“Home is a notion that only nations of the homeless fully appreciate and only the uprooted comprehend.” ― Wallace Stegner
In India, approximately 4 million people are homeless and 65 million people reside in urban slums. One in four people lives in unsanitary slums.
Homelessness is a phenomenon that affects the country and its citizens at large. It impacts all facets of the country’s development and puts the country’s growth and progress in a vulnerable position. Homelessness is a public health problem as it deals with unlawful residing conditions with no access to health care. The homeless often suffer from chronic illnesses due to proximity to other unhealthy people, eating non-nutritious food (composed mostly of starch), sleeping outside and bearing the harsh weather conditions. Moreover, without the ability to use restrooms in businesses and public places, homeless people have to often relieve themselves in public, propagating unhealthy and unsanitary conditions in the community as well.
The lack of housing solutions also creates a ripple effect in sectors such as infrastructure, employment, household wealth, health, education, poverty levels, maternal and child mortality and women’s participation in the workforce. Thus, it can be concluded that homelessness is also an economic problem. Homelessness is also a deterrent to an area’s tourism and generates an expense, rather than income. But arguably the most important reason to fight homelessness is that it is a human tragedy. The citizens of our own country living on the streets, susceptible to extreme weather and violence, stripped of dignity and our collective respect is horrifying.
Homelessness is the most indicative symptom of the country’s stance on the right to housing and lack of respect. However, homelessness is not just a ‘rooflessness’. It is more than just a simple space. It is a legal and social identity. A home is associated with emotional wellbeing and establishes roots. Homelessness strips people of all these rights and creates a self-isolating experience. Undeniably, the most significant reason is poverty and lack of affordable housing with a disconnect in the system.
Low-cost homes are a viable solution to homelessness. However, Indian architects have to consider the distribution of resources while designing these houses. India has experienced rapid urbanization in the last few decades. Unbalanced economic development and displacement due to the extreme construction of transportation hubs and infrastructure concentrating in cities has forced people to move from rural conglomerates to urban centers for employment. However, most cities people migrate to are not planned enough to accommodate them. The disproportion between supply and demand of housing tends to deny housing to many citizens altogether.
Unemployment due to urbanization further widens the gap between the lower and upper tiers of the middle class. The new housing societies are built in areas with scarce potable water supply, no transportation access, no employment opportunities. Alienating the homeless with bad urban planning does not erase the problem. City planners must optimize urban planning to offer well-rounded, transit-oriented development for distant areas, emphasizing both physical and social infrastructure. This will make more low-cost areas viable and liveable. Situating them in the proximity to employment hubs will also help in lifting the poverty line.
Apart from building optimally situated houses, the homes themselves have to be optimized to be self-sustaining in the long run. This is to safeguard the homeless from relapsing into the poverty line. Services must be housing-oriented, materials must have longevity along with being low maintenance. These low upkeep models combine housing and services but don’t restrict residents’ choice to expand. Certain affordable housing can also be designed as a platform to improve residents’ health and quality of life with certain services like in-home nutrition for the elderly. These features are necessary for residents to maintain stable housing, long term.
As architects, the problem of homelessness does not end at designing sustainable and affordable houses. It extends to urban landscape design as well. Architects generally suggest ‘hostile architecture’ to combat violence and homelessness, however, this is counter-productive, as hostile or defensive architecture often targets people who use or rely on public space more than others, like people who are homeless, by restricting the behaviors they engage in and their access to public spaces altogether resulting in increased violence. Examples of hostile architecture can be seen everywhere. Studs and spikes embedded in flat services to prevent the homeless from sleeping in those areas, sloped window sills, and benches with armrests are also used to achieve the same result. With these techniques, we’re building barriers and walls around people and their problems. This comprises urban life. Acknowledging that homelessness is part of the urbanscape and designing more emphatically is the need of the hour. The irony of public places discouraging public use should not be lost on architects.
Homelessness is to be tackled systematically in phases and looking at affordable housing as the invariable solution is inept. Policies imperative to promote innovation, improving affordability, transparency, sustainability and growth have to be taken at the housing and urban planning stage. This calls for collaborative, multi-pronged and concentrated effort from all stakeholders – the government, urban planners and architects.