Creative Commons photo by Stephen Zeigler (CC BY-SA 4.0)

I recently attended the California Parks and Recreation Society (CPRS) Conference in Long Beach, and surprisingly found the educational sessions  sparsely attended. That all changed with “Exploring Homelessness in Parks: Strategies for Compassion Co-existence”, a crowded session with over four times more attendees and standing room only. It was during this session I realized landscape architects and the homeless will be inextricably tied together for the foreseeable future, falling onto us to responsibly and compassionately deal with the social, health, and design issues connected with homelessness in our public parks.

Scott Reese, ASLA – leader of the CPRS session and a retired Assistant Director of Parks for City of San Diego – talked about four different approaches cities and park agencies have historically used to deal with the homeless. The following categories are accompanied with my commentary:

  1. “Look the other way”: A “do-nothing” approach. This does nothing to help the homeless, and will chase other park users away.
  2. Regulatory: An approach concentrating solely on passing legislation to keep the homeless out of parks, including establishing “no loitering” or “no sleeping on public land” ordinances. The biggest issue with this approach is it does eliminates any flexibility. If a homeless man is found sleeping in the park, do authorities jail or fine him? Alone, the regulatory approach does nothing.
  3. Seclusion or relocation and disbursement: Law enforcement against the homeless has been used on and off since the Great Depression, simply making homelessness illegal, giving law enforcement officers the authority to arrest, harass, or relocate anyone without a home. Downtown LA’s Skid Row is an example of how LA County use to “dump” their homeless into a central location under the pretense services would be provided there. In reality, the location is completely overwhelmed, and has become the face of homelessness for LA County for the last two decades.
  4. Defensible space: Designs intended to make the homeless uncomfortable and deny them access to the public space are strategies familiar to landscape architects. One can often spot park benches with an additional armrest dividing the middle, a design intended to deter the homeless person from sleeping on it; the new Art’s District Park adjacent to the La Kretz Innovation Center is entirely fenced around its perimeter to restrict access. Besides the sticky legal ramifications of denying access to a public space, design-only solutions have proven ineffective. There is no way to make a park more uncomfortable than living on the streets of Los Angeles. Desperate people find a way to survive.

Creative Commons photo by David Whittaker; (CC0).

The panel discussion concluded with Scott Reese describing two additional strategies:

  1. “Social Justice”: Championed by homeless rights advocates, social justice stresses compassionate intervention that attempts to steer people into shelters or interim housing, as well as public service programs. Lack of funding, shelter shortages, and the overwhelming number of homeless have stifled this strategy.
  2. “Declared Emergency”: When an outbreak of Hepatitis A killed 25 homeless in San Diego County, county officials were prompted to declare a health emergency. The emergency allowed county agencies to freeze local ordinances and regulations, and provide emergency funds to install facilities like portable toilets and hand-washing stations with 24 hour security throughout downtown San Diego. The approach proved to be very effective in the short term.

The simple truth is none of the approaches above will solve homelessness by themselves. As a park professional and designer, I believe we need to treat the homeless like any other park constituent dependent upon the public space for services. This means park agencies and designers need to  integrate services and programmed spaces for the homeless into new and renovated parks. Agencies also need to provide park staff with maintenance and appearance standards to use as the basis for decisions relating to their homeless constituency. This differs from the aforementioned regulatory approach because it provides options for services rather than simply outlawing the activity.

At last count, Los Angeles County has 55,000 people living on its streets, 11,000 of which are children. As a result, our public parks have become the main intersection between the homeless and society at-large. Historically, public parks have always played this role, especially in Los Angeles. The great population boom of the early 1900’s led to an investment in public space, only to be “defended” from homeless families using the parks as camp grounds during the Great Depression. This last decade and the Great Recession it brought pushed homelessness from an intractable problem to crisis levels.

Ironically, the economic recovery has ballooned homelessness even further, with government and private developers unable to solve mounting issues surrounding affordable housing. Even with a massive influx of funds from new tax and bond initiatives, moving 55,000 people off the street will require a generation. As park agencies and landscape architects renovate our city’s aging park infrastructure, we are tasked to consider the homeless as a major user and stakeholder in our park designs guided by the ideals of “compassionate coexistence”.

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