At Home in the City
Angela Nkya, Iowa State University, USA
Despite the efforts to provide affordable housing, the number of people who are homeless continues to increase. The problem has now crossed the boundaries of dense urban areas and reached small communities such as Ames. When I started to research the homelessness I was surprised to learn that some of the homeless people who live on streets have the choice of living in a shelter, but choose to live on streets instead. Homelessness as a choice of living presents the greatest challenge to the problem. How can you design or provide a home to someone who does not want it? As long as it remains a choice of living for some, we will never be able to eradicate the problem of people living on the streets. But is there anything we can do to assist those who choose to live on streets? And how can we as Architects, justify being involved or not being involved with the homeless?
To some extent I agree with what the Professor of Urban Planning Peter Marcuse says in his article, "Criticism or Cooptation - Can Architects reveal the sources of Homelessness?" where he states, "Homelessness is not a design problem. Yet to the extent it has been considered by architects, by schools of architecture, by the Architectural profession .....Indeed, it is desirable that architects should help address the present crisis of homeless....we can enlighten ourselves and others about homeless as we try to detail housing for them. We can show them that their needs are essentially ours." (i)Homelessness is at the core an economic problem. However homelessness as a choice presents new avenues for designers to rethink the idea of a house. Can we and how do we meet the housing needs of a homeless man on the street?
There are various reasons for the homeless to reject the shelter services that are being offered. Some enjoy the challenge of living by day, others do not want to live "under" someone else's "rules" or codes of behavior and expectation. Whichever the reason, shelter is one of the basic human needs and still continues to be whether one chooses to live in the house or on the streets. Those who choose to live on streets need protection from weather, security and privacy that housing can provide as much as the people who live in houses do. They already have a way of obtaining these that differs from the people who live houses. They have places such as soup kitchens where they go for food, places they go to shower, and places to sleep. Rather than having all these under one roof, the homeless obtain these from different places in the city. In essence, the homeless live in the city in the same way as one lives in a house. Their home is the city.
During my study of homelessness I had an opportunity to converse with two homeless men who chose to live in the city. The first man I met at the men's homeless shelter. He is a seasonal worker in Ames and came to the shelter to shower and do laundry but not to spend the night or eat. He willingly agreed to stay for dinner and socialize when invited, but rejected the offer to freely spend the night at the shelter. The second man, on the other hand, does not want to live in shelter because he can not have much privacy at the shelter and he does not want to be dependent on anyone. He makes his living waking up early in the morning to collect cans and use the little income he gets from that to support himself. He lived in a forested area, concealed from the public where he made a small tent and spent most of his day time reading. He had lived there since June but his home was exposed during fall and he did not live there longer after that.
One lesson that I took from studying the homeless is that the homeless patterns differ from one place to another. In Ames you are most likely to find people who work and not pan handling as you see in other places. In addition to that, Ames is only a temporary stop for the homeless not a destination. Most of the people who are live on the streets in Ames are here for just a short period of time -about six months. For example the first man was a seasonal worker while the other had been in Ames for five months and was planning to leave soon. This means some of the homeless projects done in other parts might not work in Ames. Any homeless project needs to specifically respond to the nature of the homeless people in that area.
While homelessness is a new problem in our society, the homeless nomadic lifestyle predates urban settlements. The homeless are the modern day nomads moving from one city to another in search of favorable conditions and jobs. This is especially true in Ames. The second man could have moved to another place in Ames where he is well concealed from the public or to the southern states where it is much warmer. In the same way the seasonal worker migrates from one city to another to work. But even though the homeless live in cities, cities, being a result of established settlements, do not cater for the nomadic lifestyle. Cities have a hierarchy of spaces that range from private to public and have rules and regulations that control how one occupies and behaves in these spaces. For example, private behaviors such as sleeping are only allowed in the private spaces and hardly on the public spaces. Our houses reflect this hierarchical arrangement of spaces by having rooms that are designed for specific purposes, - a dining room, living room and bathroom. What makes a person homeless in the city is the lack of private spaces. They can only use the city's public spaces. This hierarchy of spaces therefore alienates the nomads from the city.
The British Architect and Lecturer Robert Kronenburg, supports this idea by arguing that, for a person to create a home in a place, they have to have the freedom to arrange the space in a way that they like. In his essay, "Modern Architecture and Flexible Dwelling" he says, "when I travel I bundle my possessions into compact containers....when I arrive at my destination a part of settling in is that I open my possessions out into the room I occupy......when we arrive somewhere different we "create" a new home by endowing it with our presence in the form of the interior landscape of our possession. But it is not just the variety and familiarity of these possessions that define our identity in this adopted space, but the way we distribute them..." (ii) He gives an example of a perfect holiday house as the one in which the temporary owners have the freedom to move the furniture and change things around to make the place more at home. Flexibility and objects that can be adapted to serve different functions have always been the characteristics and elements of the nomadic lifestyle. Based on his argument, for a homeless man to be at home in the city the public elements of the city will have to be adaptable and the set of rules and regulations loosened to allow for some of the private behaviors such as sleeping. In other words, the way to provide a home to someone who lives on the streets is by the creation of flexible spaces.
This is good news to both the designers and the city residents because it frees us from the expense of creating new spaces for the single purpose of serving the homeless. Instead of creating a new building, which raises the questions of where it is to be located and who will fund its construction we can simply use the existing elements such as bus shelters and make them adaptable for sleeping at certain hours. The bus shelters in Ames are used during the day and remain unused after midnight. We could design them in such a way that they can transformed to a sleeping compartment from midnight to 6 am. Buildings such as transit bus depots, which Ames does not have at the moment, can serve dual functions by providing services such as public bathrooms, telephones and lockers to both the travelers and the homeless.
We can not fully address the issue of homelessness without looking at the causes for homelessness. Family breakup is the number one reason for homelessness in Iowa followed by domestic violence.(iii) But urban redevelopment ranks high among the causes for homelessness nationwide.(iv) Urban renewal projects have left some of the urban poor homeless. These projects involve a wide range of professionals - Architects, urban planners, developers, and city officials. Urban redevelopment may not be the cause homelessness in Iowa but it impacts us all due to the nomadic lifestyle of the homeless. The homeless men I met in Ames were from San Francisco, Kansas and other parts of the country. We are therefore not isolated from the consequences of what happens in other places.
Homelessness is not a poor design problem in terms of aesthetics and functionality of the architecture of the built environment, but is in part poor design in term of failure to address the impact of the built environment on the society. That is what makes homelessness an architectural problem. The profession of Architecture is as much about aesthetics and functionality as it is about social implication. Homelessness is in a certain way a reflection of how the built environment is becoming more and more geared towards the rich and the elite and is ignoring the urban poor. It is therefore not only desirable that architects should help address the problem of homelessness, it's our duty. Homelessness has become one of the new elements of the urban environment and it's our duty as designers to raise its awareness to the society. It is our duty too to suggest ways in which the homeless can be helped. Homelessness is an economic problem and there will always be the poor amongst us, but we should not ignore them. We need to look at alternative ways of providing housing to those who can not afford to live in a house.
In the city, the nomad is at the mercy of the resident because the city is the resident's territory. The resident is the taxpayer and the one who supports and maintains the city. An Architect may be able to provide adaptable bus shelters, or design public bathrooms but the one who approves of whether the project gets to be executed are the city official, representing the community. The client then is not the homeless but the resident. This makes the resident responsible for the homeless. We are the owners of the city and based on that we all have a choice to make when it comes to homelessness. We can either ignore them, reject them, or accept them. However, as the number of homeless people continues to increase in our community and nationwide the problem becomes more difficult to ignore. Rejecting them by pushing them away will not address the problem. Furthermore it can be argued that we can not push the homeless away from us for the majority of the ones we have in Ames are from other places. We should accept their lifestyle and provide the environment that suits both our lifestyle and theirs.
There are opportunities to provide housing for the homeless people on streets but these can only be accomplished by a joint effort between Architects, the community and different professions. It is our responsibility as Architects to help the homeless because we have the training to design, among other things homes for people. Our services need not to be only traditional homes to those who can afford but non traditional and to those who can not afford normal houses.
(i) "Criticism or Cooptation: Can Architects Reveal the Sources of Homelessness?", Peter Marcuse, Crit, Spring 1988, p. 33
(ii) "Modern Architecture and flexible dwelling," Robert Kronenburg, in "Living in Motion - Design and Architecture for flexible dwelling" edited by Mathias Schwartz-Clauss and Alexander von Vegesack, 2002, Weil am Rhein : Vitra Design Museum
(iii) "Iowa Homeless Population: 1999 Estimates and Profile. A Report Prepared for the State of Iowa by the University of Iowa in Cooperation with the Iowa Department of Education and Other State Agencies." http://planning.urban.uiowa.edu/homeless/draft3.htm
(iv) Arlene Zarembka, "The Urban Housing Crisis", 1990, Greenwood Press Inc, Westport Connecticut
Special thanks to the homeless men who provided me with a wealth of insight on being homeless and to the staff and temporary residents of the Ames Emergency Room project.