When it comes to architecture, design and homelessness, it is often the passive-aggressive carpets of anti-loitering spikes – the so-called “defensive architecture” that coats the ground around so much corporate architecture and privatised urban space today – that get the publicity. But design can play a much more positive part in helping provide solutions for individual long term homelessness in the thoughtful layout and detailing of temporary hostels and provision of housing. Allison Geller reports on several initiatives in the United States.
On a recent subway ride home from Manhattan to Brooklyn, a man entered the carriage I was sitting in via the connecting doors. I recognised him. I knew he was going to talk, and I knew what he was going to say.
“Excuse me ladies and gentlemen, I’m sorry to bother you”, he drawled, his expression wooden, his eyes alert but vacant. “I served in Iraq and I am a homeless veteran. I haven’t eaten anything all day and I’m trying to get some money to get something to eat.”
He walked slowly through the jostling car, collecting bills from one or two people who offered them. I watched him deliberately unwrinkle them, add them to his small stack, and fold them into his pocket.
He moved to the next car. I knew that soon, in a few days or maybe a week, I would see him again.
The number of people in the United States who are chronically homeless – who have been without a fixed abode for a year or more, or who have been homeless four or more times in the past three years – currently adds up to around 84,000, according to the 2014 Annual Homeless Assessment Report. New York City has the greatest number of homeless people (both chronic and short-term) of any city in the United States, at 67,810 (although only 5% are unsheltered – a much lower share than that of, for example, Los Angeles).
When examining the relationship between design and homelessness, it has become common to focus on the way urban planning makes life less comfortable for the down-and-out. The rise of “faux public space” is a common target. Walk through the charmed avenues of the Upper East Side, and there is next to nowhere to sit that is not reserved for patrons of a specific establishment (something that affects everyone, not just the homeless). Others have cited so-called “defensive architecture” in the form of spikes, sprinklers, and unsittable benches outside storefronts and apartments that are intended to prevent “bums” from congregating.
While the paucity of public space and the installation of hostile design features do contribute to the way cities antagonise the homeless, design can and does serve a more important, positive function in addressing the root of the “homelessness problem”.
The “housing-first” model of ending homelessness, developed by psychologist Sam Tsemberis in 1992, has gained wide acceptance by experts over the past decade. Tsemberis’ big discovery was that simply giving homeless people permanent housing was the best method of ensuring they stay off the streets. There may be room for debate about the principles behind housing-first, but the numbers tell a more objective truth: it costs at least 40 per cent less to give homeless people a permanent roof over their heads than to cover the recurring costs of homelessness, such as jail time, emergency room visits and short-term shelter.
But not just any roof will do. Sam Davis, an architect and Professor Emeritus of Architecture at the University of California at Berkeley, points out that if the housing offered seems little better than the streets they just left – and comes with the price of personal freedom – even the most destitute are apt to choose the streets. As he writes in his 2004 book, Designing for the Homeless: Architecture That Works, “Well-designed facilities can also encourage the reluctant (often called the ‘shelter-resistant’) to seek services by reassuring them that they are not about to enter a prisonlike fortress, a depressing warehouse for discarded people, or a dangerous madhouse.”
Unfortunately, the historic norm is that all kinds of assisted housing are “uninspiring and downright punitive”, according to Rosanne Haggerty, president of Community Solutions, an organisation that partners with governments and other organisations to end homelessness.
Common Ground, the organisation that Haggerty started and ran previously, was responsible for renovating the historic but neglected Times Square Hotel, and later the Prince George Hotel. The structures, built in 1922 and 1904 respectively, changed ownership and function over the decades, eventually becoming the kind of harshly inadequate welfare housing that Davis describes.
Guided by the belief that “quality of space matters”, Haggerty and her team set to work restoring the façades, ceilings, detail work and general splendour of the dilapidated buildings (including the 5,000-square foot ballroom of the Prince George). There was also another advantage, Haggerty explains: the Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit used for the restoration also brought in funds for housing homeless people in the spruced-up units.
The same principle applies to low-income housing, such as that of Brownsville, Brooklyn, one of New York’s starkest examples of such institutional-looking design. As part of Community Solutions’ Brownsville Partnership, architect Alexander Gorlin created a new vision of Brownsville that showed that they could, “without demolishing anything or displacing anyone”, create a better, safer, more inviting community, says Haggerty.
When the Brownsville Partnership got residents together with architects, engineers, and environmental designers to form a plan, “what we heard over and over again from the tenants was a concern for public spaces and context”, Haggerty says. Improving the design and state of communal areas, connecting spaces such as hallways and stairwells, and superblocks was even more important than improving individual units.
Overall, Haggerty believes there has been a “shift to understanding that those spaces are necessary and important, and that the quality of the building and the design matters”.
“But is that universal?” she adds. “No”.
Sam Davis has applied similar tenets to his designs for homeless and affordable housing. His work too, is founded on heuristic observation: for example, he realised that new residents felt more comfortable meeting with staff members in communal settings, rather than one-to-one, so generous lobbies were important to include.
Other revelations came by chance. “In one shelter we needed to get air and ventilation to some of the rooms, so we cut a hole in the middle of the building”, he says, “that courtyard became extremely valuable”. It gave residents of the youth shelter a safe place to hang out, but it also allowed staff to supervise the residents without having to resort to camera surveillance.
There’s also a wrong way to apply design to homelessness, Davis says. Students and young architects tend to leap at the chance to design new solutions to temporary housing – such as the Atlanta-based Mad Housers, which donates makeshift shelters to homeless people – but he believes that this approach is misguided. “Anything that doesn’t connect housing to social service, [that doesn’t] deal with the underlying problem of homelessness, is not doing anyone any favours,” he says. Tsemberis’ organisation, Pathways to Housing, as well as Community Solutions, both make providing counselling, medical care, and addiction treatments first priority after a person has been ensconced in a new apartment.
Community Solutions has already helped communities find permanent housing for 105,580 homeless people as part of its 100,000 Homes campaign. Its next goal is more ambitious: to get rid of chronic homelessness by 2016. According to Haggerty, the broader design challenge has to do with the bureaucratic processes that connect people in need with housing. Across the board in US cities, systems are complicated and fragmented to the point of baffling even the healthy and well-educated. “There’s so much work that even the best intended systems can do to make the process easier, and that’s the key work ahead”, she says. 100,000 Homes helped communities redesign their housing systems over three years, leading to an improvement of 267% in the number of people the average community could house in a month without additional financial resources.
– Allison Geller is a writer based in Brooklyn and Associate Editor of A Women’s Thing magazine. “Write Home”, a chapbook of her poems, was published by Finishing Line Press in January 2015. allisongeller.com @allison_geller