Homeless in Dallas?

9pm under the Statler Hilton
9pm under the Statler Hilton

I stumbled upon an article on NPR ranking America’s Meanest Cities this morning:

Though rather simplified, it got me thinking about homelessness here in America. The issue isn’t so much about feeling  pity for the occasional bum who strolls by and asks for change- there is a larger picture to uncover here. How does one of the worlds most advanced societies addresses its most hapless faction? The country is witnessing a gradual criminalization of homelessness in various cities, even to the extent that it becomes an offense to give food to the destitute in public spaces.

Does the future contain  “Please, do not feed the homeless” plaques posted alongside the “Please, do not feed the birds” signs?

Being exposed to the third world I may be  immune to the situation, but something about the average American psyche seems unusually uncomfortable with the visual presence of the homeless figure. People don’t usually change their route at the sight of a homeless figure in most third world and even European countries where homelessness is a growing problem. Believe it or not you can even see children playing with their parents while bums ‘hang out’ close by! Here though, the mantra seems to be ‘Out of sight out of mind’- cities struggle to “clean up” their streets  (cosmetically) and send the hoodlums packing (oftentimes without relocation plans) so that the happy holidayer won’t be plagued by ugly truths. It is what I call the Ctrl + Alt + Del mentality at work: a few key strokes and voila! a false clean beginning!

I was walking around abandoned parts of downtown Dallas last night where not a soul was to be seen except those in search for a place to rest for the night. A fruitless search, given that even a car garage (unused at night) was locked and barricaded and the urban streetscape is intentionally lined with furniture designed to discourage long repose.

This is interesting territory-  design (the realm of beauty, elegance, problem solving) collides with the underbelly of society and intervenes to cosmetically correct its ‘defects.’ But design can go deeper than that. It’s tempting here to ask if we were a little more comfortable with the presence of the homeless in our streetscape whether good design could be used to integrate rather than alieniating them altogether.

By no means is this a novel idea- just one that could use more exploration. Some interesting works have come out of designers such as Sean Godsell and Agustin Otegui with their unique takes on  transmogrifying ordinary benches into homeless shelters etc. but I assure you there is much room to play.


  1. In addition to some of Dallas’ more unusual responses to the homeless: a couple of years ago, city hall decided that it was the shopping carts that homeless people were pushing around that made a homeless person appear homeless. So, as a response, they made it illegal to push a shopping cart around downtown, forcing the homeless to fashion other means to push around their worldly belongings. At this time, the baby buggy seems to be the vehicle of choice.

  2. My first reaction is that of a cynic/realist. All this poetic expression about the plight of homelessness that you expect to extract from design is, as usual, self-aggrandizing. Economic development will do far more to alleviate their condition. And if the condition is not economic or psychological but a choice, then one has to let them be homeless (I am in a state of homelessness, but right now purely due to lack of any meaningful economic activity). Anyway, you can also add Krzysztof Wodiczko to the list of the artists…But for me, a movie such as Bicycle Thief would do far more than any design. I persist in my state of homelessness well without the design-expression.

    But even in terms of design “their” own expression is far more valuable. Consider for example the shopping cart and the plastic bags–put them together and the homeless is a present incarnation of the Benjaminian Flaneur/rag-picker. Go figure…

    But I do agree with you that it is “out of sight-out of existence.” In other words, most Americans are oblivious of and incognizant of the condition of vast segments of the population. In comparison, Indians (and the laity of other poor and emerging economies) are more comfortable with this condition, and do acknowledge the poor. This is partly because Americans live under the myth that only those who are lazy are poor. Poverty is sickness–they too have bills to pay, and to do so, they stick to the grind like good soldiers. On the other hand, the Indians live under the myth that it is all a play of karma.

    But overall I think Indians are more anesthetized to the being of poverty. We give them alms to get a better record “upstairs.” Otherwise “we” yell and scream at them and treat them as non-humans. And it is necessary to be that way to operate in places like India. Were we to be empathetic of the heart-wrenching plight of the poor, we would have a hard time breathing.

    Enjoy the luxury of ennui, and of design. We homeless would still rather have your spare change (of life).

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