The number of homeless people in the UK has steadily grown over the past decade or so, with the Guardian reporting that homelessness levels have risen for the seventh consecutive year. Welfare cuts, social housing shortages, straitened financial times, and pressure on vulnerable households have all contributed to the problem. For those sleeping rough, a surge in drug addiction, and mental health problems has made life more difficult.
Architecture and design have the potential to help homeless people. However, in most cases skills are being used to combat the people, not the problem.
Architect James Furzer has put together a collection of photographs that highlight the design war that’s being waged against homeless people in the UK. Benches are designed to be uncomfortable or awkward to sleep on, and sheltered spots are fitted with spikes. Speaking to Forbes magazine, Furzer explains:
“As architects, we have a duty of care to provide shelter for those who need it. I feel that architects can help by battling against the design guide and councils that want to design the undesirables out of their towns. The benches show a lack of designer’s duties being undertaken, hidden behind the noted façade of functionality. A case of: ‘Who do we want here, and who do we not want here?’. I can wholeheartedly say the defensive architecture exists on an unprecedented level, and is sadly on the rise. Bus stops have slanted platforms you can perch on but not sit on. Barriers are placed on walkways. It sends a visual message and has a real-life impact. You aren’t free anymore. You’re limited by what and where a planner or corporation says you can go.”
The UK certainly isn’t the only place anti-homeless design is employed. Seattle recently dispersed a homeless tent encampment and replaced it with a series of unnecessary bike racks. There are few cyclists in the area – it is simply to stop homeless people from sleeping there.
There is a growing effort, especially among young architects, to try and offer homeless people some privacy. One such scheme is being floated by Framlab, and features hexagonal honeycomb structures that attach to the sides of existing buildings. Bed frames are made by 3D printers using plant-based polymers, and the walls are constructed from plywood.
With property prices so high, many of the ideas for purpose-built accommodation for homeless people centre around attaching individual sleeping compartments to other buildings, particularly in the inner cities. However, many building owners, particularly those of apartment buildings, are highly reluctant to allow for such fixings – it would likely bring down their property value as a result.
Architect Chris Hildrey noticed that the lack of a fixed address hobbles people at a critical time, and often leads to homelessness. Job Centres and agencies need a way of getting in contact, but vulnerable people might not have an address to receive mail, or no phone to receive calls. Hildrey figured out a workaround – a way of giving homeless people an address to use for official purposes like job seeking and phone contracts, without giving them the property itself. It emulates a system allowing servicemen and women to have an address while they’re stationed, so that when they return to the UK they can use it for things like credit checks. Although Hildrey’s system, known as ProxyAddress, doesn’t allow homeless people to receive mail yet, it can be used to sign up for important services.