Shelter design can help people recover from homelessness
From an article in The Conversation
Beyond exposing them to weather, crime and unsanitary conditions, homelessness can also damage people’s self-esteem, making them feel helpless or hopeless. Being homeless is a traumatic experience, in part because of the stigma associated with this situation. Recovering from homelessness may therefore involve not just finding a job and permanent home but also rebuilding one’s self-esteem.
An experiment in the USA by Jill Pable, Professor of Interior Design and Architecture, Florida State University suggests that the interior design of homeless shelters can either support or hinder people’s ability to assert control over their future and their self-esteem. A shelter with sterile corridor and glaring lights may silently send the message that, “People don’t think you deserve a nice place to live.” Homeless housing designed with warm colors, thoughtful lighting and useful signage, on the other hand, can send the opposite message: “Someone cares.”
The researcher conducted a three-month field experiment at a shelter to understand how bedroom design could support or hinder two families trying to transition from homelessness into permanent housing. Each family consisted of a single mother with two children. One family had two girls, ages 3 and 4. The other had two boys, ages 3 and 18.
Initially, both families stayed in identical 9-by-12 bedrooms. Each had two metal bunk beds, one dresser, pale green walls, a single light fixture and a bathroom shared with a family of four. With so little storage, the families piled their belongings on the unused fourth bunk. The bedroom door had no lock, so that staff could check in on residents as needed.
After two months, one family moved into a room that had been upgraded with 18 new features intended to empower residents by offering them control over their environment. These included drawer-and-bin storage for their possessions, lap desks, privacy curtains around the beds, bulletin boards and shelving. They also painted the walls a light blue.
The mother who stayed in the first room for all three months described it as “crowded”, “claustrophobic” and “grim”. She even said the metal beds and hard, cold floors reminded her of jail. “The more time you spend in it, the more you feel like the walls are closing in,” she said, explaining that she often stayed out late to avoid coming home to this cramped situation. So did her older son, who sometimes spent all night in the shelter’s computer lab. His mother worried about her son’s “vampire” hours. This family seemed agitated throughout the three-month study. They sought relief from their housing situation – and from each other – elsewhere.
The mother who would later move into an upgraded room felt “aggravated and frustrated” in the first space. The family’s experience in the altered room was very different. The good lighting and wall cushions encouraged them to read together. They had guests more often. A case worker said that the family would sometimes spend the entire day together in their shelter bedroom – something they’d never done in their previous space.
Though the two rooms were the same size, a divided dutch door and bed curtains allowed the residents in the altered room to create personal spaces for listening to music or reading. They organized and put away their possessions in the storage provided, reducing clutter. The children liked drawing on the marker boards, so the mother allowed them to use it as a reward for good behaviour, exerting parental authority in a positive way.
Tellingly, the families also expressed themselves differently in the two rooms. In the upgraded room with shelving, the family displayed photographs, art and beloved stuffed animals. The kids played dress up in front of the mirror. These are both territorial acts that define and confirm identities. The family in the unaltered bedroom displayed little art, in part because the mother felt it was an imposition to ask shelter staff for tape to affix items to the wall. When her 3-year-old boy tried to play cars on the floor, his mum told him it was too dirty. Bored, he would peel paint off the wall near his bed. She reprimanded him for this behaviour, causing arguments. The children also argued frequently with each other.
The new bedroom, which could be adjusted to fit the family’s needs, empowered them to take ownership of it. Such actions may help combat underlying feelings of helplessness and it suggests that shelter architecture can help families experiencing homelessness by giving them a calm, positive and supportive home base for planning their future.
If you run a shelter or transitional accommodation, perhaps you can review its design and facilities?
Read the original article here.
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