Trauma informed interior design.

My interview with Kieran Hughes from The Welcome Organisation, Belfast was an eye-opener. 

A glimpse of an alternative world – that most of us never see, or think about. 

I had little understanding of the work that goes on behind the scenes to help homeless people start again. The bigger picture.

Homelessness is not all about sleeping bags and hot drinks. 

It’s not just as simple as having somewhere to stay – or not.

To fully get to grips with the problem of homelessness you have to deal with the trauma that comes from it – and might have led to it. 

A solution to the problems requires a joined-up holistic approach that puts people first. 

When Kieran describes the work they do at the Welcome Organisation it seems relentless.  

They strive to ensure that anyone who is homeless is given the help they need. 

But of course, it all comes down to funding. 

Every year, to top up their (currently stagnated) funding from the NI Housing Executive, they have to find £250,000 of public donations.

This year (2023) the Housing Executive have already  warned that cutbacks imposed by the UK government to their budget will inevitably affect those most in need.

Those most in need…

Banner of the Welcome Organisation for homeless people suffering trauma.

The Welcome Organisation is a Belfast based charity that works with homeless people 365 days of the year.

Their work never stops. 

Not for holidays – or pandemics.

Throughout the night (7pm-3am) The Welcome Organisation have  dedicated  support teams  assisting people on the streets. Wherever they find people in need they give practical support; food, hot drinks, health advice, clothing and sleeping bags.  

This is aid for the immediate welfare of homelessness.

It is not the solution. 

The Welcome Organisation’s ethos is: “High tolerance, Low threshold’.  

With 25 years of experience in the field they have an in-depth understanding of the breadth of problems faced by homeless people. Through a multi-pronged approach they help people move forward in their ‘journey’ from street to home.

homeless woman sitting below row of posters advertising Fun Home
Andreea Popa/ Unsplash

There are many reasons why people become homeless. 

And….It can happen to almost anyone. At any time. 

Family breakdown, abuse, redundancy, addictions, poor physical and mental health.  Or, an act of God – fire, flood, tsunami, subsidence.

A sudden change of circumstances  (divorce, bereavement, ill health) could easily tip someone into poverty and/or homelessness. 

Many people suffering from chronic homelessness have longstanding complex needs from past traumas,  physical, sexual or emotional.

Trauma can lie deep.

In Northern Ireland anyone born before 1998 will have their own unique experience of what it means to have lived through the Troubles. 

A dark period, it has left its own legacy of trauma.

We still live with deep-rooted cultural and social attitudes of a divided community –  including intimidation and paramilitarism. 

There are people in Northern Ireland who may have good reason to feel unsafe. 

During the pandemic the UK Government stepped up to protect homeless people and get them off the streets.

The “Everyone In“ initiative was implemented quickly and efficiently. That level of emergency has passed and things have largely returned to ‘normal’ – which means the issue of homelessness still remains.

The full impact of the Covid pandemic is still unfolding.

Economically, the UK is experiencing the highest cost of living in 40 years. This sudden, sharp increase in costs adds to personal debt – which adds to the anxiety and stress of making ends meet. 

It all comes down to the basics: to eat, to heat…. to have somewhere to live.

Already this year in Northern Ireland, The Housing Executive has seen an increase in people in NI who are destitute

England currently has the highest rates of people living in temporary accommodation since records began.

Right now, for tenants and home owners alike, many people fear they might lose their home.”4 in 10 people are finding it difficult to afford their rent or mortgage payments.” That must contribute to sleepless nights, anxiety and added pressures on personal mental health.

All this is happening against an backdrop where private tenancies are now harder to come by.

 Rental prices in NI are rising at a higher rate than anywhere else in the UK.

Since the demand is more than supply landlords can pick and choose who they want – or don’t want  – as tenants. Typically, that means no children, no pets, no people on benefits. Throughout the UK Anyone looking for a safe, affordable, comfortable place to live may find there are few permanent choices available.

Homelessness is not just a life lived on the streets. 

Away from public gaze, there is the hidden homeless.

There are people  who are living in a hostel, a car, a bed space, or a caravan or, sofa surfing. Not knowing for sure where they will sleep that night…or next week. 

Their only option may  be temporary hotel accommodation.

How long is ‘temporary? 

If the idea of a hotel conjures up a holiday resort, think again.  

All over the UK budget hotels are being used as ‘virtual holding centres’ for people who are homeless and/or asylum seekers. All because there are no homes available. 

In a hotel room families live on top of each other, without privacy.

Everything they have will be packed into one room. With no independent laundry or cooking facilities, this is not a place where people can just carry on with their lives. It’s not a place to live.

Two years living in the confined space of a hotel room seems unimaginable. For some, it is a shocking  reality.

Getting support to people in need is critical.

The Welcome Organisation Drop-in Centre (open every day 8am-6pm) is the main office and hub for the organisation. 

indoor/outdoor view of Welcome Organisation space with chairs and TV and smoking area. Trauma.

This is a safe, warm and managed environment.

Here, people can access showers, internet, laundry and lockers.  With 120 meals served each day no-one has to go hungry.

When people first arrive the staff will sit with them and listen to their story. 

Every homeless person has a very unique life experience.

At the Welcome Organisation people are not judged; they  are treated with dignity and respect.  

This may be the first time they openly talk about their situation. But, it could be their first step to accessing support for their immediate needs of accommodation, benefits and healthcare. 

The centre is a clean no frills space –  it is by no means luxurious.  

As a space it is functional, practical and easy to maintain.

There are comfortable chairs, a TV, access to internet and an outdoor smoking area. 

The Drop-In Centre provides homeless people with somewhere to go and to ‘be’ and if they choose, a sense of community. It has quiet spaces and social spaces; to be with others, to be alone.

At Christmas, the Drop-In Centre becomes an alternative ‘homespace’ for many people.  Here, people can celebrate the big day with a Christmas dinner and a gift. They are part of a community, not based on welfare, but on kindness, dignity, care and concern. 

Christmas is the time of year when public donations for the homeless peak. But of course, homelessness is a year round social crisis. Not just at Christmas.

Where does design fit in all of this?

Charities working within very tight budget they may not want to be seen to be spending money on unnecessary ‘frivolities’ – such as interior design. 

The Interior spaces of charities are often comprise of upcycled and re-purposed furniture – making the best of what is donated, and what they can afford.

But that attitude is quietly changing. 

Beyond traditional Victorian values of a charitable space – what it should look like and how it should compare to non-charitable spaces – there is now a growing understanding on user experience and the value of design. 

Charities want their shops to be attractive spaces.

Consciously, and unconsciously visitors will value and remember a space because of how it made them feel to be there. Customers are more likely to return if they have had a pleasant experience.

The quality of a space affects people’s well-being. 

How a space works and looks matters because of how it makes people feel.

To give little or no consideration to the interior can produce negative consequences.

People may not want to cross the threshold. Or, they may not want to stay there for any longer than they have to.  

Even people with nowhere else to go need to feel they belong, and are welcome, in a space.

When I interviewed Alan Carson from the charity Storehouse Belfast he was very clear :

The environment that you create dictates how people respond.” 

He believes ‘ environment speaks to worth’ and was determined their premises would never  look like  a ‘charity space’  – or soup kitchen. Instead, he wanted to an  environment where people could feel ‘at home – or at least safe and welcome’. 

To make this happen – and to get the most from their interior spaces- they engaged the talents of an artist and interior designer.

Throughout the space there was an attention to detail, sparks of delight and sensitive touches all carefully controlled within the interior design. These little things count.

Homelessness is a terrifying thing to contemplate. To be homeless and an addict even more so.  

The NHS recognise that  “trauma exposure can impact an individual’s neurological, biological, psychological and social development.” It can affect people deeply, but not necessarily visibly.

The central guiding principles of  NHS  trauma-informed practice are: safety, trustworthiness, choice, collaboration, empowerment, cultural consideration. 

A trauma-informed approach asks:  ‘What does this person need?’  rather than ‘What is wrong with this person?’ This marks a significant shift from the negative to the positive,  to think more about the ‘individual’ and their human-centred needs. 

What is the problem – as they see it.

Trauma can disconnect people from their environment.

Clearly, people suffering from trauma need an environment, that is calm and safe – without negative triggers.   They should feel they are involved, included, and valued.

Interior environments need to be sensitively handled and carefully judged.

As with any design project a designer will spend considerable time thinking about the people who will use the space. That is: who they are, what do they need from space. How will this space make them feel? 

A designer must develop an empathy for people’s emotional and physical state. Their mindset, their lived experience, their memories and outlook. 

Every space effects some level of emotion.

In retail it is used to create visual appeal, in hospitality to create conviviality and relaxation, in business  focus and brand image.  

How an interior a space looks and feels, how it sounds and flows, how it projects a sense of comfort, belonging, or warmth is as important as how it functions.

Success in design terms is not just about fitting the furniture in, but in creating a space that people want to be.

It should be a space that fully responds to people’s physical and emotional needs. And more than fulfils the brief.

homeless person's tent on pavement
Naomi August/Unsplash

There is a big difference between having somewhere to stay- and having somewhere to ‘live.’  

A ‘home’ of our own gives us a ‘place’; a position from which to live our lives within society.

Mentally, we feel safer when we can close a door to the outside world. We feel more secure in a space where we belong. 

Home Is Much More Than A Place To Live. 

It is a place where we can invite people to share in our lives. Where we can completely ‘switch off’ and be ourselves. The space that we can make our own. Home is the centre of our taken for granted world.

Homelessness takes its toll- mentally and physically. 

If you have no home you have…

Nowhere to store your belongings. 

No address.

Or shelter.

No place for family life.

Or personal space.

Or peace of mind.

The Welcome Organisation work with people who have very complex needs. 

Many people who use their services will have experienced deep trauma in their lives. They need help to build a life in a home of their own. 

Catherine House is the latest service offered by The Welcome Organisation. 

Opening in March 2023, it currently provides much needed accommodation for vulnerable women ‘on their journey from street to home’.  

“Catherine” – was someone the Welcome Organisation knew very well – who sadly lost her life to addiction.

The house was named in her memory.

From the outset The Welcome Organisation knew exactly what they wanted for this project. 

Their aim was to create a living environment where each resident would feel safe, secure and comfortable. A place where they felt they belonged, and settled. 

It had to be more than just ‘accommodation’ –  a building with rooms and beds. It should not look or feel like an institution – or hostel.

Developed with a therapeutic ethos, it aims to be a healing environment; a place of refuge and peace. 

Catherine House is not just a bed for the night.  

Here, residents can allow themselves to rest their guard.

Over time they should feel more settled, physically and mentally, and in a better place  to cope with the world.

That, could mark a huge shift in their consciousness.

While they are here, the residents are encouraged to develop a sense of belonging and permanency- to make this space their home.  Emotionally, that means they can go beyond the sense they will be moved on tomorrow, to a point where they gain some level of rootedness. 

In Catherine House each women has her own room, and shares the facilities. 

There is also ongoing support and help  for the residents to adjust to a new way of life, of budgeting, cleaning, cooking and gardening.

The Welcome Organisation placed great importance in getting this project right.  

To help create Catherine House the Welcome Organisation enlisted the help of a trauma-informed interior designer. 

Trauma informed design expertise responds directly to the residents’ lived experience. And with that in mind, the space has been carefully conceived to help the residents respond more positively to their surroundings.

To put this into perspective. The UK Government currently believes the Bibby Stockholm  is a suitable environment for asylum seekers to live.

Images of the interior show a space that has clean, cell-like rooms. It is a functional space.

Originally built to house 220 people, it has been adapted to accommodate 500 men who, it is anticipated, may live here for up to 6 months.  The space meets physical needs of sleeping, eating, leisure. But as a living environment it is designed to deter people from getting too comfortable – or to feel too ‘at home‘…….

For people fleeing persecution and trauma,  the interior spaces on the  Bibby Stockholm is the very opposite of trauma informed interior design.

In Catherine house the residents are actively encouraged to ‘more than’ inhabit  this space. 

Here, they will spend time – on their own and with others – adapting to a process of day to day living, with chores and routines. They will fully ‘live’ in this space. Not just physically, but mentally.

Trauma informed design. Furnished bedroom with green dado
Image courtesy of The Welcome Organisation

Images from Catherine House show how the use of colour can soften space.

Carefully chosen accessories make it feel less institutional, more homely. It has a contemporary feel. The furniture has been chosen to fit, to suit and to improve the quality of the space. 

It is not 5 star luxurious, but neither is  clinical, or cold. 

It is a comfortable space – somewhere between student accommodation and an Airbnb.

The use of texture, colour and pattern add warmth and personality to the space. There is a lamp to change the lighting mood, and two seats for different activities – such as reading, writing. With ample wardrobe space this is not a mean, squeezed space. Residents should not feel confined – or overwhelmed – by the scale of the room.

Catherine House will be ‘ home’ for these women before they move into a home of their own.

For someone who has been chronically homeless moving into a permanent  home is a huge adjustment. 

There is a famous scene in the The Shawshank Redemption (1994).

Morgan Freeman’s character, finally released from prison, is set up with a job and somewhere to live. But, removed from society for so long, he has difficulty adjusting to this new life.

He has what he needs to live (accommodation and job). He should be happy to be free. Instead, he feels disconnected and empty.

When a homeless person eventually gets a home of their own The Welcome Organisation is there for them.

From experience, they know a successful transition from homelessness is not just about handing over keys and expecting  people to get on with it. 

The Welcome Organisation’s Floating Home Team will be there to assist people build a life in their  new home.  From what might be a bare empty space, residents will be helped to furnish and decorate their homespace.  To transform it  into a place where they want to live. That is:  ‘To turn a house into a home.’

As Kieran observes:  

“…an empty room, an empty shell, a hard chair… it  doesn’t  feel like a home. But, if you have soft furnishings a television.. pictures  on the wall…. It can make a huge difference to someone retaining their tenancy –  along with all the other support that is needed

It is not that easy to suddenly put together a complete home. Especially when you don’t have much – or anything.

In a previous interview, one respondent – who suddenly found herself homeless- was totally overwhelmed by the kindness and support of community and friends.

This place has a happy energy because of how I came to be here:  I’m talking about the serious kindness of people.

Putting the trauma of homelessness behind her, in her new home, she felt she could start again.

This home is a symbol of a new beginning. And I am very grateful for it.

‘Home” is more than just a space to live.

Every day her home reminds her of the love and care of people who helped her when she needed it most. She was lucky she had that support.

Not everyone has.

When anybody moves into a new home there is a lot to arrange – paying bills, setting up utilities, maintaining the space. It can be difficult  (and overwhelming) – for someone who not familiar with all that it entails.

The Welcome Organisation’s Floating Home Service, is there to help people settle into their new home. To make a home, a home.

Their aim it to help vulnerable people to maintain their tenancy so they do not slip back into homelessness.

This level of support could be critical to someone’s long term well being – and welfare.

The Welcome Organisation do an incredible and remarkable job – on our behalf. 

Over 25 years they have developed a wealth of expertise, experience in dealing with homelessness.

And they have a vision and ambition to do more – and to do better.  

But all that will depend on funding.

Any cut back to services would create a missing link in what is a holistic approach to the problem of homelessness.

Using trauma informed interior design takes their services to a different level. For one thing, it proves that interior design for homelessness is not a paradox.

Interior design may in fact be the critical difference between a space that is …. ‘good enough’  and a space that truly makes people feel good/great to be there.  

Surely, every space should do that!

Nuala Rooney

I am designer, educator and researcher developing creative and holistic human-centred insights within the social/spatial sphere.

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