How to see people as people in a world that quantifies success in numbers

Brittany Smith
People-as-People Project

The People as People Project and NYCR: Compassion as a Strategy for Life Transformation

Hi Guys! My name is Brittany; I’m a rising senior on the People as People Project here at Tiger Challenge. Our team is partnering with New York City Relief (NYCR). One of our goals is to design an innovation that would help quantify the effectiveness of their organization. Specifically, NYCR asked our team to focus on their Follow-up Care System and provide a recommendation for how they might better coordinate with partner and affiliate organizations to make sure they provide a seamless front of care for the homeless population of New York City.

NYCR focuses on intentionality in building community with the people they serve. Claudia, the VP stated, “there is a value in knowing people and in having people’s names known to those helping them.” Claudia sentiment reflects that New York City Relief does more than meet the immediate needs of hunger--they also meet the relational needs of their guests. Their strategy of choice is compassion: NYCR first builds relationships and recognizes their “friends’” humanity and then connect them to the resources for life transformation.

But how can NYCR really know whether these resources led to any transformation? This question led us to focus on two tasks, to recommend, conceptualize and help implement ways NYCR could:

  1. Quantify effectiveness

  2. Be more effective with follow-up care

Two objectives that can be broken down into nine words: seems straight forward, right?

But, as we began our project, we struggled to answer how to start quantifying the effectiveness of NYCR. What does it mean to be “successful” or “effective” when serving such a large, diverse, vulnerable population?  Early on in our project, we realized that any “quantitative” analysis risks dehumanizing the reality of the real-life experiences of the people we were trying to help. Thus, our focus shifted to: “how might we better organize and quantify information, while simultaneously making sure that NYCR continues to compassionately and empathetically build relationships and recognize their guests’ humanity?”  

Where to begin: From the Stacks to the Streets

Before hitting the field and interacting with people living the homeless experience, our team first wanted to orient ourselves to the scope of homelessness that exists in New York City. Although each member of our team had personal passion for the topic we all quickly admitted that we collectively lacked sufficient knowledge on how to define “homelessness.” People often stigmatize homeless individuals as lazy, mentally unstable, drug addicts, criminals, or worse. We new the narratives society told about homelessness were often told from a biased, or misinformed conception of “homelessness.” Our Tiger Challenge team chose the name “People as People Project” because we realized that to empathize and understand the broad spectrum of homelessness that exists in New York City we would first need to reject the false narratives and misconceptions of the homeless experience that our society frequently asserts as truth. We would need to see people as people who possess the same scope of human wants, desires, and needs--not merely as a number or object of study. To fully care and love our friend on the street we would need to pop the orange bubble: we would need to step outside our narrow perspective.

So, we hit the stacks of Firestone Library. Sitting on the floor, surrounded by about twenty books, it seemed that there were infinite sources on the problems of homelessness and not enough sources on what “effective” care for the homeless looks like. We came to realize that there is no one way to define the homeless experience, so defining a one-dimensional view of “success” would not sufficiently meet the needs of our friends in New York. Homelessness exists on a spectrum, thus our perception of “success” would have to take into account the diverse arrays of experiences that fall within this spectrum. We learned that books could tell us statistics, but they could not give us a real depiction of what effectiveness looked like on an interpersonal level. We would need to get out of the library and work with NYCR to build relationships with people living the homeless experience.

Empathy in Design Thinking

Tim Brown, CEO and President of IDEO, has said “Empathy is at the heart of design.” Empathy, as it turns out, would become the foundation of everything we worked on with NYCR. The books we found in Firestone could orients us to numbers and statistics, but we needed to get out because people aren’t numbers. To quantify the effectiveness of NYCR’s Follow-up team we would need to use abductive thinking. This means we would need to think in a new and different perspective that NYCR’s current model-- a perspective that accounted for the wide array of human experiences that the Follow-up team had to deal with on a daily basis. This form of thinking would really on human centered collaboration with both our friends at NYCR and our friends living the homeless experience.

An Angel Among Many Friends

Over the past two weeks, my team has had the privilege of talking to friends all over New York. We started at Chelsea Park, then helped serve at Bowery Mission, and this past Friday we Volunteered on a NYCR bus in Harlem. That’s where I met Angel. Angel comes from Spanish Harlem, one of the most dangerous parts of New York City. Violence, poverty, despair- all these things are the last things I could imagine looking at his joyful smile, yet all these things permeated the community he was a part of.

I first overheard him as I was serving soup--he was listening to oldies rock music, so I asked about some of his favorite bands (I happen to be quite an oldies fan myself). After twenty minutes talking about Fleetwood Mac and the Rolling Stones, he began to tell me the story of how NYCR changed his life. He began to unfold a process of relational care and genuine love that he had experience in the eleven years he had been with New York Relief. As I sat listening to Angel, it occurred to me that he was the classic example of someone who could have easily fallen through the cracks and ended up chronically homeless on the streets. His story of life transformation so easily could have been just another narrative, lost in a blur of statistics or case studies. Had someone not engaged him or cared for who he is as a person, Angel could have been lost in a system that would have merely recorded his humanity as a number.

That, however, is not how his story unfolded.


Angel's story is one of so many I heard. Every site I volunteered at I heard narrative upon narrative from an array of diverse people whose stories were worth being heard and responded to.Jess, said,” Success can be connecting someone to a resource; it is not necessarily something that leads to immediate life transformation right away.” On many reports or case studies, Angel might not be qualified as a “success.” Many people in society would look at him and say that much more needs to be done for his story to be categorized as an “effective instance of follow-up care.” Angel immediate circumstances and economic level haven’t been radically impacted, but his quality of life has. New York Relief brought Angel consistency, community: they cared for his physical, emotional and spiritual needs. If you don’t believe me ask him-he joyfully speaks to anyone who will listen about how his Friends at NYCR changed his life. When talking with my team, Teresa, an NYCR leader, said, “so many times people are crippled because they feel like no one cares, so they just give up.” Angel’s story was one of immense pain, after losing his mother in 2009 he told me that New York City relief gave him hope.In  the face of such grief, Angel could have easily lost hope; he could have easily “given up,” but he found NYCR, and NYCR responded to him. This form of hope is not easily represented on a spreadsheet. Moving forward in searching for ways to “quantify effectiveness” our team has come to realize that success or effective care first comes from recognizing relational, basic human needs. Success may not always look the same. Sometimes Success will look like making someone feel known, building a relationship, identifying their needs and providing them with a needed resource.

This challenge thus far has made me look at how I interact with people differently. Not just people in the field but all people: people passing me on the street, or sitting next to me on the train. Empathy means that I recognize that every person i come into contact with has a narrative, a full set of life experience that I can and should want to learn from. Through this Tiger Challenge, I have discovered that empathy is at the center of design, but also it’s at the center of all our lives. Seeing people as people actively engage and listen to those around you, to recognize their humanity and take part in the story they live.