Our project is rooted in research on the social and environmental determinants of health and in environmental psychology. The impact that the environment has on our well-being is profound, and poorly designed or hostile environments cause harm. In their current form, emergency homeless shelters are often degrading. The physical design of shelters perpetuates stigma against individuals experiencing homelessness and sends the message that these spaces are what society believes they deserve. Guests are stripped of their dignity and privacy when they are at their most vulnerable and when it should be crucial instead to increase support. In addition to affecting the mental and physical resilience of its staff and guests, poor shelter design can also directly endanger their physical health, as we witnessed through the rapid spread of COVID-19 in homeless shelters across the nation.
We believe that there will be measurable long-term impacts of improving the physical design of existing emergency shelter spaces. Our research has identified the following to guide our designs:
Stigma: It can be incredibly stigmatizing to wait publicly in the queue to enter a shelter, often with no access to seating or protection from the elements while simultaneously outing oneself as being unhoused. Furthermore, bleak, overcrowded, institutional, and dirty spaces send a message to shelter guests that this is what society believes they deserve. Research has demonstrated that stigma can make it more difficult to overcome adversity and life challenges, and that it can contribute to low self esteem, isolation, and an inability to make meaningful life changes. The stigmatizing experience of sleeping in shelters can cause immense harm to individuals at their height of vulnerability, limiting their ability to become stably housed.
Trauma: There is a very high prevalence of trauma, mental illness, and PTSD among the unhoused: both preceding and contributing to individuals becoming unhoused, and as a consequence of being unhoused. Trauma has been shown to impact service utilization, and it can be costly and difficult to overcome. In order to maximize the potential for individuals to escape houselessness, there is a need for trauma-informed spaces that promote safety and health. Many emergency adult shelters in their current form are overcrowded, unsafe, lack privacy, and have a hostile design, continuing the traumatization of this population.
Sleep deprivation: Despite being intended as spaces to sleep for those without houses, shelters in their current form limit the ability to achieve good sleep. There is ample research demonstrating the high rates of sleep disturbance among unhoused populations, including short sleep duration and poor sleep quality. Among this population, factors contributing to sleep deprivation include lack of adequate, comfortable sleeping spaces as well as the inherent risks and vulnerabilities associated with being asleep in unsafe settings. Sleep deprivation has significant long term consequences, including increased risk of chronic diseases, stroke, mental disorders, health-risk behaviors, limitations in daily functioning, and mortality. Studies among unhoused individuals have shown that the noise and lack of privacy and safety common to shelters, particularly in those with large congregate sleeping areas, contribute to sleep-deprivation in shelters. This leads to significant long-term deleterious consequences for those relying on shelters as a place to sleep.