Homelessness is gripping the United States like never before. If you’ve been to Manhattan in the last few years, you’ll know this is true. But what can be done? Are there any easy answers? Some homeless people are educated and skilled, and ended up on the street because they were unexpectedly fired and didn’t have sufficient savings to ensure their future. Others are disabled, addicted to drugs, or have little education or relevant job experience.
Transforming church gymnasiums and open spaces into temporary areas each night for homeless to sleep solves very little in the long run. Of course, such solutions will keep people alive, free of frostbite in the cold, and getting soaked on rainy nights. However, shelters really don’t provide a stable base for anyone trying to get their lives back together. Surprisingly, some people who are without homes work part time, or even full time. The issue is, their jobs don’t pay enough to keep up with the rising costs associated with renting or owning a home. It’s no longer possible to make ends meet for many working poor people.
Raising the minimum wage is one idea we keep hearing about. But once we do that, everything will rise in cost, just to keep up. Or, establishments will automate, or find ways to make workers more efficient, so they can get along with a leaner staff. In the end, raising wages seems like a panacea, but this solution just creates further issues down the line. The underlying economics are too complex to simply remedy everything by raising the minimum wage. There are not enough good paying jobs, especially for unskilled workers. And, automation will inevitably worsen this situation.
My first idea was to make homelessness elimination into a sort of game. Homeless people could perform tasks which municipalities, as well as private sector contractors, need done in order to earn credits, like in a video game. Initially, I had considered simple jobs such as picking up trash and serving as crossing guards on intersections near schools not already protected by salaried crossing guards, however, I decided against those and instead arrived at far better solutions, which are detailed further along in this piece.
The training for job tasks could earn homeless individuals credits as well. So would performing the actual work, most of which might be done on-site, an improvement over having to go out into the streets once again to perform tasks that serve the community. Credits could be redeemed at the towers, in trade for services, goods, or food.
But in the end, many homeless people cannot realistically work, due to health issues, such as mental, physical, or emotional disability or addiction. Even so, it’s worth exploring, as there are other ways of involving them in the game as participants, other roles they can play in their community besides as a worker.
My second idea is a bit different, focusing on green buildings and incorporates elements of the first idea, the “homelessness solution game.” This second idea involves fabricating high-rise towers specifically geared to meeting the unique needs of homeless individuals and families, constructed using “green” environmental techniques not only to help the environment, but also to keep energy costs in check.
The buildings would be 100% energy efficient, utilizing multiple technologies to keep operating costs down. Of course, no system can approach total energy efficiency in reality, so what is meant here is relying solely on proven energy-efficient systems, and not obsolete energy wasting concepts so common today.
The faces of the building might be fitted with solar panels, from top to bottom. Water could be warmed by solar heated tanks on the roof, when possible. Cooling the building might be accomplished using innovative bio-mimicry techniques, like the way architect Mick Pearce found a means of cooling a gigantic office building in Zimbabwe by replicating the way termites keep their mounds cool.
Or, geothermal heating and cooling systems might be employed with great success, as regards saving on energy costs. Alternatively, if sited near a body of water, the buildings could be cooled much like the way nuclear power plants, as well as the former twin towers at the World Trade Center were, using the water from a river to keep temperatures under control.
Water usage and electricity would be meted out to each apartment, severely limiting usage. The idea is to promote conservation, not deprive anyone. During the day, lighting for the apartments would be provided by the sun. The buildings could be built with state-of-the-art insulation, so no heat can escape during the colder months, for climates with colder winters.
Channels with cooling pipes running through the building’s interior could be opened on hot days to permit passive ambient air cooling, with the doors opening mechanically, without motors, using bimetallic thermostats that open exterior ducts without having to apply external energy to the system, relying instead on the the expansion and contraction of metals, in response to outside temperatures. (This is my own idea.) There are so many possibilities, it’s incredible.
If a resident wanted to use more electricity, heat, air conditioning, or water, they could do so, using credits earned in the game, or traded to them by other residents. Disabled people, as well as those of advanced age, would automatically be granted extra free credits each week. All residents would receive a few credits simply for sleeping at home each night, enough to trade for three cooked meals a day.
Credits may be earned by working in on-site shops (more details below) as well as for participating in training for such jobs, and may only be used to purchase food, extra energy, or basics such as blankets, socks, and other necessities. There would be no way to buy drugs or alcohol with credits.
So, if a resident wished to undertake work in their apartment that requires using a laptop, and they need additional credits for additional electricity beyond the minimum free amount allotted to every resident, that could easily be worked out by earning or trading credits.
Credits may also be purchased with cash earned at an outside job. Why would anyone want to do this? It’s because credits will go further than dollars, as anything purchased at the Last Resort Tower would be sharply discounted. There would be a strict rule against reselling discounted goods outside the building for a mark-up.
Bartering will play a role here as well, and so will generosity among residents, so that even formerly homeless people can donate credits to others and experience the joy of helping those less fortunate. The default setting for available building services would be quite low, but that is just part of the game, and promotes mindfulness about energy usage, while cutting energy consumption.
Living space would be sparse; an individual would be living in a very small studio apartment with a kitchenette area and a separate bathroom. The space would be only slightly larger than a jail cell. That may sound extreme, however, many young people live in such apartments by choice, due to rising costs in top-tier locations, such as Manhattan and San Fransisco.
There would be larger sized apartments for families with children. A family would be able to occupy a flat with additional bedrooms for the kids, but the kids’ rooms would be likewise quite small. The focus would be on vertical utilization of space. Kids could sleep in bunk beds. Maximum economy of space would be the rule here. Think of RVs and eighteen-wheeler tractor truck cabs for how this might work. “Tiny houses” are a thing; look it up. Many people today are trying to reduce their carbon footprint, while undertaking the adventure of living with less, seeing how minimalism really works.
Homeless people would live in these units rent-free. There would be no work requirement, and if a resident chooses to work at outside jobs that pay in cash, rather than credits, they would not be evicted or begin having to pay rent. People would simply leave when, and if, they could afford to move into more spacious accommodations. All occupants must pass through security. There would be strict limitations on visitors; everyone must sign in and leave before 1 AM.
Overnight passes would be permitted, but no visitor would be able to sleep over for more than two consecutive nights, or more than three days total in a week. It would be possible to have another person move in, but everything must be cleared through building management. No one would be thrown out for any offense, except for selling drugs or alcohol, or for violence against another resident. Alcohol use, as well as medical marijuana, would be tolerated, but alcohol would not be sold in shops co-located on the premises.
While a city must pay for all this, think of how many useless expenditures most cities presently pick up the tab for. Many cities contribute massive amounts of money to building projects, such as for new stadiums, malls, and other public/private partnerships. Oftentimes, cities give away land for free to developers,in exchange for the added commerce and jobs a project will bring to the city. In the end, what good does a new stadium do for the people of a city, especially when the existing stadium, which must be demolished once the new one is built, serves sports fans quite well, and even has nostalgic feelings and regional history attached to it?
The funding for Last Resort Towers would be similar to how such projects are paid for. Right now, many homeless people end up in jails and prisons. And, housing them there costs quite a bit to taxpayers, and introduces, or re-introduces, homeless people to a culture of criminality, as they are forced to only associate with other convicts in prison.
Cities could sell bonds to help pay for the Last Resort Tower projects. Investors could be reimbursed slowly, as buildings generate electricity that exceeds the needs of the residents. However, such bonds are not a necessity, but merely another option.
Such Last Resort Towers would help the private sector during every phase of their creation, and eventual occupation by residents. Towers would create jobs during the construction phase. Solar companies would be paid as well, to provide the solar energy systems that would be affixed to the building’s sun-facing sides.
Private security companies would be hired to patrol the buildings, and maintain control of access in the lobby. Police officers would also get jobs, as each building would permanently be assigned officers to assist the private security. Maintenance companies would contract to keep the buildings running smoothly, clean and safe.
Waste management services could deal with the trash generated by the residents. Addiction-recovery centers would be situated in every cluster of Last Resort buildings, as well as job counseling services co-located on site. Food kitchens and pantries, run either privately by companies, or by charities, would sell basic cooking staples at discount prices, as well as provide hot cooked meals cheaply. Outdoor community gardens, for building residents, could be situated around the buildings. Residents could work at any of these places; former addicts often make the best drug counselors, for instance.
A private sector customer care call center serving other companies on a contractual basis, where residents can work at-will, could be co-located within the building so that they could work, when and if they are able, if other employment cannot be obtained. Why customer care?
These tasks are often outsourced beyond our borders, and it’s sometimes not quite so difficult that a person cannot learn how to answer phones, e-mails, and live chats successfully, without years of training. The pay grades can be graduated. Compensation would be disbursed in game credits, only. Simple answering service calls, such as taking messages, can be the lowest tier. Calls that require advanced training, such as for product support, would be worth more, and thus pay better.
Other private sector shops could be sited within the building as well, focusing on simple tasks that residents could easily learn. These would be places where residents could work, doing something tangible with their hands, to earn a little extra cash. One such idea is a delivery-based laundry service.
If this seems at all like the kind of work prisoners do, that’s because such institutions need to find simple work that anyone can engage in, without much training. Regardless, these are jobs that will always be necessary.
There could also be hydroponics shops within the building, dedicated to growing fruits and vegetables indoors under artificial lights. The produce could be sold within the city at a premium, as well as within the Last Resort Tower, for a whole lot less. A shop that fabricates solar panels, or other prefabricated materials used to build other Last Resort Towers, could help to grow this project to new cities, providing both work for residents, as well as finished materials that can be used in newly constructed towers, available at wholesale pricing.
Each of these shops sited within the Last Resort Towers could be owned and operated by private companies, non-profit organizations, the municipality, or the building owner. There are many ways to go about this. These could be integrated into the game app, so that residents could earn credits by working.
There might even be open-ended partnerships with private sector firms. Let’s suppose a software company needed work done by a skilled programmer. Or, another needed an outside engineer for one job. There could be a sort of jobs board for short-term gigs that would be granted in partnership with the game app; participants would still be paid in game credits, but the pay rate would be far higher.
If all this sounds like it will cost a lot of money to construct and operate, consider that all these various costs are already associated with housing people in lockups, and this is where a good number of people on the streets end up, anyway. Under this new plan, people would remain free, as well as free to re-establish themselves as valuable members of society, while handed back their human dignity. And, at the same time, the Last Resort Towers would not only incur costs, but bring in money, to both residents and investors.
Think about it: No one would be camped out on sidewalks, or otherwise forced to be lawbreakers just to survive or engage in necessary bodily functions. It’s not easy for most homeless people to find work. Having a permanent residence would make the process less tenuous. And of course, people are not of value solely because of their ability to work; each of us is inherently valuable, as a living person, a unique consciousness with their own life experience.
Homeless people are not throwaways. Every person, and family lacking a home deserves to be protected by our society, if we are to call ourselves civilized. Such accommodations would be spartan and quite plain; think of Cold War communist-era apartments, but smaller. Nothing fancy, just what’s needed, absolutely nothing more. Compared to living in a dangerous shelter, this is far superior. These Last Resort Towers will be a resort, of sorts, a vacation from the filth, squalor, and danger of the city streets.
Everyone living in such towers will have a lock on their door. Everyone will have a private space, albeit exceedingly small, to protect them from the elements and other people. These will not be places most would relish living in, unless they’re already homeless. To a homeless man, woman, or family, this will be paradise. But for most, such mini-apartments might seem less than desirable. A typical New York City Housing Authority apartment, for instance, would seem palatial compared to such accommodations.
The other option we have is to allow the homeless population to remain on the streets, living in squalor, creating situations that spread disease and unsightliness, despair and gloom. Or, homeless people will continue living out of their cars, sometimes an entire family cramped together, camping out every night with no elbow room, parked in a lot hoping no one will accost them. Or, homeless people will continue to have the option of staying in dangerous shelters, not really homes or stable situations to start a life from, as they must leave each morning and return in the evening.
Lastly, we may imprison the homeless population at significant cost to the taxpayer. In New York City in the 1990s, for instance, homelessness was eliminated, to some extent, by leaving people without homes with the choice of sleeping at a shelter or risking arrest. That removed people from the streets, but at a significant cost to the taxpayer, homeless people’s lives, and society at large. The Supreme Court, this week, let stand an older ruling that helps protect homeless people’s rights to sleep on the streets, but only when no other option is available.
Our Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment was cited, as The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit wrote in their decision, “As long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter.” The matter in question involved the city of Boise, Idaho’s practice of ticketing and fining people sleeping on sidewalks. But what if an option of a shelter is available, and a homeless person refuses to go? In that case, it seems the now decades-old practice of arresting or assisting going to a shelter would stand.
But why do many homeless people choose to sleep on a sidewalk rather than at a shelter, in the first place? Some cite the need for freedom, others claim that the shelter system is itself more dangerous than the streets. Perhaps improving the shelters so that such places are no longer known for crime might help. Of course, that would be a good start, and would go a long way toward helping the situation. But in the end, shelters can only do so much, limited by their very nature as a temporary safe haven where homeless people can sleep on a nightly basis.
Last Resort Towers provide a more permanent place to live, as well as safety, privacy, and a stable base where individuals or families can begin planning and saving for a brighter day. If they never leave, that is their option and their right. Some elderly people may be forced to stay, due to economic conditions and very limited fixed incomes. But we will have a better world, as people will no longer be forced to live on the street. This will reduce easy access to drugs, as well as the sundry crimes that occur living on the mean streets.
If this all sounds too socialist to you, think about how many private sector jobs may be involved in the creation and upkeep of such facilities. Towers could also be privately owned, with zero property taxes due, and municipalities paying the owner for each occupied unit.
Did you ever consider that prisons are a type of communal living facility, and are a form of socialism? Why not turn our cities into more positive places by removing the blight of homelessness and giving everyone the chance to live with dignity and pride in having their own home? Of course, the details have to be worked out, but the basic plan, for ultra-small apartments for homeless individuals and families, in dedicated towers, or even clusters of towers, remains the same.
This article was written by the president of the Assertive Kids Foundation. He began thinking more about solutions to the problem of homelessness after discussing the desperate plight of homelessness over the course of a few weeks with his friend, Sven Bensemer, who asked him, “Wasn’t there an organization already that builds homes for homeless people for free?” This question prompted a reconsideration of the situation with a fresh mind. Without having been asked this, the author of the article would not have bothered spending much time trying to find novel solutions like the Last Resort Towers and Homelessness Solution Game.
And so, we should always be questioning ourselves and one another, asking how we might do things differently. Why? It’s because the options are often more numerous than what we’re customarily familiar with doing. (Mr. Bensemer serves as Director of GSA German Software development and Analytics (Gesellschaft fur Softwareentwicklung und Analytik GMBH), a leading Europe-based data analytics and computer software company that creates everything from genetics sequencing programs to Internet marketing solutions.)
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