Analysis: Imagine living in a neighborhood where you can learn from your neighbors, grow your own food, participate in your child's education, and invest back to your community's well-being through your daily transactions. If you're reading this article, you're probably interested in or already involved in a community garden, daycare cooperative, trade school, tool library, or other hyperlocal initiative. These projects, which can be found all around the world, allow communities to build their collective agency in solving everyday needs and create a local sharing culture, thus providing an alternative for more sustainable and socially just communities.
While the field of "urban commons" has been around for a while, there's limited research that investigates the relationship between initiatives like those listed above and physical space. My doctoral research at Carnegie Mellon University's School of Architecture in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, takes upon this exciting challenge of identifying spatial patterns of sharing practices.
In my research, I'm drawing from the fields of the commons, social practices, human behavior, architecture, and urban design, while investigating four contemporary case studies of sharing culture in London, U.K., and Athens, Greece. I'm interested in learning what a daycare cooperative, an alternative currency, a cultural center, and self-governed refugee shelter have in common with regards to their spatial attributes. Some of my early findings might be useful to others researching sharing and the commons, but more importantly, I think they can be insightful to those who are on the ground, working on amazing sharing and collaborative initiatives.
So, what have I learned so far?
Space acquisition and appropriation: In their early stages, sharing programs tend to run into the challenge of acquiring a space. Many cities often limit themselves to residential and commercial uses, with very little opportunities for communal, nonprofit uses. Even after a group has found a space, it is usually a space not designed for sharing. Given the inherent dynamism of sharing initiatives' activities, they tend to be creative in appropriating their spaces to accommodate emerging needs. Towards that end, a large open floor-plan space is usually preferred as it allows for flexibility and can afford a wide range of activities.
Identity and interactions: Sharing initiatives aspire to engage with the wider public by being open and accessible to all. To this end, it's important to consider the spatial attributes of a place — large, open doors, for instance, serve as porous spaces, inviting people outside of the group inside. However, beyond the physical "openness" of the space, there are non-spatial conditions such as territoriality and the projected identity of the group that can create barriers between the initiatives and the adjacent community. In those cases, the group needs to make an effort to engage with the neighborhood by extending its activities to adjacent public spaces. Nearby parks, sidewalks, or squares could be instrumental in providing a fertile ground for facilitating interactions between the initiative and those who may not have made it to the group's physical location.
Local ecosystem: Finally, for an initiative to be fully supported, it needs to be embedded in the daily routine of the people involved. The proximity of people's homes to the space is critical. That does not necessarily mean that sharing initiatives should be located in purely residential areas. Finding a place that has a good mix of residential area and local commerce is important for the initiatives to place themselves within a supportive ecosystem of people, organizations, and businesses.
When Kristy Yates’ daughter passed away in 2010, Yates sank into a deep depression and alcoholism that led to a drunken driving arrest. After a slew of health issues and losing all three of her jobs, the Fort Worth, Texas, resident became homeless and ended up checking in at the Presbyterian Night Shelter.
Yates’ new address made it hard to get hired. But after two months of living in the shelter, she learned about Clean Slate, and her life has changed since.
Toby Owen, CEO of the shelter, had long hoped to establish a social enterprise that would address homelessness in Fort Worth. When the city gave the shelter a $50,000 grant, Clean Slate was born.
Launched in fall 2015, Clean Slate hires guests living in the night shelter as janitors and street sweepers.
The project offers Fort Worth’s homeless population an opportunity to obtain financial security and ultimately find a permanent home. While not a foolproof answer to homelessness, Owen believes it’s a step in the right direction.
“There’s not one silver bullet that’s going to end homelessness,” Owen said. Still, he said, Clean Slate does a good job of helping the homeless people who come through the night shelter.
Kirsten Ham, the director of Clean Slate, defines the program, often called a social enterprise, as a business that seeks to employ homeless people.
“It’s truly just starting a business where your mission is equally as important as your revenue,” Ham said.
In addition to staffing residents to street sweeping and janitorial work, Clean Slate provides contract employees to multiple locations across Fort Worth, such as office buildings or churches, for various kinds of jobs.
Yates started off in janitorial work, but now she works in the shelter as a client-service specialist, giving new guests the rundown and helping with their transition from street to sheltered living.
“I may be that one employee they can confide in,” Yates said. “To be able to get somebody through a difficult time is very rewarding.”
Ham said Clean Slate employs about 50 people per week. Interest in the program has increased so much that the shelter has had to set aside time on Mondays and Wednesdays for candidate interviews with Clean Slate’s success coach, who handles the training of new employees.
Clean Slate’s employees also work with a case manager from the Presbyterian Night Shelter, who designs a course of action so they can succeed in their jobs and eventually move into their own homes.
The case managers are also responsible for helping employees recover from an addiction or offering support for mental illness.
Addiction and mental illness don’t preclude anyone from gaining employment with the program, though. Owen said, “That has no bearing on their employment.”
The idea to develop programs targeted at employing the homeless gained traction with a project in Albuquerque that paid panhandlers to clean up litter near the highway. Other cities such as Portland, Maine, and Lexington, Kentucky, began implementing similar work programs.
Owen said the Fort Worth program focuses on building a strong foundation for guests to successfully end their homelessness—something that a day job doesn’t do as well on its own. In fact, a job might not provide any stable foundation at all.
“They want what I call walk-around money to spend how they want,” Owen said. “Often, it’s not a positive thing they’re spending it on.”
Clean Slate employees also receive benefits typical for full-time jobs, such as vacation and health insurance. While the goal is to provide an opportunity for the shelter’s guests to leave the program and resume independent living, it doesn’t limit how long employees can work in the program, unlike some other job services offered to homeless people, which focus on day labor or shorter-term contracts.
Even if employees eventually work their way out of the shelter, they’re still entitled to jobs with Clean Slate. “It’s a bona fide job that comes with benefits,” Owen said.
The opportunity to turn homelessness around has led to the operation’s rapid growth.
Clean Slate’s budget has grown in three years from its $50,000 grant to about $1 million.
The program earns most of its income from fundraising and maintaining multiple work contracts in Fort Worth. Owen hopes to expand Clean Slate’s reach into moving companies or provide groundskeeping and lawn care to keep up with demand for the company’s services.
While Clean Slate gives the homeless a chance to rebuild their lives, Yates said, it hasn’t been an easy journey.
Living in the shelter requires working with many different personality types, which can often prove challenging. Yates also described feeling uncomfortable being “brand new and female” when she first came to the shelter. New guests have to sacrifice privacy and independence when they move in.
“Nothing happens overnight,” Yates said. “Everything is a process, but they do work with you.”
Yates left the shelter and has been living independently for 13 months—a milestone she attributes to her work in Clean Slate. She said the program was a blessing when nobody else would hire her after her conviction.
“It’s possible to work from the ground up. Just don’t give up hope,” Yates said.