small living space,but every country is different.
    I cannot believe why so many crimes are in US,no offend,again,every country is different.I hope New york times to learn about other country,as I did.(People who comments here knows better..)

    And,I have ever seen much less homeless people in Japan in my life,than I saw in US,for one month.

  61. posted by Kaori in Tokyo on


    Roy,rent in Kyoto(and other big and Non-metropolitan area city,like Nagoya)is much lesser Than in Tokyo area.
    I am living in Tokyo since 1984,and my rent didn’t reduce.

    Earn less,pay more..
    (sorry about my English)

  62. posted by Roy Berman on

    Yes I know, but people were saying “Japan” not “Tokyo.” If you compare Tokyo with NYC then Tokyo doesn’t seem so expensive, and it’s cheaper than London or many other European cities.

    “And,I have ever seen much less homeless people in Japan in my life,than I saw in US,for one month.”
    Have you been to Kamagasaki in Osaka?

  63. posted by Kaori in Tokyo on

    Roy,sorry for late reply.

    My father is born and brought up in Osaka,So I went there so many times,I know the city and district very well.There are much more homeless people than in Tokyo,Also,before their cardboard box house taken away,I saw and sometime talk with homeless people who was living Shinjuku(In Tokyo) station.
    I tried to visit Kamagasaki when I was a student(ever been to?)but friends stopped me.(I was majoring social welfare,not just a curiosity.but still I feel it’s impolite to visit,It’s like peek their life.)

    There are places people who lost job and home,if social welfare is not enough,You may know more than me about “good-place” and “no-good place.
    People who has job and house hardly meet not so many homeless people,cause (I’m not writing this with perpous to tell “divide them from us”. no way.)Like I have never visited Kamagasaki,Places people lives in Doya house,in our dairy life, We hardly meet or talk with homeless people.(Of course,we should know)

    What I felt in US. is “flood”.
    I told “better not walk 9th Ave.” or Don’t go around Tompkins Square”(It was 80’s)
    But at many places,little boy was begging in hotel,Mens are sleeping on Subway vent to get warmth,people who spend hard life are flooding.Actually,I saw more people on the street which is told(not so danger).It’s not for argument,

    Please don’t take it too personally or get emotional.(I tried to avoid,this time)
    We have problem,and you have problem.different way,different solution.I just don’t like misunderstood.

    Sorry for all I’ve been out of “unclutter”!(also,my bad English)”.

  64. posted by Kaori in Tokyo on

    I have to add “People talking about Japan”.is right,Sorry for my lack of attention.

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