Architects and designers in New York and London are responding to the homelessness crisis by creating shelters which treat their occupants with more dignity, provide more services and help them get back on track by focusing on their strengths rather than their problems. But the issue has become one where structural problems – notably government policies and a lack of affordability in housing – have overtaken behavioral drivers like drug or alcohol dependency as the reason why many find themselves on the streets in the first place.
Those were some of the main points to emerge from the latest ‘NYLON’ event linking up key thinkers on the topic in KPF’s London offices and the Center for Architecture in New York.
The Connection’s chief executive officer Pam Orchard kicked off by presenting the current picture of homelessness in London, highlighting the shortage of homes and their relative expense being the main cause of London being the location of 25% of England’s rough sleepers. Happily, said Orchard, there is an overarching strategy for homelessness from the GLA, with cross-organisational working happening due to stretched resources, and the faith sector, for instance, responding well with night shelters. And a cross-ministerial task force has £30m to spend on tackling rough sleeping, some of which will go to London because of its concentration of rough sleepers. But it was important to look at homeless people through a different lens, Orchard said. ‘They have strengths and resources as well as problems’, she said. ‘I cannot emphasise enough for someone whose life has hit rock bottom how important it is for them to feel like it is going to get a bit better.’
In New York, said administrator in the city’s department of homeless services Joslyn Carter, it was important to treat people with ‘dignity and respect’, with her organization now concentrating on prevention, in a city where the bulk of homeless people are families in shelter and single adults. ‘We believe we need to be upstream’, said Carter. ‘To find people who are about to lose their homes and offer help.’
Back in London, it was important to look at what design can do to alleviate problems, principally caused through inequality and whose primary solution should actually be central government funding, said Peter Barber Architects director Alice Brownfield. ‘We all share a collective responsibility for the position we find ourselves in’, she said, emphasizing that it was crucial to avoid ‘institutionalizing’ people, instead ‘finding people’s strengths and working with them’. The practice has designed a number of hostels and homes in this way, aiming to be less institutional and more humane; many with courtyard spaces where residents can escape the isolation of their rooms and enjoy chance encounters. ‘It shouldn’t just be providing a roof over people’s heads’, said Brownfield, ‘but also be working with them to develop their strengths and out of the cycle of hostel living’.
Other speakers included Westminster’s head of prevention and commissioning and a member of the Mayor’s No Nights Sleeping Rough Taskforce Jennifer Travassos, who said it was about ensuring that homeless people feel invested in, and looking at what strengths people have in order to lend that to a design. But it was Jonathan Marvel, founding principal Marvel Architects, who again stressed the need for places with services and a support system, allied to security and dignity plus the promotion of a more widespread social responsibility he branded ‘pervasive altruism’. ‘Shelter is more than just a bed’, said Marvel.
By David Taylor, Editor, NLQ
View images from the event here.