Gerald Matthews of Matthews Architects shares with us his thoughts on homelessness, which is a topic that is particularly prevalent now in this extremely difficult climate.
Adelaide is considered one of the most liveable cities in the world, but is this true for everyone?
Homelessness is a complex 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 as 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.
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 in the conventional parameters of society. 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 ‘are you ok?’.
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.
By Gerald Matthews of Matthews Architects