The Sixth Annual Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectual Design Excellence 2004
Berkeley Prize 2004

Sandra Thomson

Productive Lives: Eradicating the Barriers

Kate* has been battling a drug addiction for the past nine months. She was evicted from her apartment, her boyfriend is stalking her and she is fighting to get her children back. Never for one moment did she ever imagine that she would end up calling a shelter home. Yet here she is, trying to deal with the reality of it all. Kate is coping with the stigma society has placed on her as she claws her way back to the surface. Who is this woman? Is she just another one of those lowlifes abusing the system that we tax payers foot the bill for? How does your attitude change once you discover she was a registered nurse who had to take a leave of absence due to an illness? Somewhere between the prescribed medication, the drug addiction, and her ex husband taking her children, she lost control. Kate is focused on the future, she tells the reporter from CBC News World. She has entered counselling and is taking a refresher course in nursing while working towards getting her children back. It is ironic that someone from a respected career should find herself in this nightmare. Makes you second guess how secure your place in society really is. We need to take the time to understand how the Kate's of this world reached the point where they are today. By understanding the true causes of homelessness, we can get past the ignorance that society expresses as a whole. We need to work collectively towards solutions not excuses. By starting with education, human value can be reintroduced to society and architecture can be used as a vessel to see this happen.

Architecture has emerged as a channel for the hopes and aspirations of society to provide symbols of cultural value and spaces for cultural production and offer an opportunity for rethinking site, program, form, technology and materials.(1) Doctors and Health Care workers, Sociologists and Psychiatrists, Economists and Politicians all have their role to play in dealing with the displaced. By casting aside our preconceived notions on how to reshape the fabric of the city, we as professionals, can educate the public on the needs of the displaced (by listening to them), before more funds are recklessly mismanaged and sleeping in the streets becomes the norm.

When the general public is questioned about the problem of homelessness in their community, the answers are always the same. "They chose this lifestyle" or "if they wanted to change they would". As we wait for someone else to initiate a solution, the number of people on the street grows steadily. Sure we feel compassion when the nostalgia of the holiday's set in, or on those cold winter nights when the thermometer plummets below freezing and we can't imagine how anyone will survive on the street. Where is our concern though the remainder of the year as we hurry along ignoring the voices asking for spare change or even crossing the road so we won't have to deal with this nuisance?

We need a general reawakening of common sense and empathy towards our fellow citizen. Schools can start the process by integrating a social conscience into the education system. Young architects need to learn financial and social accountability when developing design concepts. To be told this isn't important now, reinforces the notion we are designing only for those with power and money. Integrating all levels of income needs to play an important role in the design education of an architect.

We live in a cynical world; where we should be building bridges we are instead proposing fences. Rehashing the same solutions over and over again, we have settled into the pattern of treating the sympton without diagnosing the cause. Someone needs to step in and break the cyclical cycle of non productivity and bring this pattern of repetition to an end. By focusing on the lack of affordable housing in the downtown core, Architects and Planners have the opportunity to play a leading role in recreating the fabric of the city. Ego's and attitudes need to be put aside as we work with other professional's educating each other on the reality of the street. Only by breaking through the preconceived notions on who the displaced are and what battles they face will we create a level playing field for those fighting for survival in today's society.

Recently on CBC News World, a documentary was presented on the plight of the homeless across Canada. It was broadcast live and offered a glimpse into their world; a raw portrayal of life on the street. Repeatedly the answer from the homeless on how to move forward in society was affordable housing and full time work. We need to understand that the majority aren't here because they want to be, they have no alternative. When asked why he was on the corner, an older man replied "when I run out of money I beg a coffee and a bagel and live off that, but I don't like to beg too much...when I worked I didn't like anybody to do this either, but then we all lose our pride. When you lose your pride it's the worst thing. Nobody thinks you're any good."(2)

In today's social system there is a huge gap between being homeless and getting an acceptable life back. This is what the public needs to understand; the majority of the displaced want to live productive lives. They are not lazy punks looking for a free ride. Everyone has dreams and aspirations; it's just that some of us have more money or people who believe in our dreams. Rather than feeling compassion we instead turn our backs on the problem. Who are we to feel superior to them? We erect social barriers and confront them with moral superiority for our economic status in comparison to their social position. A young girl I spoke with on the street said "life didn't turn out the way I had planned." She is not a loser or a lost cause. Society unfortunately wasn't there to protect her from an alcoholic mother and a father who abused her both sexually and physically. Where are the safety nets for her and others like her?

At question is the issue of educating the general public. There are the working poor who are only one pay cheque away from eviction, those without a social safety net to fall back on in times of financial strain, those with mental and addiction problems who cannot cope and those escaping an abusive home life. The general public needs to realize that these nameless faces are someone's child, parent, daughter and brother. Temporary solutions such as shelters, soup trucks or food banks are not the answer. We need to give people the skills to make it in the workplace not only for self support but also for self worth. Give somebody fish and they eat for a day, teach them to fish and they eat for a lifetime.

Building a new shelter that will provide 15 beds does not help the countless displaced people. What are they supposed to do in the meantime? We seem to want to round them up like cattle to clean up the streets. It is ironic that we feel the answer is dormitory style buildings which are essentially new versions of the old institutions. Rather than dealing with the stigma of the situation we have in turn decided to get them off the street so we no longer are faced with the issue of their plight. The old adage "out of sight out of mind" comes into play. By having a roof over their heads and a food program in place we have met their needs. Is this not a mere reinvention of the orphanage, with row upon row of metal cots, gleaming linoleum floors and barren walls, devoid of social interaction?

We need to understand the homeless paradox and the paralyzing obstacles to overcome. No one chooses this lifestyle but many are too afraid to ask for help. They have put their trust in others before and it has been shattered by those in authority. "You're looked down upon. If somebody knows that you're on assistance, you're automatically work-avoiding, shiftless, lazy. Fill in your own "blank". It's like you're the worst person on Earth. Some peopl may do that, fine. I want to better myself and get on with my life. Be a good example for my kid".(3) Society needs to help the less fortunate gain back their pride and their sense of worthiness before we can expect them to contribute in a positive way.

The acceptable minimum standard of living: Who decides what is acceptable? By looking down on the displaced as nonexistent citizens, we have the tendency to lose sight of who these people are. We need to listen to the experiences from the street to see what it feels like - this is where the building process begins. We need to revisit how these programs are presented. The modern way of building affordable housing is to "drop" a unit into an existing setting without thinking what the outcome will be. Neighborhoods are not planned with low income in mind. When the artistic renderings are presented, where are the affordable houses? Developing a community for multi income groups needs to be thought out as a cohesive whole, not as two separate groups fighting each other. We need to focus our immediate attention on city planning with all social levels being represented equally.

At the root of homelessness is poverty. The shocking reality is that in Canada we are now tolerating a level of poverty that leaves many without a roof over their heads. A chronic shortage of affordable housing means people are likely to be homeless and unstable for greater lengths of time then if enough affordable housing units were available. A recent Canadian Study shows that it costs sufficiently more for the government to financially support a homeless person then if that same person had subsidized housing ($30,000 to $40,000 compared to an amount of $22,000 to $28,000). The figure was slightly higher if there were issues of mental illness. These figures take into account all the costs incurred such as medical, police services etc.(4) No matter how you look at it, there is a gap in these numbers. It is to the government and society's advantage to support subsidized housing. Compassion aside, there is a strong economic case to be made to get people off the street and into affordable housing.

Are we not living in one of the greatest economic times in history? Why then is there not enough for everyone to enjoy an acceptable quality of life. Our government spends millions helping the needy in other countries yet there doesn't seem to be an outcry across the nation to help out in our own back yard. Canada is respected around the world for its high standard of living yet here in Halifax a recent study stated that a household risks homelessness if 50% of its gross income is spent on shelter. The 2001 national census shows 16,595 households - with 30,760 residents - in the municipality fit that category. Researchers also toured Halifax one night last June (2003) finding 269 homeless people in shelters, drop-in centres and on the street. Of those, 41% of HRM homeless are under 24 years of age. The authors believe their findings represent only 50 to 60% of the homeless population at any given time.(5)

Gentrification of the downtown core to provide high income housing for the wealthy who want the convenience of downtown living, is the norm across our cities today. The immediate concern should be more affordable housing solutions in combination with community services that will serve the social needs of the displaced. To make this venture attractive to the developer and investor, incentives such as tax breaks on property or out right donation of land to build on will be required. All levels of government will need to work together on this to ensure a smooth transaction void of the usual red tape.

Educating everyone connected to the development proposal is required to illustrate that not only will there be monetary gains but there is also a positive contribution being made to the social needs of the community. Homeless people are calling for "more affordable housing scattered throughout the city...places where you would like to bring your friends and family. Build low rental housing so that everyone rich and poor can get work and a place to live in the city."(6) Rent freeze initiatives and cooperative housing schemes are a few other options that could be introduced. Professionals from a variety of backgrounds need to come together collectively to shatter the fear and influence their communities on the benefits of finding a solution to the homeless situation. Team work and a desire to change the accepted norm is the key to success.

As long as the stereotypes of the homeless remain the welfare mother with 9 children by 9 fathers and the bag lady who has large amounts of money in her shopping bag but likes living on the street, the disadvantaged will continue to receive only enough for subsistence living.(7) Public assistance will remain as unpleasant as possible as long as the poor are viewed as responsible for their own plight. Unfortunately in today's society, those with the least amount of resources pose the biggest chance of being treated as easily replaceable in an ever expanding lower class. It is this group that lacks a political voice to speak for them. Changing the attitude in the mainstream is the challenge.

We as society have categorized the less fortunate like they were nothing more than an undesirable liability. Everyone has a reason for being where they are. Someone or something has put them in their present situation. The woman we pass on the street hustling change - we don't know her story nor do we take the time to ask before passing judgement. They had another life prior to this moment and they want to escape from this hell but do not have the resources or the confidence in themselves to try. They want to know that the light at the end of the tunnel isn't another train. "I just want my children back and to have a home and a dog and to go to church on Sunday. The whole bit. I hope I'll get everything straightened out. I am tired of suffering and going in circles."(8)

We need an action plan that speaks to the general public if social architecture is to become a reality, not just the topic of conversation. The tax payer needs to be convinced that there is an added value to the development of social architecture. Right now, the biggest obstacle to this is society themselves. Before we provide proposals or alternatives to the present day situation we need to eradicate the harmful labels attached to the displaced. Think about this the next time you divert your eyes.

References: source list available.

Additional Help and Information

Are you in need of assistance? Please email
Sandra Thomson, Dalhousie University, Canada
Copyright © 1998-2024 Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Privacy Policy Cookie Policy
For permission for any form of re-use of any of the contents, please contact
The BERKELEY PRIZE is endorsed by the Department of Architecture, University of California, Berkeley.