How Apps Can Help (And Harm) The Homeless

One formerly homeless man is on a crusade to get truly useful technology to those who need it most.

Darcel Jackson wants technology in the hands of San Francisco’s homeless. Homeless himself for a stint last year, Jackson knows firsthand how a lack of Internet and mobile access can foil prospects of finding a job, a home, and stability when you’re living on the streets or in shelters. It’s a digital divide underscored by the wealth of technology parading around and even building the city.

“Technology has enriched the lives of so many Americans, but they’ve left poor people out,” Jackson, a Bay Area native who now works as a personal chef, tells CityLab. He’s been working with shelters and Internet providers over the past year to get free WiFi to at least some places that homeless people live. “We’ve got two shelters and seven SROs so far,” he says. He’s trying to start his own nonprofit, Shelter Tech, to keep the project in motion.

But in a town brimming with tech capital, and where the mayor claims to want to assist the homeless population, Jackson is disappointed with some of the city’s recent advances. Case in point: San Franciscans can now use their city’s 311 mobile app to formally report “concern” about homeless people. Snap a photo of an individual, tap in details about her condition and whereabouts, and city services will dispatch an outreach agent.

“Today, we take a step forward as a compassionate city, providing this new way for constituents to let us know about a person who needs a well-being check,” said Mayor Ed Lee in his announcement of the addition earlier this month. “… Our residents want to help, and we are providing easy ways for them to do that.”
Jackson calls the city’s 311 addition a “snitch app” that fails to involve the person it alleges to help.

But does the app build compassion, or yet another wall between two populations? Jackson calls the 311 addition a “snitch app” that fails to involve the person it alleges to help. Other advocates, like the Coalition on Homelessness, have voiced concern that use of the 311 app will only lead to more harassment and citations for people on the streets.

But Jackson does believe apps can help the homeless by filling at least one fundamental need: Useful information.

“In the homeless community, a lot of things go through word of mouth,” he says. “People tell you you can get a bed here, there’s a cool place to sleep on the street, you can get job training or food here. There’s a street camaraderie, a sort of modern day hobo code. But I want to use technology to get that information to people quicker.”

That’s why he’s now trying to build a new app, called “See Me,” which provides an ever-updating list and map of services geared toward the homeless. It would work even without an WiFi connection on any smartphone—which, Jackson says, many of the city’s homeless own thanks to free phone distribution programs by non-profits and the federal government.

He’s got a couple of other ideas for apps with the homeless in mind, too. One is called “Darcel’s List,” a Craigslist-style classifieds where the homeless could search for gigs and jobs posted by potential employers. “It’d be a day-labor thing,” Jackson says. Another one would make a motivational game out of case management: “You get an avatar, and every time you make an achievement in the real world—you get a driver’s license, you meet with a counselor — your avatar gets new clothes,” Jackson explains. “By the time your avatar has an outfit you’ve case-managed yourself out of homelessness.”

Technology, says Jackson, can and should be part of the equation for better lives for at least some of the city’s neediest. But as a recently homeless person himself, he’s just getting barely getting by; he can’t build these tools by himself.

“I’m hoping to hear from Twitter, or Google, or Apple, or someone who can help. Someone needs to call,” he says. “If I were getting help from folks, the app would happen in a short time, and people who need help would get it. I can’t do it alone.”

He says interested parties should reach out to him directly.

Source: City Lab, Laura Bliss
Photo: Ken Walton, Flickr