Exploring the intersection of public space and homelessness

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Outreach as Exclusion

When he turned to me and asked, “how about this: you read the questions to me,” that was the moment when I realized that it wasn’t that understanding the questions was hard, but that reading itself was the barrier.

I had been invited to help the local street newspapers’ vendors—people experiencing homelessness or extreme poverty—fill out online surveys that the local neighborhood business improvement association were using to soliciting feedback about redesigning four parks in the neighborhood.

Viewing this survey through their eyes, it was hard not to watch myself making the same mistakes in survey instruments that I’d designed. Some quick lessons that this experience left for me include:

1.       The media is the message. Marshall McLuhan’s famous saying from four decades ago holds true. Without another mechanism for input, the online survey format served to disenfranchise some members of the homeless population that live in the neighborhood.  I don’t know if this online survey will be the only mechanism for outreach—I hope it won’t—but if it is, the message the homeless community received from the client and the design team was that their voices did not matter.

2.       Invitation as vaccination. One of the reasons the street newspaper staff was concerned about this survey is because no one had reached out to them or their vendors about how the survey would engage their vendors. Setting aside a time to meet, working to include the homeless population, using another public feedback instrument—e.g., in person survey, boards that presented different options, meetings at the street newspaper’s offices—would have stopped the distrust and skepticism that was brewing in the room.  

3.       Don’t erase people space. As a designer, I appreciated the survey’s simplified sketchup models.  They showed the basic structure of each space: whether there were changes in elevation, where fixed objects were located, showing the extents of paving and plantings. This simplification allowed some of the structural challenges of the space to emerge.

However, for the people at the street newspaper, this simplification was erasure. The omission of the benches—some movable, some bolt-down—read as a clear signal to them that what mattered most to them—a comfortable place to sit, to visit with friends—was unimportant to the design team. For these people, who had been victimized in countless ways, they saw the removal of their public amenities in the existing condition as a message of devaluation and dehumanization, and they were reacting with the same affronted sensibilities that most of us would.

Further, without the designers in the room to explain their proposals, everyone had to interpret what was intended through the images and the text of the online survey. Seemingly benign spatial interventions were interpreted as defensive “hostile” design, meant to discourage the homeless. While inclusive design proposals—for example a shared community table where everyone could gather and eat together—were proposed in some of the options, the vendors remembered only that the benches they enjoyed sitting on were replaced by one-person, pod-like stools that did not seem comfortable nor accommodating to their needs, particularly for people who had some sort of physical struggle.

4.       Create Community. Well-meaning staff at the street newspaper framed the discussion as “they’re trying to kick us out.”  I am not sure if that’s the case. We all quickly leap to conclusions, and this may have been one of those instances. The offices for the street newspaper and the business improvement association are only two blocks apart and there could have easily been a conversation between the two organizations to address the legitimate concerns and ensure that staff from both organizations would do better in the future.

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