Saturday, January 5, 2013

The four types of homeless

I don't remember the first time I saw a homeless person.  But I do remember the first time I saw a community solution that really worked.  It was in a town called Geel, Belgium.  They had a program that involved a networked solution that included a multi-party approach that included a psychiatric center, home owners and patients.  It was designed, primarily, for those suffer from mental illness and would likely fall homeless without structure and care.

Families would rent out a room or spare part of their house to an individual who needed the space.  The families, patients and psychiatric center all worked together to form an agreement that included education, consultation, habitation and an ability for any one party to end the contract at any time, for any reason.  The ritual of families taking in mentally ill people dates back to a time when a mentally ill princess ran away to the town and families brought her in.  It worked then.  And it works now.

Moving to Portland, and living downtown, I see at least seven homeless people every day.  When it's cold, we sometimes get "bums" sleeping inside the vestibul to the back door of the building. It's certainly annoying to bump into someone as you're walking out the door, but it's also sad to see people in such conditions - for the most part.  It sucks for us and it sucks for them.

This got me thinking a lot about homelessness in Portland, the U.S. and around the globe.  As an urbanist, I began to think about how the cities could potentially adopt an elegant solution.  I thought about FARs, square footage, building materials, community ... and I realized that there are different needs for different types of homeless citizens.  I broke it down into three categories and later added a fourth.

1. Long term / Chronic (50%) - often suffer from mental illness.  Have experienced homelessness for longer than 2 years. In need of structure and perhaps mental evaluation.

2. Short term / families (9%) - used to have a job, car, house ... still have debt. The head provider(s) lose their jobs - or some other misfortune - and they are suddenly living out of their car or a tent.

3. Adventurous (40%) - young and looking for adventure.  Usually "homeless" from 6 weeks to 2 years. They'll hop trains, hitch-hike ... nearly anything except shower.  They tend to bring dogs with them and smoke pot.

4. Criminals (>1%) - on the run and probably quite dangerous.  This would be the fugitive-type person who has the police hot on their trail.  They haven't built a new life and are desperate, trying to stay under the radar.