How Architects Can Fight Homelessness: The Global Housing Crisis 


“We travel because we need to. Because distance and difference are the secret tonics to creativity. When we get home, home is still the same, but something in our minds has changed, and that changes everything.”

– Jonah Lehrer


For most of us, a more agreeable statement couldn’t exist. As we travel for fulfillment and wander for distraction, scale new heights and make new memories, as we sail the seas of the known and journey the untrodden path, the beauty of the journey is unknown till one comes back home and rests his head on his own worn-out pillow. Ah, home sweet home. To me, home is the space where I can exist as I am- no inhibitions, no boundaries, no expectations. To me, home is akin to heaven. According to the popular English language encyclopedia, Britannica, homelessness is defined as the state of having no home or permanent place of residence.

But what about those who have nowhere to go? Nowhere to belong and nowhere to go, innocent folk have been compelled to give up on the idea of heaven and embrace impiety. What of them? 

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Homelessness: The Statistics 

Homelessness is a social issue of growing concern, prevalent in almost all countries. Homelessness is a global challenge lying at the intersection of housing affordability, substance misuse, urbanization, racial and gender discrimination, infrastructure, and unemployment.

The United Nations Human Settlements Program estimates that 1.6 billion people live in inadequate housing, and suggests that over 100 million people have no housing at all. In India alone, approximately 4 million people are homeless and 65 million people live in urban slums.

The Global alone, Crisis

Although the soaring gasoline prices are the current cause of concern, another facility has steadily been pushing numbers worldwide- housing rents. Driven by economic polarization, insufficient government policies, and the COVID-19 pandemic, the world has seen an increase in the number of unhoused, putting a larger group of the population at risk for the same. Moving in parallel with increased house prices, higher rents have priced a large population out of home buying and renting. 

Additionally, growing urbanization has steered governments to demolish affordable social housing and has created a ruthless economy that favors profits and aesthetics over liveability. In India, government authorities demolished 53,700 homes, evicting 260,000 people for slum-free city beautification projects, despite the government’s ‘Housing for All-2022’ scheme. 

slum free
Photo by Sergio Souza from Pexels

Urbanization in India 

The rapid urbanization India has experienced in the last few decades has paved the way for an unbalanced economic development. As a growing number of people migrate from rural areas to urban centers in search of employment, cities are often unable to accommodate them. The clear obstruction between the supply and demand of housing tends to abandon citizens to fend for themselves. 

In a desperate attempt to find a short-term solution for these issues, governments isolate the unhoused by building low-cost housing societies in areas lacking resources, and little to no access to water, transportation, or employment opportunities. This alienates the less fortunate and enables a classist system where the problem only continues to grow, further pushing them into poverty.

Design- The Tool to Creating Dignity for All resources

Design has the power to feel and make feel, to tell stories, and build the future. It’s quite fascinating to experience the way different people react to design in the world around them. I believe our interaction with design is like that all resources have a soundtrack playing at all times, something we’re not always aware of subconsciously sending cryptic messages on how to feel, how to behave, and what to expect. 

Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko from Pexels

I believe architecture is the profession of creating better lives, building spaces for its inhabitants to have their values reflected. Design has the unique ability to make people feel dignified, seen, and respected. 

Yet, present-day architecture is almost disconnected from the people who are most directly affected by its work. Rather than focusing on the societal impact and contribution of buildings and spaces, it is only concerned with the aesthetic quality and Instagram-ability of the space. 

The homeless, one of society’s most vulnerable, have the least access to thoughtful design, perhaps the commodity they could benefit from the most. Dedicating projects to the public will not only dignify the people but also the novel profession of design, thus diversifying not only the client threshold but also the forms of design for the world to enjoy. 

The way architecture is thought of and talked about can be entirely revolutionized if every design decision is thought of as an opportunity to invest in the dignity of the people you design for and the spaces you serve. Because once you experience dignity, nothing less will be acceptable. 

Architecture has the agency to be the engine for change. 

Existing Short-Term Solutions 

For decades, architecture has been synonymous with social responsibility and the desire to improve society through a built environment. However, these short-term proposals aim to push the problem elsewhere and simply act as a band-aid in the grand scheme of this pressing issue. 

Hostile Architecture 

Hostile architecture, sometimes called “defensive architecture” is a trend in urban design that city planners and architecture purposefully set up infrastructure meant to deter homeless people from using public spaces. Anti-homeless architecture manifests as curved benches, benches with dividers between the seats, sprinklers hidden in foliage, spikes on window sills, walls, and under bridge spikes.

This sort of design champions an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ narrative, further ostracizing and stigmatizing the homeless population, while failing to resolve the issue at hand. 

If we fail to advocate for more inclusive spaces, the homeless epidemic will only get worse from here forth. 

Parasitic Architecture 

This idea, though a short-term solution, is a promising solution for the future and has been explored in many conceptual projects around New York City. The project is a series of hexagonal-shaped pods that have been designed to latch onto existing structures, filling in the gaps between buildings or on rooftops by capitalizing on the abundance of unused vertical spaces on the exteriors of buildings.

In distinction to the combined spaces offered by many homeless shelters, each unit is devised to house one inhabitant to maintain their privacy and security.

Revamping Existing Spaces 

It is no secret that design has the power to dictate the future by learning from our past. Renovating abandoned, already existing spaces that are no longer in use to cater to housing requirements is not only the best sustainable solution but is incredibly cost-effective, requiring minimal funding. 

Photo by Laurie Shaw from Pexels 

In LA, a collaboration between American firms, NAC Architecture and Bernards has made efficient use of shipping containers by transforming them into a housing complex for the homeless. The complex has a whopping 232 housing units, a commercial kitchen, landscaped area, and a parking lot. 

In London, Holland Harvey Architects transformed a disused London Supermarket into an impressive homeless shelter. ‘Shelter from the Storm’ provides 42 beds, rehabilitative support, and fresh meals for the homeless. The space also doubles as a cafe to encourage interaction between the public and the vulnerable. 

Both of these are two very simple, yet starkly innovative, cost-effective, and efficient solutions; but it can only get better than this! 

Tiny Homes 

The tiny-house or micro-home movement is an increasingly sought-after trend that doubles as a low-cost housing option. It is an architectural movement that essentially downsizes and simplifies living spaces. 

In LA, Lehrer Architects built a community of colorful tiny houses or a tiny house village to house the city’s homeless residents. The lockable micro-homes are eight-by-eight-foot structures that can accommodate one or two people. The project took only 13 weeks to construct and complete. So far, the city has built 8 of these villages and intends to construct many more. 

Additionally, tiny houses act as a preventative solution to homelessness, fostering the possibility of housing that people can build themselves. 

tiny homes
Photo by Mikael Blomkvist from Pexels 

Winston Churchill once said, “We shape our buildings, and afterward, they shape us.” I can only hope this quote will dictate the future of and scope of architecture. Great architecture is a sign of hope. Thoughtful architecture has the power to heal. 

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