A roof is not enough: Rapid housing solutions must prioritize dignity and trust

A modular apartment building in Vancouver shows how simple programming actions can boost residents’ health and happiness.

Photo of the New Beginnings building.
New Beginnings is a temporary modular housing building in Vancouver, BC, operated by Lu’ma Native Housing Society. Photo: Mable Elmore

Feb. 9, 2022

By Emma Avery

Lu’ma Native Housing Society’s New Beginnings building offers residents (participants) more than just a home. Indigenous people living in the modular apartment building work to heal, (re)build relationships, access health services, and connect to their culture — all while transitioning out of homelessness and into permanent housing. 

There is an urgent need for buildings like New Beginnings: Across Canada, researchers estimate that between 25,000 and 35,000 people experience homelessness every night. And given the overrepresentation of Indigenous peoples among those experiencing homelessness, there is an even greater need for housing solutions designed specifically to meet the needs of Indigenous people. That’s where Lu’ma comes in.

New Beginnings is an example of temporary modular housing (TMH), a new and promising rapid housing solution first prototyped in British Columbia in 2017. Here, we tell the story of how six simple actions implemented by Lu’ma staff at a TMH building in Vancouver created new ways for Indigenous participants to safely build relationships and take small steps towards new life opportunities. By following Lu’ma’s example, supportive housing providers across the country can prioritize resident wellbeing through strategic design and programming. 

What is temporary modular housing? 

Temporary modular housing (TMH) is a rapid and cost-effective solution to the urgent homelessness crisis in Canada.

TMH buildings are placed temporarily on city-owned land or sites awaiting redevelopment, transforming otherwise vacant lots into homes for unhoused people. Since 2017, TMH has produced over 2,000 housing units in BC.

As part of BC’s groundbreaking TMH program, New Beginnings opened in January 2019 on Vancouver’s Heather Lands, a 21-acre site that will eventually be developed into a mixed-use, mixed-income neighbourhood. One day, the modular building will be dismantled and moved to another site. But that’s exactly the point.

Over the past two years, Happy Cities collaborated with Reos Partners to conduct research on the state of temporary modular housing in British Columbia, and identify strategies, actions and policy shifts that promote wellbeing for TMH participants. The wisdom and experience of the people we connected with during this project can help improve modular housing for all residents.

A new wellbeing framework for people transitioning out of homelessness 

In all our work, Happy Cities uses an evidenced-based wellbeing framework to guide our process and outcomes. But we also know that wellbeing is nuanced and subjective: By asking people what wellbeing means to them, we gain a better sense of how their lived experience informs their wellbeing needs, and how homes can be designed to support those needs. 

Many rapid and temporary housing solutions do not intentionally prioritize wellbeing and social connection. The logic has been: If the goal is to simply get people off the streets, isn’t a roof enough? 

Our research demonstrates the opposite: To ensure that people remain housed and can access the supportive services they need, any rapid or modular housing solution must begin from a place of trust. A private, safe unit with a roof overhead is essential. But by building housing that supports people’s wellbeing, we can improve participant recovery, create better health outcomes, and reduce the likelihood of people re-experiencing homelessness. 

Diagram of the wellbeing framework for people transitioning out of homelessness. 
Core principle = trust
Guiding principles = dignity & equity
Foundational principles = safety, health, culture & values, autonomy, stability
Supporting principles = harm reduction, healing, meaning, supportive network, resilience
A wellbeing framework for people transitioning out of homelessness: We spoke with advocates, Indigenous organizations, policymakers, designers, builders, operators, staff, and people with lived experience to understand the unique wellbeing needs of TMH participants. See Section 4 of the recommendations report for more information.

Small actions can make a big difference: Measuring the wellbeing impact of cultural activities at the New Beginnings building in Vancouver

There are many simple actions housing operators can implement that go a long way in supporting dignity and wellbeing. Through this CMHC-funded Solutions Lab, we provided funding and support for Lu’ma staff to test and implement six cultural programming activities at their New Beginnings building in Vancouver. Then we measured their success: the majority of participants were interested in participating, and many expressed that these activities boosted their mood while offering safe spaces to reflect, heal, grow, and learn. 

People living in TMH often have fractured social networks, and are likely to experience social isolation for a number of reasons. They may be living in a new and unfamiliar neighbourhood, may not be allowed to host visitors, and may have lost touch with family and friends. Indigenous participants face high levels of intergenerational and family-based trauma, which can make it difficult to form trusting and supportive new relationships. Lu’ma’s events seek to build participants’ capacity in this respect by encouraging people to take positive steps for their personal health and growth, (re)connect with their culture, and share positive interactions with staff and neighbours. 

“Many of our folks, including myself, are just looking to fit in and belong,” said Shawna-Marie Flett, Program Manager at Lu’ma Native Housing Society. “So when we have the cultural events, it allows everyone to participate in a non-judgmental group setting while slowly building connections with everyone who’s participating.”

At New Beginnings, culturally focused creative activities helped many participants express themselves and interact with one another. For example, participants made photo voice collages, using instant cameras to take photos of the people and places that are meaningful to them, and posting their art in their units and in the building’s common areas. This activity offered normally more reserved and shy residents an alternative way to communicate and explore their home. One participant, who suffers from agoraphobia, borrowed the camera and went for a small walk in the neighbourhood, demonstrating how creative projects can encourage participants to leave their comfort zone. 

A participant’s photo voice collage on display at the New Beginnings building. Creative activities allow participants an alternative way to express their personalities and share stories with one another. Photo: Happy Cities

In another example, Lu’ma staff organized sessions for participants to sew ribbon shirts and skirts with the guidance of an Elder. Staff noted that forming relationships with Elders is central to Indigenous participants’ healing processes, and that Elders play an important role in cultivating an environment in which participants feel comfortable learning a new skill — and making mistakes. But the benefits of this activity extend far beyond the sewing session itself. Participants wore their skirts on Indigenous Day, associating them with healing and progress. “One participant was trying to get on the silver path,” said Flett. “When she was doing something good, she would wear it. When she was making progress, she would wear it.”

People with stronger social connections are more resilient, live longer, and better able to navigate life challenges. Non-judgmental activities that encourage social connection are essential to supporting people’s long-term ability to remain housed. 

“When we’re supporting our participant wellbeing, we meet them where they’re at, as well as providing them a non-judgmental space,” said Flett. “I believe this allows the participants to feel comfortable and happy, making them more open to staff supporting them.”

Flett noted that greater access to supplies and transportation would help operators offer more social programming activities for participants and encourage greater participation. With relatively modest funding, these actions are easy to implement and offer valuable opportunities for participants to interact with one another, practice communication skills, and connect to their culture. These opportunities build resilience and trust — two essential ingredients for healing. 

On the path to healing: Centering dignity and trust in all types of supportive housing

To have the greatest impact, cultural programming and social events at TMH buildings must happen on a regular basis. When there are multiple and diverse opportunities to participate in community life, it lowers the barriers to participation and minimizes pressure for participants, allowing them to join at their own pace and comfort level. 

Programming activities are a small but impactful starting point to providing a temporary home that is safe, social, and inclusive. These activities must be supported through funding, but also through larger design strategies and systemic policy shifts that will make it easier for staff and operators to offer participants the social and cultural connections they may be lacking. For example, many buildings include spiritual rooms, which could offer great venues for smudging if outfitted with the right ventilation.

The Recommendations and Roadmap for Social Wellbeing in Modular Housing report synthesizes our research findings into the first comprehensive guide on design principles and programming actions for supporting wellbeing in temporary modular housing. Though focused on TMH, the strategies and actions in this report are applicable to a wide range of housing solutions, and offer a starting point for municipalities, decision-makers, and design teams across the country to centre wellbeing in all types of supportive housing projects.

Temporary modular housing is a promising and cost-effective housing solution for ending homelessness. But to reach its full potential, it must be designed around the core principles of social wellbeing.

This research was funded by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) as part of the National Housing Strategy Solutions Labs. To learn more, see the project page.

We are grateful to and inspired by Dr. Destiny Thomas’ work and teachings on the concepts of Dignity and Equity. The inclusion of dignity as a wellbeing principle in this project was inspired by our learnings at the Dignity Institute in 2020.

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