A disabled homeless man in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles. Photo by Yiran Wang.

A disabled homeless man in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles. Photo by Yiran Wang.

It was while riding on the Metro Red Line I had an unforgettable conversation with a total stranger. He called himself an “architect”.

“I had a huge motorcycle accident and got this,” revealing a fake right leg. “I lost everything from that: my girlfriend, my house…everything.”

He is now homeless, living on the streets and parks within Koreatown, Los Angeles.

“You know, Ktown is great! People dump their beds and nice furniture…so I built my bedroom and design stuff, just like an architect.”

This made me laugh, with respect. After I told him I am a landscape architect, he appeared pleased with this newly shared information.

“Do you know AutoCAD?”

This pleasant conversation changed my perspective of the homeless population. I became aware that there are so many different kinds of people who might not have a home to call their own due to unforeseen circumstances: some may be afflicted with mental disease, others unable to afford housing, while others may simply prefer living outside on the streets.

The earliest documentation of homelessness in America dates back to 1640. A big boom in the population of homeless – also then referred to as “Hooverville” – occurred during the Great Depression in the 1930s. The deinstitutionalization of services for the mentally ill during the late 1970s is also cited as a cause of a spike in homelessness. In the 1980s, the economic distress and social service cuts aggravated the situation even further. Today, the continuing gentrification of American neighborhoods and the lack of proper mental and physical care for war veterans has made homelessness a common and major concern in most American cities.


Infographic by Yiran Wang, Data source: The State of Homelessness in America 2015 report

Infographic by Yiran Wang, Data source: The State of Homelessness in America 2015 report

The McKinney–Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987 was the first government act targeting homelessness, a federal law that provided federal funds for homeless shelter programs. Soon after, state and city governments established a network of support, building shelters and soup kitchens. According to a 2015 report, there are about 830,120 beds available year-round for all kinds of emergency shelters and other related projects: Safe Havens (SH), Transitional Housing (TH) projects, Rapid Rehousing (RRH) projects, Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) projects, and Other Permanent Housing (OPH) projects).

However, there are still a large remaining portion of the population who live a  “nomadic” life, just like the Ktown nomad I mentioned earlier.

“In contrast to the urban space that is authorized by the institutional power of the city – sidewalks, streets, freeways, elevators, offices, etc. – the homeless inhabit a space that leaks into alleys, under bridges, behind buildings; the boundaries that are set in place and are normally respected are transgressed, serving to smooth the edges of the built environment. The necessities of finding a hidden place to sleep or urinate causes space to open up. The homeless are often not authorized to use certain areas, so other areas are opened up for unauthorized uses.” –Over the Edge: The Growth of Homelessness in the 1980s/Martha M. Burt

Graphic by Yiran Wang

Graphic by Yiran Wang

With our temperate weather here in Los Angeles,  approximately 200 homeless encampments have been erected alongside the Los Angeles riverbank – a peaceful hidden area in the middle of the urban context frequented by only a few of the general population and normally ignored by the police. However, due to the abnormal climate irritated by El Niño this year, organizations like the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority have taken an interest in the potential hazard of river flooding in relation to these homeless encampments.

Though the riverbank may not be an ideal spot to settle for homeless Angelenos, it is usually preferable – even temporarily – compared to many other urban sections the homeless are relegated or forced to live in.

“Put 8-feet high fence around, so homeless people won’t sneak in.”
“The bench is too comfortable. The homeless may use it to sleep, add an armrest in the middle.”
“A homeless person can hide in this corner, maybe a tree instead?” 

These subtle choices designed by urban planners, architects, and landscape architects are made to deter the homeless from the sight and presence of the general population, small detailing in everyday landscapes aimed at a very specific demographic of Los Angeles. Are there any effective solutions in urban, civic and landscape design to help in combatting homelessness by actually helping the homeless? I’ll tackle this challenge in my next post in the coming weeks…



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