12/07/2010 03:43 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Home for Good? The Task Force Report's Missing Piece

Home is a complicated concept. Whatever their configuration, our homes carry important personal meanings. They convey identity and social standing, offer us privacy and become the setting for our relationships and our dreams.

That's why it caught my attention when the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce partnered with The United Way to form Home for Good, a task force organized to find a solution to the problem of chronic homelessness. The final report, released last week, establishes a 4-part action plan that concludes with a mandate to provide financing for 12,000 permanent supportive housing units by 2016.

The task force, however, neglected to add one critical component to their plan--they neglected to define the concept of home and mandate a design guide that would increase the likelihood that the chronically homeless would choose to be "home for good" in public housing than on the streets. The difference between "housing" and "home" is more than semantic; it's the feeling that compels someone to forgo the freedom of the street and the habits of homelessness for a 150 to 300 square foot room that comes with rules and restrictions.

I recently had the chance to interview a handful of formally chronically homeless residents now housed in buildings developed by Skid Row Housing Trust (the Trust). After years of working with the homeless, it was at one of these buildings where I heard, for the first time, a woman named Samantha refer to her single-room occupancy unit in a public housing development as "home."

New Carver Apartments

The New Carver Apartments. Photo by Gelatobaby on Flickr.

Samantha lives at the New Carver Apartments, a spectacular building designed by Michael Maltzan Architecture located adjacent to Interstate 10 and a few blocks away from the notorious San Julian Street, the epicenter of makeshift encampments for the homeless. Samantha is an attractive African American woman in her mid 40s with a quick smile. She recognizes her need for mental health services and beams when recounting the work she's already done since moving into the New Carver--she is finishing her GED, she gardens, and she makes sure each resident feels welcomed. She also invites her family to visit her every few weeks, an important piece of the rehabilitative puzzle. Samantha refers to the New Carver, with pride, as her home.

When I asked Samantha why she liked living at the New Carver, she first noted the staff and her friends--the other residents. When I asked if she liked the colors of the building she enthusiastically responded that the yellow walls "made her feel happy and that the building felt very bright." She then added that it was hard to have a bad day in the building because you were always running into somebody.

What's even more incredible about the New Carver is that a handful of residents, including Samantha, have begun to garden the blighted median across the street from the building. Through their efforts, the area is becoming a small park and they excitedly show off their work to anyone who will cross the street with them.

Why is this remarkable? Because as medical professionals tell us, a patient's first sign of healing is when his interest turns away from his sickness and towards the external world. The residents of the New Carver confirm this with their actions. Gardening gives them the opportunity to be creative, provides a much-needed psychological break from the grit of city life, and connects them positively to the larger community.

Is it stretching to think that the building itself could be affecting the resident's emotional health and inspiring the feeling of "being home"? Not at all.

Michael Maltzan is only one from an impressive Rolodex of architects working with the Trust to consider how the built environment can impact residents' sense of home and stability. Many of the newer buildings designed for the Trust feature structural elements that help residents connect to each other and the outside world. These include internal sight-lines in the form of open-air walkways that overlook sun-filled central courtyards and external sight-lines that provide views of the city. The buildings are also heavily landscaped with plants and gardens in which the residents can grow their own food. Architects have even found that moving the laundry room to a central location inspires more informal social interactions--important for a group habituated to living isolated from others. These architectural supports help provide an emotionally rich living experience for the residents.

The idea that architecture affects our well-being has been around for centuries but gained steam after a landmark study conducted by environmental psychologist Roger Ulrich in 1984. Ulrich studied 10 years of records from patients recovering from gallbladder surgery. He found that 23 patients in rooms with views of nature complained less, used less pain medicine and had shorter hospital stays than 23 matched patients with views of a brick wall.

Ulrich's work underscored what advances in neuroscience are now substantiating--that no environment is neutral. Neuroscientists are now able to monitor our body's physiological responses to environmental stimuli and give evidence that what we see, hear, smell and touch impacts the homeostatic balance in our body that keeps us both emotionally and physically healthy and, ultimately, happy.

Ending homelessness is an important and achievable social action goal. But in order to reach this goal, the Home for Good task force needs to mandate that the 12,000 units will be more than four walls and a ceiling. That the units will be designed for sustainable living with aesthetic considerations that contribute to a socially and emotionally satisfying experience of home for residents. If not, the 40% saved annually in public costs by keeping someone off the streets will find its limits tested in a revolving door of housing to street and street to housing.

Trust architect Julie Koning of Koning Eizenberg Architecture sums it up best, "It only takes a few things to keep people in housing: an outdoor space or access to nature, design configurations that support social space, and room for social services." Skid Row Housing Trust is on to something by creating therapeutic environments that become home for the hardest to house. I hope the task force listens.