|The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence 2021|
[ID:2015] Homes for the Homeless by the Homeless
In my first essay submission, I wrote about an idea, which is all we have sometimes. The idea that
homeless people can make a home for themselves. Not build a shed, but a home. They say the point
of writing should be to further the knowledge of the world. I hope this paper does so.
In Uganda, diversity in culture is a phenomenon that makes us stand out from many nations. We are a
country with more than 111 districts(and counting), speaking more languages than I can count,
though we agreed in principle to speak English when we mean official business, Luganda with the
locals and Kiswahili when commissioning any kind of construction or manual effort. That exists in the
city centre, Kampala, though. Move a few hundred kilometres East to Jinja, and the rules change:
English remains the official language. To commission work, speak Luganda or Kiswahili, but to have a
meaningful conversation with the locals, speak Lusoga. One more: Arua. This district is located North
West of my country in the area called West Nile. Here, English is the official language, but, to get
around, you must speak Lugbara somewhat decently, and yet to listen to radio you should know
Kakwa, or Madi, and then there is a variation of Lugbara that they call Teregian. This is an old
language that the elders are worried will phase out. It is a beautiful language though, they call water
“odrukudru blankiti” that translates to “a frog’s blanket”, such poetry! These are just some of the
ways we differ. This diversity is
madness. But it is a beautiful kind of madness.
In the famine of 2011, it got so bad that families of 11 people in Arua, were sharing 3potatoes for
supper. For sauce, raw tomatoes in ground nut paste would have to suffice. There are stories that
after mingling the staple food “inyasa” (millet bread), when the girl left to get a plate on which to
serve the food for the family to share, she would find it empty upon her return. Children were that
Being homeless in my country is a socially challenging issue that has been the topic for years. Many
of the people on the street are simply victims of circumstance. Some might have tried to run away
from the scourge of poverty that is in our villages, maybe even after the infamous famine of 2011. People come to
the city hoping they will make a better living for themselves. It is like that Hollywood dream we
hear about on the television. Yet upon their arrival they are surprised by ‘how real things are’, an
expression the youth of Uganda use to mean a state of realisation that hard work, cunning and wit
must be employed to survive a certain situation. That said, many of these immigrants both get low
paying jobs, and live in slums, though the less fortunate simply sleep in the street. The result is a city
full of all sorts of people: the middle income earner with the man who had a chapatti for 'Bru-nch-uPPER'
[slang for the meal someone has at around 4pm to make up for breakfast, lunch and also
account for supper], the one with the job and the one without, and the woman with a gleaming
handbag and the one who wonders what is in that handbag. What we have as a result is a city where
walking through the intersections and roundabouts at around 6pm requires several hail Marys to
weave your way through the traffic that is at an average speed of 10kilometres per hour, and to hold
the bag tightly enough under the arm so that someone might not snatch the cell phone from it.
Usually, the authorities try to alleviate these issues, but it can be overwhelming.
In a recent campaign on the radio, one of the political aspirants said that [to deal with the issue of]
the street children he will encourage avenues for them to turn their talents into money making
ventures, just as Eddy Kenzo a local musician did when he used street children as his dancers in his
video ‘stamina’ that went viral. This politician says create jobs: in a country with an unemployment
rate of 75% and yet the youth compose the biggest part of my country that will work.
My Urban design class this year taught me that social life impacts on the general well-being of a
person. Think of it this way: if you can get to work in a short time, using cheap means of
transportation, walk if necessary, and then look forward to the end of the day when you go back to
your happy home, then your productivity increases. A happy employer makes for a happy salary.
Architecture should not be reduced to simply placing the pawn. In the grand scheme of things, it
should be the chess board, without which, there are too many possibilities to make sense of. The
issues my country faces are from poor education, from the housing sector not receiving more than
2% of the national budget, and from the youth thinking a strike in a University is a way to solve
problems. For instance, I know that in my village, Arua, it gets so hot, you can see the air dancing
around like the air over a stove it would be better to shift from growing cassava and potatoes as the
main agricultural activity in the villages to animal husbandry which is done on a small scale now. I
know that, because I am in school.
I will now stop digressing. And yet, to make my point, you have to see the whole picture: education, gender issues, inflation: all impact the kind of home we can hope for. At the end of my essay, it will all be tied together. Let me proceed.
The one thing that is consistent among my fellow Ugandans is a strong sense of
community. I went to a secondary school 4 districts away from my home in Entebbe. In this school,
some of the closest friends I made were because I learned that they came from my village or from
Entebbe. With those from whom we shared a village, we had the same accent (influenced by our
language), we laughed at the same jokes. We understood that for us a bicycle is our everything: our
means to the market, a way to carry water if your husband can allow it, and that a bicycle was to
traffic jam in Arua town as car was to traffic jam in Kampala. These kinds of bonds were instant, and
ten years later, in my 4th year of architecture school, I still laugh with these people for whom the
bicycle is not only a toy.
Having the same ideals, and being able to empathise is an important part of community. Oscar
Newman knew this before he deliberated over the words for the pages of his book ‘Creating
Defensible Space’. He knew that the quality of life in a commune might be more important than the
To deal with the issue of homelessness, especially the street children and beggars, I think a more
sustainable solution is to foster a place for them that they can call home. To create for them a
people that they can call mine so that they have a sense of stability. Having a decent life is
essentially what every nomad aspires for. And yet no nomad wants to invest heavily in the structure
under which he lays, because he knows he will leave. Ian Bentley in 'Responsive Environments'
mentions personalisation of space as good for a good city. I think a facility that gives the homeless
some sort of anchor for whatever short period of time they are at can have effects that will ripple
In the United States, there is a group whose ideas I thought resonate with mine. The SquareOne
Villages. They have a few interesting projects under: tent city urbanism, the village collaborative etc. They make temporary tent villages into more decent homes, albeit temporary, but decent
none the less in a controlled environment as seen in Quixote Village in Olympia, Tiny House village in Seattle and Emerald village that is coming up. One of the blogs I read called these communities ‘gated
communities’, which they are. The villages they build consist 8-12 homes, at about $2,000 each.
They have rules of conduct. A law. The stories we get from the
blogs are that these communities have had an influence on the lives of the people. There are those
of alcoholics cleaning up their act, drug users becoming useful. The way these people got homeless
is no different from the way the people in Uganda get homeless: they are all victims of circumstance.
If I were a part of one of these SquareOne Village projects setting up a homeless village, I would be
keen on how they involve the people to build with them, how they cut costs, and more importantly,how they ensure that each place has a set of rules to which the people will succumb. I would be
interested in understanding how they decide to allow alcohol or not, or to allow them to govern
themselves or not. Building houses is easy. Making the people like their home, that part needs some
tact. In a recent project, the SquareOne Village is proposing using single plots of land to set up these
villages in the different localities. To alleviate the fears of the people with concerns about security,
they have interviews on record on their website about assessing some of the projects they have
built, and the results to these are more positive than not. The strategy is brilliant. Urban
developments that the locals squint at hardly last long. SquareOne Village is transparent, its public
relations are brilliant, and the people settled in their small homes are happy. For an urban planner
and architect, this is like when Ebenezer Howard suggested people can live and work together in
clean, safe environments in the town-county in his drawing ‘the three magnets’- a pivotal
However, that is in the United States of America. While I think that approach is foolproof, i am aware that my country's challenges are different.The challenge would then remain that who would provide the land?
And how would we make our street children and beggars see this new place as home?
Ideally, the government is for the people. In Uganda’s land act of 2010, the government has the right
to use the land of the country in a way that benefits the nation (for the greater good of it) but after
offering compensation to the people that occupy it. That said, I thought these homeless
peoples’ communes could be realised by the government, or by a philanthropist. Alternatively, private
developers could lease out their land to the people managing these homeless people’s communes.
After ensuring that land tenure has no conflict for these homeless people, by day, the land could
serve as a washing bay, or temporary craft market where people make and sell these crafts, and by
night, these people could set up their homes; decent temporary shelters that can be folded away for
storage. Making the space flexible allows for the homeless to take up employment while creating
returns for the developers of the communes.
I do not agree with a popular approach to homelessness which simply provides a roof over the head.
That way, these people might never leave the street. A much better approach would be to show
them that the benefits of hard work can reap comfort, in the long-term. The way we design
communities should not be for the sake of the structure. It should be so that the people using the
structure have the sense to take care of the structure. In the Japanese story of the 1000bags of rice,
it talks about sacrifice for today to empower people for tomorrow.
In my country, it is not enough to deal with homelessness at the surface of things by proving a roof.
An architect is a magician. An architect can make you say a prayer everyday simply because of the
way the drapes of your house catch the light in the morning. I believe an architect can help clear the
streets of Kampala of homeless people. He just has to think about many things. The smallest issue
being the roof over the head. In Karamoja, the government pulled strings and built houses for the
people so that they would ‘upgrade’ from the concave shaped grass thatched manyatta-like
structures to a permanent iron sheet roofed house. They did not know that it would rain, and these
Karamojong would run out of the houses for fear of the ghosts attacking them (it was simply the
sound of rain drops hitting the iron sheets on a roof with no ceiling). That must have been really frightening for a semi-arid region.
Dealing with homeless people requires tact. It requires that these people get comfortable in their
new homes, so that they can make a better home someday. The idea I have is that in communes where
people work together and live together mothers might be encouraged to start a savings group and buy story
books to put in a shed which they will pester the men in the commune to build, because they need a place for the children to rest in the afternoon, to eat, for the sick to be treated and to have
meetings. These story books might help the children pick an interest in reading, and then the whole
world will be theirs.
In December, I was in Arua. The bathrooms there are built outside, and because
of the high temperatures, the bathrooms are always dry. Plus they have no roof. There was a problem
of the drainage from the bathroom in my homestead, so, in a matter of hours, I suggested we dig a
soak away pit. All I had to do was to direct my cousins who had gathered out of interest around the
site to dig the pit to 4 feet deep, re-align the pipe and fill the pit with stones so that the water drains
downwards. From this exercise, I found that people are always willing to work, they just need to
know that it is not for nothing, which requires an expert’s opinion to help.
In conclusion, I believe social issues like homelessness deserve solutions taken from the social fabric
of the people themselves. It might take ten years, but the next generation will know a different kind
of homelessness. They will hear the stories of street children and beggars who slept on cardboard
along the pavements of Kampala road. Their reality will be one where the poor who cannot afford a
slum have a home where they have each other.
1. Oscar Newman, Creating Defensible space 1996
2. Ian Bentley, Responsive Environments
6. Lectures from Arch. Lund Cato
7. Interviews from various locals in Kampala, Entebbe and Arua
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