Behind the Scenes: Visualizing Data About Student Homelessness

By Mandy Rusch, Digital Design Project Assistant

This past winter, Schoolhouse Washington approached us with an exciting new project: to create visualized data graphics for use in their communication materials. In this post, I will describe my approach and learning process over the course of the project, which taught me a lot about what it takes to develop advocacy tools.

Schoolhouse Washington is a partnership between Building Changes and Columbia Legal Services. The organization was formed because these two partners wanted to get more directly involved in advocacy to improve housing stability and advance educational success for the nearly 40,000 students in our state who experience homelessness.

One important way that Schoolhouse Washington advocates is through the use of data. They analyze the student homelessness data provided by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, which is important to share because it helps describe needs to lawmakers and policymakers.

Graphic data visualizations, or “infographics,” are an incredibly powerful way to share data like this. The use of images and charts to show data visually helps to tell a clear message that is easier for viewers to digest than a written document alone.

Looking back: Past work for Schoolhouse Washington

In the past, SU’s Project on Family Homelessness worked with Schoolhouse Washington’s co-founder, Columbia Legal Services, to create a graphic showing the number of students in different grade levels experiencing homelessness. My predecessor Krista Kent (SU ’15) in late 2014 designed this state map that presents the number of Washington students experiencing homelessness in elementary, middle, and high school.

Krista Kent’s infographic from 2014, designed in partnership with Columbia Legal Services.

Krista designed the graphic to show two main points. First, nearly half of all students experiencing homelessness are in elementary school, which was important to convey because the stresses of housing instability have an especially strong impact on young children. Most importantly, the graphic demonstrated that students are homeless all over the state. This infographic helped counter some myths about homelessness, especially in the minds of some of our lawmakers. Columbia Legal Services said that it also helped lead to the passage of the Homeless Student Stability Act.

Krista’s original infographic was so effective that Columbia Legal Services asked us to update it for 2016, before I was part of the project.

For this year, they wanted a different direction, and that’s where I got involved.

Starting Out

This year, we needed to take a new approach. When I first began working on the infographic project, the goal was to create an updated version of the state map graphic along with visualizations for several other data points that could be presented together.

Starting at the beginning of January, I worked with our project manager, Catherine, to choose data from Schoolhouse Washington’s website and brainstorm ways to present them. Getting our ideas out on paper gave us a starting point to discuss with our partners to further solidify their needs and the story we were trying to tell. Because the new numbers hadn’t yet been announced, I used last year’s numbers to plan this year’s design.

Infographic Jan 20
An early version of a one-page infographic for Schoolhouse Washington presenting several different data points.


Moving Forward

After Schoolhouse Washington reviewed the initial design, we began to solidify their needs for this project. Instead of one large infographic with small related components, they wanted to be able to use individual elements within written reports and online, so they needed flexible components that could fit these different roles. Along with the variety of uses, the graphics would also be presented to a wide audience. This meant they needed to be approachable and easy to digest while also effectively conveying serious statistical information.

Rather than focus on the overall number for the state, we all wanted to convey the direct impact of homelessness on a classroom and both the short- and long-term impacts of housing instability on a child.

With this new information, I was able to move forward to create a series of seven individual square graphics, each presenting their own data point.

One graphic in the series comparing the graduation rate for students experiencing homelessness compared to the total average for all students.


My Process

The key piece I carried over from the original graphic was the statistic for how many students in Washington State experience homelessness: 1 in 27, according to the new data. When I think about my own experience of class sizes in public schools that were around 25-30 students, it is especially powerful to consider that this statistic represents about one student in every class.

The first graphic in the series, which presents the statistic that one in every 27 students in Washington State is experiencing homelessness.

For each data point that I was asked to visualize, I worked to find unique ways I could incorporate a balance of illustrated graphics, emphasized numbers and text and data charts. I wanted to use a variety of techniques and incorporate illustration as much as possible.


One of my biggest challenges working with the data was trying to create eye-catching icons that didn’t over-simplify the seriousness of the numbers they were presenting. I was concerned about the fact that these statistics are used to represent many different individual experiences and emotionally charged stories.

For inspiration on how to approach this challenge, I looked back on my predecessor Amy Phung’s (SU ’16) infographic for the One Night Count last year and also researched icon design from other organizations that present data about people.

I looked back on Amy’s icon design style for inspiration when I was illustrating this data point about living in places not meant for human habitation.

One particularly challenging data point to illustrate was about the effects of toxic stress on school children. This information explains why it is so urgent for us to address housing needs for young kids.

The graphic created to talk about the effects of toxic stress on the body of a young child.

When researching ways to approach this graphic, I began by studying Krista’s infographic on toxic stress, which she developed in partnership with our previous project coordinator, school psychologist Perry Firth (SU ’16).

Then, when I watched this video on the effects of toxic stress on the body, I became interested in focusing my graphic on the relationship between toxic stress and key bodily functions. One part of the video represented toxic stress with lines radiating out from the brain and highlighted the main organs this impacts. I thought this was an effective way to show this process, so I translated that idea into an icon design consistent with the rest of the graphics I created for this project.

Visualizing the Impact of High Mobility

A graphic presenting the effects of unstable housing on school changes and learning.

Another graphic that I am proud of is this one (above) focusing on how often students change schools during a school year due to housing instability. The fact that each move costs a child 4-6 months of learning progress is especially important because it communicates the need to help break the cycle of homelessness. Education is a child’s best means to move out of poverty, but this much learning loss due to housing instability makes it even harder for them to break the cycle. I am proud of this graphic because it is very simple, but still presents the message clearly and concisely.

Infographics in Action

Schoolhouse Washington recently posted the full infographic series on its website. Two weeks ago our project team participated in a convening with our partner organizations to discuss what we were working on, and I presented the graphics to attendees at the event so that we could encourage them to share the graphics on social media. Since then, the graphics have been shared on Twitter by many of our partner organizations, like Firesteel, and by community members – even Seattle Times reporter Vernal Coleman.

vernal coleman tweet
Vernal Coleman, who covers homelessness for the Seattle Times, tweeted about the Schoolhouse Washington analysis on May 4, 2017 and included one of my infographics.


The process I went through to create these graphics taught me a lot about icon design and helped prepare me with ideas to approach an infographic I’ve been working on for All Home for this year’s point-in-time count in King County, Count Us In. It was challenging to find ways to visualize such serious statistics while considering the realities of what those numbers mean. All Home is planning to release the infographic when they announce the Count Us In numbers, tentatively in late May. That infographic might lead to another blog post.

I hope that the designs I came up with can help Schoolhouse Washington communicate these problems and needs to a wide audience of people who can help join the fight to end homelessness among schoolchildren in Washington state.

What You Can Do:

  1. Learn about the science behind infographics that makes them such a great advocacy tool.
  2. Sign up to receive notifications from Schoolhouse Washington to stay informed about trends and advocacy efforts for student homelessness.
  3. Read Perry Firth’s series on the effects of homelessness and toxic stress on school children on Firesteel.
  4. Check out the State of Washington’s Kids 2016 report to learn more about the needs of our state’s students.
  5. Learn about A Way Home Washington’s 100-day challenge and how they are finding ways to work through barriers to get homeless youth into housing.



Be a Smart Renter for Affordable Housing Week, May 15-22, 2017

By Mandy Rusch, Digital Design Project Assistant

The second annual Affordable Housing Week was May 15-22 2017. There were some big events, including one we hosted on campus on May 18 on being a smart renter. Thank you for everyone who joined us- here is what was going on during the week.

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A Safe Haven: What Immigrant and Refugee Families Need to Know

By Khadija Diallo, Project Assistant, Seattle University Project on Family Homelessness


Image 1 Times Ayan and Muna
Ayan Rashid, 14, and her sister Muna Rashid, 4, inside their apartment in Kent. According to the 2015 Seattle Times article “Unsettled: Immigrants Search for their ‘Forever’ Homes in Seattle,” this family lived in a refugee camp for years. Photo Credit: Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times


Just imagine: you are 25 years old, a mother of three from Somalia and you have lived in Washington for two years. You don’t speak English; you have no relatives in any surrounding area or knowledge of resources available to you. To top it all off, you’re no longer able to pay your rent bill, so you and your children end up homeless. What next?

What if you were a single father of two who became homeless, yet found shelter at Mary’s Place, but are an undocumented immigrant. What rights do you have? Can you be arrested at the shelter?

With a new administration underway and impending immigration sweeps nationwide, it’s important for immigrants and refugees to know their rights. It’s also important for families experiencing housing instability to know what resources are available to them.

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“One Voice” — Housing and Homelessness Advocacy Day Through the Eyes of a First-Time Advocate

By Shan Yonamine, Project Assistant, Seattle University Project on Family Homelessness

Going into my first Housing and Homelessness Advocacy Day (HHAD), I couldn’t help but feel a little nervous about calling myself a “housing advocate.” As a project assistant, I have created content that can be used as tools for advocacy and I have attended advocacy events, but I was afraid that I had not done enough advocacy to be an effective participant at HHAD. After participating in #HHAD2017, I realized that I could not have been more wrong.

In this blog post, I will recount my experience attending HHAD as a first-time advocate and explain how it changed my perception of what it means to be an advocate. Continue reading

Get Online and Advocate on Social Media Day of Action, Jan. 31

Note: This is an updated version of a post that originally ran on Firesteel in January 2016.


Use your social media skills to advocate for affordable housing and an end to homelessness on the fourth annual Social Media Day of Action, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2017.

Advocates around the state will flock to Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms that day to build an online movement as we lead up to Housing & Homelessness Advocacy Day (HHAD) in Olympia, Thursday, Feb. 2. HHAD is hosted by our partner, Washington Low Income Housing Alliance.

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“Seeing Is Active” — A Collection of Memorable Quotes from “Streetwise Revisited”

By Shan Yonamine, Project Assistant, Seattle University Project on Family Homelessness



Introduction – This project and my purpose

It has been over two weeks since the “Streetwise Revisited” exhibit at The Seattle Public Library  has closed, and I am still finding myself thinking about the project and reflecting on my experiences. I find myself torn between wishing that it wasn’t over, and feeling so grateful that it happened that I decided to reflect on it even further.

“Streetwise Revisited” was The Seattle Public Library’s public education program focused on “Streetwise,” the 1984 documentary film, and the 30-year collection of photos by the renowned documentary photographer Mary Ellen Mark. It consisted of a range of events from history talks to film screenings, and involved many important advocacy organizations that are also working to end homelessness.

Because the Seattle University Project on Family Homelessness  was a community partner, I took the opportunity to attend as many of the “Streetwise Revisited” events as possible and I’m so glad that I did. The project provided me with an overwhelming amount of insight on “Streetwise” and how it can be used as a tool for advocacy. I heard the perspectives of many individuals who either had a role in the original film or who are working today to advocate for people who are experiencing homelessness. More importantly, I realized that, as advocates, we are all powerfully connected by our cause.

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“Create Change” — A Day to Change How We Think about Art, Advocacy and Homelessness

By Mandy Rusch, Digital Design Project Assistant, Seattle University Project on Family Homelessness

Art is my coping mechanism. During the artistic process, there is power in the hands of the maker. Regardless of whether anyone sees the result or even if it is “good,” this power is healing, inspiring and uplifting.

At The Seattle Public Library’s “Create Change: Youth & Family Homelessness and the Arts” event on Oct. 29, 2016, I had the opportunity to come together with a community of people to find out how art can be used to take action towards ending youth and family homelessness. You can see an in-depth description of the full day of performances, speakers and arts events here in this story by my colleague Shan.

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Mothers, Daughters, Conflict — The New “Tiny” Movie Hits Home


Editor’s Note: As part of our ongoing “Streetwise Revisited” work, our student project assistants are blogging about key events. Both Khadija and Shan wrote about the “TINY” screening, first Shan and now Khadija.

By Khadija Diallo, Project Assistant, Seattle University Project on Family Homelessness

“LaShawndrea with a black eye doing her hair,” the photo that struck me most. Credit:  Photo I took of the photo by Mary Ellen Mark from the book “Streetwise Revisited.”



There’s a teenage girl with a black eye in photographer Mary Ellen Mark’s book “Tiny: Streetwise Revisited.” She is LaShawndrea, the eldest daughter of Erin “Tiny” Blackwell. Of all the remarkable photos in that book, this one really struck me.

When I saw the film “TINY: The Life of Erin Blackwell” on Oct. 14, 2016 at the Seattle Public Library, it was LaShawndrea again who intrigued me the most. I sympathized with her because of a scene where she complains that Erin was not there for her. “She’s rejected me a lot,” narrates LaShawndrea.

I related to that scene because it reminded me of the strained relationship between my mother and grandmother; I have heard my mother make a similar remark about my grandmother which was one main reason LaShawndrea resonated with me. I can understand how it hurts to not feel true love from your mother. It seems the rejection from her mother has impacted LaShawndrea into her adult life.

The screening of “TINY” was part of The Seattle Public Library’s  public education program, “Streetwise Revisited,” which focused on “Tiny” from the 1984 documentary film “Streetwise.” Our project was a community partner, and we participated by screening the original “Streetwise” film, among other activities. (You can read my post about “Streetwise” and our guest, Erin’s daughter Keanna, here.)

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There Is No Perfect Answer — What I Learned from “Tiny – The Life of Erin Blackwell”


By Shan Yonamine, Project Assistant, Seattle University Project on Family Homelessness

Erin crying and smoking, Seattle, 2004
Erin crying and smoking, Seattle, 2004. Photo by Mary Ellen Mark.


The first thing that I wanted after seeing “Streetwise” was answers. After watching the acclaimed 1984 documentary  and getting such a candid look into the lives of the nine children, I felt as though I developed an intimate connection to each of them. I knew that “Streetwise” was only one chapter in each of their stories, and I desperately wanted to know more.

In fact, I felt entitled to know more. After all, they had opened up their lives for all to see in the most raw, uncensored way. Wouldn’t they be used to sharing their lives with the world by now?

This is why I was so excited to attend the screening of “Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell” – the new film about one of the children in “Streetwise” — at The Seattle Public Library on Oct. 14. Both “Tiny” herself — Erin Blackwell — and director Martin Bell would be the special guests.

As I took my seat in the audience, I couldn’t help but wonder what I would find out from Erin and Martin about the “stars” of “Streetwise.” Where are they now? Are they still homeless? Are they still struggling with addiction? Or, had things gotten better for them? Maybe they got the help they needed. Maybe the film was a turning point for them. Maybe some of them are here today. All of these thoughts filled my mind as the lights dimmed and the movie began. I was ready for answers.

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“The Uncomfortable Conversation” — Using “Streetwise” as a Tool for Advocacy

Editor’s Note: As part of our ongoing “Streetwise Revisited” work, our student project assistants are blogging about key events. Both Khadija and Shan wrote about the “Streetwise” screening, first Khadija and now Shan.

By Shan Yonamine, Project Assistant, Seattle University Project on Family Homelessness


Poster for our campus screening of “Streetwise,” designed by Amy Phung.


“It didn’t change anything for us then,” said Erin “Tiny” Blackwell’s daughter Keanna Pickett about the impact of the documentary “Streetwise” on her family. “When people watch it, it’s a movie. You’re able to go about your life after you watch it.” In other words, Keanna was able to remove herself emotionally because the film can elicit powerful emotions that may be uncomfortable to deal with.

However, when “Tiny’s” daughter tells you that “Streetwise” should be used as the catalyst for an “uncomfortable conversation” about family and youth homelessness, you listen. Continue reading