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Addressing Homelessness with Design

“HOMELESSNESS IS NOT NORMAL” WAS BOTH THE DECLARATIVE TITLE OF HOLST ARCHITECTURE’S DESIGN WEEK PORTLAND PANEL DISCUSSION THIS PAST SPRING AND A TOPIC THAT REAPPEARED CONTINUOUSLY THROUGHOUT THE WEEK’S PROGRAMMING. The statement also speaks to the design community’s growing focus on the crisis the unhoused now face across the Pacific Northwest, where, on average, approximately 2,900 people are sleeping on the street each night. While public frustration builds over slow-moving municipal solutions, the subject has migrated off the sidewalks, past City Hall, and onto the drafting tables of the creative communities who design and build our cities.


This summer, the Vancouver Art Gallery hosted Offsite: Shigeru Ban, an exhibition showcasing the Japanese architect’s designs of temporary housing units for people displaced by natural disaster. Given that Vancouver has seen a 30 percent increase in its homeless population since 2014, the exhibit was rife with layered meaning: it could be argued that Ban’s innovative, low-cost paper and cardboard structures might serve people displaced by economics as well as those uprooted by earthquakes, and they are a sophisticated upgrade from the ubiquitous tents Vancouverites have become all too accustomed to seeing. Less than 200 miles south, in Tacoma, Washington, the Annie Wright Upper School for Boys launched a six-month initiative in January as part of its Architecture & Design program. Its students constructed a tiny house, in collaboration with Seattle’s Mithun Architects, for the Nickelsville homeless encampment in Georgetown.


These and other projects demonstrate that as the PNW wonders whether homelessness is now so pervasive that it’s our new normal, the design community is giving us a definitive answer: It does not have to be. “At the bottom, this issue is not a homelessness crisis. It’s a community crisis,” says Rex Hohlbein, cofounder of BLOCK Architects and the BLOCK Project, a Seattle-based nonprofit aiming to fight homelessness through relationship-building initiatives. “It’s a really important distinction because a community crisis includes everyone. We are a part of this problem.”


This holistic philosophy is inherent in the process designers use with every project they create, and it also means that creative communities are uniquely positioned to come up with solutions un-explored by more traditional approaches to homelessness. “As designers, we use our brains in a very different way,” says Casey Hrynkow, senior design strategist with marketing firm Ion Brand Design in Vancouver. “We take problems, pick them up like gemstones, and look at their facets to see opportunities that other people don’t.”


Hrynkow is using her graduate thesis (for Simon Fraser University’s Graduate Liberal Studies Program and collaborating with the Design for Social Innovation and Sustainability Lab at Emily Carr University of Art + Design) to help others understand how design thinking can shift the public perception of homelessness to effect change. Hrynkow is working within the context of design theorist Horst W. J. Rittel’s “wicked problem” theory: a specific type of challenge that, due to complex interdependencies, requires multidisciplinary cooperation to solve. “Homelessness is complicated. It’s messy,” she says. “Every person without a home is not an addict or struggling with mental illness. It’s a tangled web of yarn.” Hrynkow’s research will target Maple Ridge, BC, in a series of design thinking exercises, including the creation of empathy maps, geared at establishing sympathetic connections between community members and the area’s homeless. Hrynkow asserts that because humans are social animals, hardwired for hierarchy and for easily labeling some people as “others,” we’re also driven to seek out commonality and create bonds. “If we can leverage those better instincts, we might be able to get somewhere,” she says.


I don’t want America to feel the way it does when you visit Shanghai or India, where homelessness, this deep poverty, is just culturally accepted. I don’t want us to get there. It’s not how we were raised as a country. -KEVIN CAVENAUGH, DEVELOPER, GUERRILLA DEVELOPMENT

Someone who is getting somewhere is Portland’s Kevin Cavenaugh, owner of Guerrilla Development. Last winter his firm launched a crowdfunding initiative to underwrite a mixed-use two-building development called Jolene’s First Cousin, slated for completion next April. The property includes retail units and residential lofts, all rented at subsidized rates to help underwrite the cost of 11 SRO (single-resident occupancy) units reserved for Port-landers without homes. Guerrilla hit its goal of $300,000 in just 70 hours. “Jolene’s First Cousin is our way of using the tools we have, including real estate, finance, and design, to start somewhere,” says Cavenaugh. Guerrilla is also offering incentives to community members who support the homeless: the Atomic Orchard Experiment residential project, which will break ground at the end of this year, will assign tenant priority to those whose jobs relate to providing relief for unhoused people, such as social workers and first responders. “I don’t want to live in a city that leaves its working class behind or is okay with anyone sleeping in the streets,” Cavenaugh says.


Also taking to the streets is Vancouver’s HCMA Architecture + Design, which is creating repurposed laneway projects in the city (see GRAY’s Aug/Sept 2017 issue). In the process of transforming neglected alleyways into attractive environments that encourage communal interaction, director Mark Busse says, the laneway projects have the potential to have an even bigger impact: helping the homeless, particularly those suffering from addiction. “One unfortunate piece of data we have is that when people are overdosing but are lucid enough to call for help, they cannot quickly tell emergency services where they are because they’re in an alley,” says Busse. “There’s no street name to relay to get the life-saving support they need.” One idea HCMA is exploring with various community groups is to implement a visual map system, using bright color demarcations, that will give laneways placemaking identifiers. “Instead of assigning numbers or another kind of nomenclature to these spaces, we’d like to elevate that [idea], using design, to impact this dire situation,” says Busse.


As designers, we have an obligation to become intimate with the lived experience of all humankind in the environments we create and how we can best serve these various communities. —MARK BUSSE, DIRECTOR, HCMA ARCHITECTURE + DESIGN

At press time, Seattle’s latest municipal effort to address the city’s homelessness crisis—a $47 million-a-year head tax on local businesses to fund services and housing—was repealed, leaving behind mostly a single large-scale initiative, King County’s One Table Coalition, to tackle the issue. But the city of Seattle, and the Pacific Northwest as a region cannot rely on any one program to end the “wicked problem” of homelessness. With a unique ability to think about the communal “why” and “who” of the homeless, not just the “where” of their tents, designers can effect change, donating their time, manpower, and materials to execute plans faster than government initiatives can be coordinated and implemented. In the past year, several architecture firms, engineers, and contractors have collaborated pro bono on Hohlbein’s BLOCK Project, all of them working toward the ultimate goal of building over 100 homes a year in the backyards of King County by 2022.

Hohlbein says, “The BLOCK Project’s goal has always been to end homelessness. The design and architecture fields really have a special opportunity with this issue, to provide the resources and their know-how to build a community. If this happens, I fully believe the city will understand how ending homelessness is possible … that this is doable.”


This article was originally published in the August/September 2018 “Futurecast” issue of GRAY.


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