The Comforts of a Temporary Home: Volunteers Remake Homeless Shelter Apartments

By Jura Koncius
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 30, 2009

When Patricia's longtime day-care business collapsed earlier this year and her home went into foreclosure, she and her family of four found themselves homeless. She applied for emergency shelter in Fairfax County and got a two-bedroom apartment a few weeks ago at the Patrick Henry Family Shelter in Falls Church. She was grateful but apprehensive.

"When you think of a shelter, you think you will have to wear plastic bags on your feet and gloves on your hands," she says.

Her family opened the door to its temporary home and was greeted by apple-green walls, a newly upholstered sofa with black-and-white cushions and a stylish sisal rug. In two tiny bedrooms, four newly refinished bunk beds were made up with green matelasse bedspreads or orange quilts. In the bathroom, the shower curtain was handsewn with green and black grosgrain ribbons matching the trim on the towels. Instead of institutional fluorescent overhead lights, there were table lamps with printed shades and hanging Ikea pendant fixtures.

"It was a dream," says Patricia, 44, whose last name is being withheld because of the shelter's privacy policy. Her family had been camping out at the home of one of her daughters, sharing one bathroom among 10 people. "We'd been sleeping on air mattresses," she says. "Everybody got their own bed here. There was even a fruit bowl with fruit."

The look of that shelter apartment was the result of a volunteer project by local members of IRIS, or Interior Redesign Industry Specialists. Redesigners are a subset of the decorating world trained in one-day makeovers and use-what-you-have problem solving. Decorating on a budget of zero is its signature. In these recessionary times, redesigners are working with homeowners trying to make the most of what they have, or they are staging homes for people anxious to sell in a difficult real estate market.

The challenge at the Patrick Henry Family Shelter was to rethink basic apartments (a living/dining/kitchen area, two bedrooms and a bath) furnished only with sturdy, beat-up wood furniture. In the past three months, 16 redesigners from IRIS's National Capital Area Chapter have volunteered their time, transforming two units as part of the "adopt an apartment" initiative recently launched by Shelter House, a community-based nonprofit organization. Shelter House is under contract with the Fairfax County Department of Family Services to operate Patrick Henry and one other family shelter.

With their institutional-white walls and scuffed linoleum floors, the apartments were in need of TLC. "They were decorated very sparsely," says Jill Shumann, Shelter House's director of development. The Falls Church shelter's seven apartments house up to 42 residents. (Two additional units are for short-term crisis-related stays.) "We don't have a budget for decoration," Shumann says. "Our priority is that they are clean and have clean sheets on the beds and some things in the kitchen."

"They were drab, and sad," says Jewell Mikula, executive director of Shelter House.

Local IRIS chapter president Pam Faulkner connected immediately with the project. "It was a perfect fit," says Faulkner, whose Herndon-based company is called Faulkner House Interior Redesign. "We base our redesigns on what people have. Here they don't have a lot. We are good at repurposing, refinishing and remaking."

Her group set to work, curbside "shopping" and hunting for recycled furnishings on Craigslist and Freecycle. The redesigners hit a Habitat for Humanity ReStore for tile and shopped their own closets for fabric remnants and curtain rods. Members chipped in cash for extras, such as decorative plates, pillows and baskets from Pier 1 and Wal-Mart. Some did tiling, others sewing. When an e-mail would go out saying, "There's a love seat on the curb in Springfield," the closest redesigner would show up with a van.

"We wanted stylish but not cutting edge," Faulkner says. "It had to be welcoming." They were resourceful: One volunteer found king-size matelasse quilts on sale at HomeGoods and cut them in half for bunk beds. Fresh paint made a huge change. Vibrant colors donated by Duron and Sherwin-Williams were chosen for their psychological impact; bright white on the ceilings made the apartments more cheerful. Two storage units donated by 1-800-PACK-RAT were placed in the parking lot so items could be stored during the project.

Patrick Henry is Fairfax County's only so-called large family shelter. To qualify to stay there, a family must have five or more members. Stays usually range from 45 to 90 days. "We were full before the economy took a nose dive, and we are full now," Shumann says. The shelter offers programs in financial training, employment counseling and parenting. Kids have access to tutors, computers and a library. The goal is to help residents reduce debt, get jobs and move into a place of their own. Many families arrive with only trash bags full of clothing.

For Patricia and her 19-year-old daughter, 9-year-old twin nieces and 3-year-old son, the change from owning a six-bedroom house with three baths to being homeless came swiftly. "I had my own business for 25 years," Patricia says. "I just could not believe it."

They are trying to get back on their feet. Meanwhile, they appreciate the details the redesigners thought of: the bulletin boards and storage baskets, a stack of dish towels tied with a ribbon and a toy chest filled with games. "I was so happy there was a reading light for my bed," Patricia says.

The redesign group is now working on a third apartment. Says Joe Meyer, deputy director of Shelter House: "These designers get it. They understand what people need. Homeless families aren't any different from any of us."

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