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Hacking Homelessness

Jillian Goodman | December 15, 2014 | Story Tech World

Doniece Sandoval moved from New York to San Francisco in 2002, settling into an apartment in the Western Addition. At the time, the neighborhood was solidly working-class and mostly African-American. But as the area gentrified and rents spiraled up, she began to see some of her neighbors move from their apartments to their cars, and then from their cars to the streets. “It was heartbreaking,” she says.

Sandoval, then an executive at a Silicon Valley arts organization called ZERO1, was determined to help. It didn’t take her long to figure out how: After a chance encounter with a distraught homeless woman who was weeping that she’d never be clean again, Sandoval discovered that the city had only 16 public shower stalls to serve the roughly 6,500 people who sleep on its streets every night. It was “appalling,” she says. She’d found her project.

Sandoval is the founder of Lava Mae, whose bright-blue shower bus can be seen parked outside homeless shelters in the Tenderloin and Mission several days a week. Each user gets soap, a towel, a toothbrush, and 10 minutes of hot water to wash in. This month Sandoval expects to extend Lava Mae service from three to five days a week. Next month she’ll have a second bus on line, and by October of this year she hopes to be running four buses, five days a week—offering 50,000 showers a year.

Sandoval is one of a small but significant handful of entrepreneurs who’ve turned their attention lately to the city’s persistent homelessness problem. Another is Rose Broome, founder of HandUp, a donation platform beloved (and backed) by Valley elites, including Marc Benioff and Ron Conway. The app works as something of a Kickstarter for philanthropy, directly providing people in need with money for specific items—a pair of glasses, for example, or a laptop. A third is Komal Ahmad, whose app, Feeding Forward, enables anyone with a smartphone and a lot of food that’s about to go to waste—think restaurants and college dining halls—to immediately donate the leftovers to a service organization in need.

All of these charities bring tech-industry savvy to the social service sector, and some even work from outside the traditional nonprofit structure: HandUp, for example, is a B Corporation (a distinction reserved for for-profit businesses that maintain a social mission). They make a point of offering tangible, specific help (a mattress for a struggling mother in the Bronx through HandUp, a shower for a street person in San Francisco via Lava Mae), and they employ technology that allows would-be donors to see exactly where their contributions are going. (Feeding Forward even asks recipients to photograph the leftovers being distributed and send the photos to the donor.) Their websites and apps are slickly designed and social-media optimized, and their missions are well articulated. All told, these services represent a new kind of philanthropy and a new way of thinking about homelessness and poverty. But are they any more than pretty window dressing on an intractable societal problem?

The quick-and-dirty answer would be no. “What makes a difference in ending homelessness is housing someone,” says UCSF professor Josh Bamberger, former medical director of housing and urban health for the city’s health department. “When someone is housed, then they’re not homeless. Until they’re housed, they’re homeless. It’s very binary.”

Even so, the transition from homeless to homed entails a number of intermediate steps: In order to keep a residence, for instance, you must be able to keep a job. And in order to keep a job, you must be reliable and professional—both difficult to manage when you don’t know when you’re getting your next shower or where you’re going to sleep tonight.

Which is where the new-guard homeless services could make a difference: not necessarily by tackling big institutional problems, but by chipping away at them, acting as a single, small-scale corrective to one minor indignity of life on the street. Almost as crucial is the fact that they frame their work in a way that’s attractive and comprehensible, particularly to a culture that prizes well-packaged, relatively simple ideas over complex and abstract ones. With their emphasis on direct donation, instant gratification, and concrete results, these organizations serve as an antidote to the diffuse, black box nature of traditional charities, many of which have historically been less than transparent about where, exactly, their money ends up. Moreover, the thinking goes, the smaller services increase the size of the philanthropic pie, attracting donors who might not otherwise consider philanthropy—donors who are drawn to Kiva loans and Kickstarter but may be turned off by the prospect of cutting a check to the Salvation Army or another large, entrenched nonprofit. The upstart organizations, says Bamberger, “bring opinion changers to the table who will have more empathy for people living on the streets. And subsequently there could be a movement to target big money—which is what we need—toward these solutions.”

So far, Lava Mae has given 1,000 showers to more than 600 people, a literal drop in the bucket that is roughly commensurate with the results that similar outfits are reporting: In its first year, HandUp distributed $75,000 to 200 people; Feeding Forward recovered around 250 tons of food. These are not giant numbers, but they’re a start, and no one is more aware of that than Sandoval. “Access to sanitation is a basic human right,” she says. “On our own we don’t have the power to end homelessness, but we are a critical first step.”

Originally published in the January issue of San Francisco

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