Whose street is it anyways?

The challenge of being homelessness and our responsibility towards a problem that should not exist.

5 min readNov 19, 2019

“ On a single night in 2018, roughly 553,000 people were experiencing homelessness in the United States. About two-thirds (65%) were staying in sheltered locations — emergency shelters or transitional housing programs — and about one-third (35%) were in unsheltered locations such as on the street, in abandoned buildings, or in other places not suitable for human habitation.”

** From 2018 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR)

Photos from 2018 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR)

The very notion of not having a roof over your head is a unthinkable scenario for all of us, yet we have about half a million (recorded in 2018) individuals facing that challenge every night in America. Since 2007 the rate of homeless individuals has been dropping, until 2016 and for last two years it has been growing slowly. To make matters worse 20% (111,592) of these homeless individuals are children and 40% are now women.

PIT Estimates of People, 2018

Historical Context

Early 1800s

During the pre-civil war the definition of homelessness was people displaced by wars, immigrants and the ones who were displaced from colonial towns. The dawn of industrial age also compounded the problem of population shift to areas of new job opportunities (Think railroads)

Mid 1800s- Mid 1900s

In America, homelessness emerged as a national issue in the 1800s. The main causes were economic depression and unregulated capitalism. There are no national figures documenting homeless people demography at that time. Most of the homelessness was attributed to rapid urbanization in late 19th century. This was brilliantly documented and written by Jacob Riis, especially in his book How the Other Half Lives.

Mid-Late 1900s

New housing rules in the name of urban renewal and laws regarding mental health shifted the articulation of homelessness.

The Community Mental Health Act of 1963 was a pre-disposing factor in setting the stage for homelessness in the United States. Long term psychiatric patients were released from state hospitals into Single Room Occupancies and sent to community health centers for treatment and follow-up. Never adequately funded, the community mental health system struggled to meet patient needs and many of the “deinstitutionalized” wound up living on the streets, with no sustainable support system.

Through 1970–1990s the decrease in social services funding, housing disparities and economic factors compounded the problem. Institutionalized programs like The McKinney-Vento Act were steps to acknowledge and address the problems of chronic homelessness. This era was the beginning of homelessness as we know today.

After 150 years, why is it still an issue?

Homelessness is a “wicked” problem that has complexities that touch upon various aspects of social fabric and intertwined dependencies. The key factors which cause it that come forth are:

  • Social inequality
  • Lack of affordable housing
  • Lack of supportive and health services
  • Domestic violence
  • Natural disasters
  • Migration

Each of the reasons above can have sub-issues within them, e.g. Housing could have problems like lack of low income groups (LIG) housing, higher rents, foreclosures, gentrification, overtly complex building codes etc. But if you look at each problems through micro-lens they are loosely inter-connected and response to each cause has some effect on the other.

“ The number of people in unsheltered locations increased for the third year in a row between 2017 and 2018 “

Design for new (and old) challenges

Through the history, design has tried to address the complexity of such social problems. Especially, in case of homelessness it has manifested as design for built space, policy framing or individual behavior changes. We at yform.studio believe the need to understand architecture of the problem, we have to go beyond traditional design, have a multi-disciplinary approach and look at this as system challenge and go back to the drawing board with an inclusive and meaningful approach.

Essentially designing for social change.

Evolving shelters

Q I O: A framework to create change

Q I O is a thinking framework at yform.studio which uses the ethos of system design thinking and strategic design principles to understand these complex problems of modern times. This involves Powerful Questions, Big Ideals and Meaningful Outcomes through cycles of iterative design. These are supported by principles of inclusiveness, simplicity, truth and trust.

The framework explores ideas and strategies to look at the issues affecting homelessness. These are broadly seen through the lens of either a policy, program and/or design:

  • Creating awareness
  • Building life skills
  • Jobs (Search & Training)
  • Housing redesign
  • Fundraising
  • Data collection

Finally, we believe that homelessness is a wicked problem that needs to be and can be addressed by a strategic design approach vs. siloed/ fragmented solutions.

This is the first of narratives on the topic of homelessness by yform.studio. We are still in nascent stages of understanding this wicked problem through the lens of design. As we learn more and design for the same we will share more narratives and case studies. We invite you to participate with us on this journey to create a better tomorrow. You can reach us at info@yform.studio





yform.studio is a strategy + design firm using design to bring clarity to complex problems, frame new opportunities and build meaningful and impactful products.