On Feb. 5, the Anthrogeek, six anthro students and I were down at this month’s ArcHop exhibit, a full-scale model of a small efficiency unit that, if built in a proposed development here, could be the first stop for people leaving homelessness in Fresno.  We were there, with architect/collaborators Kiel Famellos-Schmidt, Shaunt Yemenjian and Mike Pinheiro, for opening night, as members of the public came through to view the model and give us their thoughts on high-density, affordable downtown living.  The event was a success, crowded and bustling, with plenty of people willing to blab to our students who were on hand with notebooks, pens and cameras rolling.   This past Feb. 14-15, we started Phase II of the project, with two participatory design workshops for homeless people who might eventually end up in these units.  On Saturday, anthro student Elfego Franco, Kiel and I went down to Roeding Park where the folks at Food Not Bombs put on lunch for homeless people on the southwest end of Fresno every Saturday.  Al Williams, a local homeless advocate and former homeless person himself agreed to recruit some folks for a workshop the next day at 2pm.  We then met Mike and went to the downtown homeless encampment known as “Little Tijuana” to recruit for the 10am workshop.  This means we went up to about 15 homeless people, sight unseen, to explain the project and see if anyone was interested.  Despite some wary looks, most were, and we agreed to see them the next day.

We went back to Little Tijuana on Sunday, picked up nine participants and headed over to Broadway Studios where the model is located.  During the three hour workshop, which we did inside the model itself, we experienced an amazing degree of openness and engagement from everyone present, including the four primary Spanish speakers, thanks to Elfego’s translating capabilities.  At 2pm, we had similarly fine results with six more participants.  As I’ve said before, my job carries the privilege of being allowed a peek at other peoples’ lives.  In the workshops, we drew, talked, and acted out skits aimed at getting at the way the participants thought about home and housing, and how they would like their first home out of homelessness to be.  Everyone agreed that any homeless person would be tickled to have a roof over their head, an observation made all the more poignant by the three days of heavy rain we had preceeding the event.  But the participants also shared with us some significant design insights that Kiel, Shaunt and Mike will incorporate into future designs.

After the second workshop, I went home and changed into some nice clothes and made the geographically short but socially looooooooong ride to north Fresno, to the church where my future mother-in-law, a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, was speaking about how to support each other in times of grief.  The transition from talking to people who have next to nothing to sitting among fifty fresh-faced people in Sunday best made my head spin.  We live in a strange society.

Though my Sunday night at church was the product of a personal connection, the radical shift I made across the social terrain of Fresno from 10am to 7pm could have easily been the result of my professional life.  I traverse that terrain every week and sometimes every day.  My current projects are putting me, the Anthrogeek, and our students in contact with Fresno State undergrads, homeless people, affluent magazine readers, and car salesmen.  Bored with life in Fresno?  Come join us.