A city disappeared in February of 2018: Orange County officials evicted over 700 residents of the Santa Ana River Trail Encampment and erased any evidence of the 2 mile-long shantytown’s existence. Although conditions along the trail were indeed insalubrious, the cleanup didn’t really occur for the benefit of the homeless. With nowhere for them to go, it was an act of removal—not relocation.

The homeless are not welcome in suburbia, so there is little supportive housing for them. Their mere presence in Orange County contradicts its cultural mythology as a mecca of middle class success. Local government maintains the myth by continuously moving people around without providing stable housing. This biopolitical game of musical chairs makes homelessness appear fleeting instead of endemic, reflecting the cold inhospitality of neoliberal society.

This cycle was disrupted when advocacy groups intervened on behalf of the Santa Ana River Trail Encampment. A judge forced the County to house all of the riverbed residents; but without enough shelter beds, the government has resorted to checking people into motels and hotels. For many transients, the hospitality industry proved to be inhospitable as well.

Before move-in, management emptied many rented rooms of their contents, save for a bed. Lacking the softening of interior decoration, naked architecture becomes pure shelter, a symbol of the built environment’s most basic function. As shelter, architecture delineates inside from outside, a distinction that fundamentally distinguishes the homeless from the housed. People with homes spend most of their life within buildings, while the homeless live without. In terms of shelter, the stark austerity of an emptied room reduces architecture to its primal function—protection from the elements is all that’s left.

A den, though inwardly oriented, differs from shelter precisely because of its contents. In this sense, stuff is more than architectural stuffing: an urbanism of objects inside a building interrelate like an emotional internet of things, and from this nexus of stories emerges a concept of home. The Dutch word gezellig describes this comforting ambiance; though it lacks a counterpart in English, a close approximation would be cozy or belonging.

When they turned the key, some fortunate riverside residents did encounter televisions, towels, and other amenities—things that reminded them of life before homelessness. Many more, however, were assigned rooms without this warmth, without  the feeling of gezelligheid. These near-empty rooms exuded a latent hostility like a haunted hostel. For the formerly homeless, insidious inhospitality was palpable in the architecture itself.

On an urban scale, a city can also be a home, though homeless people are hardly welcomed. Those with the luxury of mobility and capital can pay to be a local for a few days by staying in a hotel, and most people don’t mind visitors and their money. Being a good host means making people feel at home, but our society fails miserably at treating homeless people like they belong. This was particularly true at most of the Orange County motels.

The etymology of Anaheim combines part of the Spanish name of the river with the German word for home. The irony is that over 700 people were already at home along the Santa Ana River, and they have yet to be acknowledged as members of the community.

Willem Swârt

Author: Willem Swârt

Willem is a designer and writer based in Los Angeles particularly interested in regenerative design as the intersection of history, ecology, urbanism, and architecture. He currently works for David Hertz FAIA and The Studio of Environmental Architecture, where he was on the grand prize winning team of the Water Abundance XPrize. Willem obtained an M.Arch degree from UCLA, with a graduate certificate from the Leaders in Sustainability program. He graduated from UCSB with high honors and a B.A. in English and the History of Art & Architecture.