“I try my best to be invisible” -Interviews With Hidden Homeless Individuals During COVID-19

“I’m not ready to talk about what happened to me.”

Jade shared an apartment with a partner and faced constant domestic abuse. Terrified and without close connections to family to stay with, she decides to leave with her dog. She finds Chalmers when searching for crisis help, which refers her to a women’s help hotline. Unfortunately, she must disclose the details of her abuse in order to be eligible for a women’s shelter. Jade feels too ashamed to talk about what happened. She looks for another way and ends up Couchsurfing.

During COVID-19, Toronto has experienced an 18% spike in domestic violence cases. Jade is just one of three personas developed from true stories of Chalmers users during this pandemic. Ample Labs’ UX researchers Anna Kop and Geordie Graham coordinated 12 exploratory, one-on-one interviews with Chalmers users that are facing homelessness. For more details on the process behind this research, there is a Q&A with our team at the end.

“I try my best to be invisible and stay out of the way.”

Jade asks a distant friend if she can stay for a short period of time. She brushes off any questions and promises she won’t be there long. Not wanting to be a burden, Jade puts most of her belongings in a storage unit. She does her laundry after hours and avoids lingering in the common areas or cooking. In the past, she cooked healthy food, but now she buys whatever is cheap and convenient. Jade spends as much time as possible applying for more jobs. Currently working as a proofreader, it is remote and inconsistent work.

The Canadian unemployment rate in May 2020 was 13.7%. This is especially hard for those who only worked part-time or relied on their partner’s income and do not qualify for CERB. From these interviews, Anna found hidden homelessness disproportionately affects women and people of colour. However, research prior to the pandemic has shown 27% of Canadians facing homelessness are women and 43% left their home because it wasn’t safe for them.

“How do I find someone trustworthy to talk to? Counselling is really expensive.”

Jade is in a bad state mentally because of the domestic abuse, and she’s looking for affordable counseling. Each clinic has limited hours and is located too far from “home”. With her unpredictable work schedule, she can’t make it to any of them. While getting used to her new neighbourhood, she continues searching for shelter options. She learns she’d have to give up her dog to be eligible. She cannot abandon her closest companion, and she is disappointed to find similar hurdles for subsidized housing.

It takes an individual facing homelessness anywhere from 4–48 hours to search for services right for them. The waiting list for a social worker takes weeks, especially with the increased demand for help during the pandemic. While there is still a long way to go to fill the gaps in our system, Chalmers is the first step to offering an automated, personalized support system the moment an individual searches for help. Besides crisis and shelter, Jade also searches for services not yet integrated into Chalmers, including storage units, gig work, and apartment rentals.

“This place is expensive, but it’s nice to have privacy and a kitchen again, even if it’s temporary.”

Jade sets up 6 appointments to see rental units and travels to see them. For some, she arrives to see a line of applicants out the door, while others have a no-dog policy. All the landlords want to see proof of income through a letter of employment, which makes her nervous since her unstable job doesn’t paint her in the best light. Jade decides her best option is to move into a studio AirBnB apartment for two weeks, while looking for ways to save money on groceries with coupons and apps.

People facing homelessness often frequent online resources in order to survive, including daily deal websites, Facebook marketplace, grocery coupon apps, and gig websites. They are often on the go, searching for ways to stay safe and opportunities to save money. Jade’s journey has been an emotional rollercoaster, from being overwhelmed by the stress of leaving, to ashamed of what she must disclose for service eligibility. In the past months she has been numb from her reality, hopeful she can find a place, disappointed over and over, and now focused on her next steps.

“Where do I go from here?”

Jade’s stay at the AirBnB is ending. By chance, a distant friend is looking for a housesitter while she is away for a long work trip. Jade feels grateful she can finally catch a break and save money from the expensive stay. All she has to do in exchange is to take care of her friend’s plants and cat. With the weather changing, Jade goes back to the storage unit to pick up her things. Seeing her things brings up memories of the life she used to have and her current reality, bringing tears to her eyes.

Homelessness is such a deeply personal topic. It’s difficult to talk about and at times to listen to. Jade’s story continues to her finding more gig work and finally finding her own place to stay. Unfortunately two months before her 12-month lease renews, a new landlord purchases the property. They don’t like having pets on the premises and Jade is served an eviction notice because of her dog. Her journey begins all over again.

Anna sat and listened to individuals that have worked hard to survive and get out of homelessness. Often because of circumstances out of their control, they still end up back without stable housing.

What is the value of researching and discussing these stories?

Anna and Geordie share their process, the impact they hope to make, and what these insights mean for all of us below.

See the full user journeys and personas here.

Q&A

What was the process of developing these personas from the interviews?

(Anna conducted the twelve interviews, while Geordie’s role was in project strategy, establishing requirements and supporting Anna in developing personas.)

Geordie: We actually planned our first interviews right when the lockdown started. We lost at least a week in canceled interviews. Everyone was cancelling because no one knew what was going on. But now that COVID-19 has changed everything, we figured out what people had access to and translated the physical interview experience digitally.

We asked if people had access to wifi or a phone plan, and did whatever was easiest for them. In terms of screening people, we used a web intercept on Chalmers late 2019 to contact people about their experience with Chalmers. People who wanted to be contacted for future opportunities gave us their information. Through that, we were able to find Chalmers users to interview.

Anna: These interviews are deeply personal, and some people do share traumatic experiences. I had a few people who’d rather not talk about certain topics that triggered them, which is perfectly fine. In the beginning, we had an interview guide but by following that, the first two interviews didn’t flow well and I did too much of the talking. For the remaining interviews, I asked individuals to tell me stories instead. This lead to richer data where participants felt more comfortable opening up and allowed me to focus on listening to their stories. Through secondary research, we would fill in the gaps of what they didn’t share.

Next, I would go back to all the interviews and create a mini journey map based on dates or rough timelines. With a journey for every person, I could see patterns in experiences and stitch them together. By summarizing each interview, themes started emerging. It was evident there were 3 different personas: Jade, Dilon and Deja.

How do you make sure people are comfortable when doing these interviews?

Anna: To get deep information, I always made sure people were comfortable. Given the stigma around homelessness, most people don’t feel comfortable talking with a stranger about something so personal. Before we started, I explained what topics we would cover and how Ample Labs would incorporate what we learned into Chalmers. We were also very careful about anonymizing data and ensuring that we didn’t associate people’s names or collect any identifiable information.

I recognize there’s an inherent power dynamic, myself as a UX researcher and my interviewee as a hidden homeless individual who is receiving $50 for speaking with me. I made sure they knew they have the right to leave a conversation early, and still get paid the same amount. I always give people an out and participants could skip a topic that was a trigger.

From this experience, I realized UX researchers working with vulnerable groups need the kind of training social workers have in trauma. While I looked up some resources on my own, I am still learning.

Geordie: I make sure the people we are interviewing feel a degree of preparedness on the kinds of questions we are asking. I focus on positives in their life rather than how they are feeling. For example, rather than asking people how they are doing, I ask if they are doing any activities for the weekend.

What is the importance of doing this kind of research on hidden homelessness?

Anna: The problem of homelessness is that it is hidden. Most people who haven’t personally dealt with it don’t want to think about it. There’s also an incorrect perception that people who are homeless did something wrong to end up there. From the stories I heard, it’s clear there are systemic factors that make some groups highly vulnerable to becoming homeless. People are trying very hard to dig themselves out.

You can’t design for people if you can’t understand their circumstances. In order to understand the complexity of people’s situations, you need to understand how they become hidden homeless, how their life is day to day, hour to hour and you HAVE to do research.

Otherwise, I don’t know how you come up with solutions that are actually helpful. Right now, Chalmers is a tool used for people in crisis, rather than out of crisis. The fact that it’s anonymous and done in their own time is helpful. You don’t have to reveal yourself or talk to a person that might judge you. However, there is still more that Chalmers can do. For example, we got feedback from people wanting more resources outside of the downtown core and for mental health help.

Geordie: Having conversations with people that use Chalmers gives us the ability to make much more informed decisions. It helps us understand the human picture, with a lot more context to design better solutions.

Right now feedback we get on Chalmers and services in general is having more personalization options. I remember doing an interview for another project where an individual had a really bad peanut allergy, which was a problem going into shelters. They don’t have nut free environments so they get hospitalized all the time.

Personal touches are important, and getting more personalized results is crucial. Imagine how helpful it would be if Jade could find pet-friendly housing and shelter. I would like to see our work contribute to more meaningful and targeted interventions to help people in need.

Hidden Homeless Personas

Thank you for reading until the end. To stay updated on our mission, subscribe to our Chalmers Champion newsletter.

See the full user journeys and personas here.

Jade is a part-time proofreader searching for affordable housing. She goes from living in permanent housing to hidden homelessness and then back to permanent housing. Her life is organized month to month depending on where she is staying and spans 1.5–3 years. It is easier for Jade to work and earn more, which puts her in a better place than Dilon and Deja.

Dilon is a skilled labourer who struggles to find work without official ID. He goes between renting rooms and staying at his girlfriend’s place. His life is organized week by week and his journey shows his life in 6 months.

Deja battles with chronic homelessness so her life is focused on surviving day by day. The entire journey shows just a week of her life, bookended with chronic homelessness with hidden homeless experiences in the middle.

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We are normalizing conversations about homelessness. What isbuild empathy for the invisible homeless.

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ample Labs is a social enterprise empowering those of us facing homelessness with technology. 👉 https://www.amplelabs.co

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