Go Away: The homeless and public space

Out on one of my many excursions in Atlanta, more specifically Downtown Atlanta, I noticed that there were a lot of homeless people. I think the city I have seen them in the most in Texas has been Austin, but more so begging for money at intersections. Other than that, I have only seen them in abundance in Mexico in the city centers. There, they are mostly women and children so it makes you feel even worse. Actually, now that I think of it, I didn’t see homeless women and children in Downtown Atlanta; just men. Some even seemed to be crazy on top of being homeless.

What am I getting at with this? Well, there is a public space I mentioned in an earlier post that was designed by a firm I went to interview with. It’s not too far away from the firm as well as a couple of major universities, such as Georgia Tech. And, not because it was a great multi-use space with dining and shopping or that there seemed to be a lot of people using it from businessmen to college students to commuters coming from the metro station across the street, but because as soon as it got dark it seemed to clear and turn into one of the most shady places I have ever seen; like night and day. And yes, the homeless would start to move in. And not just in this space, but also in a nearby public plaza in front of government buildings and sidewalks. Needless to say, it did not make me want to get out of the car and further explore.

But the homeless have every right to use these public spaces just as much as the rest of us, do they not? Public space is a “social space such as a town square that is open and accessible to all, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, age or socio-economic level” (Wikipedia). On the other hand, we all know their presence doesn’t make us feel comfortable, especially at night. So how do we, as Landscape Architects, along with other design disciplines, solve this issue? Cities, such as San Francisco, have even gone as far as removing benches completely to discourage the homeless from sleeping there, as well as designing the benches in such a way that it would be uncomfortable if not impossible for a person to lay on it. This may have worked to keep the homeless away from sleeping on the benches, but they simply found other things to sleep on in the same public space. Other issues also arose from this solution. People wanting to just sit and enjoy their lunch or meet with someone could not do so anymore. And when design was not enough, laws have been enacted to combat the problem. In Orlando, for example, an ordinance was passed to prohibit people from lying on park benches. What’s next? Preventing people from lying on the grass? (San Francisco Beautiful).

This is not a new issue and I think it will not “go away” as easily as we would like the homeless to go away. This issue has been with us for a long time and I think it will continue unless we come up with a better solution. Any ideas?

Sources:

Making our Public Spaces Homeless-Proof

Wikipedia

Image Source:

Fresh Loaf

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14 comments

  1. Public spaces are built by, financed by, and intended for tax paying citizens. Some public spaces are intended to draw visitors and attract people, so obviously not everyone that uses a public space will be in the Tax base that built it, but they will at least be bringing some revenue to the area that they are visiting. Staying in Hotels, dining out, shopping, or even buying fuel all contribute to the local economy, and tax base, that built the public space.

    The homeless are there providing none of these functions. They are taking from the system without giving back, and that is a broken system. In fact, they deter many people that would potentially provide to the system, so they aren’t even a neutral force.

    I’m not saying they should be treated as sub-humans. I think they should be loved on as people with their problems, just like the rest of us, but I am saying that they do not have the same rights to be there as other people.

    Also, I think this problem derives from another issue that Landscape Architects and Urban Planners can help to solve. You mentioned how during the day a particular space was used by business men and students, but at night it was vacant. This is a common theme throughout America’s down-towns. We have all of these business districts and single use area’s that empty out at night and become much more dangerous as a result of the lack of citizens. Mixed use is the answer. If people actually lived in these areas, or were going out to eat in these areas, or shopping into the evening in these areas then it would be a totally different story. We have to keep people utilizing a space 24/7. It’s the most efficient and effective solution. The same infrastructure that supports businesses and large companies during the day can support residential living at night. Then, the streets, sewer systems, and amenities aren’t wasted at night. They serve a purpose at all times, and this constant stream of activity in an area would deter the homeless people form taking over, or at the very least make them much less intimidating and frightening, because you’re surrounded by regular citizens who you mildly trust and increase your sense of security.

    1. I’m not sure I’m understanding Tyson’s response correctly. Are you saying that I have to be paying money to visit a PUBLIC park? That is ludicrous! When traveling through Europe, I took quite a few naps in PUBLIC parks in a part of the world I didn’t pay taxes in. How is this any different? I have used the bathrooms in PUBLIC rest stops along highways in states that don’t pay taxes. What’s next? Kicking the homeless out of government-funded shelters because they don’t pay for them? Or maybe we should charge for the use of public parks. Oh, wait. That doesn’t give equal rights to all, no matter their race, gender, ethnicity, age, or SOCIO-ECONOMIC level. Me thinks Tyson needs to step off of his high horse and show a bit of compassion for those that are less-privileged.

  2. I’m not saying that at all. I said many public spaces are intended to draw users that are not a part of it’s tax base, but still with the intention that you will contribute to the local economy. Not just simply take free services.

    And it’s a little deeper than saying I pay money in THIS area, so I deserve to use it. You may have stopped to use a public restroom in Mississippi and then continued to drive out of the state without spending a penny, but you pay taxes somewhere in Texas so that a motorist from Mississippi can enjoy the same benefit. The spaces are built for public use, for people in general. But they couldn’t exist if we didn’t contribute some where. It’s a system, and if you break the feedback loop, you break the system.

  3. I believe you must remember that they are part of society!
    Perhaps they where more privileged in the past now hit hard times, does this me the populous should abandon them altogether!?!?!

    should the economic well being of the business in the surround area trump those of real people?

    1. I feel that people are missing the conclusion of my argument. I did state that I personally feel that the homeless don’t have as equal of a claim to public space as others, but my solution was not to do away them.

      I suggested that we should diversify our city centers so that the homeless would function as a part of a population in an area as opposed to a majority of a population. Whereas homeless people in large groups are more dangerous (willing to risk more, have less to loose, more desperate) Homeless people dispersed throughout an active population are much less intimidating.

      We can use Bonn as an example. There were homeless people in that area, but they never frightened me or made me feel threatened. As opposed to “because as soon as it got dark it seemed to clear and turn into one of the most shady places I have ever seen”.

  4. Brittany C · · Reply

    I think it is important to realize that the homeless are PEOPLE. The reason so many men are on the streets is that shelters typically only take women and children, leaving the men with no where to go. They deserve the same rights that all of us have. I think it time for us to have compassion for our fellow humans and let them enjoy public spaces. I have had the pleasure of getting to meet several women and men who have lost their homes. Many of these people sleep on the streets but also work minimum wage jobs. Next time, you should at least ask a person who is homeless how they are. Perhaps get to know what they think about “this issue.” I am sure they all wish they had a cozy bed to sleep in. If you feel that strongly about: how about working to create more shelters for men and helping them get their homes back?

  5. In Arianna’s anecdote the public space had been hijacked by the homeless. It wasn’t a matter of including them…people were abandoning it at night and giving it to them.

    This space was built for everybody, not just one (however unfortunate) demographic.

    We are discussing two completely different topics. I am in complete support of rehabilitating the homeless, and aiding them in anyway possible. I never said otherwise.

  6. “…they do not have the same rights to be there as other people.”
    -or-
    “This space was built for everybody, not just one (however unfortunate) demographic.”
    ?????

    We got a flip-flopper here, folks. Don’t ever go into politics, Tyson.

  7. Ok. So there’s no confusion, I don’t think a homeless person is any less of a ‘person’ than me or you. That said, i’m going to try to formulate my opinion… which is hard since this is a complicated subject.

    1. I agree with Brittany that the solution to the help the homeless are programs and shelters, but from a design stand point, I don’t think “temporary home” or “outdoor sleeping” area should be a goal for public spaces, unless it’s like a camping situation. AND that’s not saying that a public space should be designed to exclude homeless people in general, I just think as a society we should offer shelters and not funky benches in parks for people to sleep at night.

    2. I think there should be a distinction (in our argument) between the homeless in general and down right shady people, because a drug dealer may not necessarily be ‘homeless.’ So, I think Tyson’s mixed use argument really addresses safety concerns… that don’t apply to the homeless in general but to ‘dangerous’ people.

    3. As far as public space design, and something Jane Jacobs points out, places filled with people (and ‘eyes’…. not that people don’t come with eyes, but more to emphasize that they watch what’s happening) are safer. Empty spaces (like at night) tend to be more dangerous because 1. no one is there to help you if something happens and 2. people are more willing to do bad things if they think no one is watching. These empty spaces are were the ‘bad’ people go to do ‘bad’ things.

    I think society has imposed negative connotation on the homeless because they represent our failing economy… well failure in general (even though that may not necessarily be true on a person by person basis). Therefore, when we see who we think are homeless people (but may include the drug dealers and etc) in the spaces that ‘read’ as dangerous because they are empty and/or abandoned and/or it’s night time, we lump it all together and tell ourselves that these people bring the danger. BUT in some cases, it’s poorly designed spaces that attract the ‘dangerous’ people… who we then lump into a category and call them homeless and blame them for our problems.

    I think a well designed public space can be filled with the homeless people in addition to everyone else and not be a problem because the homeless in such lively spaces aren’t there to do bad things. If they wanted to do something bad, they’d go to the park no one goes to.

    4. I also want to bring up the idea of “our park” which excludes the homeless. I think that “good” homeless people could end up in empty spaces filled with “bad” people even if they are not necessarily “bad,” because we have condemned them from “our parks.” When they have no where to go, they sleep in the park that no one cares about… which is the one filled with shady people.

    So, to summarize, I think good design attracts people in general, which makes places safe. “Bad” people are not necessarily the homeless. And, in a time with a weak economy, we should accept that there are a lot of people in unfortunate circumstances and open our minds to not overgeneralize/stereotype the homeless.

  8. My statement never changed. If a situation arises where there is a conflict between these two groups of people-The homeless and everyday users- When push comes to shove the homeless people, who don’t pay property taxes, don’t have as much of a right to be there. But that’s not me saying they absolutely shouldn’t be there. But if an argument has to be made against them, they don’t have much to stand on.

    If however, everyone can utilize the space in harmony, then there isn’t a problem. That isn’t what’s happening here though. This one group of people (who had nothing to do with planning, paying for, or maintaining the space) is monopolizing the space and making other people uncomfortable enough to avoid it.

    So a space that was intended for everyone is being given to the least entitled group.

    1. I think the confusion may be in how you’re wording your opinion. It makes it seem like your still putting ‘blame’/negative connotations on the homeless, when it should be directed toward the design.

      The ‘homeless’ aren’t “monopolizing” the space… they’re kinda taking our leftovers. (I’ve never seen/heard of a pack of homeless people staking claim to a public space declaring it’s there’s and refusing to leave. They kind of just end up where ever has least resistance) Like we spent all this time and money to build public space, and then it ends up sucking (design-wise). So it doesn’t get heavy use, and THEN the homeless ‘outnumber’ daily users because 1. the number of ‘regular’ people goes down (because of the suckiness) and 2. ‘homeless’ people numbers go up because they’re intentionally pushed out of other spaces and have no where else to go. (and they can come there because the design sucks and no one cares.)

      So… in my opinion (and i’m not sure if this still goes with what you’re saying) but people avoid the space because of the poor design… which leaves a hole for the homeless to fill, which then may perpetuate the “uncomfortableness.” The homeless aren’t causing the problem and they’re not taking over the city.

      1. I agree…I would just add that the poor design could relate to the city as a whole, not just one specific public space. Maybe nobody utilizes that space at night because there is nothing to do there at night. or because everything in that area closes at 9 because all the people live 45min away in the suburbs or residential zones.

  9. “I think a well designed public space can be filled with the homeless people in addition to everyone else and not be a problem because the homeless in such lively spaces aren’t there to do bad things. If they wanted to do something bad, they’d go to the park no one goes to.”

    This is exactly what I was saying. and the solution to all of this.

  10. I think Brittany brought up a valid point and one I hadn’t thought about because I do not know much about the situation of the homeless or homeless shelters and that is that they fill up with women and children and then the men have no where to go. That is probably why I saw no women or children, but only men. Then again I believe men could fend for themselves better than women or children. That’s not to say the men should be left out. The solution then might be to build more shelters for everyone as Brittany also pointed out. That could possibly solve the issue. This would not rid our public spaces of the “dangerous” people though such as drug dealers or people just up to no good.

    The public spaces I was speaking of I think were good designs and not because they were innovative or interesting. They were normal plazas, streetscapes, and multi-use developments, but they were used in large numbers because of the business district in the area and two major Universities. I think the solution to this would be what Tyson was suggesting and that is to make it places that were not just used during the day, but 24/7. As we all know a design can be great, but if people feel unsafe it will not be used. Whether that means they feel unsafe because there are homeless people or drug dealers or no one at all.

    Either way I think this is a great discussion and is the type that was meant to be stirred from the creation of Didactic Discourse.

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