The October 2005 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee


National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website



In this issue:

The Aristocracy and the Disaster

In Katrina's Wake, Oakland Batters Homeless

A Perfect Storm of Racism

Katrina: Ongoing Human Disaster

FCNL Speaks Out on Katrina

Kerry's Kids: Health Care for Poor Children

Fresh Start Gives Kindness Awards

The Dying Gift of Sharon Ostman

A 500-Year-Old War on the Poor

37 Million Live in Poverty in US

Julia Vinograd: Poet Laureate of Berkeley Streets

Innovative Plans for Homeless Housing

Disabled Woman on a Long Road Back Home

Photographer's Eye for the Dignity of People

Poor Leonard On Prejudice

The Flower Lady

October Poetry of the Streets


September 2005

August 2005

July 2005

June 2005

May 2005

April 2005

March 2005

February 2005

Street Spirit is published by American Friends Service Committee.

All works are copyrighted by the authors.

The views expressed in Street Spirit are those of the individual authors alone, and not necessarily that of the American Friends Service Committee.

Innovative Architectural Designs That Can Help Solve Homelessness

Architecture should do more than provide homeless people with shelter. It should keep their hope and dignity alive.

by Lydia Gans

"The buildings that we construct are a reflection of our values and our culture. At its best, architecture not only reflects but also serves society; it has a duty to provide for those with the greatest need and the fewest options. Thus architecture should do more than provide homeless people with shelter; it must sustain their hope and their dignity." These are the reflections of Sam Davis, architect and professor at the University of California, Berkeley, in his recently published book, Designing for the Homeless: Architecture that Works.

Davis has been designing affordable housing and working with nonprofit homeless service providers for 35 years. In this engrossing book, he describes some innovative and attractive examples of modern homeless facilities, and provides a historical perspective on affordable housing. Davis also presents a knowledgeable and sensitive discussion of the many issues involved in creating appropriate housing; and he offers a strong argument for why society needs to pay attention to the housing and shelter needs of its homeless citizens.

Given the politics and economics of our society today, it is clear that homelessness is a problem that is not going away. There is simply not enough affordable housing. Davis points out, "The builder of last resort used to be the federal government, but in the early 1970s, it began to abandon this role, and by the end of the 1980s, federal funding for housing had fallen by 72%."

In spite of laws that require a certain percentage of subsidized and affordable units in new developments, the situation is getting steadily worse. Every week more people are becoming homeless and their demographic characteristics are changing. Women with children, people who are employed but not earning enough to pay for housing, elderly and disabled people, and those who have become dispossessed because their living situation has become dysfunctional, all reflect new elements in the homeless population.

In designing appropriate temporary housing, Davis writes, "Perhaps the architect's most important challenge on designing for the homeless is to restore a sense of dignity to the residents.... A place that makes people feel welcome, comfortable and safe signals that someone cares about them and that they are worthy of this concern. Choice and self-determination are cornerstones of dignity, and a homeless person has few options. An architect can create a diversity of spaces even in a single building; you give people choices."

Davis' book, far from being a dry textbook, is fascinating reading. In earlier historical eras, emergency shelters were simply spaces set aside in basements or hallways of public buildings, often in police stations. Only since the 1980s, when the government started backing off and more nonprofits took over the creation of shelters and housing, and with the characteristics of the homeless population changing, did the concept of designing a building specifically for these people gain support.

Davis illustrates and describes in detail a number of different modern facilities for homeless people. In one example of a shelter, he has photographs and floor plans of the huge, five-story Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles which can accommodate as many as 450 people. The building includes a kitchen, dining and recreation rooms, men and women's detox and recovery programs, medical facilities, gyms, activity rooms for young people, courtyards and extensive staff housing on the fifth floor.

In this connection, he makes an interesting observation about different needs for men and women. For example, one staff person can get several hundred men bedded down for the night; but it takes seven staffers to help one hundred women get settled. The women coming to the shelter are likely to be traumatized; many have been abused, and are stressed out, frightened and feeling very vulnerable. They need help just to calm down and feel comfortable.

Somewhat longer-term housing is available in what have generally been called flophouses. These dreadful places have been around for a long time and continued to exist until, recently, building code enforcement inspections began catching up with them.

Davis describes the "cubicle hotels" of the past, not unlike today's cubicle offices, each cubicle furnished with a bed instead of a desk. The only difference was that the cubicles were roofed with chicken wire to protect against thievery and to prevent a person from occupying a cubicle without paying. As miserable as they were, they were tolerated by officials because they kept the homeless and destitute out of sight. During the Depression, the flophouses in the Bowery section of New York City housed as many as 75,000 men!

A step up were rooming houses or residential hotels, the SRO (single room occupancy) hotel being the contemporary version of these. Some of these are dismal places, and from time to time, the tenants protest or one burns down and the terrible conditions are exposed. But there are also some very fine SRO hotels designed by creative architects. Along with shared bathrooms, a feature of all SROs, these have shared kitchens and a lounge or community room where residents can gather.

Other types of housing to move people out of homelessness include transitional housing and supportive housing, which provides specific services for people with special needs. Davis shows several examples, some of them specially built for the purpose and others that are renovations of buildings that originally had far different uses.

An interesting illustration is the Prince George Hotel in New York City. It was once very elegant, but had become a horribly run-down neighborhood eyesore. Thoroughly refurbished, it is once more a stately building, containing 416 units, a variety of supportive services, community areas and administrative program offices. Not only are the tenants appreciative, the neighbors are happy too.

In designing residences for homeless people, there are a vast number of issues to consider and problems to solve because this is a particularly diverse population with non-standard needs. Furthermore, the architect's clients are not only the future tenants of the buildings, but also the staff that will provide the services, the neighbors and the funding agencies.

Davis describes the many considerations. Beginning with the building entry, he writes, "when individuals become homeless, they feel many different emotions: anger, confusion, embarrassment, fear, exhaustion, depression and hopelessness. Many are hungry, ill or using drugs. The facilities we design to house them therefore need to convey qualities of sanctuary and refuge... the entry is critical in establishing trust between the homeless and the staff."

He then describes public areas, places where people can gather for many different purposes, primarily to encourage socialization and community building. There should also be various specialized spaces to provide for a population that doesn't have the same access to transportation that people in stable housing have.

Davis details some desirable facilities: a health clinic, smoking lounge, kennel, bank, classrooms, beauty parlor and barbershop, gym, dining room, possibly even a courtroom. Sleeping spaces have to provide privacy and security, and a place to keep their stuff. Above all, the place must not look or feel like an institution.

The ultimate question raised by Davis' book is, "Why bother?" The answer is that, like most problems, prevention is far cheaper than dealing with the ill effects after they develop. Homelessness not only affects its victims; it casts a pall on our whole society. It is especially damaging to the growing number of children in this situation. The obvious, and, Davis argues convincingly, the most cost-effective solution, is to build sufficient affordable housing with supportive services for people who need them.

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