Gimme shelter: the rising tide of homelessness and climate change

31 01 2010

credit: Earthwatch

Homelessness is often seen as someone else’s problem. Over Christmas I decided to make it mine, by trading my traditional family gathering to volunteer for homeless charity Crisis. The non profit relies on a small army of volunteers to provide food, shelter, support and entertainment for hundreds of London’s homeless during the festive break.

People become homeless for varied and complex reasons. And unless you can guarantee that you’ll never face any serious issues with family, relationships, employment, health, abuse, alcohol or drugs, then you may be vulnerable to homelessness at some stage in your life.

We are all said to be just two strikes from the streets.   

Now, our basic right to shelter is under threat from a new phenomenon: climate change. According to the International Organization for Migration 20 million people were made homeless last year as a result of sudden-onset environmental disasters. But that could rise to one billion in the next 40 years as the effects of climate change take hold, testing not only public attitudes but our capacity to provide support and accommodation.

The Pacific island nations, so vocal at Copenhagen, are already experiencing the effects of climate change. Tuluva recorded a 7cm rise in sea levels in the 13 years leading up to 2005. If this doesn’t sound significant, bear in mind that the highest point of the low lying coral atolls – home to 10,000 people – is just 3.7m above high tide. “We live in constant fear of the adverse impacts of climate change,” Prime Minister Saufatu Sopoanga attests. “The threat is real and serious, and is of no difference to a slow and insidious form of terrorism against us.”

In the UK, the threat of climate change and homelessness isn’t seen so much as a crisis, but as a development opportunity.

Hull, in East Yorkshire, which has the misfortune to occupy a long term tenancy on ‘worst places to live in the UK’ polls, could be transformed into the Venice of the North, according to a recent report by The Institution of Civil Engineers and the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Gondolas traversing the Humber may seem terribly cosmopolitan, but it will take more than a civic makeover to help the 10 million people living in flood risk zones who face displacement. Fortunately, Britain has decades rather than days to prepare for the waters to rise, which is just as well, because even developed nations are hopelessly unprepared when it comes to environmental crises.

Over the past ten years, floods have been responsible for more death and destruction in the US than any other natural disaster. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, more than 1,000 people lost their lives and 500,000 residents were forced to flee or take temporary shelter. A year on, less than half had returned.

If we are ill equipped to deal with natural born disasters, some of which, like Katrina, are thought to be exacerbated by climate change, how will we prepare for catastrophes of the man-made kind?

Homes destroyed by freak natural events can be rebuilt. But land blighted by drought, or lost to a rising sea, can no longer support communities. The legacy of unsustainable western lifestyles is not only going to haunt us in the future, it is already having a devastating impact on the developing world.

Building our cities on stilts does not address the underlying causes of climate change, or the inequalities its consequences impose. And while a replica Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs) may add some Venetian glamour to Hull, it’s worth remembering, as Byron observed, that the bridge held ‘a palace and prison on each hand’.

In terms of climate change, the more we spend, the more others suffer.

Rolling up our architectural pants will not stem the rising tides. We need a global commitment to setting binding targets to reduce carbon emissions. But the opportunity to bring a meaningful deal to the table in Copenhagen has passed, and with it another chance to prevent millions of people from losing not only the roof over their heads, but a sense of identity, security and community.





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