Nonprofit and Tech: Tools to Help Urban Homeless

July 15, 2016 • 7 min read
Ahmad El-Najjar

Ahmad El-Najjar


Tech startups have long been associated with a measure of hubris and disconnection from reality, particularly when it comes to social issues. From the notorious insensitivity of the “tech bro” who didn’t think he should be subjected to the “pain, struggle, and despair of homeless people,” to the Google Buses that shuttle tech workers from the gritty streets of San Francisco’s Mission District to sprawling tech campuses brimming with extra-special perks, the popular view is of an insulated and smug industry, one more concerned with the latest pizza delivery app—it comes with a foldable pizza box pipe!—than civic engagement or social justice. Sadly, these stereotypes too often bear a striking resemblance to reality. “Tech nonprofit” isn’t a phrase ones stumbles across very often.

Despite tech’s bad rap, however, there are startups, both for profit and not for profit, working on solutions to some of the most challenging global—and local—issues. Integrating technology and social services has produced some significant improvements in a number of areas, such as those resulting from Code for America’s efforts to redesign the public services provided by cities.

Tech nonprofit is not an oxymoron

The list of tech nonprofit companies might be longer than you think. Although there’s no public count of how many tech companies are registered nonprofits, FastForward, a tech nonprofit incubator, has an online directory with 167 tech nonprofit companies and counting. It includes companies like Code for America and CriticaLink, which has repurposed mobile ride-sharing technology to get first-responder volunteers immediately to the sites of health and disaster emergencies.

But FastForward’s tech nonprofit directory is by no means comprehensive, at least not yet. It doesn’t include Totus Power, for example, which has developed cutting-edge technology to repurpose old electric car batteries into non-toxic portable battery packs that can power a classroom of electronics for 20 hours in remote developing areas. Neither is WeShelter on that list yet.

New York’s WeShelter is a registered 501c3 non-profit working to alleviate homelessness, and the company’s three founders—Ilya Lyashevsky, Ken Manning, and Robb Chen-Ware—all come from tech backgrounds. They got together to address the all-too-familiar feeling of helplessness when we witness human suffering. That feeling of not being able to make a positive impact inspired Lyashevsky, Manning, and Chen-Ware to found tech nonprofit WeShelter.

Homelessness in NYC

homeless nyc
image courtesy of the Coalition for the Homeless

With almost 60,000 homeless individuals filing New York City shelters each month, the numbers are daunting. Perhaps even more daunting is how ill-equipped most individuals are to make a difference.

Currently, in major cities facing homeless crises like New York City and San Francisco, the only real-time tool available is each city’s 311 call center. 311 provides non-emergency access to municipal services: to report an issue, an individual must go through 311 which, although there is an app, is time-consuming and does not produce an immediate response for the user or the person in need. Taking 311 as a model for how the public can help provide direct assistance, WeShelter devised an app—available for both the iPhone and Android—that allows a user to report an issue and, the best part, make an immediate difference.

According to WeShelter’s site, it basically works like this:

If you see someone in need, you open the app and click on a big button to unlock a donation from one of their many sponsors who directly fund homeless services. The sponsor then makes a donation on your behalf to a homeless services provider such as Townsquared NYC members Breaking Ground, who regularly provide housing and direct services to NYC’s homeless. If you feel the person in question needs direct assistance, the app will patch you through directly to a 311 operator to speed things up.

With WeShelter, users of the app are able not just to ensure that funding for homeless services is being granted, at no cost to the user, but also that they have fast-tracked their request for services to an individual in need—with a click of the button.

So far, WeShelter users in NYC have been responsible for directing thousands of dollars to homeless service providers, as well as connecting individuals with direct outreach. The app has been so successful that WeShelter recently launched in San Francisco—a city desperately in need of solutions to homelessness. The city’s percentage of homeless individuals hasn’t changed in decades, and there still isn’t a centralized database through which various city departments and nonprofits can coordinate (though the new Office of Homelessness and Supportive Housing is said to be working on one).

Of course, there is no single solution to homelessness or any of the myriad contemporary social challenges. Nonetheless, tools like WeShelter do help, translating that feeling of helplessness into an action that has a good chance of making a difference in somebody’s life.

Small businesses step into the gap

Many urban small business owners are on the front lines facing the homelessness crisis, sharing space—sidewalks and sometimes doorways—with the homeless, many of whom live in a mushrooming number of tent encampments. Concerned about the wellbeing of those individuals as well as the safety of their customers, business owners need their cities to act. Frustrated by their city’s lack of response to their concerns, small business owners in San Francisco have come together to face this challenge and represent themselves to the city as a group.

Feeling left out of the citywide search for a long-term solution to San Francisco’s homelessness crisis, business owners came together on Townsquared, a free, local network for small businesses, and began a dialogue which culminated in the creation of a system called Street Reports. Street Reports allows business owners to gather data, including their own observations as well as reports they file with the police or 311. The goal of Street Reports is to give a voice to San Francisco businesses through data and reports that can be shared with the City, to make it clear that small business owners are stakeholders in the conversation around homelessness and need a seat at the table.

Finding a long-term solution to problems as intransigent as homelessness won’t happen overnight—neither will it happen without a lot of collaboration among government departments, small businesses, and nonprofits of many stripes. And one way human beings have demonstrated they know how to use technology is to connect with each other (even if we sometimes offer TMI). Technology will be one essential tool for groups to change their communities for the better.


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