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Experts, Rutgers professors discuss architecture and homelessness

Emmy Tiderington, an assistant professor at the School of Social Work, said interventions affect civic life. – Photo by

Many individuals in and around New Brunswick are homeless, which results in a discussion on how to better accommodate these members of the community.

There were 223 people experiencing homelessness in New Brunswick during the nights of January 2019, 90 of whom were unsheltered. This was 47 percent of the homeless population of Middlesex County at the time, according to the Monarch Housing Point-in-Time count.

The number of people who are homeless has generally been declining, but over the last few years the numbers of unsheltered homeless and chronic homeless have been increasing, which are more indicative of actual homelessness, said Renee Wolf Koubiadis, executive director of the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey.

Between mid-2015 and mid-2016, the amount of denied applications for emergency assistance and other specific assistance applications went up 47 percent and remained roughly at those levels for approximately three years, Koubiadis said.

“So when people are seeking assistance but not getting it you know that they are just resorting to other ways of surviving,” she said.

These ways include sleeping in cars, parks, the woods or couch-surfing, Koubiadis said. 

“There are lots of people who are kind of invisible homeless in our state,“ she said. 

New Jersey has a high cost of living, making housing even more difficult to afford, Koubiadis said. It is not uncommon for people to be housing insecure and on the verge of homelessness at any moment.

“The way that poor people in general are viewed in our society as having created their own situation, you know they are thought of as having made bad decisions or done things that weren’t right, but many times that is not the case. We have a system of structural racism and systemic poverty that creates housing insecurity,” Koubiadis said.

She said people who are homeless are hesitant to talk about their situation because they feel others may think they have done something wrong.

“When emergency assistance applications were being denied at such a high rate in New Jersey for a while, the reasons on the application for denial were: You have caused your own homelessness because you failed to plan,” Koubiadis said.

Outreach and education efforts around the issues of homelessness and poverty can help people feel more comfortable about revealing their situation, Koubiadis said. Having groups or campuses that are welcoming can also be helpful for people in need by allowing them to be more open.

“Be welcoming and supportive of their fellow human beings and again try and create those spaces and a sense of community where people can share the struggles that they are going through,” said Koubiadis.

MaryAnn Sorensen Allacci, part-time lecturer at the Rutgers Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, said architecture plays into homelessness issues.

“When there is a sense that we want to support freedom, we want to support people’s ability to thrive, we want to explore in those different opportunities to support people, people interaction and engagement with society ... then architecture will often sort of help follow that,” Allacci said.

Allacci said it should be in the public’s interest to create spaces that can be used together rather than forcing people into private areas.

Allacci also said the student centers offer some welcoming spaces, but sometimes there tends to be more privacy and more control over who is in the space. For example, the Scott Hall Building on the College Avenue campus does not have places to sit in the hallways, which is a missed opportunity for students to relax together.

“We are pretty much siloing people and the sense of that is only students and academic personnel are welcome here in most cases I think on campus,” Allacci said. “I think there’s some externally reaching ... activities that are encouraged but it starts to feel like it’s a very sort of exclusive space and this is a State University at Rutgers.”

There is a need for supportive facilities for people who are homeless, Allacci said. This could be done by installing showers toward the front of buildings for students and anyone who may want to use them. 

Additionally, creating sidewalk-facing spaces for people to enjoy, such as water fountains and water-refilling stations, would allow people to blend together.

Defensive urban design, also known as hostile or unpleasant architecture, is an intentional design strategy to guide or limit behavior in urban space. 

Methods vary, but benches specially designed to prevent lying down are an example, according to the Canadian Journal of Urban Research.

"People who are homeless are usually the intended target of hostile architecture, but this approach ultimately hinders everyone's use and enjoyment of space, including the elderly, disabled, pregnant women and tired Rutgers students. So we should all question the use of these interventions because it affects civic life for all of us," said Emmy Tiderington, an assistant professor at the Rutgers School of Social Work.

Allacci said it is important for architects and public planners to consider designs that benefit everyone.

“I think in some cases maybe (hostile design is less expensive than alternatives), but I think in a lot of cases no, I think it’s the hostile design that’s more expensive in both economic as well as human terms,” Allacci said. “We need to develop our critical thinking skills and our critical analysis of decisions made about the world around us, about our physical spaces, but also policies, and not just unreflectively accept decisions that ... continue to separate us.”

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