Come on In: Creating a Safe and Welcoming Environment

It’s easier than you might think to create a physical space that will help people feel welcome and safe. Check out these tips.

The way physical space is designed often reflects how agencies feel about the staff and the people they serve. Designing a welcoming environment isn’t necessarily expensive. . It may require assessing the features of the current space and adapting them so that they are welcoming to individuals and families with histories of trauma. Consider the following:

  1. Incorporate living, colorful, and beautiful items such as fish tanks and plants. Use plants as a natural barrier to break up small spaces and provide private places.
  2. Make the space fun and cheerful by using murals, paintings, and drawings. Display artwork, writing and other projects, or photos taken by people in the programs or by people who were formerly homeless.
  3. Provide comfortable chairs rather than folding or hardback chairs. Set up chairs in a semicircle in the corners of a room rather than lining them up against a wall. Try not to face chairs directly across from one another unless there is room between the chairs so people won’t feel trapped or claustrophobic.
  4. Separate “kid space” from adult space. These spaces can be used for assessment, play, and privacy. If possible, play-space for children should include developmentally appropriate toys, low tables and chairs, books, videos, and television.
  5. Set up an area of the room to provide refreshments, especially water and small healthy snacks. This will help to model for clients the importance of taking care of their bodies as well as their minds.
  6. The environment should be well lit inside and out. This includes security lighting on the outside of the building and plenty of light in common areas. Dark places can remind people of places where assaults occurred. Many people will need to leave lights on to begin to relax, rest, and sleep.
  7. Bathrooms need to be well-lit, accessible to people in the shelter, clean, and have plenty of paper supplies and soap. Women who need to change their young children will need a place to dispose of diapers and, ideally, have access to a changing table. If there is only one bathroom for men and women, make sure that a sign on the door indicates when the bathroom is being used.
  8. Choose furniture that is soft, washable, and durable. Offer secure places for residents/clients to store their belongings.
  9. If possible, create private retreat spaces other than bedrooms. Think about quiet rooms or meditation gardens.
  10. Designate common areas and times in which residents/clients can socialize with each other.
  11. Ensure that clients/residents can get to and from the program with ease, so they don’t feel isolated and can maintain connections to the community.
  12. The building should be accessible for people with hearing, visual, or mobility impairments.

Adapted from Prescott, L., Soares, P., Konnath, K., and Bassuk, E. (2008). A Long Journey Home: A Guide for Creating Trauma-Informed Services for Mothers and Children Experiencing Homelessness. Center for Mental Health Services: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Publication Date: 
Rockville, MD, USA