With 7500 people on the streets in San Francisco according to the 2017 San Francisco Point in Time Homeless Count, organizations are eager to create unique and innovative solutions to end the homelessness crisis in San Francisco. While some nonprofit organizations focus on advertising services available to homeless San Franciscans, ShelterTech believes in giving people access to technological tools which inform them of resources they can use to exit homelessness. ShelterTech is an all-volunteer organization founded in 2016 by Darcel Jackson, a previously homeless San Franciscan, and focuses on helping transitionally homeless people who have been homeless for under a year, find homes and resources as quickly as possible. Studies have shown that people who experience prolonged homelessness are more likely to succumb to drug and alcohol addiction, as well as suffer from physical and mental illnesses, making it harder to find a home. Hence, the first 11 months are a crucial time frame in maximizing chances of exiting homelessness.
ShelterTech’s mission is to develop digital tools for transitionally homeless San Franciscans who may not need intensive in-person care and who may benefit greatly from a relatively small intervention. ShelterTech currently has three main service platforms.
AskDarcel is a a human services directory with information about homelessness services. Through Ask Darcel, case managers, city employees, and people experiencing homelessness can find hundreds of resources about homelessness, housing, health, jobs and education. The data in AskDarcel is updated several times a month by volunteers working in conjunction with paid community representatives, who are individuals with lived experience of homelessness.
ShelterConnect is an initiative to provide free wifi to shelters and Single Room Occupancy (SRO) facilities. ShelterTech has installed wifi in six SROs so far, including ECS’s The Sanctuary and NextDoor, both of which serve over three hundred people per night.
Casey is a new initiative to build a solution that directly serves individuals who are transitionally homeless. ShelterTech plans to make it either an AI chatbot or an instant messaging chat service between homeless people and caseworkers contacted by ShelterTech.
Recently ShelterTech did a study where they interviewed 32 homeless people, mostly women, in order to try and improve Casey and make it into a more useful and accessible tool by finding out how homeless people used technology to access information and what can be done to make accessing that information as easy as possible. They found that while technology can be helpful in finding services and jobs, one-on-one connections with caseworkers or doctors they trust are the most beneficial for a majority of people. Any technology solution will need to bear this desire for human contact in mind. Something like a virtual personal assistant used to supplement one-on-one aid may be effective in helping transitionally homeless people exit homelessness. Also, while housing was a primary concern for homeless people, they were also very concerned with finding jobs, healthcare, and access to a computer. While most homeless folks who were interviewed had access to a phone, some even had smartphones, many lacked access to a computer, and public computers had time limitations and the inability to save work, making effective utilization of them challenging.
Beyond technological solutions, their study gave them some insight into how people end up becoming homeless. Often, homelessness is preceded by a significant life event or crisis, such as an eviction or domestic violence or strained relationships which forced them out of their home. In addition, excessive wait times for scarce resources made finding a home a very difficult prospect, and keeping track of multiple waitlists and organizations alone without any support led to stress and anxiety. This dilemma was made even worse for those with disabilities or health problems.
With new insights gained from their study, ShelterTech envisions creating technological tools for the transitionally homeless, allowing them access to resources, the ability to search for jobs, done in coordination with a trustworthy case worker.