Trauma-Informed Design Turns a Former Church into a Family Shelter

In a Southeast Portland church-turned-residence, a children’s play area painted in gentle grays, blues, and apricots anchors what was once a cavernous worship space. Plants cascade from hanging baskets in the dining room, and a great vase of sunflowers graces the counter of a white-tiled bathroom. The living space mixes openness and refuge—you can curl up in the corner on a sofa but still have good line of sight on family comings and goings.

Meticulously planned residences like these are the bread-and-butter of interior design magazines. This glimpse of gorgeousness, however, is different: the former church is now the Family Village Shelter, which hosts up to 25 families with children at any given time, all of them our unhoused Portland neighbors.

Run by the nonprofit Portland Homeless Family Solutions (PHFS), Family Village is the first known Oregon shelter created using trauma-informed design, which is rooted in building dignity, restoring power, and promoting autonomy for those who have survived deep crisis. As PHFS executive director Brandi Tuck notes, “Homelessness is a very power-stripping experience.”

a row of three bathroom sinks and mirrors, with a vase of yellow flowers on the counter

After PHFS bought the old Slavic church property in 2017, a mutual friend introduced Tuck to Portland-based interior designer Jessica Helgerson to chat informally about turning the building into a family shelter. Helgerson—whose portfolio includes sophisticated, high-end residences including a Santa Barbara coastal escape and a Scandinavian-inspired remodel in the Hamptons—impulsively offered her firm’s services on a pro bono basis, initially committing to 100 hours. The team ended up devoting more than 800 free hours to Family Village.

“I know a lot more about trauma-informed design now than when we first started this,” Helgerson says. While she already used some of these design principles in her business—such as focusing on natural materials and using cool colors that are more calming—others were new, like wayfinding and making sure people have a good sense of place.

Cathy Corlett of Corlett Landscape Architecture planned the Family Village gardens, creating spaces specifically designed to promote joy and play through the use of curves and round forms. “You get a sense of freedom with soft and welcoming boundaries,” Corlett says. “And part of dignity and autonomy is growing your own food, if you choose.” The gardens include galvanized raised beds filled with flowers and vegetables. The metal tubs were arranged to resemble a sunflower when viewed from above, radiating out from a central stone water feature.

A blue and green play structure with a rounded-picket fence in the foreground

Trauma-informed design even plays a role in the Village’s garden fence: sharp edges can appear forbidding, so volunteers sanded the point of each wooden slat into a rounded shape, and the resulting “Popsicle stick” fence offers both a sense of enclosure and invitation.

“When we put people in camps or shelters that are not trauma-informed ... we’re making it harder for them to be able to get off the streets in the future,” Tuck says. She’s encouraging political and business leaders to fund intentional facilities where people feel safe, comfortable, and part of a community. At the same time, she cautions against seeing such spaces as any kind of panacea: “We need to be spending on permanent solutions that end homelessness and end poverty.”

The care that went into designing Family Village continues to reverberate in unexpected ways. A family with a 13-year-old girl stayed there for almost two months, and the father especially loved sitting out on the grass in the garden. Like more than 90 percent of Family Village guests, they moved out into more permanent housing. Several weeks later, PHFS received an email from the parents asking if they could get married at the Village. They couldn’t think of a more beautiful wedding venue.