How can tactical urbanism be used to tackle the issue of homelessness in the UK?

In December 2020, it was announced that the number of people living in temporary accommodation in the UK has reached its highest level in 14 years (253,000 in temporary accommodation). On top of that, the number of homeless deaths in the UK has risen for the fifth year in a row (778 deaths in 2019). So, what can we do about this?

Well, the reality is that homelessness is an incredibly complex social issue. There is no catch-all solution. How might we use tactical urbanism and placemaking to help tackle this pressing issue? Read on to find out about some lessons learned from past initiatives, and one potential solution from the US- tent cities!

Dignity Village is a city-recognized legal encampment in Portland, Oregon, United States. Photo credit: hebenaj

Lessons Learned from Past Solutions

It is crucial that we understand the experiences and needs of homeless people in developing solutions. And we must engage them in this process. Examining the issues with projects from across the world can reveal important lessons going forward. Here are some of them.

Safety and Privacy are Essential

Everyone wants to feel safe and secure. Yet, many homeless people, particularly those sleeping rough, are regularly victims of theft and violence. Living and sleeping on the street makes people vulnerable to attack and exploitation by criminal gangs, drunk passersby and other rough sleepers.

However, for many, shelters do not fare any better. Overcrowded shelters, which lack privacy, introduce a whole new social dynamic. Tensions lead to arguments and violence, and possessions are easily, and regularly, stolen. This pushes rough sleepers away from the shelters intended to help them. Moving forward, systems need to be in place to increase security and revive trust in these services.

Accommodation must be Genuinely Affordable and Accessible

There is currently a huge housing shortage in the UK, with the BBC Housing Briefing estimating that we have over one million homes less than we need to comfortably house everyone. There is a significant lack of affordable, social housing and temporary accommodation. A recent study by Crisis found that 38% of people approaching their authority for help, following the introduction of the Homelessness Reduction Act, remained, or became, homeless.

On top of this shortage, rising rents overtaking wages and benefits has meant that the housing that is available is simply unaffordable. The result is that, for people facing homelessness, getting access to temporary accommodation and social housing is often not an option. There is a need for accommodation that is significantly cheaper and more accessible than current ‘affordable’ housing.

Shelters must be Legal and Legitimate to Prevail

It is common for those sleeping rough to seek refuge in abandoned buildings, sleep in tents, or even construct their own make-shift shelters out of salvaged material. But this raises legal issues in the UK.

- Tents and shelters constructed on private land are illegally trespassing.
- In public areas, they may be ‘blocking public way’.
- Police may just move rough sleepers on without actually quoting legislation. Refusing to do so causes more problems than it is worth.

The harsh reality of this is that these shelters are often destroyed and removed by local authorities, along with the person’s belongings. And the owner is back at square one.

There is no shortage of innovative designs for cheap, functional and mobile shelters for the homeless, such as Cardborigami and Shelter Cart. But these only consider shelter and mobility. Without legitimacy, they will be removed with all of the other, less aesthetic, tents and shelters.

The Bus Shelter MK is a converted bus into a night shelter for the homeless. Photo credit: hebenaj

Independence, Flexibility and Self-Governance are Valued

This might seem counterintuitive but we shouldn’t assume that every homeless person wants a home. At least in the traditional sense of a fixed, permanent abode. Some prefer the freedom, independence and mobility of life on the streets.

Stewart for example claims he is content with his life on the street. And for some chronically homeless people, moving from the streets to a fixed address can be too drastic a change.

- Living in social housing comes with the anxieties of paying bills, dealing with neighbours, and potentially applying for benefits. >br/> - The process of applying for social housing or temporary accommodation, and the rules once you live there, can be overwhelming.
- And many do not feel safe sharing hostels or shelters with others who may have complex needs because of trauma, abuse and addiction.

Ultimately, we can’t force people into housing. The priority in these cases should be monitoring their health and wellbeing, and ensuring that where people are living is safe and sanitary. It is also essential that we do not allow vulnerable people to fall off the radar and ensure that they are receiving the appropropriate support.

Design Alone is Insufficient

We must remember that homelessness is a complex social issue, not simply an issue of design. It goes without saying that creative shelter designs aren’t a solution by themselves. Effective social services, mental health support, and substance abuse support are crucial to preventing homelessness and helping those living with it.

When designing shelters, we should avoid pretentiousness and ‘artistic’ designs for their own sake. Past designs for homeless shelters like Excrescent Utopia show the drawbacks of focusing too much on the ‘design’. Shelters don’t need to be devoid of attractive design features. But the priority should always be creating functional, comfortable and humane shelter.

The involvement of architects and planners could be incredibly beneficial, providing the priorities are clear. But involving those who will actually benefit from the shelter might be an effective way to ensure basic needs are met.

Designs should Alleviate, not Accentuate, the Homeless Condition

It should be pretty obvious! If we want to help the homeless, architecture designed to make life harder for them needs to go. Look around any UK town or city and you will see ‘hostile’ architecture specifically installed to keep rough sleepers away. You’ve probably seen curved, uneven benches segmented by armrests, and street corners and doorways filled with spikes or rocks. This stops people resting in these areas. So, rough sleepers are alienated and pushed to the peripheries.

It is inconsistent for governments to commit to helping the homeless, whilst allowing hostile architecture to remain.

We must also be careful that attempts to help the homeless through design do not solidify their situation. Portable shelters like Tent Cart or Cardborigami can make those using them stand out. And this can make them an easy target for violence. Also, so-called ‘parasitic’ architecture designs, like Excrescent Utopia, despite positive intent, only reinforce the stereotype of the ‘parasitic’ homeless.

Public space should be designed with the homeless in mind. A movement towards ‘hospitable’ architecture would be a good start. We could incorporate shelter into street designs. Make streets less hostile for those who do end up sleeping rough on them. But avoid the temptation to make designs stand out as a profound artistic statement. Homeless people are not a design feature.

Are Tent Cities a Possible Solution?

Clearly, there are a lot of factors to consider when coming up with solutions to homelessness. Tent cities, or ‘tiny house’ villages, are one solution from the US that goes a long way towards remedying some of the issues with past projects.

What’s a tent city?

Across many large US cities you can find tent settlements inhabited by the local homeless population. The main issue with these is that they are illegal, so get destroyed by local authorities.

In their simplest form, tent-cities are an attempt to provide a legal, legitimate and regulated version of these encampments. They do this by getting legal permission to build the settlements, usually on public land. The benefit being that the tents and the possessions inside aren’t destroyed or taken away.

Over time, many tent cities become what are often called ‘tiny house’ villages. These are as they sound- villages made up of tiny houses! Tiny houses are small structures, usually made out of wood and recycled materials in a scaled-down version of a typical house design. Tiny houses are incredibly cheap to build and maintain- significantly cheaper than typical affordable housing. And the houses often come in kits that can be put up quickly and easily by the owner.

The houses are laid out in streets and plazas allowing for a feeling of community. Residents share resources and amenities like sanitary facilities, communal cooking areas and meeting spaces for socialising. The villages are usually self-governed and each resident has a say in the running of the village.

Dignity Village started as tent city back with scavenged materials, this was taken back in 2009. Photo credit: Blue One

Dignity Village

Dignity Village’s Origins and Purpose
One of the first, and most successful, examples is Dignity Village, Portland, Oregon. Dignity Village began in 2000 as a camping protest by homeless activists. The camp had regular run-ins with local authorities and moved from one site to another. The campaign received non-profit status in 2001. Eventually, the camp settled in Sunderland Yard, an industrial area in NE Portland.

After a hard fought battle, in 2004, the City of Portland eventually granted Dignity Village usage of the Sunderland Yard site and official status as a designated campground. This approved its use as ‘transitional housing accommodation’ for individuals without permanent shelter, who are unable to be placed in low-income housing. The village acts as a halfway-house for those looking to eventually move into permanent housing.

What’s there?
The village itself is made up of small private structures made of recycled/reused material, which are each owned by a resident. Each tiny house has gas heating and some have solar electricity.

Amenities include:
- A shower, an open-air kitchen sink with running water, 4 portable toilets.
- 2 offices, a greenhouse, garden beds, a winter shelter for guests.
- Outdoor common spaces, a security shack at the gate, a computer lab.
- A donations center, several production areas for operating small businesses.
- A commons room (large hall for meetings, meals, movies/tv, social functions, and indoor cooking area).
- A garbage/recycling service, a mail service, a shared phone, and wifi.

How is it run and funded?
The village costs around $30,000 to run annually. It receives no government funding. But the government does allow free use of the land in exchange for the village providing transitional housing. Each resident pays $50 per month. The village also raises money through its own small businesses and receives donations.

The village is entirely self-governed by its residents. It is partnered with JOIN who provide welfare support services on behalf of the village. These services are subsidised by the local authority.

There is a Village Intake Committee that meets with potential residents to determine whether they are eligible and to help their transition into the village. The village has its own bylaws and 5 basic rules it expects of every resident: no violence; no theft; no drugs or alcohol; no disruptive behaviour; everyone must do 10 hours of voluntary work for the village per week. Breaching of rules is followed by an incident report process and can lead to expulsion from the village.

How can tent cities resolve some of the issues raised?

Legitimacy: The villages have legal status and are permitted to use the land by the local authority. This means there is no risk of shelters being destroyed or removed.

Affordability and Accessibility:The shelters are incredibly cheap to build and run. There are very low barriers to entry into the village, providing the rules are followed. The villages offer residents means of earning an income. Of course, the villages have limited spaces but this would be less of an issue if implemented on a larger scale.

Safety and Security: The strictly enforced rules of villages like Dignity Village and the strong emphasis on community have meant that they are incredibly safe and supportive places to live.

Independence and self-governance:The villages allow residents to have their own private home, which they can build themselves. They provide a safe space and support services for residents to get back on their feet. 80% of Dignity Village residents exit into permanent housing.

Final thoughts

Tent cities are definitely an interesting solution to homelessness in the US. They do a lot to remedy some of the issues with other solutions. But they are a radical idea and it might be a long time before they become a mainstream solution. Do you think they could work in the UK? Can you think of any possible drawbacks with them?

What ideas do you have for how tactical urbanism and placemaking can be used to tackle homelessness and related issues? Let us know what you think on twitter under the hashtag #RethinkRePlace.


Tactical Pop-Up Urbanism for the Homeless

Square One Villages

Dignity Village