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Can Mobile Apps Help the Homeless?

Can newly developed mobile applications help the homeless, when access to technology is unreliable at best?

It was 34 degrees on December 21st in Chicago. As shoppers crowded the Magnificent Mile, a retail destination that stretches along Michigan Avenue north of downtown, Lucy Connor, 29, sat quietly on the charcoal gray sidewalk with a cardboard sign indicating she was homeless, a cup for change, and bags presumably filled with her belongings beside her.

Connor says she and her husband have been homeless for more than two years. They lost their home after Lucy suffered a medical issue and had problems with their housing assistance. Her husband sat quietly at the corner across the street, his head bent down toward his lap. She says that he suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, a condition which caused him to have “episodes” and subsequently get thrown out of shelters.

Lucy’s Android cell phone was stolen a few days ago. She used it to talk to her two young children, Valerie, six, and Jacob, 12, who now live in Burbank, Illinois; as well as to schedule doctor’s appointments and connect her husband with his family. As passersby drop coins in her cup, she talks about wanting to get a replacement phone soon.

“I’ve always had a cell phone to keep in touch with them until it got stolen,” Lucy says. “I’d [use it] to get doctor’s appointments. That was really important too.”

It may come as a surprise that someone in Lucy’s situation would have a cell phone in the first place. Yet many homeless individuals — homeless youth, in particular — have cell phones. According to a 2011 study published in the Journal of Urban Health, 62 percent of homeless youth own a cell phone.

More than 550,000 people experience homelessness on a single night in the United States, according to the 2016 Annual Homeless Assessment Report published last November. As cell phone use proliferates within the most vulnerable population, developers have begun creating apps that address the needs of the homeless. The goal of these apps is to either connect altruistic users to resources or bring vital resources like shelters, rehabilitation centers, or food pantries directly to homeless people with cell phones.

Non-profit organizations in various cities including Chicago and New York have developed apps aimed at helping the homeless in their respective cities. OurCalling, a Dallas-based non-profit that serves the homeless, is currently expanding its namesake app to include other services for the homeless in major cities across the country.

Prior to its app, OurCalling had been handing out printed, waterproof directories that list various resources in Dallas. The OurCalling app, which first was launched in 2015, directs users to short-term resources like food pantries and places to do laundry as well as long-term resources like rehabilitation and domestic violence centers. Users can also report where homeless people are so that OurCalling can send someone out to help. With resources for the homeless in a near-constant state of flux, an app offers the flexibility for quick updates and notifications.

The OurCalling app gathers homelessness resources by cataloguing data available on the Internet in its own database. Users can also submit resources that are missing from the directory.

The app’s nationwide update launched late last year. Since then, OurCalling has been compiling a database of national non-profits helping the homeless. Going forward, the app will be updated as users add more information in other cities, says Dallas pastor and OurCalling executive director Wayne Walker.

“We find that [for] a lot of homeless people the first thing they’re going to buy when they get some cash in their pocket is going to be a cell phone just so they can be connected to friends and family, get on Facebook, [or] play games,” Walker says. “This gives us an opportunity to reach out to them.”

The non-profit has also developed a separate, internal application that analyzes the data present in the main app. This secondary app collects GPS coordinates and creates profiles of the homeless that contains their photographs and information about any friends or associates. The non-profit also combines 9-1-1 and 3-1-1 data where people report homeless encampments, along with its own internal data of where OurCalling members have gone to help homeless people, all in order to create maps showing where homeless people are likely to be living.

“As we continue to evolve this app and the way that we use it, it gives us an opportunity to work smarter and not harder,” Walker says. “We can’t use a drone and drop resources into every homeless person’s lap, but we can use the app to go find people and for you driving by the homeless to get engaged.”

While these apps present an opportunity to track a transient population, there’s a catch to all of this: What about homeless individuals who suffer from mental illness or drug addiction and need further help? Assisting those who need medical attention or have trouble communicating due to a mental illness may require help from good Samaritans who spot them.

That’s where an app like WeShelter comes in. WeShelter lets users dial 3-1-1 when they see a person in need or tap a button to send donations directly to non-profits that help the homeless. WeShelter hasn’t exactly been an overnight success: Since its launch in 2015, the app has garnered fewer than 5,000 users (the company says it hopes to grow that user base to 50,000). The app aims to simplify helping the homeless by making it easy to donate to non-profit organizations or get immediate assistance to homeless people.

“There are two problems. There’s the problem of actual homelessness and the unwillingness or inability of people in the city to respond to it,” says Ilya Lyashevsky, co-founder of WeShelter. “It’s really about breaking that cycle of indifference … and help[ing] people take that first small step.”

Users who use the 3-1-1 feature can provide additional information about the homeless person they’ve seen who needs help. WeShelter does not identify the location data of its users, and the only people who can access the data are the city and partner non-profit organizations.

For WeShelter users like Sammie Smith, the app offers a simple way to help the homeless while on the go. Smith, a 41-year-old living in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood, says she taps the donation app throughout the week and at times has used it to call 3–1–1 to get assistance for a homeless person. While helping the homeless is a serious matter, using the app feels as simple or fun as using any other smartphone app, Smith says.

“If you’re going to sit and swipe Angry Birds or whatever kind of game, you can just as easily play a game that will help the homeless. And it’s not really a game, but it’s not much different than swiping at birds or pieces of candy,” Smith says.

Lyashevsky and fellow co-founder Ken Manning are working on a second app, called Help Finder, that will serve both homeless people with cell phones and anyone looking to direct homeless people toward specific resources. Like the OurCalling app, Help Finder will guide people to short-term resources like soup kitchens and places to take showers, as well as long-term resources like transitional housing. They hope to get the app up and running within the next month or two.

As software developers create apps to directly help the homeless, another key question looms: What about homeless people who don’t have a cell phone at all, let alone the ability to pay for one?

There are government programs and non-profits providing homeless or low-income individuals with cell phones. States like California and Oregon have programs that give cell phones directly to low-income individuals, while non-profits like the LGBT Technology Partnership & Institute has distributed free cell phones as part of its Power On initiative to better understand how the homeless use them.

The Power On program at the LGBT Technology Partnership & Institute, a Virginia-based non-profit that researches technology use in LGBT communities and supports LGBT programs, is conducting research on how cell phones affect LGBT homeless youth, but that research is not publicly available yet. To conduct the study, the non-profit partnered with Cricket Wireless to provide homeless LGBT youth with cell phones and monitor how often they used the phone.

The cell phones did not have apps for homelessness resources, but they did come pre-loaded with the Trevor Project phone number in case users were having suicidal or other troubling thoughts. The non-profit partners with other organizations distribute laptops to homeless people that have completed developmental programs.

“We need to be able to provide more than cell phones and tablets,” Wood says. “We can make change in a really powerful way that wouldn’t otherwise be able to happen…. It’s not just cell phones. It’s also getting on the computer and being able to look for a job or learning how to work with an iPad.”

Creating apps for the homeless comes with complex questions. How do you design apps for homeless people who are somewhat illiterate or have a mental-health issue? How can an app make it easy for passersby to not ignore homeless people? What happens if homeless individuals can’t access cell phones altogether or, like Lucy, their phones are stolen?

“If you have literacy issues, you’re probably not going to be able to read an address or a phone number,” Walker says. “There’s always going to be a curve there where we can’t help everybody, but we can help a lot of people…. There’s still going to be limitations to the technology and that’s true in every area of technology. It may not help them, but it will help you help them.”