2 weeks into research on homelessness, have some thoughts, no answers yet, and lots of questions still

On “people are people”

Alex and I spent a Sunday morning filming at Church under the Bridge. Inspired by Fifty People One Question, we thought it’d be an interesting way to learn more about the people that are experiencing homelessness. So we put up a sign and asked, “What would you like to have happened by the end of the day?” As it turned out, what they want aren’t all that different from what everybody else wants: health, $100 bill, my dog to stop barking, a back massage, good Mexican food, etc. At the end of the day, people are people, which is what we have been hearing from staff at ARCH, as well as designer researcher like Jan Chipchase who presented at his TED talk on how people across the world all carry 3 of the same things.

On play + service

I thought in order to not disrespect or offend anyone, humor and play should be out of the question when working with problems as heavy as homelessness. But I think I have completely underestimated the power of having fun. For the longest time, we have wanted to but struggled with just sitting down and talking to people that are homeless and ask them about their stories. Until one day when we decided to just lay down some stickers in the middle of ARCH and see what would happen. As it turns out, everyone wanted to play with the stickers and tell us about their days. It was fun and people were excited, which got me thinking about Jon Kolko’s TED talk on products having their own personalities and characters. Can we design something (product, service, or a program) that showcase each of their unique personality, and also make it fun for them to want to keep doing it? If people are people, at the end of the day, despite their economic circumstances, would still love to entertain and be entertained. Thanks to Alex for reminding me that there isn’t such thing as “what does fun mean for people that are homeless”. Because, if people are people, fun is fun. How do we design something that combine play + service?

On support network

We also attended the Annual Homeless Memorial Service at Townlake the other day. Then I heard someone said, “A lot of us are 4 paycheques away from being homeless. We work twice as hard but get half as much.” That comment stuck with me as I recall the many conversations Alex and I had around we are where we are today because of our support network. I thought back to when I first moved to Austin – and how if I didn’t find a job in a few months, I could be homeless. I never thought of it that way, and of course I haven’t, because at the end of the day I know I always have a support network to rely on. And if I didn’t, the decision to take the risk and quit my old job wouldn’t even have occurred to me. There is such a stigma around people that are homeless, where they are often perceived as having mental disabilities, some sort of addictions, or criminal background. A percentage of the homeless population certainly fall in those categories, but what people don’t realize is that many of them are just like us, working as hard as they can, living within their means, then something happened and suddenly they had no choice. If my support network doesn’t exist, I could be in the same situation. And I’m still chewing on that thought.

On cultural shock“Why can’t they just stay at their jobs?”, “Why aren’t they showing up for their appointments?”, “Why aren’t they helping themselves? Don’t they want to get out of this situation?” I hear many ask those questions about people that are homeless. I am pretty sure I once asked those same questions. But Kat has rightly pointed out that perhaps there’s simply a cultural shock that needs adjusting to. Dawn from ARCH has mentioned that one of the biggest causes of homelessness is growing up in poverty, with single or no parent around. Now, if you were never taught about being punctual, following up on tasks, goal settings, etc, over and over again when you were a kid, perhaps you wouldn’t be taking all those “common sense” for granted also. We all seem to understand the concept of cultural differences amongst different countries, why aren’t we more accepting about the cultural differences amongst different demographics, and more importantly, upbringing? As a start, I recommend the Women’s Bean Project video.

On self-worth Every single person we talked to mentioned something along the line of helping another person. The need to bond and craving to be of use to others are definitely universal. I have been extremely blown away by this insight as I can relate to it with another personal anecdote of mine, where I’ve seen first hand of how empowering it can be for someone to be able to offer advice, share resource, or even just make another individual smile. It’s so powerful that I think it fundamentally changes the way people see themselves and their reasons of being. I heard Jon Kolko and Suzi Sosa were having a discussion around whether the Maslow hierarchy is true in the sense that basic needs like shelter is more important and must be achieved before self-actualization can happen. I used to think yes, but now I’m not sure anymore. I want to hear more of what other people think.

2 thoughts on “2 weeks into research on homelessness, have some thoughts, no answers yet, and lots of questions still”

Kolko writes that the pyramid is upside downhttp://designmind.frogdesign.com/blog/the-pyramid-to-enlightenment-is-upside-down.html

“I’m increasingly confident that the best thing we can do in designing for social innovation is to aim our work as explicitly as possible at the top of Maslow’s pyramid while targeting the masses at the bottom of the other pyramid. Our goal should be to drive and support creativity, the refinement of ethics, a focus on self-esteem and self-worth, and self-sufficiency – and not to simply provide food, water, and clothing.”

I committed the same presumptive faux pas at the AC4D Bootcamp when I spun our group’s initial goal to ask people about what they did for fun to instead finding out about who they hung out with or who they trusted. I thought asking about fun would be naïve or even offensive to a group (problems in thinking already) of people who (in my head then) were stressed about basic needs. What’s naïve is that I negated the whole idea without first talking with or hanging around anybody.

I also think that you can’t co-create (or teach effectively, or co-learn) without the respect that comes with top-of-the-pyramid work instead of the deficit model of bottom-of-the-pyramid work.

Maybe that cliché of a story — “give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime” — is really more about self-esteem and self-actualization than it is about just teaching a skill.

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