Shelter Scarf (2014)

How does it feel like to be homeless? There are about 17,740 people in Skid-Row that can answer that question. The women in skid row have especially found it difficult to find the resources they need. They make up 35% of the homeless population in the U.S. and yet their needs and safety have been overlooked. A cause for this is the lack of information as to where these services can be found. So how do we help bridge the gap between the resources provided in skid row and those who don't know where to find them?

The Shelter Scarf is designed for the homeless women in Skid Row in order for them to help navigate through the city to find the resources they need to survive the streets.


shows a map of Skid Row and the resources available in the area

libraries and legal aid services

local shelter and soup kitchens

health clinics and rehabilitation facilities providing low-cost health care

Phase One: Research

We began researching about the causes of the homelessness and how we as designers could help. There are many reasons for homelessness, from unemployment, mental illness patient dumpings, gentrification, veterans coming back from the war to nothing, and the list of causes goes on. From looking at homeless shelter projects that involved redesigning the physical shelter to the random acts of kindness for homeless appreciation, people have explored what could be a solution to alleviate the problem.

Phase Two: Field Work

During the summer, we volunteered with Monday Night Mission, a grassroots organization founded by Mel Tillekeratne that feeds the homeless at night on Mondays to Fridays. We learned a lot from Mel about the dangers of sleeping in the streets, especially for the women who are raped or staying awake to make sure their kids aren’t trafficked, how the only public restroom and laundromat is now turned into a brothel by gang members, how mentally ill patients are dumped from hospital, and the list goes on.

We decided to focus our efforts for the homeless in Skid Row, home to thousands of the homeless, and the numbers still gradually continue to rise as cities and hospitals continue to dump the homeless in Skid Row. We narrowed down to specifically helping women because we felt as women we could really relate to their situations and empathize with them and the fact that there were limited resources for women. We went out to Skid Row at least once a week. There we gathered as much information about the homelessness situation as we could, by taking tours of facilities, being familiar with the programs provided, and volunteering with Downtown Women’s Center, LACAN’s Downtown Women’s Action Coalition, and Monday Night Mission.

We started visiting Downtown Women’s Center facilities to learn more about their efforts to not only help homeless women get a place to stay and be physically cared for, but also providing comfort and the love that they should receive. DWC also gives them vocational opportunities to learn a new skill or craft to earn money and the goods at sold at DWC’s resale boutique shop and cafe. 95% of the women who reside at their housing transition out of homelessness. The model for caring for the homeless women has shown us that what they really need is supportive housing. But how can two designers provide supportive housing without any funds?

Phase Three: Mapping it Out

During the 2013 Downtown Los Angeles Survey Assessment, which the city of Los Angeles conducts every three years to evaluate needs, we realize that there was a need for women to know where the resources are available for them. Other insights from the homeless women and volunteers was having more case managers, demand for more resources, Spanish speaking helpers, and being listened to.

As designers, we realize this was a great opportunity to design a map for the homeless women to receive the resources they need. It was also approaching winter season and it gets extremely cold sleeping in the streets and we thought of how these women could keep the valuable information and not have it be thrown away like a paper map. The solution we arrived was a shelter scarf. The shelter scarf acts an all season fashion accessory and providing warmth, but also at the same time directs them the help and resources they need.

Phase Four: Sketches

We looked at scarves and various sizes and started to put down the important information on a paper prototype. In the initial sketches of the scarf, we had a huge map in the center and had all the information wrap around it. We also figured out the first named 6 important types of resources: shelter, legal aid, medical centers, libraries/resource centers, food, and transportation.


We thought about how we could make the scarf warm and friendly with a feminine and naive illustration. The illustrations of the women are the angels of skid row that help guide the homeless women to the places and things they need to get.


As we developed the categories for the scarf, we divided the categories into: to find comfort(shelter and food), to find knowledge(libraries,legal aid, susbstance abuse, resource centers), and to be healed(medical centers) and added Spanish translation to the section titles. The titles spoke to a more caring tone than just having the section titles. We created important landmarks, such as City Hall, Angel’s Flight, Little Tokyo District, etc. to help the women navigate with a general knowledge of where places where in relation to those landmarks.

Map Design

In the beginning we had one big central map that showed all the locations, but the information hierarchy was unclear and it was hard to locate information on a very big scarf. In the second round of revisions, we decided to divide the scarf into four quadrants for easier viewing. We were also inspired by Archie Archambault’s typographical maps that showed the relationships of cities by spatial navigation of neighborhoods. We did our own take on it and included our illustrated landmarks into three smaller maps of the different categories which were differentiated by color. An overview map with all the resource markers was included to get a sense of the general area of Skid Row.

Phase Five: Creating a Prototype

After we designed the scarf, we are ready to go into production phase. We bought 2 liters of cyanotype inks (Freestyle Photo, $40) and 3 different types of fabrics: cotton, stretchy cotton, and linen. We soaked the fabrics in cyanotype ready for it to be exposed. We printed our scarf design on a clear film and exposed the scarf in UV light in an exposure room. We tested different exposure times for the different cloths. We then washed out the excess ink and let it to dry in the light. The linen fabric and a moderate exposure time was great for showing all the fine details of the scarf.

We envisioned the scarf to become a versatile product that transforms into a bag, a map, a directory to important resources like food, shelter, and support, and an opportunity for people to reach out to those in need.

Phase Six: Testing and Feedback

We went out to Skid Row to test our scarf version with the homeless women outside of Downtown Women's Center in Los Angeles. We introduced ourselves to them and talked about the map and listened to their suggestions. We offered flowers as a thank you and asked if we may have permission to take a picture with them. We approached 5 women for questioning for the scarf, got two good interviews, interacted with 3 women.

Genevieve was kind enough to give us some of her time to look at our scarf. She was from the South, and she seemed hopeful to be leaving Skid Row. We spoke to her and she generously gave us her thoughts and opinions on the scarf we made. A lot of people would come to her as a guide and ask where the resources are. She said that at San Julian Access Center/Volunteers of America had a map outside for people to look at, but not everyone knows it is there. She said we should go there to compare their map and ours and see what we could improve on or add to.

Genevieve is originally from out-of-state, so she mentioned that having a map like ours would have been helpful for her. She also mentioned that having churches and places of worship would also be good points of interest. She recognized the Central Library as a place she would go to for information. She noticed the historic landmarks on our map and mentioned that there could be more to reference to. She also opened up the idea to make this map work online and span into a national directory. She mentioned of a 1-877-SAFE hotline in Austin but was disappointed to find out that there is no similar service available in LA. Perhaps this is an opportunity to make a national directory geared towards women.

Phase Seven: Shelter Scarf, 2013 Edition

After going through revisions and iterations of our shelter scarf, we decided that it would be costly to keep printing cyanotype scarves and we needed color to distinguish the different categories. By printing our scarf through Spoonflower, there was minimal room for printing error or misprinting versus cyanotype. Throughout this process, we failed hard and struggled within the constraints we had, but we learned to actively pursue and test our ideas because the insights that people give are valuable in improving our design.

This project is a collaboration with Lily Sin.