Family Village is one of a new kind of homeless shelter now emerging in the US, those that use trauma-informed design. It’s also the first and only overnight shelter of its kind in Oregon. This emerging approach is part of a movement that recognizes that traumatized people need specialized support.
Severe stress can literally change the brain, affecting memory, coping skills and abilities to regulate emotions. Aware of just how much the physical environment can shape people’s lives, more architects are starting to rethink how they design homeless shelters and spaces such as prisons and foster care centers.
“We are just out of the starting gate,” said Kay Sargent, the Washington DC-based director of the Workplace Group at HOK, a global architecture firm that has created a landmark guidebook on trauma-informed design. “An increase in research has articulated how design affects us … Designers know now how we can make a difference.”
The Mental Health Center of Denver’s Sanderson Apartments, which opened in 2017, is considered an early example of the approach. Its design emphasizes openness and calm; hallways are wide, there are many windows, and its few walls are painted sage and lavender. There are personal lockers and privacy walls between bunks.
Interest in trauma-informed design for shelters stems from greater public discussion about mental health and the increased incidence and visibility of homelessness. The number of chronically homeless people nationwide jumped by 16% between 2020 and 2022, according to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.
While unhoused people are often traumatized, a 2010 study on trauma-informed care found homeless services have historically provided care without directly acknowledging or addressing the impact of trauma.