Designing for Dignity

The goal of every program that seeks to alleviate homelessness is to provide the individual with both stable housing and a support net of services.

On any given night, about 672,000 people roam the streets in search of a place to sleep. They lack even a provisional place of their own, and certainly have no foundation to build their lives upon.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, approximately 12 million renter and homeowner households now pay more than 50 percent of their annual incomes for housing. This statistic taken within the generally accepted guidelines for appropriate cost of housing, which is that it costs no more than 30 percent of a household’s monthly income, underscores the lot of overburdened families struggling to keep a roof over their heads while prioritizing other necessities.

Without a stable home, people not only lose physical comforts, but also a sense of pride. A roof over one’s head is a powerful symbol of security and reassurance, and without it, a person’s mental disposition (and consequently belief in one’s capability to overcome obstacles) becomes severely diminished.

The goal of every program that seeks to alleviate homelessness is to provide the individual with both stable housing and a support net of services, the convergence of which is best realized in permanent supportive housing. But the question remains: How to transition homeless individuals into permanent housing? Do you provide the individual with services first, then move them into housing? Or, do you do it the other way around? Housing Ready or Housing First?

The Housing First approach offers direct placement from the street to housing with support services available, but not required. Often, the only stipulation is for individuals to abide by lease obligations and refraining from violence and  destruction. In contrast, Housing Ready begins with treatment and progresses until the individual is “ready.” Transitional housing is offered to these individuals and much is demanded of them in the process.

While philosophically, the Housing Ready approach seems to make more sense to some, the Housing First approach is gaining its share of supporters. This approach instantly addresses the main concern of the homeless, which is stable housing that gives them a sense of permanence and dignity, and removes them from the frequent fears and traumas of the streets.

A four-year study, called the Chicago Housing for Health Partnership, released in 2008 seems to agree: efforts to move the homeless quickly into permanent housing can improve lives and consume less public resources than the usual package of piecemeal emergency shelters, family and recovery programs.

Though the debate continues on which approach best answers the needs of the homeless, what is unquestioned is the integral role of architects and designers in the process of creating that requisite atmosphere of stability, as well as planning the apartment community to foster an openness to treatment and support among the residents.

This was the mindset Gonzalez Goodale Architects brought to the design of Glenoaks Gardens, a permanent supportive housing complex in Sun Valley, Calif., a predominantly Latino community in the San Fernando Valley.

Glenoaks Gardens was designed with the community and its future residents in mind. The architects took the architectural and planning cues for the 35,000-square-foot U-shaped complex from the Mediterranean-style neighborhood, re-invigorating it with a contemporary character. Projecting bay windows and balconies allow generous views of the neighborhood and animate the façade, giving it a welcoming atmosphere. Providing its future residents a sense of pride in the quality of their home, the project at once invests in and embraces the community.

At the planning stage, the foremost concern is balancing the individual’s need for privacy with an underlying spatial and programmatic organization that also fosters a sense of a larger community of support.

In the design for permanent supportive housing, Gonzalez Goodale introduces a de-centralized organization of supportive services. Services distributed at nodes designed for everyday activity—checking mail, doing laundry or walking the corridors—turn interactions with case managers and service providers into chance encounters with a neighbor and a part of the daily routine in the community.

Though dispersed, this network of nodes encircles and energizes a larger social venue for the complex. As its main focus, the garden courtyard at Glenoaks Gardens reconnects the building’s various parts into a cohesive whole and provides residents with both a place of respite and a venue for community celebration.

In its composition, scale, access to light and open space, each element of the design is used to convey a message of quality, care and value. While budget constraints in affordable housing limit the architect’s choice in material selection, it is the keen attention to details that elevates the everyday material to a statement of demonstrated care and built-in value. An appropriate balancing of initial capital investments with long-term maintenance and operational costs lead to a deepened richness of palette and design durability that will help maintain these buildings as long-term assets in the community.

Housing design should always celebrate the individual and be a reflection of our greater societal aspirations and communal values. It is telling of the home’s importance that it is an inextricable part of the American dream and identity. It falls to the architect to translate a home’s inherent values of stability, beauty and dignity to a design solution that is also affordable and accessible.

Ali Barar, AIA, is a principal at Gonzalez Goodale Architects, which specializes in workforce housing and housing for populations with a variety of special needs. Barar has worked in the field of affordable and workforce housing for more than two decades, overseeing the design of thousands of units of low-cost housing in Los Angeles. He is currently managing two workforce housing developments, including a unique joint development project with the LA Unified District and a family housing project in Carson, as well as two permanent supportive housing projects in Sunland/Tujunga and one in Pasadena.

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