Can Coders Hack the Homelessness Problem?

In Seattle and San Francisco, people with tech know-how are grappling with the issue. But progress can be elusive.

Bobby Flowers looks into the camera as though peering into a message bottle he’s about to throw into the sea. The lean 61-year-old gently rocks his weight from one leg to the other as he speaks. “I’ve always had a drug problem,” he says, looking at someone or something behind the camera. “I’m never going to give up, just like I’m never going to give up looking for [my children].”

He hasn’t seen them for at least 15 years. Flowers’ eyes meet the camera. “I’m still your dad,” he says. “I miss you and I love you.”

This video was filmed in March at Union Gospel Mission. The camera operator was Kevin Adler, the CEO of Miracle Messages (MM), a new San Francisco-based website that tries to reconnect estranged homeless people with their families.

MM uses social media to expand the reach of videos like Flowers’ toward their long-lost families. So far it’s reunited 15 estranged families, either in person or by phone. MM is a platform “for the community to really drive our mission to reunite the homeless with their long-lost loved ones,” says director of programs Jessica Day. “It’s nothing that we’re doing” to reunite families, she says; Miracle Messages just provides a platform for regular people to use. “And that’s the most incredible part.”

MM is part of a growing trend, in Seattle and elsewhere on the West Coast, of geeks trying to develop technical solutions to problems associated with homelessness. Other examples include We Count, a website and app that connects homeless people with basic necessities, and a techie meet-up group in Seattle that helps with homeless outreach. The group, New Tech Seattle, regularly joins UGM rescue vans in a nighttime quest to offer shelter, hot cocoa, food, clothes, and group prayers to Seattle’s destitute. “We all see the homeless problem, right?” says co-founder Brett Greene. “It’s a part of our lives, and it’s my belief that most people would like to do something. But even for the people who do it for a living, it’s overwhelming.”

So what do you do? You find technical innovations to increase the efficiency of overworked service providers, he says. Tech people’s “brains are wired to solve problems,” he says. “That’s what they like. They look for problems and they like to solve them.” That said, these tech-heads will be the first to tell you that homelessness is not simply a bug in the system needing some coding TLC.

Candace Faber cofounded 2014’s Hack to End Homelessness (@hack2end), a weekend hackathon that produced We Count. “Most hackathons don’t end in something getting developed,” she says, but this one did.

Faber says she’s come a long way political-consciousness-wise since that initial foray into bridging tech with social problems. Now she sees a dangerous error lurking within with tech “solutions” to a problem that is fundamentally social and political. “I sometimes regret even the name” Hack to End Homelessness, she says, because homelessness isn’t the kind of problem you can “end” with a weekend of spitballing. In fact, Faber says, some homeless-service providers initially resisted @hack2end because they worried it would conceptualize homelessness solely in terms of technologically maximizing efficiency. It was Union Gospel Mission, she says, that first agreed to support the event.

Homelessness is “not like a video game,” Faber says, where the goal is to match people with beds, and focusing too much on technological innovation can cause people to forget that. In the six months preceding @hack2end, Faber says, organizers had to put in a “tremendous amount of work just surfacing the problems that tech can solve” for homeless people and service providers. That is, organizers talked to homeless people and service providers to ask how techies could help, then wracked their brains figuring out how to operationalize those problems for left-brained engineering geeks.

“There’s not that many” such simple problems, she observes. As a result, a software engineer who needs well-defined homeless problems to solve can be sort of like Don Quixote charging at windmills in the middle of an actual battle. The intent is good and the execution flawless, but all for naught because the target is wrong.

Consider GiveSafe, a Seattle-based app that lets users donate to homeless people. That donation comes with strings, though: the money can only be spent at certain businesses or through a counselor on items that “truly help.” Recipients carry bluetooth “beacons” that trigger a notification on the donor’s phone, “with the opportunity to give or learn of the person’s journey.” According to KUOW, the beacons will remain active only if homeless holders check in with a counselor once a month.

Anyone who’s spent time in Pioneer Square will instantly understand the attraction of an app that allows users to donate money to the needy without worrying it will go to pay for drugs or candy. Each of us has a limited number of dollars to donate, and we want to see a return on those human investments.

Yet Faber calls GiveSafe “deeply, deeply problematic. What qualifies users to judge what a given homeless person really needs? Interventions [like this] are developed around what makes donors and volunteers feel good.”

Asked about the ethics of putting stipulations on a donation, GiveSafe founder Jonathan Kumar told KUOW’s Bill Radke that he’d heard from a service provider that “the reality is … when we give cash we’re ultimately—not to every person—funding a drug industry.”

In May, Miracle Messages got an e-mail saying that Bobby Flowers’ son had seen his video and wanted to reconnect. But so far, no one knows how to reach Flowers. “Bobby really wanted to reconnect with his son,” says Day. “It’s been 20 years. He’s at that point of whatever’s happened, [he] wants to start this relationship fresh.”

Day says that roughly 850 “detectives” volunteer with Miracle Messages to help locate missing family members. But their biggest successes, she says, come from “serendipity”—the right random person at the right place and the right time. So if you see Bobby Flowers, tell him to e-mail jessica@miraclemessages.org.

cjaywork@seattleweekly.com

This article has been edited. An earlier version incorrectly said that GiveSafe donors give money directly to businesses and recipients carry RFID tags. Also, context has been added to Kumar’s quote.

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