Two weeks ago, my co-instructor Wei led a session on “Diversity in Tech” in the UX Design Immersive course we teach for General Assembly in Austin. Somehow, the discussion shifted focus temporarily to the topic of homelessness, and I became dismayed at the extent to which some of the students appeared to rely on stereotypes when describing the Austin homeless. This occurred at the end of week 9 of the 10 week course, and the concept of empathy — a concept addressed repeatedly throughout the course — seemed to have been forgotten by some. Hmm… Having been homeless myself (as I’ve reported in this blog and elsewhere), I found myself becoming angry, but I (perhaps too easily) managed to hold my tongue.
The following Monday, I posted three links to the class Slack channel. One was to an article about the Rethink Homelessness project during which several of Orlando’s homeless were asked to share one thing about themselves that those walking by them would probably never expect. The results were “poignantly humanizing,” as reflected in the nearby image, one of many presented in the article.
Another link was to a similar article by dana boyd entitled, “San Francisco’s (In)Visible Class War: What you can learn by talking to homeless folks.” In it, dana tells of taking a shocked colleague who was talking like some of our students to go talk with a group of homeless people on San Francisco’s infamous 6th Street.
“I wish that more people working in the tech sector would take a moment to talk to these men and women. Listening to their stories is humbling. Vets who fought for our country, under the banner of ‘freedom,’ only to be cognitively imprisoned by addiction and mental illness. Abused runaways trying to find someone who will treat them with respect. People who were working hard and getting by until an accident struck and they lost their job and ended up in medical debt. Immigrants who came looking for the American Dream only to find themselves trapped. These aren’t no-good lazy leeches. They’re people. People whose lives have been a hell of a lot harder than most of us can even fathom. People who struggle on a daily basis to find food and shelter. People who we’ve systematically disenfranchised and failed to support. People who the bulk of tech workers ignore, shun, resent, and demonize.”
The third link was to a list of 39 questions about the homeless for readers’ reflection. Four examples:
“14. Do you feel a sense of disgust or detest the way they smell, look, sound or behave?
15. Do you have any personal experience of homelessness?
16. Could you handle being homeless day after day and keep things together?
17. Would you smell better, behave better or beg less, than a homeless person does, if you did not have a home to go to for the next four weeks?”
The list is powerful. And I found that it was important that I read through it again myself, as well as again read through the other articles I reference above. Yes, I have had the personal experience of homelessness. Yet, to my dismay, my attitude towards Austin’s homeless was not far from that expressed by some of our students. How embarrassing… How sad…
Today is Christmas. A year ago, as I reported in this blog:
“...I ate my Christmas meal at the St. Vincent de Paul Society dining room where free meals are served to those in need. … I used to eat there almost daily when I was living on the street… Now I go to remember that experience and to once again rid myself of fears and misconceptions that build over time in this society when living mostly removed from that way of life.”
Today, I went back. Today, I badly needed to go back.