The Design, Building, and Testing of a Portable Homeless Shelter

Presented by: Joan Dickinson, Kelsea Stafford, Krissy Klingenberger, Chasity Hanchey, and Megan Dreyer

It is 5 degrees, 1:00 a.m. in the nation’s capital. A homeless man under a blanket is found frozen to death. In the richest country on earth, this is not uncommon as the United States has one of the highest homeless rates among developed nations (Henry, Cortes, & Morris, 2013). While some designers have experimented with basic-shelter needs for the homeless; few have been empirically tested (Zhang, Balikian, Venkataramanan, & Morales, 2014). The purpose of this research study was to build and test a portable homeless shelter designed by interior design undergraduates. 

Six homeless men were identified by two rescue missions located in different regions of the state. These six individuals had no apparent addiction behaviors, mental illness, or cognitive impairment and were over the age of 18. The participants completed a baseline interview and slept in the shelter for two nights (see Images 1, 2, 3, and 4). After each subject had used the shelter, the research team interviewed the men again to determine the effectiveness of the design. 

Several themes emerged: privacy, control, dignity, and survival. Many (n = 3) of the men liked the privacy the shelter provided, but wanted an increase in control. One end of the shelter was open, and three men commented on the possibility of animals entering. Allowing the ends of the shelter to be closed or open was discussed as a way to control cross ventilation during cold or hot weather. The pocket inside the shelter was seen as a benefit along with the width (36” W). The pocket was used to store cell phones or snacks and the width allowed for the storage of personal belongings which could prevent theft.  These elements provided a sense of control which has been identified as an important feature in homeless shelters (Hoffman & Coffey, 2008; Pable, 2012).  

The size and portability of the shelter was problematic. Most of the men we interviewed (n = 5), carried a back-pack during the day and carrying the shelter on their backs was not an option. Furthermore, the size of the shelter served as an advertisement that one was homeless and did not preserve a sense of dignity or pride (Hoffman & Coffey, 2008; Pable, 2012). In fact, one of the six men refused to sleep in the shelter due to this feature. As noted by one participant, “When you sleep on the streets, you will do whatever it takes to survive.” This theme of survival was noted by several men. While the research team did not give the men sleeping bags or blankets, two men used blankets in the shelter and felt warm despite a temperature of 40 degrees. “Even if I was living on the streets, I would find a blanket or sleeping bag.” 

There were several limitations and the most difficult aspect was finding the right population to test. Most of the men we interviewed stayed at the rescue missions. Eventually we want to test the shelter on the homeless who live on the streets and have no access or refuse to use ES. Despite these limitations, the study gave the researchers a more intimate understanding of life for the homeless through more democratic and inclusive testing (Bose & Horrigan, 2014).  Encouraging homeless participation was critical as the opinion of this often ignored group allowed the researchers to gain a deeper understanding of the problems faced by those who live on the streets (Bose & Horrigan, 2014).

Appendix File 1
Appendix File 2
Appendix File 3
Appendix File 4


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