Tearing Down Walls and Building Empathy

By Matt Swecker


Before Seattle, I’d never lived in a big city. I grew up in the forested hills of West Virginia before bouncing from suburb to suburb across the midwest, spending the remainder of my pre-adult life in the sheltered, cookie-cutter environment that suburbia has to offer – strip malls, minivans, and after-school sports. If homeless individuals existed in these places, they existed out of sight.

Little could have prepared me for the overwhelming sensory experience that awaited in Seattle. Those mountains, purple at sunset, surrounding the city. The boom of ship horns across the water, the pungent smell of salty sea air, of garbage, of human urine. Foods from parts of the world I didn’t know existed. Riding a crowded bus, listening and watching as people from every walk of life climb on, climb off. Hands reaching out, begging for the change clanging in my pocket, inhabited sleeping bags under the awnings of businesses.

The amount of visible homeless individuals in Seattle shocked me. I wasn’t prepared to be asked for money outside of every grocery store, or on my walk to work, or on the bus. I wasn’t prepared for how it would make me feel to say no over and over again. I began to avoid eye contact and ignore them, but something inside me felt guilty. A wall went up.

This year’s AIGA Design for Good Changemaker Series seeks to apply design solutions to obstacles presented by Seattle organizations directly addressing homelessness, like Real Change and PSKS. AIGA put its volunteer teams through a crash-course in human-centered design thinking during the Weekend Workshop in May. Of the five building blocks taught to us – empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test – empathize is the most vital to this project, as most of us cannot fathom what it is like to live on the streets. Truly listening to the wants, needs, and stories that homeless individuals have to tell is the foundation for the rest of the work to stand on. Without this perspective, there is little chance that we will provide design solutions that work. Even so, this step can be incredibly challenging because in this case it asks us to address our own guilt, tension, and discomfort.

During the workshop, Felix Chang of Artefact told us to get out of our seats and go into Pioneer Square to do population research, the backbone of the empathy step. As we left the building, I became a little anxious, and I wasn’t alone in feeling this way. The wall I had put up was not an uncommon one. Two people from my team and I walked around for a few blocks, stalling, nervous to strike up a conversation with a stranger until we found Bobby. Bobby was sitting in a chair in the midst of a line of tents across the street from the Union Mission Gospel shelter. He seemed suspicious of us at first – me with my camera, and my teammates with their notebooks – but once we broke the ice he was happy to share his story. He had bounced around for a while, living with his sons until he felt that he was becoming too much of a burden, and then took to the streets when he was evicted from his own place. Bobby told us about his health problems;  he had been a tree trimmer but had a stroke and fell out of a tree. He’s had another stroke and a heart attack since. His semi-toothed smile was cautious but genuine.

As I listened to him talk, I began to understand. The paths that lead people to homelessness became less blurry as I put myself in Bobby’s shoes. The complexity of the issue unraveled; it’s physical health, mental health, housing, pride, opportunity, race, and more, all rolled into one. I could feel that tension–the wall I put up living in a big city where I have to constantly say no to people–beginning to come down.

Since the Workshop Weekend, my team’s focus on research and empathy has been nothing short of eye-opening. We are working with Sea Mar, a community health organization, to help reduce barriers and increase health outcomes for homeless individuals. We have talked to as many people as we can, from homeless individuals to staff at Sea Mar, such as a Chronic Care Coordinator and a Medical Assistant Supervisor. Every interaction has brought something new to light.

To begin, our group split up and spread out across the city. My teammate Cynthia and I spoke with a man sitting outside of a grocery store in the U-District. He was sharp, interesting, and had the hiccups. He told us about growing up in foster care, and how that had led to a distaste for authority and ultimately, his homelessness. Other teammates talked to people living and protesting downtown, and found that many of them were working poor: people who simply could not afford to live on their wages. We spoke with staff at Sea Mar who interact with the homeless on a daily basis and they told us about the maze of resources that must be navigated for a person to receive the benefits they need.

As our research came together, our heads were spinning. We were not only tackling homelessness, sure, but also healthcare. Both are intimidating, mountainous issues. We learned that the barriers to healthcare are many, such as proximity to a clinic, day-to-day priorities, follow-up, access to resources, and addiction. We learned that each path to homelessness is unique; each person’s wants and needs are like a fingerprint. Healthcare, unfortunately, isn’t high on the list of priorities for many people, since day-to-day needs like food and shelter win out over preventative care. With challenges this great, where do you begin?

Luckily, my group is a talented, inspired, and motivated bunch and we are all very eager to create something impactful. Almost as a hive mind, together we realized we needed to rein it in and think smaller, that we were getting bogged down in the details. We can’t solve homelessness in three months, but we can put a small dent in it with a realistic, effective solution to our design challenge. We can’t and shouldn’t try to be superheroes. With that new focus in mind, we got together and spent time slapping post-it’s to an idea board, hashing out entry points to focus on, and honing in on our target area. Our define process had begun.

Empathy is the most powerful tool we have at our fingertips. Without seeking to empathize with people different from us, our perspective remains narrow, we build walls, and our design fails to have the intended impact. In seeking empathy, we begin to live and breathe our user’s perspective. One of my teammates is so immersed that she began to dream that she was homeless. This immersion informs our project, but it also changed me and changed the way I feel about Seattle as a city. The wall, the discomfort is nearly gone, and the city feels more like home. Yesterday, I was at a stoplight on my bike and a man asked me for change. I politely declined, but told him I liked his writing and that his signs were clever. He smiled really big, and told me “Thank you. That’s just as good.”

Matt Swecker recently retired from his career as a lab scientist to live the life of luxury as a copywriter. You can view his art and writing at mattswecker.com.