Two and a half years ago, my brother Daren died as a result of his struggles with homelessness and schizophrenia. Criminalized for his mental illness for most of his life, he died a preventable death in jail after being denied the medical care he deserved.
His death coincided with my return to Los Angeles after several years abroad. In my absence, my hometown had become unaffordable for too many, and a new legion of people had been cast out onto the streets. My grief over my brother’s loss was amplified by the suffering I saw.
My work as an architect, designer and teacher suddenly no longer mattered to me. My clients were rich and languished over wallpaper choices. My students and their curriculum focused on abstract formal exercises. We treated architecture as a product rather than a tool to aid humanity. Shelter should be a human right, not a luxury reserved for those who can afford it.
But what could I, as an individual and an architect, actually do to make a difference?
L.A. was then, and continues to be, in the midst of an extreme housing shortage. The city’s vacancy rate stands at 3%. With prices rising, more people get knocked off the lowest rung of the housing ladder each month and end up on the streets. Getting back into housing from that point is difficult at best.
Thankfully, there’s hope on the horizon. In the last two elections, Los Angeles voters overwhelmingly supported both Proposition HHH and Measure H, which combined will permanently rehouse thousands of people living on L.A.’s streets and provide services to keep tens of thousands more from falling into homelessness in the first place.
And yet, even though the city has money to finally solve our homelessness crisis, salvation for those living on the streets seems as far away as ever.
Permanent supportive housing works. The trouble is, each project has a lead time of two to five years minimum. That is an eternity if you’re homeless.
On top of that, while Angelenos have proved they are willing to pay to make homelessness go away, nothing grinds progress to a halt quicker than the prospect of building a shelter in our backyards. Lingering NIMBYism combined with soaring housing costs will make acting on the promise of Proposition HHH and Measure H a challenge.
It is here where architecture may be able to provide some assistance.
It’s obvious why many Angelenos don’t want shelters in their neighborhoods — they tend to be massive facilities with lines of people in various states of desperation hovering, waiting for their chance for a warm meal and a bed.
But they don’t have to be that way. Shelters don’t have to be ugly. Or enormous. Or look any different from your average apartment complex. They don’t even have to be permanent. Design can, and should, help us overcome our collective aversion to homelessness so we can get people housed sooner.
Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles TimesHomelessness Architecture Eric Garcetti