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The Inclusive City: On Homelessness and Urban Design

In the summertime, I’m an early morning runner. As I pass through the streets, the city is still and quiet, making any activity stand out. One recent Saturday morning was oppressively hot. Passing through Ezio Farone Park the first time, I spotted a man sleeping on the park bench. An hour later, I made a loop back through the same spot. The man sleeping on the bench had moved too, 10 feet from the bench, now sleeping underneath a small bush, where he could escape from the run.

While walking to work, I pass a convenience store where most days, an elderly bearded man sits on a bench next to a shopping cart of belongings. I nod and say hi, and he reciprocates.

I notice these interactions ever since I started working in the housing and homelessness sector. I once took a vacation to Portland to combat burnout at work, only to find myself obsessed about the street homelessness you see everywhere in the city’s core. Similarly, while I seek to clear my head when out running, I’m always snapped back to reality by signs of homelessness or otherwise marginalized individuals.

My community has made great strides towards ending homelessness in a short period of time. As I think about the people I come across, I wonder if public spaces and urban design, among other things, can play a greater role in making this happen faster and more effectively.

You can hardly open a paper (or an iPad in my case) without seeing a case study of what not to do. While there are good news stories like Rhode Island’s Homeless Bill of Rights, and Denver’s efforts to use transit to connect affordable housing to jobs, good schools, and quality services, the bad can seem to outweigh the good. A restaurant owner in Montreal wants to chase homeless youth from the area (where will they go that is safe and appropriate, one might wonder?) Seattle debates whether to make a homeless encampment permanent (as if to say, this is the best we’ll ever do for you). A city in Florida removed all the benches in a park to discourage homeless people from gathering (can they not co-exist with others?), and other cities have installed benches with arm-rests in the middle or that are u-shaped, in order to discourage sleeping on them.

It’s becoming more common to talk about designing cities in a manner that promotes better public health, for one, which I strongly support. But I think we also need to talk about designing better for inclusivity, especially for the most marginalized among us.

Most important in this is talking about how we design not just to serve marginalized people, but to support changing their circumstances for the better.

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Empowerment or Exploitation? Making Sense of Homeless Hotspots

Homeless Hotspots, a new fundraising initiative, debuted at South by Southwest in Austin. In the last couple of days, debate has raged over the internet about whether this is appropriate or offensive, empowering or exploitative.

On the one hand, you have outrage and criticism. On the other hand, you have advocates standing up for it. Then you have a bunch of people in the middle trying to see both sides, and make sense of it all.

I see points on both sides. Initially, the idea intrigued me. As someone who works in the housing and homelessness sector, I’m always interested in practical ways to empower people experiencing homelessness, or who are at-risk. If this is one way, perhaps an evolution of the street newspaper, as the group behind it argues, it potentially has merit. Providing a service in a popular location, and one to draw attention to homelessness in a manner and to a crowd that may not always have it on its mind, has potential. That Front Steps, an Austin homeless-serving agency, was involved, and identified the vendors, was an early point in favour.

On the other hand, I’m well aware of how complex it can be to portray the experiences of homeless people, and how, done wrong, it can end up being pejorative – intentional or not. While obviously not as demeaning and dehumanizing as something like the HoboHunt app, I can understand how, despite good intentions, something of this nature could end up treating homeless participants as something of a prop, rather than empowering them in a meaningful way.

My initial reaction was one of optimism, and I haven’t changed my mind as of yet. For me, it comes down to agency. Were homeless vendors simply instructed to provide a service, full stop, this would be problematic. But vendors are encouraged to interact with clients. They’re as much sales people as service providers. Subscribers go through a sign-in screen where they see links to the stories of each vendor as well. Collectively, this provides a true transaction; it’s not just information, there’s an interaction between vendor and client.

For me, the best point against came from Tim Carmody at Wired, when he wrote:

This is my worry: the homeless turned not just into walking, talking hotspots, but walking, talking billboards for a program that doesn’t care anything at all about them or their future, so long as it can score a point or two about digital disruption of old media paradigms.

There is that danger, that the company behind it will use this project as a prop. I suspect some of their motivation is self-promotional, but it may provide value regardless of their intention. The way to end homelessness is to provide housing and appropriate supports. This, of course, takes time; owing to this, and limited resources, it won’t happen for everyone overnight, which is why most communities employ a ten year plan approach to ending homelessness.

In the interim, initiatives like this can empower homeless individuals, allowing them to tell their story, hone skills that may help them in other areas, and raise some funds in the short term. They’re not the solution by any means, but they’re also not road blocks, and can add value when done right.

Here’s a video of Clarence, one of the vendors, explaining the program. I’m curious what readers think.

Caveat: it should go without saying, but in case there’s any confusion, all of the above represents my personal opinion only. That is all.