DESIGNS AND REGULATIONS are used to influence behavior all the time and all across the various contexts of our world. Supermarkets and casinos routinely lack windows and clocks to encourage you to lose track of time and stay longer. Movies include musical scores that enhance the emotion of the drama on-screen. Airports and other highly trafficked buildings often include subtle clues to keep people moving along through them in the right direction.
These kinds of manipulations are everywhere. Some are easy to notice. Others are easy to miss. Some are harmless or even helpful. Others are harmful and should be opposed. In this pamphlet, I have tried to develop some conceptual tools for identifying a particular kind of material situation: technologies that are open to multiple uses, and the social and political forces that influence the availability of those potential uses. And I have tried to outline a particular understanding of technological “guilt,” one that considers a technology’s various possible purposes and that also considers the device’s relationships to particular collective agendas and larger political structures, agendas and structures open to charges of callousness and cruelty. I hope that these ideas can be of assistance in evaluating concrete technologies and technological trends. In addition to public-space design, there is potential application to a variety of other contexts, including workplaces, classrooms, prisons, the home, and the online environment. And these ideas could be usefully connected to the emerging literature on design practices that maintain sensitivity to values and that work to include others in the design process.
The argument of this pamphlet has been a negative one; it is a criticism of what I claim to be a large-scale pattern of design and law in cities across the world. I have attempted to identify and philosophically articulate a pervasive strategy in which antihomeless design and policy effectively push unhoused people out of public spaces, often performed in such a way that it can be difficult to notice if you are not among the targeted minority. And I have attempted to reveal this strategy to be immoral and unjust.
Obviously, this is only a small part of the larger story of the problem of homelessness. I do not mean to imply that antihomeless design and law are somehow the only—or even the most major—cause of homelessness. Nor should it be implied that the removal of antihomeless designs would by itself somehow be a solution to the problem. Nor are unhoused people themselves the only victims of this problem, as, for example, small businesses and churches struggle to cope with this failure on the part of our national and city governments, large corporations, and other societal institutions.
But I do hope that by calling attention to the often unnoticed elements of antihomeless design and law in our cities, two things might be accomplished.
One, by exposing these often unnoticed designs and laws, and by highlighting their pervasiveness and the concerted way they work together to target the unhoused population, I hope to issue a test of our ethical intuitions. Insofar as we are appalled by any parts of these treatments of human beings, we should connect that reaction with the knowledge that those treatments are part of a systematic strategy used—to different degrees and in different ways—by cities all over the world. The injustice and immorality of these strategies for addressing the problem of homelessness are made clear. And although the work of opposing these strategies is only one small piece of a better solution, it is an opposition we should nonetheless take up.
Two, the analysis of this particular aspect of the problem has the potential to help clarify and crystalize the values that should guide our approach to larger solutions. Let’s conclude with an enumeration of a few of the policies and approaches that appear consistent with the values that have emerged through the course of this pamphlet.
The values emerging herein call for us to expect and to oppose new efforts to target the unhoused. We should resist utopian thinking in general, and progress narratives about the problem of homelessness in particular, and keep watch for new efforts to roll back assistance programs for the unhoused.
At the time of this writing, the Trump administration has recently assumed power in the United States. In light of the values emerging herein, this is cause for concern; the Trump campaign’s rhetoric and the administration’s early actions have targeted minorities, women, and immigrants. The Trump administration’s attorney general, who serves as the head the DOJ, has a documented history of opposition to civil rights legislation and criminal justice reform. The secretary of housing and urban development is as qualified for the job as me or you. (Or less so, if you happen to have any qualifications whatsoever.) Thus, at the national level, there is reason to remain watchful for new efforts to target the homeless and reason not to assume that new protections are on the way. And there is all the more reason to push for reform at the local level, because new national-level protections may now be even less likely.
The values exposed in this pamphlet should additionally lead us to strongly support “Right to Rest” initiatives. This refers to efforts to legislate our commitment against antihomeless laws that criminalize basic behaviors of the unhoused. Right to Rest legislation, or a “Homeless Bill of Rights,” as it is also sometimes called, could effectively overturn and outlaw antihomeless policies, such as camping bans and sit/lie laws. Resistance to the increasing criminalization of homelessness is an important priority.
The values that emerge from the analysis in this pamphlet also appear consistent with a “housing-first” approach to the problem of homelessness. This tactic involves getting unhoused people into housing as the initial step, in contrast to traditional programs that attempt to shepherd people out of homelessness in stages, through the shelter system and transitional housing, with each step subject to scrutiny. For example, traditional approaches can include requiring people to defeat addiction, or complete multistep programs, before becoming eligible for more permanent housing. The housing-first model turns this logic upside down. The understanding is that if an unhoused person can get into housing, then other conditions can be better treated. That is, though many problems may keep a person unhoused, the act of providing housing to this person can be the strongest first part of a solution to those problems. And, perhaps counterintuitively, a housing-first approach appears to be the cheaper option. When the costs of sheltering, law enforcement, criminal prosecution, and repeated emergency medical services are added together, the expense of simply providing unhoused people with housing is cost-effective. This is what was found in Utah’s pioneering housing-first program, an effort that has become the poster child for this perspective, reporting a 91 percent drop in chronic homelessness since 2005.
At the same time, housing-first programs may not be a panacea. The unhoused population is diverse, with people in a multitude of completely different situations. The values exposed in this pamphlet thus additionally seem consistent with the support of shelters and other more traditional outreach efforts, because these offer real and crucial assistance to many people. But we should also remain critical of shelter policies, because they have significant effects on the lives of their clients and contribute to determining who can and cannot use these facilities. And as we have seen, the policies of local shelters (and their particular capacity limits) affect the legal status of the unhoused people who cannot or do not use them. Another demand that appears consistent with the preceding values is the recognition that those living outside areas with high unhoused populations (e.g., urban centers, neighborhoods with shelters) should share responsibility for addressing the problem of homelessness, including the financial responsibility.
With a problem as complex and fraught as homelessness, it should come as no surprise to see that any solutions on offer are only partial, ongoing, and imperfect. To move forward, it is important to spell out our values and keep hold of them as we as a community address the problem. And we must keep hold of them as well as we learn to see the strategies of law and design already in place all around us that conflict with those values.