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

[ID:1938] Urban Survival of the Homeless - Recognizing the Homeless as People of the City


Suits, briefcases and a waft of perfume fill the lunchtime scene of Collins Street, Melbourne. The bustle of corporate people waiting to cross at a busy intersection isn't different from any other city's intersections during peak hour. People are coming and going, crowding the pavements as the hive of activity reaches a climax in the day. Laughter, chatter and earnest conversation - the typical interactions of society - can all be witnessed throughout this business precinct dominated by commercial, gothic and classical buildings.

As l stroll along observing these surroundings my awareness and concentration focus with an unusual intensity; there is a unique feel to the approaching intersection. A light thumping can be heard in the background, people are taking on a more serious approach, laughter, smiles and conversations abate. The energy and peculiar excitement of the corner is overwhelming. I stop to take it in. The thumping has become a drumming, a jungle beat.

This intersection is alive in a most intriguing and unsettling way. The environment is raw, almost conflicting as the continuous beat of a drum resonates and creates an unstable state. I see people are uncomfortable with this. Many at this intersection are not sure why, or what is this feeling, space or instant; too busy with thoughts and relief of being out of the office as they wait patiently to cross the street.

Walking over the street it becomes all too apparent where the drumming is coming from. Despite the corner brimming with people there is an open space, one man in middle of this space with a drum on his lap, unkempt and hard. Shunned by people as if something nauseating - but he plays on.

I have seen this drummer at various times in the city. Upon speaking to people about the homeless he is inevitably mentioned by many as if he is an urban legend. Sitting and playing his drum he looks up scanning the passing crowd for attention, a donation or even just a smile. He is totally oblivious of the effect he is having on the intersection.

One person considered quite insignificant surrounded by people of stature with their Armani suits - mobile phone in one hand and star bucks coffee in the other - is making all the difference to the street. I love it. The dominant architecture of this corporate world, that demands a mutual etiquette amongst its people; is having little impact upon the ambience of the intersection as opposed to one person's cry for attention.

The homeless misfits perception of the urban space is their territories, dangers and securities, a world manipulated by the language of architectural space. The growing confusion of defining private and public space is creating hardship and new boundaries for homeless people.

Privatisation, corporations and commercial marketing are increasingly having a large affect on urban space with their giant malls, monolithic office towers, giant billboards and neon lights. We are told how to live, what to aim for, given glimpses of people with glamorous lives all so we will spend, consume. As consumers we are most valued as prospects for profit; for consumers boundaries go unnoticed, as do the security of the privatised public space.

For decades Melbourne has tried to create a true public square. In a focus on urban renewal, a landmark celebrating the nation's birth as a unified democracy has been created. Displacing a number of homeless people, a once sought refuge has been transformed into Federation Square. A place for the public to view telecasted events, art, concerts and to marvel at the architecture and new space created. Don't worry about the over abundance of security guards and cameras viewing you, they are for your protection.

All this protection and prevention is needed for a media invoked age of violence, murder, tragedy and terrorism, all in your living room at 6pm every night. Thus is provided the fuel for the spatial redefinition that is tainting culture. This state of worry, security frenzy and distaste for derelicts, bums, suspicious and misfortunate people is degrading and uncaring; tearing at the heart of humanity; devoid of compassion.

Lack of compassion is evident everywhere. Melbourne's early CBD grid layout was planned to allow the strong westerly winds to sweep through the city clearing sewerage odours and rubbish from the streets. There was little thought for the cold bitter nights this creates for those exposed to the elements. Apathy towards homeless is evident in new architectural spaces, gated communities and inner city redevelopments where employed security guards patrol and deter undesirables in what at first glance seem to be architecture with accessible boulevards, lanes and parks.

The displacement of the homeless is more than just a physical dispossession. There are stronger barriers that separate these unfortunate people than the questions of public space. Many have illnesses, whether it is a mental or physical affliction. Many just reject the system; alienating them further from society. Their inability to relate, deal or cope with living as part of the whole leaves them to survive as a reclusive fractured community deeply embedded in the depths of the city.

The communities within a city vary, overlap, conflict and coincide in the daily routine of living. What draws people to a city is opportunity. There is greater opportunity in the populated areas, drawing more people from different walks of life towards the many prospects of employment, financial investment, security, socialising, recreation, health and residence. People use the city as it functions, for their needs, but I feel there are few that know the city or are truly ingrained in the city like the homeless.

An experience of mine was observing the behaviour of a homeless man who hadn't noticed my presence. As pedestrians approached and closed on him in a darkened city street, the long haired grubby fellow moved aside to stand next to a tree. He had actually grasped the trunk and stood like a chameleon belonging to the trunk, only his legs exposed with the foliage covering his upper torso. To my amazement people strolled past without the slightest recognition of the chameleon.

What are the homeless persons perceptions of the city and its rules of survival compared to the far different, conventional modern mannered guidelines to living as an educated, privileged city dweller?

The inner city resident lives and works in high-rise buildings that are inwardly orientated, concerned with functioning for the client and the consumer. Even the external spaces and the perimeter of the buildings are orientated towards the privileged and private users; "privatised public space."

Meanwhile up on the 14th floor one is far removed from the street and its culture. Their sense of community is the people they see in their apartment lift of a morning or evening, there is rarely bonding or sharing of experience. These people are launched up lifts into their towers of power displaced from the urban life and movement of the city.

Homeless people see activity and city movement differently to you and me; needing to catch a 6.30 train, or preoccupied with the garbage collection that comes on Tuesdays. Their needs for survival are basic requirements of shelter and food to see them through to the next day. Our daily operations and practices can decide, influence or give opportunity to homeless peoples' routines and habits.

One man's trash is another's treasure. The habit of scrounging through bins falls into a routine of when they're favourably full or accessible. Busy public spaces are goldmines for beggars; post lunchtime eateries and benches yield half eaten sandwiches and the areas inhabited by smokers can contribute numerous puffs of a butt, or if lucky someone with sympathy will give up a cigarette.

These are opportunities not found at a shopping mall, Federation Square or at the open air foyer of a Collins St skyscraper. Privatisation of public space, real estate pushes and urban renewal attempts shift homeless and undesirables along. This concentrates and creates even more complex issues of survival, territory and shelter. The homeless simply can't be banished from the city as some would like. City living offers opportunities as much for the homeless as it does the privileged, but much more is at stake for the homeless. The homeless are desperate and where opportunity is bountiful the chance of survival is greater.

Architecture can aid these people with possibilities on a number of levels; possibilities that require the understanding and patience of architects, planners and the community. This is not in anyway meaning a social reform or a revolt against consumer society or the corporate world but a need to address problems of architectural and spatial language that directly trouble the mentally ill, homeless and youth's.

At an urban scale if we can see the movement of the homeless by identifying how the city functions for them and their particular habits, we can then concentrate and act on the problems associated with these pathways. Practically anyone can tell you where the homeless hang out; in the darker smaller lanes, in the parks, where all the crime and violence occurs or in the derelict areas. But through analysis of the movement, actions, functions and how they relate, we can gain much deeper understanding of what the homeless endure. Likewise by finding these nodes and antinodes of activity I think we can also find a direct correlation between society's behaviour and how it directly and indirectly impacts upon homeless lives.

Focusing closely at a street level, external walls of buildings and lanes near shelters - around places of homeless concentration - we could provide lockers, amenities and facilities for use. Lockers and security are some of the prime concerns of the homeless as the few possessions they grasp on to are not only valued as functional for daily living, but are the valued possessions of someone with close to nothing.

Vending machines strategically placed through an urban analysis, could be created to provide free disposable toiletries, blankets and plastic raincoats, not just the chocolate bar or can of coke. Giving a basic survival tool is not only an act of compassion and understanding but also provides the homeless with an opportunity to maintain a level of hygiene. This is most important in not only the individual's self esteem but also in appeasing social interaction and acceptance.

Although providing this kind of service can be controversial as some welfare groups in society oppose any attempt that might aid or complement the homeless lifestyle, I think it is a step in the right direction to ease the pain, bitterness and to show that community cares. If the framework of architecture can give some sense of belonging through providing for the homeless then it has started changing what has been a history of neglect.

Melbourne architect Sean Godsell made a significant step with his design of a park bench with a backrest that folds over to provide cover for a person sleeping on the bench. This was met with heavy criticism for encouraging the homeless life style. But more recently local governments have recognised and encouraged such solutions with plans to enlarge benches, to cluster seats for safety, to create troughs for washing and to make toilets more accessible. In the past these councils enforced an anti homeless stance with uncomfortable benches, unfriendly basins, inaccessible facilities by night and using water sprinklers to deter nighttime settlers from parks. There are now promising signs that people are beginning to realise that homelessness just doesn't go away but needs responsible solutions.

The opportunity architecture has in the functioning of a city to create and maintain places of human scale is not only fundamental to providing diversity to the streetscape, but is also necessary in allowing us to relate and feel comfortable in the city. It is focusing on architecture and urban spaces of human scale rather than the monolithic towers, inaccessible shopping malls and privatised spaces that the homeless need. Human scaled space offers warmth, accessible shops, amenities, shelter, recreation and educational facilities that the homeless can utilize. In these areas of Melbourne the homeless move easier and are accepted with less confrontation and given more opportunity by the freedom of truly urban streets. Human scale must be maintained not just for homeless but for everyone's use and connection to the city street.

The one word I've used repeatedly is OPPORTUNITY. Providing the homeless with chances to rehabilitate and aspire to contribute to society must come from the heart of our cities. If architecture can give the homeless opportunity and hope its providing a great service to the homeless, whether it's by vending machines giving them tools to re ignite self-respect or breaking the conflict of the private and public space. People when given a chance in times of desperation grasp opportunity with both hands, but it's not till society lets them that we will see any great development.

Unfortunately too many in society would ignore rather than support and help the troubles of people on the streets. The value of the homeless is terribly underestimated. The Dalai Lama, a wanderer considered homeless for political reasons, encourages compassion for these people with these words:

"It is of course deeply unfortunate when such people feel rejected by society. Not only is it deeply painful for them, but also, from a broader point of view, it is a loss for society. We are not providing the opportunity for these people to make a constructive social contribution when they actually have the potential to do so. I therefore think it is important for society as a whole not to reject such individuals, but to embrace them and acknowledge the potential contribution they can make. In this way they will feel they have a place in society, and will begin to think that they might perhaps have something to offer."

It is by providing the opportunity that the Dalai Lama asked for, that I believe Theo van Gogh displayed his love and compassion for his brother. Vincent only ever sold one painting for 400 francs and the financial burden upon Theo who supported Vincent's life style was heavy. If Theo hadn't supported his brother, Vincent most likely would have been just another mentally ill homeless man perceived by society as a beggar with little talent or intellect.

Until the Theo's of this world reach a critical mass, I believe the struggle to accommodate the homeless will come up against a social system that will always disregard the homeless and less fortunate. In a materialistic world opportunities for those with nothing are few. So if you hear the drum beat, go find its origin, offer a smile and some of your small change. It's a start.

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