Twenty Questions About Homelessness By Thomas Fisher I don’t have any one answer to the following twenty questions, but they are the kind of questions we need to ask in the midst of a rapid expansion in the number of homeless people worldwide because of global economic conditions and the expected impact of climate change on the habitability of parts of the planet. Even if we never go without a roof over our head, we will all be affected by the rising tide of homelessness around us. I 1. If homelessness involves not just being without a place to live, but also lacking a sense of being at home, of belonging to a place and having others care about us, then isn’t homelessness as much a social and psychological condition as it is a physical one, more widespread than most people think? 2. Has the often anonymous and repetitive housing that we have mass produced in cities and suburbs since World War II created such a sense of isolation and a lack of connection to others that it can make even those with a home feel homeless? 3. And has the creation of housing in most parts of the United States become so regulated and relegated to those with the credentials to provide it that we have taken away the ability that humans once had, and that every other animal species still has, of constructing our own shelter? 4. Does the elimination of homelessness, then, require that we question the oftenunquestioned social expectations, economic incentives and public policies that have created and perpetuated homelessness, perhaps unintentionally? II 5. When most of us avert our eyes when we see homeless people on the street, does that arise out of a respect for what little privacy they have or might it also reflect something else we don’t want to see: that we are all just one major illness, one longterm layoff, or one forced foreclosure away from becoming homeless ourselves? 6. Why has something so basic as the need for shelter has become so entwined through public policy with other issues
that have nothing to do with housing, like having financial equity, borrowing capacity, and retirement security? 7. Why, in other words, has housing become such an abstraction – an investment vehicle for other purposes – that it has become harder for people to afford housing and harder on people if they lose their housing? 8. Has our system of developing housing, with units of similar size, layout, and price, also become a financial trap during periods of deflation, as home prices collapse and mortgages go underwater when enough of the nearly identical units in a neighborhood go into foreclosure? III 9. Why has housing become so central to the proper functioning of government that it has come to depend so much on property taxes and to expect us to have an address in order to do everything from voting in a local election to being counted in the census? 10. How much is homeless, itself, a creation of the government, which has systematically closed down institutions like hospitals for the mentally ill or clinics for the chemically addicted without funding the supportive facilities that would keep former patients off the streets? 11. Why do governments continue to let homelessness happen when it is less expensive to build supportive housing than to incur the costs of emergency room visits, police interventions, and street crime that comes with it? 12. Is homelessness, in a sense, the tragedy of the commons in reverse, where instead of a few passing on unwanted costs to the majority, the majority of us have sloughed off the costs of caring for those most in need to the few non profits who have taken on this responsibility with very little recognition or reward? IV 13. Having spent most of our history as a species as hunters and gatherers, taking what homes we had with us as we moved from one place to another, does the growing numbers of homeless people suggest that we may slowly be moving back to a condition in which people will be more mobile, requiring that we rethink what we mean by “home”? 14. And may that time come sooner than we think as climate change creates what some experts estimate will be 200 million environmental refugees fleeing droughtstricken
areas and coastal flooding? 15. How will we accommodate these refugees in places not designed to take such an influx of people and in countries not accustomed to the rationing of resources that will have to occur as a result? 16. What can we learn, in this regard, from the homeless about the capacity of our cities to house many more people than we have designed them for or that we might even think possible? V 17. What kind of imagination does it take to be homeless, to appropriate our streets, bridges, parks, and other public places in ways never intended and to repurpose products and materials that the rest of us have discarded as useless? 18. Does homelessness offer an opportunity for us to rethink the designed landscape as an extension of the natural world, enabling people to inhabit the city in a greater variety of ways, including camping and caravanning? 19. What have the homeless learned about how to survive amidst large numbers of people, a skill that most of us have forgotten and that may become among the most valuable in a future in which 9 billion people will soon occupy a planet unable to accommodate nearly that number at current levels of consumption? 20. To prepare for that future and to overcome the fear we may naturally feel at such a prospect, what if each of us, from this moment on, were to engage in an ongoing thought experiment in which we imagine ourselves to be homeless, using that as an opportunity to rethink, repurpose, and reuse what surrounds us and to recognize that, in a world in which we mostly have only what we need, everyone and everything is a gift? Thomas Fisher is a professor in the School of Architecture and dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota
Thomas Fisher, professor in the School of Architecture and dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota, asks twenty questio...