The City Space

Cultivating Urban Understanding


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The Housing Segregation Conundrum

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I live in a city that is often called “the most racially segregated city in America.” I’ve heard a few different definitions of what that means but the best one explains that in no other city in America does black so thoroughly and consistenly mean “poor,” and white so thoroughly and consistently equate with “middle class or wealthy.” I think about segregation and it’s complicated cousin, gentrification, a fair amount, especially as they relate to housing and homelessness. I see the neighborhoods where my clients–who are almost all African American–end up living and they are filled with other poor African Americans living in run-down houses with few businesses nearby. Then I look at my own neighborhood which is mostly white, with a bit better housing stock and far more vibrant local businesses. The worst crime that happens in my neighborhood is theft and drunk driving. In my clients’ neighborhoods, it is assault, rape and murder. This is the general picture, not the exact details of every block, but the general picture is bleak and clearly segregated.

A couple weeks ago, the New York Times rans this op-ed by Thomas Edsall entitled “Where Should a Poor Family Live?” In it, Edsall questions what he calls the “poverty housing industry” for its maintenance of the status quo–keeping poor people in poor neighborhoods instead of moving them into wealthier areas which theoretically offer greater opportunity. He asks, “Should federal dollars go toward affordable housing within high-poverty neighborhoods, or should subsidies be used to move residents of impoverished communities into more upscale–and more resistant–sections of cities and suburbs with better schools and job opportunities?”

Edsall mostly talks about federal subsidies that come through Low Income Housing Tax Credits (which widely enable most affordable housing corporations to build and maintain their developments), although his arguments could also be extended to public housing. In essence, Edsall is raising an immensely challenging, but highly relevant question for today’s cities and towns: Should public and private anti-poverty efforts (in this case, affordable housing) focus on uplifting the neighborhoods where poverty exists, or removing poor people from those neighborhoods altogether? Continue reading


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I Will Build This

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After four years working in the field of homelessness prevention, I’ve zeroed in on one big way to help end homelessness. It isn’t education and it isn’t a shelter. (I’ve written before about why shelters are not the solution.) It’s something more attainable and concrete.

I have many dreams (to create an Oscar-winning documentary, to become a bluegrass singer, for example) but the one I am focusing all my efforts towards and shaping my goals around is this: to build high-quality, truly affordable housing as a lasting solution to homelessness.

The “Solutions” That Don’t Work

Why is affordable housing an important solution to homelessness? In short, because welfare is unsustainable and inadequate, and because the minimum wage will take too long to go up. These “solutions” to homelessness don’t work. Let me explain. When I encounter a homeless family that has been referred to the rapid rehousing program at my organization, one of the first things I look at is their income. I will use that to figure out what sort of payments they can make towards rent now, and what sort of apartment they might be able to afford after our subsidy ends. Most clients are either getting by on welfare checks, Social Security Income (because of a serious mental or physical disability that prevents them from working), child support (with payments ranging from $2-$50 a month, i.e. negligible) or wages from a job. Everyone is also receiving SNAP benefits (i.e. food stamps).

So, let’s discuss these potential income streams for accessing housing. Continue reading


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A Recipe for Success

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Milwaukee, WI has made more frequent appearances on this blog, now that I live here, but usually I write about it in something of a critical light. I walk its streets every day, so I see the good and bad that goes on here, and it’s usually more productive to write about the bad, and constructively brainstorm ways to make it better. However, today I want to talk about Milwaukee in a wholly positive light.

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I’m going to talk about one specific street here—Brady Street—because I think it is a fantastic model for a thriving, positive neighborhood street. Brady Street is one block from my house and it serves as a commercial anchor for the East Side of Milwaukee. The businesses here range from a hardware store to an STD clinic, from a Waldorf school to a Catholic church, from a Mediterranean nightclub to a popular sushi café, and from a dingy sports bar to one of the best wine bars in the city. It would take days to explore every storefront on this lively avenue. The street runs parallel to the river and it’s tucked in something of a residential area, yet it’s a busy, bustling thoroughfare with so much to offer. This is due to several important factors that I hope to see in more neighborhoods around the country: Continue reading


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4 Truths You Need to Know About Homelessness Now

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Nearly every city in America is faced with an entrenched problem of homelessness. Whether you see homeless people on your streets or on our televisions, their plight exists at an appalling rate. And yet, our country has also made strides in addressing this issue. Here are 4 truths you should know about homelessness right now, gleaned from my own experiences working in the field, as well as relevant research.

1.  Homelessness affects people in all demographics. The stereotypical picture of a homeless person is an old, scruffy-looking, alcoholic man begging for change by the side of the road. This is simply not the whole picture. The U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) most recent Point in Time Count estimates that across the nation, 1/4 of all homeless people are under the age of 18, and 10% are between the ages of 18-24. In addition, families make up nearly 40% of all homeless people in the United States. People of any race, gender, sexual orientation, religion and age can and have been homeless in our country.

2.  Homelessness impacts every aspect of a person’s life. Homelessness is not just a problem because it means that individuals and families are without a place to go at night. It is also a problem because it prevents people from thriving in numerous areas of their lives: professional, mental, relational, people. When you’re homeless, your ability to apply for and find jobs is severely diminished because you lack access to showers, reliable transportation, nice clothing, a computer (unless you go to the library)–all these building blocks that are important to making a good impression on a potential employer. That’s an automatic setback as a homeless person tries to gain economic stability.

Homeless people also suffer mental health issues at a higher rate than the rest of the population. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 20-25% of homeless people have at least one mental health problem, as compared with 7% of the general population. Mental health issues can be both a cause and an effect of homelessness. These can also lead to relational conflicts with family members and friends.  In addition, homeless people often encounter relational conflicts due to their need to rely on family members for support in tough situations. On the flip side, homelessness can also result in transience–meaning that close friends and family may be cut off from the homeless individual. And tragically, many homeless men, women and children are fleeing domestic violence. These are all ways in which homelessness accompanies family break up and relational conflict. Finally, homelessness affects the physical wellbeing of a person making it challenging to find doctors and access medical services, while also taking a physical toll on a person’s body due to the need to wander and even sleep outside. Overall, it’s clear that homelessness does not just mean “without a home,” but rather, it brings with it a slew of other concerns.

3.  Homelessness is getting better in some places, but worse in others. The next truth you should know about homelessness is that there is hope. New Orleans recently announced its accomplishment of one of the nation’s major homelessness goals: ending veteran homelessness by 2015. They are part of a large pool of cities and states who have made enormous strides in the direction of this goal.  Some other recent successes include an overall decrease in homelessness nationally from 2012 to 2013 (the most recent data available). Family homelessness is down 7% and 31 states saw a decrease in homelessness. However, 20 states saw an increase. Emergency shelters across the nation have consistently been at almost 100% capacity from 2007 to 2013.  I urge you to read up on your own state to see where it fits into this picture, and what policies it has implemented to help end homelessness.

4.  Different solutions work for different people. I wrote last year about how shelters are not a long-term solution to homelessness, yet they are often used as such, with individuals and families bouncing from shelter to shelter for months. Indeed, emergency shelters are really only suited for people who have exhausted all other options and need a temporary place to stay while they figure out their next move. Many individuals who are homeless, particularly those who are chronically homeless (meaning they have been without a home for 1 year or more, or have had several episodes of homelessness) need affordable housing more than they need emergency shelter. They need a permanent solution to a persistent problem. For individuals like this with addiction issues, disabilities or mental health programs, permanent supportive housing is the best option. Supportive housing usually entails affordable apartment-style living with counselors, doctors, and/or case managers readily available to help people work through their challenges.

On the other hand, for a homeless family who is merely low-income and doesn’t have as many health issues, independent affordable housing is the best solution to homelessness. This housing can be provided by a public housing authority, a local nonprofit or for-profit company committed to providing affordable units, or through vouchers that subsidize living in normal market-rate apartments. Affordable housing can also be accessed through rapid rehousing programs like the one I work with, which gives homeless families a rental subsidy and case management for up to a year. Rapid rehousing is a temporary solution to homelessness, and rapid rehousing programs aim to have their clients paying for their own housing within a period of months or years. I detailed some other affordable housing options in this post on Strong Towns.

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The best way to learn about homeless people is by speaking with them, working or volunteering with agencies that support them, and reading relevant research from organizations like the National Alliance to End Homelessness and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. I urge you to explore the stakeholders in your community who are working to end homelessness and familiarize yourself with their tactics to understand what works and what doesn’t. Finally, you can also check out previous posts I’ve written on the topic here.

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A Strong Towns Response to Homelessness

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I’m immensely honored to begin writing for the Strong Towns blog today. Strong Towns is an organization that I have learned so much from over the last few years. In fact, I would say they are the main vehicle through which I have grown my knowledge of and passion for making cities better. Naturally, I chose to write about an issue very close to my heart: homelessness, in my first post. Here’s an excerpt:

Last year, on a given night in January, more than 600,000 Americans were homeless. That means they were sleeping in their car or under a bridge or in a temporary shelter in cities across America. Most of the time when we see disabled veterans asking for change or single mothers waiting in line at church food pantries, we turn away and ignore their presence in our towns. We even design our public spaces to try and prevent homeless people from being in them. But homeless people have the potential to be Strong Citizens too, and, no matter how much we might try to zone them out of certain areas, they are still our neighbors, deserving of the same respect we try to extend to the family who moves in next door. With that in mind, we should strive to more fully include the homeless in the activities of our towns, valuing their unique perspectives and working to create better places that serve all our citizens.

Read the rest on the Strong Towns website.


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Concepts of Homelessness: Interview with Abbilyn Miller

For the last few weeks, we’ve been talking about homelessness: society’s views of homeless people and their needs, our faulty shelter system, and how we might move toward better solutions. Today, I share an interview with Abby Miller, who works for the Housing and Urban Development Agency in Washington DC, and who authored the thesis I talked about a couple weeks ago. Her unique insights into popular conceptions of homelessness and how they affect policy have truly changed the way I understand home and homeless people. And her work is based on years of on-the-ground research.

In case you find terminology in this interview that you’re unfamiliar with, please consult the Urban Lexicon. I added some definitions pertaining specifically to housing and the federal government. Important disclaimer: All views shared in this interview are Abby’s personal opinions and do not represent the opinions of the Housing and Urban Development Agency.

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Q: So, Abby, what have you been up to since finishing your PhD?

A: I’ve been working at HUD. I started out in Office of Strategic Planning and Management, working on HUD’s homelessness goals. Shortly after that, I continued working on those goals during a rotation* to the Philadelphia field office, working in Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing. I got to see some of the very real barriers to getting better housing there. Then I came back to DC.

Q: What’s it like working for the Federal Government after operating on the local level during your PhD program?

A: I expected to come here [the Federal Government] and not really find a place for thinking about the stuff that I was thinking about and researching [in Champaign, IL], because I spent so much time with individuals who are really outside of the government funded system, the guys who are not really able to work with transitional housing programs. I saw coming to HUD as […] filling out a different part of the work.

Q: Have you seen any of your ideas being implemented back in Champaign where you did your thesis work?

A: The tent city dissolved while I was working, but I continued with my advocacy and I taught a class that worked with the tent city. It was an iterative class, an action-research course for upper level students to dive into a project. After the tent city dissolved, I had the students building bodies of evidence to make cases to the city council for the types of housing stock that we didn’t have in our community. One of the things we didn’t have was any apartments with a Housing First approach.

Across the US there has been a persistent increase in the amount of permanent supportive housing and a steady to slight decrease in transitional housing, but our community did not follow that trend at all. We had over 400 beds for single men and they all had sobriety requirements. They were getting transitional housing funding from the federal government but the housing was set up like shelters […] There was a total mismatch with what people actually needed —affordable housing and affordable housing with services. So seeing this gap, I worked with my students to put together a report that we pitched to the Champaign and Urbana governments and tried to get some people hooked.

Q: Have you seen any of your ideas being implemented at the federal level?

A: Since I came here, my current boss thinks about space. She thinks about what something feels like. Something [else] I’ve been really encouraged by […] is a Medicaid final rule on home and community-based services. Medicaid has this program that allows states to apply for waivers so that health services can be provided in the home instead of in institutions. In the final rule, they actually define what a home […] is. This is the first time I’ve seen the federal government saying, “A locked door is a home. Freedom from a landlord coming into your space is home.” These are actual qualitative elements of what makes something a home [ …] For me, it was really powerful to read because a lot of the elements they talk about in this are elements that I found people wanting in shelter spaces and not having. I came here hoping that there would be room to exercise my knowledge of design and space, and I think it’s happening. I think we’re getting there. 

Q: What do you see as the relationship between local justice work and national policymaking? Where is the best place for social justice activists to engage?

A: I think it depends on your disposition. There is more flexibility at the local level, but larger impact at the federal level. There are certain pieces that should be handled by the localities and other pieces that should be handled by the feds.

In my research, there is one thing that was crystal clear to me: In the six projects I looked across, when the conservative factions of the community said to the people who were thinking more progressively, “We don’t want to do this” or “We don’t want to make this change,” the federal government’s anti-discrimination policies protected the people who did the work. I found that to be a very powerful tool to wield on the local level.

Q: How fast can change occur at the local level versus the national level?

A: I would say it depends on political will as to how fast something gets done. Right now, we have a president who has declared that he wants to end homelessness. That’s the best possible mandate we could have. We can get more done in a progressive environment.

If the federal government keeps its eye on innovative programs they can scale up, but I think the innovation is going to happen on the ground, with the people interacting with individuals.

Q: Is there still a place for homeless shelters in America? Will we ever be able to transition away from them?

A: Champaign is conservative and racially segregated. There’s a strong mindset that “this is the way things are done” and the shift to the idea that we can end homelessness is in direct conflict with the idea that we can ameliorate circumstances. There are some people that will not have their minds changed.  I saw way too many shelter and transitional beds, and not enough affordable housing with transitional supports, no employment programs, none of the stuff that’s going to change peoples’ situations. However, I do not profess to understand the workings of larger cities. I think it is probably the more rural, conservative areas that have the mismatch.

The bottom line for me is that we have never made a serious investment in socialized housing in this country. We’re not comfortable with the idea that people are provided with housing because they need it. We look at someone who is homeless differently than someone who is poor and needs housing, like they need treatment. The very miniscule amount of socialized housing that we have now is under fire. There’s not enough of it. Poor people need places to live. They need safe, private homes, whether they find themselves actually homeless or whether they are doubled up. We need more housing and it needs to be affordable to the people who make the least. It’s a broader systemic problem.

Thanks so much to Abby for sharing her perspective and experiences in the field of homelessness.

*The program that Abby works under is called the Presidential Management Fellowship and it involves, among other things, a chance to work in a variety of government offices during “rotations.”


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Interview: Anna’s Word on Detroit

My cousin Anna is an inspiration for a lot of people, and one of the ways she inspires me is through her activism for racial reconciliation and economic justice. She spent the past two summers in Detroit for that very reason, and I told a bit of her story last month. In today’s interview, Anna digs deep on the causes and effects of Detroit’s economic struggles, as well as potential paths forward. Sincere thanks to Anna for sharing these powerful words.

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Q: Where did you grow up and where do you live now?

A: I grew up in a suburb about 15 minutes outside of the city of Detroit, called Farmington. The past two summers, between my semesters at school in Chicago, I have lived in Detroit, in an impoverished neighborhood in the heart of the city. It’s been eye-opening to see the differences in resources and opportunity between the city I grew up in an where I’ve been living. I was privileged to go to a high school where I was well prepared for college, when right next door in Detroit, there is a graduation rate of just under 65%. Besides education, there are stark differences in employment opportunities, racial demographics, public services, police activity and access to fresh food.

Q: Can you describe your neighborhood in Detroit?

A: The Detroit neighborhood I lived in is ridden with abandoned homes and buildings. Before I lived here, I had never seen a place with paralleled vacancy. There are only a few businesses, and since the city itself is lacking in adequate public transportation and businesses that would offer jobs, there is not a lot of opportunity for people. But in the midst of this struggle, people fight on. There is also a sense of community that I’ve never experienced before. There are regular neighborhood gatherings, and it is common to see many people gathering together on porches and in parks. People in my neighborhood love being together, and they welcome each other, and that is something that was less prevalent in the community I grew up in.

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Q: What did you do in Detroit?

A: Both summers I have been working for a Christian community development corporation that creates affordable housing, runs parenting and homeownership classes, helps start small businesses, provides affordable produce, runs many programs for children and youth and more. During the summer, their main youth program is a day camp for kids in the city, which is a way for kids to have fun, be safe, eat hot meals, learn, and experience the city while they are out of school. The day camp is also an employment opportunity for teens in the city. I spent most of my time in this area, specifically helping with the children’s activities in the organization’s community gardens. Continue reading