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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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: Why Shelters Are Not the Solution

In recent years, communities around the U.S. have been faced with an intractable problem of homelessness, dwindling resources, and increasing numbers of tent cities within municipal limits. In this moment of U.S. upheaval, we have a chance to rethink what home means and how local policies can better meet people’s needs of home, particularly for those considered homeless. A common thread unites all community conflicts and decisions about shelters, transitional centers, tent cities and other institutionally created housing for the homeless—core beliefs about what ‘home’ and ‘homelessness’ mean. How we think about ‘home’ and what that means for housing impacts how people without access to those dominant types of housing are conceptualized. National approaches to home have implications for all citizens, but particularly for those who find themselves unable to afford the types of accommodations associated with ‘home.’

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

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Homelessness first came into my life when I was young, volunteering at a church soup kitchen with my parents. On Sunday evenings, a line of tired-looking people would snake around the building, waiting for the back doors to open while I poured cups of juice and milk, and the grown-ups prepared food—always the same assortment of canned vegetables, mashed potatoes and chicken. I remember being told that many of the men and women who came to eat were homeless and this sat with me. What did ‘homeless’ mean? Did they all live in the streets? When we left after clean-up, I didn’t think much about their situation, though, beyond being thankful that it was not mine.

As I grew up, my awareness of people who were experiencing homelessness also grew. Some were on the streets, sure, but many lived in shelters that dotted the downtown landscape of my city. I’d never been inside a shelter, but I imagined them to be warm and welcoming, with beds for each guest. Back then, I saw homelessness as a long-term state and “homeless” as a concrete identity which it might take years for someone to break out of. Luckily, or so I thought, shelters were a constructive solution to this problem, meeting a visible need and housing people who had nowhere else to go.

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By the time I finished high school, I had learned enough about American poverty and injustice to develop an understanding that without a home, it’s nearly impossible for a low-income person to get ahead in any other aspect of her life. I knew that housing was fundamental for healthy, successful families and for overcoming the persistent inequality in America. And I yearned to contribute to a solution. So, in 2011, I started working at a nonprofit that ran a rotating shelter in different faith communities throughout the Twin Cities. I thought the shelter was providing a way out of homelessness for people in need. What I learned there changed my mind.

For the first time in my life, I put myself into direct contact with homeless people beyond just handing them a cup of juice. I don’t know that my contributions amounted to much more than providing a cold drink, but I did spend time listening to the stories of the people staying there, and I allowed these stories to teach me about homelessness. I met mothers with growing daughters, single fathers with newborns, large families with moms and dads and aunts and cousins; some staying for just a day or two, and others who would be there for a whole season. (Program rules prevented families from staying more than six weeks, but if they did not find more permanent housing by then, they would seek placement in another shelter, or a renewal, and start the cycle again.) The shelter’s guests had landed there due a slew of unfortunate circumstances, and they were exhausted from the sheer weight of all this turbulence and uncertainty.

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I remember a woman—I’ll call her Jenny—who had recently separated from her husband and was now in charge of their three preteen girls. She’d stayed with her mother for a while, but when that living situation fell through, the shelter became her only option, and she’d lugged all her family’s belongings in garbage bags to the church. I was doing the night shift one evening when her youngest daughter became ill and threw up all over her cot. Jenny never even woke me, but she cleaned up the sheets, gave her own bed to her daughter and slept on the floor. She was utterly on her own, with three young people relying on her. I could not imagine handling this level of responsibility without a stable place to come home to.

For those of us working at the shelter, our job was to provide, at the very least, rest for people like Jenny and her daughters. Days at the shelter would start around 4pm, as we prepared for a busload of seven or eight families to arrive at the makeshift residence. Once they got there, volunteers (and I) handed out snacks, flipped on the TV, threw together games for the kids to play or books for them to read, and got to know the guests. When evening crept in at the shelter, everyone went to their respective beds and a volunteer stayed overnight with them. Then, in the morning, the families would be bussed out to their respective jobs, schools or a day shelter. So it went, every day of the year.

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Much has been written about the global charity industry which allows privileged people to donate their time and money to help the “less fortunate” without truly engaging or honestly listening to the people they seek to help, and this barrier between server and served was often present at the shelter where I worked. With the constantly fluctuating populations of volunteers and clients, it was challenging to develop anything beyond a short-term relationship with an individual and so much easier to just sit behind a counter and dole out snacks during your shift. Yet, for each month that the shelter spent at a different house of worship, dedicated members from that community threw themselves into the work. They believed they were providing a valuable service for people who needed a home. Meanwhile, I was on my way to recognizing just how far from “home” the shelter truly was.

Near the end of the summer, I started looking after a rambunctious two-year-old boy at the shelter whose young mother badly needed a break from chasing him around. He was adorable and I was enthusiastic to entertain and get know him. Then one day, I came to the shelter and he was gone; he and his mother had secured a spot at a higher-quality downtown shelter. Just like that, they left us. In that moment, I remember feeling quite hurt that this family wanted to leave our shelter for a different one.

Then I opened my eyes and realized how bad the conditions were. We were basically slapping cots and air-mattresses on the floor of a church basement and calling it a “home.” To make matters worse, every morning when the residents departed, they were forced to pack up all their belongings and carry them with, leaving the place as though no one had ever been there. The spaces they occupied and the amenities they were provided with were often cast-offs, unused because no one else wanted them. Sometimes families didn’t even get their own rooms.

I do not mean to diminish the efforts of volunteers and staff who provided a warm place to sleep for families in need, nor do I wish to write off the impact that the shelter had; I know that those enrolled in the shelter also gained access to employment help, legal counsel and other services during the day. So it’s not as if there was a lack of care. However, I also know that this place was not a home.

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If you read the founding documents of most homeless shelters, you’ll actually find that the majority of them are intended to be “emergency” housing, meaning that they are a temporary fix for a person who didn’t make rent last month and needs somewhere to stay while she gathers the funds for next month. Some shelters are safe havens for domestic violence victims who are supposed to be relocated to permanent housing once the situation with their abuser is dealt with. Some shelters are specifically for men or women recovering from addiction who need a clean space for a few weeks. Regardless of the circumstances though, most homeless shelters were intended to be temporary solutions for temporary problems.

What has actually happened is that they have become long-term housing situations for hundreds of thousands of Americans. These children and adults bounce from shelter to shelter when their stay-limit is up, spending months on end in a system which was never designed to accommodate them for more than a week or two. Cots on a basement floor may be enough for a few rough days between paychecks, but they are not sufficient to house people long term. We can’t fault the shelters for failing to shift away from their original purpose, but neither can we allow these inadequate, unproductive living conditions to persist.

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Homelessness is a critical issue that I have dedicated my life to combating, and I hope it is something that matters to you too. However, we cannot hope to bring justice into this situation without unpacking our perceptions of homelessness and truly listening to the people that we have labeled as “homeless.” Only then can we determine the best ways to meet their housing needs.

In the next installment of this series, I’ll talk about the thesis quoted at the top of this article, and how we can move towards broader concepts of home in order to create more opportunities for everyone to have one.

Photo credits: KOMUnews, me, blog


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The Truth About Detroit

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There’s been a lot of talk about Detroit lately. Whether you’ve been diligently following the bankruptcy proceedings or merely heard mention of them on the news, you’re getting the idea that the city is a screwed up, deserted place with no hope of recovering from the pull-out of automotive manufacturers—except perhaps through the saving hand of hipster gentrification. Actually, Detroit’s population, like that of numerous cities around the country, has been declining since the boom time of World War II and its bankruptcy is merely a final straw. But more importantly, I want to clear some things up about Detroit from an insider’s perspective; not my own, but my cousin’s.

She spent the past two summers living and working in Detroit. On the ground, she’s seen what lies beyond the abandoned buildings, drained pension funds and devastating unemployment: a community of people who are struggling—yes—but very much present and engaged. My cousin teaches at a summer camp that provides activity and support for children who might not otherwise have a place to go during the summer. This is just one example of the ways that residents come together to uplift their city. Other examples come in the form of numerous community gardens sprouting up around Detroit, small businesses that have persisted for decades, and neighbors joining together to assert their continued livelihood in a place that many Americans have written off completely. My cousin feels safe in her neighborhood at night. She has never been mugged or threatened. She shops at the local stores and she talks to her neighbors. Continue reading