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There have been several reports about homeless people living on the streets in many villages running along Tottenham Court Road. It is really hard to believe how so many people had lives that led them to this dark and tragic place. Most of these homeless people sleep outside expensive shops where shoppers spend countless pounds for their purchases.

Even harder to understand, there has been a 20% increase in the homeless population since last year. You have to ask yourself how this is even possible in our socio-economic country? I don’t have an answer because I am certainly not an expert regarding the issues these people face in a society that is so advanced.

Homelessness Runs Deeper Than Sleeping On The Streets

I’d like to believe that those of us who are architects and designers, can come up with a solution but often ask myself if we are so involved in our own profitable lifestyles that the needs of the homeless seem to get pushed away? I would hate to think that’s the answer but I do know we need to, first and foremost, understand what’s going on.

Why are these people sleeping on the streets of these villages? The most basic human need is having shelter so it’s up to the rest of us to realise they are worthy for a safe, clean place to sleep and places where they can be fed.

It’s pretty obvious that if you do not have a roof over your head, you are homeless. Also, there are many other people who have temporary shelters, food services, or living in very bad conditions that have a permanent effect on their health including being in harm’s way from assaults.

The homeless problem is much deeper and more complicated than you can imagine. Recent statistics from Shelter, which is a homeless and housing charity, showed there are well over 120,000 homeless people in England, Scotland, and Wales. Approximately 9,000 of those people are in England and not just in London.

Like any problem, you have to weed out the cause in order to find a solution. Unfortunately, when addressing the homeless, the causes are many. That means there must be many different solutions to address the problem.

A report by Dezeen talks about 2 men who ended up living on the streets, one of these men ended up in this situation because he lost his housing accommodations and the other lost a loved one. What’s really scary, it can happen to anyone! The leading causes of homelessness are an addiction, poverty, family problems, lack of employment, and the lack of social housing. Homelessness is not limited to Britain, there are many other countries including the U.S where there’s an unbelievable population of homeless people who are military vets who came home from war with so many mental issues.

In order to have constructive changes, architects must evolve and join together to collaborate. They must use their special skills to solve these problems, offer innovated ideas, coordinate their information and ideas, and form a think tank for different stakeholders. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to get architects, those in authority, charities, and the government to actually work together which doesn’t happen very often.

In most cases, architects want to believe their designs will have an important impact on the homeless and actually solve these rising problems. So, how do architects create a living environment that will help the homeless while still being aesthetic in appearance?

Will a particular slant on design really cure the homelessness situation? Architects will focus on creating shelters for the homeless using their latest trendy jargon such as green, smart, modular, mobile, etc. Simply creating a beautiful structure to the side of a building will probably not solve the increase of the homeless population. In a nutshell, it’s not understanding the causes and problems that surround these people’s lives.

All the collaboration and planning might be a way to start addressing the issue, but the authorities in the UK are under a great deal of pressure to correct homelessness. The pressure has increased even more since passing the Homelessness Reduction Act. The act has placed legal responsibilities on the authorities to take positive steps to prevent and decrease the number of homeless people. They are constantly trying to be seen as proactive in dealing with the growing problem but they rarely have the budget to make things happen. In turn, they will not be able to manage the situation or decrease the level of homelessness.

It is quite obvious that all involved including the authorities, designers, charities, and even the homeless must address the situation through housing and support. There must be a new and immediate solution to the number of homeless people. There have been several solutions submitted including Reed Watts’ temporary modular sleeping pods as a way to help solve the problem. The government must take further steps, proactively, so why not use temporary sleeping pods and place them in public areas and buildings?

The homeless could have temporary protection from the cold, snow, and rain and prevent hypothermia and possible death, These sleeping pods could be placed in community halls, sports halls, or even in Birmingham’s Grand Central Station.

On a temporary basis, another solution must be found for the large number of homeless that are in shelters, hostels, or other accommodations, Unfortunately, these places are not able to provide a safe, secure environment and are often no more than gathering places for people suffering from addiction, depression, and many mental health issues.

Another good avenue would be creating small scale housing units that will allow these people to slowly start feeling like they are a part of a community. They could be allowed better access to health care, education, and even financial support so they can eventually move into more permanent housing.

ISO Spaces is working with councils and developers to offer units for temporary housing by converting shipping containers into housing units on sites that are presently unused. These sites could become a part of an overall master plan. ISO is currently presenting the concept at the housing festival in Bristol.

The British government has been looking to other countries, including Finland, to find some solutions they have used to end the problem instead of just managing the situation through the Housing First model.

social housing

The Long-Term Solution Should Be Social Housing

Unlike the housing model for most welfare systems where homeless people improve through rehabilitation programs to eventually receive their own housing, the Housing First alternative gives people a home during the first stage.

This approach has been adopted by many countries including the UK in which the government has set up a three-year pilot program. One of these programs is being used in the West Midlands, they have been given £9.6 million to offer the homeless a stable home. The program in West Midlands includes the Authority’s Homelessness Task Force, a collaboration group of local authorities, charities, and government agencies. The problem, where are the creative people and problem solvers?

The authorities need to provide 675 homeless people with a home during the three-year program which equals approximately £14,000 per person to get a home and the support they need. It has been suggested that they could convert offices into residences for the Housing First units. To date, this is the best solution yet for moving people from the streets to high-density blocks. Unfortunately, will this be the same scheme produced in the 60s with the same errors by recreating the council tower blocks?

Two other approaches have taken place in Manchester and Liverpool for the Housing First pilots. Hopefully, they will take some good ideas from other sources and collaborate ideas provided by the world of design. BDP has developed a model to use gap sites with the collaboration of councils and contractors. The Gap house would use small sites that are normally considered unfeasible but will create opportunities to offer affordable modular micro units and thereby offer a solution under the Housing First model.

There are other approaches in the works including training homeless people so they can get a job or allow open-source WikiHouse projects to have groups of people with the help of designers, charities, and authorities to build their own homes using modern technologies!

Chris Hildrey, RIBA Research Medal winner and fellow RIBA Journal Rising Star Winner, has proposed a project called ProxyAddress. This focuses on the leading causes of homelessness by providing people with an address so they will have access to the support required to get back up on their feet again.

The bottom line, it is really important that everyone works together and learn from each other to solve the homeless problem. A friendly smile or conversation could make all the difference to these people and possibly create excellent changes.

Main image photography by:

Tom Parsons