How Designers Are Transforming Shelters Into Beautiful, Welcoming Spaces

Apna Ghar, a nonprofit in Chicago serving refugee survivors of domestic violence, completed its construction project with Designs for Dignity in 2016. (Designs for Dignity)

Uptown is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Chicago. It’s what Neha Gill, executive director of the nonprofit Apna Ghar, calls a “first home” for immigrants and refugees — a place where they initially land when they move to the U.S. from a different country. 

So when the group, which serves survivors of gender-based violence, decided to build a new shelter uptown to accommodate its growing number of residents, it wanted to do so with “purpose,” Gill said. That’s when it asked Designs for Dignity to help. 

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Designs for Dignity provides pro bono design services to transform nonprofit spaces serving marginalized communities, including domestic violence survivors, unhoused youths and adults with disabilities. The Chicago-based organization works as a project manager, connecting cash-strapped nonprofits with design firms, construction talent and donated materials to ensure trauma-informed design principles — like natural lighting and cool colors — are incorporated to make spaces feel safe and welcoming. 

At Apna Ghar, designers expanded the communal kitchen and built private spaces so residents could have sensitive discussions. Residents and staff members told Designs for Dignity that the old shelter provided a cozy homelike environment, but didn’t fully provide the privacy and confidentiality that survivors needed. 

An Apna Ghar staff member performing a coffee ceremony in the shelter’s new kitchen. (Apna Ghar)

Amal Khalid, an Egyptian refugee who stayed at the new Apna Ghar shelter with her three children in 2016, said she was afraid of being in an unfamiliar setting when she first arrived but settled into the shelter after befriending other women in communal spaces. “All the ladies were so comfortable cooking and talking together in the large kitchen, like we were all family,” Khalid said. 

Since its founding in 2000, Designs for Dignity has completed over 300 design projects for nonprofits in the Chicago area. According to executive director Jennifer Sobecki, the team of two full-time staffers plus interns and volunteers follows the philosophy that everyone, including the most vulnerable, deserves a beautiful and safe environment to work, commune and live in. “We recognize that nearly every nonprofit’s clients have experienced trauma in some form, whether that’s trauma from being homeless, having food insecurity or from mental health issues,” Sobecki said. “We meet people where they are, and we look at how we can design all of their spaces in a trauma-informed way.” 

How the trauma-informed design process works 

From planning to construction to move-in, the new Apna Ghar building took about three years to complete. After the design phase, Designs for Dignity sourced materials and worked with lighting and landscape designers. It combed through its 20,000-square-foot warehouse, which has over $2 million in donated inventory like furniture and art, to determine what furnishings would suit the residents’ needs. Though it works with donations, Gail Wozniak, a designer who volunteers with Designs for Dignity, stressed that she treats nonprofit clients with the same dignity that high-income clients receive. 

“We have the nonprofit staff come to the warehouse to look, feel and approve of what they think is right for the space,” she said. “My whole goal as a volunteer designer is to make the owner’s dreams come true, like any other design project I work on.” 

The Harbour, a nonprofit serving unhoused youth and young mothers, was completed by Designs for Dignity in 2022. Designers incorporated natural lighting, high ceilings and individual workspaces. (Designs for Dignity)

Embedded throughout all of Designs for Dignity’s design processes are intentional trauma-informed design principles. Twenty years ago, this just meant carefully considering the humans who would use the designed space, but it’s become a more formal practice in recent years. Wozniak, who led a design project for Chicago youth shelter The Harbour, explained that trauma-informed design means avoiding any triggers that might retraumatize survivors who have often escaped abusive situations. For example, she designs open-concept floor plans with areas that lead into each other without barriers and obstructions. “Survivors cannot be confined — they need to visually see areas where they might be able to seek refuge,” she said. “They need expansive views to know that they can break away and move around the space.” Sobecki added that because some sexual abuse survivors have experienced violence in bathrooms, Designs for Dignity will sometimes include two exits in bathrooms at centers that work with survivors. 

Additional touches that can comfort survivors are natural lighting, cool colors and a connection to nature. Skylights maximize natural lighting instead of overhead fluorescents, and landscape paintings or plants can calm residents’ nervous systems. Wozniak infused The Harbour with watery blue-green colors through the tiles, paint and furniture. “We leaned heavily on the cooler tones because they’re softer and create psychologically less agitation than warmer colors,” she said. For Apna Ghar, even seemingly minor details like installing rain showerheads to provide a soothing effect and choosing extra-secure doors were incorporated with survivors in mind. 

For familial abuse survivors like Rebekah Niese, design choices like these make a world of difference when they step into a nonprofit space seeking help. After decades of remaining silent about the grooming she suffered, she reached out to the Zacharias Sexual Abuse Center, which Designs for Dignity had redesigned with lofted ceilings, soft furniture and therapeutic murals painted by a survivor. The first time she entered the center in 2023, she said she had an overwhelming sense that she could finally breathe. “The natural lighting brought a sense of warmth and hopefulness to the space,” Niese said. “It was open, which was neurologically calming. I felt safe. I could see everything in my environment.” 

Collaborating with designers to amplify impact 

Kelebe Eshetu, a staff member at Apna Ghar, said she’s moved every time a new resident reacts to the shelter. Since shelters are not usually considered beautiful spaces, she takes pride in how impressed survivors are by the building. “Most people have the stigma that shelters are bad, so it’s hard for them to seek help,” she said. “But as soon as they walk [into Apna Ghar], that immediately disappears. No one believes it’s a shelter. They say, ‘Oh, my God, this is so beautiful, this looks like a fancy, expensive design.’” 

The Zacharias Sexual Abuse Center was re-designed with lofted ceilings, soft furniture and therapeutic murals painted by a survivor. (Designs for Dignity)

Khalid said she spent time in different parts of the shelter during her stay. She participated in art therapy and yoga classes with other survivors in the lounge and met in the offices with advocates who helped her file for divorce and find permanent housing. “The rooms were very clean and had a lot of space,” she said. “It felt like it was my own home.” 

Sobecki said the beauty of how Designs for Dignity works is that there’s a mutually beneficial relationship between for-profit design companies and nonprofits. Designers know hundreds of furniture pieces can go to waste when showrooms change out stock each season. Instead of adding them to landfills, they can give them to Designs for Dignity and get a tax write-off. 

The projects are equally fulfilling for the designers volunteering time out of their busy workdays. “It’s meaningful knowing that the work I’m doing means a lot to somebody and it’s not just another commercial space,” Wozniak said. 

Over the past decade, the design industry has increasingly recognized how vulnerable populations are affected by their environments. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the group Design Resources for Homelessness first published guidelines about trauma-informed design principles in 2014, and architectural firms and companies such as Denver-based Shopworks, Boston-based MASS Design Group and even Ikea have been designing facilities for vulnerable populations including domestic violence survivors, unhoused individuals and formerly incarcerated people. Sobecki and Wozniak presented last June at the national design conference NeoCon about the impact of trauma-informed design. “Post-Covid, we’re becoming more attuned to people’s responses to the built environment around them,” Wozniak said. “It’s definitely gaining traction within our industry.” 

Nonprofits too are considering how clients interact with their space. “We’ve moved from this idea that maximizing the space and housing as many people as we can is good enough,” Gill said. “Trauma-informed design allows people to really think about the time residents spend in the space itself, and how the space itself can impact the well-being of the people we serve.” 


Iris Kim is an NBCU Academy Storyteller. Previously, she was an associate producer at Wondery and a development assistant on HBO Max’s International TV team. She has written for NBC Asian America, Harper’s Bazaar, Salon, Electric Lit, Slate and TIME covering Asian American politics, identity and culture.