A greater proportion of the population is single today than has been the case in the past. In addition there is also a significant number of people who are stuck in relationships they would leave if not for the fact that they cannot afford to live alone. Yet there is very little housing specifically designed for single people, and the commercial world in general does not accommodate them. For instance restaurants frequently offer two for one deals, which is of little use to a single person. Restaurants, with the exception of fast food places are not particularly welcoming to lone diners. Two people sharing expenses can live on less than two individual single people.
Part of the problem is our tendency to try to fit everyone into some version of the standard American lifestyle. We have a very limited choice of types of community (city, small town, country) and within those we are expected to occupy one of a limited number of kinds of dwelling and have a more or less “normal” social life. When we design schemes for housing the homeless the aim is to integrate them into this system, as though it represented not only the very best way of life that has ever been invented but one that must be preserved at all costs, and furthermore should be followed by everyone. Any proposed way of organizing a community that departs radically from this model is considered threatening to the system, and can only be allowed to exist as a separate, usually despised “cult” somewhere out sight. Even such relatively common and benign institutions such as worker owned cooperatives are viewed with suspicion.
This tendency presents significant challenges to anyone wishing to explore new approaches to the problem. New approaches almost always require reconsideration of rules and regulation, particularly with regard to zoning and building codes. In such a litigious society as we inhabit, if the neighbors decide that what you are doing looks just too peculiar, there are a thousand ways they can stop a project dead in its tracks.
Nonetheless we have a homeless situation that demands change, and that cannot be ameliorated without the willingness to consider new ideas. We will not successfully house the homeless unless we are willing to come up with a way of living that is attractive to them. They do not “choose” to live on the street because they prefer it, or because it is the best way of life they can imagine, but rather because none of the options offered to them look any better. We offer the kind of help we think they should have, laden with conditions and expectations that we impose unilaterally upon them. This might possibly be effective if we first thoroughly researched the matter and involved the homeless themselves in the design of programs, but we do not. This will never work. You cannot force people into slots they are unwilling to occupy.
We need new models of community based on the idea of cooperation rather than competition, and fully integrated with the community at large. These communities need to be designed to fill the needs of people who do not necessarily subscribe to the values of society at large. They should be made as much as possible self-governing. One could imagine living spaces comprising multiple small suites, each with a bedroom and a small living room suitable for entertaining three or four people, with a private bathroom and a minimal kitchenette, all sharing a larger communal room with a well equipped kitchen.
Two or three such units could share laundry facilities and other shared resources. In this way many people could be comfortably and efficiently housed in a relatively small space compared with conventional housing which is extremely inefficient and duplicative in its use of space and resources. Increased density will of course impact sewage disposal, but this can be alleviated by the use of composting toilets, which are readily available in several practical designs and only need the political will to allow them. Such communities, though geared mainly for single people, need not exclude couples and families too, which would simply require a different configuration of living spaces, and could also benefit from the sharing of resources.