The Nineteenth Annual Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence 2017
Berkeley Prize 2017

Barbara Knecht Essay


Community Structures among Homeless People 

By Barbara Knecht


Nostalgic representations of community intrude into virtually any discussion on the topic of homelessness. Attempts to explain its existence, to fight against solutions, and to condemn its victims invariably incorporate perceptions of community. In this context, community is used to evoke sentimental images of home and neighborhood, and provokes emotional responses and prejudices. It is appropriated for many purposes. Messages tell us homelessness has resulted from the breakdown of family and “community” in America. A vague and unidentified "homeless community" is, in turn, blamed for the destruction of neighborhoods. People embrace these ideas and claim them as reason why formerly homeless people should not be housed in their “community.” On the other hand, when groups of homeless people band together to form makeshift villages – “communities” - in front of City Halls or in public parks, their structures are broken down and the occupants scattered. And yet, when housing is built for homeless people, the design is expected to foster and create a "sense of community" for a potentially disparate group of people who come to be housed there.

What exactly are we talking about when we refer to loss of "community," "homeless community" or "sense of community?" Such powerful propaganda exceeds the intention of the definitions of the word community. The literal meanings are bland terms related to location, groups of people with common interests, and simply, similarity or identity.

The first meaning, "a group of people living in a specific location or the actual physical place in which those people live" describes an association based on geographic location. Almost always, one may replace the general word community with a specific word such as neighborhood, district, city, state, etc. in this usage. This meaning encompasses ideas about representative processes. We have community planning, community based services, community review process. As anyone who has experienced a community planning process can verify, geographic proximity does not guarantee an a priori common voice. All that is definitely shared is location, people tied to a particular neighborhood or district.

In contrast, the second meaning "a group of people with common interests" such as the design community, the scientific community, or the business community does describe an a priori connection. We identify the scientific community as a union of numerous specific disciplines. Business or religious or academic community all refer to groups with mutual sets of interests and goals. Although there may be divisions and factions within those communities, they exist because individuals and subgroups have chosen to identify themselves with others and come together for a shared common purpose. Affinity, kinship, and most important  - power - come from association with a particular community. Sometimes we call these kinds of communities the "special interests."

As with the first, the last meaning "similarity or identity," cannot absolutely carry an expectation of commonality besides sharing certain identifiable external, and potentially superficial, characteristics. Although it is often assumed that external characteristics carry with them common interests, it is not guaranteed. If we talk about the homeless community, all we can really mean is a group of men, women and children who have no place of their own to live. There can be no assumption about any common interests. The same can be said of the people who make up the "poor community" or the "minority community." Certainly there will be some overlapping geographies, and some overlapping interests, but these are not communities that have self-identified and united with a common purpose. These are names applied to groups of people who share a characteristic, and it is usually used in a way that neither enriches their lives nor increases cohesiveness. More often it acts to reduce diverse and heterogeneous collections of individuals and families to a singular profile.

A community has the potential to be powerful if it comes together out of choice and works consistently toward shared goals developed in the common interest. A community will almost never be powerful if it is externally defined and is characterized by apparent similarities unrelated to shared goals. A critical contributor to a healthy community is what Lawrence Telles calls “functional interdependence.”1  It is by way of human interaction and activity that isolation breaks down and communities form around common interests. Joining communities - that is, identifying with, and trusting networks of people and institutions - is what each of us does when we form relationships, go to work, participate in religious and cultural activities, live in neighborhoods, and call on friends during crises. We are “functionally interdependent” on a diverse society for emotional and physical support and we are, in turn, responsible to that society. Geographic proximity may exist, similarity may exist, but spiritual or material interest that promotes interdependence must exist.

There is a perception that people who live on the streets are completely without community, that is, they have made no voluntary ties and are not functionally interdependent on other people or institutions. The perception arises from evaluating individual lives according to some mythical social norm because people who are homeless are automatically assumed to live outside those structures. In fact, some people who live on the street have very strong community ties. They become known to the residents and local businesses. People give them clothes or a blanket, restaurants give them leftover food, there may be a church basement or a business office cellar where they can occasionally sleep. Odd jobs, sweeping, watching a car, etc., may bring in a little cash. These actions allow an individual the dignity of self-sufficiency, and human connection, and the independent choice to live in a manner where resources, meager as they are, are familiar and supportive.

Homeless people, referred to as the “homeless community,” do not fit a definition which relies on geographic proximity, nor a set of common interests. External similarity in the characteristic of homelessness is the single definition of community within which they fit. The diversity that exists among homeless people mirrors the diversity that exists in American households - single adults, families with two parents, chronically mentally ill people, mothers with small children, grandmothers caring for small children, substance abusers, and so on. And within each one of those groups, there will many other ways of defining subgroups according to some objective characteristics but they still don't necessarily share common interests.

Our policies have failed to see homeless people as a complex collection of individuals who will not necessarily identify themselves according to their (temporary) state of homelessness. Our financial and governmental institutions, in a well-meaning attempt to address this problem, have tried to group people by external characteristics as a way of funding and giving priority in housing. Thus, we have emergency, transitional and permanent housing for homeless people, homeless people who are mentally ill, people who are former substance abusers, etc. The assumption exists that people with superficial similarities housed under one roof have shared goals, and that the housing will be a setting where a sense of community will develop by virtue of proximity, common characteristics, and as a result of certain architectural design elements. Because homeless people are perceived as lacking any community ties, housing solutions assume that they must be created, and that by imposing structure it will be constructed. The critical missing ingredient is self-identification with a community and self-determination within the community.

Geography plays a curious role here. While it cannot be assumed that proximity leads to shared interests, ties to a location can be the critical thread in a perception of community for a homeless person living on the streets. Programs designed to deal with a variety of the underlying causes of homelessness rarely acknowledge the significance of that fragile connection to a chosen network of contacts. Functional interdependence exists. City wide programs require that an individual relocate once or twice for residential treatment services and again to permanent housing in yet another neighborhood. For some people, trading a fragile connection to community for the presumed benefit of treatment programs which may lead to permanent housing in a community in which the person has no ties is simply not conceivable. The failure of some people to leave the streets may not be the manifestation of some intractable personal issue, but rather a product of the design and geography of available alternatives. They fail to recognize and build on existing capacities.

Significant exceptions to this norm exist in Los Angeles and New York where two not-for-profit agencies have supported the development and expansion of structures that recognize and strengthen existing capacity rather than attempt to impose community. Working within specific neighborhoods - communities - they have attempted to draw out and amplify the community by supplying work and other activities by which people identify themselves and identify with others. The result has been to build social and physical structures that promote interaction and interdependence. Founded originally on distinct missions, both recognize and draw on the knowledge that homeless people do have networks of functional interdependence. They have developed neighborhood based networks which provide the structure for "community" to develop around and through them.

Founded in June 1985 by Mollie Lowery, Los Angeles Men's Place (LAMP) operates in Los Angeles' Skid Row, a distinct area of 50 blocks south of Chinatown and downtown. LAMP opened with a drop in center to provide food, clothing, showers and toilets, health screening, an address, financial and legal services to homeless mentally ill people living on the streets of Skid Row.

The day time drop in center operated under the guiding principles that all participation would be voluntary, that agency growth and administration would be driven by the needs of the people served, and it would "grow into a community working toward constructive, individual, collective and systemic change." Ms. Lowery believed that these principles and programs would help people move up and, presumably, out of Skid Row.

By 1987, in response to a consistent overnight population on the doorstep, LAMP opened a crisis shelter for 18 people on the second floor of the drop-in center. It soon became clear that there was a need for a transitional residence, and for income-generating business to employ more "guests." Many were already employed by LAMP, but it was clearly a limited resource. In 1988, construction began on LAMP village which opened in stages and currently contains 48 transitional beds, life skills workshops; performance, visual art and writing classes; drug recovery, case management, and advocacy services. The building, which faces onto two streets, also houses four businesses: linen laundering service for Skid Row hotels, a coin operated laundromat, a mini market, and public showers and toilets.

During the development of the village, LAMP experimented with permanent housing out of Skid Row. Through the organization individuals rented apartments in Santa Monica. It was always assumed that as people stabilized, they would want to move out of Skid Row. For 18 months they experimented with this housing; but in the end the residents said they felt isolated and lonely away from their friends and family at LAMP. This was a turning point in LAMP's development. According to Mollie Lowery: "Rather than relate to Skid Row as an undesirable, temporary situation to escape from, we would turn our energies to investing in and improving the area in an effort to make it a better, more decent, livable residential neighborhood." Since that time LAMP has developed a 50 unit apartment building, and, because of its location members of the LAMP community have access to SRO housing throughout Skid Row. The resulting community is a collection of individuals congregated in a specific neighborhood who have a variety of living, working and social needs met by their participation in the LAMP community.

Community Access, located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, was founded in 1974 to find housing for mentally ill people who were being discharged  from psychiatric hospitals. Their philosophy was based on the belief "that the mentally ill, if given a decent place to live and minimum of support services, can live happy and productive lives in the community" (1991-2 Annual Report). In 1977, they rented two apartments, and slowly over the years in response to neighborhood commitment and to community building they have developed an array of housing options and employment and service activities. In 1988, Club Access opened. It provides job training, educational classes, social events and meals, to 130 members living in the neighborhood in supervised residences, scatter site apartments and mixed and low income apartment buildings. Most of the housing was developed by Community Access for its community. The most recent venture is the purchase of a small business which will be able to directly employ local residents.

These networks of physical and social structures, invisible to the outsider, are created and sustained by choice of their members. Personal and the collective power for self-determination combine to make decisions for the common good. With such examples, the announcement of the demise of community is premature. Perhaps we believe it has vanished because we no longer recognize the form. The nostalgic images of greeting cards and advertisements have given way to intangible connections and complex networks, but communities are present because they are essential to human existence.

Isolation occurs is the absence of community. Independence exists in the presence of community. The freedom to risk and to trust results from knowledge that you are secure. Nostalgic hysteria clouds the public ability to see and believe that the essential conditions which create community are available for cultivation.




1. Innovative Community Mental Health Programs, Stein, Leonard I., editor.
Jossey-Bass Inc., 1992, Page 54.


This article was originally written for the ICIS (International Center for Integrative Studies) Forum, and adapted into a lecture for Archeworks, the design lab Stanley Tigerman founded to "use design as an agent of change in the public interest.”? 


Additional Help and Information

Are you in need of assistance? Please email

THE ATENEO MERCANTIL DE VALENCIA (The Ateneo Mercantile Club of Valencia), Valencia, Spain, 1879. The Ateneo is located directly across form the City Hall and served the traditional, male, business community of Valencia through most of the 20th century. Now open by membership to the entire city, the club sponsors card clubs, art exhibits, film festivals, cultural and business symposia, and has a restaurant and bar available to the public. (Contributor: Benjamin Clavan)

DIKSHA BHUMI - THE BABASHAB AMBEDKAR MEMORIAL COMPLEX, Dalit Buddhist Community of Nagpur, Maharashtra, India. (Contributor: Padma Maitland)

BIBIA-ELEGU CROSS-BORDER MARKET (proposed), community market, Elegu Town, Uganda-South Sudan Border. (Contributor: Benard Acellam)

PHONGSAVAN, Hmong Market and Food Court, Milwaukee, U.S.A. The building, a typical United States-vernacular commercial structure was formerly an auto parts store that is located in a strip of other commercial businesses. There is no formal sign except for several small placards advertisingHmong businesses.  It has become a center for the large minority population of Hmong who now live in the city.  See also, the Hmong American Friendship Association, Inc. building, located in another repurposed commercial structure in the city.  (Contributor, Arjit Sen, suggested the Hmong community buildings.)

STRAWBERRY CREEK LODGE, Berkeley, U.S.A. A senior affordable housing community of 150 households. (Contributor: Raymond Lifchez)
CONGREGATION BETH ISRAEL, Berkeley, U.S.A. A Modern Jewish Orthodox synagogue, this was the first synagogue in Berkeley. Established in 1924 as the Berkeley Hebrew Center, it traces its origins to the First Hebrew Congregation of Berkeley, founded in 1909. The latest structure was completed in 2005. (Contributor: Raymond Lifchez)
YMCA of the Central Bay Area, Berkeley, U.S.A. A registered historic landmark built in 1910, expanded in 1960 and 1994. (Contributor: Raymond Lifchez)
HAGIA SOPHIA, Istanbul, Turkey. Former Greek Orthodox basilica and Byzantine masterpiece completed in 537, converted into an imperial mosque in 1453, and declared a museum in 1935, representing a variety of communities for nearly 1500 years. (Contributor: Itamar Landau)
FRESNO BUDDHIST TEMPLE, Fresno, California, U.S.A. (Contributor: Daves Rossell)
SOCIALIST HALL, Butte, Montana, U.S.A. (Contributor: Daves Rossell)
COMMUNITY HAIR CARE CENTER, Savannah, Georgia, U.S.A. (Contributor: Daves Rossell)
JERUSALEM INTERNATIONAL YMCA, 1933, Jerusalem, Israel. Arthur Loomis Harmon, SHREVE, LAMB AND HARMON, Architect. The Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) building is celebrated as a wellspring of cultural, athletic, social and intellectual life for all who live in Israel and visitors to the country. (Contributor: Raymond Lifchez)
CCOO (COMISIONES OBERAS DEL PAIS VALENCIANO) BUILDING, Valencia, Spain. The Country Workers’ Commission headquarters in the city, serving the community of workers throughout the region. (Contributor: Benjamin Clavan)
SESC (SERVIÇ0 SOCIAL DO COMÉRCIO) POMPEIA FACTORY PROJECT, Sao Paolo, Brazil, 1986. The SESC is a Brazilian non-profit private institution started by business owners aimed primarily for the welfare of their employees and their families. Its revenues come from a 1.5 percent payroll tax on commerce workers and thus is widely seen as representing the community of workers. This leisure center consists of a renovated factory and two new, five floor tower blocks. The complex contains tennis courts, pools, workshop areas, a library, "living rooms", exhibition halls, auditorium(s), a restaurant and a large solarium. Architect, Linda Bo Bardi. (One of two photos. Contributor: Benjamin Clavan)
SESC (SERVIÇ0 SOCIAL DO COMÉRCIO) POMPEIA FACTORY PROJECT, Sao Paolo, Brazil, 1986. The SESC is a Brazilian non-profit private institution started by business owners aimed primarily for the welfare of their employees and their families. Its revenues come from a 1.5 percent payroll tax on commerce workers and thus is widely seen as representing the community of workers. This leisure center consists of a renovated factory and two new, five floor tower blocks. The complex contains tennis courts, pools, workshop areas, a library, "living rooms", exhibition halls, auditorium(s), a restaurant and a large solarium. Architect, Linda Bo Bardi. (One of two photos. Contributor: Benjamin Clavan)
CLAREMONT TENNIS CLUB, Berkeley, USA. (Contributor: Raymond Lifchez)
FIRST AFRICAN METHODIST CHURCH, Oakland, U.S.A., 1902. Congregation founded by free African Americans in 1816 as part of a nationwide movement in the United States. (Contributor: Raymond Lifchez)
MOSQUE AND MINARET, Village of Teqoa, south-east of Bethlehem, Palestine. (Contributor: Shimon Dotan)
LGBT CENTER, Tel-Aviv, Israel: Formerly, the General Federation of Students and Young Workers Center completed in 1940; later re-purposed as the Dov Hoz professional school; and since 2008 Israel's first Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender public gathering place. (Contributor: Robert Ungar)
SCUOLA DI SAN NICOLO DEI GRECI, Venice, Italy. Built in 1539 as the center for a Greek fraternal organization dedicated to the spiritual, social, and economic well-being of its members. (Contributor: Raymond Lifchez)
FRIENDSHIP CENTRE, Gaibandha, Bangladesh. Kashef Mahboob Chowdhury/URBANA architects, 2011. Built by an NGO which works with some of the poorest in the country who live mainly in riverine islands (chars) with very limited access and opportunities, Friendship uses the facility for its own training programs and also rents out spaces for meetings, training, conferences etc. to further its role as a new focus for the community. (Contributor: Nezar AlSayyad, photo at:
BERKELEY FRIENDS MEETINGHOUSE, Berkeley, USA. The Meetinghouse is a gathering place for Quakers, a Christian religious denomination that believes in service and pacifism. (Contributor: Raymond Lifchez)
SRI EKAMBARESWARAR TEMPLE at Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu, India. Popularly known as Ekambara Nathar temple, this large complex, originally built by the Pallava dynasty (4th to 9th Century), was later reconstructed by the Chola and Vijayanagar rulers. Although the motivating force for the temple is the worship of the Hindu Lord Shiva, its use is - and probably always has been - both religious and secular, thus serving the local population in a multitude of ways. (Contributor: Paul Broches)

THE SF LGBT CENTER, San Francisco, USA. Cee/Pfau Collaborative, 2000. The LGBT Center was established in the 1970s to connect the diverse lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and trans communities with important resources. (Contributor: Thea Chroman).

Copyright © 1998-2024 Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Privacy Policy Cookie Policy
For permission for any form of re-use of any of the contents, please contact
The BERKELEY PRIZE is endorsed by the Department of Architecture, University of California, Berkeley.