Chicago Youth Shelter has New Home with Help from Designs for Dignity

Explore the new shelter for The Harbour, a Chicago-based nonprofit providing emergency housing and services to young people experiencing homelessness.

By GR Chair

Exterior of Chicago Youth Shelter

Today, we’re celebrating the work of Designs for Dignity on a much-needed new shelter for The Harbour, a Chicago-based nonprofit providing emergency housing and services to young people experiencing homelessness. Gathering and donating $175,000 in labor and materials, the Designs for Dignity staff and a group of dedicated volunteer design professionals came together to create a comfortable, beautiful, and dignified space where ten young people can now rest, recover, and rebuild.

Since welcoming their first young person in 1971, The Harbour has supplied over 10,000 hours of case management, 22,000 meals, and almost 10,000 days of shelter to youth in Chicago. However, only a year ago, this safe haven was in danger of permanently closing its doors. With power issues, flooding, and other costly damage, it was clear a remodel wouldn’t be enough, and The Harbour didn’t have the budget to build from the ground up. Thankfully, an angel donor made the construction of a new shelter possible. OKW Architects designed the shelter, Kinzie Builders worked on its construction, Designs for Dignity provided all other interior design services. Now, with additional capacity, The Harbour can continue supporting young people in need.

Row of Reece Barstools.

With a similar dedication to helping communities in Chicago, Designs for Dignity was founded in 2000 by a local interior designer who realized the relationships that designers build with vendors could be leveraged to bring beautiful design to nonprofits at little to no cost. By reaching out to businesses like Grand Rapids Chair Company, Designs for Dignity has been able to coordinate and deploy $18 million worth of product to spaces and organizations like counseling centers, shelters, medical centers, and food pantries.

Designs for Dignity also works with groups of professional designers who volunteer and donate their design expertise. On this project, Gail Wozniak from Solomon Cordwell Buenz served as the Volunteer Design Lead, partnering with Designs for Dignity’s Ed Hanlon as project manager. Jen Sobecki, CEO of Designs for Dignity, says volunteers and staff alike are deeply passionate about the work they do for the organization. “They’re hooked on the mission,” she said. “I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

Considerable thought goes into planning a place like The Harbour, and at the top of the list is taking a trauma-informed approach to the design process. “There are certain things that can be triggering to someone who has experienced trauma,” said Sobecki. “We look closely at things like paint colors and the use of natural light. Collaborating with the architect is essential to design a space that makes people feel safe, welcomed, and comforted.” You can see this thoughtful design in details like the skylights on lofty ceilings and the cool, muted color palette in the main communal space, which provide the room with an open, breathable feeling.

Additionally, details like the durability, aesthetic, and comfort of furniture were essential when thinking about how this space can best serve its residents. An inviting place to land after each day can go a long way towards making a space feel stable and safe.

The work of Designs for Dignity in spaces like The Harbour creates lasting positive impacts on people's lives and on organizations they partner with. The donations that Designs for Dignity provided to The Harbour relieved 10% of the total cost of this new shelter. The savings can now go towards other initiatives and programs that will support residents as they get back on their feet.

You can visit Designs for Dignity if you’d like to get involved. The organization is accepting donations of time, money, and materials from designers, donors, and vendors. Anything vendors have available from discontinued products to excess materials that can be diverted from a landfill can help reduce costs for an organization and create dignified spaces for local communities.

We were delighted to partner with Designs for Dignity on this project by providing seating where the young residents of The Harbor can gather and bond over a shared meal. Learn more about the incredible work The Harbour is doing at their website.