NYLON #13: Homelessness in New York and London

By Kimberly Murphy, AIA

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On May 31, 2018, I attended the Urban Design Forum’s 13th session of NYLON at the Center for Architecture. The series brings together experts from New York and London to discuss shared issues facing our cities and to have an open exchange of ideas and conversation. Architects were joined by city agency officials, non-profit organizations, and other experts in conversations ranging from safer streets to affordable housing and homelessness.

It was fun to have our colleagues from “across the pond” share their experiences, struggles, and successes via Skype. The numbers vary, and programs have different names, but the bottom line is that affordability is dwindling in both cities, which leads to structural increases in homelessness. Structural causes for homelessness are those not related to behavior and include landlord policies and loss of stable housing. Joslyn Carter, administrator of the New York City Department of Homeless Services (DHS), spoke about how the number of children and families in temporary housing has been rising. Rents have increased exponentially higher than incomes have, and working families cannot keep up.

So what is being done? Alice Brownfield, director of Peter Barber Architects in the U.K., shared several remarkable projects that included shelters and supportive housing. Their work is impressive and speaks to a scale of “home” that many urban dwellers don’t experience. It’s interesting to me that there was such low density in some of the projects, whereas much of our work in NYC is based on high-density city conditions and providing up to 200 beds (max) in a facility. The “cottage” feel of their Holmes Road Studios is very appealing. I also appreciate their embrace of brick masonry as a material.

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Credit: Peter Barber Architects (found via http://www.peterbarberarchitects.com/holmes-road-studios)

Common threads in the work were dignity of space, welcoming and bright entrances, and common areas that encourage socialization. Basic needs like security and high-quality programming were also core contributors to success.

Jonathan Marvel, of Marvel Architects, spoke about his firm’s work in evaluating the Belleview Men’s Shelter, which houses nearly 800 single men. From their studies, clients and program providers indicated that security, dignity, services, and community are  the top of values and issues related to shelters. Jennifer Travassos, head of prevention and commissioning for Westminster Council, referred to coming home and relaxing in your jammies as a practice not available to the homeless. I found that to be a great, humanizing reference that those with homes take for granted as a contributor to mental health and life in general.

We were especially interested in this discussion since our Landing Road (aka Reaching New Heights Residence) project for BRC enjoyed its ribbon-cutting ceremony earlier this month. In an innovative funding model, non-profit shelter provider BRC developed a 200-bed shelter on the lower levels of the building which funds 135 units of affordable housing on the upper levels. The project marks the first new construction of a NYC shelter in 25 years and serves as a model for financing much-needed permanent housing.

“Our HomeStretch Housing pilot—Landing Road—provides beautiful, high-quality affordable housing  to the low-income individuals BRC assists in our shelters,” said Muzzy Rosenblatt, president and CEO of BRC. “Through BRC’s The Way Home Fund, we plan to kickstart the development of a pipeline of projects that will replicate the success of Landing Road and ultimately create thousands of units of low-income housing, help the city decrease the size of the shelter system, and close down decaying and unsafe facilities.”

To connect back to what’s being done to improve NYC shelters, the Urban Design Forum sent their Forefront Fellows to Landing Road the morning following the ribbon-cutting as part of DHS’s Conscious Shelter Design initiative. The fellows were touring 15 different sites (including Project Renewal’s Ana’s Place) to develop guidelines for shelter providers that focus on maintenance, accessibility, landscape, and space utilization, among others. The architects, building owners, and program directors provided a tour and answered the fellows’ questions. It was interesting to speak of the design and programming of the Reaching New Heights Residence in the context of the previous morning’s seminar and comparisons to challenges and solutions in London. Issues related to entry, security, wayfinding, maintenance, and connection to nature all resonated. We were pleased to assist in the research and look forward to contributing further. The goal of DHS to become obsolete is a lofty one, and until it becomes a reality, we appreciate their efforts in making shelters places of welcoming and security.

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