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Art Turns Housing into Homes


Shelter is a big problem for many people in Virginia. Up to 40,000 may be homeless for some period of time during any given year, with many cycling through housing and back to the streets.

Now, a Central Virginia group is using art and interior design to attack the problem.

The Haven day shelter is one block from the popular pedestrian mall in Charlottesville, in a stately, brown-brick church built in 1837. The sign out front reads, “The Haven, everyone needs a place to start.”

The day here starts at 7:30.  Stephen Hitchcock is the executive director of the Haven.

“As a day shelter we address basic needs, food, storage, physical mailing address, showers, laundry, that sort of thing. The whole  point of the whole operation is to address homelessness through housing so we then try to find them a good housing option and then support them in that housing so they don't return to homelessness.”

Since last July, the Haven has managed to secure housing for over 300 clients. Although only about a dozen have become homeless again, the Haven staff thinks they can improve those numbers — and perhaps help everyone feel more at home in the houses they find.  Maureen Brondyke is the executive director of the New City Arts Initiative, a non-profit that works with the Haven.

“Just a roof over their head doesn't necessarily stabilize them in their place.We want them to have a place that reflects who they are, whether that's the color on the wall, whether they really like plants, whether the last time they lived in a house that felt like home, they had an afghan on their bed, we want them to be able to have those things, so that they want to stay in their homes.”

Last year, the Haven staff had a revelation of sorts when one of the women who received housing admitted she was unhappy with her new home. So, a volunteer spent some time with her, took her to a few thrift shops, and essentially helped her redesign the place.

“It was clear that while not much was done, this new approach to creating a beautiful more livable space that you might even call home, not just housing, had an actual outcome.  It’s a space that she found far more livable, even lovely, but then also I think it contributes to her sense of stability,” Hitchcock says.

That small success got the Haven staff thinking about what else they could do to make clients comfortable. They applied for and won a Housing2Home grant from a group called ArtPlace America -- $200,000 to hire a Creative Coordinator, and fund modest redesigns of about 65 properties.

“It could be painting the walls a certain color, it could be furnishing your room,” Hitchcock explains. “It could even mean working with this creative coordinator to find a piece of art that is something that you love and speaks to ‘home’ for you.”

The Housing2Home program is just gearing up so nobody’s been through it yet, but clients  are already thinking about of what they’d like: 

"Little things like pots and pans and towels. Pictures of nature, sunrises.  Now that I’m thinking about it, I’d have a Himalayan salt lamp. Plants, artsy creative pictures on the wall, a nice room with some books.  That’s home!” 

The program will begin next month.