Turning around homelessness with design
| February 08, 2017
On any given day, more than a half-million people — children, women and men, including many veterans — in the United States experience homelessness. That number has been decreasing in recent years, but with rents and home prices rising, many low-income individuals and families could find themselves without the means to pay for housing.
While there is not much designers can do to address the root causes of homelessness, they can help those who are homeless progress along the path to becoming self-sufficient by creating shelters and temporary housing that are more supportive, safe and compassionate.
Media coverage tends to focus on the chronically homeless, who often have severe mental health and/or substance abuse problems or have suffered mental or physical abuse and require special treatment. However, according to a recent report from the National Alliance to End Homelessness, in 2015 these individuals comprised only 15 percent of the total homeless population, and individuals in chronically homeless families just 2 percent.
Most others, either individuals (63 percent) or families (37 percent), temporarily find themselves homeless because they are between jobs, have been priced out or forced out of their homes, or have recently experienced financial difficulties.
Even though government spending and efforts to provide additional shelter for the homeless have increased in recent years, nearly one-third of all homeless lack shelter. The problem is compounded by the fact that certain cities or areas of the country have a higher concentration of homeless than others, which places an extraordinary burden on local resources.
In addition, due to funding restraints, many facilities for the homeless are not well designed to meet their specific needs. Designers can make a critical difference by applying their skills and talents to improving the design of existing facilities and bringing their expertise to the development and construction of new ones.
Of particular importance to the design of interiors for these facilities is accounting for the high incidence of trauma in this population. Being homeless, with its accompanying dangers and stresses, is itself traumatic. Add to that, many homeless individuals are without a home because of previous traumatic events in their lives. Safety, privacy and self-preservation are of utmost importance.
"Shelters vary in their ability to support recovery, and some provide an environment conducive to healing. Unfortunately, we have found this to be the exception, and many facilities can instead exacerbate stress," said Jill Pable, a professor in the Department of Interior Design and Architecture at Florida State University, who has conducted extensive research on design for homelessness.
Designers are needed to create spaces that are welcoming, demonstrate a safe environment and provide some degree of privacy, while at the same time not interfering with staff's need to monitor residents' behavior. Gender privacy is a crucial issue in facilities that provide services to both sexes and families.
Designers can help individuals regain their sense of dignity and empowerment by creating spaces that allow them more independence and control over their environment. They can optimize limited resources through flexible and multifunctional designs that benefit both staff and residents.
Aesthetics also have a profound impact on residents and staff. Environments that are more homelike rather than institutional help to reestablish a sense of normality and serve as a motivator to achieve self-sufficiency.
A number of architects and designers have engaged in these projects, either specializing in such clients or offering pro bono services. Administrators and governments also have come to appreciate the value good design brings to such projects.
A recent article in Archpaper highlights a $1.2 billion bond initiative in the San Fernando Valley that will pay for up to 100,000 housing units for the homeless. Projects underway will emphasize design quality, including one complex to provide permanent supportive housing for veterans that is aiming for LEED Platinum certification.
One of the challenges facing architects and designers who would like to get involved in these projects is the time and effort required to gather and analyze the research and other knowledge required to design for the special needs of this population.
To help meet this need, Pable has founded a nonprofit organization — Design Resources for Homelessness — which last summer launched a website that contains essential information on the issues related to this population, a review of research to date, case studies, databases of designers and projects as well as advocacy organizations for the homeless, and news items on recent developments. She urges designers to assist in whatever way they can with this effort.
"There is a growing realization that new approaches to affordable housing are beneficial to residents," Pable says. "It is time to gather forces and bring perspectives together that can benefit the future for persons in crisis, and for society as a whole."
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