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Human Centered Design Workshop: Life on the Streets
Photos by Eleanor Gorman, Communications
All photos taken with permission of the subjects.

Adrienne Guckenberger

Homelessness in Portland has reached an all-time high. Almost 4,000 people are living on the streets for a variety of reasons. Loss of a job, untreated mental illness, domestic violence and drug addiction are just some of the many factors that contribute to a person ending up on the streets. How can we bridge the gap between seeing them as street people and instead see them as individuals?

A week ago, I participated in a workshop at CareOregon sponsored by the 3D (Discovery, Design, Development) team. The 3D team within our Human Centered Design program is the result of our collaboration with IDEO.

IDEO, a global consulting design firm situated in Silicon Valley, has been collaborating for the past two years with CareOregon, working on prototype concepts to better assist our members. As a result, CareOregon has prototyped M.E.D.S Chart, Give2Get and Food RX. What makes IDEO unique is their human centered design approach, which tailors each prototype to fit the specific needs of the company they collaborate with.

The group began the day by sharing a tangible item or a photograph that either represented a time when we went through a life change or a time in our life when we or someone we knew felt vulnerable.

Building upon that, we then split up into groups in an empathy exercise. My group’s assignment was to immerse ourselves for the morning in the life of the homeless population and to put ourselves in their shoes.

From left to right: Joe Sullivan, Ralph, Gary Cobb

We met Gary, an outreach coordinator at Central City Concern. Formerly in the U.S. Coast Guard, he had spent nearly 20 years homeless and struggling with addiction during the early ‘80s. Clean and sober for the past 14 years, in November 2000 he became a CareOregon member. Now as an advocate for the homeless with Central City Concern, Gary helps clients take control of their health and their lives.

Gary couldn’t walk more than a few steps without somebody coming up to him to ask how he’d been or what he was up to. It was evident that these were his people and this was his turf. He knows the adversity they face, their trials and tribulations, and the darkness and despair they have dealt with. He has been there himself.

We made our way down Southwest Fifth Avenue and came across Richard. Without even uttering a word, you knew this man had a story. Weathered but with an affable manner, you couldn’t help but like him. He sells Street Roots, a publication that addresses homelessness and poverty in Portland. He beamed proudly when he showed us his ID badge and explained the process of how selling newspapers provides a path to self-sufficiency. As a vendor, he purchases papers for 25 cents each and sells them for a dollar. He gets to keep the difference, plus any tips people give him. Transitions Projects, the largest provider of shelter and care for homeless single adults in Portland, is in the process of helping him secure permanent supportive housing.

Ralph

Sisters of the Road serves hot, delicious meals from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. each day. Customers reserve a timeslot for a meal until all slots are filled for the day.

Each timeslot ticket entitles the customer to order up to $4 worth of food. First-time customers are offered their meal and drink on the house, and meals can be paid for with SNAP Benefits/EBT cards, Sisters Meal Coupons or barter work. If you’re unable to help out in the cafe due to medical reasons, you can receive your meal and drink at no charge.

Outside Sisters of the Road we spoke with Ralph, whose cheery disposition, broad smile and welcoming manner made us want to talk to him. For the past nine months he’s been sober and living at the Helen M. Swindells apartment community. It serves individual residents with incomes between 40 and 50 percent of the area’s median income. His $381 rent is paid for by Transitions Projects, and he credits “a higher power” with helping him make it through each day. He comes outside to connect with others because of the isolation he feels when he is cooped up in his room. He calls it “Trying to get outside of his head.”

We made our way to the Community Engagement Program, which helps people who have dual diagnoses of mental illness and addiction. We spoke with Chris, a certified peer support specialist, who is a recovered addict. For the past three years he’s worked there to help people do things such as grocery shopping, going to medical appointments and other things that most of don’t really think about. But for a person dealing with a multiple diagnoses, these activities can be overwhelming and scary.

Dory and Gary, left to right

Chris also discussed some of the barriers homeless people face, especially if they have a criminal background, no means of transportation, lack stable housing, don’t have a phone or are discriminated against. He explained that a lot of homeless people go back to what they know, because when they try to find a job or get housing, they face so many barriers and obstacles that drugs and/or alcohol are a refuge. As a result, they remain homeless in a vicious cycle.

Chris tries to help each person who comes through the door overcome these obstacles by connecting them with resources, providing encouragement and support, and letting them know they have a safe place to express their feelings.

At this point Gary had to get back to work, and we parted ways.

I couldn’t help but think back to the things Ralph had said: everybody has a story; and we all want to feel we have value and worth.

When we walk down the street and see a homeless person, let’s remember that person has a name, a story and a life -- just like you and me.