Cal State Fullerton students apply ‘design thinking’ to help the homeless

Dogs scamper through trash while their owners scrounge up some dinner as dusk falls at the homeless encampment near Angel Stadium.

What can this place possibly have to do with a high-concept Silicon Valley design institute?

A Cal State Fullerton student club brought the two together during fall semester by applying “design thinking” to come up with solutions for Orange County’s homeless crisis.

Design thinking is a creative approach championed by Stanford University’s to tackle business and social issues by pulling in tools from the arts and social sciences.

SINC, short for Student Innovation Collective, a CSUF club made up of students with a variety of majors and talents, has been learning the skills of design thinking under the model to improve such fields as the environment, education and medicine.

This fall, the club committed to compete in a contest with a $10,000 prize pool.

“Design Thinking Competition: The Fight to Solve Homelessness,” was organized by Push Humanity Forward, an Anaheim-based nonprofit devoted to “tackling monumental challenges by using a solution-oriented mindset.”

“While we cannot solve this problem, we only hope to push the needle and be part of something as exciting as this,” said student Vanessa Ganaden, who co-founded the club in August 2016 with Lorenzo Santos. “These students are really getting real-world experience not only from the riverbed walks but also from the insights of the mentors.”

Said Yumi Liang, who joined the founding team in May and is now club president: “By utilizing the design approach in our problem-solving process, our teams were able to come up with innovative solutions that actually cater to our clients’ real need thorough research, validation and, most important, empathy. We are definitely excited to spread this spirit of innovation, disruption and inspiration through this platform.”

The challenge

Will Taormina, Push Humanity Forward founder and a 2009 CSUF graduate in business with a concentration in entrepreneurship, spoke to SINC members in September to introduce the competition.

The challenge would be tough but rewarding, he told the club members. “It is amazing when you can help someone get back on their feet.”

The contest entry could be a physical domicile or something that addresses the issue, said Taormina, who is also founder and director of Newport Beach-based National Startup League. Entries would be judged on criteria including feasibility, cost, dignity, safety, scalability, sustainability and durability.

Taormina briefed the students about the scope of the problem, telling them to approach it without bias. Some residents of the camps are families there due to a lost job; others might be veterans with mental health or drug issues. Some are under tarps; others have gardens and solar panels. He warned it would take “some really, really deep thinking and empathetic investigation to figure this out.”

Mapping out empathy

A key part of design thinking is developing empathy – understanding what people need, what they do and why, how they think about the world and what’s meaningful to them, according to the Stanford

Toward that goal, the club members created an empathy map, after watching an applicable scene from “SpongeBob SquarePants.”

They asked one another such questions as “What occupies this person’s thinking?” Perhaps it’s where the next meal will come from, or that they are lonely, apathetic, traumatized, mentally ill or hopeless, posited the students.

Some student comments:

  • “They hear happiness at Angel Stadium, but feel like they can’t cross that fence.”
  • “They hear others say they’re dangerous. But they are human.”
  • “They want to reconnect with their family, they want financial stability, they want to be able to help themselves.”
  • “They want to be normal.”

A walk along the river

Next was a trip to the riverbed, to observe and talk with the people they would refer to as “clients.”

There they connected with volunteers from CityNet, a nonprofit contracted by the county, which staffs a trailer near the stadium to offer a variety of services to the camps’ residents.

“Creativity is very much needed,” Andrew Kosch, CityNet communications coordinator, told the group. “I’ll be interested in what you guys come up with.”

CityNet volunteers gave the students hygiene kits to hand out to boost the chance people would talk with them.

One couple told them how important it was to be on their own space and have a tent that zips for privacy.

A woman told them a doctor who visits the camps took care of her ailing toe and that another service is helping her with the deposit on an apartment. She told them some residents don’t ask for help, that they like the freedom of living in the camps.

The security of the many single women in the camps concerned her, she told them, as did the lack of lights. Some residents put up battery-operated lights, she said. But they get the cheap kind, which give out in a few hours.

“We can’t afford the Energizers.”

Crafting solutions

The students divided into four teams with four proposals:


“When we went down to the riverbed, what was most heartbreaking to us was to know that these skills and ingenuity these individuals possess was going to waste,” said Chalisa Phiboolsook.

This team developed a web-based service as middleman between employers and members of the homeless community.

ReSuit plan to recruit reliable workers in the homeless community, coach them through mock interviews and help them build a resume to highlight their skills. From a website database of those who pass the screening, certified employers can request a prospective employee. They provide an unpaid training period, after which they are obligated to hire the worker. At a trailer on site, reSuit representatives then would connect the workers with employers so the lack of a cellphone or address isn’t an issue.

Mentors mentioned that a lack of Social Security card and other documents might be an obstacle and suggested adding eligibility requirements to screen for a history of violence or drug charges.

Red Rooster

This team noticed that nonprofits overlap in their services for the homeless. Rather than start another such group, the team decided to help people more easily find the services and resources they need.

While walking the riverbed, they had noticed that one woman had a water-damaged packet of papers listing resources. So they asked the camps’ residents what resources they most wanted (Showers were high on the list) and called nonprofits to find out what they offer.

The result is a laminated list of local resources – food, health care, job opportunities, counseling, and services for women and children – and a map. The two-sided sheet lists each nonprofit’s location, hours, what they offer, what ID to bring and suggestions such as arriving early or bringing bags.

The mentors were impressed with the sheet’s low cost and practicality.

“I like the map a lot, and you could almost take it right now and go,” Taormina said.


This team conceived of an actual product: a collapsible platform that fits a tent, allowing beds for up to four people to be raised about a foot off the ground. If that sounds like something campers would like, well, that’s part of the team’s strategy. They intend to sell the Plateau platform for camping and disaster relief. Profits from those sales would fund Plateaus for the homeless.

The team crafted a prototype that would be 8 by 8 feet unfolded and 12 by 5 inches square folded and would weigh a little over 7 pounds, covered with a plastic mesh.

“If we can give them better sleep, maybe they have a better chance of getting a job,” said one team member.

Mentors suggested the team solicit the input of an industrial designer or a materials engineer.

Greets N’ Beets Farm

Not all the homeless are able to hold down jobs. For those, one team proposes a community garden where they could grow crops while learning from mentors who had experienced homelessness and know firsthand the struggles involved.

“We are offering an opportunity for people to create and be a part of something again,” said team member Emanuele Protano. Some people can’t commit to a regular job, with the accompanying paperwork, scheduling and phone calls, he pointed out. But farming can be therapeutic.

“They can show up if they want to,” Protano said.

Mentors suggested the team come up with a more detailed expense sheet for the farm proposal and a timeline of its launch.

Mentors weigh in

Several mentors advised the students on their proposals and critiqued them during presentations the teams made to club members.

For example, the club recruited Ruth Cho, outreach director for H.I.S. House, a Placentia nonprofit that helps those experiencing homelessness regain self-sufficiency. She met with the students to share what she does at the homeless encampments, the type of people she encounters and what a typical day for them might be like. At first the students tossed around ideas such as a portable charger and solar panels.

“They came up with ideas that completely blew that out of the water,” Cho said. She especially liked the reSuit proposal, since it acknowledges that many of the homeless have trade skills and work history but are hindered connecting with potential employers.

“That was a great idea, for me, that they would be able to bridge that,” Cho said.

She also was a fan of the Plateau platform, after observing how the riverbed turned to mud after last winter’s rains. Residents lost their belongings or saw them turn moldy, she said. The folding platform would be easy to transport if residents needed to move. She also liked the aspect that the platform would be sold to the general public and suggested it be marketed like Toms shoes: For every pair purchased, a second is given away to the needy.

“I think it’s amazing that we have so many young people that are wanting to do something like this. The stigma for homeless people is beginning to be broken down.”

Another mentor gave the students a splash of cold water during the second critique.

“There are issues with all the designs in terms of really understanding the situation and the sort of social elements around being homeless,” said Jared Spool, co-founder of Chattanooga, Tenn.-based Center Centre, a “user-experience design” school, via Skype.

The teams had “fallen in love with their solutions” but need to do a bit more “problem research,” he said. His experience working with the homeless reveals low literacy rates, high levels of social anxiety and difficulty interacting with people from the community.

“While you have great ideas, just giving them access to a job or access to a garden or giving them a printed document is not going to deal with those,” Spool said.

The judges

On Sunday, Dec. 3, the teams showed up at an otherwise empty Titan Student Union, most donning jackets, with hair neatly styled and not a CSUF sweatshirt in sight.

Lined up on stage were about a dozen judges representing some of the most prominent nonprofits serving the area’s homeless.

Taormina opened the session by explaining he issued the challenge knowing it forces those involved to face things that make them uncomfortable.

“We believe in a better tomorrow and making a positive impact in our community that can make a positive impact in the world,” he said.

Bill Taormina, Will’s father and founder of Clean City Inc., told the students that the older generations haven’t done a very good job fixing the homeless problem.

“The trend is for you to take this problem, grab it and make it go away.”

The trend is escalating, he said. “The efforts we’re making are putting little dents in it. … It’s up to you, the youth of our country, to make this problem go away, because if you don’t, what we consider the happiest place on earth, Orange County, is not going to be anything like it is.”

He then invited the judges to give examples of homeless people their organizations had taken off the street.

Paul Leon, CEO and president of Irvine-based Illumination Foundation, told about a man with alcoholism for 11 years who had been arrested 144 times and run up a $6 million-plus hospital bill. The group worked with the man’s physician and psychiatrist to get him sober.

“We are on the cusp of being the next skid row,” Leon said about Orange County. “But it’s going to be worse” because people are scattered throughout the county.

Jessica Bruce, director of outreach and engagement for CityNet, described a couple who had both lost their jobs. They had been given a housing voucher but had no access to the internet. CityNet put them into bridge housing through the Illumination Foundation, she said.

Mohammed Aly, a lawyer and founder of Orange County Poverty Alleviation Coalition, then related his struggle to get portable shows and toilets for the riverbed community. His first such attempt resulted in the toilets’ confiscation by the city of Anaheim earlier this year. A second trailer was set up Dec. 2 but lacks a required permit, which Aly said costs $2,000 and which he has so far been denied as the city and county pass his request back and forth.

“The effort gets put up and slapped down,” said Bill Taormina.

Charles Wee, founder of South Pasadena-based GDS Architects, described LifeArk, a pre-fabricated, modular building system designed by a social innovation R&D arm of GDS. The modules, which require one-fourth the assembly time of traditional construction methods, are intended to be built on land or water.

“Through design you can really make social changes” Wee told the group.

Faculty adviser John Bradley Jackson, director of the CSUF Center for Entrepreneurship, advised the students on how their efforts could be funded, such as grants from public agencies or a private-sector investor who profits off the solution.

The judging

Teams from USC and UCLA that had signed up for the competition did not show, leaving the four teams from Cal State Fullerton the sole contenders.

The judges went around to four stations where the teams presented their prototype.

“So elegant,” responded Wee after student Samantha Biggs described Red Rooster’s resource guide. The judges pointed out there are lists of resources on various city websites. But the students said those weren’t accessible by to homeless without internet access.

ReSuit’s members were asked how they would vet job applicants. Phiboolsook explained that applicants would need to visit the trailer, which in itself would demonstrate the kind of initiative and commitment employers would require.

“I love that website,” Leon commented.

When Leon noted that such resources change often, the team said they would arrange for high school students to update the lists as community service.

As they moved on to the presentation of the Plateau sleeping platform, with its custom injection-molded joints, the judges were surprised by something.

“I thought you guys were engineers or designers,” Wee said to the team, which included criminal justice and human communication majors. He suggested the students consult with a structural engineer to make sure the platform doesn’t collapse.

Looking over the Greets N’ Beets farm model, the judges recognized the need for something to involve those who can’t be bound by the constraints of a regular job, such as deadlines and expectations, but can pull weeds and check for bugs – a potentially healing activity.

“Not everybody can go back to work,” agreed Leon, who also mentioned that gardens are something it’s possible to get funding for.

The judges marked their scoring sheets, weighing whether the proposal:

  • provides safety and security
  • can endure weather
  • shows consideration of the user’s true needs
  • increases kindness, dignity and a sense of community
  • leverages resources sustainably
  • can be implemented in various locations

The results

The scores were tight, Taormina announced. The $10,000 prize money, put up by the Taormina family, would be distributed like this:

  • $1,000 to each of the four teams
  • $1,000 donation to SINC for club purposes
  • $5,000 to be distributed in six months among the teams that commit to developing their ideas further and meet milestones.

“If you need help moving forward,” offered the Illumination Foundation’s Leon, “contact us.”


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