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

[ID:1934] Address Homelessness Within Ann Arbor, Not Without It

United States

In the second season of The Awful Truth, Michael Moore irreverently examines the controversial topic of homelessness in New York City, condemning Mayor Giuliani for destroying a single room occupancy housing complex on the Lower East side the same day the tenants were evicted. The occupants were informed of their eviction around two o'clock in the morning and did not have sufficient time to remove their belongings from the building before it was destroyed. Moore then sarcastically suggests that it would be cheaper and more discrete to house the homeless in storage units. The show intended to enlighten the public of the poor treatment of displaced persons, both in the attitudes taken toward them and the physical treatment of them.

In Ann Arbor, the issue of homelessness needs to be seriously addressed on two fronts. The first is the visible chronically homeless, often with mental illness and addictions, and without a permanent residence. The second group is invisible, the family that finds itself without a place to stay. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, approximately 40% of homeless are children and the average age of a homeless person is nine years. These invisible homeless make up a significant chunk of the 1,100 people who are homeless each night in Washtenaw County and the 90 who stay in the Emergency Night Shelter.

Ann Arbor is a wonderful place, in spite of any problems it has. It is a bit of an abnormality in that it is the stereotypical "college town" and many businesses are heavily concentrated around the campus area. Affluent and "stuck-up" according to some, our downtown is strewn with restaurants that are flooded with students and visitors on nights and weekends. Here, the landscape of downtown Ann Arbor is where chronically homeless can also be found. Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County already have good resources available for the homeless to use. The Shelter Association of Washtenaw County's Delonis Center opened in November 2003 near to downtown and it provides temporary housing and psychological services to the homeless, as well as coupons for clothing and transportation (information from the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County). This center is in accordance with supportive housing that is being constructed in cities across the country. In Ann Arbor, there is also a larger coalition for the homeless and low-income residents called the Washtenaw Housing Alliance.

In spite of these positive advances, a panhandling task force was created in recent years to try to remove these chronically homeless from the downtown streets. The task force initially approached the City Council and tried to make a deal in which panhandling would become illegal in exchange for a permanent mental health center to be available to the displaced. Also, a preliminary proposal called for funding for an outreach worker. The proposal for City Council would allow an arrest of a panhandler to be made immediately as opposed to waiting for a citizen to file a report. If passed, solicitation would not be allowed at outside cafes or restaurants, within twelve feet of an entrance or exit to a parking structure, banks, or ATMs. In essence, the task force was looking to push the displaced out of the city. It is motions like this one that will determine whether the landscape of downtown Ann Arbor is hospitable toward the displaced or chooses to ignore it. Interestingly enough, eighty percent of panhandlers are not homeless, according to the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County. The statement made by the actions of the task force is that the city of Ann Arbor is willing to provide funding to help homelessness (in forms such as the proposed outreach worker) as long as the homelessness is kept out of sight. This statement is unacceptable.

Also, individual businesses and establishments battle the problem of panhandling and other solicitation on their own. Many buildings that are open to the public acknowledge that there are problems with solicitation on porches and at entrances to buildings. Loitering is also a problem. Prohibitions and other ordinances have been discussed in response to these incidences. However, a blanket prohibition to gathering on the porch would not be some great solution to these problems, as it would prevent employees, visitors, or even children from gathering outside of buildings that are considered to be public. So even though some residents have attempted to eliminate panhandling and solicitation in Ann Arbor's public spaces, there is not one clear-cut solution for these problems. Again, the aim, whether it be conscious or not, is to have it look as if homelessness does not occur in Ann Arbor by keeping it out of sight.

In order to better the situation of the displaced people in Ann Arbor, different people need to take a series of definite actions. Some of these resolutions are general actions that apply to the issue of homelessness nationwide. First, architects and urban planners must be acutely aware of the spaces they are creating. While alleys and other secluded passageways are sometimes necessary, they must retain a certain visibility and occupancy to prevent them from becoming a residency of the chronically homeless. The severity of such locations is downplayed when given nicknames like "the bat cave," but spaces like these are a legitimate problem. Thoughtful planning and the encouragement of activity in the downtown area will help to discourage the use of such spaces in ways that they are not intended to be used.

Also, proper facilities must be constructed to provide assistance to the chronically and temporarily homeless. This includes family housing, single room occupancy housing, and supportive housing that provides job training and counseling. Ann Arbor is lucky in that it has a brand new center specifically addressing the issues of the chronically homeless, but other cities are not so fortunate.

In addition to the new Delonis Center, Ann Arbor needs to use strategically placed pieces of architecture to make a statement about homelessness. Additional buildings should be located within walking distance of the Delonis Center that provide supplementary resources for the homeless population and job opportunities. Such additional buildings should be learning centers, career training centers, and coffee shops or other businesses that reserve a portion of their employment for people who are or were formerly homeless. Since these buildings would be located off-site from the supportive housing center, they would not be appropriate for housing programs that are considered essential to maintaining the center and providing immediate assistance to the displaced. Also, the off-site system would be beneficial for the invisible homeless, once again consisting of the families and children. If families require more than emergency housing but do not need consistent counseling, then housing that is off-site from other resources would be appropriate as transitional housing for these families.

More important than providing sufficient square footage for these resource programs, the addition of off-site buildings to the system would suggest that these displaced people have a rightful place in the urban fabric. They would have a place to live, a place to work, and a place to learn. They would belong at every single one of these locations. "Loitering" on the front porches and inside of these buildings would be acceptable, though panhandling obviously would not be. The statement made by such an expansive program is that displaced people are encouraged to utilize the city in their own ways, and are welcome to occupy some of its space. What an important statement to make! This is in direct contrast to the feeling that the panhandling task force is trying to put out, that the homeless residents of Ann Arbor are not welcome and do not belong.

As the housing market in Ann Arbor is expensive, maintaining affordable housing for the displaced might be wishful thinking. However, a new attitude about treatment of the displaced people of Ann Arbor must arise. We must accept those who are homeless in our community, whether they are highly visible or invisible. We must remember that approximately forty percent of the homeless are children, who do not deserve to be pushed away and ignored. The population of Ann Arbor is savvy and resourceful, and should be able to embrace all members of their community as respectful and worthwhile people.

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