July 30 (Bloomberg) -- Walking down a quiet, leafy street in the Bronx, I come upon a wedge-shaped, seven-story building patterned in a vibrant mix of oranges, reds and grays.
The new $66-million Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing Center handsomely anchors a corner of East 151st Street in the Bronx. Opened in May, it supplanted the notoriously inadequate Emergency Assistance Unit that had for decades symbolized the city’s inability to cope with homeless families.
I tried to imagine the scene only a few years earlier: Unable to fit into the dilapidated facility, a crowd of homeless mothers and children milled in the trash-strewn street. Ennead, the Manhattan architecture firm known until recently as the Polshek Partnership, designed a simple box, but window dividers bump up and down and terra-cotta strips shade some of the glass. This richly textured surface invigorates a building that could so easily have been a bureaucratic fortress.
Cash-strapped state and local governments need to pay a visit to PATH, as the building is known. They will see how meaningful sensitive design can be. It’s so easy to default to low-cost but neighborhood-killing designs with barred entries and perhaps an insouciant dollop of razor wire.
They become horrors like the old Emergency Assistance Unit. Computers and telephones often failed to work, so placing families in shelters could take days. Children had to sleep on filthy floors under glaring lights. Nursing staff worked without running water. Forms with confidential information overflowed from trash bins.
Lawsuits drove a 2003 settlement requiring New York City to overhaul its process and build a new facility.
With an inviting entry ramp sheltered by a projecting porch, the new building declares its civic mission with quiet assurance. In fact, you could mistake the place for a popular neighborhood library.
Inside, one mother efficiently herded her neatly-dressed small children with school backpacks through an airport-style security checkpoint. Lining up at a counter where caseworkers assessed their needs, another stressed-out mother exploded in rage at mistakes in the paperwork.
Cool grays, wood-paneled ceilings and ample daylight serve to calm the wait and dispel confusion. That’s a necessity, since some mothers or their children may need immediate medical attention. Others are fleeing physical violence. Child-welfare agents and Department of Education staff help children who have been neglected or haven’t been attending school.
Peak Summer Season
On average, 3,400 families show up monthly, though summer is the peak season. (The center is open 24 hours every day.) Parents more readily abandon an untenable housing situation when kids are out of school Commissioner Seth Diamond of the Department of Homeless Services told me.
Most families proceed to additional waiting rooms on the upper floors, where caseworkers help applicants find ways to avoid the shelter system by arranging rent aid or adjudicating family or landlord disputes.
These areas are functional but airy, and offer broad views. Zipper signs guide applicants to their assigned caseworkers. (In the old building, the staff would sometimes lose track of families.) A welcoming booth offers guidance, and applicants can also store belongings and get food.
Murmuring televisions form the primary diversion for the long waits. I watched one child toddle up to a colorful work made out of film and paper cutouts by Brooklyn artist Lane Twitchell.
Trumping the Norm
Plans for the new facility were vetted through a peer-review process called Design Excellence, so the architects were emboldened to trump the government-building norm. The Federal government uses a similar process to deliver buildings that work well and enrich communities at reasonable cost.
Within six to eight hours homeless people are placed in shelters for up to 10 days, while caseworkers assess their long-term housing and income prospects.
“The building is the beginning of the story,” Diamond said. “It’s the first step in the picture of successfully moving back into the community and getting work.”
As people endure the trauma of homelessness, the building does not abrade their dignity. This is not just attractive architecture at its best. It’s deeply humane.
(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. Island Press has just published his book, “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
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