How do you perceive homelessness?
There is often a false perception that comes with this topic. Working over several months through a culmination of forums, one on one sessions with community members, and design sessions with homeless youth led us to ask the following question. How might we use an art space and story collage to change the perceived narrative and be a beacon of change towards homelessness. Empowering Tarrant County Homeless Coalitions Youth Action Board to be active designers in creating Real Stories, we aimed to better understand and empathize with our fellow peers, using art as a means to better tell their story. We kicked our pilot off in partnership with The University of Texas at Arlington at their event One Night Without a Home. Hosted in November 2019 the event consisted of educational workshops on homelessness and finished with a late-night homeless simulation on campus.
Designed as a roaming wall and online story collage was built out of cardboard panels and draped in butcher paper to address the lack of usable wall space. The structure was a subtle play on using materials for unintended purposes, sharing in some of the creative prowess that is often required from the homeless community as they get by day to day. The structure could be dismantled and easily redeployed giving it some flexibility to be used at future events. Real Stories aimed to create a shared space were students, staff, visiting professionals, and those experiencing homelessness could share their thoughts on their perception, experience, and real experience with homelessness.
Some of the initial thoughts on the perception and definition of homelessness included…
“not having a roof over your head”
“it creates an image that defiles you”
“not having a true support system”
A long night of discussions and exercises brought some unique insights into the meanings of homelessness. As discussions got deeper, a few powerful stories helped illuminate the journey to and from homelessness. Reflecting on some our lessons working to aid homeless college students, we shared the importance of understanding a challenge and connecting with those directly effected. As an added bonus, Que Glenn, our Youth Action Board champion, shared some wisdom into the value of communication and the journey that led him to homelessness.
Following the homeless simulation. We asked students to share their experience for their One Night Without a Home. Some of the experiences included...
“Difficult. As the night went by, the cold and discomfort made sleeping and spending the night different from our “everyday home conform.”
“It was really uncomfortable even though we slept inside on the sofa without then winds and rain. Just trying to find a comfortable position was hard. It was physically and mentally challenging.”
“Humbling and bad. I’m glad that I got to see what these people go through, but it honestly sucks. I kept waking up expecting to be in my own bed.”
The most powerful insights though came from students at UTA that had or where currently experiencing homelessness. The challenges faced included...
"I didn’t think I would be able to go to college. "
"We lived with my mother’s ex-boyfriend and he was kicking us out of the house."
"Spring 10 – Fall 2012"
"My adopted sister wasn’t potty trained until she was 8 years old because of her homeless mother. We are still healing today."
"Fear of not knowing if I would live through the night."
"Dropping out of college."
"Being alone for the first time was so hard. I had to ask my friends to crash on their couch. It got annoying, but thankfully I overcame my biggest challenge."
Despite the stories, homelessness is still subject to bias. We discuss how we are all people at the end of the day, whether we be a CEO of a company or a fellow peer on the street, and we need to be respectful to our fellow neighbors. We share how a lack of support and community are all part of being homelessness. Not having a roof is a technical definition, but it goes beyond. Having a helping hand, people you can rely on, and a family (even if it is one you create through friends) are key to helping an individual through this hurdle. However, the most powerful insight gained was Que’s definition of homelessness.
"The true meaning of homelessness isn't just having a roof over your head. But not having a true support system."
Powerful words, which highlights one crucial question. Who is our key support system? How different would our story be if they were not present in our lives? When we look at homelessness through this lens, who all is affected?
Homelessness is a condition of the system. It is not intended, or desired as some would come to believe. The people experiencing homelessness are not lazy, or always mentally ill. Most do not have a desire to live like this. Usually it is a set of circumstances, that any one of us could deal with within our lives. The only difference being if we have support or not. Our system, if set up to make it very easy to get into a very deep hole that can be difficult to get out of. Bad credit, a criminal record, bias, and the ability to deny vouchers all play a role in making the road out of homelessness difficult.
When we talk of homelessness and those suffering it, we must identify our fellow peers with the same compassion and authenticity we engage everyone else with. We must be curious to understand how an individual or family becomes homeless. To paraphrase Jay Pitter, we must understand the failures we have created, and ensure that people do not need to rise up against these failures. Only then can we start the journey to building a better solution.
So we ask again.... how do you perceive homelessness?