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Bringing the homeless in from the cold


Adelaide may be ranked among the world’s most liveable cities, but it’s not so inviting for the homeless who live on its streets. Community debate and a change in attitude and design could all make a real difference to a problem that should be confronted and addressed, argues Gerald Matthews.

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Adelaide is considered one of the most liveable cities in the world, but is this true for everyone?

Homelessness is a multifaceted issue. The challenges are many and exist in both the social and physical elements of our community.

As a city and a society, we must ask ourselves; are we making our best effort to provide facilities and infrastructure that reduce homelessness, or at the very least alleviate the impact of being homeless?

In Adelaide, I believe we fail to make considerations for those who are marginalised, instead adopting an ethos of hostility through design that discourages instead of accommodates.

When we design and create in the context of our city, we must also consider those who engage with our city and public spaces unconventionally, out of dire necessity rather than passively or for pleasure or interest.

We’re lucky to live in a country where it feels like there isn’t an enormous disparity between the haves and the have-nots, even though wealth inequality in Australia is increasing with the top 20 per cent earning almost half of all income, while the bottom 20 per cent earn 4 per cent. For the most part we all work for a living and we identify somewhere in the middle.

Homelessness is a far more complicated issue than “poverty” and the associated range of causes need to be understood before they can each be addressed. It may not be achievable to structure a society so that there is no homelessness, but rather a realistic goal might be to ensure that there are plenty of ways out of homelessness.

Perhaps instead we should be designing our iconic public spaces, such as our city squares, as a bold statement of our support for those sleeping rough. Perhaps our local government should shift the public attitude from “moving people along” to ‘how can we help?’

One of the most challenging issues to address for Adelaide and many other modern cities, is homelessness connected to mental health. If someone finds themselves homeless for reasons that include mental health it becomes an even bigger challenge to improve their situation without a home, hence why designing public spaces should embrace rather than deter those who are most vulnerable in our community.

When only a few of us are homeless it is all too easy for the tone of the public realm to silently say “I don’t care where you go, but you can’t sleep here.” Though the issue is larger than this, our collective social conscience needs to consider the situation of homelessness more holistically, because this problem belongs to everyone.

During the depression of the 1930s, widespread poverty overcame New York City. Rough sleepers turned Central Park into a slum neighbourhood that housed thousands. This scenario wasn’t only forced upon mental health sufferers, it became the situation for many who simply couldn’t afford to live within a reasonable travel distance of possible work opportunities.

This provides an example of how historically, homelessness could become a direct problem for any one of us.

We need a constantly vigilant social conscience that takes the issue just as seriously for one homeless individual as it would for millions. If we can’t find compassion and caring in the design of our own public spaces, how can we truly take pride in our city or accept the privilege of welcoming those who have found themselves to be globally homeless as refugees?

We see bus seats that are too short or too narrow to sleep on, benches with unnecessary arms that prevent a person from laying down, metal lugs on flat concrete surfaces and public seating, justified as the protection of public assets from skateboarding.

Perhaps instead we should be designing our iconic public spaces, such as our city squares, as a bold statement of our support for those sleeping rough. Perhaps our local government should shift the public attitude from “moving people along” to “how can we help?”

Many of the ideas to accommodate homelessness in our city are really quite simple and much of the infrastructure already exists. Perhaps we should consider public buildings that can ‘mode shift’ to provide a civic function through the day and support homelessness at night?

Think school gyms, convention facilities or could Parliament House even shelter people at night? Obviously, challenges exist in this idea – amenities, cooking facilities, personal sleeping pods and lockers to name a few, and not to mention the ‘not in my backyard’ brigade.

Many of these services are very capably provided by established charities and not for profit groups, but they can’t be scaled up quickly. Instead, if we do have to respond to a sudden increase in economically triggered homelessness, we should first look to make better use of public infrastructure.

Cities like New York have undertaken design competitions to seek potential solutions. Several of these look to add small personal sleeping and storage pods to existing buildings that have available amenities – surely its worth discussing at the very least?

We may not be able to solve the issue of homelessness overnight, but the things we do have control over, such as physical space, should be our absolute priority in supporting our most marginalised community members.

Gerald Matthews is managing director and senior architect at Matthews Architects

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