Placemaking Reimagined: Stories of Two Homeless Women in New York

I was happy to join the Placemaking Reimagined (previously called Crimson Wave) Design For America project in the summer of 2018. During winter 2019 we are testing our pop-up exhibition prototype that showcases our research on homeless women in New York.


It’s a wrap! @DFA_NYUinterviewed homeless women for over a year and a half and put up this pop up exhibit and panel. I really enjoyed getting to know the team and helping them with just a small portion of the project - some design of the exhibit and the curation and editing of the audio clips of women’s stories. Through the team’s research I learned more about homelessness and the housing crisis in New York. My main takeaways are

  1. Some politicians take special interest money from real estate developers who then are allowed to build luxury housing which most New Yorkers cannot afford. Over 50% of New Yorkers live a paycheck away from homelessness. Mo George from Picture the Homeless said tonight at the panel : “We do not have a homelessness crisis. We have a housing affordability crisis.” One way to combat this is to look at who contributes to politicians’ campaigns and call politicians out for taking this special interest money from real estate developers. This information is publicly available but not enough people hold their representatives accountable. Let’s do this more!

  2. Homeless shelters are corrupt and have made homelessness into a business. It’s not dissimilar to the prison industrial complex. The women explained that most homeless prefer to stay on the street and ride the subway in bad weather - anything to avoid the shelters. Shelters can be quite dangerous.

  3. We need a “housing first” policy like in many Western European countries. Here, you need to get a job in order to be placed in subsidized housing. The caveat is that you need an address to get a job. It’s almost impossible to get hired when you look homeless. The psychological trauma of becoming homeless also debilitates people.

  4. The leading cause of homelessness - aside from the rent being “too damn high” - is domestic abuse, not drugs.

  5. You must live on the street for 9 months before you are even considered for housing placement. Social workers must see you 6 times in the same spot and you never know when they are coming. One of the women has been on the street for two years. She’s waiting for her 6th visit. Social workers are swamped and held back by a complex, slow-moving system.


Tabby and Rachel’s Journeys is a mobile pop-up exhibition co-created by DFA NYU team and two women they met on the street. It affords a place to share their perspectives while inviting the public to become aware of their specific individualities - seeing them as persons with feelings and stories rather than "the other" who they prefer not to see. We explicitly chose to not refer to Tabby and Abby’s current housing situations because we want to make it clear that this is not what defines them. This is not their identity; it is a temporary (alas temporary can last for more than a year) situation – a moment in their lives.

In parallel to each “happening” (taking place for a couple of hours to a day or two), we are planning a panel discussion with experts (a mix of social activists, some of them homeless-turned-activists, housing policy experts, and academics) on the topic of housing in NYC. We hope that these experts will provide complementary background as well as generate opportunities for further conversations.


The Journey

In April 2017, our team invited one women to join us for a co-creation workshop on how to create a space for women living outside. This is a photo we took when she was doing the card sorting activity, in which she ranked the door as her priority, a shower as second, a toilet as the third, and so on. These facilities that we take for granted for living inside are almost unimaginable for the women living outside. As design thinkers, we strive constantly to think about how can we create a space where women can gain equal access to these facilities without barrier. Since then, the project has changed considerably but this exercise provided us with valuable insight into the lives of the women we continued to visit for the next year and a half and who we continue to visit today.

In April 2017, our team invited one women to join us for a co-creation workshop on how to create a space for women living outside. This is a photo we took when she was doing the card sorting activity, in which she ranked the door as her priority, a shower as second, a toilet as the third, and so on. These facilities that we take for granted for living inside are almost unimaginable for the women living outside. As design thinkers, we strive constantly to think about how can we create a space where women can gain equal access to these facilities without barrier. Since then, the project has changed considerably but this exercise provided us with valuable insight into the lives of the women we continued to visit for the next year and a half and who we continue to visit today.

 

The exhibition

The pop-up exhibition is envisioned as mobile – potentially packed in a cart or a couple of bags, similar to the stuff homeless people carry around. It will combine several elements produced by the women, connected to their experience, as well as reflect our own experience and how we changed through our encounter with them.

Locations: Playground Coffee shop, public parks and spaces, student centers.

Playground Coffee Shop, a community space, and coffee shop focused on social and conscious awareness in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. In our neighborhood, we provide a space for local activists to organize around poignant issues. In aiding the community we exist in, we not only want to alter the thinking of the community but of the entire culture.

  1. Introduction: A quote by Tabby or Abby printed. It will state the “tone” but without referring to the fact that they are homeless. It will highlight their feelings.

  2. Tabby’s Photo Journal: A booklet presenting photos taken by Tabby  with a disposable camera in April 2018. Tabby documented her everyday life as well as evokes her feelings about the situation and her aspirations for the future. It will be available for visitors to look at.

  3. Abby’s story: Four audio stands will be provided. At each of them, short excerpts from recorded conversations with Abby will be looped. They offer us a deep understanding of Abby’s emotions and perspectives on the world and life.

  4. View from the pavement: a time lapse video taken from the point of view of Tabby and Abby’s sitting on the floor will be projected on a wall. It will allow viewers to “see” the world as they see if most of the day: sitting on the ground, watching people walk by everyday as if you are invisible.

  5. When their stories become ours: Based on our field notes (taken after each our visits), we created visual notes that illustrate Tabby’s and Abby’s perceptions; our reflections as we visit them and know them better; and strangers’ views of homeless people.

  6. Books as a safe place: One thing we discovered was both Tabby and Gabriella love reading. It provides them a way to focus and forget the street and people passing by them. It also allows them to escape in an imaginary world. We experimented with a mobile library and provided multiple books to Tabby since last May. She took notes on her readings. We will provide a snapshot of the books and thoughts she had. We will also provide a list of Abby’s readings for the last year and some of her favorite reads.

  7. Call to action: None of the people living on the street had ever thought they would be “there” one day. No one grows up thinking “one day I’ll be homeless” as Tabby reminded us. And yet, due to a series of circumstances, it happened to them. As people live the pop-up exhibit, we want them to take the time to reflect on their experience, and hopefully realized that their perception about homeless women changed as they can now put faces and names to this generic figure. We want them to provide them with means to go beyond this awareness and engage actively in helping the women. We will offer them three options and ask them to commit to it by posting their future action on a board. This act will hopefully (at least according to research) increase their commitment to action and it will also visualize in the space the future actions of visitors creating in a way a form of initial collective action.  

Listening station sketch with objects from Abby - her books and notes from our field research with quotes posted on eye level.

Listening station sketch with objects from Abby - her books and notes from our field research with quotes posted on eye level.

Listening stations

Listening stations

Quotes to be used to tell the story of Tabby and Abby’s struggles with survival, social services, and the public as well as our impressions, observations, and reflections as they become more nuanced over the year-and-a-half that we have visited these these women on a weekly basis.

Quotes to be used to tell the story of Tabby and Abby’s struggles with survival, social services, and the public as well as our impressions, observations, and reflections as they become more nuanced over the year-and-a-half that we have visited these these women on a weekly basis.

Sketch of action table for the pop-up exhibit at the activist space Playground Coffee Shop in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, NY.

Sketch of action table for the pop-up exhibit at the activist space Playground Coffee Shop in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, NY.

Exhibition pop-up for a cafe where we can also hold a panel with members of Picture the Homeless and others Iist TBD).

Exhibition pop-up for a cafe where we can also hold a panel with members of Picture the Homeless and others Iist TBD).

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Below are some photos of prototyping feedback sessions at Design For America critiques, where the community reviews our progress and gives us suggestions for further research or implementation.

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quotes_during_prototyping_DFA_meeting.png
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The team


Our team PlaceMaking Reimagined is a DFA NYU team. Design for America of NYU is a student club using human-centered design to address social issues in their local communities.

It was recently featured http://ndagallery.cooperhewitt.org/gallery/64407485/Connecting-to-the-CityDFA-NYU


In 2014-2016, a DFA team (including Anne-Laure Fayard) worked on a project aiming to empower women. They participated in an open innovation challenge on Women Safety and their idea, the Bindi Project, a community-centered program, was selected as a winning idea. They collaborated with a non-profit based in Kathmandu Nepal for 18 months and did a one-year pilot with 36 women in a slum of Kathmandu. They also did in winter-spring 2016 a 6-months pilot with a NY-based non-profit organization working with immigrant women in Queens.


Placemaking Reimagined aims to explore solutions to provide homeless women with the private spaces  (physical and emotional) that they miss. In doing so, we hope to afford them ways to feel safe and clean and keep a sense of self. The project started in September 2017 and since March 2018, our team has been regularly interviewing and visiting women living in the street in order to develop a better understanding of their needs and explored different solutions to support them.

Ashley Tang is a senior in New York University majoring in Media, Culture, and Communication and minoring in Anthropology. Interested in humanitarian topics with a background in media, she has explored many different social issues through interdisciplinary approach such as documentary film, audio recording, and participatory media.

As part of the of PlaceMaking Reimagined project since September 2017, she had been conducting various research about different topics on homelessness including housing, shelters, city policies, gender dynamic, homeless women’s hygiene problems, etc.


She participated in the curation of UNSPOKEN : Stories About Life After Immigrating, a pop-up exhibition using interactive methods to explore how immigrants / non-immigrants shed their boundaries to truly understand each others' needs.


Katya Rozanova is a Brooklyn-based artist, designer, and technologist.

Currently she is pursuing a master’s degree in art and technology at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program, where she uses traditional and emerging technologies to create work that examines people's understanding of one another and their environment.

Website:katyarozanova.com


Kesley Murphy: As an MA student at Gallatin, Kelsey is studying how we can better engage with our local communities through creative uses of art, technology, and communication. Her goal is to study the effects of creative media on political and civic engagement and understand how - in such a segmented and saturated media landscape - we can engage with others, reach across the aisle, and make a lasting impact in our local communities. Through her research she hopes to understand how we can use storytelling and different modes of art and media communication to influence perception, decisions, and behavior, and to what extent they can help build institutions and drive progressive policies that push society forward.

Prior to enrolling at NYU, she spent two and a half years working with Courage Campaign, a California based grassroots organizing nonprofit. She designed and implemented campaigns that targeted specific audiences by leveraging insights from data analysis to effectively encourage social and political action.  


Anne-Laure Fayard is the faculty advisor for DFA NYU and has been working with the PlaceMaking Reimagined team as a main mentor since Fall 2017. She is supporting all DFA projects as a faculty advisor but was a mentor and member of the Bindi Project.

Anne-Laure is an Associate Professor in the Department of Technology Management and Innovation and in the Department of Technology, Culture and Society in the Tandon School of Engineering at New York University. She is also an affiliate faculty with the department of Management and Organizations in the NYU Stern School of Business. Some of her research interests include collaboration, communication, design, space and culture.

Anne-Laure Fayard has developed or curated several installations and exhibitions in the past such as Building_space_with_words: An interactive, multi-media installation exploring the relationship between physical and virtual space (2010), Neo-nomads: what travels with you? A group exhibition at the BRIC Rotunda Gallery in Brooklyn (2011). More recently, she’s been developing tangible visualizations and interventions to study interactions and collaborations in maker spaces.


More about the Placemaking Reimagined project and how it began:

Started at September 2017 with the idea to address hygiene issues homeless women face during their menstruation period, we later found in the research phase that there’s a much greater need for a private, safe space where the women can clean themselves and feel dignified. We therefore developed our opportunity statement into “There is an opportunity to provide homeless women with private space so that they feel a sense of safety and cleanliness.” Currently in the prototyping phase, we have been doing several rapid prototypes and build relations with a few homeless women. This led us to come up with some intermediate actions while refining our idea of a private space.

Through out the process, we gained many insights, such as the different needs of the diverse types of women on the street, the common wish of the women for a private space where they could contain their “old self” and feel dignified, the lack of sense of community within the homeless women population, and the fact that we should always ready to be surprised and be flexible for changes in the Human-Center Design process.

Some progress can be seen on our instagram account.