What started as a project for his thesis has now become one West Virginia University professor’s mission to give a face to the issue of homelessness in Morgantown.
After moving to the United States from Ghana, Kofi Opoku began volunteering with a local organization that helps feed the homeless and was intrigued.
“There are many resources for the homeless population in America, and specifically in Morgantown,” Opoku said. “These resources are unavailable in Ghana, so the difference in systems piqued my interest. When I talked to Morgantown locals, it seemed no one really understood the homeless population, or had a very contrived opinion on it. I didn’t think this whole population could be so one dimensional.”
“I used infographics and data visualizations that had interactive components so that people like me, who had no clue about homelessness, could understand the whole picture through statistics and facts,” Opoku said. “It was very effective because there was a lot of data, but it lacked emotional appeal. I realized I wanted to know who I was talking about. What were their stories?”
Opoku continued the project after graduation, heading to the streets instead of the computer for research. He sat down with some of the homeless population in Morgantown and learned their stories.
“Everyone I interviewed was very willing to get their stories out there, and I think that’s because they are frustrated with how people view them and feel silenced,” Opoku said. “There’s a tendency to broad brush the homeless population, but each individual in that population is unique. They have very different stories.”
Opoku heard about the lives of military veterans, former drug addicts, terminally ill cancer patients and countless others. Their stories can be heard and read at www.faceofhomelessness.com.
“You’ll notice on the site, there is no donate or volunteer button, because my goal is awareness,” Opoku said. “As a society, I believe we have lost our ability to listen. Not everything has to be dealt with right away, sometimes it’s just about raising the level of understanding about a situation.”
Opoku hopes to use this project for his students as an example that designers can find a wide-range of uses for their skills.
“I try to tell my students that as designers, we are the most privileged of all disciplines, because we can dip our hands into anything,” Opoku said. “I’m glad I can use the lens of design to present the issues I care about and help others understand it. I want my students to remember that in their careers as designers and commit to creating social and community impact through their work.”