Amanda Leininger is a professional interior designer. She received her Master of Science degree from Eastern Michigan University in 2013. Below she shares four important takeaways from her thesis, titled  Interior Design in the Realm of Social Services: Housing the Homeless.

I still remember the first time I saw a homeless person. I was on vacation in Arizona, the man was standing on the side of the road with a sign asking for food for his family; the image will probably always be clear as day to me. The idea that someone did not have a place to stay perplexed me. As a child I always knew I wanted to be a designer, but I never knew that moment would have such a huge impact on my passion for design.

In college I stepped foot into my first shelter as a volunteer. It was dark, dirty, the furniture was mismatch and worn, and it gave off an unwelcoming vibe. Being in that shelter influenced my design research throughout my Master’s program. It took me back to that childhood moment and I knew I could tie my passion for design to my passion for helping those in need.  Throughout my research I compiled a list of design considerations for homeless shelters. Below I share four of the most important ones.

Space Planning and General Location

A shelter needs to be located in an area that is easy to access and has available public transportation and amenities. Shelters should be integrated into the community, rather than being isolated. The overall layout of a shelter should be able to accommodate a growing population. These facilities should also take into account separating men, women, and women and children. Designing separate entrances for each group provides comfort for the users and a sense of security. By providing a space with endless amenities; a kitchen, dining room, work-out room, library, laundry, study rooms, career and educational center, meeting rooms, addiction treatment rooms, etc. the users have access to a one-stop center to meet their rehabilitative needs and re-enter society after their stay.

User Safety

User safety is one of the most important aspects of a public facility. Individuals want to feel safe and have a sense of security when choosing somewhere to sleep at night. To help ensure safety it is important to have the facility monitored 24/7 by security cameras and guards. Each person should be properly checked and searched when entering the facility for drugs, alcohol, weapons, or any other potential harmful items. Having lock cards, rather than keys for users to enter their personal rooms creates a sense of privacy and responsibility. Restrooms and showers should be private enough for users to feel comfortable, but open enough for employees to regulate activity. It is important to incorporate safety measures without creating a feeling of being institutionalized.


Sustainability is an aspect of design that is becoming main stream. It is important to incorporate sustainable principles when designing a new facility from the ground-up and when using a secondary-use structure. Integrating natural light as much as possible gives users’ outdoor viewing. Facilities can conserve water through a greywater recycling system, rain barrels for irrigation and using low-irrigation plants for landscaping. A geo-exchange heating and cooling system that takes advantage of the natural temperatures can assist in keeping costs low. A waste management program will also help the facility have as little waste as possible during construction and throughout its lifetime. All building materials should be rated before use based on individual environmental impact.  Locating the shelter in a populated community with access to public transportation also influences the sustainability of the facility.

Universal Design 

Universal design is critical when designing a public space; especially a shelter. Universal design refers to design that is usable by the greatest amount of people possible. This is important for a shelter because of the variety of users. Shelters see men, women and children of all different ages and states of mind. These facilities should be design with wheelchair access and following the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) design guidelines.

Shelters are an important part of our community. These spaces need to be successful at helping homeless individuals re-enter our society.  There is no exact way to design a shelter, but by incorporating these elements and working to create the most influential space possible for the homeless these spaces will see the highest success rate.

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