In the United States today, people depend on internet connectivity to live, work, and interact. Yet far too many people – especially in historically overlooked and underserved communities – are increasingly being left behind. What does this digital inequity mean for individuals experiencing homelessness, and for their ability to progress personally, socially and economically? An organisation committed to addressing these challenges is ShelterTech, an engagement partner of the GSMA’s Digital Equity Initiative. We sat down with Executive Director, Bill Soward, to discuss their mission in detail.
Tell us about ShelterTech and its mission.
At ShelterTech, we’re leveraging technology to create solutions for the challenges facing people experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity. ShelterTech was founded in 2016, by Darcel Jackson, who was injured at work and soon found himself homeless. Frustrated by the lack of a central source of truth for navigating homelessness and eviction, Darcel came together with contacts from San Francisco’s tech community to develop our initial product, Ask Darcel, a searchable, enterprise-class directory of social services.
Today, ShelterTech is made up of over 100 volunteers from San Francisco’s tech community and beyond. Our team also includes over 15 paid Community Representatives, individuals who have themselves experienced homelessness. Community Representatives are exceptionally important to our mission, bringing to the table first-hand insights to help ensure our database content is as useful as possible.
How many people are experiencing homelessness in San Francisco at any given time?
Based on the most recent count, the city of San Francisco alone has over 9,000 people experiencing homelessness every night. This includes more than 1,100 young people without a safe, stable place to sleep. Beyond these official statistics, many more are experiencing ‘hidden’ homelessness, sleeping on friends’ sofas, or living in their cars. And many, many more people are housing-insecure – they have a roof over their head tonight, but risk losing that tomorrow because of a multitude of issues, including financial circumstances, challenges with their landlord, family problems, or domestic abuse. For people living pay-check to pay-check, that puts them one step away from homelessness.
In a high-density area like San Francisco, ownership and rental prices have increased substantially in a very short space of time. This housing affordability crisis makes the problem exponentially worse for those on the cusp of homelessness. If you lose your home, getting replacement accommodation is extremely difficult. The average time it takes to attain affordable housing is six to seven years. Finding yourself in a position of homelessness can happen easily, while the pathway to exit homelessness can be a long and overwhelming process.
What are some of the barriers to digital inclusion that are felt most acutely by people experiencing homelessness in San Francisco?
When housing-insecure people lack frequent access to connectivity, and to relevant digital content, the consequences are significant. In San Francisco, it can take between four to six weeks to get access to a 90-day bed in a shelter. Those waitlisted need to check an online tracker system every day in order to not miss out, representing a significant barrier for those without access to devices or the internet.
Not having a phone, or having a phone but lacking regular access to data or Wi-Fi, can have serious consequences for people trying to exit homelessness. Because of the volatility of homelessness, people struggle to afford, retain and even charge devices, and their transient circumstances make it hard to maintain the same phone number and contact information over a period of time. We recently spoke to a woman who had waited four years for affordable housing, but when her time came, she was no longer reachable through the contact information provided in her application. She found out months later that she had lost her slot.
What technology solutions has ShelterTech developed to address the core barriers to digital inclusion?
Our two main products reflect our belief that connectivity, together with tailored, relevant content, are crucial to achieving digital equity for people experiencing homelessness.
For the most part, our target population doesn’t have access to devices or data. Through our ShelterConnect program we install high-speed, high-bandwidth Wi-Fi at shelters, at no cost to the organisation or to their residents. Thanks to this initiative, over 1000 people have access to Wi-Fi each night. We’re now concentrating on ensuring the next thousand are connected as soon as possible.
Our second flagship product, SF Service Guide, was built in partnership with the City of San Francisco, and leverages our AskDarcel technology. This directs people experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity to 365 organisations and 1,800 services through carefully designed user pathways. For people experiencing homelessness, it can take several hours to find a place to eat, shower, or satisfy other basic needs. Most of this information is exchanged by word of mouth within the community.
Having a centralised, widely-accessible source of accurate information can be a crucial timesaver for both end-users and case-workers. In turn, this allows individuals to carve out more time to work on exiting homelessness. SF Service Guide not only connects people with the services they need through tailored, user-friendly pathways, but gives them the power to reclaim greater control of their own lives.
What role can the mobile industry play in tackling these challenges, and what led to your partnership with GSMA Digital Equity?
Access to the internet should be considered a basic human right, not a privilege. It’s necessary for survival. The mobile industry is a key provider of that connectivity; the decisions made, prices charged, and services introduced affect millions of people’s access to information technology. In addressing connectivity at ShelterTech, there are many benefits to wireless internet installations in buildings, but 65 per cent of San Francisco’s homeless population remains unsheltered –and in large part unconnected–every night. We’re glad to be working with the GSMA to better understand how mobile-led products and services could add significant value in delivering continuous connectivity and tailored contentto people experiencing homelessness.
What are ShelterTech’s ambitions for the future?
We believe everyone should have access to affordable, reliable connectivity and relevant digital content, and we have a long way to go to get everybody covered. Our initial focus has been on San Francisco, but this is very much a challenge on a wider scale. Our ambitions for 2020 include building out a partner network to expand our reach to address the challenges of the 28,000 people currently experiencing homelessness in the wider Bay Area.
What will it mean to achieve digital equity for people experiencing homelessness?
When sheltered and connected to loved ones, healthcare, and job providers, at-risk individuals can regain autonomy and dignity and lead a more healthy, happy, and productive life.
Make sure to check back in with us regularly for more on our partnership with ShelterTech. You can find out more about ShelterTech’s work on their website.