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The Dignity Museum builds empathy between visitors and the homeless

Through virtual reality and storytelling, the first-ever museum dedicated to homelessness wants to further our understanding of the human side of the crisis.

In a parking lot southwest of Atlanta, a new museum brings visitors into conversation with the systemic issues of homelessnessa growing concern in the U.S., and one that’s not often understood.  “We wanted to create a space where the voices of individuals experiencing homelessness and poverty could speak for themselves,” says Terence Lester, founder of the Dignity Museum and the homelessness-focused nonprofit Love Beyond Walls.

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The museum, which will open March 23, is built in single shipping container divided into three rooms that each present a different way of understanding homelessness.

[Photo: Enrique Morgan/Love Beyond Walls]

Through storytelling, the first room challenges stereotypes about who is homeless and why, and how difficult it is to escape the situation. While working at Love Beyond Walls, which helps people who are homeless find shelter and meet basic needs, Lester had noticed that volunteers had clear biases about what it meant to be homeless. “They would find out that the stories coming from actual individuals were different from the narratives they had in their head,” he says. “It wasn’t just about mental health–maybe somebody lost a job, or there was a death in the family, or someone developed a disability from an illness and could no longer work.” The first room encapsulates many different narratives to give a sense of how complex the causes and challenges of homelessness are.

In another room, the museum uses virtual reality to give visitors the experience of being on the street. An app shares stories told by homeless people. Visitors can read data about homelessness and learn about issues such as affordable housing. A monitor on the wall prompts questions like, What if you were known for the hardest time in your life? “It creates that empathetic bridge for people to walk over and not see people as below them,” Lester says.

[Photo: Enrique Morgan/Love Beyond Walls]

The last room in the museum is designed to convince visitors to act: They learn about local nonprofits, and what steps they can take to help. “Oftentimes, we put off responsibilities on institutions or the government,” he says. “But it’s like Martin Luther King said–we’re a global village, and all of us can be a part of the solution.” That might mean befriending someone experiencing homelessness, and using your own network to help them. “It’s a section that forces people to realize their privilege,” Lester says.

Because the museum was built in a shipping container, it could later travel to other locations. Lester is also interested in working with organizations in other cities who see the value of re-creating this type of educational tool, tailored for their own locations. “We want to use this as a model that could be replicated,” he says. It’s possible that a similar museum could eventually open in the U.K., where a group called the Museum of Homelessness has staged a series of events, but doesn’t yet have a building of its own.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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