When Cheryl M. first heard about the renovations to the shelter buildings at Sarah’s House she was skeptical. She and her son had moved in shortly before COVID-19 struck Maryland. It was her first experience in a shelter, and while she was pleased with the private room and liked the staff, she didn’t understand why the renovations were a big deal.

“My initial thinking was: all they did was change the floor and put some paint on the walls. So what?” she said.

But after she moved into the upgraded space, she found herself spending more time in her room.

“I thought it was just paint on the wall – until I got in there. Then I thought, this is very calming. This is different,” she explained.

That’s the point of the renovations, said Kelly Anderson, director of Catholic Charities’ supportive housing program, which offers emergency shelter, transitional housing, and a range of other services to individuals and families experiencing homelessness in Anne Arundel County.

Building a trauma-informed environment

Sarah’s House, located at Fort Meade, comprises eight buildings – old World War II barracks last renovated “a long time ago,” Anderson said. The shelter buildings had white walls, white tile floors, and bright overhead lights – an institutional feel that often made recovery and healing harder.

“Everybody who comes to us has experienced some level of trauma,” she said, adding the 12-week stay permitted at the shelter is “a Polaroid snapshot in a person’s life, and we have got to make the most impact and provide the most efficient services.”

So, with trauma-informed care in mind, Sarah’s House applied for a Local Development Council grant in 2019, securing $500,000. The bulk of that was designated to upgrade the two shelter buildings, the program’s “most traveled” facilities. Renovations include making basic repairs, replacing decades-old tile with wood-look flooring, installing softer, dimmable lighting, and painting in an array of calming pastel colors. A donation drive also brought in new bedding, towels and bedside plants to help residents feel more at home.

“I was normally up and out because I didn’t want to stay here. Now, I was staying in the room … and relaxing a little bit more,” said Cheryl M., who has moved on to transitional housing at Sarah’s House. “Even the decor down the hallway – it had more of a hotel vibe.”

Recognizing people’s worth

Planning the renovations was complicated, particularly at a time when social distancing and other pandemic-related restrictions had already cut back program capacity by 65 percent. Sarah’s House allotted 30 days for each building’s renovation, closing the spaces one at a time. The second building is scheduled to be finished at the end of November.

Anderson is thrilled with the outcome so far.

“It absolutely elates me,” she said. “This is about people’s worth. People are worthy of floors that are not cracked. People are worthy of walls that are not drawn on by the last person…. This is just such a fresh start.”