And while more people have come, they haven’t displaced the homeless

by Vinita Goyal,

An ad-hoc homeless shelter emerged in central Manchester last year when people squatted for several days at the disused Cornerhouse cinema bringing attention to the plight of the homeless and lack of affordable housing in this severely austere climate, alas with no conspicuous societal change. Homeless continue to struggle with hardships amidst boundless apathy in Manchester and almost everywhere else in the world.

A reflection on a Seattle case-study changes the status quo for the homeless in this Pacific North-West American city even if by an iota. What is happening there? What can be learned and replicated elsewhere and replicated at scale?

Two public spaces in the downtown, Occidental Square and Westlake parks, had changed uses several times over the years and until recently had become havens for drugs and crime. It was also an area occupied by Seattle’s homeless. When the City authorities contracted out new programming for the parks to the local non-profit, the Downtown Seattle Association DSA, homeless advocates were understandably concerned. Echoes of Don Mitchell’s dystopic “end of public space” claims came alive in the rejection of the redesigned parks that were perceived once again as a ‘battle ground’.

“a battleground over the homeless and the poor and over the rights of developers, corporations and those who seek to make over the city in an image attractive to tourists, middle– and upper-class residents, and suburbanites…raises the question…who has the right to the city?”[i]

That was in 2015. Today the parks attract a broad cross section of people, including women and children, and while more people have come they haven’t displaced the homeless.

Reinvigorated through creative placemaking by leveraging the power of arts and culture, the parks creatively seek out the homeless[ii]. For one, in these highly frequented homeless destinations, art installations and active areas—bocce ball, chess, basketball—have the homeless in mind as their primary audience. And for another, park ambassadors from DSA, donning no guard uniforms, when presented with petty issues by other park users are always leveling the playing field for the homeless. They, including the few that have undergone homelessness themselves in the past, are adept at subtly educating everyone how circumstances and income inequalities have made people homeless and that unless they are breaking park rules, everyone has an equal right to enjoy the park.

What often occurs as a result are “true mingling” and “mixing” and “less differentiation”. Claims from staunch homeless advocates such as Tim Harris, editor of the city’s progressive Real Change: “My observation is that I still see homeless people in the parks…They use the programming as everyone else” then come as no surprise.

Harris is still somewhat concerned[iii] about Westlake losing its status as a first amendment activity area in the context of its countless chairs and tables that dot the park every day. However, this seems to be an issue only with last minute protests for moveable furniture is always cleared away to accommodate groups and to create a truly democratic space.

For me, these examples measure up to several calls that academic theorists have been making over the last few decades. First, Seattle-Occidental and West Lake park strategies exemplify Don Mitchell’s claim[iv] that pseudo-public spaces do not have to be regressive. Marginalized populations such as the homeless can very well be an active audience in park activation projects.

Second, the collaborative project design process that invited homeless advocacy groups—from the American Civil Liberties Union, to the Public Defenders Association to Real Change—to the table supports Neil Brenner’s call that “the pursuit of alternative urbanisms require(s) the creation of not only new urban spaces, but of new state spaces as well”[v]. Furthermore, while these examples embody David Harvey’s characterization of place as a ‘spectacle’[vi], they also take up Harvey’s challenge that for true civic participation, “the intensity of private property arrangements” needs to be reworked[vii].

This last point is important considering recent academic work such as that of Don Mitchell’s[viii], which continues to make visible the incessant criminalization of homeless population in our public spaces. In such a political context, it will be interesting to know how these examples are replicable and scalable in other contexts and even in Seattle itself.

Is a paradigm shift plausible in how we tackle and treat homeless people in public spaces? Thatcher Bailey, the Executive Director of Seattle Park Foundation clearly articulates the potential of a bottom line success inherent in such a park strategy. A park that works for everyone ultimately can also protect private interests, he says.

How does such a nuanced sensitivity towards our homeless population then evolve into our overarching dilemmas of addressing homelessness? If daytime problems associated with homelessness can be solved through inclusive public space design, can Manchester’s future Cornerhouses become an acceptable norm for a 24-hour solution? Harvey and Mitchell continue to remind us how homelessness is integral to a well – functioning 21st century economy. The needs for living and sleeping rooms for the homeless, which these innovative strategies address, are not going away anytime soon.

[i] Mitchell, Don, 2006, Politics of Public Space

[ii] Based on authors’ research conducted in 2016 and 2017.

[iii] Based on author’s interview with Harris in 2017

[iv] Mitchell, Don, 2006, Politics of Public Space

[v] Brenner, Neil, 2015, Is tactical urbanism an alternative to neoliberalism?

[vi] Harvey, 2006, The Political Economy of Public Space

[vii] Ibid

[viii] Forthcoming