PorchLight Eastgate Proves That Better Shelters Are Possible

PorchLight Eastgate facility

PorchLight Eastgate Shelter challenges the negative stereotypes of homeless shelters by creating a supportive and nurturing environment with elegant design and a strong connection to nature.


What comes to mind when you think of shelters? A dark, crowded, and perhaps even dangerous place? A dirty, unkempt space? Many shelters do fit this troubling image, and it’s a reality that can be quite frightening. This perception also shapes the stereotypes and prejudices you may hold about homeless individuals. If shelters are seen as dangerous and scary, it’s easy to assume that the people inside are, too.

Imagine how that kind of environment can influence a homeless person.

According to the fundamental concept in psychology, Behavior in Context or Environment, our thoughts and behaviors aren’t just a product of our personality traits and characteristics. Our social, cultural, and physical environments also shape them. This concept is best kept in mind when considering homeless services and approaching members of the homeless community.

Stereotypes and prejudices about homeless people shape the thoughts and behaviors of everyone around them, including the homeless individuals themselves. The physical and social environments of homeless shelters, shared with social workers and other providers, profoundly impact everyone in that space. Negative stereotypes and the stigma surrounding shelters affect the mindset and actions of all who inhabit these environments.

I wish I had these insights when I was homeless.

I stepped into a dark, dangerous, and crowded shelter. Living in a dirty, unkempt space hugely influenced my thoughts and behaviors. I have to admit that my environment, both social and physical, taught me false messages about who I was, who my neighbors were, and who my caseworker and providers were. They were not good things.

My caseworkers spoke about how lazy his homeless clients were. The shelter was crowded, poorly maintained, and often felt like a prison.

This environment rewrote my script. It rewrote who I was – as if my former identity no longer existed. It has taken many years of therapy to rewind and write that script again.

Sometimes, I wonder how different my life could have been if that shelter had been a better place – if my environment had been more supportive and nurturing. How much would it have changed who I am today?

What if shelters didn’t look like shelters? What if shelters weren’t that dark, dangerous, scary place?

I was amazed that Block Architects did just that with the new PorchLight Eastgate shelter in Washington. From the outside, you’d never guess this was a 100-bed shelter for men.

That was precisely the point. Block Architects wanted to change public perception about homelessness and homeless shelters. Their efforts can change their community’s relationship with homeless residents and, as a result, change the lives of the homeless people who live there.

It’s not just about the floor-to-ceiling glass windows or the beautiful art on the exterior; it’s also about the inside. The reception area features elegant furniture. What kind of message does this send? Homeless people deserve a clean, safe, and bright home. Their quality of life matters, too.

Nature was also a big part of it. A direct connection to nature is exactly what Block Architects had in mind when designing the 100-bed shelter to replace the previous facility used by PorchLight elsewhere in Bellevue.

“These are men who have been perpetually homeless,” said the firm’s representative, Jennifer LaFreniere. “We wanted to make them think: This is where I can change. Clearly, this is not a typical shelter I’m coming to.”

Most importantly, the firm recognizes how vital it is for communities to engage with homeless people. This is especially true when it comes to winning support and funding for projects that involve developing homeless shelters. Furthermore, LaFreniere and her father, Rex Hohlbein, have experience designing and building tiny homes for homeless people in the backyards of local residents.

PorchLight Eastgate Shelter is making huge strides in changing how we think about homeless shelters. And they’re undoubtedly changing lives every day.

Homelessness is socially stigmatized, and there’s a wide range of consequences for it. I hope to see providers continue to recognize how damaging stigma is and how it continues to perpetuate inequalities homeless people experience every day.

Across all studies, “there is broad agreement that people experiencing homelessness experience significant stigma from providers when accessing health care, and this impacts on general health and service access. There is also evidence that perceived stigma related to homelessness correlates with poorer mental and physical health.”

This is why PorchLight Eastgate’s work is so important. I hope many other developers will follow their example in the future.


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Jocelyn Figueroa

     

Jocelyn Figueroa studied Creative Non-Fiction at The New School and is a blogger and freelance writer based out of New York City. Formerly homeless, she launched her own blog discussing shelter life in New York City. Today, Jocelyn is on a mission to build connections through storytelling and creative writing. Check out her book about homelessness at https://ko-fi.com/scartissueproject

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