Using Design to Address Homelessness through Transitional Housing

Last spring Activate14–an outreach initiative I co-founded–jumped on the tiny home craze in an effort to address Raleigh’s underserved homelessness community. We wanted to prove our belief that good design is accessible to everyone and can radically change a community.

The transition out of homelessness is more successful when services like job training, medical attention, and other support are provided through temporary housing, rather than providing services alone. The housing community model allows someone to build a steady job and income without worrying about their safety, belongings, and where they will find shelter.

Not surprisingly, a transitional housing community is more cost-effective than letting the homeless stay on the streets. Increased hospitalization, overnights in jail, and emergency shelter cost taxpayers upwards of $40,000 per homeless person per year. Imagine the savings if we could transition people from homelessness to self-supporting lives through $1,500 to $30,000 tiny homes with community space. 


Successful communities have been modeled across the United States:

After discussing this project with the Raleigh/Wake Partnership to End and Prevent Homelessness, we agreed that the best way to support them was to host a competition to generate designs and graphics so the partnership could illustrate a future community in the context of Raleigh.

The competition received over 100 submissions from across the world, doubling our expectations. I suppose architecture students and young architects are tired of designing hypothetical skyscrapers and would like to focus their skills on people in need. (The competition brief can be viewed and downloaded from Activate14.)

The honor and merit award winners incorporated community gardens, open spaces, porches, and regional materials to design beautiful, cost effective homes that anybody would want to inhabit.

214-shot winner-shot 269-shot


We announced the winners at the panel discussion with a few of Raleigh’s most outspoken and active homelessness advocates and a member of the City of Raleigh’s Housing and Neighborhoods Department. A few issues were discussed:

  • Hugh is concerned that the language used to discuss transitional housing sounded like descriptors of a trailer park: “modular” “affordable” “movable”. He grew up in a trailer park and there is definitely a stigma attached to it.
  • Mary Ann said the city has the permitting to allow a project like this one to happen.
  • Larry suggested not labeling the project or getting into semantics because it can start legal issues re: transitional.
  • David reminded us that storage is important. It is difficult to interview for a job, or to hold a job, if one has to always carry all their worldly possessions.
  • Generally, a concern that by creating a separate community, stigma can still be attached. An ideal solution would be to incorporation transitional housing into existing housing units.
  • Jean reminded us that the best way to combat homeless is to be kind and loving to all members of our community. Greet new neighbors with a pie instead of judgement. 

The competition and panel discussion generated a lot of interest in Raleigh and national and international press. I recently learned that city council members are discussing this initiative to address Raleigh’s homelessness crisis. It is exciting to see tangible results from a design competition that will positively impact people’s lives.


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