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School of Architecture Symposium Tackles Homelessness

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Students at the School of Architecture participate in a symposium discussing the realities of the current homeless situation in San Francisco. Photo by Bob Toy.

In September, the School of Architecture at Academy of Art University hosted a symposium focusing on the issue of homelessness in the Bay Area and how certain organizations are creating new and inventive ways to build community outreach, architectural concepts that can use the design department’s help, and how this can improve the lives of the homeless in San Francisco. On a panel moderated by Executive Director of the School of Architecture Mimi Sullivan, three guest speakers, Maryann Leshin, Del Seymour and Alejandro Pimentel, shared their personal experiences and how they are making an effort to have a positive impact on this desperate cause. The School of Architecture’s Homelessness and the Built Environment Symposium served as a tie in with the San Francisco Chapter of AIA and the 2016 Architecture in the City Festival: Resilient City.

The panel reiterated how dire the homelessness situation is in the city of San Francisco. The first panelist, Seymour, is the founder of Code Tenderloin San Francisco, an organization that is to bridge the gap between the homeless and the rest of society. “I’ve been in this homelessness situation for over 30 years and none of those people want to live in a tent, but the alternatives [are a] house of horrors,” explained Seymour. “It’s a shame that we have to treat the neediest people in the world to these conditions.” 

Seymour has been doing all he can to improve conditions for the homeless in the San Francisco Bay Area. “We have the technology to do it. We have the brainpower to do it,” he said. Knowing how homelessness is currently being handled is part of improving future concepts that will create better ways to minimize this ongoing travesty. 

As an Architectural Associate II for Building Design and Construction Department of Public Works for the City and County of San Francisco, Pimentel said that there’s definitely more to the homelessness issue than merely building more shelters: “Homelessness is a local issue, it’s a national issue.”

The panelists shared their ideas in aiding the homeless and spoke about the projects they have been involved in that provide improved experiences to the homeless as well as affordable living situations for individuals of low income. The Navigation Center, which Pimentel has had the privilege to see unfold, operates as a prototype shelter. It is a short-term shelter model and what works is that there are 81 percent positive exits for the people who come to utilize the services. It is the center’s goal that no one leaves until their case is resolved. It is a shelter that is welcoming to partners, pets and the client’s possessions. Even though it is only one sliver of the solution, the Navigation Center is finding space in the city that is available for use and then brainstorming how they can utilize that space for this particular cause.

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(L–R) School of Architecture Executive Director Mimi Sullivan, Community Housing Partnership Chief Housing Officer Maryann Leshin, Founder of Code Tenderloin Del Seymour, Architectural Associate II – Building Design and Construction for the Department of Public Works, City and County of San Francisco Alejandro Pimental and School of Architecture Undergraduate Director Jennifer Asselstine. Photo by Bob Toy.

Pimentel believes that it really takes a community of organizations donating to the cause, whether it be their time, creativity or finances. This is where prospective design and architecture students can find a way to help a great cause by utilizing their skills. Half the battle is having a location, and with the Navigation Center they had the building ready but it took licensing, building and repairing the shelter to make it safe for habitation. There are so many other little processes that happen where one organization will donate plants or furniture and there is even a “cleaning team” that goes around the city to talk to the different encampments that pop up as makeshift shelter communities amongst the homeless. 

In addition to the Navigation Center, and the goal that hopefully six of them will open within the next year, Leshin, chief housing officer for Community Housing Partnership, has also been working hard to see that there are more affordable housing options in the Bay Area. Leshin took her more art-based and creative education and used it to change the face of affordable housing in Emeryville. 

“There really is a way to do this,” said Leshin, in regards to making affordable housing available. Of course money is always a welcome contribution, but “I also think that the kind of skills like technology, design, innovation would be great to pull into this kind of work … I don’t see that terribly often, but we’re always open to having those types of conversations. I think things like donations of land are fantastic and I think you see that kind of thing in San Francisco as opposed to other communities.”

CHP is in partnership with Drs. Julian & Raye Richardson Apartments and they are constantly researching how to include more desirable attributes and services in the living spaces that they provide. This is another place where design and architecture students could have a hand in bettering shelters, and not only for the homeless, but for those in the community who can’t afford the rising rents of the Bay Area. 

All three panelists inspired and contributed to an overall engaging discussion on how there is a way to lend a hand in bettering your community all the while contributing to a great cause. There is a place for design and architectural students to get involved when it comes to eliminating poor housing conditions in their community and their country.