Homelessness and the Built Environment
eBook - ePub

Homelessness and the Built Environment

Designing for Unhoused Persons

Jill Pable, Yelena McLane, Lauren Trujillo

  1. 264 pages
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

Homelessness and the Built Environment

Designing for Unhoused Persons

Jill Pable, Yelena McLane, Lauren Trujillo

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About This Book

Winner of the 2020 IDEC award

Homelessness and the Built Environment provides a practical introduction to the effective physical design of homes and other facilities that assist unhoused persons in countries identified as middle- to high-income. It considers the supportive role that design can play for unhoused persons and other users and argues that the built environment is an equal partner alongside other therapies and programs for ending a person's state of homelessness. By exploring issues, trends, and the unique potential of built environments, this book moves the needle of what is possible to assist people experiencing trauma.

Examining important architectural and interior architectural design considerations in detail within emergency shelters, transitional shelters, permanent supportive housing, day centers, and multi-service complexes such as space planning choices, circulation and wayfinding, visibility, lighting, and materials and finishes, it provides readers with both curated conclusions from empirical knowledge and experienced designers' perspectives.

Homelessness and the Built Environment is an imperative and singular reference for interior designers, architects and building renovation sponsors, design researchers and students forging new discoveries, and policy makers who seek to assist communities affected by homelessness.

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Jill Pable
We live at a time of both great progress and change, where technology and science make possible advancements that stand poised to transform our culture in ways we cannot yet foresee. However, this time is also haunted by tragedies and shortcomings that hold us back from realizing our full cultural potential. Poverty plagues millions, as do crime, income inequality, violence, and lack of education. This book concentrates on one problem, homelessness, yet addresses many other problems while doing so, as homelessness encapsulates, causes, exacerbates, or is a consequence of many societal issues: racism, substance abuse, housing inadequacies, and untreated mental illness, to name a few.1 As one city leader observes, “homelessness is a symbol of the failures of all our institutions” (Gumbel, 2018, para. 22). This introductory chapter will establish the current context of homelessness and its frequency and causes, and set the tone for the chapters that follow by making the case that architectural design is an indivisible part of the restorative experience, and why the time has come for the role and contribution of the built environment to be discussed. It concludes with an explanation of the uses of this book and its intended target audiences.
Although homelessness is interrelated with many societal problems, any discussion of homelessness reveals its array of unique characteristics:
  • In contrast to problems like poor education or lack of sanitation, the causes of homelessness are oftentimes controversial and exclusively attributed by some to an individual’s personal weaknesses or personal failings (whether accurate or not). This can create stereotyping, anger, or indifference toward afflicted persons, and this prejudice is at least partially to blame for the inconsistent or inadequate attention and funding to remedy the problem.
  • For someone who has lost their housing, their new status as ‘homeless’ can bring them to fundamentally reconsider who they are as a person, reacting to both internal and external cues. As summarized in remarks by the United National Human Rights Council, “people denied water or food are rarely treated as a social group in the way homeless people are. Those who are homeless are subject to stigmatization, social exclusion and criminalization” (United Nations Human Rights Council, 2015, p. 3).
  • Homelessness can be a high-stakes predicament. Unlike a lack of education or loss of a job, lack of shelter can bring with it immediate health hazards or even death from exposure, if weather or climate conditions are severe and options for sleeping on a friend’s sofa or in a vehicle do not present themselves. Homelessness demands the person’s immediate attention and negatively impacts their ability to attend to long-term solutions (Mullainathan and Shafir, 2013).
  • Long-term homelessness also brings significant hazards, such as an increased chance of degraded physical and mental health (National Health Care for the Homeless Council, 2018). A 2010 study of unhoused or inadequately housed Canadian citizens found that men and women had a 32 percent and 60 percent chance, respectively, of living to 75, which is below the Canadian average age expectancy of 81.1 (Ubelacker, 2018). Children who experience homelessness are more likely to develop learning disabilities, putting them behind their peers in their mental and social growth to an extent that can last a lifetime (Firth, 2014).
  • For a community, the presence of a homeless population takes a toll on park services, detox centers, emergency rooms, ambulance services, and police protection. In 2012, the director of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development identified that a chronically unhoused person can cost their community between $30,000 and $50,000 per year through their use of these services (Moorhead, 2012).
  • Seldom discussed, but inherent to the persistence and pervasiveness of homelessness is the loss of human potential, with hundreds of thousands of creative minds squandered as persons scramble for food, shelter, and general survival on a daily basis. People, properly cultivated and supported, can help advance a society more effectively and quickly as engaged, productive citizens offering their energy and wisdom. Prompted by his mission of helping impoverished people with services such as sewage and water treatment, GISS Technologies CEO Rob Corra undertook a thought experiment about this question. Although actual numbers are difficult to predict, he reasoned that, if one examines the 2.1 billion people currently living in extreme poverty worldwide, it is statistically likely that more than 730,000,000 of these persons have IQ scores between 120 and 176, which range from ‘superior’, akin to the intellect of Bill Gates, to ‘super genius’ (Leonardo DaVinci). Thanks to poverty and its associated problems, we collectively lose the intellectual potential of more than 200 million people with superior intelligence or better and almost 70,000 who could be as smart as Einstein (Corra, 2015).
The agencies and organizations that minister to and shelter unhoused persons similarly encounter many hurdles as they offer their care.
  • Organizations often contend with precarious, inconsistent budgets that are dependent on donors and grants.
  • Some supportive housing, shelters and similar facilities must use repurposed buildings, which may be wildly unsuitable to actual needs. (We have seen one shelter that offers emergency shelter within a windowless warehouse located under an interstate exchange.)
  • Organizations offering assistance are sometimes so busy trying to help people to exit homelessness (often the largest and most complex crisis of their clients’ lives) that they have little time to attend to structural changes that could make their work more successful, such as the effectiveness of their physical facilities. In the words of one provider, there is no ‘slack’ in the workload that permits reflection and progress.
  • There is often an over-supply of unhoused clients whom providers must turn away or for whom aid is delayed. Need often outstrips capacity: if every emergency shelter bed and transitional housing bed were filled in the 32 U.S. cities studied in the 2016 Mayors’ Report on Hunger and Homelessness, over 34,000 persons in need would still be unsheltered on any given night (U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2016).
The stakes of homelessness are large for the people who are unhoused and the societies they live in, and the hurdles are difficult for organizations on the front lines of assisting these persons. In such a situation, you would want those forces that lend aid to have every advantage, harnessing every possible asset in order to effectively lift people from their crisis so that they could rejoin society as respected, productive citizens just as soon as possible. This book makes that case that built environments – that is, the architecture and interior design of places that assist unhoused persons and the staff that help them – are one of those potential assets, and one that is currently undervalued and underutilized. Although architecture and design are not the entire source of the solution to homelessness, this book will press the case that built environments can operate alongside therapies, support programs, and other aids to usher people along to a better future as quickly and effectively as possible. Ideas and discoveries from fields ranging from psychology to social work are converging on this very notion, identifying the built environment as one of the critically necessary determinants of health (Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, 2018). This book will discuss these notions in further detail in Chapters 5, 6 and 7.


Before exploring the potential role of architecture and design in this introductory chapter, it is helpful to discuss the nature of homelessness in general, for any good problem must first be understood before it can be confronted effectively. An in-depth explanation of the history of homelessness and its architectural characteristics can be found in Chapter 2.
Being without a physical home is pervasive and persistent, and is a problem that affects the citizens of countries worldwide. It occurs in high-income as well as in low-income countries alike.2 However, defining homelessness is not as simple as it seems, as one culture’s standards of habitation may differ widely from another’s, with traditional huts viewed as more than adequate in some locales, whereas seemingly more advanced brick and mortar structures may be perceived as wanting in other places. The Institute of Global Homelessness has proposed a universal definition of homelessness as “lacking access to minimally adequate housing”; although factually accurate, however, this definition does not capture the damage to a person’s psyche and loss of a sense of social belonging that may come with losing one’s home (United Nations Human Rights Council, 2015). Owing in part to these variables, there are no confirmed statistics about the global extent of homelessness;3 however, more than 1 billion people live in informal settlements worldwide (United Nations Human Rights Council, 2015), and 100 million people likely have no housing whatsoever (Institute on Global Homelessness, 2017).
High-income countries such as the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom are similarly beset with homelessness. The January 2016 annual ‘point in time’ count identified that 544,084 people experienced homelessness on a single night (U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2016), roughly equal to the population of Tucson, Arizona. Although homelessness has been declining for a period of several years nationally in the United States (a 12.9 percent decrease from 2009 to 2016), increases in some cities contradict these trends. Cities and certain areas, in fact, vary greatly in the size of their homeless populations. Seattle, Portland, and Hawaii, for example, each declared a state of emergency concerning homelessness in 2015. In 2016, Los Angeles reported a 20 percent increase in a single year with 58,000 people (Gumbel, 2018), and, on one night in December of 2017, a record high of 63,000 men, women, and children slept in New York City shelters. Three quarters of these persons were members of unhoused families (Routheir, 2018).
1.1 onservative estimates of number of persons experiencing homelessness in middle and highincome countries, 2016–2017.
Country Estimate of unhoused persons, year recorded Source Notes

United States 544,000, 2016 Department of Housing and Urban Development: requires communities to submit these counts as part of their application for federal homeless assistance funds Indicates a 12.9 percent decrease from 2009 to 2016; however, selected city increases contradict this trend
Canada 150,000, 2017 Homeless Hub (2017) 28,000 are estimated to be homeless on any given night
United Kingdom 78,930, 2017 Homeless Link (2018) 2,830 young people aged 16–24 were accepted and classified as statutory homeless
Australia 116,000, 2016 Australian Census: www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/FlagPost/2018/March/Homelessness_in_Australia; Crothers (2018) Indicates a 14 percent increase over 5 years from 2011 to 2016
Significant populations of unhoused persons also exist in middle- and high-income countries other than the United States, according to organizations that keep records. These findings are shown in 1.1. Many sources agree that the face of homelessness is changing, with women and families with children becoming more frequent in some areas (Crothers, 2018; Hillard, 2018; Kusmer, 2001; U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2016).


People become homeless for many reasons. However, the lack of affordable housing as one of these causes is growing in frequency. For example, nearly all officials in the 23 cities that contributed to the U.S. Mayors’ Report in 2016 identified the need for housing assistance and affordable housing as the most needed resource (U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2016). Rising rental rates coupled with lack of housing stock can mean vacancy rates of only 2 percent in high-demand areas such as Los Angeles (Gumbel, 2018). Such conditions are forcing citizens who operate on the edge of solvency out of permanent housing and into friends’ homes, shelters, or tents. The measure of affordability for housing has long been defined by the United States Housing Act of 1937 standard (Pub L No. 93–383, 88 Stat 653), which identifies that 30 percent of one’s monthly adjusted income is the threshold for affordable housing costs. This level of affordability is becoming less common. By 2008, half of renter households paid more than 30 percent of their income in rent in the U.S., and one-quarter paid more than 50 percent, as revealed by a Harvard University study (Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, 2010). The National Low Income Housing Coalition reported that, as of 2018, no state in the U.S. had sufficient affordable rental housing for persons of the lowest economic capability, and that the U.S. needs 7.2 million affordable rental homes in total to correct this problem (National Low Income Housing Coalition, 2018).
Lack of affordable housing is not the only reason for current levels of homelessness, however. Underemployment or unemployment tied to disappearance of low-skilled jobs and lack of job training has exacerbated poverty, which in turn affects the frequency of homelessness (Jencks, 1994; National Coalition for the Homeless, 2018). Many unhoused persons also suffer from mental disabilities, and their presence among the unhoused can be tied in part to a lack of alternative s...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Half Title
  3. Title Page
  4. Copyright Page
  5. Contents
  6. Foreword
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. 1 Introduction
  9. 2 A Short History of Homelessness and its Architectural Responses
  10. 3 User Types
  11. 4 Perspectives
  12. 5 Theory
  13. 6 Frameworks
  14. 7 Design Considerations
  15. 8 Shelters
  16. 9 Day Centers
  17. 10 Transitional and Permanent Supportive Housing
  18. 11 Multi-service Complexes
  19. 12 Trends and Experiments
  20. 13 Blue Sky Thinking
  21. Credits
  22. Index
Citation styles for Homelessness and the Built Environment

APA 6 Citation

Pable, J., McLane, Y., & Trujillo, L. (2021). Homelessness and the Built Environment (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/2644427/homelessness-and-the-built-environment-designing-for-unhoused-persons-pdf (Original work published 2021)

Chicago Citation

Pable, Jill, Yelena McLane, and Lauren Trujillo. (2021) 2021. Homelessness and the Built Environment. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis. https://www.perlego.com/book/2644427/homelessness-and-the-built-environment-designing-for-unhoused-persons-pdf.

Harvard Citation

Pable, J., McLane, Y. and Trujillo, L. (2021) Homelessness and the Built Environment. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/2644427/homelessness-and-the-built-environment-designing-for-unhoused-persons-pdf (Accessed: 15 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Pable, Jill, Yelena McLane, and Lauren Trujillo. Homelessness and the Built Environment. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2021. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.