In the last global survey undertaken by the United Nations in 2005, there were an estimated 100 million people who were homeless around the world and 1.6 billion who lived without adequate housing. This number has escalated in recent years; unaffordable housing has become a global norm, making it increasingly difficult for the disadvantaged to seek out permanent, or even temporary shelter.
As housing becomes a means of accumulating wealth rather than fulfilling its fundamental goal of shelter, well-intentioned architects have attempted to solve the homelessness crisis through creative ideas and innovative design. But is architecture really the solution?
The causes of homelessness are complex and play into a number of structural factors and individual circumstances. In the large cities of first-world countries, we often see an animosity towards the homeless, a mentality that “they chose this lifestyle,” or misconceptions that homelessness is a result of laziness or lack of responsibility. However, it is an unavoidable fact that with the wealth of first-world countries, homelessness should not be the global issue that it is today. In Melbourne, Australia, 82,724 properties sit vacant as of 2015; a perverse number when we consider the hundreds sleeping rough on the streets and tens of thousands in temporary shelters. The lack of social housing while empty luxury apartments are used as investment properties presents a merciless image of an economic market that favours profit over liveability and governments that sweep the issue under the rug.
Architecture has often gone hand in hand with a sense of social responsibility and desire to improve society through the built environment. Although it is impossible for the issue of homelessness to be “solved” by architecture alone, a reluctance to engage with and design for this issue would represent a failure to interact with the issues of the city and its inhabitants.
Below we explore some interesting concepts for short-term solutions, as well as some ways in which cities are dealing with the problem on a more fundamental level.
Proposals for Temporary Solutions
These proposals focus on short-term solutions for the homeless, from emergency shelters to “hostile architecture" that attempts to push the problem elsewhere.
Emergency shelters allow the homeless to be shielded by the elements and have a safe place to stay for a few nights, but the demand for homeless shelters completely outstrips supply. Many permanent emergency shelters are also designed poorly, having more in common with a prison or hospital than a friendly place to stay. Many emphasise their use as temporary accommodation, which does not resolve the emotions of anxiety and instability associated with homelessness.
In Brussels, canvas tents are banned on the streets as camping is not allowed. The ORIG-GAMI project, conceived by Xavier Van der Stappen, uses foldable cardboard tents to create a temporary solution for those sleeping on the streets. The cardboard is donated by a cardboard factory and its origami foldability allows users to transport them easily while seeking shelter.
Another similar design is the WheelLY Recycled Homeless Shelter by Italian firm Zo-Loft, which consists of a wheel-shaped aluminium frame that can expand into a tent. Its rollable design makes it easy to transport, with a cloth bag holding up to 250 pounds of personal items inside. The side of the wheel can also be used as space for advertising, to reduce cost. It can be expanded half-open to act as a chair, or fully open for sleeping.
Many designs for homeless shelters explore the idea of “parasitic” architecture that latches onto existing structures, an attempt to solve the issue of funding.
Michael Rakowitz’s project “paraSITE”, which was exhibited at MoMA in 2005, consists of inflatable homeless shelters that could be attached to an existing building’s exterior vents. The warm air that would exit the vents of the building would then heat up and inflate the parasitic structure. These inflatable shelters were constructed and given to over 30 homeless people in New York, Boston and Cambridge.
The idea has also been explored in many conceptual projects, such as “Homes for the Homeless” by James Furzer of Spatial Design Architects. The project is a series of pods that can be attached to ideally government-owned sites or connected to form a community of structures. Built from affordable materials, the exterior material can also match that of its host building. Furzer is currently developing the design with a private investor to explore the feasibility of the project’s construction and distribution.
New York based Framlab presented a similar scheme just this year. The scheme, which seeks to utilize the unused space found on blank sidewalls of buildings in New York City, would make use of a proprietary 3D printed hexagonal module. It also draws on local history, referencing the city's single occupancy housing that was common in the mid 20th century.
The idea of “parasitic” housing has also been used heavily in French architect Stephane Malka’s work, filling in the gap between buildings and above rooftops with affordable housing. His project A-KAMP47 constructed a series of camouflage-print tents on the side of a factory wall in Marseille. It acts a critique to the state’s false promises for universal housing, the camouflage print representing society’s desire to hide the homeless from view.
A temporary “solution” used by many cities is the construction of hostile architecture, such as sprinklers or supports in the middle of park benches to deter the homeless. More aggressive examples include anti-homeless spikes outside buildings and under bridges, an attempt to push the problem out of view and out of mind. There is little research to suggest that this is a succesful long-term approach.
A similar, but non-architectural response to the issue of homelessness are one-way bus tickets, used by many US cities. The Guardian covered it in-depth here, finding that 21,400 homeless people were bussed to rural areas in the last 6 years with an agreement to not return. Although some benefited from these “homeless relocation” programs, many were simply faced with the same problems in a different location, with fewer job opportunities and support services.
Proposals for Long-Term Solutions
These proposals explore more long-term solutions to create permanent residences for the homeless.
The recent interest in tiny houses offers a possible solution to homelessness. Many charities are developing solutions involving tiny houses, with the Tiny Homes Foundation in Australia developing a pilot program of 4-6 tiny homes with a common space offering amenities and welfare services.
Another interesting phenomenon is the existence of tiny home villages. The outskirts of Portland, Oregon hold a tiny house village called Dignity Village. Unlike other homeless programs, Dignity Village formed organically and is governed and run by its residents. City and community support in the 2000s allowed Dignity Village to evolve from a tent community to a heated tiny home village with facilities. The key aspect that ensures the success of communities such as Dignity Village is the creation of a framework in which the residents feel like they have support and a relationship with their neighbours.
Tiny houses allow the resident to construct the house themselves, meaning that it can also act as a preventative solution to homelessness, creating the possibly of affordable housing that people can build themselves.
The funding and development of more social housing is crucial in ameliorating the issue of homelessness. In Finland, rates of homelessness have gone down by 35% since 2010, while rates have steadily risen in the rest of Europe and the developed world. This decline is a result of the Housing First scheme, which works by the philosophy that a permanent home is the first step, before subsequently tackling issues of family breakdown or substance abuse that led to the loss of housing. All the emergency shelters of Finland were transformed into permanent accommodation, and with the building of more housing blocks, the scheme created 6000 new housing units for the homeless. This proved to be much more cost-effective in the long-term compared to short-term solutions.
Although more social housing is essential, the development of good social housing is also necessary. A possible reason why Housing First has worked so well compared to other social housing developments is that it is not relying simply on building more houses but also ensuring that they are attached to various support services. Local government support is crucial in its funding and its residents can receive relevant financial and housing advice.
Indeed, the recent collaboration between Los Angeles architect Michael Maltzan the Skid Row Housing Trust hints towards what is possible. The recently completed Crest Housing is a stunning project that provides not just living units for homeless veterans but also ample space for social and community programs.
If we analyse the differences between successful social housing and the projects that fail, it becomes clear that although good design is crucial—the elimination of stigmatised, monotonous towers of beige—what is possibly more important is a collaboration with governments and charities to create housing that is socially supported and community-oriented.