Can Design Help Solve LA’s Homeless Crisis?
publication: .Architect Magazine
project title: .Bookends Housing
author: . Steve Cimino
The homeless population in Los Angeles County could fill a small city. As a design challenge, some architects have advanced both time-honored and unexpected solutions to help those in need of housing.
The scope of the homelessness crisis in the Los Angeles area is staggering. The Office of the Mayor’s official website lists the city’s total at just over 34,000 homeless people, and LA County’s total tops out near 58,000.
This isn’t just LA’s special challenge; large cities like New York, Seattle, and San Diego are also struggling to address the sheer number of marginalized Americans living on the streets or in temporary shelters. But as a massive urban center with an expanding population and evolving infrastructure, the City of Angels has the chance to offer its own unique design solutions to this global challenge.
A Shifting City
The Skid Row neighborhood in downtown Los Angeles is perhaps the best-known homeless district in the country, the city’s social services and beautiful weather having made it a destination for the disenfranchised. But the number of homeless within the city and county continues to multiply, pushing those services to their limits and demanding options beyond what’s currently offered. ....
... But more money and well-intentioned speeches from politicians don’t always lead to proportional returns. These programs can’t help all of those in need of immediate shelter, or provide opportunities for the architects who want to lend their design prowess to the cause. Casey Hughes, principal of Casey Hughes Architects, has
encountered homelessness firsthand for almost two decades. His downtown Los Angeles office is located in the Arts District, a burgeoning walkable area that borders Skid Row. As such, he recently designed a not-for- profit prefabricated accessory dwelling unit that conforms to California law and can be massively deployed to supply much-needed housing.
“Most of the design energy in Los Angeles is going toward creating spaces for people who are wealthy,” Hughes says. “There is very little thought going into spaces for people who are disenfranchised.” “Frankly,” he adds, “when you’re working in a neighborhood where you see this every day, you get to know specific people who put a very human face on the problem. It can no longer be an abstract issue.”
Outside the Box
In late 2017, the Collective Arts Incubator in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles hosted an exhibition called “Unencumbered.” Six architects and designers, including Hughes, responded to a prompt that stated: “It is time to rethink urban life and homelessness. Can there be a way of life that is without a home but not without dignity?”
“The curator, Ben Warwas, wanted us to rethink what we think of as a home or an enclosure,” says Cody Miner, a Los Angeles designer and assistant teacher at the Southern California Institute of Architecture who participated in the exhibition. “We were looking to apply alternative solutions to a problem that is increasing wildly year by year.”....
.... The exhibition was a series of proposals, and the designers involved all relished the opportunity to offer up solutions for the homeless, noting that their own opportunities to get involved were limited at best.
“Typically, the more established, corporate architecture offices—not as design-oriented— are chosen to deal with these issues,” Hughes says. “They look at it within the framework of what’s been done and what can be replicated, as opposed to what the best solution might be.”...
The homeless population continues to rise, and the strategies currently in play have proven to be inadequate. Cities like Los Angeles need to take advantage of this chance to think outside the box and pursue solutions beyond what has worked on a smaller scale and in a bygone era, especially when it comes to design.
“I don’t think Los Angeles is broken,” Wright says. “I think we just have an opportunity to show the rest of the world how to care for our fellow citizens.”