polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Architecture for the Homeless

by Vivien Park

Homelessness was a problem long before the recent recession. But as more people are losing their homes and with homeless shelters at capacity, many are spilling into makeshift tent cities. Some actually prefer homeless camps over homeless shelters because the ability to maintain some level of autonomy, not unlike a real home. With limited means and new challenges, their ability to adapt becomes evident in the placement, design and organization of these temporary homes.

One of the biggest challenges of homelessness is the constant threat of eviction and confiscation of personal belongings. Determining a next migration spot is not an easy task given the variation in trespassing laws and levels of enforcements. Some local officials are tolerant, but that is not often the case. Plus there are no shortages of complaints made by frustrated neighboring homeowners in noise, crime, and property devaluation.

As homeless camps multiply across the nation and with no immediate large-scale relief in sight, it is important to acknowledge these camps as a longer-term situation. There is an established knowledge in the area of sustainable homeless shelters and low-cost housing. A growing list of architects, activists, and nonprofit organizations have donated time and resources to these efforts. As an interim solution, we may be able to expand these ideas into the development of temporary versions of homeless shelters. The adjacent field of disaster relief provides an abundance of ideas for innovative, sustainable and affordable structures as well as supporting infrastructures in safety, garbage disposal, water supply, and social services.

Well-designed tent cities should by no means become a long-term solution. By managing temporary homeless dwellings, we may be able to bring to light the existing issues and build the conversation for continual support, activism and compassion. It is a daunting task, but certainly a step towards balancing the concerns of the haves and the have-nots.

Credits: Photo from The Wall Street Journal.