Cities Need More Dignifying Design to House Their Homeless
Housing, even and perhaps especially for the homeless, can and should restore people’s basic dignity, reflecting back to them that their lives have value.
Grappling with a housing crisis and a surge in homelessness, the City of Oakland is embarking on a radical new plan: housing homeless people in storage sheds.
That’s right, the kind designed to store garden supplies and power tools.
The two dozen Tuff Sheds that Oakland just erected, however, will house humans — 40 of them, as real and complicated as you and me. The plan is for the sheds to serve as transitional housing for up to six months, with select social services available on-site.
As a longtime advocate for design that dignifies, I am appalled by what I understand is a well-intentioned attempt to address the city’s rampant homelessness. Housing in the Bay Area is some of the least affordable in the nation, and too many people struggle to keep a roof over their heads. But this is not the answer.
Situated at the intersection of two major highways, the hum of cars is relentless and at times deafening at the gravel-covered site. Inside a ring of chain link fence are two dozen sheds, clad in either pastel blue or rust-colored vinyl siding. Otherwise identical, each shed has a single barn-style door, a low pitched roof and a small window on one wall.
Inside, exposed wood framing lines the thinly insulated walls. Each shed has a pair of cots, along with two Rubbermaid containers for the inhabitants’ belongings. There is also a single desk, a lantern and a battery-operated smoke detector, but no electricity or running water. Three portable toilets and a dumpster round out the amenities.
Over the past year, the Bay Area has seen a spike in homelessness. In Oakland, it is estimated to be 25 percent higher than just a year ago, with upward of 3,000 people homeless on any given night — roughly 10 times the number of beds in emergency shelters.
In many parts of Oakland, one can barely go a few blocks without encountering a homeless encampment — clusters of makeshift shelters line roadsides, freeway underpasses and other forgotten places. In the blocks surrounding the site housing the sheds, 60 to 80 people are estimated to be living in encampments, according to the on-site manager of the new development with whom I spoke.
One resident of an adjacent encampment is Fateehma Mohammed, 48, a college-educated cancer survivor, who has lived in the area off and on over the past year. While several other people that I approached in the encampments were reluctant to talk about the development, Mohammed did not mince words, calling the city’s latest effort “inhumane.”
“Those sheds are made to house lawnmowers, not people,” she told me. “We’re not dumb; we know that.”
Mohammed believes that for the amount being spent by the city — in excess of $600,000 annually to house up to 40 people as well as staff the site — more appropriate housing could be created. “It’s unconscionable,” Mohammed continued, calling the effort “a Band-Aid over an open wound.”
Oakland is not alone in its struggle to combat homelessness. Just last month, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released its annual “Point in Time” count, showing more than 550,000 homeless people across the country during local tallies conducted earlier this year. But other cities are managing to create more dignified emergency, transitional and permanent supportive housing — designed specifically for people experiencing homelessness.
Dallas designed a cottage community for the 50 most chronically homeless people in the area. A broad coalition of social service agencies, philanthropists and designers created the village, which comprises 400-square-foot, one-bedroom cottages.
Gregory Philen, 56, one of its residents, had been homeless for nearly 30 years, struggling with addiction, and drifting from town to town. Philen now has a key, to a door, to his own house. He talked about the sense of security that it brings — something he had lived without for decades.
To be sure, the Dallas development took nearly a decade to realize. At face value, the Dallas structures are many times the cost of Oakland’s disposable Tuff Sheds, with the total cost of $6.5 million for 50 permanent units, extensive on-site services, and landscaping.
Closer to home, the city of San Jose and global architecture firm Gensler just released drawings for a development of small homes for the homeless. Construction costs are estimated to be closer to $90,000 per unit.
It’s tempting and common to let cost per unit drive projects of this type. But doing so neglects the ways in which good design — created for and with its intended users — can restore humanity. In my extensive research, I’ve found that good design also can cost less. Done well, it can create jobs by engaging local labor and materials — enhancing many more lives than just those who actually dwell in the buildings.
Rather than some off-the-shelf solution, like housing humans in storage sheds, Oakland’s effort to shelter people experiencing homelessness should instead make them feel cared for, comfortable, seen and respected. Housing, even and perhaps especially for the homeless, can and should restore people’s basic dignity, reflecting back to them that their lives have value.
This op-ed was originally published December 22, 2017 in San Francisco Chronicle.
Design For Good — A Podcast Interview With John Cary
John Cary, author of the new book Design for Good: A New Era of Architecture for Everyone, explores the intersection between design and dignity
In this episode in our series of Urban Resilience Project (URP) podcasts in partnership with Infinite Earth Radio, host Mike Hancox interviews John Cary, author of Design for Good: A New Era of Architecture for Everyone. In the episode, John explores the dignifying power of design and the importance of human-driven architecture.
"Great design is more of a process than a product — a process that honors the users of that space, the organizations that are supported by that space and ultimately makes people feel valued."
Highlighting character-driven, real-world examples from his book, John shows not only that everyone deserves good design, but how it can be achieved.
Check out our entire series of podcasts on urban resilience topics HERE.
2017 Holiday Gift Guide
This holiday season, consider the Icelandic tradition of gifting books. They don't go bad, are one-size-fits-all,...
This holiday season, consider the Icelandic tradition of gifting books. They don't go bad, are one-size-fits-all, and are sure to make anyone on your shopping list smile.With a library of more than 1,000 books, make Island Press your one-stop shop for book buying, so you can get back to enjoying the holidays. To help you out, we've compiled a list of staff selections and mentions on various best-of lists.
Get any of these books at your favorite neighborhood bookstore or online retailer!
For the health nut in your life – Whitewash
Let me just say I am unequivocally a health nut; I am definitely that friend who will straight up say “you so should not eat, it is so unhealthy for you.” So If you have a friend or family member that is kind of like me and cares about the kind of food and chemicals they put in their body; Carey Gillam Whitewash is the book to have! This riveting number exposes just how far one company is willing to go to line their pockets while showing total disregard for public health and safety. You think you know what is being sprayed on your food, well this book is here to say think again!
Whitewash is aslo one of Civil Eats' Favorite Food and Farming Books of 2017
For the Lego lover in your life – Design for Good
What good is building something if it doesn’t help the people it’s build for? In John Cary’s Design for Good, readers are presented with colorful, character-driven stories about project around that are designed with dignity in mind. Did we mention it also contains a ton of drool-worthy photos of architecture?
For the peacekeeper in your life – The Spirit of Dialogue
Know someone who always serves as the conflict resolver for your friends or family? Give them some new ideas of masterful mediation with The Spirit of Dialogue which draws lessons from a diversity of faith traditions to transform conflict. Whether atheist or fundamentalist, Muslim or Jewish, Quaker or Hindu, any reader involved in difficult dialogue will find concrete steps towards meeting of souls.
For the history buff in your life – Toms River
Toms River recounts the sixty-year saga that plagued this small New Jersey town. Your history-loving friend will meet industrial polluters and the government regulators who enabled them, the pioneering scientists who first identified pollutants as a cause of cancer, and the brave individuals who fought for justice. Longtime journalist Dan Fagin won the Pulitzer Prize for this page-turner, and gives us all a reason to think twice about what’s lurking in the water.
For the person in your life who thinks the environmental movement is made up of white outdoorsmen (or for the person in your life who thinks that the environmental movements doesn’t include them) – Energy Democracy
Energy Democracy frames the international struggle of working people, low-income communities, and communities of color to take control of energy resources from the energy establishment and use those resources to empower their communities—literally providing energy, economically, and politically. The diverse voices in this book show that the global fight to save the planet—to conserve and restore our natural resources to be life-sustaining—must fully engage community residents and must change the larger economy to be sustainable, democratic, and just.
For the lazy environmentalist in your life – Design Professionals Guide to Zero-Net Energy Building
We all know someone who really means well and cares about the environment, but cannot be bothered to change his lifestyle. With the Design Professionals Guide to Zero-Net Energy Building, you can introduce the zero-net energy building, which offers a practical and cost-effective way to address climate change without compromising quality of life.
For the foodie in your life – No One Eats Alone
For your favorite gourmand, give the gift of No One Eats Alone, an exploration of how to deepen connections to our food sources and to our own communities. Through over 250 interviews, Michael Carolan shows concerned food citizens opportunities for creating a more equitable and sustainable foodscape
For the conservation warrior in your life – Nature’s Allies
Worried about the state of nature in our divided world? Or know someone who is? Nature’s Allies is a refreshing antidote to helplessness and inertia. Within its pages Larry Nielsen brings alive stories of brave men and women around the world who have responded to the conservation crises of their time by risking their reputations, well-being, and even lives to stand up for nature when no one else would do so. These stories provide inspiration for a new generation of conservationists to step up in the face of adversity and challenge social and environmental injustice occurring today—and to assure them that they can make a difference by speaking out. This year, give a holiday gift of courage and inspiration: Nature’s Allies.
For the traveler in your life – Let Them Eat Shrimp
This book brings to life the importance of mangroves. Mangroves have many jobs: protecting coastlines, acting as nurseries for all kinds of fish, provide livlihoods and food for people. Kennedy Warne dives into the muddy waters of the mangrove world and shares the stories of the people who depend on them. The book is both a well-written travelogue and exploration of the science of the mangroves ecological service they provide.
Don't just take our word for it, check out these best-of lists:
For the nature-in-cities lover in your life – Handbook of Biophilic City Planning & Design
Featured on the ASLA's The Dirt Best Books of 2017
For the bike lover in your life – Bike Boom
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