Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles
Photography: Peter Viisimaa | Getty Images Los Angeles downtown and Skid Row. Skid Row contains a large population of homeless people, and sidewalks are lined with cardboard boxes, tents, and shopping carts.

The scope of the homelessness crisis in the Los Angeles area is staggering. The Office of the Mayor’s official website lists the city’s total at just over 34,000 homeless people, and LA County’s total tops out near 58,000.

This isn’t just LA’s special challenge; large cities like New York, Seattle, and San Diego are also struggling to address the sheer number of marginalized Americans living on the streets or in temporary shelters. But as a massive urban center with an expanding population and evolving infrastructure, the City of Angels has the chance to offer its own unique design solutions to this global challenge.

A Shifting City

The Skid Row neighborhood in downtown Los Angeles is perhaps the best-known homeless district in the country, the city’s social services and beautiful weather having made it a destination for the disenfranchised. But the number of homeless within the city and county continues to multiply, pushing those services to their limits and demanding options beyond what’s currently offered.

Since Mayor Eric Garcetti took office in 2013, the City of Los Angeles has vocally pursued several key initiatives that touch the design realm: improving health, walkability, and public transit, and eliminating homelessness. With the Olympics arriving in 2028, the city has acquired a deadline of sorts to resolve these concerns before the world’s eyes turn to La La Land.

“Everyone is aligning to try to address homelessness with money, land, and strategy,” says Mark Vallianatos, policy director for Abundant Housing LA and co-founder of the urban policy think tank LAplus. “The challenges that remain are, ‘Where do you build it?’ and ‘Can you build it quicker?’ ”

One of their allies in this regard—pushing not only for more homes but good homes as well—is the Los Angeles chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA|LA). Several architects and Will Wright, Hon. AIA|LA, the chapter’s director of government and public affairs, serve on the Design For Dignity task force, an AIA|LA–led initiative to develop and prioritize a list of homelessness and housing policy “calls to action,” and establish a roadmap to implement recommendations.

“It’s tough to get permission to do things here,” Vallianatos says. “The city used to embrace all sorts of projects at different scales. Now you can’t embark on anything that moves the needle without tens of millions of dollars in investment. How do we make the rules simpler, encourage experimentation, let the city grow, and give designers more opportunities to try new things?”

Los Angeles is growing, at least from a population standpoint. The city surpassed 4 million people in 2017, and the downtown area that includes Skid Row is undergoing piece-by-piece revitalization. But such a revival doesn’t always come with affordable homes—that’s something Vallianatos pushes for on a daily basis. If organizations like his don’t stress the importance of helping those desperately in need, the needy are likely to get left behind once again.

Homeless veteran Kendrick Bailey keeps cool inside his tent on a street corner near Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles.
Photography: Frederic J. Brown | AFP | Getty Images Homeless veteran Kendrick Bailey keeps cool inside his tent on a street corner near Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles. After dropping some 30 percent from 2015 to 2016, the population of homeless veterans living on Los Angeles streets increased in the official 2017 count to 4,828 from 3,071 the year before.

“You can see the slow shift of priorities,” Wright says, “from simply being about ‘development’ in general to one that emphasizes the human spirit. But the homeless issue remains the most visible aspect of how disconnected we’ve become.”

The city is placing a new focus on infrastructure and public buildings, from a master plan for a redesigned Union Station to an expansion of its oft-maligned subway system. Yet the issues of housing and homelessness are two that have yet to be solved, despite efforts from organizations like the Skid Row Housing Trust and design techniques from firms like Michael Maltzan Architecture and Brooks + Scarpa. The work of these two firms was documented in Community By Design: Skid Row Housing Trust, the grand prize winner in the AIA’s 2017 I Look Up Film Challenge.

“We might have over 50,000 homeless,” Wright says, “but we also have more empty bedrooms than that. It’s not that we don’t have the capacity to house everyone; we have a microculture that doesn’t connect people as well as it should.”

Large-scale government programs are already underway. Seventy-six percent of Los Angeles voters approved a 2016 measure that authorized $1.2 billion in bonds for the construction of 10,000 units for the homeless, and the county unanimously voted to direct millions from its Measure H sales tax increase into homelessness prevention, crisis housing, and bridge housing. Mayor Garcetti was even the keynote speaker at the AIA|LA Design for Dignity conference in July 2017, where he focused on his Days of Compassion initiative and its emphasis on partnerships between the city and faith-based organizations and community groups.

But more money and well-intentioned speeches from politicians don’t always lead to proportional returns. These programs can’t help all of those in need of immediate shelter, or provide opportunities for the architects who want to lend their design prowess to the cause. Casey Hughes, principal of Casey Hughes Architects, has encountered homelessness firsthand for almost two decades. His downtown Los Angeles office is located in the Arts District, a burgeoning walkable area that borders Skid Row. As such, he recently designed a not-for-profit prefabricated accessory dwelling unit that conforms to California law and can be massively deployed to supply much-needed housing.

“Most of the design energy in Los Angeles is going toward creating spaces for people who are wealthy,” Hughes says. “There is very little thought going into spaces for people who are disenfranchised.” “Frankly,” he adds, “when you’re working in a neighborhood where you see this every day, you get to know specific people who put a very human face on the problem. It can no longer be an abstract issue.”

Outside the Box

In late 2017, the Collective Arts Incubator in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles hosted an exhibition called “Unencumbered.” Six architects and designers, including Hughes, responded to a prompt that stated: “It is time to rethink urban life and homelessness. Can there be a way of life that is without a home but not without dignity?”

“The curator, Ben Warwas, wanted us to rethink what we think of as a home or an enclosure,” says Cody Miner, a Los Angeles designer and assistant teacher at the Southern California Institute of Architecture who participated in the exhibition. “We were looking to apply alternative solutions to a problem that is increasing wildly year by year.”

Miner’s proposal explored the idea of 8-by-8-foot “living units” that took advantage of pre-existing infrastructure and empty lots in suburban areas around Los Angeles that had halted construction or were no longer selling. “In thinking about how dense downtown Los Angeles already is—and how expensive it is to build shelters there—I wanted to explore spatial capacity in sprawling suburban communities and take advantage of the space that they often take for granted,” he says.

The exhibition was a series of proposals, and the designers involved all relished the opportunity to offer up solutions for the homeless, noting that their own opportunities to get involved were limited at best.

“Typically, the more established, corporate architecture offices—not as design-oriented— are chosen to deal with these issues,” Hughes says. “They look at it within the framework of what’s been done and what can be replicated, as opposed to what the best solution might be.”

Caroline Francis places a platter of food for her fellow homeless neighbor on the street near the Los Angeles Mission.
Photography: Frederic J. Brown | AFP | Getty Images Caroline Francis places a platter of food for her fellow homeless neighbor on the street near the Los Angeles Mission, hosting its annual Christmas meal for the homeless in Los Angeles, site of one of the nation’s largest homeless populations.

“This complaint goes far beyond just homelessness,” Hughes adds. “So many buildings that could’ve been so powerful—and had the budgets to make a big impact—are squandered on architects that get the commission because they simply got the last one. In the United States, it’s not about ideas, [it’s] more about qualifications. Buildings are awarded based upon a firm’s expertise in project procurement, rather than on a building’s effectiveness in serving its inhabitants. The lack of innovation is especially evident in the status quo approach to housing the homeless, which tends to be one-size-fits-all rather than innovating to address the complexity and diversity of the community’s needs.”

For his part, Wright agrees that the big fix isn’t coming from the traditional bucket of answers. “We aren’t going to build our way out of this anytime soon, so let’s design to address the underlying causes, like mental health challenges and lack of supportive services and access to dignified and hygienic amenities. As the AIA, let’s ask why homelessness comes to be, and let’s get more deeply involved in conversations with community groups about the importance of affordable housing. And, as architects, let’s rethink the entire concept of ‘What is a house?’ ”

Meanwhile, architects like Jennifer Schab are finding other ways to contribute. A principal at Rios Clementi Hale Studios, she recently embarked on a small but meaningful project for Pete White, the founder of the Los Angeles Community Action Network, that illustrates how every little bit can help.

“I met Pete at one of Will Wright’s meetings,” she says, “and he called me afterward to ask if we could create a map for him. It would show the area of Skid Row superimposed with two different densities of toilets: one based on United Nations refugee standards and another one based on the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. When you make a grid based on those standards and overlay it on Skid Row, you’d see they need roughly 387 or 115 toilets, respectively. That’s compared to the nine overnight toilets that the 1,777 homeless in the area had access to at the time.

“I know Mayor Garcetti and the city have recently added more toilets,” she says, “which are necessary to combat the recent hepatitis outbreak in homeless communities. But that, at least in part, comes from Pete knowing the issue needed a visual element to make a real impact. And it’s exactly the kind of thing we’re so happy to do. We’re architects. We know how to draw, how to present information concisely. This is exactly the kind of service we want to provide.”

The homeless population continues to rise, and the strategies currently in play have proven to be inadequate. Cities like Los Angeles need to take advantage of this chance to think outside the box and pursue solutions beyond what has worked on a smaller scale and in a bygone era, especially when it comes to design.

“I don’t think Los Angeles is broken,” Wright says. “I think we just have an opportunity to show the rest of the world how to care for our fellow citizens.”