In 2017, the total population of homeless individuals in the United States was estimated at 554,000. We know that there are many hardships that these individuals face, including issues of health, security, and safety. Persons experiencing homelessness can also find it difficult to gain or keep employment, as employers often expect clean clothes and hygiene from employees. These often taken for granted aspects are nearly impossible when one does not have guaranteed access to restrooms, showers, or laundry facilities. Furthermore, exposure to the elements – including extreme heat and cold and strong storm events – can jeopardize the health of this population, sometimes fatally. These factors are worsened by the stigmas associated with being homeless. We hear social media refer to persons experiencing homelessness as bums, beggars, even objects entirely separated from the human experience. Many of these assertions are far from the truth. In fact, less than 1 in 4 persons experiencing homelessness are chronically homeless, meaning that the majority of the population is able to escape their situation and regain a more stable housing status in the society that ostracized them.
Traditionally, the challenge of affordable housing and homelessness has been dominated by advocacy groups and the subfield of planning: housing and community development. Very few have examined the ecological impact of an increasing frequency of homelessness. Yet the separation of these two phenomena is nearly incomprehensible. Public parks and open spaces often serve as a much-needed place of refuge for persons experiencing homelessness. Yet the prevalence of these individuals using parklands can put an unsustainable strain on natural resources, park amenities, and other park users. A seemingly obvious solution to this issue is to alleviate the problem of homelessness. But with housing costs rising, and wages remaining stagnant, the reality, unfortunately, is that this ideal remains a long way off. So, in the meantime, how do we balance the reliance of homeless populations on parks and open lands with the ongoing need to protect and preserve already over-pressured ecosystems?
Faculty and students involved with the Center for Ecological Planning and Design are doing just that. Studying unsheltered homeless populations along the Jordan River in Salt Lake City, these researchers concluded that the social and environmental systems of urban parks see some negative impacts from unsheltered homelessness, but also from the responses (such as criminalization for loitering, etc) that have traditionally been used to mitigate these issues. Furthermore, researchers understood that in order to support the ecological integrity of these lands, greater public education is needed to effectively inform citizenry of the challenges facing persons experiencing homelessness. This increased public education and attention to the needs of homeless populations thus not only benefits the parks, but also leads to a society that can better understand the challenge of homelessness, and potentially better prepare to resolve it.
This work was conducted as part of a Masters Thesis and is pending publication. As the Center for Ecological Planning and Design, we greatly admire students, faculty, and professionals who continue to use interdisciplinary fields to study and propose solutions to some of the world’s most difficult challenges.
Read the published article by Milo Neild, M.S. and Jeff Rose, Ph.D. here.