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

Barbara Knecht: Community Structures and 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.”

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