October 18, 2004

Student project’s aim is more welcoming shelter

Sacramento State students have joined forces with the Salvation Army in a project to revamp its homeless shelter and in the process are learning about much more than design.

Professors Gwen Amos, Johanna Latty and Jill Pable are leading their students in a service learning project to redesign the Salvation Army’s “Center of Hope” Social Services Center in downtown Sacramento. The project was coordinated by the University’s Office of Community Collaboration.

“It’s about transforming the psychology of the place,” Pable says. “About changing how people feel when they are in the space.” Pable’s interior design students along with Amos’ graphic design and Latty’s photography students are working on plans to make the 132-bed, functional-yet-spartan facility into a warmer, more comfortable place.

The shelter takes in homeless clients through Salvation Army programs and from the County of Sacramento for a maximum of 60 days with the goal of finding at least semi-permanent housing for them. Clients are screened by shelter staff in a reception area and then assigned a bunk and locker inside one of the four-person cubicles at the facility. “This place wasn’t designed to be a shelter,” says Larry Dayton, director of the facility. “It just turned out that way.”

Students in one of Pable’s advanced interior design classes have been divided into groups and assigned the task of modifying the shelter. “It’s a great project for my students. They’re literally designing everything from office space to dining commons to dormitories.”

Each group will ultimately produce two plans for the shelter: a “visioning” plan that assumes a budget adequate to create an entirely new facility over five years, and a more practical, grant-based plan with a $500,000 budget that deals with the immediate needs at the facility.

Solutions offered in the “visioning” plan may include the addition of medical and dental services for clients, a kennel for their pets and even replacing the current single-story shelter with a multiple-story facility. The shorter-term plans may include an interim health care section and bringing the entire facility into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. “We’re looking at something reasonable that would still make an impact,” Pable says.

Included in both plans is the installation of a work by Amos’ graphic design students and three of Latty’s advanced photo students. Dubbed a “hope wall” by Amos, the work will include design elements and written stories of shelter clients and their photos. The piece will grace the reception area of the shelter with the goal of making the clients feel valued, giving them an investment in the space, according to Amos.

“It’s not just ‘Paint the wall blue and it will look better’—that’s not a solution,” says Amos. “We’re working on a new attitude, not just a new image. The work will be aesthetic as well as practical.”

In addition to working on the wall, Latty’s photo students are documenting the shelter, its clients and the ongoing project. “It’s very difficult work, but rewarding to the students. Technically and mentally they’ve made leaps,” says Latty. “I think they’ve learned so much about other people, perhaps people they’ve never had any contact with.”

Pable echoes the idea of student growth. “I honestly think the most valuable thing that will come out of this is that the students will have worked with homeless people.”

In its beginning stages now, the project will close with a presentation to Salvation Army officials in December. The professors plan an on-campus gallery show chronicling the work in January.

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