Psychologically Informed Environments

If you have followed MAW over the last few years, it shouldn’t have escaped your attention that we are interested in social housing. This includes buildings that help to rehabilitate those suffering homelessness and affordable properties for those unable to get on the housing ladder.

In the summer Matt and I teamed up to run 10k for a local housing and assistance charity called Impakt. They are doing some great work across Bedfordshire in helping the homeless back onto their feet, providing more than just shelter, but supporting them in all manner of ways.

We first met Paul Kellet at Impakt and he talked to us about their programmes and something called psychologically informed environments, or PIE for short. Paul and the Impakt team had developed considerable expertise in PIE, not least in the design of their buildings.

Paul has since moved to a charity called Signpost, to continue his great work but with a focus on Luton and Dunstable, within Bedfordshire.

PK, as Paul is affectionally known, agreed to tell us a bit more about his time supporting the homeless community and to help us understand how we can incorporate PIE principles in the buildings we design.

What better way to share this than via a short interview, so here goes:

Andy: How long have you worked in the social and supported housing sector? 

PK: I’ve been working in the charity sector for just over 30 years the majority of which has been within the homeless/supported housing sector.

I took a year out in my late teens and went to volunteer for a homeless and drug support charity in Hong Kong. When I came back I decided to find work in the sector to try and make a difference. 

Andy: What have been the major developments in the sector during this time?  

PK: Great question; homelessness has for centuries been treated like it’s the fault of the individual with very little support or consideration for underlining causes. I see homelessness as the fruit on the tree, not the issue itself.

If you take 10 mins to talk to someone who is street homeless you will start to see a picture of childhood trauma, failed relationships, mental health conditions, negative educational experiences, bankruptcy, low self-esteem, bullying, workplace stress or the impact of military training.

Throughout my 30 years, hardly any stories started with drug or alcohol addictions, which is the number one public opinion for homelessness.

Today we are seeing the biggest change within the sector to providing trauma-informed care and support. Organisations are now focusing more on the underlining trauma that caused an individual to be homeless not just their homeless status.

This is vital if we are to truly empower people to succeed with independent living and not just yoyo between accommodation and the street.

Let me give you an example. I knew a chap who had been homeless for years. Eventually, he was given a flat to live in, but within less than a month he was back on the streets. As he had freely given up his accommodation he was now classed as intentionally homeless and regarding future housing was back at the bottom of the pile.

However, we must ask the question WHY?

Why would a middle-aged man leave a supposedly safe, warm flat to live back on the street, what causes that decision. It’s this questioning that has created ‘Trauma Informed Care’, which now focuses support on an individual’s needs and not just getting that all-important roof over their head.

With this approach we can give people the holistic support they need, not rushing someone on before they are ready. This truly gets them to the point where they can thrive in life and play an active role within our communities once again.

Andy: We’ve previously talked about using PIE (Psychologically Informed Environments) principles for accommodation in this sector. What are the key ingredients of PIE?

PK: PIE is part of the trauma-informed approach.

On a day-to-day basis, it considers the psychological makeup – the thinking, emotions, personalities, and past experience – of its participants in the way that it operates. It also considers the psychological needs of staff working with those affected by trauma, helping them to develop skills and knowledge, increasing motivation, job satisfaction and resilience.

PIE has 5 key elements:

1. Relationships 

2. Staff support and training

3. The physical environment and social spaces

4. A psychological framework

5. Evidence generating practice

These elements help staff work more effectively with people who have complex and multiple needs, changing the way we understand and tackle the behaviour that leads to homelessness, in a measurable way.

The approach focuses strongly on relationship building to promote long term recovery.

Andy: What impact do Psychologically Informed Environments have on the rehabilitation of those who have been homeless or living on the streets?  

PK: Moving service support to a format that puts the individual in the centre creates the best environment for that individual to change as all their personal circumstances are considered.

For clients, it means their psychological and emotional needs are better understood. This allows them to feel more able to engage with staff and start to address areas of their lives that need support.

The overall benefit can be seen in results such as 

  • Fewer warnings issued
  • Reduction in evictions and unplanned departures
  • Increase in positive outcomes
  • Better engagement with other services
  • Successful independent living
  • Better long-term employment outcomes

For staff to this approach empowers them to look past the day-to-day behaviours an individual’s presents and understanding how they think and feel about the way that person is behaving.

This approach enables staff to be more considered in their reaction. Trauma-informed care and P.I.E help us appreciate how clients life experiences, can affect the way they cope with difficult situations so that we are less likely to make judgements about behaviours we find difficult or challenging.

One of the areas of PIE that I have personally been involved in over the last five years is the physical environment and social spaces aspect. I’m passionate about this area of P.I.E as understanding how our clients interact with their environment is crucial to help them begin the journey of tackling the impact their past trauma has on their current life choices.

For me, the interior design aspect of PIE is more than a simple paint colour choice, it’s about creating spaces that feel safe, warm, dependable, and happy.

Aspects of particular importance in interior design using P.I.E. include:

  • understanding the client base and what trigger colours to stay away from
  • building material choice
  • how furniture placement will function
  • the use of textures and lighting

These factors all go towards a design that is not only non-institutional but makes a functional environment that staff and clients can utilise to the full.  

Andy: Where can people go to find out more about Psychologically Informed Environments (PIE) design principles? 

PK: There are some great papers on P.I.E that can be found online.

Check out this great short piece by Dr Helen Miles for Centrepoint.

Or this more in-depth paper prepared for Westminster City Council.

Andy: Thank you very much, Paul, for taking the time to tell us a bit about how you are making a difference in our community, but also to better explain PIE.

As a practice, we firmly believe high-quality buildings create positive environments that make a significant difference to the people that live, work or play in them. Contact us here to find out more.