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How can architecture combat homelessness?

  • November 26, 2021

According to United Nations estimates, 1.6 billion people worldwide currently live in inadequate housing or have no fixed abode. The COVID pandemic has shown how quickly people slip into unemployment through no fault of their own and ultimately end up on the streets. 

“Who’s next? – Homelessness, Architecture and the City” is a new exhibition at the Museum of Architecture of the Technical University of Munich dedicated to a growing issue that is forcing governments to act.

“Homelessness is a global problem,” says curator Daniel Talesnik. “But with our exhibition we wanted to understand in more detail how individual cities deal with this challenge.” 

The show therefore looks comparatively at the ways mega-cities such as New York, Mumbai, Santiago de Chile, Moscow and Tokyo are dealing with the crisis. While in Chile the state is fighting homelessness with loans for rents, for example, in Moscow the problem is completely ignored.

Using documentary films and photo essays, the exhibition portrays the harsh reality of homelessness on the ground, but also shows innovative social housing models to provoke thinking about solutions.  

  • Living without housing

    A tent camp for the unhoused in San Francisco

    The camp on Fulton Street in San Francisco was created at the start of the COVID pandemic amid worsening homelessness. Unhoused people can pitch their tents here on marked grids around the Pioneer Monument, which stands just outside City Hall. The city has provided sanitary facilities and a mobile phone charging station. Unofficial figures put the number of unhoused people currently at 16,000.

  • Living without housing

    ‘The Glowing Homeless’

    This 2011 neon sculpture by artist Fanny Allie addresses the dehumanization of unhoused people in New York City. The number of people without shelter exploded as a result of persistent income disparities and an ongoing lack of affordable housing. The city’s Department of Housing and Development estimates that 80,000 people are without a roof over their head.

  • Living without housing

    Amid Tokyo’s expensive apartments

    Relative to its massive population, the proportion of homeless people in Tokyo might be small, but the problem is highly visible. Makeshift tent cities sprawl out by rivers, parks and bridges as people struggle to afford housing in one of the most expensive cities in the world, where social security is also lacking. Many others live in boxes in the shadows of train stations and hidden city spaces.

  • Living without housing

    A new shelter in Frankfurt am Main

    About three kilometers from the center of the German city, this shimmering blue-violet overnight shelter provides space for 150 people without a permanent home. The living conditions in the former emergency shelter that was made up of tents were heavily criticized in the press. In response, the Frankfurt Association for Social Homes planned this permanent dormitory.

  • Living without housing

    Homelessness is a ‘national disgrace’

    In London, the number of homeless people has doubled in the last decade. In 2019 — before the pandemic — there were 8,855 unhoused people on the streets. Mayor Sadiq Khan denounced the figure as a “national disgrace.” Holmes Road Studios is a homeless shelter for former drug and alcohol addicts. Many residents struggle with mental health issues.

  • Living without housing

    Living together in Vienna

    VinziRast-mittendrin is a student initiative to provide housing and work for people in precarious housing situations. The unusual thing about this project is the composition of its residents: half formerly unhoused, the other half students.

    Author: Rayna Breuer

How can architecture help?

According to UN estimates, some 15 million people are forcibly displaced from their homes every year. Increasingly, young people are at risk of becoming homeless. For these reasons, the United Nations adopted the first resolution on homelessness in February 2020, calling on governments to take swift and decisive countermeasures.

The causes of homelessness are complex and can relate to trauma, unemployment, drug addiction or mental illness. One thing is clear: people sleeping on the streets are a symptom of inequality and extreme social division. 

Housing market speculation leading to skyrocketing rents and home prices, in addition to a lack of social housing, is leaving some people with no choice but to shelter in parks or under bridges — and through no fault of their own. 

Homeless people sleep in a temporary parking lot shelter in Las Vegas marked for social distancing to help slow the spread of COVID-19, in March 2020

The pandemic has worsened unhoused people’s already precarious living situation, concludes the Bundesarbeitsgemeinschaft Wohnungslosenhilfe e. V. (Federal Association for Assistance to the Homeless). 

This is where architectural and urban planning solutions are gradually being adopted. The difficulty of isolating during the pandemic among people sleeping rough has been addressed in cities like San Francisco where, as the exhibition shows, legal tent camps were set up in grids and sanitary facilities were provided.

The exhibition includes several examples of innovative shelters for unhoused people, including Holmes Road Studios in London, a shelter for former drug and alcohol addicts made up of cottage studios that were designed by Peter Barber Architects. 

“We don’t see architecture as a savior or the only discipline that can solve the problem. It can only help alleviate people’s situation. Because as such, this is a social problem, more than that, it’s a systemic problem,” said Daniel Talesnik.

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