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Creative Engagement With Global Housing Crises
REFUGEE ROUNDUP: Countryside Slums, Be a Refugee, Getting Rid of HUD 
Jul 26 (2008)
Here are a some recent stories related to the plight of various kinds of refugees that may be of interest to UNHOUSED visitors:

Resident Alien, by designer Andrew Dahlgren

[1] PREFAB 4th of July: Housing Beyond Borders, by Bryan Finoki

Most Americans have little idea that their food is subsidized by exploitation, intimidation, and Modern-Day Slavery. If Americans had to pay what they should for their food – the real cost of decent living wages - then they would quickly shift their attitudes about migrant workers and do what they could to accommodate them.

This article about migrant housing in the U.S. gives a brief overview of the struggles for housing that migrant laborers face when they come to our incredibly hostile country. It also looks at some of the organizing done on behalf of migrant workers through the lens of applied design. The need for housing that is more that “countryside slums” ¬– shacks made of scavenged garbage – is beyond desperate for this primarily invisible population. Good design can generate excitement and the engagement with a range of issues surrounding housing migrants, though the potential for abstraction is great if one doesn’t talk to the actual people s/he is designing for.

This article celebrates some of that abstraction that is potentially harmful in thinking that design will solve problems without working with the actual people you hope to help. The image above – the project is titled Resident Alien - is an example of this thinking that is farfetched, overly romantic, and disconnected from the brutal realities of migrants’ lives. It is a mobile, modular housing system made of, you guessed it, shipping containers – a frequent material used in thinking up housing solutions for all kinds of UNHOUSED situations. Migrants can buy these systems together and travel around the country from farm to farm. The author the article writes of Resident Alien:

The architecture becomes a poetic response to fact that migrant workers are “in a way ’shipping’ their lives, belongings, and homes across the country.” And because the units “can be pulled by a truck or van and could be purchased by the workers themselves,” the Resident Alien gives workers a sense of ownership and control of their lives in a context, which would otherwise treat them as nomadic serfs.

It is only a poetic response, and little more. This system would make migrant workers an easy identifiable target given the current law enforcement hysteria that is sweeping over the U.S. Many vicious, ignorant communities are rounding up thousands of migrant workers, treating them as criminals, and then expelling them. Migrants need a greater deal of visibility in the U.S. but systemic change needs to come before it is safe for them. Ideally, they could have a house in the place where they worked, free from fear of raids and if they were paid well, they wouldn’t have to be migrants. The owners of the farms aren’t.

[2] Against All Odds

This game was created by the UNHCR (The United Nations Refugee Agency) as an education tool to teach children, and adults, about the harsh situations people face when politically persecuted and forced to become refugees.

This game is very rough and stressful and conveys a small amount of what it must be like to be faced with interrogation, fleeing your home in a moment’s notice, and other severe experiences of being a political refugee. You can start the game at any place. Each segment is self-contained. I started playing the section where my character was interrogated. What you see is a sheet of paper and you are asked to agree with statements that are impossible to agree with like, “I give up the right to vote.” You move your hand with a pen in it to select a “yes” or “no” reply to the question. When answering the questions incorrectly, you hear a smack and then drops of blood fall onto the paper. If you answer all the questions incorrectly, then you are locked up.

One section of the game, where you read the stories of several individuals and decide whether they are a “refugee” or “immigrant” is a bit ham-fisted in that it only considers political persecution as a legitimate reason for being a refugee. Economic refugees maybe shouldn’t be helped with as much urgency as political refugees, but it seems like the conversation can be expanded to many more situations and peoples’ basic existence and desire for something more than subsistence should also be addressed. If the money and multinational corporations can go anywhere they want to extract profit, why can’t people move with the same freedom, privilege, and lack of fear?

There is also the question of being a refugee in your own country. The U.S. has marginalized large numbers of its population whether they are homeless, living in public housing and oppressive cycles of poverty, or among the 2.3 million living in prison. The UNHCR should expand its definitions and find ways to link up all kinds various kinds of refugees.

[3] To Fight Poverty, Tear Down HUD, by SUDHIR VENKATESH, The New York Times, Published: July 25, 2008

Sudhir Venkatesh has been working with issues around public housing for many years. This excellent OP ED for The NYT calls for the dissolution of HUD and the creation of a federal agency to deal with recent shifts in where poor people are forced to live and seek housing. HUD was intended as a response to an earlier form of housing discrimination and lack of affordable solutions for large numbers of urban dwellers. In Chicago, it was notoriously corrupt and partisan, eventually displacing many people from the city and scattering them all over the area. People are being pushed to the margins of cities – the inner suburbs - and are increasingly found in the unwanted interstices in regions between economic centers. Venkatesh’s call is timely, but is also made against an infrastructure that has wallowed in cronyism (with developers and unaccountable mayors) and ineffectiveness for decades.
Apr 13 (2011) (UTC) - Hoping to have my say
Hi - I am certainly glad to find this. cool job!
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