Better shelter design can help people recover from homelessness

Homelessness in Sacramento, California, 2009. Image: Getty.

Some 544,000 people in the United States have no shelter every night, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Homeless families make up over one-third of this total.

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.

My research on the built environment suggests that the interior design of homeless shelters can either support or hinder people’s ability to assert control over their future.

How design affects people

Research has long demonstrated that physical spaces affect human moods and behaviors.

Office environments with many common spaces foster collaboration, for example, while stock investors who work on higher floors take more risks.

Homeless shelters, too, can influence how residents see the world and themselves. 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.”

In my experience, most homeless shelters are designed simply to house as many people as possible. Others are so dilapidated, violent or dirty that people actually prefer to sleep outside.

These hallways send contrasting messages to residents, staff and visitors. Right: Kearney Center, Clemons Rutherford Architects. Image: Jill Pable/author provided.

What unhoused families need

I undertook a three-month field experiment at a shelter in Florida 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.

Both parents had generally positive relationships with their children, had completed high school through the 10th grade and were living in the shelter because they had lost their jobs.

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. This is common in shelters.

Housing that looks like jail

After two months, one family moved into a room that our team had 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. We also painted the walls a light blue.


Unaltered shelter room, left. Upgraded room, right. Image: Jill Pable/author provided.

I interviewed the mothers in the beginning and the end of their experience.

The mother who would later move into an upgraded room felt “aggravated and frustrated” in the first space. The mother who stayed in that 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.

Both families piled their belongings on the unused fourth bunk for lack of other storage.

“The more time you spend in it, the more you feel like the walls are closing in,” she told me after four weeks, 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 family’s experience in the altered room

Things looked different for the other family.

The good lighting and wall cushions encouraged them to read together. They had guests more often. A case worker told me 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 organised 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 behavior, exerting parental authority in a positive way.

Signs of ownership

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 mom told him it was too dirty. Bored, he would peel paint off the wall near his bed.

She reprimanded him for this behavior, causing arguments. The children also argued frequently with each other.

A place to call home

At the study’s end, I asked the mother living in the upgraded space how she would have felt if her family had stayed in the unaltered bedroom. Her answer reflected the role housing plays in keeping a family happy and healthy.

“I don’t know if I would say I would be depressed, but I would have had a different feeling,” she responded. “Sometimes you just want peace and quiet” – which the bed curtains and dutch door now offered her.

She also thought her kids might have eventually “cracked,” she said, because they couldn’t act as they would in “a regular home”.

“My older girl will pull the curtains and read books to her sister” now, the mother said. “She feels like she has something that belongs to her.”

The new bedroom, which could be adjusted to fit the family’s needs, empowered them to take ownership of it. I believe such actions may help combat underlying feelings of helplessness.

This small, only partially controlled study is not the final word in shelter design.

The ConversationBut it certainly suggests that shelter architecture can help families experiencing homelessness by giving them a calm, positive and supportive home base for planning their future.

Jill Pable, Professor of Interior Design and Architecture, Florida State University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


There isn’t a war on the motorist. We should start one

These bloody people. Image: Getty.

When should you use the horn on a car? It’s not, and anyone who has been on a road in the UK in living memory will be surprised to hear this, when you are inconvenienced by traffic flow. Nor is it when you are annoyed that you have been very slightly inconvenienced by another driver refusing to break the law in a manner that is objectively dangerous, but which you perceive to be to your advantage.

According to the Highway Code:

“A horn should only be used when warning someone of any danger due to another vehicle or any other kind of danger.”

Let’s be frank: neither you nor I nor anyone we have ever met has ever heard a horn used in such a manner. Even those of us who live in or near places where horns perpetually ring out due to the entitled sociopathy of most drivers. Especially those of us who live in or near such places.

Several roads I frequently find myself pushing a pram up and down in north London are two way traffic, but allow parking on both sides. This being London that means that, in practice, they’re single track road which cars can enter from both ends.

And this being London that means, in practice, that on multiple occasions every day, men – it is literally always men – glower at each other from behind the steering wheels of needlessly big cars, banging their horns in fury that circumstances have, usually through the fault of neither of them, meant they are facing each other on a de facto single track road and now one of them is going to have to reverse for a metre or so.

This, of course, is an unacceptable surrender as far as the drivers’ ego is concerned, and a stalemate seemingly as protracted as the cold war and certainly nosier usually emerges. Occasionally someone will climb out of their beloved vehicle and shout and their opponent in person, which at least has the advantages of being quieter.

I mentioned all this to a friend recently, who suggested that maybe use of car horns should be formally restricted in certain circumstances.

Ha ha ha. Hah.

The Highway Code goes on to say -

“It is illegal to use a horn on a moving vehicle on a restricted road, a road that has street lights and a 30 mph limit, between the times of 11:30 p.m. and 07:00 a.m.”

Is there any UK legal provision more absolutely and comprehensively ignored by those to whom it applies? It might as well not be there. And you can bet that every single person who flouts it considers themselves law abiding. Rather than the perpetual criminal that they in point of fact are.

In the 25 years since I learned to drive I have used a car horn exactly no times, despite having lived in London for more than 20 of them. This is because I have never had occasion to use it appropriately. Neither has anyone else, of course, they’ve just used it inappropriately. Repeatedly.

So here’s my proposal for massively improving all UK  suburban and urban environments at a stroke: ban horns in all new cars and introduce massive, punitive, crippling, life-destroying fines for people caught using them on their old one.

There has never been a war on motorists, despite the persecution fantasies of the kind of middle aged man who thinks owning a book by Jeremy Clarkson is a substitute for a personality. There should be. Let’s start one. Now.

Phase 2 will be mandatory life sentences for people who don’t understand that a green traffic light doesn’t automatically mean you have right of way just because you’re in a car.

Do write in with your suggestions for Phase 3.