“All a homeless person needs, is a home.” One of the few good things to come out of a year of COVID were attempts by authorities to do just that: provide a home for people living on the street. Mostly it was in hotels that were underutilised. Some found permanent homes during the year, but sadly a return to ‘normal’ meant returning many of those to the street.
Homelessness is complex. It’s not just people ‘sleeping rough’ on the streets, in doorways, under railways; they could also be couch surfing with friends', sleeping in cars, or sleeping in hostels with no permanency. They have no fixed address, which many of us, particularly architects, find hard to understand.
The reasons for homelessness are equally diverse. It could be from social difficulties, mental health issues, relationship breakdowns, recent bereavement, or just poverty of trying to live on an inadequate dole. It’s very rarely a lifestyle choice, despite the fulminations of many extreme right-wing politicians.
Late last year the Labor government in Victoria pledged $5.3 billion for social housing; 12,000 dwellings with 2000 seemingly to address homelessness. It created a fuss, not least because it was markedly different to every other government in Australia, who are failing utterly to address social housing, particularly homelessness.
Given this complete absence of a plan, or even an intention, to make social housing, how do we help the homeless? One approach is found with some surprising lateral thinking by asking ‘what part of the home do the homeless miss most’? Turns out it’s not the kitchen, nor the living room, nor the bedroom, but rather the bathroom and laundry, the hardest services to find ‘on the street’.
We all really value cleanliness, even if you have nothing else. It seems to be an Aussie trait, unlike the English, whose Queen Victoria once said: “I have a bath once a month, whether I need it or not”, or the French who invented perfume to cover their smells from poor hygiene.
In designing a new Wayside Chapel in Sydney's Kings Cross some years ago, this was the most remarkable thing to learn from the briefings we had from the tireless social workers on the streets of this most difficult of areas: if you can’t provide the homes then provide the services that are desperately needed by the homeless: showers, toilets and fresh clothes, particularly undies (either from washing or from the vast array of donated clothing).
On the ground floor, just past the welcome desk, are bathrooms and toilets in constant use day and early evening. And that constant interaction brings trust: the second service offered is emotional support in addition to the physical support. Mental health and homelessness go hand in hand, impenetrably intertwined; only unpicked by trust built up over time by trained care, which in the Wayside’s case is often people from the street who have found their way back.
Living on the street or in a car or under shelter is grimy, dirty. The luxuriousness of a shower is gold. Likewise, clean clothes. But what if there is no Wayside Chapel nearby? Recently the invention of mobile laundries has taken cleaning to the homeless rather than the other way around. This insight discovered by two young Queenslanders, Nic Marchesi and Lucas Patchett, who built a couple of washing machines and dryers into a van, and Orange sky was born in 2014.
The idea has grown. They now have 33 vans across Australia and have used their mobile laundries to provide emergency services, for a North Queensland cyclone in 2015 and Victorian bushfires in 2016. In that year they expanded into free hot showers for the homeless. Like the Wayside it is the conversations afforded by the service that are key: Marchesi has said that the human connections enabled to the isolated is the most important aspect of their initiative. Find Orange Sky here, as 800 volunteers already have.
The idea has grown, with other charities developing ever more sophisticated designs: this one, a church called ‘Fresh Start Missions’, travels with its two designers and operators, a truck driver and wife, to a group of expectant users in inner Sydney every Sunday.
And lastly, an activity that is even harder to manage when you don’t have the security of a home: drug injection. The Wayside Chapel played a key role in establishing Australia’s first Medically Supervised Injection Centre, also in Kings Cross. It is an indictment of our socially backward politics that it has taken 20 years for a second to be built in Fitzroy in Melbourne. Again, it’s not the possibility of safe injection in clean surroundings that is its centerpiece, but the surrounding advice and support.
Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Tone does not read Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Linked In. Sanity is preserved by reading and replying only to comments addressed to [email protected]