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.