How 3 Cities Are Addressing Homelessness

Homeless encampment in San Francisco / Broke Ass Stuart

Over a half of a million people in the United States are homeless. In major cities, homelessness is on the rise, due in part to increasing rent costs and a lack of affordable housing.

Officials and landscape architects addressing homelessness in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Denver shared insights and lessons learned from their cities in a discussion at the ASLA Annual Meeting in Los Angeles. Panelists included Scott Gilmore, deputy executive director of Denver parks and planning; Joe Salaices, city of Los Angeles department of recreation and parks; and Guneet Anand, ASLA, SITELAB urban studio. 

“You’re not going to end homeless,” Gilmore said. “There’s always been homelessness, and there will always be homelessness.”

“It can be a very daunting task,” he said about addressing the issue. “But I have hope. There are positive actions to be taken.”

Gilmore noted a series of initiatives in Denver, like the Denver Day Works program, which provides work experience in parks and public spaces for people experiencing homelessness. Gilmore says the program has been an effective recruitment tool for full-time employment with the city. The program also offers storage units for homeless individuals to keep their belongings while they access social or healthcare services.

Storage locker in Denver / Colorado Public Radio

“People think when you’re homeless you might be a drop out from high school or you don’t have everything together,” he said. “About 25 percent of these people are college educated. That gives you a sense that anybody in this room making the wrong step, or just having bad things happen, can be homeless at anytime.”

In Los Angeles County, homelessness jumped 23 percent last year. Salacies says that trend will likely continue, given the area’s expensive housing market. “We have situations where people become homeless because they miss a paycheck or two.”

Salaices said Los Angeles is working to collect data on the city’s homeless population.

“By collecting data we are able to go back and use it for budget services,” he said. “Without the numbers, the justification to share with elected officials, we’re never going to get the budget and money to improve our situation.”

In San Francisco, the leading cause of new homelessness is eviction. “Even though 44 percent of the homeless population does have a job they are not able to afford homes,” Guneet said.

She explained how SITELAB urban studio has been working with Lava Mae, which repurposes old buses into showers and toilets to serve homeless populations in San Francisco. Together, they developed the Lava Mae popup care village, which explores how the design of public space can better serve vulnerable populations.

SITELAB with Lava Mae Pop Up Care Village / Image courtesy SITELAB

“Care is the most important when you’re doing work that relates to the homeless, ” she said, adding that we are “sometimes desensitized because it is so present in our cities. We often walk past encampments and don’t think twice about what we can change or what we can do differently.”

Brie Hensold, ASLA, a principal at Sasaki and moderator of the session, noted a common thread between each of the cities is an effort to listen to the individuals and build relationship with the homeless communities, pointing to examples where “key individuals in the homeless population have become ambassadors and problem solvers.”

One such instance is found Gladys Park in Los Angeles, which has a large homeless population.

Gladys Park / City of Los Angeles

“A couple of the individuals started taking charge,” said Salaices. He added that the city has started hiring these people to help with maintaining spaces like the restrooms and grounds within the park.

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