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The stories and moments that keep us going

Building a Steering Committee

Building on our previous roundtable, we convened a group of designers, artists, and enthusiasts to discuss college homelessness in greater detail. A lengthy discussion into the how and why unfolded as we shared stories from recently interviewed students that revealed a glimpse into the day-to-day struggles of homelessness. 

Some of the students experiencing homelessness are escaping hostility that comes in the form of domestic abuse, economic hardships, or extreme burdens. Homelessness often takes other forms including couch surfing between friends and family, sleeping in car, or periodically sleeping in a hotel. Others face eviction. Many have limited financial capacity and often have to choose between rent, tuition, or food. These puts many in a constant state of vulnerability as any unforeseen medical condition, car issue, or sudden shift in childcare can drastically impede a students ability to focus on school. For some their homesteads are so hostile, that some choose to stay away or vacate to keep their distance from these abrasive environments.

When forced on the street some experience being spit on, being overly pitied, verbally abused, or treated as completely nonexistent. Loitering is prohibited, and support services usually funnel those experiencing homelessness to Lancaster Ave, where most of the homeless services are provided. As the city cracks down, tent cities are busted up resulting in a complete loss of home and place for any unsheltered individual. The shelters have evolved to a program based approach, often limiting their capacity to serve. Those that experienced domestic abuse for example might choose a life on the street over the shelter, as the innate fear of being abused by may still linger. Some students have PTSD, either through personal trauma or military service, and cannot deal being around a large number of people. Some shelters come with conditions (chores, prayer requirements, service payments) that make education difficult or a second priority to holding a job. Others have a 7-year waiting period or are designed for short term support, limiting their capacity again to help students, which long-term affects their ability to gain meaningful employment that offers a livable wage. And some facilities do not allow children or spouses, making it difficult for those with families.

Market conditions also play an active role. An aggressive real estate market is proving difficult for low income families to compete for and secure permanent housing, increasing their risk to enter homelessness. This also limits their ability to accumulate wealth which keeps these families in the cycle of poverty. Although low income housing is being built throughout the city, availability is limited, and income requirements can make it difficult for some to qualify. Despite this acute affordable housing crisis NIMBYism continues to bring a one-dimensional negative perspective to housing low income and homeless people. With innate fears of density, parking, crime, and of course those darn youth and their pesky ways, developing housing options adjacent or nearby single-family communities can be challenging. 

Aside from the economic factors, there are other things that can make if difficult for a student experiencing homelessness or sever insecurities. Simply not having a drivers license can be an inhibiting factor in getting a job, an apartment, or support resources. Viable employment can help, but there are some limitations that have to be considered, mainly the amount of time spent working versus at school, and the income triggers that could deny them access to support resources. A lack of cost effective and reliable mobility options inhibits access to work, school, or even the local DMV office. Fort Worth currently ranks 17th in transit funding among major metropolitan areas in the United States. With most of the funding sourced through local taxes, Fort Worth’s potential for comprehensive transit seems bleak.

Despite pressing contextual challenges, one the biggest factors is personal ignorance to homelessness. Granted, it is not usually a topic of discussion on the daily commute to work, or when sipping a fine beer at happy hour, but nevertheless, it is perceived often with a sense of dismissal or belittlement. Why can’t they just get a job? The market is healthy; there should not be an issue with getting work. They are just lazy and abusing the system. Common remarks we have heard or perhaps sputtered. How does this bias effect how we perceive and interact with those experiencing homelessness? If you met a homeless person outside of a shelter or on the street would you really know? Is whether homelessness is about having a roof over your head, or is it more about a sense of home and place? 

As we discussed each situation, every question and story added to the complexity of this challenge. We arrive at a shared consensus on the importance of home and place over just housing. These struggles also revealed the dedication each of these students had to their education.

Transitioning to exploring opportunities, we identify that it is often easily to criticize things not done well, but that it is equally important to also identify things that work well. No city or organization is perfect, and none are without a balance of both failures and success. The key is being able to recognize both and use this knowledge to identify opportunities for improvement. So, what does Fort Worth do great? We live in the south, and tend to be a giving community. Given that southern hospitality can lead to dirt being kicked under the rug to avoid conflict, it also means we tend to give a hoot when we identify struggles faced within our community. Fort Worth for the most part has a strong philanthropic community and culture. Key opportunities lie in expanding this notion and creating additional means of accruing funds to serve those most in need. 

A big push for affordable housing has attracted the attention of multiple groups ranging from homeless coalitions to the local chapters of the American Institute of Architects and Urban Land Institute. Moreover, a realignment of community governance through The Continuum of Care and Tarrant County Homeless Coalition have formed a new collaboration aimed at implementing strategies and resources to more effectively address the challenges of homelessness. Effective timing in discovering this particular niche of homelessness has the potential of aligning solutions with readily available resources.

A subtle reinvention is also beginning to brew in Fort Worth. The birth of numerous new organizations focused on entrepreneurship and the rise of urban type developments is beginning to drive a focus on small local business ventures. It’s encouraging although the full extent of these initiatives remains to be discovered. Fort Worth’s focus on social enterprises is increasing as a newly signed contract with Clean Slate launches a new relationship with the public sector and this business platform. Exciting, especially as local initiatives such as Kernel are working to help launch additional social initiatives in the county. Combined with a talented local artist community, the potential for unique, responsive, and scalable solutions is promising. 

As we dive deeper in search of solutions the conversation starts housing and its multiple iterations. We continue, exploring new technologies and imagining increasing radical solutions and their potential in Fort Worth. From 3D Printed housing like Wiki House sourced from local makers in Fort Worth to an autonomous mobile home that could be a parting gift. Perhaps the autonomous car could dock with other super structures and over time increase in size and function as needs and desires change. Coupled with Community Land Trust, prices could be locked, ensuring future generations can utilize cost effective housing, while putting development of future real estate or program under community control. But how do we go beyond the wall and the building? Can real estate bring a sense of home and place? 

We refill on wine and take a quick clarity break and ramp back into discussion. A quick story about the role a teacher played in helping one of our participants move from homelessness to being a working professional helped get the creative juices flowing. Could we design working mentorships between professors and students aligned with career specific goals and connections, coupled with a shared housing community where both students and educators could share their perspectives? What about finances and a sense of home? Hmm, tough, yet with programs like Handup, it is not out of the ordinary to imagine localized funding platforms to help those in need. In the same vein, looking at the comfort with foreign exchange programs could we design a local student exchange program to help align students in need to a home and family to help them through the struggle?

We explore Dark Kitchens and their potential to offer a unique solution to another growing market, meal delivery. Using shared kitchens, these restaurants offer food exclusively for meal delivery platforms like Deilveroo, Uber Eats, and Foodora. So is it possible to align these new kitchen concepts to job training programs like the Taste Project or Hugs Café? There are success stories in other cities aligning underrepresented and under served populations to jobs ranging from picking up trash, making artisanal chocolates, to farming. Perhaps the jobs could be specific to address two problems at once? Remembering The Garbage Clinical Insurance from Jakarta, Indonesia, would it be possible to do something similar in Fort Worth to address the aging trade skill workforce while employing trade skill workers to build new affordable homes? Could construction be the tool to financial freedom? What other unique social enterprises could we help launch? 

We also discuss how the homeless stigma still hinders the capacity and these individuals and how we fail to fully understand the reality faced by people in these circumstances. Albeit there are always those that do not care, but how do we elevate the perspective of those that might be curious? Fortunately, Movies That Matter has started to dabble in educating on culture. Perhaps a natural evolution is showcasing the daily challenges of some of Fort Worth’s most vulnerable and how they got there. Would this stop the stigma? What about a media campaign utilizing pod casts and artists to help market ideas and issues in a non-traditional format, one that engages the audience and brings emotion and intuition to the forefront? Does education go beyond just adults? Should we teach homelessness in high school, middle school, elementary? 

Neighborhoods, and fellow neighbors also play a key part. NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard), admittedly a tough challenge, especially when the single-family households are the first to call to order when the scent of change begins to drift in their communities. So how and where to begin the journey to YIMBY? Is this just education or is there more involved? How do we get buy-in from the harshest critics? Programs on the West Coast have shown some success in varying degrees from grassroots movements in San Francisco to municipal policies in Seattle. Which works best for Fort Worth? Or is there a new version of this we have yet to discover? 

So where and how to start? A poetic solution starts with a design competition to have students help develop solutions for their fellow peers, helping to educate on the pertinent issue at hand and empower change. Evolving to a city-wide initiative utilizing both students and city stakeholders, Parking Day could be a platform to launch experimental prototypes developed at these competitions. How about universal housing programs, geared around housing first and addressing personal issues after? How about developing a modern community that aims for equity in design, providing a quality environment for all, rather than illuminating the conditions of poverty in its very presence. Coupled with a simple program to allow or align pet ownership and art therapy to those in need would help create a sense of place. By identifying these resources, local colleges could forge partnerships to offer discounted or free rent to students in need to offer a stable foundation and a clear pathway to a career, both by aligning the right education to a career and providing the environment to ensure success.  

How to best wrap up a great conversation? Hard to say, yet, as we leave our chairs we adjourn with ideas at hand. As we press forward over the next few months our vision lies in bringing together the multiple ideas we have discovered and working towards a common goal of solutions.

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