The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:1933] A Home in the Homeland?

United States

Since the beginning of the ?War on Terror,? Americans have been asked to suspend their rights and freedoms in the name of Homeland Security. The Bush Administration has framed this as a momentary state of exception? which, in the face of crisis, must become the rule. There is no foreseeable end to this state of exception, just as there was no foreseeable end to the Japanese American internment during World War II, which was also imposed in the name of Homeland Security. For some, these rights and freedoms were never afforded in the first place and Citizenship was always elusive.

One of the most prevalent examples of this elusive American citizenship is homelessness? where, ironically, no measure of ?Homeland Security? can ensure the ?security of a Home?. This year 3.5 million Americans, including 1 million children, will experience homelessness. For most, the prospect of obtaining semi-permanent housing is dismal; thousands have been on waiting lists for public housing, housing subsidies, and services for years. Like Japanese Americans, waiting in camps for the war to end, or for another Executive Order, the homeless are kept waiting, floating in a state of exception, interned by perpetual crisis.

For cities, it is the presence of homeless people?in public spaces, on the sidewalks, or in alleys?that represents a crisis. In the traditions of renewal, revitalization, and ?clean-up,? the visible homeless are a monument to the failures of American urban ideals. Now, with tourism as the fastest growing, most profitable industry in American cities (and globally), homelessness and street people are even more undesirable for local governments, businesses, and investors.

In San Francisco, homelessness is not just seen as a problem, but as a political arena. A few days after entering office, newly elected Mayor Gavin Newsom pledged that he would eliminate the city?s immense homeless population (proportionally one of the largest in the country) within 10 years time.

After serving as city supervisor, Newsom has learned to draw from an established political tradition in San Francisco that relies on voters? anxieties about the appearance of homeless people in the streets. These anxieties are compounded by widespread resentment over the massive municipal funds spent on homelessness each year.

While the city spends upwards of $100 million dollars a year on homelessness the money is often used to deal with the ?symptoms of homelessness? such as confiscating and storing homeless people?s property, cleaning up after homeless, and treating the maladies from living on the street. Also included in these figures are the exorbitant costs of medical care and incarceration. ?Because most medical problems are treated in acute care settings?emergency rooms and jails?they happen to be the most expensive services to provide? Cutbacks in state and local services have made prisons into default service providers. ?Today, the largest provider of mental health services in the state is the California Department of Corrections.?

According to the homelessness task force of the San Francisco Urban Redevelopment group SPUR, ?homelessness is not just a matter of economics.? Instead it is a ?cumulative condition? involving depletions of state and federal funds and services, reductions in affordable housing stocks, economic restructuring, all in the face of rising costs of living.

Despite these explanations, Newsom has been effective in mobilizing voters? anxieties and resentments in favor of the idea that homelessness is both the symptom and cause of urban decline.

If Newsom?s past political moves are any indication of his future policies, the city should be prepared for shortsighted political gestures that will address the immediate anxieties caused by homeless people rather than of the condition of homelessness itself.

The new mayor has established his political identity as a warden of a city under attack by homeless parasites. He gained prominence in 2002 with his ?Care Not Cash? initiative, Prop N, which sought to cut General Assistance to homeless individuals, replacing the aid with ?in kind? services. While the courts nullified the measure because of legal inconsistencies, Newsom was successful in gaining the support of voters who were frustrated that homelessness wasn?t ?going away.?

Riding this tide of support, he introduced Prop M, an anti-panhandling ordinance, to coincide with the mayoral race. The Proposition was similarly symbolic since the city already had a well-enforced ordinance against ?aggressive panhandling.? The measure was bolstered by an advertising campaign that linked giving money to panhandlers with spreading STDs, destroying neighborhoods, and increasing drug use. The campaign, funded by the San Francisco Hotel Council, was aggressive and maliciously generalized homelessness in the city. Newsom was eventually put-off by the sensational depictions and withdrew his support, but not before the Council?s campaign had written itself into his anti-panhandling proposal. Both the campaign and the legislation relied on alarming stereotypes of homeless people, that ?blamed? the homeless for perpetuating their own condition. This is not surprising since, as two recent journalistic studies concluded, the majority of articles written about homelessness cite individual factors such as substance abuse and mental illness instead of structural issues as the causes of homelessness.

Such representations are committed with near impunity since few posses the resources to effectively counter them. POOR Magazine is one of those few organizations. Their mission is to enable those who are normally the objects of news to become the authors of news by teaching literacy skills, journalism, and advanced computer skills to poor and homeless people. POOR represents a radical re-framing of knowledge and power, challenging idea that the homeless can only be represented by others be they politicians, planners, academics, or mainstream media journalists. Among other works, POOR produces weekly news-stories, drawing from the lives and experiences of the participants. While they operate on a very small scale, publishing weekly columns on-line and in local alternative including homeless papers, POOR?s work shows that the homeless do not have to wait around for someone else to validate and represent their conditions and desires.

Another advocacy group that has radically re-imagined the power homeless and very poor people have in organizing for their own political goals is the Coalition on Homelessness. The Coalition is made up of five component projects: The Shelter Outreach Program, a Civil Rights/Legal Defense Program, the Family Rights and Dignity Project, Right to a Roof, and the Street Sheet Project which is a monthly newspaper, produced and sold by homeless or formerly homeless people. The group highlights and transforms the gross deficiencies in homeless support services, advocacy, and housing. With homeless people dying at least every other day in the city and with a disproportionate number of homeless severely, lacking resources to survive the organization plays a vital role in the city. While it attempts to reshape existing institutions, the Coalition provides new opportunities and services for the empowerment of very poor and homeless people.

Groups like POOR and the Coalition offer strategies for inclusion in midst of political projects that are exclusionary by design. Planning and architecture in San Francisco often fall into this category. In many cases, architecture and urban design have been blamed for the persistence of the homeless presence. Its no surprise then, that in the redevelopment of San Francisco?s Union Square (1995-2002), better architecture was prescribed as the solution.

Union Square, the ?heart and soul of San Francisco? by former Mayor Willie Brown?s assessment, has been a central attraction of the city?s most profitable industry, tourism. 9 of the 13 million tourists who visit San Francisco, pass through the downtown shopping district every year.

The presence of homeless people in the old square caused much anxiety for business owners, and investors. One member of the Chamber of Commerce noted, ?A lot of people that come to this city aren?t immune to the dirt, the trash, and the homeless.?

Homelessness was not only seen as a viral symptom of the area?s decline, but also as the primary cause. One resident observed, ?in the 1980s it got so dirty, so bad with homeless people all over, that I never really wanted to come again.?

The square was criticized for providing too many hiding places for homeless people, featuring grassy islands, tall hedges, as well as open benches and seating ledges. The city was pressured to resolve the problem of homelessness by simply redesigning the square.

Landscape architects April Phillips and Michael Fotheringham were commissioned to redesign the square. Their design, entitled ?All the Square?s a Stage? eliminated the gardens, lawns, and hedges in favor of a wide-open granite piazza. Phillips specified that she and Fotheringham created the space in part ?for police to view the crowds and for visitors to feel safe.?

Linda Mjellen, representing more than 250 local businesses as director of the Union Square Association was pleased with design, noting that the space is now ?more visible and conducive to more law abiding types.?

Police and private security constantly patrol the Square in order to ensure the exclusive presence of these ?types.? To further regulate the use of the space, all benches have been designed with steel partitions to prevent people from sleeping on them and the eaves of the outdoor caf

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