We live in a country where homelessness is penalized, even criminalized. Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, for example, is about to pass a law forbidding homeless persons to store possessions publicly.
Ft. Lauderdale police would be required to give a homeless person a 24-hour warning before confiscating his or her possessions. It’s obvious that if you don’t have a home today, you’re not likely to have one tomorrow. Confiscated belongings then would be ransomed for “return” fees or destroyed. Having no place to store the reclaimed items, the cycle would repeat without any effort to find a solution for the core problem: housing for the homeless.
Other cities have other methods to drive away the unsightly homeless, such as seeding any open public surface with concrete spikes to prevent transients — or any other citizen — from alighting to rest. Diametrically opposed to the NIMBY philosophy is that of Auburn University’s Rural Studio, that for the past two decades has been working to design affordable, sustainable dwellings.
It would profit urban planners to study the recently published Rural Studio at Twenty: Designing and Building in Hale County, Alabama. In text and extensive illustrations, the five authors describe their techniques for designing and building these innovative dwellings, methods used to select recipients, and the crucial interactions between the designers and builders and the homes’ residents.
While the project does not provide homes on a large scale, and the rural nature of Hale County offers cheaper land than urban Birmingham, Minneapolis, or Ft. Lauderdale, it is Rural Studio’s concern for the well-being and dignity of the less fortunate that needs to be taken into account.
One cannot in an instant throw up free housing for everyone in need, not even in Hale County, but Auburn University’s Rural Studio, its students, planners, and clients, offer a fresh lens through which to view our thinking about decent housing for all.
In his ballad, “Falling Leaves,” country singer Grandpa Jones cautioned, “When you leave this earth for a better home someday / The only thing you’ll take is what you gave away.” Just as intelligent, planned giving benefits the giver and receiver, so confiscating a homeless man’s possessions or sweeping out the poor for “aesthetic” reasons damages both the sweeper and the swept.