April 14, 2020

Designing Shelters for Dignity Update

Designing Shelters for Dignity: how the critical importance of adequate shelter is reaffirmed in the context of coronavirus

We first began our project with the goal of investigating improvements to the conditions of emergency adult homeless shelters. In the context of the coronavirus pandemic, improving the conditions of shelters has become more important than ever.

Emergency shelters often occupy buildings that have been constructed for another purpose or are sorely outdated. Their physical conditions are often inadequate and produce degrading and stigmatizing experiences. Those who sleep in shelters often spend the night in large rooms with hundreds of single beds or bunk beds placed in rows side-by-side. Walls, curtains, or other barriers between beds are rare, and limited storage space is available for personal belongings. Bathrooms are usually shared and with little privacy. Many shelters stop their services during the daytime and lock their doors until they reopen in the evening. 

As a consequence of these physical conditions, many choose not to sleep in shelters for reasons such as a perceived lack of safety, a fear of theft, and a lack of privacy. Staff of course do what they can with little funding and limited resources, but shelter spaces are often inadequate to meet the needs of populations experiencing homelessness. 

There is a substantial body of research in environmental psychology that demonstrates how deeply our physical surroundings shape our behaviors. The impact of the physical design of spaces can be profound, and harm can be caused by poorly designed or hostile environments.

The current conditions of many emergency shelters perpetuate stigma against individuals experiencing homelessness. Studies have demonstrated the profound impact of stigma on limiting the ability to overcome significant challenges such as addiction and obesity. By asking individuals who are experiencing high levels of poverty and housing insecurity to occupy spaces that are degrading and stigmatizing, we are limiting their resilience. It sends the message that these spaces are what society believes they deserve.

Beyond the ongoing harms inflicted through inadequate physical space, the current conditions of shelters have proven catastrophic for public health in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. 

In order to avoid infection during the current pandemic, people are advised to shelter in place and to follow social distancing. We’ve been told to avoid gatherings of more than a few people, to maintain clean shared spaces, and to quickly isolate those showing symptoms. Above all else, we’ve been reminded to maintain diligent hygiene and to frequently wash our hands. For many, this advice can be observed by staying home. But for over half a million people experiencing homelessness in the United States, this is unattainable.

The pandemic demands that the physical conditions of shelter spaces be immediately addressed. A highly contagious virus like coronavirus can spread quickly in overcrowded spaces with few physical barriers. Cramped and confined sleeping areas and shared bathrooms make maintaining safe social distancing near-impossible. Furthermore, when emergency shelters close during the day, the individuals sleeping inside have to leave until the shelter reopens in the evening. They cannot “shelter in place.” This increases their risk of contracting or transmitting the virus. The consequences are already catastrophic in the Boston area: one in three unhoused persons has tested positive for coronavirus.

Populations experiencing homelessness already struggle with high rates of illness and many are over the age of 50. These factors place unhoused populations at an increased risk of developing severe COVID-19 symptoms. In fact, recent reports indicate that individuals experiencing homelessness are twice as likely to require hospitalization, two to four times as likely to require critical care, and two to three times as likely to die from complications due to COVID-19. 

This affects us all. A surge in severe cases among unhoused individuals means fewer ventilators and ICU beds available overall. The current coronavirus crisis therefore demands that the physical conditions of shelters be immediately addressed to avoid a public health catastrophe. 

Ignoring the countrywide problem of accessible stable shelter and denying its link to public health has forced us to pursue costly emergency measures to address the dangers of the pandemic. Some cities are calling on hotels and unused university dorms to house the overflow from depopulated shelters. While these are important efforts to immediately house homeless populations in healthy and uncrowded environments, they are temporary solutions. They do not acknowledge the ongoing harms inflicted through these spaces prior to the pandemic.

Our objective of improving the physical conditions of emergency shelters is an important first step towards addressing these concerns. A new standard for shelter spaces can respond to concerns over hygiene and distancing. We could construct secure barriers between individual beds inside shelters, ensuring privacy, safety, and adequate separation. We could come up with creative day-programming for shelters and increase the availability of storage, so that people sleeping in shelters aren’t required to remain transient during the day. 

The potential benefits of improving the physical conditions of shelters extend beyond limiting outbreaks. Drawing from research in environmental psychology, we believe that the potential benefits of improved shelter spaces include a decrease in hostile behavior, a decrease in stigmatization of homeless shelters, and an increase in likelihood that the surrounding neighborhood will accept the presence of the homeless shelter. Improved physical spaces could also entice guests to return to shelter spaces, increasing the contact they have with professionals working in shelter spaces and therefore increasing the likelihood that they will be able to seek assistance from professionals and to rehabilitate and reintegrate into society. 

While we believe the ultimate objective should be stable and secure housing for everyone, we acknowledge that achieving this will require a massive cultural shift. In the meantime, we need to guarantee regular access to hygienic and dignified shelters. By at least ensuring adequate shelter, we can minimize the ongoing harms associated with these spaces. In the long-run, this would lower the cost to society of funding shelter operations, and this would ultimately benefit us all. 

It would also ensure that if a health crisis of this nature happens again, we won’t have to scramble to avoid overwhelming local hospitals.

If you would like to get in touch with Designing Shelters for Dignity and learn more about their work, please reach out via email.


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