The City Space

Cultivating Urban Understanding


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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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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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What’s in a homeless person’s bag?

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If you’re a lady, or you read lady magazines, you’ve undoubtedly come across the “What’s in my bag?” trope. In it, a celebrity or fashion blogger displays and discusses the contents of her purse including favorite brands of lipstick, fancy wallets and so on. I want to share something in the same vein, but with a goal that is entirely different from introducing you to a new make up company. Today I want you to understand a little bit of what it’s like to be homeless in America.

I work at one homeless shelter and volunteer at another because, among the issues that are present in cities, I believe homelessness is one of the most serious, and one that must be addressed before I feel I can start working on things like better parks or mixed use developments. Of course, many of these assets go hand in hand with ending homelessness, but right now I am focusing on the root cause. In my day to day, as much as it feels awkward and uncomfortable, I am often privy to the contents of homeless and low-income individuals’ bags. Whether they are unloading their items as they check in each night at the shelter (in which they literally have to remove everything from their purses) or just sifting through their bags to find a document that will allow them to sign up for food at the pantry downstairs, I’ve noticed a few items that show up consistently. I’m not revealing anyone’s personal information here, just hoping to give you a sense of what a homeless woman (or man) must often carry around with her every single day.

As you read over these items, consider the weight of them—literally and figuratively. What would it feel like to carry these items around with you every day? Consider also, how these items are not so different from what a wealthier woman might have in her purse, yet serve different or additional purposes.

So, what’s in her bag?

Every important document she possesses — The first thing to know is that when you’re homeless, you are constantly in need of documentation. You have to show it to the shelter where you’re hoping to get a bed. You have to show it to the cop who tells you you’ve been sitting on that park bench for too long. You have to show it when you arrive at the government office to sign up for food stamps. Not only do you need your own social security card, ID, and birth certificate, but you need the documents for all your children and any other relatives that might be with you. You carry it constantly in a folder, or sometimes in a plastic bag in case of rain. We’re not talking about making sure you have your driver’s license in your pocket. We’re talking about every important document mapping out your entire life, carried with you at all times.

Cell phone and charger — If you see a homeless person with a cell phone, you might initially think it’s a frivolous expense, but actually it’s one of the most important items to have if you’re without a permanent residence. Thankfully, most homeless individuals I have met in this country do figure out a way to afford a phone. Unfortunately, whereas homeless individuals could probably make better use of a smartphone than anyone else (being able to look up directions to a food pantry, respond to emails for job interviews, etc.) it’s rare that I come across anyone with an iphone or android in my line of work. Still, those trusty cell phones will help people through many a tough situation, and provide a way to connect to family who may be far away.

Make up — Everyone wants to look his or her best, including people who are struggling to get their basic needs met. She will undoubtedly have job interviews or meetings with social workers where she wishes to present herself in a certain light, and make up can really help with that. Access to basic hygiene is a huge issue for homeless people. Imagine not being able to feel clean each morning by taking a shower, or not being able to afford deoderant when you run out, or not having access to a bathroom when you need to change your tampon (there was recently an enlightening article about that topic in the Huffington Post). Not only are you without the safety and comfort of a permanent home, but you also lack the amenities of a permanent home. Make up is a small way to take strides in the direction of personal hygiene and dignity.  

Tissues and napkins Similarly, having tissues or napkins with you (probably grabbed from a cafeteria or soup kitchen) can be an important way to keep clean. If your days are not spent inside a home or office or school, you’re likely on the streets or moving from place to place, anywhere that will allow you to hang out. There’s only so many times you can use the bathroom at a mall or McDonald’s before someone tells you to “move along.” I wrote about the need for better public access to restrooms in this post, but until that time, tissues will likely be found in the bags of homeless people.  

Candy, condiment packets, other small food items — When you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, every little bit helps. Whether it’s a Snickers bar you bought for a dollar from a vending machine or even some condiment packets you grabbed from the checkout line at the deli, keeping forms of sustenance with you is vital. A homeless person cannot just head for her kitchen cabinet when she gets hungry for a snack. Furthermore, for homeless individuals who experience illnesses like diabetes, having food available can mean life or death.

A few cigarettes — You may be thinking, why on earth would someone who has so little money spend her precious dollars on expensive, unhealthy products like cigarettes? In fact, there are several reasons. First, if you were a smoker before you became homeless, its unlikely that in the midst of all you’re undergoing—what with trying to find housing and income and support—you’re going to decide that that’s the right time to try to quit smoking. It would likely only add to your stress. Second, when you’re undergoing the trauma of being without a home, probably juggling a few children, managing a health issue, trying to keep it all together—it’s natural to want a momentary stress reliever. These are two reasons why you might find cigarettes in a woman’s bag.

So, there’s a look into the life of a homeless American. Think about the weight of it. Think also, about how it’s not so different from what a wealthier person might have in his or her purse, but everything serves a much more life-and-death purpose. You’re not carrying around lipstick so you can freshen up on the way to a date; you’re carrying around lipstick because it’s a minute way to make yourself feel presentable for a job interview that could dramatically change the course of your life. You’re not bringing along a candy bar in case you get hungry in between the gym and your dinner plans, you have that candy bar for when you can’t make it to the soup kitchen in between doctors’ appointments and food stamp sign-ups, and you’re facing a night without supper.

Homelessness directly impacted more than 600,000 Americans last year, many of them children. That’s equal to the entire population of Washington, DC. I hope this post gave you a small sense of how homelessness is both normal, and not so normal, for many Americans–women, men, white people, black people, children, seniors and more.


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Around the Block – Links from the Week 9/19/14

Around the Block - Links from the Week

I think it’s time for some links. On my radar this week:

  • First, a simple article about new businesses who moved in and didn’t gentrify, but did improve their neighborhood. Glad to see that it’s possible to do that.
  • Next, a quick rundown of “6 Cities Taking a Lead on Solving Homelessness.” Lots of creative, constructive ideas here.
  • From my hometown of Minneapolis, some exciting news that the city council in a nearby suburb of Edina approved the transformation of an old building into apartments for homeless youth! This is a huge step in the right direction, and I hope something we will see more of in other places, because youth homelessness is a major issue in our nation.
  • For a longer read: This New Yorker article, “Paper Palaces,” came out last month but my mom just showed it to me. It’s a breathtaking delve into a unique architect who builds functional, often portable shelters, schools, museums and more, around the world.
  • This one’s also from last month, but it may not have reached you yet: The United Sweets of America, a dessert for every state in the country. Find yours and tell me if you think it makes sense. All the ones I investigated seemed pretty spot-on. (For instance: Wisconsin’s dessert is “kringle” And that reminds me, I haven’t had any since I moved here yet!)
  • Finally, I recently added some new links to my Favorite Sites page, gleaned from the Strong Towns National Gathering last weekend. Some seriously top-notch people doing good work around the country.

Alright folks, don’t forget to follow the action on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. Have a phenomenal weekend!


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Toilet Talk

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Diving right into a decidedly unglamorous topic today, but one that matters to everyone on a daily basis, the bathroom. Who hasn’t had the experience of strolling around a city really needing to use the bathroom and being unable to find anywhere to go? It’s more than just an inconvenience. The unavailability of bathrooms can make people less interested in visiting and walking around cities, preferring to stay at home or stick to the malls and stores they know well where a bathroom is always within reach. They’re not enjoying their cities, interacting with their neighbors or contributing to local economic growth.

In particular, a lack of bathrooms limits pregnant women, parents with babies, people with certain medical conditions and children who aren’t always the best at holding it. And let’s be frank; for all of us it’s an annoyance and frustration when our afternoon plans are derailed by the hunt for a bathroom. We’re stuck feeling uncomfortable or being forced to pay for some beverage we don’t want, just to entitle us to use the coffee-shop bathroom. Besides the need to actually use the toilet, there are also a number of other reasons one might desire a bathroom—for instance, washing your hands for hygiene or religious practice or grabbing a tissue to blow your nose. So, truly, this is a universal problem.

If you’re stealthy like me, you handle the bathroom issue by mentally cataloging all the free restrooms you know of, or the ones you’re comfortable sneaking into: inside libraries, supermarkets, hotels, fast food joints and parks. But this only works if you know the city well. If you’re visiting a new city for the first time and your four-year-old suddenly asks for the restroom, you’ll most likely be faced with a row of restaurants whose hostile signs reading, “Bathrooms for paying customers only,” leave you with few options. As it currently stands, restrooms are largely the purvey of private businesses like cafes and bars, for which the use of the facilities is directly related to your purchase of goods at the business in question. However, as human beings, regardless of whether we eat lunch at the pizza joint or grab a pint at the pub, we will need to use the bathroom at some point during our day, even if all we’re doing is walking around. Thus, if cities want to encourage more use of their public spaces and their unique amenities, they ought to equip them with the appropriate restrooms.

Now, while a few cities do a top-notch job of providing commodes at easily accessible locations, most fail us. New York is particularly notorious for this—so much so that many restaurants don’t even offer bathrooms due to their small quarters. On the other hand, Washington DC—another popular tourist destination—provides more than enough restroom opportunities in highly trafficked areas through its free Smithsonian Museums, and other bathrooms at the national monuments. These options make it easy to take a quick pit-stop, maybe even see a famous statue while you’re at it, then be on your way.

Another alternative is the European angle—“50p to pee”—as we liked to say when I lived in Ireland (“p” meaning “pence,” the Irish equivalent of cents). For Americans who are used to free bathroom access, it can seem absurd to pay money to use the toilet in a mall or public square, but at least it’s available when you need it. I bet we can all remember a time when we would have gladly paid someone 50 cents for the use of their restroom.

I think any city that wants to get serious about welcoming tourists into its walkable areas and encouraging its residents to spend more of their time downtown, needs to implement a public restroom strategy, examining highly trafficked areas and equipping them with the proper facilities. If the city needs to charge 50 cents for each restroom visit, that’s fine by me, but however they manage it, bathrooms should be a priority as much as clean streets or garbage cans. They don’t have to be fancy, or large, or perfectly clean — they just have to be there when you need them.


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Around the Block – Links from the Week, 7/18/14

Around the Block - Links from the Week

Relevant stories in the world of cities and their residents.

  • If you’ve ever set foot in a library, it’s likely that you’ve come across a homeless person using the bathroom or the computer. This Reuters article talks about how libraries are on the “front line” in the fight against homelessness, offering services, meals and safety. But they also have their not-in-my-backyard critics. Read about it here.
  • You may have read about how the Detroit government shut off water to 100,000 of its residents. This story in The Atlantic covers the details of how that’s impacting day to day life in Detroit. My own posts about Detroit can be found here and here.
  • In the midst of unceasing violence that makes me question when peace will ever truly exist in the Israeli-Palestinian region, I found this NPR story about Israelis and Palestinians breaking fast together after their respective religious observances particularly significant and moving.
  • Speaking of religion, a “dinner church” is blurring boundaries between rich and poor, religious and non-religious in Brooklyn, NY. Read the story here.
  • I discovered a blog called Pattern Cities yesterday and I’m finding it the perfect place to learn about how cities’ ideas spread around the world. You might be interested if you like geography or politics.
  • Finally, a New York story that made national headlines: The Long Island Rail Road workers, who operate the most trafficked commuter rail in the nation, ferrying some 300,000 people back and forth every day, almost went on strike. Things were looking pretty grim for all parties until an eleventh hour deal was solidified between the unions and the government.

And here’s a quick tip, I usually post these links to Facebook or Twitter as they happen.


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Charlotte’s Place

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What would you do if you had $100 million? I bet most of us could come up with a use for $1 or $2 million easily (donate to charity, buy a house, send our future children to college), but $100 million? It’s unfathomable. And yet, as most Americans grasp for jobs and salaries in this economy, an elite few are swimming in money—hundreds of millions of dollars of it. One of those is Trinity Wall Street, a massive, historic Episcopal church in lower Manhattan that owns 14 acres of New York City real estate.

Naturally a church with such a gargantuan income stream has invited a wide assortment of controversy and criticism over the years, and you can read all about that online. But frankly, religious groups get enough bad press these days, so, being an interfaith activist and a person of faith, I prefer to highlight the instances where religion serves as a force for good. When you’ve got hundreds of millions of dollars at your disposal, you darn well better do something good with it, and here’s one solid and impactful thing Trinity did: they created a space where everyone was truly welcome.

It’s called “Charlotte’s Place” and the idea is simple yet transformative. Charlotte’s Place is essentially an open-door community center, but instead of just drawing children to an after school program, or seniors to a free lunch program, they draw everyone into a flexible and welcoming space. (Interesting fact: Charlotte’s Place actually grew out of a need that Trinity recognized when it found itself entangled with the Occupy Wall Street movement a few years back.)

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The Financial District (where Charlotte’s Place is located) is a confluence of high-powered Wall Street employees, wandering tourists (mostly visiting the World Trade Center memorial) and homeless people. Charlotte’s Place serves them all. Businessmen and women can eat their lunches in the sunlit community room without having to pay for an overpriced sandwich and fight a hundred other customers for space in some meager dining area. Tourists can stop in to use the free wifi and rest their legs for a bit without having to buy a coffee at Starbucks. Homeless people can use the clean, spacious bathrooms without drawing looks from department store employees or being kicked out by a manager. All are welcome at Charlotte’s Place.

The space is mostly devoted to one large, tiered room—a renovated storefront that had previously just been church storage. It’s wide windows let in copious sunlight and invite passersby to see what’s going on inside, while smaller rooms in the back provide space for meetings and classes. One of the most exciting features of Charlotte’s place is the art blossoming all over its walls. What started as a mostly blank canvas is gradually being filled with media like mosaics, collages and paper cranes—all created by community members. Overall, Charlotte’s Place has an attractive, modern feel while still offering more intimate spaces to chat with a friend or find some peace and quiet.

On any given day at Charlotte’s Place, you might find a college student working on a paper, children reading books with their parents in the mini library, a free yoga class in the afternoon and a free movie screening with pizza at night. Charlotte’s Place attempts to meet the needs it recognizes in all of the people who use it space. Staff members connect homeless visitors with housing counseling, screen for SNAP eligibility, provide free lunches and even help arrange transportation for low-income people to get to doctors appointments. (For a complete list of services, click here).

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I came to Charlotte’s Place for a community gathering a couple weeks ago and within minutes of being there, I thought to myself, “Yes. This is exactly what I’d do if I had millions of dollars.” Now, this ministry is still new (and I’d love to see it expand its hours) but it is such a promising start. I can’t count the number of times I’ve wanted something better for my city only to be confronted with the insurmountable cost that it would take to implement that idea. It’s refreshing to watch an organization with money do something transformative and progressive with that wealth, especially when it is so well-situated to serve its community.

Houses of worship are practically the definition of grassroots, and they’ve been active in their communities for centuries. All around us, synagogues quietly serve weekly meals to their hungry neighbors, Mosques birth movements for racial justice inside their back meeting halls, Buddhist temples offer true relief for the weary on all walks of life, and so on.

Most of these religious institutions stand by a mission of welcoming and they avoid proselytizing their guests, but they also maintain their faith-based roots. For example, Charlotte’s Place attempts to provide a meditative, calming presence in one of the busiest neighborhoods in the country. What a blessing for the neighborhood to have this space for all of its members to come together and get what they need.

All photos from Charlotte’s Place Facebook page


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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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Concepts of Homelessness: What’s Wrong With Shelters and How We Can Change That Picture

“Thinking about “home” leads people to focus on the attendant assumptions of what a home provides—namely privacy, safety and security, permanence, comfort and the like. Thinking about “homelessness” leads people to focus on the attendant assumptions about the individual, for instance, mental illness, substance abuse, domestic violence, poverty, unemployment, and others.” 

–Abbilyn Miller PhD, Determining Critical Factors in Community-Level Planning of Homeless Service Project

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In my last post, I talked about my experiences with the American homeless shelter system, which is failing to properly meet the needs of the people it seeks to serve. I argued that, with numerous homeless shelters currently standing in as long term housing for millions of people—a purpose they were never intended to fulfill—we should open our eyes to this misguided format of sheltering and move in a new direction. In today’s post, I will share with you evidence and arguments from a well-reasoned thesis by Ms. Abbilyn Miller that deals with many of these issues. She’s a PhD and all-around badass lady whom I know and trust, and her work has a lot to teach us.

Abby argues that however we choose to define the purpose of a homeless shelter (either as a service center, a containment space, a roof over someone’s head, or a “home”), that will guide our creation of shelters and will effect the impact that shelters have on their residents. The input that we seek when determining the best form of shelter also matters. We must ask whose needs are being prioritized during this process; citizens who possess homes and do not wish to see “vagabonds” and “bums” on their streets, or citizens who simply cannot afford traditional housing?

Abby’s thesis compares the independence and autonomy of a tent-community in the city of Champaign, IL with the varying degrees of control, home, and service provided by homeless shelters in the same city. Her project involved years of on-the-ground study in homeless shelters, transitional housing spaces, tent cities and local government circles. I urge you to read the whole paper, but for now, I’ll outline some of her key arguments here and add my own reflections.

The tent community upon which Abby’s work focused was a safe, self-governed community that existed in 2009 where individuals that society would label “homeless” made homes out of tents in an empty lot. When the government of Champaign threatened to kick them out, they fought back. Abby writes, “The spectacle of [this] self-consciously independent and politicized community that made demands upon the local government challenged the belief that “good” homeless people submit to what is offered public and non-profit organizations by confessing their wrongs, developing habits of personal responsibility, and promising to reform themselves” (Miller 7).  Here is the heart of the issue: while shelters conceptualize the homeless as a special population that must have guidance and rules placed upon them in order for them to earn a roof over their heads, alternative housing options offer independence and self-sufficiency for low income, unhoused people. Continue reading