A survey of homeless individuals by Downtown Streets Team yielded one overwhelming response: they felt completely ignored as human beings. At the ASLA 2019 Conference on Landscape Architecture in San Diego, Brian Elliott, policy analyst for San Diego Councilmember Chris Ward; Brandon Davis with the California-based Downtown Streets Team; and Lena Miller with Urban Alchemy, discussed strategies to reintegrate homeless individuals into their communities, ranging from top-down policy decisions to empowering local unsheltered populations through employment options.
California is ranked number 1 in homelessness, with nearly 130,000 homeless individuals, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and numbers only continue to rise.
Elliott expressed a commitment to reduce the number of unsheltered people in San Diego County, which he cited as at least 4,476 people, nearly 55 percent of the at least 8,100 homeless residents of San Diego County. Councilmember Ward is the chair of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, an “integrated array of stakeholders committed to preventing and alleviating homelessness.”
Dispelling myths about who the homeless was paramount to all three speakers, but Elliott highlighted that in San Diego, the cause is primarily economic. He noted that “a hospital bill they could not pay, a utility bill they could not pay, balanced with housing, especially in a high-cost market with low vacancy rates, leads to homelessness.”
The City of San Diego unanimously passed the Community Action Plan on Homelessness, a body of policy focused on helping the existing homeless population, preventing future homelessness, and ensuring that homelessness is an experience that is brief and non-recurring. Davis made clear that “homelessness is an experience, not an identity.”
The plan looked at three short-term goals to be achieved in three years: end youth homelessness; end veterans homelessness; and decrease unsheltered homelessness by 50 percent. Building community and state level buy-in is central to achieving these goals. As can be seen below, veterans homelessness spreads across generations.
The first step of the plan calls for transitioning away from using the police as a first point of contact and instead reaching out to social workers. In order to combat the housing issue, the city council has committed to at least 140 new units of permanent support housing in all 9 council districts to be built over two years. To achieve this, Elliott encouraged landscape architects to continue to design for everyone, not specific populations.
Miller started Urban Alchemy in 2018. The organization birthed out of Hunter’s Point Family, an earlier non-profit Miller founded that focused on public housing.
Miller became interested in public toilets, specifically their importance in ensuring the dignity of the homeless, but also their potential for jobs. The organization has created 24 safe and clean public toilets in Tenderloin and other parts of San Francisco with high homeless populations and given homeless individuals jobs cleaning and maintaining those toilets, BART stations, the Civic Center area, downtown streets, and parks.
Urban Alchemy works with long-term offenders, integrating them back into society in order to prevent them from experiencing homelessness. Miller pointed to their high levels of emotional intelligence, their ability to read people, and their ability to interact with different kinds of people. All of these skills help them to establish and maintain social norms in the public places they work.
The police are brought in to offer deescalation training, helping to establish a relationship between law enforcement and employees of Urban Alchemy. Miller said this “transforms the paradigm of how the police see us, and how everyone in society sees us.”
Miller noted how the work provides not only an income but also a sense of pride, remarking on an anecdote where one employee called the Governor of California into a bathroom stall he had just cleaned to show him how clean it was.
Urban Alchemy saved 85 lives in 2018, through Narcan deployment, which brings back people from drug overdoses, and providing water to dehydrated people.
Downtown Streets Team employs local homeless populations to clean community spaces in San Jose and San Francisco. Instead of an hourly wage, they offer a non-cash basic-needs stipend, case management, employment services, and a support network within their community. The program offers people who have been out of work for a few years a platform to build their resume and eventually re-enter the workforce.
Volunteers wear bright yellow shirts, denoting them as members of the community and part of the Downtown Streets Team. The simple action of donning a yellow shirt and cleaning the community restores their dignity as people and members of their community.
The marginalization of homeless individuals often leads them to ignore the social norms of public space. Including them as part of the community helps ensure norms are met.
Each Tuesday, Downtown Streets Team hosts a town hall where people can participate in public life, share in each other’s successes, and be together. For Davis, “we are all here to hold each other accountable to be our better selves.”
To date, Downtown Streets Team has secured over 1,900 jobs and homes for people.