Preparation for the 2022 World Games held in Birmingham in July included security measures that would displace people experiencing homelessness who were living in areas designated as secured perimeter points. In response, community partners formed the Compassion Project to create resource options including temporary shelter.
Finding viable solutions to complex problems takes time. Although the volunteer design team’s micro-shelter protype wasn’t fully used during The World Games, the project is moving forward to make a lasting, measurable difference for those in insecure housing situations. The Compassion Project represents the collective effort of several organizations that currently serve people facing housing insecurity in the Birmingham area.
“A very basic explanation of the concept for the Compassion Project is to provide a welcoming place for people experiencing housing insecurity, where there is ready access to the variety of needed services in a centralized location, with a community atmosphere,” explains Jeremy Cutts of Williams Blackstock Architects. “The local design community was invited in to help bring that concept to reality, with primary focus areas being site layout/logistics and creating the spaces that support the concept.”
The Compassion Project is exploring long-term solutions to more effectively address the needs of those facing housing insecurity in the Birmingham area. In a 2021 report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), nearly six out of 10 people experiencing unsheltered homelessness are in an urban setting.
The project is citizen-led and funded by private donations. The all-volunteer design team consists primarily of Birmingham architects, along with input on structural engineering, landscape architecture, graphic design, and contributions from a few non-design professionals. Construction volunteers are from an even broader spectrum.
During the earliest stages of design, the team of volunteers met with potential end-users to find out what they would like prioritized in the design. A crucial need is a place to sleep and secure belongings that is protected from the elements.
“As we began developing designs for these shelters, we realized that if we could build a full community of shelter prototypes in time for The World Games, we could gather much more feedback from the target groups,” Cutts recalls. “That goal was perhaps too ambitious given the timeline, but we were able to build two fully functioning prototypes complete with lockable doors, windows, a bed, storage space and air conditioning.”
The design team received positive responses from those who took part in the services at the Compassion Project site during The World Games. Although no one slept in the shelters overnight, they were allowed to schedule one-hour naps throughout the day, and many did. The comments received from their firsthand experiences will inform future developments of the prototype designs, says Cutts. Prototypes may be designed so they can be disassembled, stored and then reassembled. The prototypes constructed and used during The World Games were not.
Lessons learned and knowledge gained from the project will be added to the ongoing efforts to meet the needs of those experiencing homelessness.
“The next step is to fold this new information into our ongoing research and refinements,” explains Cutts. “The World Games provided a unique opportunity to get a lot more feedback, but The World Games was not the finish line nor the focus for the organizations who first conceived of The Compassion Project.”
As efforts develop further, finding the right community partner or partners to help work toward establishing a permanent site is a possibility.
“There is no single personal profile that can capture all individuals who find themselves facing housing insecurity, and likewise, there is no single solution that can address all situations,” Cutts adds.
“We have and we need different solutions, which each contribute their part and collectively provide the right fit for the variety of circumstances. The Compassion Project can be seen as a unique way to contribute to the larger puzzle.”
*Article Written by Jessica Armstrong and Images Courtesy Rob Culpepper Photography