Can architects and designers help solve homelessness? Following Dezeen's report on the tent village on London's Tottenham Court Road, architect Kieren Majhail explores the background to the homeless crisis and discusses ways the profession can help.
Dezeen's report on the homeless people sleeping rough in pop-up villages along Tottenham Court Road was really hard-hitting. These are real people with stories that have unfortunately caused them to have to spend the cold, dark nights sleeping outside shops where people pay thousands of pounds for a light fitting.
The worst thing is realising that there has been a 20 per cent increase in homelessness since this time last year. How can this be the case in a socio-economically developed country?
I'm no expert in the numerous issues that surround homelessness. I'm just a socially aware architect engaged with the problems in our supposedly highly developed society. And as a typical architect, when I see a problem I just can't help myself but want to try to solve it. Maybe I'm naive in believing we can actually make a difference.
So are designers and architects able to help tackle the pressing issue of homelessness? Or are we so enslaved to our profit-focused clients that we are no longer able to produce socially conscious designs to benefit people?
No, I don't believe so. But first we need to understand the problem better.
Homelessness isn't just about rough sleepers
Why are the likes of Declan and Luke sleeping rough on the streets? Are they not worthy of shelter, which is one of the most basic human needs? To be classed as homeless, you need to be in a situation where you have no home. That's obvious: if you have no roof over your head and are sleeping rough, then you are homeless.
But you are also classed as being homeless if you are staying in temporary accommodation, shelters, bed-and-breakfasts, or if you are sofa surfing, squatting, living in poor conditions that affects health, or are at risk of violence or abuse.
So already the problem becomes bigger and more complicated. Homelessness isn't just about rough sleepers. Recent figures from Shelter, the housing and homelessness charity, suggest that there are at least 320,000 homeless in England, Scotland and Wales. Approximately 9,000 of those are people sleeping rough in England. This is not just a London issue.
To solve a problem you need to find the cause, but with homelessness there are a multitude of these. So it requires a multitude of solutions. Dezeen's report explains how these two men ended up sleeping rough: one through losing his housing association accommodation and the other from losing a loved one.
As Declan emphasised, it could happen to anyone. The main causes are generally related to either some form of addiction, poverty, family issues, lack of employment and social housing. A diverse range of problems, again making it clear that there needs to be a number of different solutions working together to provide support, shelter and security.
In order to make any constructive change architects need to evolve and become leaders in collaboration; we need to utilise our skills to problem solve, provide innovation, coordination of ideas and information, and to lead the joined-up thinking that is required by a number of different stakeholders. Disappointingly, this is not always easy; getting architects, authorities, charities and government all to work together and be on the same page just doesn't happen very often.
Architects have a tendency to want to feel they can have a big impact and make change through their designs; but can social problems be solved through good design? We want to provide innovative solutions that not only solve the problem but also look beautiful enough to win awards.
Is sticking a beautifully designed and crafted box to the side of a building really going to solve homelessness?
In general our solutions tend to focus on providing shelter to rough sleepers. We propose to house the homeless in boxes that are described using one of the latest buzz words: smart, modular, green, demountable, mobile, micro. But is sticking a beautifully designed and crafted box to the side of a building really going to solve homelessness, or is it just a clear example of not really understanding the causes and issues that surround homelessness?
On the other hand, it seems that UK authorities are under real pressure to try and tackle all forms of homelessness, especially with the introduction of the Homelessness Reduction Act that came into force earlier in the year. This imposes legal duties on authorities to take positive steps to prevent and relieve homelessness. So authorities need to be seen as being proactive in trying to reduce the homelessness figures. But the problem is that they rarely have any budget to tackle this, so are most likely in a situation where they are not able to manage the situation let alone relieve and prevent it.
It is clear to everyone – authorities, charities, designers as well as the homeless themselves – that to solve the problem of homelessness, both housing and support are required.
There needs to be an immediate solution to the growing number of rough sleepers. Proposals like Reed Watts's temporary modular sleeping pods suggest one way this could be done, at least as a temporary measure. If the government really cares, why don't they allow temporary sleeping pods like these to be placed in covered public spaces and buildings?
Imagine sleeping pods in community halls, school sports halls or the middle of Birmingham's vast Grand Central Station during winter. At least the homeless would be temporarily protected from the cold wind, rain and snow, preventing hypothermia and deaths.
Small-scale housing units should be provided
In the short term, another more sustainable solution needs to be found for the many homeless that are stuck in shelters, hostels or B&B accommodation. As Declan explained, these places often aren't able to provide the support needed and become a gathering place for people with addiction, depression and mental health problems.
Small-scale housing units should be provided in a more integrated manner allowing people to be able to slowly feel and become part of a community again, whilst having access to "floating" health, education and financial support to eventually allow them to move into more permanent housing.
One example is ISO Spaces, which is working with councils and developers to provide clusters of units for temporary housing for the homeless, by converting shipping containers into housing units of sites that are currently empty but are part of a longer term masterplan. The company recently showcased the concept at a housing festival in Bristol.
The long-term strategy has to be to build more social housing. There also needs to be more real affordable housing available; there isn't enough housing aimed at less affluent people, while we have too much housing targeted to the rich with so many high end apartments left empty or bought up by foreign investors. Developers should not be allowed to keep wriggling out of the affordable housing requirements. They should have a greater responsibility to provide housing for all.
The government has recently looked to countries like Finland to learn how they have successfully tried to end, rather than manage, homelessness through the Housing First model.
The long-term strategy has to be to build more social housing
In contrast to the "staircase" model of most welfare systems, whereby homeless people progress through a rehabilitation process to ultimately earn their own housing, the Housing First approach makes giving people a home the first step.
The approach has spread to countries including the UK, where the government has set up a three-year pilot scheme. One pilot is in my region, the West Midlands, has been given £9.6 million to provide rough sleepers with a stable home.
The pilot is run by the West Midlands Combined Authority's Homelessness Task Force, a collaborative group of local authorities, charities and government agencies; but where are the creative innovators and problem solvers?
The authority needs to provide 675 homeless people with a home within the three-year pilot, which equates to approximately £14,000 per person to provide a home and the support they need. It has been suggested that the solution chosen is to convert offices into residential to provide Housing First units. Is this the best solution, or is it just moving the problem from the streets to high-density blocks? Will we just be repeating the errors of the past by recreating the council tower blocks of the 1960s, but for the homeless?
It will be interesting to see the approach taken by the two other Housing First pilots in Manchester and Liverpool. Hopefully the pilot studies will take cue from some of the more innovative and collaborative ideas offered up by the design world. BDP, where I work, is developing a concept model to bring gap sites into use, in collaboration with councils and a contractor.
Called Gap House, this would bring into use the small sites that are normally deemed as unfeasible, creating opportunities to provide affordable modular micro units that could provide a potential solution under the Housing First model.
A friendly smile or chat could make a difference and lead to change
Other approaches are being explored too. Perhaps we should be training the homeless so that they can eventually go and get a job? Could we utilise the open-source WikiHouse project to allow groups of people with the help of designers, charities and authorities, to go and build their own homes using modern methods of construction?
Or maybe we need to go back to the basics, which is what Chris Hildrey, RIBA Research Medal winner and fellow RIBA Journal Rising Star winner has proposed in an initiative called ProxyAddress. This looks at addressing one of the leading causes of homelessness, the loss of short-hold tenancy, by providing people with an address which in turn allows them to access the support required to get them back on their feet.
Whatever combination of solutions that are chosen, it's important that we all work together and learn from each other to best solve the problems. And the least we can do is to remember that Declan and Luke are humans, so a friendly smile or chat could make a difference to them and could lead to change.