How can design thinking stop chronic homelessness?

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Homelessness challenges the “human-centered design” ethos of design thinking. To the casual observer, the unsheltered individual is the nucleus of the discussion and providing shelter is the first step to breaking the cycle of chronic homelessness. In reality, the mere definition of chronic homelessness is up for debate. 

At a recent AIGASF D.Talk entitled, “Design Solutions to Address Homelessness,” two aspects of the definition of “chronic homelessness” were discussed: the service-based tenant of the “housing first” model and the humanizing of a marginalized community through the, “designing for dignity” approach.

John Cary (see his TED talk) speaks to the shortfalls of the “housing first” model in his article, “Oakland needs more dignifying design to house its homeless.” The City of Oakland spent $600,000 on two dozen Tuff Sheds (yes, the kind sold at Home Depot) that house forty homeless residents along with providing support staff and services. With new housing units in the Bay Area exceeding an average of $400,000 in construction costs, a fiscally-minded bureaucrat sees a “win-win”; however, as a resident of the same community, we all should be appalled and demand better.

Embracing “designing for dignity” through their approach of, “radical hospitality,” Lava Mae is taking hygiene to those in need with showers installed in retrofitted public transit buses with the twist of a five-star hotel’s service. When accepting donations for their mobile hygiene kits, they reframe toiletry items as creating a sense of home and comfort for the unsheltered. Talk about designing at the extremes to create an impactful reframe!

Overlaying this passionate, impactful work is classism and its contribution to homelessness. In a vacuum, it is easy to demand better for the unsheltered, until it impacts your neighborhood’s status, your block’s vibe, or your home’s value. Uniting a community to oppose a new development is easy, but the same coordination to support another human being is nearly impossible. This form of not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) is the wedge further separating the “haves” and the “have-nots.”

This last point highlights the need to include communities in the “human-centered” approach to relieving homelessness. Merely providing shelter, services, and dignity to an unsheltered resident does not sufficiently prepare the community to receive those previously cast off by society. By contrast, we must build empathy through supporting their aspirations of the life we take for granted.