Healing by Design. The benefits of trauma-informed design in supportive housing.
Updated: Mar 23
My goal is to raise awareness about the proven benefits of evidence-based design through a trauma-informed lens. While this is scientifically proven and practiced in many healthcare facilities around the world, it still has a long way to go in terms of being widely known and implemented as a critical part of supporting mental health and recovery.
Interior design has never been considered significant or even recognized as a potential tool in the recovery process. The healthcare sector is responding to evidence that shows interior design can be transformational in how we heal - both physically and mentally.
There is a widely held belief, both within and outside of the sector serving homelessness, that "if you make it too comfortable", "they won't want to leave". That hurts my heart and is in fact an uninformed belief. The truth is that our current response to how we design shelters and supportive housing further traumatizes and stigmatizes the very human beings that we are trying to help.
While this mindset is meant to incentivize clients to want to achieve a better place/life, they simply do not have the capacity to accomplish this without all the other support services including a restorative environment. To shelter them in a place that is absent of dignity, while temporary, further traumatizes and reinforces their feeling of worthlessness, and is counterproductive to all the other good we are trying to do. It is also important to say that there are many in the sector that would love to have the funding to provide healing environments.
Historically, shelters and transitional housing have been designed strictly to provide shelter from the elements, basic provisions with a focus on maintenance and durability of the facility. Another major consideration in these designs is controlling the behaviour of the service users. The result is an institutional environment that is absent of any comforting or calming elements. In addition, in exchange for shelter, people are made to give up all autonomy, stripped of all opportunities to control even the tiniest way to exercise freedom of choice. A devastating mental impact on those already struggling to survive.
In doing so, we have unwittingly created environments replete with psychological triggers and other physical and mental stressors. In addition, there are environmental stressors that exacerbate trauma-induced behaviours. This is a monumental challenge for staff and clients that create constant chaos and more toxic stress.
People ask why the homeless prefer to sleep on the streets. The answer is simple. Shelters are not safe and take away what little control these marginalized humans have in a way of maintaining their dignity and freedom of choice in their lives.
For staff in shelters and transitional housing, managing behavioural outbursts comes with the job. The explosive episodes of anger, aggression and violence are commonplace. For the people experiencing this, on both sides, it serves to perpetuate a damaging and needless cycle of suffering.
We must recognize that our most vulnerable humans need to be treated in a trauma-informed way. That includes providing environments that support their mental health needs and provide restorative spaces.
The good news (yes, there is good news) is that there are so many effective design interventions that can make a HUGE difference. There are proven ways to effect positive change. Check out our recent partnership with Blue Door on their INNclusion program.
Are you a service provider for vulnerable populations? Do you want to improve client engagement? I can help you. Do your agency and staff struggle to manage client behaviours and engagement?
If your answer is yes - I can help you. This is not just a business for me but a personal crusade. Please reach out.