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Dec. 3, 2021

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Vancouver housing designed to promote healing

The Elwood tailored to serve those with disabilities who’ve been chronically homeless

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The Elwood is a permanent supportive housing development at 6317 N.E. Fourth Plain Blvd. in Vancouver. The building is specifically tailored to serve people with disabilities who have been chronically homeless.
The Elwood is a permanent supportive housing development at 6317 N.E. Fourth Plain Blvd. in Vancouver. The building is specifically tailored to serve people with disabilities who have been chronically homeless. (Photo contributed by Abigail Soto) Photo Gallery

When The Elwood opened its doors to tenants in March, dozens of the region’s most vulnerable residents gained access to stable, affordable housing.

The building is tailored to serve people with disabilities who have been chronically homeless. But helping unhoused people gain stability often takes more than just a roof.

The Elwood’s mission extends all the way to the architectural bones of the building itself, which was designed using trauma-informed principles aimed at alleviating the psychological effects of living on the street for long periods of time.

“The experience of tenants and how someone may feel when around the building and in the home units was top of mind when it was designed,” said Kate Budd, executive director of the Council for the Homeless. “Potential triggers of past trauma, like direct light, dark spaces and abrupt corners, are mitigated through the design.”

At The Elwood, tenants have access to services from an assortment of local providers. Sea Mar-Community Services Northwest’s Foundational Community Support helps provide guidance around professional and health goals; CDM Caregiving Services offers assistance to any residents who need help with daily tasks like cooking, cleaning and hygiene; staff from the Vancouver Housing Authority help with anything else that might otherwise fall through the cracks.

“This support focuses on helping the tenants identify and achieve goals around their health, income, and life skills that will help them maintain stable housing,” Budd said.

The building is part of the county’s roster of Permanent Supportive Housing units, an attempt to chip away at the region’s acute homelessness crisis. Funding for the project came from Vancouver’s Affordable Housing Fund, Clark County and the federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credit.

Clark County’s situation remains dire. According to a report released earlier this year by the Council for the Homeless, 3,972 households were identified as unhoused last year. Of those, 478 were placed into one of the county’s housing assistance programs and another 1,648 were diverted to shelters.

The Elwood is at 6317 N.E. Fourth Plain Blvd. Construction on another affordable housing complex, The Meridian, is underway a few blocks away on the corner of Northeast 78th Avenue and Northeast 32nd Street.

In order to apply, a prospective tenant must be referred by the Housing Solutions Center and be enrolled in Sea Mar’s Foundational Community Supports Program, Budd said. Rent is determined by the tenant’s income, with each resident paying 35 percent of their income toward rent.

She encouraged anyone experiencing homelessness to call the Council for the Homeless’ Housing Hotline at 360-695-9677 to undergo an assessment of the available options.

Each of The Elwood’s 46 one-bedroom, 400-square-foot apartments are currently occupied, Budd said. All but two of the tenants who moved in seven months ago are still there — one person died, and one other fell back into homelessness.

How can design promote healing?

Trauma-informed design is a relatively new concept, said Brendan Sanchez, the principal at Access Architecture, the firm that designed The Elwood. The idea is modeled after comparable philosophies in other systems that interact with people who have experienced trauma, like education and health care.

It’s about “recognizing that there’s a healing process that needs to happen, and how our living environment can play a role,” Sanchez said. “People spend most of their lives in these buildings.”

At its core, trauma-informed design is about emphasizing opportunities for choice — how does a building’s layout and features maximize the level of control a tenant can exercise around their environment?

It can mean something as simple as installing lights with a dimmer switch, or windows that are easy to open and close. Designing a building around alleviating trauma symptoms also impacts its wider layout, Sanchez continued.

The Elwood, for example, was designed as a three-story walk-up with exterior staircases, giving each tenant direct access to the outdoors from their front door. There are communal spaces for different levels of socialization. A central open courtyard that encourages residents to interact is surrounded by more secluded covered seating areas, where people can choose to engage or sit in solitude.

“We designed a range of spaces on the gradient from public to private, so people can choose what kind of interaction they want with their neighbors,” Sanchez said.

“The main idea is we’re providing as much choice as possible,” he added. “They’re not just a statistic occupying space. They can really choose what’s most comfortable for them.”

Trauma-informed design also involves integrating nature and natural elements into the building, as studies show that exposure to nature can dramatically reduce symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Elwood includes a community garden where residents can grow their own food. Most of the interior finishes are made of wood or other natural elements, to introduce warmth to the space and cut down on the “institutional” feel that plagues some low-income housing, Sanchez said.

Sanchez added that the building’s layout also maximizes sight lines — cutting down on the corners, nooks or crannies that could prove nerve-wracking for tenants learning how to feel safe again.

“These are user experiences that we try to design for and think about,” Sanchez said. “If we were using these spaces, how would we want them to feel?”