The San Francisco homeless crisis has long been a topic of both local and national attention. For many frogs, San Francisco isn’t just our place of work—it’s our home and our community. Research validates the crisis with numbers, but as we go about life in San Francisco, we feel the weight of the problem acutely. That’s why fellow frog, Eve Weinberg and I looked for a way to be a part of the solution. In 2018 frog established a partnership with San Francisco’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH) to help further the Department’s focus on human-centered design, ideating improved experiences and systems to tackle homelessness.
The HSH is a branch of the San Francisco government with singular focus on preventing and ending homelessness for people in San Francisco. Solving homelessness doesn’t stop at providing shelter. Once someone is housed, there are case managers, nurses, physicians, building managers, and countless other support systems to help ensure a resident stays housed and that their quality of life continues to increase. Ultimately these support functions dramatically help decrease the burden of residents on city funds.
Much like in our broader society, many of San Francisco’s aging residents that live independently have trouble taking advantage of available services and support. This September, HSH and frog hosted a workshop to focus on how we might improve the experience of people aging in place in permanent supportive housing (PSH). We brought together people across government departments to generate ideas that would help improve our community’s response and support for those aging in place. Most importantly though, we invited the residents themselves to sit at the table as participants in the problem solving process. The residents candidly discussed their lived experience and ideated with the architects, case managers and nurses that would be designing their environment.
In advance of the Learning Lab, Eve Weinberg (frog Interaction Designer) and I approached preparation as we would with a client project—we dove into reports, interviewed stakeholders and toured permanent supportive housing locations around San Francisco. We learned that many single residence occupancy (SRO) buildings are converted hotels, community centers or apartment buildings, not originally intended to accommodate the elderly or those with specific needs. We observed that these buildings house a vast range of ages and needs, from young adults struggling with addiction, to the elderly relying on mobility assistance, like wheelchairs. Through this research we started to understand the monetary, structural and political factors the PSH community encounters when trying to improve support for those aging in place. Gaining this context helped us understand the importance of giving the community a chance to ideate solutions without constraints. There would be plenty of time for guardrails and limitations later in the day, but we wanted to give attendees the opportunity to design the solutions they always wished they could provide. With help from HSH, we identified three opportunity areas to ideate around: Spaces, Services and Community. We designed hypotheses and activities around these opportunity areas to help workshop attendees ideate new, human-centered experiences for those aging in place.
The Spaces team focused on how we might redesign buildings and communities to better reflect the needs of those that occupy them. During the workshop, residents and architects worked together to create a concept for a home that felt truly unique, with ample storage, modular furniture options, and personal touches like art or photographs for each individual resident. The plans included an oversized elevator and flexible spaces for different types of audiences to gather. There was a visiting room for families with toys and books, and a technology lending library. Nurses and case manager offices were placed in highly trafficked areas, complete with private rooms for one-on-one meetings with residents.
For Services, the team ideated around how we might develop programs that residents would fully utilize. Instead of asking for another program from their building, the residents on the team wanted to play a part in the services offered to their community. The team designed a breakfast program, where residents could teach and learn cooking skills, while offering meals to both the residents and the community outside the building. During the workshop we realized how important it is to involve residents as participants in these solutions—not just recipients.
Our last group discussed how we might play a role in bringing residents together to develop camaraderie and community. A nurse told a story of how two residents, Jo and Barb, developed a friendship. During the course of this friendship, Jo discovered that Barb had a peanut allergy. Jo checked every meal for Barb and alerted the nurse, who previously did not have this information on Barb’s medical record. Inspired by this story, the group focused on how they could play a role in bringing residents together and develop friendships between those who lived in the same space. The team brainstormed possibilities around an analog Craigslist or Newsfeed in the lobby of buildings where residents can browse interests and happenings among their neighbors, and contribute postings of their own.
As each group presented their ideas, a common thread emerged. Residents want to use their history as a way to make connections and give back to the people in their community, both inside the building and out. We went in to the workshop with the mindset: What more can we offer to help those aging in place? But we left knowing that we can do the most by helping facilitate lasting connections between the residents and the surrounding systems of support. When the day transitioned to creating a tactical plan, fighting isolation became our number one priority.
In designing the ideal experience for those aging in place in permanent supportive housing, we uncovered the deep, unmet needs of residents. Some of the concepts from this session required longer-term planning, but most of the concepts boiled down to ideas we could take action against immediately. At the close of the workshop, each attendee identified one small change they could make in their work tomorrow to improve support for those aging in place.
A few months after the workshop, San Francisco voters passed Proposition C, a ballot measure to raise corporate taxes to fund housing and help the homeless. While this is bringing more attention and funding to the homelessness problem, it’s our responsibility as designers and San Francisco residents and community members to take action and start designing solutions that users actually need. As we plan the next workshop topic with the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, we are looking to understand how to better incorporate the people we design for. Stay tuned for move developments under way as we continue our work with the community and HSH on using human-centered design to find real, tangible solutions for affordable, adaptable housing for San Francisco’s most vulnerable communities.