San Franciscans bring startup approach to homeless

May 6, 2012 By MARCUS WOHLSEN , Associated Press
In this photo taken Thursday, May 3, 2012, a woman walks past a vacant office building on Market Street near Twitter's new headquarters in San Francisco. With Twitter’s new headquarters set to open there soon, residents of a San Francisco neighborhood notorious for crime, drugs and homelessness remain among the least likely to have any way to send a tweet, much less access to basic goods and services. At a recent weekend “hackathon,” engineers and entrepreneurs sought ways to use tech to help people in the Tenderloin and Mid-Market Street area find food, housing, healthcare and jobs. In the process, city leaders hope to ease tensions between needy locals and newly arriving startups flush with cash. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

(AP) -- On the foggy streets of San Francisco, tech superstars and the homeless can be hard to tell apart in their identical hoodies. But there's a key difference: smartphones and cash in some pockets, neither in others.

These two crowds will soon find themselves even closer together when Twitter moves its headquarters into one of the city's poorest areas later this year, drawing attention to the divide between the tech haves and have-nots that crops up whenever wealthy companies rub shoulders with communities that haven't seen the benefits of the latest boom.

Still, optimism reigns in San Francisco, especially when it comes to the promise of technology to improve people's lives.

Recently, a crowd of such optimists came together for a "hackathon," a weekend of intense work and little sleep, as part of a nonprofit project called Creative Currency. Engineers and entrepreneurs joined with designers and neighborhood advocates to figure out how technology could help people in the Tenderloin and Mid-Market areas of the city who don't have roofs over their heads, much less .

"All people need dignity, right? And the base of dignity is being able to recognize and feel like you're part of humanity," said Aynne Valencia, a San Francisco designer who has worked for some of the biggest tech companies.

Over the weekend, Valencia and a team of 19 others designed a mobile wash station that people could use to take showers and launder their clothes. The project, RefreshSF, would be funded through small donations made via text message to pay not just for the wash stations themselves but to employ attendants who would ensure the stations didn't suffer the same foul-smelling fate of so many San Francisco .

Young urban professionals risk coming across as patronizing when they come into neighborhoods they might otherwise shun -and they also risk failure if they don't understand how the neighborhood works.

To pre-empt that problem, Creative Currency organizers prior to the hackathon surveyed about 20 community organizations, 155 residents and 37 local businesses to gauge the neighborhood's needs.

"It was actually really great to be reached out to," said Kristen Growney Yamamoto, co-executive director of the Glide Foundation, one of the city's largest providers of homeless services.

Another proposal, Bridge, intends to solve what Yamamoto and others described as one of the most maddening problems faced by San Francisco's homeless. To get a bed for the night, shelter-seekers must line up early in the morning to get their names entered in the city's reservation system. Standing in line can take hours. Even then, a spot isn't guaranteed - most don't find out until early evening whether they have a place to sleep.

Barry Roeder, a San Francisco management consultant, wants to eliminate the lines by creating a neighborhood-wide network of touch-screen kiosks where people could make and check reservations themselves. The system could also notify people by text message if they received a bed - the Creative Currency survey found that while few residents have smartphones, about 60 percent have access to some kind of cell phone.

If Bridge works as hoped, the idea is that by freeing up people's time, they'd have more chance to do things to help themselves, such as look for work.

Before that can happen, Roeder acknowledges several challenges would have to be overcome.

"The nightmare that comes to mind is a busted ATM that's been graffitied and peed on," he said. Even tougher, said Yamamoto, would be the labor involved in grafting the system onto the city's existing archaic reservation network or building a new one from scratch.

Jake Levitas, research director at the Gray Area Foundation For The Arts, the San Francisco digital arts nonprofit that conceived Creative Currency, believes that such obstacles are best surmounted by applying the hacker mindset to community issues.

In Silicon Valley-speak, the word "hacker" is more often used to describe someone who comes up with a clever solution to a frustrating problem rather than someone who's committing cybercrimes. Levitas says hackers in the positive sense of the term start from the premise that problems are solvable and then work quickly and cheaply to solve them, learning from their mistakes and trying again - what the startup world refers to as "iterating."

In a sense, he said he hopes the same mentality that has helped once-small startups to challenge the dominance of companies like Microsoft can make strides against a seemingly intractable problem like homelessness.

"I don't think anybody who comes to our events thinks that they're going to solve poverty in a weekend," Levitas said. "But I think they do think they can do something that contributes."

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4.2 / 5 (5) May 06, 2012
Yes exactly what a homeless guy needs, a smartphone.

2 / 5 (8) May 06, 2012
Maybe if SF would stop paying people for being homeless, there may be fewer homeless?
4 / 5 (2) May 06, 2012
Not science related. At all. Period.

Maybe if SF would stop paying people for being homeless, there may be fewer homeless?

Only in San Francisco.

Denver has the same problem, benefits. One cold December day, I asked a bum why he didn't catch the train to Tucson, or Phoenix, where it was warm. No free food. No free shelter. No free nothing.

Good oh for Arizona.
3 / 5 (2) May 06, 2012
Sticking to the focus of the article: The "line-up" as one waits for a place to sleep works also to force a migration which gets the streets cleaned up for rush hour. Out of sight out of mind. Remember, we are discussing managing the Homeless population and not really solving the more obvious in your face reality that these people have no other place to go.

To Envy a Homeless person getting "Free" Housing or food and health care is a mighty poor excuse for personal greed. So we
continue to study this "problem" going on now for over 30 years. And countless Millions later we arrive at the cold hard reality that the lack of housing causes Homelessness. We teach our children by example and the decades of unresolved neglect reflects on our children, their value if not productive. Since Society only rewards the mythical Hero. Look closer if you dare and you will see yourself as responsible for their Homelessness as they are. We are the Problem . We the Solution.
2.1 / 5 (7) May 06, 2012
To Envy a Homeless person getting "Free" Housing or food and health care is a mighty poor excuse for personal greed.

You missed the point.
Stop making it easy for people to be homeless and they may no longer BE homeless.
Why do many think it is compassionate to make it easy for people to live on the street?

not rated yet May 07, 2012
It is hard to make money on the street. These people need to be hired by some companies to do some sort of jobs that pay. They could clean the streets, trim bushes, install stuff. Beside solving their homelessness problem they will also add to local economy. You do need to be patient with them though.
not rated yet May 07, 2012
Maybe if SF would stop paying people for being homeless, there may be fewer homeless?

The further you drop the more difficult it is to rise in society.

There was a bbc program entitled "filthy rich and homeless". It took four or five people who had loads of money and took everything away from them. Made them dress in old clothes and made them live on the street for three days and nights. There was this one indian/pakistani guy who was a self made millionaire by the time he was 24. He was bragging that after three days he would have two hundred pounds in his pocket and a room in a hotel. Also that those on the streets are being lazy. He was put on on the street. He started enthusiasticsally enough. He noticed a flower seller in trafalgor square and offered to sell the flowers for the man for a cut of the money. The man agreed. Later the man returned and tookmost of the money from him. Cont...
not rated yet May 07, 2012

So his next plan was to go to covent garden and make a deal with one of the flower wholesalerers. He got the flowers went back to trafalger square and sold very few. It was at this point while draging a box around that his head dropped. It was not that easy. The homeless are not lazy or making no effort. They just as 500,000 americans looking for work have done just struggling looking for a break accepted there situation and got on with it.

The price of a cival society is benefits and aid.
1.8 / 5 (5) May 07, 2012
The price of of a civil society is a govt the protects everyone individual property rights.
Most homeless in the US suffer mental illness ans or substance abuse. Govts are not allowed to put them into shelters for their own good.
Also, many who are homeless and NOT suffering illness are attacked in govt shelters. So if the govt provides shelters, it fails to impose discipline to protect those in their care.
'Progressives' do NOT want to fix the problem. If they did they would lose some of their voting base.
What has SF done to solve their problems? Nothing. They only offer solutions to perpetuate homelessness.
As for UK, what does the govt do to protect those in its govt housing? Ever see the movie "Harry Brown"?
5 / 5 (1) May 07, 2012
If the Social Media economy really worked as it should, homeless people would be able to find an income from it...directly from using Twitter. As it is, the whole thing is still pumped up from venture capital and not sustainable from regular revenue.

For example, a bum should have lots of interesting things to document about life on the streets. He could be a "city inspector". He could document crime.

Yet...where is the mechanism to pay him for this work?

See...this encapsulates the entire problem of the financial "firewall" in our economy. We can "invest" in people to sit in cubicles and look at screens, but when we take social media into our lives, as it should be used, we cannot connect up to the revenue streams.

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