This is what housing for the homeless could actually look like


The New Carver Apartments in Los Angeles, designed by Michael Maltzan Architecture, Inc. for the Skid Row Housing Trust. Photo by Iwan Baan.

In cased you missed it, Post colleagues Justin Jouvenal, Robert Samuels and DeNeen L. Brown had a devastating investigation in Sunday's paper of D.C. General, the largest shelter for homeless families in the District.

The shelter, now home to more than 400 families, is located in a former hospital that closed in 2001. Since then, the facility itself — pictured below — has decayed, putting residents at risk of ringworm, rashes, parasites, murky water and faulty heating. And the security and support there have unraveled, too, as staff appear to have preyed on residents and as violence has grown common.


WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 11:Exterior view of the DC General Shelter, on July, 11, 2014 in Washington, DC.(Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

A lot of details in the story are heartbreaking, including the history of how this facility — which neighbors a meth clinic, a working jail and a city morgue — came to house the homeless in the first place:

City officials and homeless advocates say D.C. General has never been properly maintained because most saw it as a Band-Aid for the city’s homelessness problem. The city began using the facility as a temporary shelter on cold nights in 2001, when the family shelter, D.C. Village, became overcrowded.

Fenty closed D.C. Village in 2007 amid complaints that it was infested with mice, roaches and other vermin unsuitable for children. His administration shifted families to D.C. General until a replacement could be found.

But the city never found one. During the winter months, almost 600 children were living in the former hospital.

“We have been in a nether world of not wanting to commit a lot of resources to the building and to the programs because we always saw this as a temporary solution,” [Jim] Graham, chairman of the D.C. Council’s Human Services Committee, said at a recent hearing.

That background points to a recurring reality in many cities: So often, we house the homeless in the spaces left over — in buildings that have (barely) outlived their original purpose, in former psychiatric hospitals, in church basements, in empty gymnasiums, in places that are explicitly temporary. While I was thinking about this over the weekend, a reader sent me a story about a California town trying to house children crossing the Mexican border in a literal warehouse (hat tip @CivicBrand).

Much less often, we create facilities specifically designed to house the homeless and the accompanying services they need. But when we do, the results can look so much different from the picture above. For some examples of what's possible as D.C. ponders its next moves, below are images of housing developed by the Skid Row Housing Trust in Los Angeles, some of it designed in more affordable modular construction and by well-known architects better known for their work on market-rate projects.


Another view of Michael Maltzan's New Carver Apartments, photo by Iwan Baan

These buildings have services built into them. And they were created, using public and private money, with the idea that community investments in quality permanent supportive housing can be less costly in the long run than stopgap measures meant to merely shelter the homeless without addressing the issues that make them so. Buildings like these alter both the outward relationship of social housing to the surrounding neighborhood, and the experience of the people who live inside.

Some more images for thought for D.C., continuing with the interior if the Michael Maltzan-designed New Carver Apartments in L.A.:


Iwan Baan

Iwan Baan

The Skid Row Housing Trust's Rainbow Apartments, also by Michael Maltzan Architecture:


Michael Maltzan Architecture, Inc.

Michael Maltzan Architecture, Inc.

Maltzan's Star Apartments:


Skid Row Housing Trust, photo by Gabor Ekecs

Skid Row Housing Trust, photo by Mary E. Nichols

The New Genesis Apartments, designed by Killefer Flammang Architects:


Skid Row Housing Trust

Skid Row Housing Trust, photo by Jim Simmons

Skid Row Housing Trust, photo by Gabor Ekecs
Emily Badger is a reporter for Wonkblog covering urban policy. She was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities.
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