Recently I was asked to provide commentary on a new shelter being proposed in Florida. Shelters are an important asset in ending homelessness when they are focused on helping people get into housing as quickly as possible. Every community needs an adequate number of shelter spaces relatively to the demands in their specific community. And in this Florida community, they have woefully few shelter beds and definitely need more.
While some may argue that a bad shelter is better than no shelter, I do not share that sentiment. When there is a new multi-million dollar capital investment on the table, probably best that it be done right.
Urban planning should inform various aspects of sheltering. Place matters. Shelters should be proximate to the needs of the guests that are using the shelter. One cannot be expected to work on housing goals out of the shelter if they are far away from where rental accommodation is located, and/or, when there is insufficient public transportation near the shelter. “Out of sight, out of mind” may be the position of the elected officials approving the shelter siting, but the outcomes of the shelter will be much worse if the location chosen is disconnected from the urban fabric.
A shelter should have the staffing necessary to have a housing focus. This means diverting people from shelter when it is safe and appropriate to do so; focusing on self-resolving homelessness through housing, especially for those that have not been in shelter before; and, dedicating more intensive resources to help with housing through rapid re-housing or permanent supportive housing for those that are stuck in shelter. When you look at the staffing for a shelter, it is a cause for concern when the number of staff dedicated to security exceeds the staff dedicated to housing and supporting shelter guests.
Furthermore, one must critically examine any and all other services being offered at the shelter, other than housing-focused services. Community gardens, financial education and behavioural health services may sound good, but they can also interfere with the urgency of moving on to housing.
Spaces must be designed for the people that will be served within them. Trauma-informed design places particular emphasis on things like lighting, matte colours, and open spaces, especially hallways and transition points. The space should be as predictable as possible, avoiding sharp corners where people may inadvertently surprise or bump into one another. Spaces should not be confining. Noise should be muted through adaptations to the walls. Dignity is reflected in the care and maintenance of the space where people dwell. A space not maintained well or in a terrible state of repair in essence is a reflection of how the building operator feels about the person within the space.
Within this particular shelter in Florida, renderings provided showed no signs of trauma-informed design. More emphasis seemed to be place on utility than care of the people that would use the facility. When people have experienced significant trauma, shouldn’t we go to greater lengths to make sure the place they are being sheltered does not make their trauma worse?