studying the city (Annette Koh)

Public space, the right to the city, and civic engagement. How can we improve equity and access through participatory urbanism? Ph.D. student in Urban & Regional Planning at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. Former resident of Seoul & San Francisco.
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Posts tagged "homelessness"

Rebecca Sheehan’s 2010 article "‘I’m protective of this yard’: long-term homeless persons’ construction of home place and workplace in a historical public space" is a really fascinating and thoughtful article on how being homeless doesn’t mean you don’t have a sense of home, but rather than you “expand and diversify” your definitions of home, sometimes including movement and networks of community into the feeling of being-at-home.

Sheehan’s literature review offers hours of potential reading. She cites research on how some homeless persons feel that “living in public spaces and in squats rather than in hostels allows them to feel safer, more socially connected, and more autonomous.” Finding spaces to exist as people rather than pariahs was critical and not easy. One refuge was the public library. Library staff and even other patrons treated them “no differently from any other patron with a home,” so homeless persons could leave their marginalized status ‘at the door’.

Rebecca Sheehan. “‘I’m protective of this yard’: long-term homeless persons’ construction of home place and workplace in a historical public space.” Social & Cultural Geography 11.6 (2010): 539-558.

I aim to build upon this literature, explaining how long-term homeless persons attempted to make the Jackson Square area [in New Orleans], a central public space for tourism and the city’s image, personally and socially meaningful as home place and workplace. Indeed, it is perhaps surprising that long-term homeless persons came to the Square area at all when less-patrolled public spaces in the city and French Quarter existed. I argue that the Square’s historical and tourist attraction status actually supported long-term homeless persons’ desire and ability to occupy it in significant ways.

[Jackson Square in New Orleans]

Long-term homeless persons also demonstrated that they established a more personal sense of home place in the Jackson Square area, asserting even a sense of residence. Boss, a black man in his sixties, claimed Jackson Square as ‘his’ Square, regularly swept one area of the Pedestrian Mall, and sometimes said to passersby, ‘It looks real nice don’t it?’ Within a few weeks after Hurricane Katrina, Boss had returned to Jackson Square’s Pedestrian Mall sweeping, ‘taking care of [his] Square.’ Additionally, Samuel, a black man in his late forties, declared that he was ‘protective of this yard.’ Later in my field work, Tracy explained that he had housing but that he came back to the Square to check on people. Accordingly, Austin, also an African American in his thirties, described Jackson Square as ‘homeless people’s “everyday” family.’

Moreover, long-term homeless persons slept on benches in Jackson Square and its Pedestrian Mall as well as on the grass in the Square, usually during the day. They had less trouble sleeping during the day in these areas because tourists were often found napping in these same places, allowing long-term homeless persons to more easily blend in with the homed population. Furthermore, long-term homeless persons often preferred sleeping in the Square area rather than in shelters, ‘where bad things happen’ and ‘weird people’ stayed. Jackson Square allowed them to feel not so different from homed persons because they were participating in similar activities and felt safer due to mainstream tourist traffic and visibility.


#Cardboard Stories. You’ve got to watch this.

Maybe the best use of the holding-a-sign meme I’ve seen yet. Really really appreciate this, especially given all the punitive proposals on homelessness floating around Honolulu. (via)

I remain infuriated by the continued criminalization of homelessness in Honolulu. Otherwise progressive city officials are pursuing Fox News style policies that penalize homeless people being visibly and publicly homeless (peeing in public, sleeping at bus stops). Last night on my walk home from the bar, I saw a family of four (two toddlers and their parents) in front of the King St. Panda Express who had probably been evicted from the park across the street by aggressive enforcement of the stored property ordinance.

In general, I think Honolulu city council members and the mayor are mentally constricted by the politics of fear — e.g. trying to outlaw various aesthetic outrages (yards must be maintained! firecrackers banned! the poor and smelly warehoused somewhere else!) — and are incapable of imagining a politics of love.

The book in the post doesn’t sugarcoat the grime or the crimes committed by the men and women of the homeless encampment. But it also doesn’t allow the reader to forget that being homeless doesn’t rob you of friends, family, choices, or humanity.

Righteous Dopefiend by Philippe Bourgois and Jeffrey Schonberg

This powerful study immerses the reader in the world of homelessness and drug addiction in the contemporary United States. For over a decade Philippe Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg followed a social network of two dozen heroin injectors and crack smokers on the streets of San Francisco, accompanying them as they scrambled to generate income through burglary, panhandling, recycling, and day labor. Righteous Dopefiend interweaves stunning black-and-white photographs with vivid dialogue, detailed field notes, and critical theoretical analysis. Its gripping narrative develops a cast of characters around the themes of violence, race relations, sexuality, family trauma, embodied suffering, social inequality, and power relations. The result is a dispassionate chronicle of survival, loss, caring, and hope rooted in the addicts’ determination to hang on for one more day and one more “fix” through a “moral economy of sharing” that precariously balances mutual solidarity and interpersonal betrayal.

This made me so hopeful and Richmond, VA is half an ocean and one continent away. The problem of deposits, even relatively modest ones on modest studio apartments, means that even folks who have a steady income or a regular disability pension are living on sidewalks and in parks because they cannot afford to save up enough. The choice shouldn’t be between living under a tarp or staying in a shelter. Shelters are important options, but they need to be options. Staying in a place where you have no privacy, you can’t really keep any personal belongings, you can’t have pets, and you have to leave from 9 am - 5 pm everyday (unless you have a permission slip to rest during the day because you work or go to school in the evenings) is not the obvious or even reasonable choice for everybody. I mean, the founder of the Learning Shelter project (maker/tech training + homeless shelter) lived out of his car until illness forced him indoors into a shelter. 

Learning Shelter’s founder, Marc Roth, was ready to do anything to get out of the shelters. Even under the best conditions, being there is traumatic. 

He lived in one for six months after he got sick living in his car. He didn’t want to be there, and he found his way out through learning. Now he’s doing what he loves best, leading a tech company. 


I recently made contact with a man who is currently homeless, and lives most of the time in downtown Kanawha Plaza. He has Multiple Sclerosis and is eligible for public housing through the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, but needs to pay $251 in deposit. He’s checked with many local…

Photos by Richard Wainwright from Ben Faccini’s article "Survivors" on his campaign to raise awareness about street children. The caption for the first image reads: 

Munkhbat and Altangeret have lived down this manhole in Unur district of Ulaanbaatar for three years. The search for food and warmth rules their lives, as temperatures drop to -40C.

In Mongolia, subterranean societies, free from adults, have been created by street children seeking refuge from hostile strangers, and the biting cold. Many of the buildings in the central part of the capital, Ulaanbaatar, are heated, thanks to a labyrinth of pipes built in the Soviet era to carry scalding water from power stations on the edge of the city. Manholes dotted around the pavements lead to grubby cavities where makeshift platforms can be set up above the water pipes.

 The Union Square Business Improvement District, a collection of 500 property owners in downtown San Francisco, hired GLS Research to survey panhandlers over a two-day period in March. 

In San Francisco’s Union Square, the typical panhandler is a disabled middle-aged single male who is a racial minority and makes less than $25 per day despite panhandling seven days a week for more than five years. 

Banking on Vacancy: Homelessness & Real Estate Speculation

These results show the outstanding amount of underutilized housing stock that is available in just a third of New York City! By pushing for rehabilitation of the existing vacant buildings the city could create jobs and house people immediately.

A report from Picture the Homeless.

I am frustrated and appalled and deeply distressed by the repeated introduction of legislative cruelty at the Honolulu City Council. Just saying that something doesn’t “target” the homeless does not mean that the law itself affects the houseless and the housed equally.

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Lying down on a sidewalk could soon be against the law in Honolulu.

A new bill authored by City Councilman Stanley Chang told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that the proposal, which would ban lying down on public sidewalks on Oahu, is about public safety and does not target the homeless.

Protestors, street performs and people with a medical condition would be exempt from the law, which would see violators fined up to $50 dollars.

The city council will hear the measure during a meeting on Wednesday [today, links to agenda].

I am excerpting several paragraphs below from Jeremy Waldron’s passionate and extremely important 1991 article “Homelessness and the Issue of Freedom.” UCLA Law Review 39, 295-324 (pdf). Emphases added. He talks about subway sleeping ordinances as those are the particulars of his experience as an NYU professor, but the words apply just as well to Honolulu’s wretched ordinances.

(320) Moreover, though we say there is nothing particularly dignified about sleeping or urinating, there is certainly something deeply and inherently undignified about being prevented from doing so. Every torturer knows this: to break the human spirit, focus the mind of the victim through petty restrictions pitilessly imposed on the banal necessities of human life. We should be ashamed that we have allowed our laws of public and private property to reduce a million or more citizens to something approaching this level of degradation.

(318) I have argued that a rule against performing an act in a public place amounts in effect to a comprehensive ban on that action so far as the homeless are concerned. If that argument is accepted, our next question should be: “How serious is this limitation on freedom?” 

(315) Since private places and public places between them exhaust all the places that there are, there is nowhere that these actions may be performed by the homeless person. And since freedom to perform a concrete action requires freedom to perform it at some place, it follows that the homeless person does not have the freedom to perform them. If sleeping is prohibited in public places, then sleeping is comprehensively prohibited to the homeless. If urinating is prohibited in public places (and if there are no public lavatories) then the homeless are simply unfree to urinate. These are not altogether comfortable conclusions, and they are certainly not comfortable for those who have to live with them.

(314) Four facts are telling in this regard. First, it is well known among those who press for these laws that the subway is such an unpleasant place to sleep that almost no one would do it if they had anywhere else to go. Secondly, the pressure for these laws comes as a response to what is well known to be “the problem of homelessness.” It is not as though people suddenly became concerned about sleeping in the subway as such (as though that were a particularly dangerous activity to perform there, like smoking or jumping onto a moving train). When people write to the Transit Authority and say, “Just get them out. I don’t care. Just get them out any way you can,” we all know who the word “them” refers to. People do not want to be confronted with the sight of the homeless —it is uncomfortable for the well-off to be reminded of the human price that is paid for a social structure like theirs — and they are willing to deprive those people of their last opportunity to sleep in order to protect themselves from this discomfort. Thirdly, the legislation is called for and promoted by people who are secure in the knowledge that they themselves have some place where they are permitted to sleep. Because they have some place to sleep which is not the subway, they infer that the subway is not a place for sleeping. The subway is a place where those who have some other place to sleep may do things besides sleeping. Finally, and most strikingly, those who push for these laws will try to amend them or reformulate them if they turn out to have an unwelcome impact on people who are not homeless. For example, a city ordinance in Clearwater, Florida, prohibiting sleeping in public, was struck down as too broad because it would have applied even to a person sleeping in his car. Most people who have cars also have homes, and we would not want a statute aimed at the homeless to prevent car owners from sleeping in public.

(304) Now one question we face as a society-a broad question of justice and social policy-is whether we are willing to tolerate an economic system in which large numbers of people are homeless. Since the answer is evidently, “Yes,” the question that remains is whether we are willing to allow those who are in this predicament to act as free agents, looking after their own needs, in public places — the only space available to them. It is a deeply frightening fact about the modem United States that those who have homes and jobs are willing to answer “Yes” to the first question and “No” to the second.


 Persons wishing to testify on the morning calendar are requested to register by 10 a.m. as follows:

 a.                  On‑Line at;

b.                  By faxing to 768-3826 your name, phone number and subject matter;

c.                  By filling out the registration form in person; or

d.                  By calling 768-3813.

Persons who have not registered to testify by 10 a.m. will be given an opportunity to speak on an item following oral testimonies of the registered speakers. 


Written testimony may be faxed to 768-3826 or transmitted via the internet at for distribution at the meeting.


Filmed over the course of one winter in Portland, Oregon, American Winter presents an intimate and emotionally evocative snapshot of the state of our economy as it is playing out in many American families.   

Working together with the nonprofit organization 211info in Portland, the filmmakers were given full access to monitor and record calls from distressed families who were calling 211’s emergency hotline in search of help.  They then began following the stories of some of these callers in more depth over several months.

Where do you go when you lose your home? Living in a Ramada Hotel from week to week.


The Machine Is Unheimlich: Krzysztof Wodiczko’s Homeless Vehicle Project

Designed by Krzysztof Wodiczko, a New York artist, the vehicle was first exhibited in 1988. The prototype was constructed in consultation with homeless men and subsequently women; it was first tested in the streets of New York’s Lower East Side, then elsewhere in the city and in Philadelphia. An ongoing project, it has undergone continual revision and modification, and there are now four variants of the Homeless Vehicle. 

An appropriately extreme response to mass social eviction, the Homeless Vehicle neither is nor is meant to be a solution. It ‘is not a home but illegal real estate’, according to Papo Colo; it is an ‘architecture provoked by poverty, a missile, the indication of flight, of retreat, or invasion and attack’. With the appearance of a high-precision, military-industrial instrument, it expresses the social absurdity and obscenity of widespread homelessness…

(Neil Smith, 1993, "Homeless/global: Scaling places" in J. Bird et al Mapping the Futures: Local cultures, global change)

"For example, over the years, a steady stream of freshmen students have visited my concrete minimalist office in UC Berkeley’s Wurster Hall seeking advice on how to write papers on homelessness in the Third World. They are frustrated by the rarity of the terminology of homelessness as they journey beyond U.S. borders. And while never fully admitted, there is quite a bit of surprise and even profound unease at the idea that "home" rather than "elsewhere" might be the underdeveloped Other, a site of the lack, or failure, so often reserved for the Third World. As they begin their research projects, they find themselves surrounded by a rich array of housing terms that are used in Third World settings — from "slums" and "squatter settlements" to "pavement dwellers" and "informal subdivisions" — a vocabulary that indicates a spectrum of housing practices. In many ways, the dominance of the term "homelessness" in the American context bears testimony to the poverty of housing responses here."

From Ananya Roy's “Transnational Trespassings: The Geopolitics of Urban Informality” in Urban Informality

We’re headed to the Convoy of Hope this morning. Some statistics from the Hawai’i Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice’s recent report, “The State of Poverty in Hawaii”

  • Hawai`i has the third highest homelessness rate among the states, with an increase of 11 percent between 2010 and 2011. Of these homeless individuals, 42 percent are children.
  • Hawai`i’s housing costs are the highest in the nation. Our median rent is 50 percent more than the national rate, and 75 percent of our low-income households spend more than half of their income on rent.
  • Two-thirds of single adult families with one or two children are below the self-sufficiency level, while 18.5 percent of two-adult families with two children also fall below it.
  • Between 2008 and 2010, the need for benefits spiked, with a 13 percent increase in families receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and a 17 percent increase in the amount of time on assistance; the number of people receiving state medical assistance jumped 22 percent; and applications to federally qualified health centers increased 62 percent.
  • A “thrifty food plan,” as defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, costs 61 percent more in Hawai`i than on the mainland. Enrollment in SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) has increased by 39 percent since 2007, while 15 percent of our households don’t always know how they’ll get their next meal.

The poor and the homeless have few advocates. Especially the homeless. (See 2012 Honolulu elections in which taking away people’s belongings is considered a major success in humane homeless management.) But even the Scroogiest “are there no workhouses?” among us hesitate in our condemnation of those shiftless, improvident poor when faced with a poor, homeless kid.

Children’s rights advocate Marian Wright Edelman and her husband Peter Edelman are coming to Hawaii as part of the Artists for Appleseed event on August 24. Original MSNBC video clip that I couldn’t get to work via newwavefeminism:

The MHP show talking with Children’s Rights Activist Marian Wright Edelman about the plight of poor children in the country.