Avivo Village: How to Create a Trauma-Informed Space

Emily Bastian. Photo Sarah Whiting

“I need to be able to come and go 24/7. I am an adult.” 

“I had a door that locked as a teenager. As an adult I should have that privacy.” 

“My pet is my family. Do not make me choose between my family and coming indoors.” 

“You can drink in your home and can come home drunk — I should be able to do that.” 

“I want to be able to sleep in the middle of the day and read in the middle of the night. I need to be able to control the lights.”

“Just because my belongings might look different than yours, they shouldn’t get thrown away. I should have a safe place to be able to leave them and know that they are still going to be there.”

“Don’t make me go to a different place than my significant other if we are different genders.”

Minneapolis-based nonprofit Avivo collected insights from people with experience being unhoused. In December 2020, they opened Avivo Village — an indoor community that houses 100 residents in private dwellings in a “tiny house” village, built partly in response to the pandemic’s impact on growing numbers of unhoused. 

“We talked with people about what it would take to feel comfortable to want to go indoors,” said Emily Bastian, vice president of Avivo’s Ending Homelessness division. “As a result, we have seen people choosing to come indoors that have not done so in years.”

Avivo offers workforce training, chemical and mental health services, and housing support services for nearly 15,000 people each year. The organization has long offered street outreach, transitional recovery housing, transitional housing for young adults, and permanent supportive housing. 

Since opening, the team has helped 57 people move into permanent housing. “It is a perfect example of how individuals know what they need. The rest of us have the power and the privilege to help get barriers out of the way,” explains Bastian.

Minnesota Women’s Press asked Bastian to explain how Avivo Village offers security and encourages growth.

How did Avivo Village reconcile the concerns around security, safety, and trauma that people have experienced — as well as give them stable walls?

The first thing that we do is ensure a radical welcome so that when folks move in they are welcomed unconditionally with a laundry basket filled with new items. We do not just flip or turn a room. We get it staged. We are putting a different level of care into getting it ready.

The intake is very trauma-informed. We ask minimal questions in the first 24 to 48 hours. Once people have had a chance to sleep and feel that radical welcome, there is a little more trust starting to build.

We do have security, but they do not wear a uniform. They sit at the front desk and act like a door person, welcoming people by name. If there is an incident [with our 100 residents], staff are trained to respond. Security keeps an eye on the cameras and the doors, and an eye on the staff who are handling the situation, but are not the ones who intervene. 

We are very cautious about calling 911. There have been times that we have needed police to respond because the paramedics will not come in without the police clearing the area, saying it is safe. We have let [the police] know that they should not come in without an escort, and we let people know they are coming in beforehand. 

Can you describe the physical space?

We start at the front door, which is secure. Guests cannot come in. When people walk into the lobby area, it is a wall of windows. There is a lot of natural light. It is a very open space. Then they get past the next set of doors. They get buzzed in, and it opens for them — so it is not like being buzzed into a prison. That space is open and not cluttered. Walking into an open space feels healthier than walking into a space where you feel closed in. The ceilings are high. Lights are installed so it is not that horrible fluorescent migraine-initiating overhead. We change the lighting as the day goes on, kind of as the sun would rise and set. We always have a puzzle that the community is putting together in the large open space. We have artwork that people are creating. 

We have a lot of folks who identify as Indigenous at Avivo Village. We have partnered with White Earth Nation to choose paint colors in relationship to the medicine wheel — the elements. A rust color for fire, yellow for the stars, green for earth, blue for water. We have [interior] signs that are in both Ojibwe and English, and indoor “streets” are named after animals and Indigenous medicines.

Being grounded when experiencing anxiety is important. We have a space that we refer to as the Zen Den, which can be used for individual meditation or yoga or reiki — or simply a space where someone who is experiencing intense emotions can sit in stillness and not have neighbors around. Having 99 neighbors can be a sensory overload. 

We have a chalkboard wall so they can draw. Our hope is that folks can use their skills to self-regulate in a way that allows them to be safe. We all need to learn ways to decompress. Often folks who have experienced a lot of trauma have less healthy ways to decompress.

Sometimes individual therapy and medication are not appropriate. What else do you offer at Avivo for healing?

People in crisis, living with trauma, are in the “now” moment. Therapy is often reflecting back or looking forward, and we really need to help people in the moment. 

Humans are relationship-based. Giving someone the opportunity to feel or see or talk through an experience can be so much stronger than sitting in a 50-minute therapy session.

We hope that individuals have new experiences at Avivo to feel what it is like to be safe and find people who care and to bounce ideas off — the things many people have been able to do with friends and family. For some, friends and family cannot show up with care and compassion because they are struggling or have been traumatized themselves. It really is a kind of corrective experience that we want residents to have.

Listen to Emily Bastian describe the work of Avivo Village