A peek into my design journey: How working with homeless people changed my life.

Lilia Rustom
Mar 8, 2018 · 6 min read

How many of us, even though we deny it, can’t help but have assumptions towards people depending on how they look like? Even if we love people so much, even if we’re sociable, open, and respectful of everyone, no matter the ethnicity, the class, or the religion; we can all recall a moment where we judged a person by their look… At least I know I did…

When the time came to choose my path in life, I chose to be a designer, because I believe that this gives me a chance to impact the world and actually make a change for the social good. But before I tell you my story, let me introduce myself.

My name is Lilia, I am Lebanese, and I’ve been raised in a country with constant struggles: political financial, concerns of safety and education for women… I became a graphic designer in Lebanon, and my path led me to San Francisco, where I am currently pursuing a Masters in Interaction Design.

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Source: liliarustom, Instagram

When I first came to San Francisco, I thought that this was the perfect beautiful city, where everyone is free, accepted, and supported. Little did I know, that San Francisco also struggles in a lot of areas, especially when it comes to safety and security. When I first got here, people told me: “You cannot walk alone… Your neighborhood is not safe… Your school is surrounded by homeless people… They break car windows… They might harm you…” Hearing all that over and over again, I cannot deny that I became much more cautious, paranoid, and scared to commute alone. A month after the semester started, my whole perception was about to change all over again.

In the “Communication by Design” course I was taking as part of my program, each team got assigned a non-profit organization to work with for 3 months. My team, called Team Reach, got Harrison Hotel. Harrison Hotel is basically a permanent housing facility for people who have a history of chronic homelessness.

During the first meeting with the manager, we got a global idea of the situation: Harrison Hotel houses 82 residents, a big number of them have serious mental problems, and most of them do hard kinds of drugs. The residents do not really communicate with each other, and they are kind of isolated from the outside world. So our role according to the staff, was to create a sense of community among the residents and bring the outside community in.

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Source: Scott Strazzante, The Chronicle

After that meeting, I immediately felt the weight of the challenge I was about to face. I have never worked with drug addicts before, nor mentally unstable or homeless people. Absorbing all that in, I had to drop any tiny piece of inner-judgement I had, be open to talk to more people, and discover new ways to go about this problem. As Nancy Duarte has mentioned in her book , “Liking your audience members is the first step to being genuine with them” because “people you don’t know are difficult to influence”.

Having a new attitude in mind now, I became curious to see where this project will lead. As a team of designers, in order to solve the problem in the best way possible, we had to see the problem from different perspectives, meaning that we took the initiative to meet with a few residents to hear their opinion as well.

After meeting with three residents individually, the whole story changed. The problem was no longer a lack of communication between the residents, but it was a big gap of communication between the residents and the staff instead. The goal was not to let the outside community in anymore, but to take the inside community out. When I let my “protective walls” down, I saw a whole new world that I was not aware of.

Through this project and after all the meetings and conversations I had with some of the residents, I learned a few things about homeless people, and this changed me forever:

1) Just like you and me, homeless people have needs of care and affection.

The residents we talked to expressed to us how lonely they feel inside of Harrison Hotel. They want someone to talk to them personally, to ask them “How are you doing today? Do you need anything? How can I help you?”

2) Just like you and me, homeless people have families they want to connect with.

The residents told us stories about their relatives, and their families. We learnt about Rachel’s children who are also unfortunately homeless and living on the streets, and how she wants to help them by trying to find for them a place to stay. On the other hand, Marc is a grandfather and goes every other weekend to visit his grand children. Also, Sarah is working two part-time jobs to try and support her children.

3) Just like you and me, homeless people have fears as well.

It makes me feel so wrong and guilty to think that I’m scared of homeless people because I’m afraid they might hurt me. They are afraid as well, they live with fear everyday: fear of not being able to eat, fear of not being able to survive the cold, fear of doing one tiny mistake that will cost them all their hard work and send them back on the streets…

4) Just like you and me, homeless people want someone to “listen”.

One big thing this project taught me, is the ability to “listen”. As Celeste Headlee mentioned in her talk titled “”, people nowadays listen with the intention to reply and jump to conclusions, not with the intention to understand. Homeless people want someone to listen to them, to their stories, to their needs, not someone to judge them and tell them where they went wrong.

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Source: Mactoons, Motivational “Enjoy the moment” Quotes

5) Just like you and me, homeless people are human beings…

Sometimes we tend to forget that homeless people are humans who lived a decent life like everyone else at some point in time, until cruel life hit them and ended up throwing them on the streets and making them lose everything they owned. Homeless people can feel ashamed, and it’s hard to make them talk at first, but when they do, you will not want them to stop. At the end, all they ever want is to live in dignity… Just like you and me, they want a life of hope, security, love, and justice.

Coming to the end of a beautiful project, I felt entitled to educate people around me, help them drop the judgements they have, and tell them about the amazing people I met through this project. I hope I could make the city of San Francisco as supportive and loving as I imagined it to be before I came here. Change starts with me, and you, and our friends and connections.

Let’s spread the knowledge and give this community a second chance at living in the society among us. Let’s build together a culture of hope, love, and justice.

Lilia Rustom.

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