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Solving homelessness — obvious if not easy

Sam Davis, professor emeritus, architecture | June 14, 2016

Those who know of my work designing homeless facilities and my book on the subject have been asking my opinion on solutions to this seemingly intractable problem, reflected recently in the proliferation of sidewalk campsites in San Francisco. My response is that solutions to homelessness exist, and they are both obvious and difficult.

The obvious solution is that we must keep people on the verge from becoming homeless, because once on the streets they experience a dehumanizing and costly downward spiral. Job loss, long-term unemployment, lack of affordable housing options, and gentrification are all contributing factors to homelessness. In San Francisco only 10 percent of the substantial funds spent on the homeless is focused on keeping people housed.

bicycle with message from homeless person

(Eduardo Manchion photo via Wikimedia Commons)

The difficult answer is that we must build more supportive housing (housing with social services) for the homeless. This solution takes money, political will, focus and coordination.

Public and elected officials in some U.S. cities are willing to tackle the problem and spend money. The last two San Francisco mayors have initiated any number of strategies from Care-not-Cash to one-stop service Navigation Centers. San Francisco now spends nearly a quarter of a billion dollars on homelessness each year. That works out to nearly $35,000 per homeless person, given the latest count. The problem is how the money is spent and how programs are coordinated.

I would characterize the current approach as scattershot. The underlying causes of homelessness are so varied, and the homeless population so diverse, that a myriad of programs have emerged in an attempt deal with the entire spectrum. San Francisco now has 400 separate contracts for services with over 70 different nonprofit community groups. These community organizations provide mental health services, addiction programs, employment training, emergency housing and more. This is in addition to direct services provided by the city and county and the $20 million to arrest homeless people for quality-of-life misdemeanors.

None of this is particularly well coordinated. There is no tracking system that allows all of these disparate entities to know if an individual is, or has been, served or enrolled in programs. The oversight of so many contracts is problematic and it is unlikely that each provides definitive results based on evidence that it is working.

‘Housing first’

It is common knowledge among experts and practitioners in the homeless field that supportive housing – permanent housing with social services on-site – is the best approach and is where public money should be focused. As far back as 2002, research by Dennis Culhane at the University of Pennsylvania revealed that the cost reduction for social services, hospital visits and emergency responses is so great, when homeless are instead housed, that the latter plan more than pays for itself. San Francisco’s budget and legislative analyst recently undertook a similar study, noting that while initially social-service costs were higher, these eventually diminished once people were housed and settled into programs.

older homeless man in SF

(Franco Folini photo via Wikimedia Commons)

This strategy, known as “housing first,” is not only the most humane approach, it’s also the most economical one. California State Sen. Holly Mitchell has introduced SB1380, requiring the state to move toward “housing first,” and the San Francisco Chronicle editorial board has endorsed the bill.

Why is “housing first” successful?  When you are homeless, survival is your goal. Finding a meal, a safe place to sleep and a toilet are your priorities, not health care, mental health treatment, substance abuse programs or job training.

In the 1990s, Larkin Street Youth Services, a San Francisco community based organization, began to see an increasing number of homeless youth with HIV and AIDS. At the time, the drug protocol was complex, as several medications had to be taken on a rigorous and regular schedule. These youth were living on the streets, and there was no way to monitor their treatment or ensure they were following the protocol.

Larkin Street realized that until you take the housing crisis out of the equation, the condition of these youth would not improve. In 1997 I designed their Aftercare and Assisted Care facility in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district; it included housing, social services and a clinic. What happened? Not only did the residents’ health improve, they transitioned into permanent housing within two years.

Contested strategy

But “housing first” is also controversial. Malcolm Gladwell’s 2006 article in The New Yorker, “Million-Dollar Murray,” describes the case of Murray Barr, a homeless ex-marine who was on the streets of Reno for a decade. Murray was an alcoholic, and while he underwent several treatment programs, he would inevitably relapse and return to the streets, and eventually to the local emergency room.

homeless girl with dogs

(Franco Folini photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Between police interventions, emergency services and hospital stays, Murray had cost Nevada an estimated $1 million. Had there been “housing first” perhaps Murray would have lived longer and better, and cost the state far less.

Million Dollar Murray was one of the hardcore homeless, a relatively small segment of the homeless population, but probably the most visible. He reflects the public perception that the homeless are ne’er do wells who would rather stay on the streets than get a job and become productive members of society. Although it actually saves money, “housing first” can seem like we are letting Murray jump the line in front of more worthy individuals who are homeless through no fault of their own.

The underlying reasons for homelessness are many, and rarely is the individual at fault — so everyone must be viewed as equally worthy of housing.  Mental illness is prevalent among the homeless, and we have failed as a society to provide community mental health strategies after California, and then the nation, retreated from centrally funded treatment centers in the late 1960s through the early 1980s.

We incarcerate many and provide little to help those released to re-enter society. Many become homeless. Drugs are prevalent, cheap and quickly destructive, often leading to homelessness and acute health problems. A large and growing segment of the homeless population is very young or very old.  Many of the young are aged out of foster care and have few options. Others may have been in abusive homes and escaped. Many of the old have severe physical disabilities, little social security and are not employable.

In many industrialized countries housing is a basic human right, as is education and health care. In the United States we have been uneasy with subsidizing housing for those with low (or no) income. Programs exist, but these are modest and woefully inadequate, given the scale of the problem. We have no problem, however, subsidizing those in the middle class and above: the yearly income tax deduction for mortgage interest, alone, is $80 billion.

Obstacles and solutions

Even were the public perception of the homeless to change from those at fault to those at risk, providing housing for them in established neighborhoods is a hard sell. Residents of south Berkeley are enraged at the notion of the Claremont Hotel adding 45 condominiums on its property, each of which is likely to sell for $2 million. Imagine the resistance were there a proposal for supportive housing anywhere in the area

The first time I designed an adult shelter it was within a warehouse, a poignant example of “warehousing the poor.” Locals still objected, as it was next to a cemetery and they didn’t want homeless near the grave sites of their loved ones.

Here then are a few solutions:

Institute anti-snob zoning

California needs a tougher “anti-snob” zoning law, similar to the one enacted in 1969 in Massachusetts. That law not only streamlines the regulatory process for development, but may also allow for variances in local zoning codes, to facilitate affordable housing projects. A more conservative approach would simply disallow appeals to city councils, and lawsuits by opponents, if a project abides by current zoning laws. This would reduce the cost of the housing by negating drawn out litigation and by providing assurances that pre-development funds will result in a building.

Toughen housing-element plans

Every city in California is required to have a housing element — a development plan that includes affordable housing, shelters and supportive housing. There is, however, little recourse against a city if it fails to enact such a plan. The threat of not receiving funds for affordable housing is ineffective if the municipality sees such housing as a low priority.

Furthermore, the plan requires that a city identify locations where shelters may be created without a discretionary review. All other locations require the same type of review as any other project. Because of the opposition to housing for the homeless, this in essence precludes such housing outside of the specially designated district. Similarly, supportive housing must be treated like all other projects, and therefore without a stronger anti-snob provision, these too will be restricted.

Build smaller projects 

SF youth shelter exterior

Shelters need to fit into neighborhoods both in size and design. This is San Francisco’s Diamond Youth Shelter, designed by Sam Davis and Glass Associates.

While we need more housing, any one project should be modest in scale. Projects of 30 to 40 units are large enough to achieve an economy of scale both for construction and the operation of on-site services, yet small enough to avoid an institutional quality while enabling a cohesive sense of community.  Projects of this scale are also more likely to be acceptable to a community. Larger projects, while more economical to building and operate, will encounter increased community resistance and, once occupied, more likely stigmatize the residents.

Use existing buildings

It is not necessarily true that rehabilitating existing buildings is less expensive than new construction, but there can be advantages. If an existing building is viewed by the community as a blight or a nuisance, any upgrade may be acceptable. In Los Angeles both nonprofit and private developers are buying and then converting “nuisance” motels into 500 units of permanent supportive housing. The city will issue vouchers to support rent and services at these sites.

Manage projects well

In 1994, what is now Erna P. Harris Court, on University Avenue in Berkeley, was converted from a motel into affordable housing for formerly homeless and those of very low income. Community opposition was long, bitter and litigious, but the nonprofit Resources for Community Development prevailed. The project is now an integral part of the neighborhood, in part because it is well managed and well maintained. It is difficult to counter neighborhood fears that unsavory occupants will lead to lower property values and a deteriorating neighborhood. Neither is the case, but only by building more such successful projects can the reality overcome the perception.

Filling the time gap

It will take time to build enough housing for the homeless. What happens until then?

Shelters

shelter dorm interior

San Francisco’s Lark Inn shelter, designed by Sam Davis, features a dorm subdivided into smaller areas.

Shelters are a necessary albeit unsatisfactory solution. We must have the beds, bathrooms, meals, healthcare and treatment programs where they are accessible and available. But shelters are difficult places — seen as unsafe, unhealthy, noisy, institutional and restrictive — and oftentimes people would rather stay on the street than use them.

Just as housing projects can be too large, so, too, can shelters. Shelter design needs to evolve from huge rooms with hundreds of beds to something less intimidating. The dilemma is how to create a sense of privacy for the occupant while enabling the staff to provide security and control. In the shelters I have designed, there are no more than 10 to 20 beds in a cluster. These smaller dorm-like areas are less visually overwhelming and provide some level of privacy and control by residents, but are still viewable by staff. A cohesive group formed on the street for support and security could occupy a small dorm, something not currently allowed in most shelters. This is only one of many strategies that can make shelters less institutional and more welcoming.

Encampments

A situation that continuously enables homeless to remain so is untenable. We have all manner of laws, codes and zoning ordinances intended to ensure public health and safety.  Tent encampments on public streets are dangerous and unhealthy, both for the homeless and those who live nearby. They do nothing to counteract the underlying causes of homelessness.

But we cannot force people to use shelters, and if they view encampments as the only option, many will remain on the streets by themselves.

Some encampments are better than others. Several cities have set aside land for groups of homeless to settle. For some time there was a community of 26 people living in geodesic domes under a freeway near downtown Los Angeles. Portland, Oregon had a self-governing encampment called Dignity Village on city property. Among the advantages are a sense of community and self-determination, both of which are often lacking in shelters or when people are living on the streets alone. In addition, the relative concentration of homeless people in such encampments makes it easier for outreach teams to connect them to the services they need.

But these group encampments are also often not clean or safe. While local authorities sanction some, there are rarely infrastructure improvements such as paving, lighting and sanitary sewers. If there are to be encampments, there should also be such improvement, as well as meals, social services and security. Such monitored encampments would be more economical than rousting people from sidewalks on a recurrent basis, and then cleaning up after their eviction — only to have them settle elsewhere or return. And they would be far more effective in connecting people to services.

Tiny houses

There has been much discussion of the “small house” solution. The idea is that we can manufacture very small dwellings for the homeless. But where would these mini dwellings go? How are they connected to the city infrastructure? The implication is that it is only the lack of shelter that makes someone homeless. But someone with mental illness, isolated in a tiny dwelling, is not likely to be able to live independently.

Housing for formerly homeless

In this housing complex for formerly homeless, in Sacramento, CA, 66 units are clustered around courtyards (Sam Davis and Cynthia Easton Architects)

Were these small dwellings aggregated in a community then there is both the security and independence of a home, but also the support and services that can help them stay in that home. This is the basis of a recent project I designed in Sacramento.  The tiny dwelling units are clustered into groups of 10 houses around a court.  These courtyard clusters are then connected by a main pedestrian street to the community building that includes social services.

Achieving ‘housing-first’ solutions to homelessness

The goal must be to build supportive housing — housing with social services — and this will take continued political will and money in order overcome neighborhood resistance to such housing. It will also take time. While we work toward this goal, we should improve shelter design, convert existing buildings in marginal use and continue programs already in place, but with renewed efficiency, client tracking among service providing agencies and evidence-based evaluation of these programs.

Comments to “Solving homelessness — obvious if not easy

  1. This housing crisis has also greatly affected Sydney, which has seen a 30% increase in homeless people forced to seek ‘lodging’ on the streets of the Sydney CBD. According to the Australian Council of Social Service, “Even though more than 105 000 people are homeless, crisis accommodation services are turning away more than half of all those seeking new accommodation, mostly due to a lack of funding”. Since 2013, the Australian Government has failed to commit to an ongoing housing scheme that has seen homeless people struggle to afford safe and secure accommodation. The past few years have also seen the housing affordability crisis spark a steady decline in social housing provided by the government. But more importantly, Tony Keenan, chief executive of Launch Housing asserts, “there has also been a lack of public awareness and interest surrounding this critical social issue”. Keenan goes on to claim that “traditionally a significant percentage of rough sleepers were people with drug problems… this is no longer the case, many are just poor”.

  2. i will do what ever to help homelessness because it is sad see them sit on the sidewalk asking for money and food plus they don,t have no family or friend so people in the world please if you see a homeless person give them a little money so they feel like some one really cares about them but specially adult because i am only 13 and i care a lot so please give them some money and dont just dive away cause if that was you wouldn,t want someone to just dive away from you

  3. Simple: A mandate should force a class of homeowners to house a number of homeless for life. High paying government workers and well paid non-profit managers should house 8 homeless and their pets. It is time the community that cares gets involved ASAP.

  4. The Diamond Youth Shelter blends into the San Francisco neighborhood seamlessly! I am confident that that shelter has had a tremendously positive effect on those who have used it. I appreciate all your information and knowledge in helping solve homelessness. I am interested to hear more about your idea with cohesive groups forming to occupy a small dorm room. https://ugmtc.org/our-work/shelter/

  5. When homeless have pets the issues get more complicated.

    Pets of the Homeless is the only national animal organization focused completely on feeding and providing emergency veterinary care to pets of the homeless. Should your clients need our help please have them call 775-841-7463 or visit http://www.petsofthehomeless.org

    In addition we can ship free metal dog crates to shelters so homeless with pets are allowed.

  6. Dear Mr. Davis,

    I absolutely love your article, “Solving Homelessness- Obvious if not easy!” I have just recently moved to Berkeley, CA, as I am a transfer student at U.C. Berkeley. I came from San Bernardino/OC area, (and previously from St. Petersburg, Russia,) and have seen a fair share of homeless, particularly in the LA communities. I attended Fullerton College for 3 years, where I became actively involved in Student Government on campus. With our organization, I went to the Student Senate of California Community Colleges General Assembly, where I became a part of the revival of the community college homeless student coalition. The organization worked hard on passing a bill (AB 1995- http://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billNavClient.xhtml?bill_id=201520160AB1995 ) which allows homeless CC students use the shower facilities on campus. I was unable to work on much of the legislative work, but I brought the issue to the forefront of my community college to both my fellow senators, the faculty, and the school’s president, who were all very receptive of the idea. While I am extremely proud of the work this coalition has done, it obviously does not solve the issue of homelessness, especially for the majority of the homeless population who are not enrolled in a CC.
    I have been at Berkeley for about 2 weeks now, and have already gotten accustomed to the amount of homeless people all around me (especially since I live right by People’s Park.) If I was able to get so used to that idea in just 2 weeks, I can only imagine the desensitization that the majority of the locals have inevitably gone through. But with that built up tolerance, not much will get done.
    I found this article because I realized that it will get very cold here very shortly, and, while I may feel a slight discomfort from it, I have no idea how the huge population of the homeless around me are going to get through it and how they do this every year. I have decided to initiate some sort of drive through my school to collect clothes, blankets, hygienic items, food, etc., and hopefully get some support from companies like Target, GoodWill, and others in the area. I have made a post about this on my Cal Transfer Facebook Page, and already have quite a few people who are very interested in the project. And yet, that is still but a temporary small bit of aid to the huge issue at hand.
    I am wondering if you, or anyone, has any advice on what I could do in regards to helping the issue in a more effective way, especially with initiating a more “housing-first” focus. It’s not like I can just invite all of the homeless to stay with me and my roommates over the winter. I’d greatly appreciate some advice, and wanted to share my little story, as well, to show that we, students, do think about these things.

    Thank you,

    Rita Wainess

  7. The many good points of “housing first” can be obscured by subjecting people to the “permanent social service recipient” class. This, in itself, can be a brutal experience, wherein to escape jail time or some other fate one is subject to years of micromanagement, overmedication, forced employment in undesired ocupations, etc. Having been through all manner of pseudo-care facility, what becomes obvious is that the programs consistently take precedent over the needs of the individuals, which are typically very simple, and not all that expensive. Replacing social Darwinism with a network of Social Service cadres creates one more form of social alienation.

    Most social service clients need regular market housing, not “roach motels” where people whom you rename to be ‘clients’ check in and never check out, except to be shuttled into another private or public social service nightmare. They need access to information, not psychologists and the correctional industry.

    Instead, their environment is one of clipboards and lanyards and phoney smiles and policemen and toxic psych meds, and, untreated disease, and judges and a cohort of similarly dead ended people, crisis intervention counseling, sherrifs’ deputies, and a largely unscientific knowledgebase of care informing an emergency oriented society. Turn off the sirens and decommission the helicopters. You are creating your own problems

  8. I found your link on a FB post yesterday… from one of the homeless organizations I have on my follow list. I wanted to find out what your solution to homelessness might be. I am interested in these issues because I have been a Welfare recipient (started in 1975), have struggled with all the economic issues associated with (extreme) poverty, and have found myself homeless too many times.

    I became a single parent to three. I have been homeless with children and without them. I have been forced to live on the streets, been homeless in a car, and have been involved with various homeless shelters for both families and individuals. I have been homeless in more than one state and in more than one city in a single state. It became my focus in life and the foundation of the business-ministry hybrid I have tried to create (work2gather.us).

    As the years passed, I kept trying different things to rise out of the poverty that was imprisoning me. These failed efforts led to their own problems and often made my situation worse. I somehow managed to get three years at a university completed. I have discovered online options, but haven’t been able to translate them into income yet.

    Now I am dealing with the increasing health issues of aging. I wish I could say that my options have improved but, despite all my efforts, homelessness is still a breath away, family life is non-existent, and my only regular income is early retirement Social Security ($381) and food stamps ($126). If I can’t raise online sales income real quick, subsidized housing may be where I spend the rest of my life IF it is even accessible.

    I noticed that you have designed facilities with supervision of the homeless in mind. I am assuming that is a reflection of your interest in populations with mental health issues. You like smaller groupings in larger facilities, like shelters in urban areas. I can see that subsidized housing is your solution-of-choice because of the supervision aspects it allows, and probably because of the funding possibilities.

    I didn’t hear much enthusiasm for home ownership because of the large numbers of homeless people and the great difficulty in getting any location approved. I was kind of happy to see your promotion of organized “encampments” (which I call KOA-type campgrounds in my own suggestions), referring to the local Dignity Village experiment in Portland, OR.

    When I discovered the $20,000 House program at Auburn University (Rural Studio), I became an advocate of home ownership for all low-income people, including the homeless.

    As the Tiny Home movement took shape, I felt it was another possibility, but not as valid for urban areas without permanent affordable parking options. Stability is my goal.

    When I was a student in family housing at the University of Oregon in Eugene, we lived in old military barracks (probably from the 1940’s) that were very small. We managed. I have also seen old lumberjack housing in the area and through other media that was very small. I discovered KOA camping cabins that cost about $25K each, but they were missing something important for continued living. (I can’t recall what it was.)

    Trying to combine small, affordable housing options into home ownership programs is my view. I have been advocating a number of solutions from the top level of parking garages to KOA-type campgrounds with the ability to grow food and develop income, along with the building or renovating of housing that can be purchased instead of subsidized.

    An ownership program becomes an income program instead of a liability (expense) program. It stabilizes a poverty household, begins the process of asset building, takes them into the arena of ownership at a lower cost level, and allows them to begin creating permanent networking and support relationships.

    My version of an ownership program has a different kind of loan, based on the Bible and GOD’s 20% “interest” for borrowing the tithe. Maxing a loan at $50,000, housing would be a maximum of $40K, with $8K for the 20% interest as a flat fee, and then $2K for loan processing expenses. Starting payments at the same 30% of income a subsidy would require, and a maximum 15-year loan period, payments can be affordable. They can also be flexible to meet the expected problems of the future. Separating the land ownership from the “improvements” (housing and other personal improvements to a property) makes it a long-term investment for the government and when the time comes to sell a property, it can be limited to another homeless family.

    Of course, I also want to get rid of income and property taxes and move to a single tax (a permanently limited sales tax of 10%), which would also benefit most of the citizens and businesses of this country!! Until that can be achieved, taxes and basic insurance need to be figured into the payment somehow.

    As a family improves their economic situation over the years through work, education, and other efforts, the payments will rise to a normal maximum and they can plan on using their profits to buy another property (if they want to).

    For agricultural and other business activities, I thought staff housing options might work. I understand zoning is the main issue with staff housing in rural areas, or on farmland here.

    By moving as many as possible to an ownership program, government funds can be applied to those individuals and households that need it most, including addiction and mental health issues, inmate reentry, and disabilities.

    There is also the option of crowd-funding for some families. I am not enthusiastic about the current way funding is handled, but if there were an agency that verified the needs and made sure the funds were used for the intended (stated) purpose, that could make it an ongoing program for many non-profits trying to find PERMANENT solutions for their clients.

    I hope to see these ideas established in every place there are poor people, especially for those living in garbage dumps in other countries. Until I win the big prize in the lottery, however, I will only be able to write about them.

    Deborah Martin

  9. I work at an agency in Lancaster, Pennsylvania that deals with assessment and referral for those experiencing homelessness. We have taken a “housing first” approach in Lancaster County, and other neighboring counties and states have looked to us for guidance in how to address this very real issue in their own communities.

    In my personal experience I have seen many successes as well as failures in the system. I come in contact with many clients who have ended up homeless because of circumstances that are out of their control. Many of the clients I see have children and have nowhere to go. The shelter space in my area is by far inadequate, and the leadership at this shelter sometimes makes up the rules and guidelines for folks staying there as they please.

    The system we have in place here is only a couple years old, and is still in the beginning stages. I am hopeful that awareness of the problem grows and that as a community and society we can begin to coordinate services and work cooperatively to find better, more economical solutions to this issue.

    One of the best lessons I have learned since starting this position is that once someone is homeless and seeking help, we cannot control how they got there or what they did right or wrong in their past to get there… What we CAN do is meet them where they are and try to build them up and empower them to keep going! Not any one situation is the same as another. It takes perseverance and collaboration to make change happen.

    People experiencing homelessness are just that… People. They are not “homeless people” or bums or vagrants or any other label. They are human beings that need help and deserve help. They are people, just like us, who deserve empathy and compassion.

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