In 2015, San Francisco's Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing opened its first navigation center, with the hope of providing unhoused city residents an alternative to traditional shelters, some of which have strict eligibility requirements. The center welcomed individuals with family members and pets and provided easy access to secure storage facilities, bathrooms, and supportive services.
The model proved successful. Navigation centers with varied amenities began popping up around the state, including the Homeless Navigation Center for City of Los Angeles’s Council District 8 (Navig8), which opened in January. Designed by the local firm John Friedman Alice Kimm Architects, Navig8 is a modular, two-story structure with a colorful façade and striking street presence, embodying the project's essential role in the community. "We wanted to create a place that wasn't hidden and that has an impact on the community," Friedman says.
But when JFAK, a firm known for its civic-minded work and finesse with modular construction, began working on NAVIG8, they had questions. "When we started the project, there was really no precedent that we could study in terms of this kind of mixed services building," explains Alice Kimm, FAIA, co-founding principal of JFAK.
The JFAK team visited other navigation centers in the area, but it struggled to find publicly available information that would allow the firm to "get the work done quickly," Kimm says. "It was crazy how difficult it was and how much slowed us down."
JFAK began asking around and found that it wasn't the only firm to encounter roadblocks when designing supportive facilities. Adequate resources on everything from best design practices to navigating city zoning policies seemed in short supply. "When we spoke to people, colleagues who were working on projects as well, it was the same story," Friedman says. "I mean, the entitlements process is so mindbogglingly difficult, even though this is supposed to be an emergency situation."
So the firm decided to build its own resource, developing a centralized, online platform dubbed the Open Source Homelessness Initiative. Over time, JFAK will fill the database, which launched in June, with advice on projects, resources, and arts aimed at helping architects and developers eradicate homelessness. Project case studies—which could range from infrastructure and public spaces to permanent supportive housing, such as Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects' MLK1101 Supportive Housing in Los Angeles—will include intake form questionnaires with firms that highlight successful, and not so successful, techniques.
"Just posting pictures of the projects isn't really going to be that helpful," Kimm says. "And a whole portion of that intake form has to do with lessons learned: what worked, what did not work, what should be avoided ... and suggestions for how things can be improved."
Firms can submit their own projects directly to OSHI's website, but JFAK wants to ensure that the projects they showcase are feasible. "I wanted to hop straight on price and make sure that we're doing things that are absolutely replicable," Friedman says.
Equally as important as OSHI's project case studies will be the platform's emphasis on the of perspective of currently and formerly houseless people through its forthcoming stories section—which will feature firsthand experiences, preferences, and design opinions of those in supportive housing—and the arts section. "The arts section by nature is telling the stories of a lot of [unhoused individuals], because a lot of the artists whose work is represented on our site are themselves homeless," Kimm says.
In the coming months, JFAK will build OSHI's project database, hoping that the accessible resource will draw attention to the larger issues underlying homelessness. "Just building some big housing projects and throwing people in there is not going to solve the problem," Kimm says. "The design of the housing itself has not taken into consideration what [the needs of unhoused people] are."
By highlighting these needs and effective ways to meet them, Kimm hopes that OHSI will "[lay] open some of these pathways to getting stuff done." As the database grows, OSHI will organize projects into increasingly specific subcategories that highlight repeat issues, whether they take the form of design or policy flaws. With that information available, Friedman says, "people can come in and study them."