Tech sets out to help the homeless

|
()

Google “tech,” “San Francisco,” and “homeless” right now, and you will undoubtedly find the tale of Greg Gopman, former CEO of AngelHack, whose notorious Facebook comments comparing homeless people to “hyenas,” among other things, earned him a viral dose of public shaming delivered via Twitter and the blogosphere.

Needless to say, the less-than-angelic entrepreneur didn’t score any points with vocal critics of the tech sector as a driving force of gentrification in San Francisco.

“I looked at this tech boy’s face and wondered if he ever really worked in his life,” scoffed longtime activist Tony Robles, in an editorial for POOR Magazine. “He has pampered written all over his face.  He says he been all over the world, to third world countries even (clap clap clap). I hope he wasn't as big an assh**e overseas as he is here in the Bay Area.” 

In this climate of flaring tempers, increasingly defined by escalating tension between the haves and the have-nots, tech entrepreneur Rose Broome is wading in with something she believes can help solve homelessness in San Francisco and elsewhere: A startup.

HandUp is unlike any homeless services provider. It doesn’t operate as a nonprofit, nor does it provide shelter, accept donated blankets or foodstuffs for those in need, or connect people directly with mental health services or substance abuse counseling.

Instead, in accordance with a Silicon Valley-based formula that encourages a technology user to share in order to earn points and broaden one’s circle, it is based on digital profiles.

HandUp “members,” who include individuals living on the street as well as those at risk of becoming homeless, are aided in the creation of their own webpages, where they write out their bios, pose for professional photographs, and make a list of items they need. They are also given something like business cards, to hand to people on the streets as a way to direct them to their website. 

Donors may then visit the website, surf through the member profiles, and decide how much to give and to whom. The whole transaction can occur without the donor ever having an interaction with an actual person on the street, but Broome says the donors express interest in how the members are doing, while members express curiosity about who has chosen to help them and why. If the donors feel uncomfortable selecting an individual, they can contribute to a general fund.

Once a member has received a donation, they can go to Project Homeless Connect, HandUp’s partner organization, to redeem it for things such as clean socks or canned food. "It really depends on what the person needs," Broome said. "People need their phone bill paid, bike locks, temporary housing, help with ordering things online. We want this to be open because people have all kinds of needs." So far, with a pilot program, Broome says members have averaged $200 in donations per month.

HandUp plans to begin fundraising for its corporate development soon, and it’s won public praise from Bevan Dufty, appointed by Mayor Ed Lee to address homeless issues, and Sup. Jane Kim.

Broome told the Bay Guardian that she got her idea after witnessing a homeless woman sleeping on the street last winter. “I was like, why, in a city with so many resources … have we not figured out some new ways to tackle homelessness?” she wondered.

That is a good question. It’s a question that many a homeless advocate, affordable-housing activist, clergy member, Occupy protester, health-care provider, government employee, candidate for office, international visitor, or generally compassionate individual has likely asked as well. But the problem persists.

HandUp isn’t the first tech-based initiative to try and tackle homelessness: There’s also this, and this, and this.

As Salon.com writer Andrew Leonard put it in an article where he reflected on HandUp and his interactions with Jason Calacanis, HandUp’s lead investor, “I also detected what I thought was the unstated assumption that if the almighty tech community just got around to devoting its attention to the issue, then it could be fixed, lickety-split.”

Broome, who partnered with software engineer Zac Witte to formulate the HandUp platform, attracted some criticism for taking the for-profit route. HandUp is registered as a benefit corporation, a kind of corporate entity that has a positive social mission “baked in,” as she puts it, to its raison d'être.

“We don’t want to be constantly struggling, and constantly fundraising,” she explained when we asked about why HandUp is a for-profit entity. “Our social mission is very core to what we do.” A mechanism for generating revenue will come further down the line, she said – not by taking a cut of the donations, but through partnerships with retailers who will be part of the system for redeeming donations.

Broome acknowledged that her idea might be dismissed as too simplistic. “It’s sort of a cliché, that tech people want to pull out a phone and solve a problem,” she said.

And while the basic desire to help is laudable, it's hard to see how great of an impact this could have when considering the broader economic picture. The Bay Area is ground zero for a sweeping national trend of income inequality, and the housing affordability crisis is undeniably a key reason why there are so many people without homes. This very crisis is fueled by an influx of tech employees. HandUp doesn’t begin to approach this root cause.

It’s also a bit questionable that members are expected to publish their names, images, and life stories in order to get their needs met. Some members, out of desperation, are even sharing details about past incarceration, drug use, or medical problems, which could actually hinder their efforts to land a job or find housing in the long run.

But Broome says personal stories contribute to HandUp’s greatest strength, which is to “humanize” the problem of homelessness for prospective donors who may not understand their plight or otherwise think twice about them. “We help put a really human face on homelessness. It’s hard to have an understanding of what homelessness is like,” but by giving people a forum to share their story, “It helps you have empathy.”

Do San Franciscans really need that much help feeling a sense of empathy? If they are anything like Gopman, then maybe so. This week's Guardian editorial dives into this a bit.

Kara Zordel, executive director of Project Homeless Connect, acknowledged that HandUp is not a cure-all, yet said she was pleased to see new energy and “to have anybody from the community coming up with some idea.” After all, a startup that aims to tackle homelessness could lead to a flood of donations from tech workers, a demonstrably better outcome than tech workers sounding off on Facebook about how disgusted they are by the homeless.

“I don’t think this is a good fit for someone who is ill on the street, but there’s not one program that’s going to fit every single need,” Zordel went on. For people who are mentally or physically ill and living on the street, there is still vast unmet need, she added.

“If I could have one wish, it would be for medically based housing in San Francisco,” Zordel went on. “Even if we have 1,000 different housing units, we have a lot of medically fragile people,” who would require a high level of care in order to improve, she explained.

At the same time, she emphasized that any person who approaches Project Homeless Connect with a need will be treated equally, whether they participate in HandUp or not.

“There’s no way I would feel comfortable sleeping at night thinking that somebody on HandUp is more deserving than somebody who’s not,” she said. And on the whole, she agreed, the problem of a lack of housing for those out on the street should be prioritized. “Until we meet the needs of the homeless,” she asked, “Are we really going to feel whole as a city?”