On the topic of homelessness… (Part I)

Most will agree that the Denver transient population is difficult to ignore. Take a stroll down the famous 16th Street Mall and you will be confronted by the situation on every corner and multiple times in between. Drive up Park Ave. from downtown to I-70 and you will see some of the highest concentrations in the city centered around the Denver Rescue Mission. Even in neighborhoods that are more removed from downtown have an ever present population of homeless persons in parks and in back alleys. This issue is not unique to Denver and is, in fact, a fairly common scene in larger cities. However, it has become a highly contentious issue and is debated in various venues from city hall to neighborhood bars to the netherworld of internet comment sections.

When it comes to homelessness, almost everyone can agree that it needs to be addressed, but the method in which it is addressed becomes the main concern. There is a general sentiment that people do not care to have a high transient population in close proximity to their everyday lives. People do not want to be confronted by panhandlers on every corner, nor do they want to be on edge walking down the street for fear of being physically or verbally assaulted. It is unfair to paint an entire group of people with the same brush, but recent incidents around Denver have tainted many people’s views on the matter and have thus caused great unrest.

There are really two prevailing strategies to the issue: provide assistance through shelters and programs or move the transient population away from highly used areas. One could make arguments as to the effectiveness (or lack thereof) for either approach. While shelters and programs are noble causes and, in most people’s view, the right move, many of those living on the streets are unable or unwilling to take advantage of them for various reasons (lack of space, check in times, inability to bring all personal belongings into the shelter, etc.). On the other hand, simply relocating homeless persons away from certain areas doesn’t solve the issue, it only moves it. By taking the “not in my backyard” approach, the issue is just moved to another person’s backyard and starts all over again.

While either approach may be effective for some, they are both usually focused on temporary fixes. Often, a person living on the street may only be concerned with the next meal or the next place to rest, but as citizens in this city that do not have to worry about these problems, we should take it upon ourselves to look at the bigger picture for more holistic answers.

It is highly doubtful that there is, or ever will be, a “one size fits all” solution to the question of homelessness. The issues that lead to people living on the streets vary from financial struggles to mental health to substance abuse. The resolutions are as wide ranging as the issues that these people are confronting, which makes the task even more daunting. However, as architects and designers, I believe that we have a role to play in finding those answers. Whether that be through our buildings and designs, community action, civic engagement, or simply volunteering our time and skills, we can begin to set efforts in motion that address these multi-faceted and complex issue. We may not be able to solve everything ourselves, but we certainly can bring valuable insight to the conversation.

As Robert De Niro once said: “…you’re either part of the problem, you’re part of the solution, or you’re just part of the landscape.”

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