Homeless Possessions in Public Places

In recent years, poverty and homelessness have increased exponentially in the US. The homeless leave their possessions unattended in shopping carts or piled on the sidewalk while making necessary trips. This can be unsightly, bad for business, and definitely not good for tourism, but do those of us with homes have the right to seize and destroy their possessions?

On February 28, the city of Los Angeles appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a lower court ruling that prevented the random seizure and destruction of belongings that homeless people leave temporarily unattended on public sidewalks. City Attorney Carmen Trutanich argued that these belongings prevented street cleaning and were instrumental in spreading an epidemic of tuberculosis among the homeless.

There are two issues at work here: the legal issue and the moral issue.

Legally, the police may be justified in removing a homeless person’s property if it creates an immediate health hazard. Rather than allowing a situation to escalate to a point where there is even the suggestion of a health hazard, the homeless and those who object to their possessions in the public realm must come together, understand and respect each other’s perspectives, and collaborate to improve the situation. All kinds of temporary measures come to mind, from negotiating about where is a more appropriate place to leave possessions (an unused doorway?), to providing named, lockable waterproof storage boxes in the public realm.

It is easy to do what is right legally. It is harder to do what is right morally. In a civilized society, the morally right solution takes precedence over the legal solution.

Morally, we have to judge what is right for the homeless person as well as what is right for the pedestrian, local business owners or law enforcement. The homeless person leaves her possessions on the sidewalk because she has nowhere else to keep them. They represent all she owns after everything else in life has been lost.

For a long term, morally just solution, a civilized society is beholden to provide a private place to sleep and store possessions, washing facilities, food, health care (and basic employment for those who are able). If we are unwilling to provide this barest minimum for those who are homeless then we cannot complain if their possessions are in the public realm.

In 1996, Architect Donald MacDonald designed and built two prototype “City Sleepers” for the homeless. They were little more than lockable plywood boxes, 8’ x 4’ with two vent holes, a sliding window and swing-up door, a shelf and a 4” foam mattress. He installed them on waste land beneath the freeway in San Francisco, which was being used by the homeless. They received positive national media coverage, but the California Department of Transportation brought suit to remove the Sleepers.

Architecture students have traditionally been involved in designing, and sometimes building small shelters for the homeless. At Emily Carr University of Art and Design, Professor Blyt gave a 15 week course for students to research the problem of homelessness through interviews, and to design and build a 64 square foot structure for under $1,500.

Photo: Homeless houses from Emily Carr University

In 2012, Sarah Cloutier, a student at the Pacific Northwest College of the Arts in Portland designed and built a mobile Bootstrap Home.  It has a window, a small stove and a sink, and it can be locked. Sarah’s research indicated that the trailers are legal if they are given away and if they are “located in spaces where vehicles can park.”

Photo: Bootstrap Home by Sarah Cloutier

The “Tiny House” fad has become immensely popular in recent years, as is apparent from the number of books on the subject.

Chic micro-apartments are also gaining the attention of architects and city leaders. The winning design of NY City’s Micro Contest (270 square foot) will be constructed in a 55-unit building.  In December 2012 San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors altered the building codes to permit micro-apartments as small as 220 square foot.

Rendering of micro-apartment building, Smartspace SoMa.  Courtesy Panoramic Interests

The "suite" unit includes a dining room table that converts into a queen size bed. Courtesy Panoramic Interests

With all of this talent and accolades for tiny dwelling designs it is not believable to claim that we are unable to create extremely affordable micro-apartments or micro-homes for the homeless.

Their presence in the public realm is a constant embarrassing reminder that we have failed our poorest members. Given a life-threatening illness, loss of job, and home, we might each be in that position. Rather than sweeping away this disturbing reminder of the fickleness of fate, we need to find honorable, long term solutions to homelessness.