When I arrived in Los Angeles in 1988 as a young UCLA grad student, the city was buckling under the weight of an expanding homeless population—a catastrophic humanitarian crisis of its time, shaped by a perfect storm of inflation, high unemployment, scarcity of affordable housing, and the erosion of public welfare safety nets. Encampments spilled along freeways and under bridges, with tents a common sight strewn along sidewalks across Downtown. By the end of the Reagan presidency, Los Angeles had become the homeless capital of the United States.
Nearly 34 years later, this time under the duress of a pandemic, we are staring at a hauntingly similar and more pervasive landscape. With an estimated 66,436 people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles County and 41,290 in the city proper according to the most recent 2020 count by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, L.A. now ranks only behind New York.
The figures inform us that we are following the footsteps of yesterday’s mistakes, prioritizing immediate action without a promise of lasting solutions.
Today, tiny home encampments, overnight shelters, and other temporary measures continue to be prescribed in the swelling tide of a growing homeless population. Individually and in sum, these band-aid prescriptions have failed to offer those experiencing homelessness a path toward long-term stability.
By contrast, the development of permanent supportive housing guided by trauma-informed design prioritizing basic human needs—an individual’s sense of privacy, safety, personal dignity, and the opportunity for choice—can and will offer a recuperative path.
The challenge we face today is one of awareness. The design industry must begin to collectively prescribe to the belief that paying attention to architectural details, choice of materials, and an active interest in the needs and wants of the intended occupants of spaces we design signals an important message, one that says, “You matter.” In following a framework of trauma-informed design we can elevate a person’s sense of self, offering them a sense of dignity we ourselves associate with any place we call “home.”
For example, imagine someone who has lived on the street for years being brought into communal housing, then asked to use open gang showers. Being required to undress and take a shower in the open can expose an individual to a degree of trauma formed over months, or even years, surviving out on the street. By designing a private drying area outside of the shower of no more than 10 square feet, architects can give that human being a sense of control, safety, dignity, and autonomy.
As important as they may be in response to a devastating crisis, tiny home villages offer a rather harsh and severe living environment. In their planning and accommodations, Tiny Home campuses are largely informed by budgetary, maintenance, and operational concerns. Inherently claustrophobic, the 6-by-8-foot tiny homes are lined up in a grid in a sea of asphalt with a complete void of any landscape or vegetation. Fenced in with highly controlled access and limiting “house rules”, and night lighting equivalent to that of car sales lots, these campuses offer little in restoring the inhabitant’s mental health.
Any meaningful, impactful solution in response to homelessness must begin with the belief that quality housing is a human right. Designing a building for people who have been completely marginalized for years requires a degree of empathy guided as much by questions, as by the execution of its proposed solutions. How do you build a space for people who have been traumatized and marginalized? Does this space make its occupant feel physically safe, and provide a healing and recuperative environment?
Putting a roof over their heads must be merely the beginning in serving those experiencing homelessness, not its conclusion.
Ali Barar is the Managing Principal at GGA+ and is responsible for the firm’s strategic growth, corporate management, and developing client relationships. Ali also leads the firm’s housing practice and is a recognized leader in the industry for affordable and urban mixed-use projects.