To Make a Home for the Homeless: Design Thinking to Change Lives

A sarcastic postcard of homelessness in the iconic & wealthy Silicon Valley

“I believe that if you show people the problems and you show them the solutions they will be moved to act.” — Bill Gates

An ustoppable flood has taken over the streets of Silicon Valley. This is no natural flood; it was systemically created by humans. It’s not due to climate change, though that is a looming threat. The surge of homelessness in San Francisco, the second highest for all U.S. cities, is a growing tumor that authorities can no longer ignore.

The History

A homeless person draped in an American flag: emblemetic of the failures of American society to provide for the poor

Many scholars trace the root of the homelessness epidemic to the 1980s. A combination of declining mental health, welfare, and affordable housing services is largely understood to be a driving factor of homelessness. In addition, declining wages (in terms of real purchasing power) since around 1979 excarabated the problem of massive cuts to federal services

Wage Stagnation since 1980s (source: EPI)

Modern Context: Recent Changes that Worsened the Situation

The forming of “Silicon Valley” created enormous economic gains. The high concentration of silicon manufacturers and strong underlying educational systems laid the groundworks for the DotCom Boom of the 1990s and the inflow of technology and venture capital firms. To date, San Francisco has 15.4% of global venture capital funds, nearly 250,000 technology workers, and 39 of the Fortune 100 companies. But all of this meant one thing for those struggling to make ends meet — punishing laws of ecomonics would inflict more pain.

Average Q1 SF Rent (Source: Blog-Shelly Sutherland)

Rents in San Francisco have more than tripled in 23 years. But remember that wage growth graph? It did the opposite. Combine these two graphs and you are going to have a lot more people on the streets. Now let’s look at the most often cited reasons for homelessness within this economic context:

Source: 2015 San Francisco Homeless Count Report

Job loss, drug abuse, eviction and relationship problems are bad enough — but within a system of declining worker wages, massive cuts in federal services, and skyrocketing housing costs, these life issues become even more threatening.

Root of the Problem

The truth is not as straightforward as we like to imagine. In reality, there is no single root cause of homelessness, it is a combination of multiple factors reacting with each other (as with most complex 21st century societal issues). That being said, it makes sense to simplify the issue in order to gain a better understanding and consdier an overarching solution. In my opinion, our best understanding of a “root cause” for homelessness can be the lack of affordable housing. The issues that bring people on the streets will likely always exist to an extent, even with massive funding and efforts to combat them. Job loss is inevitable in a free market economy. Addiction has been around since mankind began. Abuse and relationship issues will always be around. But a lack of affordable housing, especially in San Francisco, is a trend that may not be so hard to reverse. Considering all the brilliant minds concentrated in this location, it’s a surprise there isn’t a grand solution already.

Efforts already underway

Luckily, there are some efforts already underway in San Francisco to combat this problem. The “Heading Home Campaign” has pledged $30 Million in a public-private partnership aiming to house 800 homeless families by 2019. The city has nearly doubled its required amount of affordable housing requirements (although economists debate whether this will actually improve the problem or make it worse by decreasing incentives for development and driving up non-rent-controlled prices.) Last month, the Tipping Point Community, an organization fighting poverty, pledged $100 million to decrease chronic homelessness in San Francisco by 50% in five years. While these efforts are great, they will not solve the problem. In the rest of this article, I will outline my design thinking process to fight this issue.

The following mind map shows a full Design Thinking process geared to this issue:

The last step (which could not fit in the picture) is the test phase, in which I will ask real experts and leaders currently tackling this program for input on my idea. The idea from this process was aided by a “bad solution” brain storming session.

Closing Thoughts

We live in divided times. Both economically and politically there is a stark divide within America. Yet when faced with a humanitarian crisis such as the rise of homelessness, we are forced to come together to carve out solutions. Nothing more than complete cooperation of private and public interests will suffice for creating a solution to this problem. Empathy — our ability to feel the pain of the people who live on streets — can bring the strength needed to overcome our differences and create meaningful solutions. Our capacity to feel for others can then unleash the design thinking process to create a more beautiful world.

“To save a life is a real and beautiful thing. To make a home for the homeless, yes, it is a thing that must be good; whatever the world may say, it cannot be wrong.” — Vincent Van Gogh

The Good Samaritan by Van Gogh

List of sources:

2015 San Francisco Homeless Count Report

“Homelessness: You’ve Got Questions, We’ve Got Answers” — KQED

“1 in 200 San Franciscans Sleep on the Streets” — Mother Jones

“These are the Faces of San Francisco's Homelessness Crisis” — The Bold Italic

“San Francisco has become one huge metaphor for economic inequality in America” — Quartz

“Creation of Homelessness: Historical Essay” — Randy Shaw

“Wage Stagnation in Nine Charts” — Economic Policy Institute

“The Global Cities Where Tech Venture Capital is Concentrated” — The Atlantic

“San Francisco Residential Rents” — Blog, Shelly Sutherland

“10 Things Americans Don’t Know About America” — Mark Manson

“The American Dream is Killing Us” — Mark Manson

“Five Myths About Americas Homeless” — Washington Post

“San Francisco Launches Effort to Reduce Family Homelessness” — Philanthropy News Digest

“Housing developers brace for future with San Francisco’s affordable requirements doubled” — San Francisco Business Times

“Tipping Point Steps up with $100 Million Initiative to Reduce Chronic Homelessness by Half” — Medium (Design Thinking Map)

“The Shockingly Simple, Surprisingly Cost-Effective Way to End Homelessness” — Mother Jones

“Homeless Quoes” — Brainy Quotes

“Homelessness Sayings and Quotes” — Wise Old Sayings

“The Good Samaritan” — Art and the Bible