Want to Get Resources to Homeless People? Now There’s an App for That
Tents, sleeping bags, gently used clothing, an alarm clock. Those are just some of the items that people experiencing homelessness need to survive. They’re also some of the items people not experiencing material poverty have lying around their garage and basement. But if you have a spare tent taking up space in your house, how do you get it to someone who sleeps in doorways and on bus benches?
That’s the problem that WeCount, a hyperlocal web- and app-based sharing service that launched in Seattle last week, hopes to solve.
WeCount cofounder Graham Pruss started a community meal under a bridge in Seattle five years ago. He’d see people with cases of water bottles, bags of socks, backpacks, or sleeping bags they didn’t need. “They’d come up and say, ‘I’d like to give this to someone. Can you help me?’ And I’d look around me and see all these people around me who’d be happy to have that item. I’d say, ‘Well, what about that person right there—you can ask them.’ But the people offering don’t know how to do that.”
WeCount aims to connect donors through the internet with people who might be in need of such items.
“I had a pile of cell phones that I had in my office. I might be able to get $20 each if I spent the time selling them. I really would rather give them to somebody in need, but I just didn’t know who that was,” Pruss told TakePart. “I often tell people that when we were building this, part of this was about finding a place for the things that we feel guilty about having, things that we know can be of use to someone.”
The need to connect people experiencing homelessness to tangible resources exists in Seattle—and plenty of other cities across the United States. Nearly 565,000 people are homeless in America, according to the most recent count by the National Alliance to End Homelessness. In the past year, the mayors of Seattle, Los Angeles, and Portland, Oregon, have declared a state of emergency over the rising number of people sleeping on the streets, in cars, and in shelters in their city. Data from nearly two dozen of the nation’s most populous cities also indicate rising rates of homelessness.
Pruss, a nationally recognized expert on the issue, came up with the idea for WeCount last year with tech entrepreneur and angel investor Jonathan Sposato. The duo spent about six months developing, researching, and beta testing the nonprofit service. “We did a lot of working with people on the streets and doing interviews with people about the needs that they had and how they got access to those things. We also talked to a lot of case managers as well as directors of organizations within Seattle about what would benefit them and what would best help their clients,” Pruss said.
One of the things he learned is that connecting people in need with donors has to be easy. To that end, all users have to do to get started on WeCount is enter their name, email address, and phone number. Pruss said it’s a common misconception to think that folks who are living on the street don’t have web access. But research shows that up to 90 percent of people who are experiencing homelessness have access to the internet through a smartphone using free Wi-Fi or through their local library, he said.
“That’s particularly true for people who are experiencing homelessness for the first time,” said Pruss. People living in vehicles can charge a phone in their car, and “people who are living in a permanent shelter often rely upon a phone, especially a smartphone, as their connection to their communities and to acquire resources. These things are often lifelines to their communities and are some of the most valuable possessions of people experiencing homelessness.”
Once they are set up on the site, users can select up to five things they need. Through their research, the WeCount team developed a list of 200 items—everything from a box of tampons to a tent, which is the most frequently requested item. On the other end of the transaction, folks who have something to donate input that information.
The service anonymously connects donor and receiver and steers them to one of two dozen drop-off/pick-up locations. Once a requested item is at the drop-off location, the person in need receives a text message or email.
The blue 40-gallon recycling containers that serve as WeCount drop-off bins are housed at various organizations that offer social services to people in need—and that’s no accident, said Pruss: “I go in there and I ask for my tent that’s been dropped off. Now I’m actually in a place that I might not have been to before. I get to see services that might actually be able to help me get another need met beyond the tent.”
Donors are also exposed to the service agencies. “They get to see how these services work in our community and to really feel part of that important work that’s being done, and then they potentially want to fund that work. They want to help support that work with their votes when the time comes, and they want to be part of that change, to really feel engaged,” he said.
Pruss knows firsthand why it’s so critical for the general public to be engaged in the issue: He experienced homelessness as a teenager. He became a dad at 18. “I worked a lot of low-end jobs and was on welfare and spent a lot of time in a social service office,” he said. He went back to school and is working on his doctoral degree at the University of Washington, studying poverty and homelessness.
WeCount hopes to expand nationally, and the team has received several requests from individuals and organizations across the nation, including people in Portland and Los Angeles who want the service there, Pruss said. But he acknowledged that the tool isn’t the ultimate solution to the problem.
“What we’re trying to do here is change the discussion around homelessness, around poverty. A tent, backpack, alarm clock, or coffeemaker don’t keep a person housed,” he said. “We really want people in our communities to look upon the resources that we have to help each other, to help heal this struggle of poverty that we all are suffering through, because as a society, we really are only as strong as our most vulnerable members.”