[Hpn] SFGate: BAY AREA/More than a shelter, home/The homeless respond to good quarters, comfort, says architect

William Tinker wtinker@metrocast.net
Mon, 21 Feb 2005 09:47 -0800


 If we could salvage one life from housing him or her no price is to much
to ask.How do you set a price on humanity?~ A Bro. In Struggle ~Bill
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Monday, February 21, 2005 (SF Chronicle)
BAY AREA/More than a shelter, home/The homeless respond to good quarters, comfort, says architect
Kevin Fagan, Chronicle Staff Writer


   Anyone who thinks creating housing for the homeless means slapping paint
on the cheapest building in town and handing door keys to the destitute
would find the latest book from UC Berkeley architecture Professor Sam
Davis an eye-opener.
   Don't cheap it out, he writes in "Designing for the Homeless: Architecture
That Works" -- spend a bit extra to make sure any housing, shelters or
service offices that get built are not just attractive, but
psychologically comforting and tailored specifically for the homeless.
   Comforting? Attractive? Costing more than the basics?
   That might sound coddling and expensive to anyone not familiar with the
architectural science involved. But Davis, whose book is the country's
first on the subject, contends that not only does going the extra yard
make it easier to help the homeless -- it actually saves money in the long
run.
   Design buildings that make the homeless want to live in them, or at least
walk inside and apply for assistance, and you will have an infinitely
better chance of getting them to stabilize their dysfunctional lives, the
58-year-old professor told an audience earlier this month at Cody's Books
on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley.
   And every time a homeless person starts living indoors, society is able to
spend less on jails, hospitals and all the other expensive emergency
services that become revolving doors for most people living on the street.
   The math is borne out in national studies showing that housing with
counseling services on site -- called supportive housing -- costs about
$1, 000 a month to maintain, while hospital beds cost about $30,000 a
month, and jail cells cost more than $3,000 a month.
   "We've learned quite a bit along the way, and many of our assumptions that
we made early on were wrong," said Davis, who has designed affordable
housing for 40 years and in 1995 crafted the nation's first housing for
homeless kids with HIV and AIDS, at Larkin Street Youth Services in San
Francisco. "But now we know better, and we can do better."
   For instance, he told the audience of 30, one of the old assumptions made
in the design of shelters and assistance centers was that those seeking
help wanted to meet with counselors in closed-off offices for privacy. But
the opposite turned out to be true. So many homeless people had been in
jails or rehabilitation centers that they were distrustful of anything
resembling an institution -- and they preferred open halls, lots of light
and plenty of color on the walls.
   This might seem subtle, Davis said. But the fact is that if people who are
homeless are too put off to walk in the door, they will not even start the
journey toward a healthier life. "When individuals become homeless, they
feel many different emotions: anger, confusion, embarrassment, fear,
exhaustion, depression and hopelessness," Davis read from his book. "The
facilities that we design to house them therefore need to convey qualities
of sanctuary and refuge at the outset, and the entry is critical in
establishing trust."
   He pointed to several developments that have used these enticing qualities
to good effect, notably the St. Vincent de Paul Village in San Diego,
which spreads supportive housing, shelters and job referral offices
throughout several blocks in Mission style buildings with plazas and
courtyards. The Larkin Street facility he designed also incorporates airy,
inviting spaces, as does the Adult Shelter in Concord, which Davis helped
transform in 1996 from a blocky warehouse into a gem of tiled plazas.
   Another big benefit of designing well is that it helps quell the fear, and
even revulsion, of neighbors. By necessity, most homeless housing has to
be in central areas near other services -- such as the Tenderloin in San
Francisco, or West Oakland -- and if the building has nice courtyards and
living spaces, the homeless will be less likely to wander, Davis said.
Also, if the housing is built attractively, it may even uplift the area
around it.
   "Housing the homeless is never going to be an easy problem," Davis said.
"But homelessness is, by definition, about places to live. So it involves
buildings. And good buildings benefit all."
   E-mail Kevin Fagan at kfagan@sfchronicle.com. ----------------------------------------------------------------------
Copyright 2005 SF Chronicle