Posts tagged homeless

Choose another tag?

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”.

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

A poster designed to spread awareness of the urban homeless population by Seattle-based, Peace for the Streets by Kids from the Streets.

A poster designed to spread awareness of the urban homeless population by Seattle-based,
Peace for the Streets by Kids from the Streets.

Last week, the LA City Council voted to adopt Mayor Garcetti’s $8.76-billion budget proposal aimed to address the increasing homelessness problem in Los Angeles. The proposed measure would specifically improve housing and public services for those without shelter. During the last winter of 2015, the council already announced a $12.4 million budget to help provide more shelters for homeless people during the predicted El Niño season (which officially just ended according to weather-monitoring agencies around the globe). Together these proposals are just part of a broader $100 million plan to address homelessness in the city. Data indicates there has been a 12% increase in homelessness in both LA County and Los Angeles as a city since 2013. And there is an estimate of 70% among the homeless population that do not live within proximity of a shelter – about 18,000 in the city.

A mortared cobble bed in front a gym in Downtown Los Angeles along 6th street designed to deter homeless from sleeping in front of the entry. Photo by Yiran Wang.

A mortared cobble bed in front a gym in Downtown Los Angeles, designed to deter homeless from sleeping in front of the entry. Photo by Yiran Wang.

Though government policies play an important role in battling socio-economic issues like homelessness, designers too can play a significant role in reshaping the city as a whole. Previously my colleague here at AHBE Lab briefly mentioned thoughtfully designed and built shelters or affordable apartment as improvements in LA’s Skid Row: “Perhaps there are small things can be done, such as rethinking the use of intermediate armrests on benches which are used to prevent individuals from sleeping at bus shelters, public plazas, and parks.”

A bench shelter by the Vancouver nonprofit group RainCity Housing.

A bench shelter by the Vancouver nonprofit group RainCity Housing.

Honestly speaking, the invisible nomadic population living along the streets and parks of Los Angeles often come up against an invisible wall, one fermented by increasing urban gentrification, and further facilitated by political acts based upon inequality defined by an infrastructure increasingly separating the classes of haves from the have-nots. Unfortunately, many of the physical manifestation of this wall – both visible and invisible – were designed by architects and landscape architects.

Have you ever heard of the Camden Bench?  It is an angular concrete street bench first installed in London 2012, a design awarded as the “masterpiece of unpleasant design” aimed at deterring the presence of unwanted loitering of both the homeless population (who use benches as beds and resting areas) and skateboarders.

Camden_bench

Mike Davis Bus bench in his book

A page from “City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles” by Mike Davis

Many other similar “disciplinary architecture” or “hostile architecture” designs are dispersed across cities everywhere. Social historian Mike Davis noted in his book “City of Quartz” the appearance of barrel-shaped benches at bus stops in Downtown LA way back in 1990s. In 2014, another “masterpiece” pinched the public nerve: a series of small metal spikes outside a luxury building in London. Such “sadistic street environment” – as described by Mike Davis – only functions to repel people away, not just the homeless, resolving none of the problems for the city as a whole. Once public spaces shed a welcoming humane environment, it is not only the targeted “undesirables” who lose their dignity, but also the entirety of the city’s population itself.

American urbanist and organizational analyst William Whyte once commented about the relationship between cities and the population of “undesirables”:

“Places designed in distrust get what is anticipated, and it is in them, ironically, that you will most likely find a wino. You will find winos elsewhere, but it is the empty places they prefer. It is in them that they look conspicuous – almost as if the design had been contrived to make them so.”

Perhaps it’s time we – architects, city planners, and landscape architects – move beyond designing cities operating under suspicion and distrust, and return to the more noble goal of shaping a city serving the many, instead of the few.

 

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…

 

Photo: Coalitionforthehomeless.org

Photo: Coalitionforthehomeless.org

I’m currently in New York City for a long weekend. The temperature today was a chilly 27 degrees Fahrenheit with a light snow. As I walk the snow-covered streets, I find myself worried about the prospects of the homeless population here finding warm shelter in such cold weather.

Heejae’s post last week about the homeless shelters in Los Angeles after the last round of El Niño storms left me wondering about how other cities like New York handle extreme weather and their local homeless population.

The Coalition for the Homeless is the nation’s oldest advocacy and direct service organization helping homeless men, women and children.

The Coalition for the Homeless is the nation’s oldest advocacy and direct service organization helping homeless men, women and children.

In times where the temperature drops below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, or periods of extended winds or rain, the NYC Department of Homeless Services issues what is called a “Code Blue” which is a set of emergency procedures aimed at protecting homeless who are in danger due to the extreme weather. The department has outreach vans which respond to 311 service request calls from concerned citizens who feel a homeless person may be in danger. At the beginning of the year, New York Governor Cuomo signed a controversial executive order which requires all local governments to remove homeless people by force if necessary once the temperature drops below 32 degrees.

This executive order was met with mixed opinion, with some opposition questioning whether this violated an individual’s civil rights, alongside challenges about how the order would be implemented in light of data showing there are not enough beds to house the estimated homeless population in local cities. Also, as counterintuitive as it seems, the fact is some members of the homeless population feel safer on the streets than inside shelters. Although I feel this executive order has good intentions, I believe design can help play a part in improving how shelters/housing can provide homeless individuals a welcoming and safe place to stay

The Star Apartments owned by the Skid Row Housing Trust is on Maple and 6th Street in Los Angeles, California (Photo by Heidi de Marco/KHN).

The Star Apartments owned by the Skid Row Housing Trust is on Maple and 6th Street in Los Angeles, California (Photo by Heidi de Marco/KHN).

The Skid Row Housing Trust of Los Angeles works with local architecture firms such as Michael Maltzan, Killefer Flammang Architects, Koning Eizenberg Architecture, and Brooks + Scarpa to design apartments for individuals who were formerly living on the streets. The design of these buildings and programming offers medical clinics, onsite counselors, community rooms, community farming and roof gardens, and courtyards that help support outdoor spaces for community activities.

“How do we design buildings that create the best environment for people to live in and recover from the effects of homelessness and other disabilities? We are always trying to mitigate some of the ill effects of homelessness by bringing in good design, ample light and generous landscaping,” remarked Mike Alvidrez, Executive Director for Skid Row Housing Trust.

Developments like Michael Maltzan Architecture's New Carver Apartments proves housing for the homeless can be an opportunity for inspiring architecture.

Developments like Michael Maltzan Architecture’s New Carver Apartments proves housing for the homeless can be an opportunity for inspiring architecture.

As designers I feel there is a shift in the design of shelters and housing for the homeless, a perceptible belief that these buildings can be just be as appealing as the numerous new pricier housing complexes being constructed in Downtown Los Angeles. Perhaps, there are small things can be done, such as rethinking the use of intermediate armrests on benches which are used to prevent individuals from sleeping at bus shelters, public plazas, and parks. Or whether design solutions can help create a park where both homeless individuals and neighborhood residents can coincide together as a community space instead of keeping them separated.

IMG_LA RIVER

With the news of the looming El Niño returning, Californians are gearing up for more water. Continual rainfall throughout winter is expected to quench drought-parched landscapes, bring the L.A. River basin to back to life, and for many, offer a change from the typical dry climate California lifestyle. At the same time there is also a sense of urgency in the air, as both homeowners and city officials make preparations and precautions for flooding, alongside the real possibility of facing urban infrastructures failures under the deluge of predicted heavy precipitation.

Another topic I continue to notice being discussed – beyond the infrastructure of our urban landscape – is how El Niño storms will affect a particularly vulnerable part of our city’s population: the homeless.

Skid_Row_Mural

For better or for worse, statistically speaking the number of outdoor encampments and self-constructed shelters within Los Angeles has been on the rise. The Los Angeles County increase in the homeless population is due to several factors, including rapid urban development, economic hardship, and the drought’s upside of temperate weather for the last four years. These Angelenos living on the streets are highly susceptible to the dangers of the upcoming El Niño storm patterns.

Homeless ShelterActions are currently being taken by the L.A. County to alleviate this issue by opening and reaching out to the homeless community in high flood zones to take refuge in temporary city mandated shelters. More information about these shelters available at The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

Is there the potential to do more to help the homeless during El Niño season? Yes. But as a landscape architect, I was reminded of several academic projects I worked on back in school that dealt with natural disasters, such as earthquakes and flood plains, and where I was challenged to develop strategies to combat the after effects of these natural emergency occurrences. The upcoming El Niño storms and the homeless in Los Angeles may not be categorized as a natural disaster from a design sense, but maybe there is the potential to approach this topic as a uniquely Los Angeles disaster, one requiring both preemptive and reactive measures where the rain doesn’t leave part of our population literally out in the cold.