Living in the past… literally

Paul Raven @ 12-06-2009

a tomb in New DelhiVia Geoff “BLDGBLOG” Manaugh we discover that people in India long ago found a solution to a shortage of affordable housing – they colonise ancient tombs and monuments, much to the chagrin of archaeologists and historians.

The city [New Delhi] is also home to tens of thousands of homeless people, and millions more who are desperately poor. Many of the otherwise homeless have made the reasonable assessment that the stout marble walls of the tombs and shrines and mausoleums that litter the city make a much nicer home, especially in monsoon season, than the sidewalk.

Some seek only temporary shelter. But others such as nine families living inside a federally protected monument called the Atgah Khan tomb, built in 1566, are so thoroughly ensconced that they can produce title deeds going back generations. They have plastered the walls, had the crypt wired to run the television and installed a fine kitchen, with wood cupboards built into the handy arched recesses.

It’s a tough call to make; history must be valued and protected, but people have to live somewhere. How can you tell a homeless family that they can’t live in an otherwise unoccupied building – you, with your job in archaeology and your apartment to go home to? You do it because it’s your job, of course, and because you believe that history must be preserved – but it can’t be much fun. [image by varunshiv]

And as the world becomes increasingly urbanised, perhaps we’ll see this sort of behaviour occuring in comparatively affluent Western cities as the less fortunate arrive in droves to seek employment and shelter. Imagine the Lincoln monument thronging with a small town of migrants from the former corn belt, or the huge family tombs of London’s great cemetaries repurposed into ersatz condominiums, always occupied by a few of the family’s oldest and youngest members to prevent claim-jumping newcomers…


Wherever he laid his laptop was home: the internet and homelessness

Paul Raven @ 02-06-2009

I dare say many of you have already seen this Wall Street Journal piece that documents the increase of internet presence in San Francisco’s homeless population… but if you haven’t, I think you should go read it, especially if you’ve ever found yourself fretting over the horrible sense of disconnection from the world that a temporary loss of your broadband connection can cause.

Cheap computers and free Internet access fuel the phenomenon. So does an increasingly computer-savvy population. Many job and housing applications must be submitted online. Some homeless advocates say the economic downturn is pushing more of the wired middle class on to the streets.

Aspiring computer programmer Paul Weston, 29, says his Macintosh PowerBook has been a “lifeboat” since he was laid off from his job as a hotel clerk in December and moved to a shelter. Sitting in a Whole Foods store with free wireless access, Mr. Weston searches for work and writes a computer program he hopes to sell eventually. He has emailed city officials to press for better shelter conditions.

Lisa Stringer, who runs a program that teaches job and computer skills to homeless and low-income residents, says some students who can’t even read or write save money to buy computers at Goodwill. “It’s really a symbol in today’s society of being OK and connected,” she says. She sometimes urges homeless students to put off buying laptops until their living situations stabilize.

What’s most interesting to me about this is the way that the ‘freeconomics’ model of most web businesses is providing opportunities for social interaction to those who have dropped out of or been abandoned by the traditional meatspace support systems; homelessness no longer equates to invisibility, in other words, and a lack of fixed address no longer excludes you from a complex social life with people from a vast variety of social and political backgrounds. These people are using free services that are funded by payments from the better-off… smells a little like socialism, no?

If this isn’t a tangible example of how geography is dissolving under the influence of ubiquitous communication media, I don’t know what is. Which do you think you’d find easier to live with – losing your home, or losing access to the internet?