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News . Feature Stories . New mapping course opens students to the faces behind homelessness

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May 12, 2015

New mapping course opens students to the faces behind homelessness

Students create maps for Cleveland homeless

New mapping course opens students to the faces behind homelessness

By Alyssa Brown

This year, three students and one professor set out on a mission to create a change that extends far outside the classroom walls and into the neighborhoods of Cleveland. After extensive research, they designed resource maps to guide homeless people to shelters and other community services.

The students were in instructor Sai Sinbondit’s new projectFIND course, introduced as a year-long field-based elective that challenges students use their communication skills for social good. The class is part of the Community Works series of initiatives highlighting socially engaged art. Over the course of the 2015-16 school year, the team met with representatives of social service agencies and members of the homeless community as a part of the review and critique process.

Each member of the projectFIND team has had experiences in the past that piqued their interest in social engagement. Sinbondit, an adjunct faculty member, has worked as an architect for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNICEF, and USAID (United States Agency for International Development), in countries including Turkey, El Salvador, Thailand, India, France, Italy and Darfur.

Sinbondit said his work looks toward architecture as “a vehicle to explore the world and its dynamic relationships among people, cultures, systems, settlement and displacement.” As he sees it, architecture, art and design can be generators for social change.

ProjectFIND was an eye-opener for both Sinbondit and his students. “It’s been about understanding homelessness in the context of Cleveland – its history, current conditions, foreclosures – and understanding what homelessness is,” Sinbondit said.

Students also built relationships with 11 local, nonprofit social service agencies, and many of those organizations came to CIA in early May to review mock-ups of the final product: a series of pocket-sized maps, one per agency, showing the available resources including beds, meals, medical care and more. Funding from The Murphy Family Foundation will allow the group to print these maps in the coming months and distribute to shelter providers, community centers, churches, libraries and community organizations.

Each student in the class was responsible for researching and reaching out to three or four of the partner organizations. During the research process, the team of students, Alex Constantin, Sami Piercy and David Acosta, all junior Industrial Design majors, worked around outdated and incorrect information, and at times a total lack of information.

“The hardest part was adapting to the changing information,” Constantin said.

He said the process taught him a lot more than he ever expected to learn about consulting with an end user. “When it’s something for people who really need it, you can’t just interpret what it is that they need; you have to… come back to them. It’s not just a single-step process.”

Acosta came to Cleveland from Miami where his interest in the subject first arose. “Back home I see homeless people, and sometimes I have a chance to converse with them, to hear their stories,” Acosta said. “I’m interested in how you can use artistic talents to help a cause.”

Another part of the research process involved visits to homeless shelters. At visits to these partner organizations like FrontLine, 2100 Lakeside, Norma Herr, West Haven Youth Shelter, and more, students made connections and learned about the existing available resources. They talked with several homeless people, learning their stories.

“There was a guy who was our age and in college, and it was startling because you don’t expect that. When he talked to us he was totally fine, just going through a hard time,” Constantin said.

Piercy was surprised by the honesty of the homeless during the process of creating their project. “They were very helpful in sharing their experiences and opinions on what things they would like to see change and how things could be improved,” she said. “When working with them they were very honest and open about their situations and wanted to help others, who were new to being homeless, have a better experience.”

Constantin felt the same. “You kind of go in like you don’t want to offend anyone. You go there and just try to be present and show that you’re trying to help, and make something useful rather than be critical. They were totally open to it,” he said. “There was no shortage of opinion.”

Representatives were impressed by the poise and hard work put forth by the students. During the presentation Lydia Bailey, coordinator of volunteers for housing and shelter at Lutheran Metropolitan Ministries’ 2100 Lakeside shelter, said, “Whenever they came into the shelter they were so mature, and they really related so well to the men [residents of 2100 Lakeside.] Their people skills were really good, and people just opened up to them."

Sinbondit believes that the mapping process will help identify and work to meet the needs of the homeless population in Cleveland. “Obviously there’s food and necessities, but what else? Is it infrastructure, programming, education? There are so many things we might not have thought about.” He hopes projectFIND brings the perspectives of everyone – the students and the community partners – together to sustain relationships.

Piercy said she definitely grew from the experience. “The biggest thing I learned was to be willing to change direction and adapt to the situation.”

Sinbondit also wants projectFIND to spark conversations amongst the students, by “seriously looking at art and design in a different way –broader, more from the idea of being a citizen of the world,” he said. “We hope to change the perception of how far art can reach… We hope it becomes part of their DNA as artists or designers, hopefully changing the way they look at art and design, maybe two years from now, maybe ten.”

The students plan to continue to be socially engaged in different ways after college ends. “Even when I start my job, I want to be thinking, ‘How can this benefit others?’” Acosta said.

Constantin’s viewpoint is similar. “After doing this I think design should be more about the user,” he said. “If you’re doing design it should be about people and thinking about how you can help others.”

Alyssa Brown is a marketing intern at CIA.

Above, left to right, Sami Piercy, Alex Constantin, and David Acosta, all junior Industrial Design majors, present their maps to representatives of Cleveland social service agencies.

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