Mon, May 07, 2012 - Page 11 News List

Using technology to help the homeless


On the streets of San Francisco, tech superstars and the homeless can be hard to tell apart in their identical hoodies, but there is a key difference: smartphones and cash in some pockets, neither in others.

These two crowds will soon find themselves knitted even closer when Twitter moves its headquarters into one of the city’s poorest areas later this year, drawing attention to the divide between the tech-haves and have-nots.

Still, optimism reigns in the city, especially when it comes to the promise of technology to improve people’s lives.

Recently, a crowd of such optimists came together for a “hackathon,” a weekend of intense work and little sleep, as part of a non-profit project called Creative Currency. Engineers and entrepreneurs joined with designers and neighborhood advocates to figure out how technology could help people in the city who do not have roofs over their heads, much less access to the Web.

“All people need dignity, right? And the base of dignity is being able to recognize and feel like you’re part of humanity,” said Aynne Valencia, a San Francisco designer who has worked for some of the biggest tech companies.

Over the weekend, Valencia and a team of 19 others designed a mobile wash station that people could use to take showers and launder their clothes. The project, RefreshSF, would be funded through small donations made via text message to pay not just for the wash stations themselves, but to employ attendants who would ensure the stations did not suffer the same foul-smelling fate of so many San Francisco public restrooms.

Young urban professionals risk coming across as patronizing when they come into neighborhoods they might otherwise shun — and they also risk failure if they do not understand how the neighborhood works.

To pre-empt that problem, Creative Currency organizers surveyed about 20 community organizations, prior to the hackathon, in a bid to gauge the neighborhood needs.

“It was actually really great to be reached out to,” said Kristen Growney Yamamoto, co-executive director of the Glide Foundation, one of the city’s largest providers of services to the homeless.

Another proposal, called Bridge, intends to solve what Yamamoto and others described as one of the most maddening problems faced by homeless people in the city. To get a bed for the night, shelter-seekers must line up early in the morning to get their names into the city’s reservation system and standing in line can take hours. Even then, a spot is not guaranteed and most do not find out until early evening whether they got a place.

Barry Roeder, a San Francisco management consultant, wants to eliminate the lines by creating a neighborhood-wide network of touch-screen kiosks where people could make and check reservations themselves. The system could also notify people by text message if they received a bed — the Creative Currency survey found that while few residents have smartphones, about 60 percent have access to some kind of cellphone.

If Bridge works as hoped, the idea is that by freeing up people’s time, they will have more chance to do things to help themselves, such as look for work.

Before that can happen, Roeder acknowledges several challenges would have to be overcome.

“The nightmare that comes to mind is a busted ATM that’s been graffitied and peed on,” he said.

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