The Urban Design Forum’s 2018 Forefront Fellowship, Shelter for All, addressed the homelessness crisis in New York City by examining how to dignify the shelter system through better design and exploring the root causes of homelessness and housing precarity. Fellows developed original design and policy proposals on how to address the prison-to-shelter pipeline, public bathrooms, public realm management, supportive housing, and racist housing policies, which we are pleased to publish alongside interviews with leading experts.
Read the full compilation of Shelter for All proposals and interviews here.
By George Piazza
Most homeless shelters were never designed to be shelters – they were hotels, armories, single-room occupancy housing, and apartment buildings. In January 2018, the Urban Design Forum partnered with the NYC Department of Homeless Services (DHS) to develop Conscious Shelter Design (CSD) guidelines. The CSD guidelines are an opportunity to consider how to redesign and retrofit these existing buildings to function better as shelters. With the CSD guidelines, we would develop the first-ever set of design principles stating what is an effective shelter and the role of design in shelters. Rather than merely put out fires, the development of the CSD guidelines is an opportunity to reimagine these stigmatized buildings. More than ensuring that residents do not live in squalid conditions, the goal of these guidelines is to provide residents with a dignified life in shelter.
To grapple with this challenging provocation, we assembled an interdisciplinary group of emerging leaders to form our 2018 Forefront Fellowship. Charged with producing the CSD guidelines, the 20 Fellows exemplified critical thinking and humility, qualities essential to producing a meaningful set of design principles. As a cohort of advocates, architects, planners, and city officials, they brought a comprehensive understanding of what was possible. Several had lived in the City’s shelter system or experienced precarious housing themselves. As a result, this group was able to supplement their technical skills with the emotional capacities needed to reveal how design can humanize shelter residents.
The significance of this undertaking demanded that the Forum reflects upon its own values. What is our ethical responsibility when we enter shelters? What is the value of design in shelters? When is good design not enough? How can we create design guidelines that improve the lives of residents and staff, not burden them? And as urbanists, should we focus our energies on addressing today’s crisis, or long-term solutions to house the most vulnerable?
As the CSD project began, we began with the question: who is experiencing homeless and why? Understanding that the buildings were not fully serving the needs of the people living in shelter, it was imperative to understand who we were serving; their needs; and their journeys to, at, and from shelter.
Shelters are no longer just serving individuals who are chronically homeless, but they are also the first point of entry into the social services network for individuals and families.
The homeless population today is different than the people who were experiencing homelessness decades ago when advocates won the right to shelter.1 The overwhelming majority of people entering shelter today do not match the stereotype – they are not single adult men with substance abuse problems who have bounced around various institutions before arriving at shelter. Instead, today, we are seeing more families, women, and children in the shelter system. Among shelter residents who are the head of a family with children, about 33% have a high school diploma and over 40% are employed. 2,3 In the 2018-19 school year, nearly 150,000 public school students experienced homelessness.4
The implication of this difference is profound: shelters are no longer just serving individuals who are chronically homeless, but they are also the first point of entry into the social services network for individuals and families. Rather than just providing restorative care to individuals with a history of case management work, shelters are frontline sites that need to prevent people from entering the cycle of bouncing from one City institution to another. The risk of putting families, adults, and children in old and ill-suited shelters is creating new trauma, stunting emotional development, and creating an intergenerational cycle of reentry into shelters.5
As we visited homeless shelters, we asked what it would mean to create a welcoming and pleasant environment for families, women, and children. Are the bedrooms big enough for a family with multiple children? Can family members find areas to decompress, or is everyone on top of one another? Are there cribs for newborns? Are there tables for families to eat together and for children to do homework?
Unlike other building typologies with a familiar programmatic flow, like hospitals, schools, or apartment buildings, a particular challenge to homeless shelters is that the ad hoc nature of the building stock means there is not a standard or intuitive layout. While this may seem innocuous, the layout and circulation of a building can play a significant role in the ability of new residents to become acclimated to their new surroundings. If traveling throughout the shelter is confusing, distressing, and disorienting, then there is a high likelihood that residents can feel confused, distressed, and disoriented. When people leave their rooms, is it obvious where the communal area is located? Should programmed areas be located in the basement or are they better located on the same floor as bedrooms? Are caseworkers’ offices adjacent to play areas so parents can keep an eye on their kids?
While it isn’t easy to retrofit or renovate an entire building to provide more rational adjacencies, simple design solutions focused on signage and wayfinding can play an important role in orienting residents to the building. A creative example of playful wayfinding signage at one shelter featured signs at heights where children could easily read, and in colors and with pictures that conveyed these were spaces to be enjoyed. The essential benefit to clearly orienting residents at shelters is that the greater sense of control and agency they can feel over the space, the more they are likely to feel in control of their lives. This is even more important to avoid stunting the emotional and psychological development of kids.6
It is also essential to consider the additional services residents would need.7 For mothers experiencing homelessness, 90% of whom have suffered extreme trauma in their lives before shelter, onsite services can be essential for providing restorative care.8 Yet, bedrooms are generally prioritized in shelters to ensure that there are enough places for people to sleep, meaning space for these essential programs and services is scarce. However, for shelters to be productive and help individuals reestablish their lives, it is imperative to activate underutilized and shared space. What onsite services need to be available for new moms and their babies? Do all shelters with children need spaces for after-school care? Are there large spaces for family counseling? Furthermore, how can we design spaces for case managers to remain onsite comfortably throughout the day?
Space for and access to onsite services are essential to the long-term stability of children.9 One shelter we toured converted extra space into day-schools for infants and pre-school children. In the afternoon, adjacent spaces functioned as an after-school lounge for older children to do homework and make friends. Revealing that design can foster different relationships between staff and residents, these spaces required staff to know the children and their parents on a personal level, more than just another body needing to transition to independent housing as soon as possible.
A person who has been to prison is 7x more likely to become homeless, and more than 54% of people returning to New York City from State prison enter directly into the homeless shelter system.
In addition to designing for this new demographic of shelter residents, we also needed to address the reasons why people were entering shelter. The two most common reasons for homelessness today are domestic violence and eviction.10 50% of families in shelters are coming from just twenty-six neighborhoods, predominantly in the Bronx and Brooklyn.11 Furthermore, rather than dealing with the deinstitutionalization of the mental-health system, today we are facing a growing prison-to-shelter pipeline. A person who has been to prison is 7x more likely to become homeless, and more than 54% of people returning to New York City from State prison enter directly into the homeless shelter system.12,13
The journeys of domestic violence survivors, people evicted from their home, and people leaving prison, undoubtedly all demand different ethical approaches to our work and the design solutions that we can offer them. For domestic violence survivors and children, who are housed in different shelters, how can we balance the need for safety while not creating an overly securitized space? What is the safe and appropriate way to design the courtyards and playgrounds? If people are coming directly to shelter from their homes, how can we create flexible spaces to incorporate their personal belongings? What additional considerations need to be made to ensure a safe return back to the city from prison?
Further exacerbating these systemic challenges, New York City is also grappling with a housing market that is increasingly unaffordable, with rents outpacing income growth for decades.14 Unsurprisingly, with families struggling to find affordable housing to leave shelter, the average length of stay in shelter is now over 400 days, compared to about 160 days in the early 1980s.15
Of all the stories about people’s journeys in shelter, this was perhaps the most challenging to navigate. For the City, shelters are not meant to be homes but a temporary residence. For the residents, shelters are certainly not their homes but a place to help them land back on their feet. Yet, when we considered that many shelter residents are spending more time living in shelter than many New Yorkers live in an apartment, it became difficult not to design shelters as homes. If residents are spending a year or more in shelter, we need to find a way to design shelters without reinforcing trauma but as places where residents can assert their agency over the space. How can we allow residents to bring more of their belongings to shelter? What furniture and materials can afford more flexible uses for residents? How can residents adapt existing furniture and space to suit their needs? How can we reconfigure how shelters operate to afford residents a greater sense of ownership in their day-to-day lives?
During our research, we read time and time again that “the face of homelessness” is different than the face of homelessness in the ‘70s and ‘80s. While this proved to be true, this mentality belies one constant: today’s homelessness crisis has and continues to disproportionately impact Black and Latino people.
Nearly 90% of shelter residents today are Black or Latino even though they represent only 53% of the city’s total population, respectively.16 This disparity mirrors similar statistics about incarceration rates, with Black people representing 53% of New York State’s prison and jail population, and Latinx representing 22%.17 These facts take on an increased resonance when we consider that by 2050 median Black wealth in America is estimated to be $0 and that young Black children are 3x more likely to live in poverty.18,19 One only needs to spend a few minutes, as we did, outside of the intake center where families apply for shelter, to witness that historical and contemporary racist structures are at the core of the homelessness crisis.
But we also have an imperative to recognize our own limits: that many of the complicated challenges we may be hoping to solve are truly beyond the scope of the work.
Many people that we spoke with dismissed the role of design in addressing the homelessness crisis, especially in negotiating centuries of racist urban policies. Sometimes, we even agreed with them. What could designers do to overcome these intractable challenges? Is it not hubris to suggest that we can design our way out of this history? Does the selection of materials, programs, or colors, not seem trivial in the face of larger structural challenges?
What the Urban Design Forum wrestled with, and eventually decided upon, is that while we cannot undo historical injustices with our work, the designer’s role is neither absolved nor absolute. We have an imperative to reconsider the role of homeless shelters in the cycles of dehumanization, exploitation, and trauma, especially considering the number of children in the shelter system. But we also have an imperative to recognize our own limits: that many of the complicated challenges we may be hoping to solve are truly beyond the scope of the work. The Urban Design Forum’s Fellows and other design professionals may design humane, inviting, and dignifying homeless shelters, but we must also leverage our positions at the table to change the structural inequalities in the city so we do not simply beautify the veneer of unjust systems.
Public Realm Design
As advocates for urban design, the Urban Design Forum understands that the role of the designer cannot stop at the building. We must consider the public realm and the interstitial spaces surrounding shelters: parks, streets, plazas, and subway stations. Alienated and disjointed urban design surrounding shelters risks building resentment from neighbors and reinforcing the dehumanization process for people experiencing homelessness in shelter. As we are seeing with other community infrastructure, like libraries, we have an opportunity to reimagine the role of shelters in neighborhoods as more democratic, communal, and inclusive.
Community opposition is usually the most significant challenge for the City when trying to build a new homeless shelter.20 Residents express fears about their safety, public nuisance, and the devaluation of their homes. At the core of this anxiety is also a sense that the shelter will tear the social fabric of the neighborhood: people will need to walk on the other side of the street, turn at different corners, walk up other blocks, and avoid accidentally talking to someone living at the shelter. To transform shelters into community assets, the City should leverage the design of the building and outdoor communal areas for shelter residents and neighbors to interact and value each other. How can we design playgrounds that are both safe for residents and inviting to neighbors? What social infrastructure can be placed at the front of the shelter to invite residents in? Where can we best site green space to benefit residents and neighbors? Can we dedicate greater resources to the building design to be a source of local pride? Who are existing community organizations that can program and activate these spaces? By reimagining how a shelter functions within its neighborhood, we can imagine scenarios where kids living in shelter or in the community are able to play together; where users can benefit from well-maintained gardens; and families can cook, eat, or talk with their neighbors at communal infrastructure.
In addition to considering how the design of the public realm can benefit shelter residents and their neighbors, designers need to consider how the public realm can serve the growing population of people sleeping on the street. While the City has a right to shelter, it still has 3,000-4,000 people sleeping on the street.21 This is a similar trend across many cities like Los Angeles, London, and Paris, who have also seen dramatic increases in their street homeless or rough sleeping populations.22, 23, 24 While New York City has few tent camps, like many Western US cities, unfortunately, its public realm is full of defensive design and hostile architecture.25 Defensive design is the intentional selection of materials and forms to deter people who are experiencing homelessness from enjoying the public realm. Straightforward examples include spikes outside of buildings that prevent people from sleeping, benches with armrests so individuals cannot lie across, and walls with metal knobs to prevent one from sitting. Cumulatively, these design interventions serve to make public space uncomfortable and unwelcoming to individuals deemed “undesirable.”
However, hostile architecture is not just the presence of dangerous protrusions. It is also the absence of the essential amenities that make a space public, inclusive, accessible. Invisible hostile architecture, or “ghost amenities,”26 includes the absence of chairs in plazas to sit; tables for people to eat; benches in parks to rest; and public bathrooms to wash up. Invisible hostile architecture does not physically and forcefully deter people from a space, but rather serves to devolve a public space into bare land.
How can we learn from other global cities to revamp our public bathroom system? Can we design benches that can serve a multitude of needs for different users?
For people experiencing homelessness, hostile architecture can limit the number of safe spaces for rest, cause injuries, and displace their presence from entire neighborhoods. Rather than security officials asking to move people who are homeless along from the street, the design serves to redistribute people subtly into different corridors of the city where their presence is more acceptable. This combination of hostile architecture and the redistribution of bodies across the city ultimately reinforces the hierarchy of human value central to determining who is and who is not allowed to occupy the public realm. For individuals walking by, the abundance of defensive design further serves to displace poverty from our conscience.
To learn our lesson for this wave of hostile architecture, we need to consider what an inclusive public realm would look like. Should we set a minimum seat requirement for all parks, plazas, and malls? How can we learn from other global cities to revamp our public bathroom system? Can we design benches that can serve a multitude of needs for different users? What financial models can ensure a more equitable distribution of funding to all neighborhood parks so they can be amenitized and maintained?
Beyond the design of the public realm, the same defensive mentality permeates the many private agencies managing the public realm. Private organizations, including Business Improvement Districts (BIDs), conservancies, and private security contractors, are increasingly managing the public realm. Often funded by private landowners and enterprises, these agencies prioritize perceptions of safety and cleanliness that often result in the forcible displacement of “undesirable” people experiencing homelessness. As with the shelter system, this decentralized and privatized system of public realm management makes it more challenging to standardize rules and staff training. Different parks and public plazas list different rules on acceptable and punishable behavior. Without proper training, we have staff and security contractors use violent force to enforce these inconsistent rules regulating people’s behavior. As this distinction between public and private ownership and management of land continues to blur, the most marginalized are likely to be ostracized.
As designers, it is important to consider our work’s impact on the most vulnerable residents in our city. While we can design buildings and public realm amenities that are inclusive, warm, and dignified, we must also learn lessons from design that harms, distresses, and dehumanizes people. With the CSD guidelines, we offer a statement for designers today to reimagine how we can serve people experiencing homelessness and a foundation for future designers to continue building toward a democratic and just design ethos.
Yet, as we continue to invest resources into the expansion, operation, and revamp of the shelter system, we need to make sure we are not achieving short-term wins that are creating long-term challenges. Between the Federal, State and City governments, $3.2 billion is spent each year to serve people experiencing homelessness in New York City.27 How could we use this funding to create homes for everyone in the shelter system? Could the City revamp its housing policy to provide more and deeper levels of affordable housing? Can we ensure that if the shelter system expands, then we can find ways to prevent shelter providers from unduly profiting from the system?28
While design is one of the many tools needed to end homelessness, we cannot design our way out of the homelessness crisis. We must find creative ways to build more affordable and public housing. We must resolve centuries of racist urban policies, the historic role of banks in decimating communities, and the continued housing and schooling segregation plaguing our city. If we can inject a new philosophy built upon human rights and flourishing into the design of homeless shelters and the public realm, then we can begin to break the intergenerational cycles of trauma, poverty, and displacement.