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Dialogue XX:

Plus ca change...?

Dialogue is the occasional ChapterLetter column that seeks to provoke discussion about issues of significance.

For the past 20 years, I have had the habit of clipping newspaper articles and saving publications relating to homelessness. Recently I had the occasion to go through these piles and folders. What struck me was that the issues and events and sense of immediate urgency could have had today�s dateline! What does this mean? Has nothing changed after two decades?

In fact, a lot has...and a lot hasn't. Homelessness has been accepted and even institutionalized � the annual head-count, the annual memorial service for homeless people who have died in the past year, the usual new plan to end homelessness in five or ten years. We have already lost more than one generation and with the millennium are working on the next.

The number of non-profits dealing with hunger and homelessness has increased tenfold, all competing with each other for funds from foundations and government programs (both shrinking sources) and competing with the universe of other significant charitable concerns such as injustice, the environment, diseases and a good deal more, for individual donations and dates and venues for fund-raising events. We are creating homeless people and families faster than we create non-profits. We have a new kind of HMO-homeless maintenance operation.

Canaries in the coalmine
Twenty years ago I perceived the homeless as harbingers of change in our society, the canaries in the coal mine who are the first to detect conditions hazardous to human well-being. Perhaps former Boy and Girl Scouts, they were on an Urban Outward Bound program with no hot cocoa at the end of the day. Their warning of a more corporate, less communal, society has come to pass the predominance of bottom-line numbers over vision and caring, self versus others, shirking of public responsibility, the diminution and fear of the public realm, the widening split between poor and rich, a meaner society that ethnologists call a behavioral sink.

This change is reflected in our media. News portrays a life of boundless acquisition and consumption threatened by danger and violence at every turn. TV shows have moved from Gilligan�s Island, Family Ties, and Mister Rogers to Survivor, Castaway, and Fear Factor. Oscar the Grouch living in his trash can on Sesame Street has morphed into Bum Fights, homeless people being filmed beating each other to a pulp.

Evidence of the abuse of detained �persons of interest� at Guantanamo, in Afghanistan and Iraq, has disturbed many Americans who otherwise have been oblivious to similar physical violence in the public and private U. S. prison system. It is a bit of further irony that the homeless � non-persons of no interest � are left to forage in our streets and alleys and no one wants to gather their intelligence.

Prison violence aside, people who have been convicted of a crime and sent to prison have shelter day and night, are fed, clothed, receive mail and visitors, have the opportunity to work. The homeless don�t. Lost in plain sight

We often read of the expensive search and rescue of people lost in the forest, on a mountain, or in the ocean, of intensive search parties, helicopters or ships. What does it take to rescue the people lost in plain sight in our midst? The response to natural disasters is a massive mobilization of shelter, food, medical care, counseling, clean-up, and reconstruction. Why is the socio-economic disaster of homelessness different? What would happen if we bused people to Mount Rainier and tornado sites so they could be saved?

Our federal government, which during the Great Depression created the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to put people to work on needed civic projects all over the country, has stepped back from responsibility, deregulated and privatized economic activity, with the result that the equivalent population of several mid-size states just does data-processing for national banks� credit-card operations. The communal safety net we used to believe in has been lowered so significantly that it is just lines for spacing out cots on an armory floor from 8:00 pm to 6:00 am. Is there no way out? Yes there is, as many good people and organizations have learned. First, we need to heal the hurt, the shame, mistrust and the fear. This requires a refuge, a safe place with food, clothing, medical care, and people interested in learning the homeless person�s story. Then you can begin to rebuild a life. The basics of a mail and e-mail address, phone number, voter registration, plus support, counseling, treatment and childcare/education for families open the way to programs for life-skills, education and job-training leading to housing placement in group homes, supported housing, or independent living. The goal is pursuing one�s dream, working for a sustaining income, paying taxes, participating in the life of the community. We could use a social equivalent of 911 that would guide people to sources of help. It would be great if there were a public place of refuge in every community (one model � though you can�t sleep there is the public library: open to all citizens, part of a regional resource-sharing network, geared to self-help with staff as guides, including display galleries, community meetings, performances, lectures and screenings). People will be able to stay at the refuge, participating in the services they need, until they are prepared to take the next step toward independence. For the community, young and old, the refuge will become their focus of care, pride, volunteering and donating.

By establishing a base under our poorest citizens, we are preparing them to move up to join the growing ranks of ourselves and our neighbors struggling for decent housing, jobs that pay a living wage, healthcare, childcare, and education. Beyond the refuge, there are good program models for group homes, supported housing, and independent living. Quantity is the main problem. We need to find places in our communities where these kinds of housing can work well and contribute positively to the surrounding fabric.

A few proposals
Ending homelessness will cost money, A very successful program in New York City that works with women released from prison � former prostitutes and addicts and often with children � reports that it costs $20,000 a year to support each woman in its program. Apply that to 5,000 homeless people in Boston and you need $100,000,000 (one day in Iraq or a large chunk of Richard Grasso�s severance pay) just to get to independent living. We need to look beyond our grudging human services budgets and charity fund-raisers to solve this problem. A few suggestions:

  • Balance the budget � make ending homeless shelters a government priority financed by ending the corporate tax shelters...all shelters left behind.
  • Prison reform The New York City program mentioned above also reports that it costs $32,000-40,000 a year � college-size expense to keep one woman in prison. Razor wire and ivy must cost about the same. Instead of all the money we spend on prisons�building them, staffing them, filling them, and refilling them because there are few jobs for parolees and ex-convicts put the money into community development, early childhood education, youth programs.
  • Raze the parking lot, put up a paradise (apologies and thanks to Joni Mitchell) � Redevelopment and gentrification are desirable but must be planned and managed so that, rather than wholesale displacement of current residents, a healthy mix of uses and economic diversity results.
  • Piggybacking Housing of the kind we need should be an integral part of the planning for all development � transportation, office towers, greenspace, etc.
  • Linkage Linkage fees attached to demolition and new development of all kinds can create a fund for housing, public realm improvements and maintenance
  • Synergy Evaluate all the non-profits, foundations, religious groups, government programs, and corporate community service efforts together to see how this economic sector can be more productive.
  • Jobs All of this, by the way, creates real work for real people in real places � social workers, healthcare workers, childcare workers, teachers, building tradesmen and women, building and landscape maintenance professionals, gardeners, food-service workers, urban designers, architects, landscape architects, interior designers, furniture-makers, and more. By emulating the WPA and CCC, we can create real jobs for real people in real places.

Even the homeless themselves can contribute:

  • The Homeless Empowerment Project publishes the Spare Change newspaper and homeless people are vendors.
  • A transitional home for battered women has an urban garden and is working on creating its own brand of salsa for sale.
  • The Building Materials Resource Center recycles all sorts of building materials and provides training in residential construction, remodeling, and maintenance.
  • YouthBuild provides high-school drop-outs with GED classes combined with architectural drawing and supervised construction work on projects in the community.
  • A North Shore group provides SRO housing in conjunction with food-service training and operates a public restaurant on its ground floor.

Real work, real people, real places.

We have a proud history of creating new institutions to respond to our changing society � public baths, settlement houses, YMCAs/YWCAs. We have a need now for new institutions and building types and development concepts for our time and for the next generation. Humans and other primates are born with empathy, the urge to help, to learn things, to do more, to imitate and emulate.

John Wilson FAIA

John L. Wilson FAIA established the BSA Task Force to End Homelessness in 1986. In 1996, Wilson was the recipient of the AIA�s Whitney Young Jr. Citation, which was established in 1968 shortly after Whitney Young Jr., then leader of the National Urban League, challenged the architectural profession to use its skills more thoughtfully to address the problems plaguing our inner cities.

As usual, all readers are invited to join this dialogue by e-mailing me at mdavis@bos.bergmeyer.com. We will publish your responses as space allows in subsequent issues and on the BSA website. You can read Dialogues I through XIX and responses to them on our website at www.architects.org/publications (click on �ChapterLetter�).

Michael Davis AIA, �Dialogue� Moderator

BSA ChapterLetter, December 2004, pp. 6�7.