Cities Need More Dignifying Design to House Their Homeless

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.