'Sheltr' app helps put homeless in touch with services
January 3, 2012By Emma Jacobs
A Philadelphia team has won a top national prize for social services mobile apps. The team put together their project, a mobile app for the homeless, in a 48-hour sprint.
Sheltr was dreamt up by Bula Buhlar, who has a day job in marketing and website development. His target users aren't typically homeless.
"I put two and two together and thought, well, it would be great if you could go to a website that would automatically know where you are and then piece together the closest available food from either a soup kitchen or a food cupboard and the closest available shelter that's from the shelter network in Philadelphia," he said.
It's an ambitious project that ultimately tries to create a new interaction.
The idea is that if you encounter someone on the street who needs help, you'd be able to pull out a smart phone and find the nearest services, the same way you'd look up directions.
Buhlar and the team built a map in December of places around the city that serve the homeless that can be read on a mobile device or a computer.
Laura Weinbaum tried out the address of her office, 1515 Fairmount, the headquarters of Project HOME, a nonprofit that provides housing and other services. She's been talking with the Sheltr developers.
"Interestingly, our outreach coordination center is not on this list ... So that's something I should probably bring to their attention," Weinbaum said.
The Sheltr app creators are updating their lists. They're slowly adding each shelter's parameters: men, women, families, clean and sober, or less restrictive. They would like to feed in real-time data on the number of beds available—"Not a simple process," according to Weinbaum.
Weinbaum says it will take time to figure out what Sheltr is best suited for. City shelters are accessed through a handful of intake centers—you can't just walk in. Private shelters have more eclectic procedures.
Weinbaum says everyone could use more ways to get information, especially people looking for services. The big question is access.
Erik Younge, a writer for Philadelphia's first "street newspaper," One Step Away, recently began a survey of computer and technology access for the homeless.
"The No. 1 complaint ... is that there's one computer, but demand and interest about how to access the Internet in particular was primary," Younge said.
Making information on services available though a simple text message is one possibility the Sheltr team is weighing. That method could be more useful, Younge said, because a lot of people without a permanent residence have basic phones.
As much as the Sheltr developers want to, it's hard to connect people with the services they need. Any effort sends you back to the basics. The city's data system is at the heart of things; that system is complicated because the shelter system is complicated.
For poor Philadelphians, lack of access to technology is a big problem.
Weinbaum says that even if things take a while to sort out, the Sheltr project has started a new conversation. She says social support services are not used to thinking about how those in need might access their system at an individual level. Now they're thinking about it.