Impact-a-thon designs do little to alleviate struggle of homelessness

Homeless shelter systems are overburdened. Affordable housing units have long wait lists. Providing homes for the poor is controversial. Generating ideas for temporary portable living spaces and calling the results a solution to winter-time homelessness is, however, acceptable.

In October, 2014, Carnegie Mellon hosted an Impact-a-thon, during which teams competed to design temporary homeless shelters to protect people from winter elements. The idea was to create solutions to social problems in just five days, based on rapid research and innovation. The winning team devised a structure that acts as a billboard during the day and unfolds at the swipe of a keycard into a tent at night. The second place team proposed a tented, insulated sleeping bag that folds into a compact unit and can be carried or wheeled around the city.

These designs are creative but, in my opinion, not practical.

Although both proposals target people who already sleep in homeless shelters (a good aspiration considering the number of needy far outstrips the number of available beds), neither formulated a way to directly connect their inventions with the individuals they aim to serve.  Both spoke vaguely of collaborating with the shelter system to distribute their structures, a strategy that evokes in my mind long lines and longer waitlists, arbitrary decisions about who is most deserving of help, and frustration.

Another qualm of mine: the sleeping bag tents have no extra room for the tenants belongings. It presupposes that homeless people have no possessions worthy of consideration.

Furthermore, the projects’ descriptions contain no mention of legality. According to the No Safe Place study by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, 34 percent of cities impose a city-wide ban on camping in public spaces. If the Impact-a-thon participants hope to circumvent these laws by passing exceptions, I wish them good luck. Although many people claim to support keeping people warm in the winter, few want their parks and public spaces filled with sleeping people. Since 2011, bans on camping have increased by sixty percent, evidence of the growing opposition to homeless settlements.

This competition and it’s impossible-to-implement results made me wonder which is better: a system in which all the homeless are given sleeping bags and allowed to camp in parks overnight, or one in which homeless individuals are given affordable apartments and allowed to sleep in their own bed, cook in their own kitchen and shower in their own bathrooms. In other words, should we give people a pass to subsist or should we help them live human beings.

If institutions want to begin making a difference, I suggest they look at cities such as Salt Lake City, Denver, and Cleveland, all of whom utilize the Housing First model of addressing homelessness that eschews temporary shelters and other bandaid solutions in favor of building affordable rental units, and develop ways to house the homeless in structures more permanent than a tent.

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