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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Shelter Skelter: A Presentation by Bronx High School Students on Homelessness in NYC

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Marcella, Martin, and Melissa of ESKW/A

Our recently completed 4380 Bronx Boulevard along with current shelter projects at 233 Landing Road, 2570 Fulton, 91 Pitt, 149 W 132, and 8 E 3rd Street, have us thinking about the public perception of shelters and the homeless.  Last Wednesday several of us from ESKW/A trouped up to the Bronx Museum to attend and show support for a student presentation on the culmination of a summer spent investigating the ins and outs of the shelter system in NYC.  CUP, the Center for Urban Pedagogy, and the College Now program of Hostos Community College brought in teaching artist Patrick Rowe to work with the teens throughout the project and teach them to funnel their newfound knowledge into a visual form (poster shown below).

The students conducted numerous interviews with city council members, the NYC Department of Homeless Services, community board members, and individuals directly associated with local shelters.  They also visited a non-profit shelter as well as Picture the Homeless and garnered a better understanding of the system as seen from the inside.

In the resultant presentation, the class was careful to show both sides of the arguments for and against the types and locations of shelters.  Many members of the audience were surprised to learn that shelters are not evenly distributed over the boroughs but rather are quite concentrated in the Bronx.

“We like to keep families applying to shelters close to their support systems, their children’s school, and to their last known address,” said Lisa Black of the NYC Department of Homeless Services.  Even with the large number of shelters within the borough, however, they fill up and people can sometimes be relocated across the city.  As one student explained, “Let’s say you’re from here [the Bronx], but let’s say all the shelters in the Bronx are full—then they will end up moving to the next closest shelters, which could be in Brooklyn or could be far away, like Staten Island.  From that standpoint, you’re taking me away from my home, from people I grew up with, where I’m very comfortable.”

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The Shelter Skelter poster

No discussion of the shelter system can go without touching on the concept of NIMBY, and the class addressed this as well.  In his interview with the students, Sam Miller of Picture the Homeless explained, “The Bronx is one of the areas that sends the most families into the shelter system.  Many times when communities in the Bronx oppose a shelter, they’re opposed to their own neighbors who’ve been driven out by rising rents.”

It was gratifying to hear that on an individual level many of the students felt that their eyes had been opened and their assumptions challenged.  As one teen told the audience:

“We were asked the question, ‘Who do you think these people are?  Where do you think they come from?’ and unfortunately I had a very low opinion of them.  To be honest, the only homeless people I saw were basically crazy people, drunks, drug addicts, people that didn’t really cause me to think about this issue.  But as the program went on and as we did our visits, and especially when we went to meet some people from Picture the Homeless, they opened my eyes.  Talking to one of the men there taught me through the way that he spoke that not all homeless people are drug addicts, etc.  I hope one day to be as smart as him.”

Her sentiment was common amongst her classmates, many of whom echoed the assertion that their preconceived notions about the system and especially the shelter inhabitants had been turned around.  These students will undoubtedly continue to spread their new knowledge within their neighborhoods, raising awareness and altering the prejudices of those around them.  The presentation focused on a serious problem faced by our community, but thanks to the students’ enthusiasm the tone of the evening was distinctly hopeful.

 

 

Settling in at 4380 Bronx Boulevard

We are very pleased that the staff and residents at 4380 Bronx Boulevard, a men’s homeless shelter in the Bronx, are enjoying their building. Project Renewal’s recent blog post gives a tour of their new facility and a sense of the variety of spaces that serve the different needs of the residents: the dorm rooms, the showers, the lobby, and support spaces. (And scroll to the comments!) This former manufacturing building has been transformed with dramatic skylight openings  – required to provide legal light and air but are sculpted in a modern way – that give the dorms a bright, airy feel. We feel that the simple, thoughtful details along with careful floor and finish selection sets the stage for what a shelter can be.

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