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This Building Is Redefining What A Homeless Shelter Means

Eva’s Phoenix is a like a city within a city in downtown Toronto.

From the outside, Eva’s Phoenix–a new teen homeless shelter in downtown Toronto’s Fashion District–looks like a classic Art Deco brick warehouse. But inside, it’s organized like its own city, complete with a main street, townhouses, common “squares,” and more. The building is designed to reinforce the programming at Eva’s, a pioneering nonprofit that has been combating teen homelessness through housing, education, and job placement.

Photo: Ben Rahn/A-Frame

Local firm LGA Architectural Partners has been working with Eva’s since 1997, and this project represents the culmination of 20 years of lessons learned about what works, what doesn’t work, and what’s most important about creating a supportive space. It’s not just about building space to house people, which is often the case with homeless shelters; it’s about constructing an environment that, along with the right social programming, has the ability to help youth thrive.

“Most shelter programs offer a single overnight stay and provide open sleeping arrangements without much privacy,” Dean Goodman, a principal and co-founder of LGA, says. “In contrast, for Eva’s youth, the shelter is not just a place to stay, but is a place to change your life.”

Photo: Ben Rahn/A-Frame

The model LGA and Eva’s developed involves building a community within a community. This helps youth, who often lead solitary, isolated lives when they’re homeless, become acclimated to the type of group living that most teens and young adults experience. (Think of shared apartments and dorms.) In addition to providing housing for up to a year, Eva’s also provides supportive services–like substance abuse treatment, job training, and education programs–for full-time residents and youth who aren’t living on-site. Additionally, Eva’s practices a harm reduction model for substance abuse and is the only shelter in Toronto that’s offering these services specifically designed for youth. The nonprofit operated three different locations: Eva’s Place, a 40-bed emergency shelter; Eva’s Satellite, a facility that specializes in substance abuse treatment; and Eva’s Phoenix, which focuses on transitional housing. First opened in 2000, Eva’s Phoenix was forced to move in 2011 to a new location a few blocks away.

“The building is nondescript, helping to destigmatize the environment in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood,” Goodman says. “However, on the inside, it’s [designed to be] interesting, luminous, and inviting.”

The 41,000-square-foot building is composed of 50 bedrooms clustered into 10 houses that each have their own kitchens and two bathrooms. The “townhouses,” as LGA refers to them, flank a central corridor that’s metaphorically thought of as a “main street.” There’s also a larger communal kitchen, a print shop, counseling rooms, and lounges interspersed throughout the building–intended to encourage activity in the whole building. Large skylights illuminate the interior and limit the need for artificial light.

Photo: Ben Rahn/A-Frame

Overall, Eva’s Phoenix is about channeling a sense of home. “Much of the design for the youth underscores creating opportunities for developing critical life skills from cooking to sharing bathrooms or living together–which homeless youth have often missed out on–hence the emphasis on house-style accommodation versus open bunks,” Goodman says. “This presented some design challenges for us, for example, needing to find the most durable fixtures and finishes while striving to deploy them in a way that feels homey and non-institutional.”

Still, they had to take some essential institutional measures. For safety and security, LGA eliminated closed and blind corners, built balconies that overlook the central corridor, and incorporated large windows throughout to maintain sight lines throughout the space. Additionally, the architects paid close attention to circulation so that the staff-only, resident-only, and publicly accessible spaces were situated in a way that naturally controls access.

Photo: Ben Rahn/A-Frame

LGA worked closely with Eva’s and the youth it serves to develop the space and hosted workshops and design charettes to inform the final concept. The real proof of its success is what the people Eva’s serves think of the shelter. We asked three residents–who remain anonymous to protect their privacy–about their experience by email. The things they like? Opportunities to learn skills in the print and construction studios and job placement after completing certificate programs; the central location near school and commercial businesses; and the non-hierarchical structure in the townhouses, which lets residents communicate more freely. While one person liked how bright the location is compared to other shelters, one person commented that it’s too bright, even at night with some of the internal lighting, making it hard to sleep. Another said better window coverings would solve the problem. The previous location of Eva’s Phoenix was larger and the smaller footprint means less storage and bedroom space, which some residents mentioned. Residents who have stayed in other shelters not run by Eva’s shared a similar sentiment: They really like how the program and building let them live independently–and there’s always enough food to eat.

Goodman doesn’t think architecture alone is a healing force for homeless youth; however, it can help by creating conditions that are conducive to overcoming the physical and emotional challenges wrought by homelessness.

“Architecture can set the tone, reinforce an idea and allow it to flourish, but it’s necessary for there to be a robust vision and program that leads the way,” Goodman says. “In this regard, Eva’s program and approach focuses on supporting the youth to succeed in their transition away from homelessness and also emphasizes the need for them to be active players in this process.”

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.