Design Thinking for Youth Homelessness
A few months ago I attended a workshop where a group of us were tasked with applying the Design Thinking process - advocated by Stanford's d.school - to solve the issue of Youth Homelessness, a national issue that is very relevant to our Dallas community. This iterative process includes phases of Empathy, Definition, Ideation, Prototyping, Testing.
As stated in a previous blog, I myself have been through a period of time were my family was effectively homeless in Nigeria, couch surfing between family and friends that had little resources to support themselves let alone 3 more people. But even before that I've had a particularly soft spot for the homeless, stemming from the age of around 5 when my family lived in South Africa. The city we lived in happened to have a big Youth Homelessness problem, for reasons that I honestly never understood. I remember that after my parents discovered this, they would spend Saturdays cooking several coolers worth of rice and chicken, then in the evening would load them into my dad's car, drive to the downtown area, and park the car somewhere that these kids - some my age, some older - would frequently gather. With my brother and I in the car, my parents would get out, signal to all the kids to approach the car, pop the trunk, then fill up to-go boxes, handing them out to each one till the coolers emptied. At this young age I didn’t know what was going on and for some reason assumed that my parents were adopting these kids; needless to say, I was excited to have new brothers and sisters!
But then it occurred to me what was really going on. Through the pouring rain, I saw some kids stash their food in alley ways and boxes then come back for seconds and even thirds. Some of the bigger ones would just simply beat up the younger ones and take their food away. They weren't playing a game or horsing around, this was survival. It was the first time that I really knew it was possible for a kid to exist in the world without their parents. I didn’t know the word 'Homeless' existed but I got the gist right there and then. These kids who looked just like me didn’t get tucked-in at night or fall asleep staring at the ceiling over their heads like I did, and that made a huge impression on me.
Fast forward to the workshop at UT Dallas. Having learned about the Design Thinking in my study of Product Design, I jumped at the opportunity to apply it to the issue of Youth Homelessness. We began the workshop with some education on the homelessness issue by the event organizer Nancy Fairbank, a Political Science major here at UT Dallas who has been involved with the issue since a Junior in high school. She had recently give a TEDx Talk over the issue, and gave us a more in-depth look at the issue. Here's her Tedx Talk I encourage you to watch it:
One of the main causes of Youth Homelessness comes from within the family, conflict between children and parents like sever abuse and neglect largely lead to youth homelessness. Some of the top issues with homelessness include:
- Visibility and awareness: Homeless children blend in with other children; it's hard to discern if a child with a backpack is just going to school or is in fact homeless
- Definition of homelessness: the stigmatization of homelessness, misconceptions, and belief systems are mostly unwarranted and can largely be detrimental to helping
- Legality: Most of these youth are below the age of 18 and it can be a liability issue for homeless shelters to take them in alongside adults, so the youth continue to stay homeless
- Foster Care Homelessness: Many youth who are unable to remain in foster care after turning 18 face challenges transitioning to adulthood and end up homeless
- Survival Sex: Youth trade sex to get their basic food and necessities. Survival sex can also lead to STDs and pregnancy while homeless
- Sexual Orientation: 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBT, which stems from parents not agreeing with their child's sexual orientation or gender preference, leading them to leaving the home.
- Lack of services: This is due to either lack of funding for programs or bad estimation of where resources are better focused. It costs less to pay for outreach programs for homeless youth than for their healthcare but the opposite is believed to be true.
- Outreach: For those willing to help by offering resources, its tough balancing awareness of resources against the fear of outing the homeless children who prefer to remain anonymous
- Data: Tracking, identity, effectiveness of programs are hard information to get.
With 3500 known homeless children in Dallas, resources to serve these Homeless youth include:
- Transition Living programs: These overpopulated transition homes build community and enforce schooling, working, curfews, and proper finances.
- Basic needs centers: These shelters give basic living resources and give the youth an interaction with staff
- Various online philanthropic resources
- Give Effect: Mass platform fundraising through crowdfunding with free transaction cost for nonprofits
- Hand Up: A go fund me style crowdfunding that follows up with recipients to see if they follow through with spending
Nancy's quick speech to kick off the workshop gave us a large amount of insightful information about Youth Homelessness. In our limited time, we were led through the rest of the Design Thinking process by event hosts Jan Langelius and Wesley Slavin of Peterbilt motor company. We further developed empathy for these youth by pairing up and interviewing one another about our current, past, and future living situations; this dug into life, family, motivations, shortcomings, and other ancillary details. Through this, we uncovered very diverse stories, feelings, issues, and belief systems. We then formed groups of 5-6 people and recorded our notes and key points on stick notes that we placed on the board. In order to make sense of it all, we categorized them into groups with topics like:
- Building social/family elements
- Avoiding negatives that come with solitude/homelessness
- Establishing positive feelings within a living space
- Providing services
From this perspective we discovered that most of the notes addressed the lower half of Maslow's hierarchy of needs; physiological, safety and belonging. This was an insight that told us that in these homeless situations, these youth not only find ways to secure their physiology and safety but are able to supplement the Love and belonging by joining street families and engaging in survival sex. It seems like whether or not these youth have goals and ambitions their attention and dedication to Self-esteem and Self-actualization is diminished. Upon recognizing this, we created a new category called 'cultivating environments that promote development and opportunity to advance' and filled it with notes.
Our next step was to generate "how might we ____?" questions. These questions were meant to disover and define major problems and start a conversation about solutions. Our group came up with questions like:
- How might we help homeless youth define and achieve their goals?
- How might we cultivate an environment that promotes development, success, and opportunities for advancement?
- How might we avoid the sole emphasis on survival that comes with homelessness?
- How might we promote growth, self-awareness, and self esteem?
- How might we create safe spaces for LGBT youth?
- How might we decrease HIV, pregnancy, survival sex rates, and drug and alcohol abuse?
- How might we track and gather data on homeless populations?
- How might we increase and enable mobility for them?
These questions seemed to fall two buckets of approaches. Top-down: Preventing homelessness by promoting self-actualization, goal setting, and planning. And Bottom-up: Helping those that are already homeless by preventing the behaviors that may perpetuate homelessness. We decided to approach it from the bottom up and chose one of the previous question in that approach which inspired us enough to move forward with, "How might we decrease HIV, pregnancy, survival sex rates, and drug and alcohol abuse in homeless youth?"
With this question in hand, our next step was to ideate on solutions. We came up with a long list of services and resources such as displaying posters about safe sex in alley-ways and underpasses, giving out free condoms and pills, health checkup vans, free info sessions in collaboration with community resources, a hotline that gives them someone to talk to, anti-rape clothing, blue-lit alleyways and HIV free incentives. These ideas all seemed great, but a nagging question persisted: 'How do we give these services for homeless youth without outing them as homeless?'. This seemed like our greatest roadblock and posed the greatest challenge. We altered the 'How might we __?' question we chose to include keeping them anonymous and focused our ideation on methods to introduce these resources to the youth while either keeping them anonymous or reducing the stigma on homelessness. To our list of ideas we added any idea we could come up with no matter how crazy it might seem:
- Make homelessness cool to reduce stigma and fear of outing
- Educating people on the real hardships that cause youth homelessness
- Speak-Easys, historically used as highly secure locations to sell alcohol during prohibitions but instead use them for homeless kids to get advice and counseling
- Support groups
- Show them the number of people affected by them resorting to a life of homelessness
- Free body camera for at risk youth
- Train and pay some former homeless adults to help other homeless. They would know where to find them and be able to relate to them.
- Randomly disperse supply drops around a city that have goods to help and feed them
- Utilizing the symbolic language that homeless people use to direct people to secret locations.
With these great ideas generated from the flaring phase of the Design Thinking process we needed to move toward selection some for prototyping. We worked on narrowing and combining some of these ideas and the product we and settled on:
- Help at the GAP a program could be a partnership with a chain of stores, restaurants or events where these youth could blend in with others but be able to talk to a worker wearing some kind of badge to signify that they were certified to counsel them.
- Free Body cameras given to the youth that automatically upload pictures to the cloud and have a GPS location, the fear of being captured on one of these cameras and having one identified as an abuser of homeless youth could deter assailants.
- Use homeless to provide help for homeless. This program could help get the few homeless youth who are outwardly seeking help and train them about child homelessness and pay them to turn around and both inspire the still homeless youth as well as deliver them resource all with only exposing them to someone who has been in their shoes.
Further assimilation of the final ideas would be to partner with stores, restaurants, and events to hire previously homeless youth who have been trained to advise youth on homelessness. These workers could wear pins on their shirts that identified them as confidants for any homeless youth that enters the location seeking help. These confidants could also give the children supply backpacks that included food, condoms, birth control pills, a body camera, a map for safe houses, and pamphlets about homelessness, HIV, drugs, survival sex. These homeless youth could relay some valuable information about the homeless children in the city including methods to reach them, resting places, travel patterns, and behaviors.
Through this quick Design Thinking workshop we were able to empathize with, gain understanding of, and create solutions for the issue of Youth Homelessness, and by sticking to the method we recorded our feelings and takeaways, organized, and reflected upon them. This was all before coming up with any solutions. By the time we reached the ideation phase, we had a keen understanding of the constraints of the issue. The solutions we came up with were testable and we believe very valuable. It’s a testament to the power a group of people have when they come together to discuss an important issue around the framework of a process. I respect Nancy Fairbank and the hundreds of people like her for what they're doing for these youth who have been thrust into these situations. More of us should pay attention to the world around us and the issues that develop, and take some time to develop or contribute to solutions that we're passionate about.