Housing for the homeless is not usually a place associated with sleek design. But the photos you see here all indicate otherwise.
The buildings are all run by Common Ground, a nonprofit that does the difficult work of trying to get the chronically homeless off of the New York City streets and into permanent homes. Since Common Ground opened its first 652-unit supportive housing residence in Times Square in 1991, it has been unique in its embrace of design and architecture as important elements of its work, right next to the services it provides.
“The message that we want to get across to people that have been dismissed and really have been isolated from society for years at a time is: ‘you matter’ and ‘you’re valued’ and ‘you should take pride in yourself,” says Common Ground CEO Brenda Rosen. “To that end, having a physical environment that you feel proud of goes a long way.”
You can look through the slid eshow above to see some of Common Ground’s 3,200 housing units, which house both formerly homeless adults and low-income residents. Some, like the Times Square building, are in renovated historic spaces. The group’s more recent buildings are newly built. Each tries to maximize natural light and green elements, uses interior design to make they tiny units feel bigger than they are, and provide outdoor or community space. On more recent projects, Common Ground has worked with renowned architecture firms like Cook + Fox and Ennead Architects (famous for the chic Manhattan hotel, The Standard).
“They don’t normally do affordable buildings, let alone supportive buildings, but all of the design elements they bring to their much higher-priced buildings, they bring to Common Ground as well–and figure out how to do it on a much smaller budget,” says Rosen.
Common Ground was among the first nonprofits in the nation to fully embrace a “housing first” philosophy, which is the simple idea that before a long-time homeless person can successfully kick a drug habit, get a mental health issue under control, or become a productive member of society, they need a stable housing situation first. For a long time, many cities and homeless support groups worked in the opposite order, making drug rehab or other difficult tasks a prerequisite for supportive housing services. Only recently, due to evidence that “housing first” is both more effective and less costly, has this started to change. Since its founding 25 years ago, Common Ground estimates that its work has enabled more than 7,000 people to overcome or avoid homelessness. In the 20-block Times Square area, it says it’s reduced street homelessness by 87%.
Over the last few years, Common Ground has started to see its ideas take hold in the broader community of homeless support services. Others are seeing that not only does good design improve the success rate with residents, says Rosen, it also helps rally the surrounding community’s support. “People immediately think that we’re going to be building some institution that looks like a jail,” she says. “When we’re able to take people into a LEED-certified building where you walk in and go ‘wow, I wish I lived in a building like this,’ it changes people’s minds. You see that it’s not only beautiful, you feel the sense of serenity inside.”