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

[ID:1941] Homeless Integration into Society through Urban Farms

United States

Each homeless individual has a unique story to tell about the experiences that resulted in a life on the streets. In turn, each lives through unique and individual experiences while homeless. Some have access to shelters and food kitchens, others do not. Some come from mental institutions, others are unemployed. To lump the homeless into one category would do an injustice to their stories and limit our ability to find a solution. In this essay, I will not pretend that my solution will create a utopian city with streets cleaned of any signs of poverty or even that such conditions are desirable. I simply offer a solution that can help the homeless that want to be helped but cannot help themselves. A city will always have poor and homeless, simply because some want to be homeless. However, we can try to take as many homeless off the streets as possible. Hopefully, my essay will show the possibility that those taken off the streets can one day find dignity within society.

Architects should take an active role in helping the homeless. However, the architect is only a part of the solution. Human compassion is also an important part. It is the human compassion, the desire to, and more importantly, the action of helping that begins the process of solving the problem. Human compassion will keep the architect, particularly the architectural theoretician, from breaking the homeless down into categories and forcing them into slots that they should never be forced into. The human perspective is necessary, because only by acting as humans can we understand our fellow man, and only by being with that man can we hope to begin to help him rather than satisfying our ego. We can only hope to understand the homeless through direct experience. Louis Kahn understood this when he once spent weeks in a hospital bed to understand the condition of those he planned to help when building a hospital. Understanding a problem through experience goes to the heart of the true designer.

I acquired experience with the homeless while working for Sunny Side Homeless Shelter in Portland, Oregon. I learned that the homeless have been left behind. They feel that society does not need them and does not want them. I met people without any options, who only wanted a chance; people who were on welfare but needed more to get off the street. It kept them suspended just below the surface never letting them come up for breath. Most of the people I met were intelligent. It was not academic intelligence, but rather an understanding of the real world and the people in it. What I noticed most about working with the homeless is their remarkable understanding of the world they exist in and the society and people they are excluded from.

In talking to homeless, you may feel that they are just victims. Most homeless are part victims, but some are also partly to blame. Politically there has always been controversy over who is to blame for the homeless situation. Political conservatives want to blame the homeless for their problems. Liberals want to blame conservative policy. The truth is not an A or B but rather A and B. Change must come from both sides of the spectrum. Charities, although beneficial, may prolong the problem rather than solving it and may instill a sense of victimhood within the people they try to help. This mentality, makes the homeless no longer responsible for their fate; although partially true, this leads to an acceptance and passivity about changing their condition. Shelters and food kitchens may merely allow the homeless to survive as homeless. They do not provide the homeless with a way out, or rather, a way into the acceptance of society. If we are going to find a place in society for the homeless, the homeless must be able to provide for themselves.

Society values those who contribute; accordingly, the homeless must also contribute. Only when the homeless have a sense of power and control over their fate will they be accepted by society. Society must not only want to help the homeless, but must also need the homeless. So the question is, how do we give the homeless a sense of value for themselves while also feeling value from society? Integrating farms into the city may present the opportunity for homeless to provide for themselves and society.

First, where will these farms be located in a city? After all, what required farms to stay rural is the need for large amounts of land. Urban farms will be vertical. They will be a new type of multi-level building providing agriculture within the city. This form of farming can be brought to the city through technology and architecture. We possess the capacity to create urban farms. An urban farm sounds like a contradiction--Urban and rural farming environments have always been opposites. It was urban environments--cities--that brought farmers away from the rural life at the beginning of the industrial revolution. Industry was the life of cities. Urban farms will replace the industry that has declined in the cities causing unemployment.

I propose either taking empty buildings and renovating them or building new ones to create urban farms to be run by the homeless. The architect is given a special task. It will be his job to solve problems of maximizing outside sunlight and reducing the cost and energy use of indoor hydroponics facilities (urban farms). Indoor farming will allow for greater control of crop temperatures and pest management. The architect will be able to recreate any climate within these specially designed buildings. Crops will be independent of geography and season allowing any type of crop any time of year. Urban farms will allow complete control over every farming variable. This control could lead to use of genetically modified crops that could grow more effectively indoors without the fear of spreading and contaminating outdoor crops.

Next, where will the money come from? The crops from the urban farms will be grown within the city, removing the need to ship crops from other parts of the U.S. and the world, saving money that can be fed back into the program (salaries, housing, daycare, etc.). The crops can then be sold to city grocery stores, or at homeless-run daily markets. Homeless individuals will be able to feel pride both in the products they grow and the service they provide the city.

In Portland, Oregon, the urban farm start up fees can be paid for by a "community reinvestment policy" as described in Andy Merrifield's book, Dialectical Urbanism. In the "community reinvestment policy" attempted in Baltimore, Maryland, new developers were asked to contribute $2.25 per square foot. As Merrifield describes, "it was estimated that around $4.5 million could be generated over five years." Portland is also undergoing some expensive development in the gentrified pearl district. By having developers pay a fee per square foot, start up cost for the urban farms could be generated.

Once the buildings are ready for farming, a group of homeless, can begin work under support and supervision of knowledgeable trainers. It is within the power of the selected soon-to-be farmers to make the urban farms successful. If individuals are not successful, the city will admit other willing homeless to the program, allowing others the opportunity. Urban farms, in a sense, would wake people up saying "hey, here is a way out, it is now up to you to succeed." This new found self-power will produce both a change within themselves and in their view of the world. It is not just charity; because those who choose to take responsibility and do the work will be making the change. They will be given power over their own lives. Urban farms will be a wake up call to all passive homeless that they also have a way out; it is their job to take it and adjust themselves accordingly to succeed. Urban farms will be a way out for homeless, because they are geared to help them while also helping the city.

Of course, the city will help contribute to the success by providing the necessary resources to start the farms, which includes hiring knowledgeable professionals to start the farms, assist with farming techniques and use of indoor hydroponics technologies. These professionals will only be needed at the start, as the homeless will be trained in operating the farm and will soon learn and be able to educate others. Housing would be necessary for farmers, particularly newcomers fresh off of the street, but the income generated from the farms would allow workers to have wages that enable them to find housing on their own if they so desire. Eventually, a self-governing community of experienced urban farmers will take form, to work in collaboration with the city. In addition, urban farms would also be a type of labor never seen within the city before. Many of the homeless I met in shelters were just not interested in 9 to 5 jobs. They enjoyed the freedom of not having a boss. The urban farms would be more than just a job. They would create a community. A lot of people on the streets are disconnected from their families and find comfort in a community of other homeless. The urban farms would continue this type of "family."

Those who perform well will be given better jobs with more income within the urban farm. Once these homeless become working members of society, it is possible that they could move into the private sector for other types of work, although their experience and skills could be utilized in remaining with the farms. Those who choose to leave would open up jobs for other homeless at the farms. The farms belong to the homeless and are run and managed by them, people who were once the outcasts of society. This is important because it can instill a sense of trust within the homeless community.

By running their own program, the homeless will be able to adjust that program to meet the needs of its workers. Some homeless, like the mentally ill, might need special schedules that would most likely include less working hours that are less labor intensive. It must be noted that just because someone is mentally ill does not mean they are completely impaired. With a place to sleep and someone to make sure they take their medication, those whose symptoms are alleviated by medication can become valuable members of the urban farms. Farming within a supportive community might offer the best solution to help these people.

The story of the homeless, their desperation and poverty, is also a story of our inner cities. When passing a homeless person, we may feel a twinge of quilt. Homelessness in the streets is a sign that something has gone wrong within our society. They are a reminder that we still have work to be done. That is why I feel a solution to the problems of the homeless will also be a solution to problems of our cities. Cities are the apexes of our social and cultural centers. They are where our government works and where our art is created and displayed. Cities are also where we find the majority of homeless. The urban farms would replace industry in the jobless cities, revitalizing the cities.

If society directly gains from helping the homeless, it will wish to do so. Simply moving the homeless around and providing shelters will not solve the problem, even if it helps the homeless survive in their current state. If a solution is to be reached, a serious effort must take place and a serious effort will only take place if a city, or rather those with power within a city, will benefit. A win/win solution is the only answer, or else we all lose.

For the program to begin, several things must be accomplished. The program must be recognized by politicians and the public as more than just a program to help the homeless. It must be focused on solving the problem. The public is unlikely to fork over money for simply helping the poorest of the poor. The program must be recognized as a revitalization program for the city. Any city that initiates the program will be doing something revolutionary. The publicity from such undertakings, and certainly its success, will put a city on the map, likely drawing investors into a city, especially with the reduction of homeless on the street. In addition, these facilities will be unlike anything a city has seen before. It brings farming and fresh produce markets within the density of the city. These urban farming communities are likely to generate a revitalized community around them, since markets have been a source of public gathering since the birth of cities. The markets run by the urban farms can be daily affairs, because they will be a source of fresh produce for the city and attract suburbanites, helping the inner city.

Urban farms will be places of both scientific and tourist inquiry that cities can use to encourage people to move back into the city from the suburbs and bring tax revenues. More importantly the farms will replace the lost industrial jobs within the cities. The loss of industrial jobs has been the most effective killer of cities and producer of homeless. If the public and politicians can be convinced of these benefits, there is no reason why they would not advocate the initiation of this program. Cost will be the main issue, but after the initial startup costs, the program will be expected to become self-sufficient.

If homeless are to be integrated into society, society must accept them as many capable and decent people. Urban farms will demonstrate the capabilities of homeless to work and succeed. A change must occur within society as well. Homeless must be recognized as people like everyone else, but who have been less fortunate.

I believe urban farms would be a way to get the majority of homeless off the street. Urban farms alone will not solve all the problems of homelessness, but could be a place for the homeless to generate money and a caring community that could also benefit the remaining homeless. If we hope to help the homeless, we must allow them to be seen and understood by the rest of society. In this essay, I hope to invoke compassion as well as a solution because compassion and understanding of the struggles of the homeless is the first step in my solution. Only through society's compassion for the homeless can a solution be attempted. That is not to say that homeless are complete victims. If homeless are to become members of society they must change as well. This is a mechanism for that change.

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