Smart city

Harnessing digital technology to help the homeless

  • 02 Jul
  • 2 min

The number of homeless people on the streets of San Francisco has been rising sharply and tech companies stand accused of exacerbating the phenomenon. However, some of them have set out to improve the situation.

The number of people in the United States without a fixed abode began to rise again recently. In 2017, a survey found that on one single night, 553,742 people were sleeping rough all over the country. In San Francisco, homeless people camp out on the city's main thorough fare, right in front of the premises of major digital sector companies such as Uber, Twitter, Square and Microsoft. The latest count identified 7,500 people of no fixed abode in the Golden Gate city, which represents the darker side of this high bastion of tech. Nevertheless, digital technology has the potential to improve the daily lives of these unfortunates or even take them out of poverty altogether and a number of startups have set out to do just that. One of them is Seattle-based Samaritan, whose mission is to encourage people who would like to help but don't go around with cash in their pockets or worry about what their donation might be used for in reality to provide assistance. Samaritan offers a way for them to use PayPal, Apple Pay or their credit card to give money to homeless people so that they can spend it in a store or at partnering charities. Every homeless person who signs up for the programme carries a geolocation beacon, which notifies Samaritan app users in the vicinity that there is a person close by who is in need of some financial help, providing a few lines from the life-story of the homeless person concerned. Once a month, every beacon carrier meets up with a Samaritan counsellor for a feedback session and to ensure that the device is still working properly. Maintaining this kind of social link is key to getting needy people back on their own two feet again. This is the principle on which Concrn, a san Francisco startup and linked charity organisation, were founded. Concrn has created a mobile app, which enables any user who sees someone suffering from a mental health crisis or drugs-related problem in theTenderloin district – an area of town where there is a large concentration of homeless people – to alert a 'compassionate responder'. The basic idea is to avoid members of the public calling the police, who don't always provide the best response to such social issues and have all too often been known to lock up, or even fire on, citizens with this type of condition, but instead to summon a carer who is specially trained to talk with people in distress.In this way, Concrn is hoping to provide an alternative to the San Francisco police, especially as nowadays 80% of the calls they receive are related to mental health issues.

By Sophia Qadiri