(from my recent lecture to an undergraduate architecture studio)

Kuroko Architecture

Kuroko act as running crew members in kabuki theatre, moving scenery and props, and wore black to imply that they were invisible and not part of the action onstage.

When shelters took on the guise of boarding houses, churches, or hotels in 2020, they were assumed to only cater to “ desirables ” (students, Methodists, and tourists respectively), and social services were able to achieve great things without the burden of  NIMBYism.

Neighborhood associations are notorious for shutting down construction of emergency housing in their area, citing imaginary crime statistics to their municipal leaders until the developers are quietly told to go elsewhere, so it is no surprise that new shelter designs have gone from "discreet" to "invisible". Most of this can be accomplished with subtle changes in frontage, green space, parking, and perimeters natural or manmade, in order to purposely elude the casual observer. 

For the purposes of anonymity, I have altered property names.


Residential Neighborhoods

Let's start with the Cat Power House, a supportive housing complex of 69 single-room occupancy units for chronically homeless adults.  

A passerby would see only a large family home dating around the 1920s, an ambiguous sign with "Cat Power House" over a wheelchair symbol (is it a clinic? Is it a special needs school?), manicured lawns, and three parking spaces on the side, reminiscent of pre-war boarding houses.

 It is only when you go thru the (locked) house and out the back that you're admitted to a fenced portion, where a spacious courtyard opens to the residential areas.  Because the buildings top out at two stories and the neighbors are empty warehouses, set design studios, and pine forest, none of this is apparent from the street, even to trained observers. 

Another example is the B-52s Center, an emergency shelter for women and children nestled in a residential area   that recently shot down the local councilwoman’s attempts to convert a condemned bakery into a family shelter.

While the bakery sat on a busy intersection facing single-family homes, the B-52s Center occupies a triangular wedge property between a warehouse and a parking lot for  shipping containers.  Their sign sits at the far edge of the parking lot, declaring “Love, Hope, Miracles”.  The parking lot rarely has more than three cars, with a plastic swingset in the corner.

Small ground floor windows, a barbed wire security gate that requires buzzing in, and the exterior is painted in blocky primary colors.  And because it’s two blocks from the Beltline pedestrian path, no one is going to notice a few new women pushing strollers.


Business Districts

On the flip side is the Outkast Center, a 46-unit income-restricted apartment building for disabled adults, located in such a conspicuously high traffic intersection  that it probably served as the backdrop for at least two Avenger chase scenes. 

It shares the same hallmarks as the B-52s Center---screened windows, street parking for deliveries only, a barred entryway that requires being buzzed in---and compounds its anonymity by forgoing any signs, in a neighborhood where every building is either claimed by Grady Hospital's red cross or GSU's blue torch logo.

Urban properties go deeper under the radar, with no signage, additional barriers to entry, and often doubling as less radioactive agencies such as churches  or hotels. The James Brown Shelter for pregnant mothers is a great example. 

 Located in the basement of James Brown United Methodist, the shelter entrance is at the bottom of a long staircase between a major municipal facility and a parking garage directly across the street, accessed via a busy pedestrian walkway that will not notice a few strange women.  No sign.  The door only opens if a new resident has been referred through a partner agency for that night, and staff utilize the ground floor church entrances.  Even police officers assigned to that beat often don’t know where the staircase leads.


Hotels as Shelters

Two Atlanta hotels transformed into homeless shelters during the 2020 lockdown, the Duane Allman hotel for covid-positive adults and the Gregg Allman hotel for covid-negative. While the former was meant to act as a temporary respite (a private room for three weeks, meals and medical services provided, very strict quarantine measures), the latter lasted for over a year and was the most successful rapid rehousing experiment in Atlanta’s history.  

The Duane Allman isolation unit is a forgettable commercial space in the grid portion of downtown, between other hotels, GSU classrooms, and federal offices.  Even in pre-covid times, when students and attorneys packed the sidewalks, the eye slides right over the hotel. It is only when you’re inside that you are greeted by four nurses in hazmat suits. No signs, no public parking, and entry is only permitted once you’ve been flagged by a state hospital. 

The Gregg Allman Hotel was a one-stop shop for social services, offering low-barrier shelter with private rooms, free meals, free TV, a Grady medical team, and an army of social workers to connect homeless adults with permanent housing.  Residents complained of the quarantine restrictions (no leaving the hotel without a doctor’s note or proof of employment), but otherwise stayed indoors once they saw the quick turnaround time for housing (an average of 30 days from street to home, compared to pre-covid wait times of 6 months to 2 years). 

This might be construed as “warehousing the poor”, but hotels are a far more dignified alternative to many shelters, which are often windowless bunkers full of army cots with no kitchen and one shared bathroom, and became critical during covid lockdowns when many shelters had to cut bed capacity by fifty percent to keep residents six feet apart.

The Gregg Allman hotel’s location was well-suited for a transient population. Sandwiched between Turner stadium parking lots and the interstate, near downtown but distanced from the colleges and tourist district, residents often walked the half mile between the hotel and nearby tent   cities   from where they’d originated, allowing them to visit friends and family who were still on the street. No signs, 24-hour hotel guards, and bureaucracy barred strangers.  

Despite the hotel sheltering 375 adults at any one time, adults with severe behavioral, addiction, and physical disabilities who usually have difficulty eluding detection, it took eight months for the local neighborhood organizations to notice anything, after which it was soon shuttered for fear that a homeless shelter would drive down property values (ironic since some of the hotel residents qualified for housing vouchers and now live in that neighborhood).  



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