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Building an enlightened approach to homelessness

Homelessness is an issue that isn't solved by merely putting a roof over someone's head. We look at how professionals in the built environment are helping to provide some more considered solutions.

Stuart Watson, Journalist
3 May 2019

More than a decade has passed since the UN's last survey of global homelessness. In 2005, it estimated that there were 100 million homeless people worldwide. Now, in the wake of the global financial crisis and increased mass migration, this will most likely have increased.

In the developing world, it is perhaps unsurprising that many families and individuals face housing insecurity. But homelessness has few boundaries, and rough sleeping is now increasingly visible in some of the developed world's wealthiest cities, too.

It is an issue that goes to the heart of what built environment professionals do. While the causes may be social and economic, the lack of four walls and a roof for everyone feels like something the property and construction sectors should be trying to resolve – as some in the industry are determined to do. Recent years have seen designs for a plethora of inexpensive temporary housing solutions, including homes made from repurposed shipping containers and easy-to-erect tent-based structures.

Perhaps the most widely adopted new approach has been the one pioneered by the "tiny house" movement, which advocates living simply in small homes. This idea has been appropriated as a way to provide low-cost accommodation for people in housing need, and settlements of small wooden cabins have now appeared in several US states. They have proved especially popular on the west coast, where rough sleeping has surged in recent years.

These shelters may be better than nothing, but the use of tiny houses and other cheap, temporary solutions has been criticised by some homelessness campaigners. "Any type of built environment that is intended to assist people with histories of homelessness, or who are currently experiencing it, should accord a level of dignity and respect that we would expect under a normal human rights convention," argues Barbara Poppe, a homelessness consultant and former executive director of the US Interagency Council on Homelessness. "It should be non-stigmatising, and have access to running water and sanitation, heat and light.

"Once communities start treating people who are homeless as 'the other', then they come up with substandard responses, because they believe that homeless people should be grateful for it, or that this is the best they can do," says Poppe. "Some of the tiny homes villages I have visited in the US are surrounded by a chain-link fence on a gravel surface, with no running water and no electrical hook-up. They are quite stigmatising because anyone who walks by can see that these people are set aside, and sort of quarantined."

Tiny chances

Building shelters that are only one step up from a cardboard box and leaving homeless people to moulder in them is clearly not a sustainable plan. However, some pioneers are using aspects of the tiny house approach to create schemes that tap into support networks to produce better long-term outcomes.

Edinburgh-based Social Bite started life as a sandwich shop. Its owners had a vague notion of using its profits for good causes, and it evolved into a homelessness-focused charity. After raising money through a series of “sleep in the park” events, it used the funds to found the Social Bite Village on disused land in the city’s Granton district. Now housing 20 people who were previously homeless, the village is composed of small, prefabricated, two-bedroom “nest houses”, built around a central hub that provides support services.

“It is a cycle-breaking intervention,” says Social Bite corporate engagement manager Andrew Bailie. “Temporary accommodation in hostels and bed and breakfasts is only meant to be for a couple of days, but some people get trapped in it for months and, inevitably, get further and further away from society. We identify people who want to live in the village, who, with 12 to 18 months of supported good-quality housing, will be able to get back on their feet.”

Alistair Harris has been living in one of the Social Bite homes for three months. A 24-year-old from Edinburgh who became homeless after a family breakdown, he has recently started work at a hotel in the city. “The company I now work for contacted the village and I managed to get a part-time job there,” he says. “There are fantastic opportunities thanks to the amazing people and staff in the village.”

Construction of the village was supported by local surveying and construction companies, which provided their services for free. “Homelessness is a massive issue and everyone is becoming more aware of it,” says Mike Armstrong FRICS, managing director at Pottie Wilson, which provided quantity surveying assistance. “You don’t have to go too far into town to see it for yourself.”

In the developing world, it is perhaps unsurprising that many families and individuals face housing insecurity. But homelessness has few boundaries, and rough sleeping is now increasingly visible in some of the developed world's wealthiest cities, too.

In Seattle, BLOCK Architects and non-profit organisation Facing Homelessness have developed another variation on this theme. The BLOCK Project encourages local homeowners to host a small, environmentally friendly "block house" in their back yard, to exploit under-utilised space in low-density housing districts. "We have two of the wealthiest people in the world – Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates – living in Seattle," says BLOCK Architects co-founder, Jenn LaFreniere, "but we also have one of the worst homeless crises in the world, with over 12,000 homeless people in the county."

The project also seeks to break down the divisions between homeless and homed communities, creating an enduring support network for the inhabitant of each block house. "The closer we come [to one another], the more we feel," says LaFreniere, "and the more we feel, the more we act."

One of the largest tiny house projects is located in Austin, Texas, where property developer Alan Graham has founded the Community First! Village. This 27 acre (11ha) site is made up of mobile homes and tiny houses accommodating more than 200 people, around 80% of whom were formerly homeless. Graham says there is a waiting list for a further 24 acres (9.7ha) set to open this winter, and argues that small living spaces encourage people to socialise and engage in community activity. "Our model is relational," he says. "It says the characteristics of home have nothing to do with shelter or a structure. It has everything to do with our relationships with each other."

Other innovative projects also build on ideas of personal development. The UK Community Self-Build Agency (CSBA) has so far undertaken five projects in which armed forces veterans who are in – or at risk of – housing need, help to build their own flats, learning valuable construction skills in the process. Former soldier Ken Hames is now chief operating officer at CSBA, and says that the process is as important as the end result. "You have a year to 18 months during a build to give somebody care, support and mentoring to get them back into employment," he explains. "That is key for independent living. A lot of soldiers are used to being told what to do. We help build up their initiative and get them used to working in a different sort of team."

Temporary accommodation in hostels and bed and breakfasts is only meant to be for a couple of days, but some people get trapped in it for months and, inevitably, get further and further away from society.

Andrew Bailie
Corporate Engagement Manager, Social Bite

Permanent marker

For people who have been homeless for a long time, and who may have physical or mental health conditions and/or substance abuse problems, an even greater level of support is necessary. In some US cities, the permanent supportive housing (PSH) model has met with great success, providing ongoing on-site assistance. “When done well, PSH really transforms people’s lives,” says Poppe.

In New York, Breaking Ground has been creating PSH schemes since 1990. It now operates 4,000 units, with another 1,000 in the pipeline. A non-profit organisation, it started out by converting an empty hotel on Times Square, and has progressed to building new schemes from scratch. Each PSH apartment block houses a mix of formerly homeless people and low-income workers who are in danger of falling into housing need, along with the support services needed to help them live stable, independent lives.

Despite strong arguments for their effectiveness, proposals to establish new PSH blocks are often met with opposition. “We meet with everybody in the community, but it doesn’t allay all their fears,” admits Breaking Ground’s president and CEO, Brenda Rosen. “The best way to demonstrate that we will be an asset to a community is to invite people into our buildings. We have a building in Lower Manhattan that opened in 1999, and to this day there are people in that neighbourhood who don’t have any idea that 250 formerly homeless people live in it. Our goal is to construct beautiful buildings that can’t be distinguished from any other in your neighbourhood.”

Those working to alleviate homelessness frequently stress that every homeless individual is a person just the same as any other – they simply lack a permanent home. The most effective built environment solutions to homelessness are always likely to be those that not only provide shelter, but which also manage to embody that basic human understanding.