All Homeless Shelters Should Be as Breathtaking and as Uplifting as This One

·2-min read
Photo credit: Aaron Leitz
Photo credit: Aaron Leitz

An airy cathedral ceiling illuminated by rice-paper lanterns, Scandinavian bentwood furniture, and a palette of muted hues: The latest project from Portland, Oregon–based designer Jessica Helgerson is as breathtaking as it is lovingly detailed. But the real surprise is that the space is not a private home or destination hotel: It’s a homeless shelter.

Casting aside all preconceptions of what a shelter should look like—typically, a bare-bones space crammed with cots—Helgerson partnered with Portland Homeless Family Solutions (PHFS) to create a strikingly different, uplifting design for the nonprofit’s new Family Village shelter in a former Slavic church. After listening to the moving stories of the families that needed assistance, Helgerson says she had to jump in, pro bono. “I was sobbing,” she says. “And I was like, ‘I’ll do anything I can to help.’ ”


So began more than 800 hours of donated design work and a campaign to encourage her firm’s network of vendors to donate or discount an array of materials, fixtures, furniture, and art. The heart of the shelter is the former worship space, where Helgerson blew open exterior walls to add expansive windows for sunlight and views to a garden. With interior partitions that curl up from the floor, she sliced the expanse into four semiprivate living rooms, a children’s library, a play space, and a computer room.

“Those swoopy walls are meant to feel like a hug and delineate space with gentle curves,” she says. The subdued colors, highlighted by a mural of free-form stripes in the play space, are intended to be serene yet inviting.

Photo credit: Aaron Leitz
Photo credit: Aaron Leitz

Downstairs, the firm designed a dining room with tulip tables, clusters of woven pendants, and suspended potted plants that would look perfectly at home on a tech campus, and equipped private rooms for 16 families with simple oak beds and chests. Even by the reception desk, a mural depicting an oceanic scene by Lonesome Pictopia communicates that the space is no ordinary shelter.

“When parents walk in for the first time and they’re experiencing the stress of being homeless with their kids, the design of this space immediately instills a sense of dignity and respect,” says Emma Hoyle, development director at PHFS, adding that the organization previously ran an improvised shelter in a different church basement with folding dividers and cots that had to be collapsed and cleared out every morning.

Having a permanent, attractive space that reflects the principles of trauma-informed design does more than merely give families a comfortable place to rest their heads, says Hoyle. It also leads to better outcomes. “It used to take a long time to build relationships and trust and to show people we were really there to support them,” she says. “Now the physical space does so much of that work for us because everything is beautiful, intentional, and calming. It makes a big difference.”

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

This story originally appeared in the October 2021 issue of ELLE DECOR. SUBSCRIBE

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