Transition, Empowerment and Identity:
The Role of Homeless Mothers in Design
Heather Gayle Thigpen
B.A., University of Washington, 1999
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Architecture
This thesis for the Master of Architecture
degree by DATE DUE
^-OP.cT HIGHSMITH 45230
LD1193.A72 2005m T44
Thigpen, Heather Gayle.
Transition, empowerment and
Thigpen, Heather Gayle (Master of Architecture)
Transition, Empowerment and Identity: The Role of Homeless Mothers in Design
Thesis directed by Martha L. Hutchinson
What happens when a mother and her children are in transition from
homelessness to permanent living? Can the family establish a sense of place that
fosters comfort, empowerment and identity when temporarily housed? If so, how
does one address a sense of place architecturally?
To understand the design implications of transitional housing for a homeless
family, one must first interpret a sense of place and the architectural conditions that
create this place. Generating this interpretation are four narratives representing
women in transition, ranging from factual to intimate. The majority of homeless
families are headed by single mothers, making their narratives a valuable tool in the
study of transitional housing. These narratives capture the abrupt displacement and
marginalizing experience of a homeless family, conditions difficult to imagine when
not personally experienced. Gaston Bachelards The Poetics of Space, a text that
poignantly recalls the connection between human emotion and domestic space, serves
as a guide in which to analyze each of the four narratives. This analysis establishes
design guidelines defining physical and emotional attributes of the narratives relative
to four spatial conditions extrapolated from the text.
The relationships between the narratives and the text are used in a series of
design explorations, ranging in scale from a shared community space to a hiding
space of one individual. Each design focuses on developing a sense of place in
transitional housing by incorporating aspects of place within the neutral space of a
standard low-income housing unit. This standard, based on an existing example,
consists of a one bedroom apartment that is fixed in its layout and, while adjacent to
other units, is not connected to them. The standard apartment meets the basic needs
of shelter for a family in transition, but does not increase the opportunity for social
interaction or the control of the living space by the family, two conditions necessary
for generating a sense of place. Transitional housing that fosters place questions the
strong separation of public and private and places increased value on the domestic
control of a homeless family.
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidates thesis. I
recommend its publication.
Martha L. Hutchinson
I dedicate this thesis to my Grandma, Mary Elizabeth Sidman, for her love
and support during times of both, transition and stability.
My thanks to my mom, Lana Thigpen, for candidly retelling her personal
story, the narrative from which I draw inspiration everyday, and to my advisors,
Martha Hutchinson, George Hoover and Joseph Juhasz for their continued guidance
and encouragement. I also wish to thank the Jennifer Moulton Foundation and the
College of Architecture and Planning for their support of this thesis. And lastly, for
their time and energy, I would like to thank the individuals with whom 1 spoke to at
Warren Village, The Gathering Place and The Delores Project. Thank you.
One | Purpose Study of Domestic Space..........................................1
Standard Space vs. Sense of Place...........................................2
The Transitional Family.....................................................4
Two | Analysis Recounted Experience and Spatial Attributes.....................6
The Four Narratives.........................................................7
The Four Spatial Conditions................................................11
Three | Outcome Conditions of the Analysis Applied............................17
Three Transitional Designs.................................................18
Four | Conclusion Reflection on the Applied...................................23
Appendix A Narratives and Corresponding Images.............................25
Appendix B Personal Narrative Sample Interview.............................29
2.1 Spatial Image Access Analysis.....................................12
2.2 Spatial Image Containment Analysis................................13
2.3 Spatial Image Control Analysis....................................14
2.4 Spatial Image Content Analysis....................................14
2.5 Three-dimensional Analysis Multi-Unit; Single Unit; Individual Room.15
3.1 Standard Multi-Unit Configuration...................................18
3.2 Multi-Unit Reconfiguration..........................................18
3.3 Standard Single Unit Configuration..................................20
3.4 Single Unit Reconfiguration.........................................20
3.5 Individual Room Configuration.......................................22
3.6 Individual Room Reconfiguration.....................................22
A. Narratives and Corresponding Images.................................25
B. Personal Narrative Sample Interview.................................29
To be reduced from a beautiful home to a back
bedroom was very humiliating. -Lana
A home reflects how one sees oneself, with a private interior shown only to a
select group, and a public exterior displayed to all. When this home has a sense of
place that fosters security and connection, these attributes are also reflected in the
individual, empowering them within their situation and connecting them to their
domestic context. When a family finds itself in transition from homelessness to
permanent housing, how can a sense of place develop? Architectural conditions must
be incorporated within transitional housing that allows a family to generate a sense of
place. To determine these conditions, I analyzed four narratives of homeless mothers
that lead to an architectural language, guiding three designs in transitional housing.
The four narratives capture varying transitions homeless families experience,
ranging from a week to week stay in a local motel to doubling-up with family. Joan
Forrester Sprague, a scholar who has written extensively on transitional housing,
defines homelessness as not having the choice to live in conventional housing for as
long as one wishes without unwanted displacement, a definition encompassing a
breadth of homeless conditions.1 2 Because this is the accepted definition of
homelessness for this thesis, it is important to consider narratives that originate from
different sources to better understand the range of conditions experienced by
homeless families. The first narrative, being the most factual of the four, is a
culmination of statistics from various academic and governmental sources, ranging
from sociology studies to census reports. The second narrative, the documentary film
No Place Like Home, captures an eight month transitional period of one familys life.
The film is viewed from the perspective of the filmmaker, Kathryn Hunt, and is
1 Cooper-Marcus, 436.
2 Forrester-Sprague, 28.
conducted as a semi-structured interview. A fictional piece of poetry, Still I Rise by
Maya Angelou, is the third narrative. The poem describes a womans personal
memoir of transition and allows the reader to absorb the womans narrative while still
remaining distanced due to the fictional nature of the work. The final narrative, the
most intimate of the four, is a personal story of a single mother in transition from
homelessness to permanent housing. This narrative eliminates the filter of the
interviewer and allows the reader to experience the womans story directly from her
perspective as a non-fictional account.
Once collected, the narratives are analyzed according to four spatial
conditions extrapolated from the writings of the French philosopher Gaston
Bachelard, representing images of access, containment, control and content? The
four spatial conditions range in scale and intimacy, similar to the narratives,
considering not only how a homeless family accesses its domestic space at the public
level, but also the content stored within the living space at the private level. The first
condition, access, is conventionally defined as the means, or the right, to which one
approaches, enters, exits, or makes use of a space.3 4 This definition describes the
initial, and sometimes continuous, experience of a family in transition between
various living situations. Upon gaining access to housing, a homeless family is
contained within that living space in addition to containing its own belongings. To
contain, the second condition, is described as a method for holding something within,
and for a homeless family also a method of transporting its belongings. Whether
these containers of space are viewed as the space where a family lives, or the space in
which belongings are held, there are various levels of control within these containers,
suggesting content of different value. Do certain objects or emotions require more
protection and if so how are they protected? What level of control does a homeless
3 For the purpose of this thesis we will consider the Bachelard view of 'image,'' which he saw as a product
of absolute imagination and not a metaphor giving concrete substance, 74.
4 The American Heritage College Dictionary, 8.
family have over its domestic space? The final condition considers the actual content
of what is contained. What is being protected or left in the open and what delineates
the various types of content? The greatest variation occurs where the degree of
intimacy is considered as each narrative addresses the four spatial conditions. As
suspected, the statistical narrative lead to stronger images of access and containment,
while the personal narrative focused more heavily on images of control and content.
These conditions direct the analysis, generating images as they pertain to the four
narratives, uncovering possible architectural circumstances that foster a sense of
place. The exploration of images was necessary to determine key emotional needs of
a homeless family, but ultimately the development of models, representing three
contextual scales, generates the architectural conditions necessary for reconfiguring
the standard transitional housing unit. For example, the large scale model identifies
the use of interstitial space between floor plates as a possible element for joining
different apartment units. By connecting families within the semi-private domain, an
opportunity arises to create a stronger peer network, ultimately improving the
connection of a family to its domestic space.
If a home is a reflection of oneself, is it possible that the stories of homeless
mothers can be used to guide the design of transitional housing, resulting in living
spaces that possess architectural conditions necessary for generating a sense of place?
By analyzing spatial and emotional needs of homeless families as recounted by
homeless mothers and translating this into the design, a sense of place is likely to
resonate within transitional housing a place that will empower a family within its
situation and connect the family to its domestic context.
Study of Domestic Space
To better understand how a sense of place is created within transitional
housing, one must first understand why it is necessary to develop architecture that
fosters a place of security and comfort. What design characteristics should
transitional housing possess to generate a sense of place that the standard solutions do
not already have? Transitional housing programs are geared toward marginalized or
displaced families that for various reasons become homeless. These programs equip
families with necessary skills for self-sufficiency, within a protected environment, so
that permanent housing can eventually be achieved. A variety of programs exist that
successfully implement this philosophy, for example Warren Village in Denver,
Colorado, has been in service since 1974 and continues to house over 120 families.
The families living in Warren Village stay within the program for up to two years
while reestablishing their lives so that they can eventually move to more permanent
housing. If the main goal of a transitional program is for a participant to achieve self-
sufficiency, then is it reasonable for the living space within that program to increase
the potential of meeting this goal? Self-sufficiency can be achieved when an
individual finds value in their identity and becomes empowered in their situation; two
elements that greatly improve when one feels a sense of connection with, and control
over, her domestic space. Architecture that creates social opportunities through
spatial conditions and allows for spatial manipulation by the occupant improves the
potential for both connection and control. If this is achieved, a sense of place is more
likely to transpire for the individual within that domestic space, supporting the goal of
self-sufficiency that transitional housing programs aspire to meet.
Standard Space vs. Sense of Place
Yi-Fu Tuan explores space and place in relation to human experience in his
book, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. He discusses a general
understanding of space in two ways: first, space in relation to other human beings;
and second, space in relation to the posture and structure of the human body.5 These
two points begin to identify two critical architectural circumstances having the
potential to generate a sense of place in transitional housing; the ability of a space to
encourage meaningful relationships between human beings, and the malleability of
space to accommodate a familys physical needs. By looking closely at this general
understanding of space as it affects a transitional family, one can see the significant
impact it potentially has on the success of transitional housing.
Relationships with other human beings within living spaces allows for a
greater connection to that space. In standard transitional housing the apartment unit is
self-contained and separated from other units, making it difficult for single mothers to
form bonds with women in similar situations. The majority of interaction between
the occupants is limited to the public realm of common spaces and shared hallways.
Minimal interaction will occur in the private realm, the space where intimate relations
are more likely to be formed. A common theme in the narratives was a sense of
isolation and lack of peer support. Approximately one third of homeless families are
not living in the same town or city where they became homeless.6 These families
have often left behind relatives and friends during the transition between
homelessness and permanent housing. For example, Lana expresses in her personal
narrative, ...being all alone and not having anybody to relate to. She states, 1
couldnt go to work and talk to people at work about it. I didnt want say, Oh gee,
guess what happened, my husband just left me and were starting a new life. 1 had
5 Tuan, 34-36.
6 Interagency Council on the Homeless, X.
no support. By breaking down the distinct separation of public and private between
standard apartment units, an opportunity arises for occupants to interact in the private
realm, connecting families more intimately. To explore the separation of public and
private, the kitchen space of multiple units was reconfigured using the analysis as a
guide to generate new architectural conditions. If more meaningful relationships
between families result because of this architectural reconfiguration, a sense of place
is more likely to resonate for the families, leading to greater self-sufficiency.
Standard transitional housing is typically minimal in square footage and fixed
in its layout, offering little to no adaptability for the occupants. The needs of a family
in transition to permanent housing are often very different from a family already
permanently housed. Transitional housing is a stepping stone for most families and is
used in non-traditional ways, accommodating a greater number of people and a wider
variety of activities in smaller living spaces. For example, the family in the
documentary film needs to accommodate four people, but due to their monthly
income will only cover the rent of a studio apartment. As shown in the film, the
living room is used in a number of ways, including a bedroom, a dining room and its
intended function as a living room. It should be noted that if the family was a part of
a transitional program its needs would be more closely met than they currently are,
but the space of a transitional apartment would still be modest in size with a fixed
layout. If the living space was malleable, the family could adjust the space to meet its
non-traditional needs allowing it more influence and ultimately, leading to greater
self-sufficiency. When one is given the choice to manipulate their personal living
space within an established support system, such as a transitional housing program,
they are allowed to act autonomously from the larger program while still remaining a
part of the supported system. Through the act of manipulation, a transitional family
can be empowered to meet its personal needs while still having access to an overall
support program. The malleability of the standard apartment layout was studied at
both medium and small scales, addressing the entry of a single unit and the closet of
an individual room. By better understanding what constitutes a sense of place in a
domestic environment, one can understand why a place that fosters comfort,
empowerment and identity is difficult to achieve in standard housing for a transitional
The Transitional Family
When a family is transitioning from homelessness to permanent housing often
it has experienced a complete relocation and does not know how long it will need
temporary housing; two uncertainties that greatly hinder a family in achieving a sense
of place within its living space. It is this period of time when a family is in transition
from homelessness to permanent living that is the focus of this thesis. Homeless
shelters typical length of stay is 60 days, making the transition from homelessness to
permanent housing, which takes between six to ten months, a very difficult time
period.7 Often families retreat to shelters, but because of the typical length of stay,
resort to living in their cars, in local motels or doubling-up with family and friends
while in transition. Of the homeless families reported by the U.S. census of 2000,
84% were headed by women with an average of two children under the age of 18,
making the narratives of homeless mothers a useful tool in studying the design of
It is possible that the influence of four homeless womens stories can resonate
through the design process into the final development of a transitional living space,
addressing both the physical and emotional needs of families. By using stories of
homeless mothers through the entire design process the mothers are given influence
over their dwelling space, even when, because of the transitional nature of their
' Melbin, 446.
8 Interagency on the Homeless, 15.
situation, they would not otherwise have an impact on their temporary home. This
influence is critical in generating architecture that supports the development of place,
a necessary component of identity and empowerment. By critically considering the
two conditions of communal space and malleable space, as discussed by Tuan, in
conjunction with the narrative and spatial analysis in the design of transitional
housing, an architectural language encouraging the development of place is likely to
Recounted Experience and Spatial Attributes
To a culture inbred with this image, the house
- self-identity is particularly strong. In some
barely conscious way, society has decided to
penalize those who, through no fault of their
own cannot build, by or rent their own housing.
They are not self-made men [women], 9 -Claire
The narratives of women in transition, when used throughout the design
process, integrate the physical and emotional needs of homeless mothers and their
children in transitional housing design. When analyzed, the narratives generate a
dialogue between the needs of transitional families and the spatial conditions of
standard housing such as, access, containment, control and content. These spatial
conditions exist within standard housing as basic components, such as multiple units
being accessible to many families and standard layouts meeting the basic needs of
containment, but when critically analyzed through the lenses of the narratives these
spatial conditions begin to alter within the standard apartment unit. The integration of
the spatial conditions extrapolated from Bachelards text and the perspectives of
homeless mothers results in a design process that fosters the development of unique
spaces that do not currently exist in standard transitional housing, such as communal
space and concealed spaces for storage of intimate belongings. These are the spaces
that have the potential to become places to the homeless family and significantly
affect the physical and emotional state of mothers and children in transition,
connecting them to their domestic context.
Cooper-Marcus, p. 438.
Narratives are just one of many methods used to gain information on a subject
matter and in this thesis, the primary means of inquiry. Narratives of four women,
both fictional and non-fictional, address the question of how homeless mothers can
influence the design of transitional housing. The word narrative is liberally defined,
describing academic statistics and facts, a documentary film, a fictional poem and a
non-fictional personal account. When addressing the issue of homelessness under the
broad definition defined by Sprague, it is important to consider varying perspectives
of homeless mothers. While the narratives differ in source and content, a significant
amount of overlap is found throughout the thesis. For example, the statistical
narrative describes in raw numbers the amount of transitions a homeless family often
experiences, while the documentary film describes the same condition visually
through the physical act of packing and unpacking.
The Four Narratives
The Statistical Narrative introduces a narrative of homeless mothers through
factual data, based upon a literature review of family homelessness, and is the most
direct of the four narratives. This narrative shows both the numerical perception, and
misperceptions, of homeless families and the information supporting many of the
current housing solutions. For example, the statistic stating that homeless families
make up 15% of the overall homeless population only considers the portion of
homeless clients counted in homeless shelters and does not include homeless families
doubling-up with family or friends.10 When this statistic is considered in conjunction
with a New York City study that found 81% of families reported staying with
10 Interagency on the Homeless, 15.
relatives and friends while homeless, an assumption is made that many of the
statistics representing homeless families are low.11
While each of these statistics have value, they differ greatly in how a
homeless familys experience will be perceived, making it even more important that
statistics alone not be the driving force behind the design of transitional housing.
Statistics must be considered relative to the emotional accounts given by homeless
families themselves. The statistical narrative, when analyzed using the spatial
conditions from Bachelards text, results in images (see Appendix A) that are often
skewed, representative of the misperceptions found in many of the statistics,
exemplifying a variety of facts that have guided the understanding of a homeless
Documentary Film Narrative
No Place Like Home, a film by Kathryn Hunt, is the narrative of a single
mother named Lori Fay Wilson who has moved her family seven times in the month
prior to filming of the documentary. This film captures an eight month period of this
families life, which includes one major transition from the Seals Motel to a studio
apartment through the aid of Seattle Housing. Kathryn Hunt, the film maker tells this
story through the eyes of Lori Fay's seven-year-old daughter, Barbie. In this thesis, I
focus on their story through the perspective of Lori Fay, documented in the film
through a semi-structured interview.
Lori Fay discusses throughout the film her history as a victim of childhood
abuse and as the instigator of repeated criminal offenses. She discusses her
experience of constantly feeling like she was on the outside, never fitting in. Lori Fay
receives $624 dollars and 300 food stamps a month from welfare for aid to her three
dependent children. The studio apartment that rents for $300 dollars a month consists
" Wright, 2.
of a kitchen, a small dining area, a living room and two small closets. The dining
area, the living room and one of the closets have been converted into sleeping areas to
accommodate the family. Lori Fay discusses throughout the film, her dislike for
packing and moving from place to place. She also talks a great deal about her family
being happy and comfortable, without the constant transition from one place to
another. By February, Lori Fay and her family are back at the Seals Motel in Seattle.
The film does not disclose why the family no longer resides in the studio apartment.
The narrative of the Wilson family exemplifies the exposure and constant
transition that many families experience during homelessness. The exposure that
results from this constant displacement blurs the familys perception of privacy,
constantly exposing its belongings and transition to the point that all is public.
During the film Lori Fay describes the apartment as just a box for $300 dollars a
month showing little attachment to her place of dwelling. Is it possible that if Lori
Fay had more control over her living space and how her belongings fit in this space
she would be able to establish a sense of place and in turn a stronger self-identity and
a greater level of empowerment?
The third narrative, Still / Rise, a fictional poem by Maya Angelou, describes
a woman empowered by her personal control experienced after an emotional
transition from a state of fear. The first verse below describes the womans position
of subordination she is leaving behind, followed by the second verse describing the
control she exudes because of the value she finds within herself.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like tear drops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause, I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin' in my own backyard.
A significant observation of this narrative is the personal value and
empowerment that comes not from actual riches the woman has, such as the gold
mines, but the control over her emotional state of being. The images (see Appendix
A) generated by the narrative when considered in relation to the spatial conditions
were of veiling and concealment, not out of shame but out of control. It became the
womans choice as to what was exposed and what was concealed, regardless of
whether these are physical objects or personal emotions.
The final narrative was an informal interview between my mother, Lana, and
me, recounting her story as a single mother in transition from homelessness to
permanent housing. The interview was structured loosely around a series of
preliminary questions (see Appendix B) resulting in an open-ended description that
was more revealing than a formal question and response interview. Lana was allowed
to digress within the narrative as she saw appropriate to best document her story of
transition and homelessness. The interview recorded the time before, during, and
after the period of transition, as told by Lana and was not necessarily chronological.
Two major themes surfaced throughout the personal narrative that
significantly influenced the analysis between the narrative and the spatial conditions.
The first of the two themes was the subject of home and the reflection of self within
that home. The extracted section below, describes Lanas interpretation of home in
relation to her transitional situation.
My home was ripped out from under me. Everything I had worked hard to
fix my house up and I took a lot of pride in my home. Oh I loved my house.
To be reduced from a beautiful home to a back bedroom was very humiliating.
Oh 1 felt very, very homeless and emotionally drained twenty four hours a
day. And at one point, you know, thought gee I just don't want to do this I
cant do this and, you know, my mom just kept saying you have to, you dont
have any choice. You know, I just, 1 dont know. I just couldnt believe it was
happening. It was like one of those things that you think this is not happening,
this must be a nightmare I am going to wake up in a minute and the nightmare
just got worse and worse and worse. And then you know not understanding
why all of a sudden you are all alone.
The second theme revolved around ones identity within a transitional
situation. Below is another excerpt from Lanas narrative that elaborates on the
notion of personal identity.
Well, my identity was taken away. I wasn t Mrs. Thigpen anymore I was Ms.
Thigpen. I had no credit. The bank just laughed at me when I tried to get a
checking account. The bill collectors hounded me and hounded me. Your
credit is ruined. Your emotional stability is ruined. I don 7 know, you have to
start over you have to become another kind of person, a different person.
You re still yourself but you re not. All of a sudden I was a single parent. I
remember him coming to the house that day. He told me, I don 7 like what
youve become. And I thought hum, thats good, then I must be making
progress. He doesn 7 like me, I am changing, I am turning things around, and
in the way I wanted to turn them around. I obviously was concerned about
being a good role model to my girls and I didnt want to let them down
because I had been let down. I certainly didn 7 want to fail.
The personal narrative was a very intimate account of one womans story of
homelessness and transition. The images (see Appendix A) from the analysis
exemplified the desire to preserve and protect the possessions and emotions within
individual private space.
The Four Spatial Conditions
Gaston Bachelards, The Poetics of Space, has become a significant source in
the understanding of intimate places and human emotion, critical components in the
design of housing for homeless families in an emotional state of transition. To
generate a platform for analyzing the narratives, four spatial conditions, access,
containment, control and content, were extrapolated from the text that focused on
aspects of how one approaches their living space and how one inhabits that living
space. In considering the overall text of Bachelard, I chose to focus on a single
chapter discussing intimacy in relation to drawers, chests and wardrobes because of
its focus on the private realm, a topic that surfaced multiple times in the narratives.
Bachelard states, that wardrobes with their shelves, desks with their drawers, and
chests with their false bottoms are veritable organs of the secret psychological life...
and that a wardrobes inner space is also intimate space, space that is not open to just
anybody. The wardrobe is an image of intimate space just as the house is,
allowing one to gather valuable information from the text, better understanding
domestic space as it relates to intimacy.
As discussed in the introduction, access
considers how one enters a space, and for the purpose
of this thesis, how that space is perceived by a
homeless family. Bachelard states that, one reads a
house or a room, suggesting that one absorbs an
initial understanding of their living space that can
significantly impact a familys ability to generate a
sense of place.12 13 When the narratives are analyzed in
relation to this spatial condition, themes of repetition
and exposure result, reflecting images of various levels of accessibility to and
perception of ones housing. For example, Figure 2.1 representing the Statistical
Narrative shows a highly exposed grid of many units that, while very accessible
because of the quantity, increasingly warp as each unit is added making them less
Fig. 2.1. Spatial Image Access
12 Bachelard, 78.
13 Bachelard, 83.
accessible. This image suggests that while statistics prove the need of more housing,
the repetitive stacked units may not be the ideal solution for generating a sense of
place in ones housing, reflecting the misperceptions found through statistics that
often influence current housing design.
Fig. 2.2. Spatial Image
The second spatial condition, containment,
discusses how a familys container of space is
utilized. Families in transition will likely have
storage needs that vary from a family living in a more
permanent living condition. As analyzed from the
narratives, a time of transition is filled with many
unknowns and often does not allow a family to settle
into a living space by fully unpacking or moving in.
It may be more appropriate for a family in transition
to choose how unpacked it wishes to be. While this is counter to what is typically
thought of as settling in, according to the analysis of the narratives it is found that
mobility is often more comforting than a completely fixed living condition.
Bachelard states, boxes that fit into one another as a means of storing ones
belongings with the most private belongings in the interior box, suggesting an image
or a method of organization for one in transition a box within a box.14 Figure 2.2
shows the resulting image of the analysis, representing a lack of privacy often
experienced by a homeless family when relocating and transporting their belongings.
The analysis suggests that by manipulating space to accommodate alternative
methods of storage, a stronger sense of place can be created for a homeless family in
M Bachelard, 82.
transition. This architectural condition was explored at the entry between the public
hallway and the private apartment unit.
The third spatial condition, control, addresses
how one protects and preserves that which is held
personally close. To control the level of exposure one
wishes to allow empowers an individual within their
living space. As Bachelard states, The power that
opens and shuts must possess the power of life.15 I
have concluded from the analysis that the possessions
of a homeless mother may not always be concrete
objects, but rather the notions of order and stability,
requiring the same amount, if not more, protection from the exterior world. The
image, shown in Figure 2.3, represents the veiling of these notions. By concealing
these items under a transparent veil one can conceal the objects or notions themselves
but still allow the outside to absorb their order and stability.
Fig. 2.3. Spatial Image Control
Fig. 2.4. Spatial Image Content
The final condition defined within the spatial
analysis, content, relates to the extremely private
belongings of an occupant and the nature of the space
in which one hides these treasured secrets. Bachelard
states that, a wardrobe is filled with the mute tumult
of memories.16 What are the memories stored within
the most private zone of the domestic living space? If
15 Bachelard, 82.
16 Bachelard, 79.
given the opportunity, how would a mother manipulate a space to store such
memories? Would that method of storage change throughout her period of transition?
The final spatial condition critically addresses the notion of preservation and display
of the most sacred possessions, whatever they may be. Figure 2.4 represents an
image of the private zone within a living space that a mother could use for storage or
display as she sees appropriate. Architecturally this notion was explored further in
the closet of an individual room.
Fig. 2.5. Three-dimensional Analysis Multi-Unit; Single Unit; Individual Room.
Cataloging the spatial images generated from the analysis, produces a set of
models addressing three contextual scales large, medium and small architecturally
translating into multiple units, a single unit and an individual closet within a room.
By separating these images by scale and interpreting them three dimensionally,
architectural conditions begin to resonate in which to reconfigure the standard
The three-dimensional analysis inspired architectural conditions that were
used in the final stage of this thesis to reconfigure the three spaces within the
apartment unit. The large scale model focused on the notion of overlap within the
interstitial space between units, and in the design, inspired the condition of interlock
between multiple apartment units. The medium scale model addressed issued of
storage and adaptability of a space to accommodate the individual needs of a
transitional family. And finally, the small scale model focused on the layering of
space to create various levels of privacy. As mentioned earlier, the spatial conditions
extrapolated from Bachelards text, access, containment, control and content, were
analyzed using the four narratives as lenses. By doing this it became clear that while
the standard apartment is an accessible container of space in which to store ones
content, it does not fulfill the needs as expressed in the homeless mothers narratives,
such as connection and control. By incorporating the narratives in the design process,
the basic spatial conditions can be altered as they are interpreted through the
narratives and then used in the redesign of the standard unit. The architectural
notions evolving from the three-dimensional analysis generated the language
necessary for creating space within transitional housing that would allow a family to
generate a sense of place.
Conditions of the Analysis Applied
Bachelard admits that every house is first a
geometrical object of planes and right angles,
but asks his reader to ponder how such
rectilinearity so welcomes human complexity,
idiosyncrasy, how the house adapts to its
inhabitants. 17 -John R. Stilgoe
Using the conditions generated in the three-dimensional analysis, a standard
apartment unit is reconfigured at three scales addressing multiple units, a single unit
and finally, an individual closet within a unit. Each scale architecturally addresses
circumstances of human connection and domestic control within ones living space,
discussed earlier by Tuan as key conditions for understanding space. These issues are
addressed architecturally using the elements generated from the narrative analysis
such as, connecting space using the interstitial zones within the existing building and
reconfiguring interior walls to allow for great flexibility and control by the family.
These designs were generated, not by traditional design methods, but by the stories of
the homeless mothers, allowing their narratives to resonate through the design process
ultimately having a significant impact on the transitional housing studies.
In these examples the standard apartment layouts, with the areas altered
highlighted in red, are juxtaposed with the reconfigured study models to illustrate the
variation that occurs in the design when the analysis of the narratives is incorporated.
The alterations of the standard apartment unit exemplify the importance of
incorporating the perspectives of the homeless mothers as a guide in which to
critically analyze transitional housing as it relates to the spatial conditions of access,
containment, control and content.
17 Bachelard, vii.
Three Transitional Designs
Multi-Unit: Shared Kitchen Space
Human relationship, as Tuan discusses, is a key element in how one identifies
with the space around them. These relationships are difficult to form for a family in
transition, in part because of the migrant nature of their situation, but also because
temporary housing does not architecturally encourage such bonds. Units are self
contained and have no connection to one another forcing occupants to rely on the
public spaces to meet others. In Lanas narratives, she discusses the desire for
rebuilding a peer network that she can relate to others experiencing the same thing.
In addition, as Lanas personal narrative indicates, there is a level of embarrassment
and alienation experienced by the family when homelessness occurs. When single
mothers relocate due to a difficult situation, they often leave behind family and
friends; the people that would typically form their peer network. As an architectural
response to this social condition, drawing from the analysis, I considered how and
where individual units could overlap.
Initially I considered all semi-public areas within the unit, but because of the
strong social nature of the kitchen, it became the focus of the large scale study. The
kitchen is often a central point where a family connects on a day to day basis. It is an
environment for socializing and encourages the formation of human relationships. If
a bond between transitional families is going to form it has the greatest potential to
form in a place that is typically a social space within the home the kitchen. A
shared kitchen between units creates both an overall larger living space for each
family, as well as a social connection between units. This space begins to use and
take advantage of the interstitial space that is often unused or considered left over, by
breaking through floor plates and allowing walls to shift. The structural elements
remain fixed, but the secondary architectural elements are allowed to move,
generating a series of new spatial opportunities.
In the study model, the stairs moving from the living room to the kitchen lead
the occupant to the shared mezzanine space between the two apartments above the
public corridor.18 This space is created by utilizing the crawl space above the
apartments and lowering the ceiling height of the hallway. The public realm of the
hallway is transferred to the semi-public space within the individual units. This
allows the shared space to be used more intentionally as living space, allowing
families to rebuild a support network and form greater human relationships by
utilizing a communal living space. I have proposed an architectural solution that
begins to address the notion of alienation and disconnect, by reconnecting the typical
apartment unit to another unit, allowing the homeless family to engage within a larger
social context. Human relationships, as discussed by Tuan, are a critical component
in understanding space and in this thesis a critical component in generating a sense of
place for a family. By altering the means of access a family has to a social support
network through the architectural reconfiguration of the transitional housing unit, the
family begins to reconnect to its domestic environment fostering a greater sense of
comfort and identity.
18 Mezzanine portion of study model not photographed so that lower level circulation can be viewed in
Single Unit: Entry Space
In addition to human relationships, Tuan discusses how one identifies with
their living space according to their physical and spatial needs. Greatly influencing
the development of the medium scale study are the spatial conditions of containment
and control as interpreted through the narrative analysis. The narratives often discuss
how a family and its belongings physically fit within a living space. For example, in
the documentary film, we are given a tour of the apartment showing the closets
converted into sleeping areas and most of the familys belongings kept in boxes
around the apartment. In this example, the traditional method of storage has been
inverted and the boxes are not concealed within the closets but are rather on display.
The spaces within the apartment unit have been reassigned different functions to
accommodate the familys physical needs. If control in assigning function is given to
the family, this space can be defined in relation to its specific needs, as discussed by
Tuan as a key element in identifying with ones space.
This architectural notion is explored at the entrance of the apartment unit. In a
traditional home there is often a transition from public to private at the entry,
architecturally represented as a porch or vestibule and can be found at the front or
back of a dwelling unit. This space is often defined by the family as additional living
space, in the case of a porch or sun room or as additional storage as a mud room or
In the standard apartment, the entry vestibule is minimal, making the
transition from public to private abrupt with a strong delineation between the exterior
hallway and the interior apartment. As the focus of the architectural study, the
malleability of the vestibule is explored pushing the traditional notion of entry to
accommodate either additional storage or as additional living space according to the
transitional familys unique needs. In the model, the wall of the vestibule can be
accessed from the public hallway and used as exterior storage or accessed from the
interior of the apartment to be used as interior storage or a small sleeping loft. By
reconfiguring the entry to allow a family to choose whether the entry will be used for
storage or sleeping empowers the family within its situation and allows it to control
the method of containment. The family is empowered to decide how it wishes to
contain itself giving the family a greater level of control, empowering them within its
Individual Room: Closet Space
The small scale architectural study further explores the notion of malleable
space, focusing on a single closet within a room. This exploration is centered on a
mothers control of her individual private space, allowing her the option to maintain a
completely secluded space or open it up to the family as a shared living area. In the
personal narrative, the family of three lived in a single bedroom, using the space to its
greatest potential. Lana expressed that while being close to her children during this
time was critical to her transition to a more stable situation, she at times did desire a
private space. Having the ability accommodate both family closeness and personal
space in a single room inspired the design of this closet. The closet can be closed to
create a small bedroom or private storage for the mother or opened to the living room
to create additional family space. In addition to changing the function of the space
the movable partition creates a means of display for the family with a shelving system
that can be manipulated to be either open or closed corresponding with the position of
the wall itself.
This last exploration focuses solely on the notion of malleable space that can
be controlled by the mother. By defining ones private space according to their
personal needs, they are empowered to define themselves within that space, a key
element in creating a sense of place within ones domestic environment. It is this
control that becomes so critical in the success of a mother in transition from
homelessness to permanent housing, allowing her to regain a great sense of identity.
By reconfiguring the partition wall of the bedroom closet, a mother can control the
level privacy she desires for her personal space and storage of her personal content,
whether that is physical objects or emotional conditions she is empowered to define
the use of her space, and ultimately her sense of identity and comfort through her
Four | Conclusion
Reflection on the Applied
A domestic space that fosters human relationships and personal control
contributes to an individuals sense of identity and empowerment, ultimately leading
to greater self-sufficiency for a mother transitioning from homelessness to permanent
housing. This exploration of space began with the narratives of four mothers and
through an analysis of human emotion and spatial conditions, generated architectural
conditions necessary for a homeless family to develop a sense of place within
transitional housing. While this analysis leads to the development of three living
spaces for a mother and her children, it only begins to address the multitude of
questions raised within the thesis.
Methods of analysis must be developed to address the overlap in scale and
how this overlap would alter the designs of the living spaces. The scales of the three
transitional designs were kept relatively separate but, as mentioned previously, the
analysis raised awareness that the three scales overlap in a variety of areas, for
example, this occurs between the family unit and the individual room on issues of
storage. While cognoscente of the affect this might have on the designs, I chose to
maintain the separation of the three scales, leaving the condition of overlap for future
In addition, potential for further research exists when considering the design
of transitional units on an even larger scale including the entire building and
neighborhood. For example, if one unit is manipulated as shown in this study there is
a residual affect on the adjacent unit, but what affect does the reconfiguration have on
the secondary and tertiary units? If the reconfiguration is repeated beyond the single
unit studied, does a pattern emerge within the larger building or perhaps more
importantly within the environment outside the building itself? Can the affect of one
womans story resonate through an entire neighborhood? What remains clear from
the analysis formed within this thesis is that the stories of the homeless women must
continue to resonate with the future study of transitional housing for homeless
Narratives and Corresponding Images
The Statistical Narrative introduces a narrative of homeless
mothers through numbers and statistics. The narrative describes the
numerical reality of homeless families, as well as, the information
supporting many of the current housing solutions.
Homeless clients in families make up 15% of the overall
homeless population, of this, 84% of clients in homeless families are
female and 16% are male. Interagency Council on the Homeless, 1999
Families comprise more than 65% of those who are homeless in
metro Denver. The majority of these families are headed by single
parents. This is a 49% increase from the 2000 point-in-time study.
Colorado Department of Human Services, 2001
The average number of children per homeless family is 2.2.
Interagency Council on the Homeless, 1999
60% of homeless women have children ages 0 to 17; 65% of
these women live with at least one of their minor children. Interagency
Council on the Homeless, 1999
Parents report that 45% of the 3 to 5 year olds attend
preschool, and that 93% of school-age children (6 to 17) attend school
regularly. Interagency Council on the Homeless, 1999
More than 57% of children in Denver Public Schools receive
free school lunch. Denver Public Schools, 1999
Homeless clients in families average an income of $475 a
month. This amount supports 1 parent and 2 children (on average).
Homeless families thus, are living on 46% of the 1996 federal poverty
level of $1,023 for a family of 3. Interagency Council on the Homeless,
Homeless families received 17% of the median monthly income
of all American households. Interagency Council on the Homeless, 1999
Only 1/3 of families on TANF receive any housing assistance.
The maximum monthly payment for a family of three on TANF is $356,
these families can afford only $107 a month for rent. Denver
Department of Human Services, 1999
In 2000, there were 12,000 households in metro Denver on
waiting lists for housing assistance. Colorado Department of Local
49% of homeless families are in their first episode of
homelessness and 34% will be homeless for less than 6 months.
Interagency Council on the Homeless, 1999
29% of homeless families are not living in the same city or
town where they became homeless. Interagency Council on the
On any given night in Denver, we know that there are 8,668
people who have no home of their own in which to sleep: 2/3 or 5,779,
of these are people in families and dependent children. Colorado
Department of Human Services, 2001
To afford the fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in
Denver at 30% of income, an individual must earn $17.71 an hour. A
minimum wage worker must work 133 hours per week to afford a two-
bedroom apartment. National Low Income Housing Coalition, 2001
Documentary Film Narrative
No Place Like Home, Kathryn Hunt, 1993
Lori Fay Wilson, a single mother of three, has moved her
family seven times in the month prior to the filming of No Place Like
Home. This film captures an eight month period of this family's life,
January to August, which includes one major transition from the Seals
Motel to a studio apartment through the aid of Seattle Housing. Kathryn
Hunt, the film maker tells this story through the eyes of Lori Fay's seven
year old, Barbie.
This narrative focuses on the telling of their story through the
perspective of Lori Fay, which is documented in the film through a semi-
structured interview between Hunt and Wilson.
Throughout the film Lori Fay discusses her past which consists
of childhood abuse and repeated criminal offenses. She discusses her
experience of constantly feeling like she is on the outside, not fitting in.
Lori Fay's daughter, Barbie, and son, David, have been living
with their mother for the past two years, while Donna, Lori Fay's oldest
daughter, has just recently moved back in with her family after a four
month stay with friends.
The family receives $624 dollars and 300 food stamps a month
from welfare for aid to dependent children. The studio apartment that
rents for $300 dollars a month, consists of a kitchen, a small dining
area, a living room and two small closets. The dining area, the living
room and one of the closets have been converted into sleeping areas to
accommodate the family. Lori Fay often expresses her dislike for
packing and moving from place to place. She desires for her family to
be safe and comfortable, without the constant transition that results
from moving from one location to another.
By February, Lori Fay and her family are back at the Seals
Motel in Seattle. The film does not indicate why the family no longer
resides at the studio apartment. In November, Barbie Wilson, moved to
Arizona to live with her father. We do not know what happens to David
Wilson, Donna Wilson or Lori Fay Wilson.
Still I Rise, Maya Angelou, 1978
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like tear drops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause, I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin' in my own back yard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hateful!ness.
But still, like air, I'll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it comes as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history's shame
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I'm a black ocean, leaping and
Welling and swelling I bear in the
Leaving behind nights of terror and
Into a daybreak that's wondrously
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors
I am the dream and hope of the
Lana Thigpen, 2005
The people that owned the house came one day and evicted us and
brought two trucks and walked In and picked up everything we owned while I was
trying to shield the girls from all of that and my animals and my plants and my fish
tanks. That was the day I was totally in shock because I still kept thinking my
husband was going to come home but I couldn't figure out why he hadnt come
home. I had no idea where he was. That was really tough because that was
everything we owned. I didn't know these people, they just handed me a key and
said here's your storage locker. So, took the girls, got in the car and headed down
to Tucson where my mom lived.
I didn't have a full time offer but I took what I could. When we got to town
I got into the social service connection and did get at least some food stamps and
daycare. It allowed me to go to work with a piece of mind. Still not knowing where
my husband was, still not having anything but the shirt on our backs. We did all
sleep in one bedroom in Grandma's house and Heather had a little cot that she
slept on, a little fold away cot and Courtney slept in the bed with me. At least it
was somewhat of a safe haven and out of the elements. I worked part-time for six
months or so, maybe longer than that. I can't really remember. I finally got full-
At first I couldn't even have a checking account I had to put all my money
in the bank and take it back out in cash and get money orders. I saved some money
and mom helped me buy a little tiny single wide mobile home in a mobile home park.
We stayed with Grandma probably a year, then we got our little mobile
home. If I hadn't had my mom, I don't truly know where I would have gone. It was
a very bleak time in my life. That feeling of youve failed, you've failed your
marriage, youve failed everything. We had a pity party for about a year and I
finally divorced him and just moved on and from there just a little better paying job
at the hospital. We were able to buy another mobile home that had three bedrooms
now, old, but a really nice little mobile home so we were moving up in the world.
Did you feel homeless? Oh, oh yes, very homeless. My home was ripped
out from under me. Everything I had worked hard to fix my house up and I took a
lot of pride in my home. Oh I loved my house. To be reduced from a beautiful
home to a back bedroom was very humiliating. Oh I felt very, very homeless and
emotionally drained twenty four hours a day. And at one point, you know, thought
gee I just don't want to do this I cant do this and, you know, my mom just kept
saying you have to, you don't have any choice. You know, I just, I dont know. I
just couldn't believe it was happening. It was like one of those things that you
think this is not happening this must be a nightmare I am going to wake up in a
minute and the nightmare just got worse and worse and worse. And then you know
not understanding why all of a sudden you are all alone.
Did you feel in some way, because so much was being reestablished, that
your original self was partially lost? Oh absolutely. Well, my identity was taken
away. I had no credit. The bank just laughed at me when I tried to get a checking
account. The bill collectors hounded me and hounded me. Your credit is ruined.
Your emotional stability is ruined. I dont know, you have to start over you have to
become another kind of person, a different person. You're still yourself but you're
not. All of a sudden I was a single parent. I remember him coming to the house
that day. He told me, I don't like what you've become." And I thought hum, that's
good, then I must be making progress, [laugh] He doesn't like me, I am changing, I
am turning things around, and in the way I wanted to turn them around. I obviously
was concerned about being a good role model to my girls and I didnt want to let
them down because I had been let down. I certainly didn't want to fail.
Consistency, that is what I aimed for, for you guys, and that's why the
daycare...! wanted a routine. I established very early on, this is where I work, this
is when I go to work, this is what time we get up. And that kept me sane. Once I
got that routine going and a safe place for the kids to be during the day. It helped
keep my mind off it gave me something else to think about other than that,
I don't know...
Personal Narrative Sample Interview19
1. Describe your experience of becoming homeless starting at a point before you
were in transition.
2. How long did you live with your family in a double-up living situation?
3. Describe the space that you lived in while doubled-up with your family.
4. Did you feel homeless?
5. Did you feel like your children where ever going to be removed from your
6. Did you consider living doubled-up with family the only time you were in
7. What did you miss the most for yourself that was not related to the needs of
8. Would separate sleeping quarters for yourself and your children have helped
or hurt your transition through homelessness?
9. What would your have done if you feared for you life during your time of
homelessness and the transition periods following?
10. At any point during your transition did you feel as though your identity
became obsolete? Did this create a need or desire to re-establish that identity?
**Note: The interview was face-to-face in the participants home and lasted ninety
minutes. The interview was recorded using a digital audio recorder and transcribed
into text. The participant was interviewed in person once and will be contacted via
telephone for a follow-up interview if deemed necessary by the interviewer or the
participant. The audio recording will be stored in compact disc for three years from
the date of the interview.
19 Note these questions serve as a guide and may not reflect the exact questions used in the interview.
Homeless Client. An adult representing a homeless household.
Homeless Family. Homeless persons that have one or more of their own
children under age 18 with them. On average, each homeless family household
includes 2.2 minor children.20 21 22 23
Homeless. To not have the choice to live in conventional housing for as long
as one wishes without unwanted displacement.
Transitional Housing. Shelters providing a maximum stay for clients of up
to two years and offering support services to promote self-sufficiency and to help
clients obtain permanent housing.
20 Census 2000, 2.
2' Interagency Council on the Homeless, xviii.
22 Forrester-Sprague, 26
23 Census 2000, 2.
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