In many cities across the globe, technology has long been seen as a foe to housing affordability. In cities such as San Francisco and Seattle, tech giants such as Facebook, Apple, and Amazon are often credited with contributing to the cities’ housing crisis — raising housing prices beyond even what the company’s own employees can afford (Google’s van dwellers being an oft-cited case). And as the tech industry flourishes in several Canadian cities, some experts have argued that we’re poised to see existing housing and homelessness challenges across the country made worse.
At the moment, approximately 35,000 people in Canada experience homelessness on any given night. In 2016, the United Nations called Canada’s housing crisis and homelessness a “national emergency.” And in 2019, the number of people who identified as homeless in Vancouver hit a record high in surveys, adding to a number that’s grown for four years straight.
But can the same industry that’s been criticized for contributing to homelessness and housing crises around the globe also help address these issues?
Tech accelerator Fast Forward, based in San Francisco, is aiming to bring tech solutions to challenges around homelessness in both its home state and around the world with its newly-announced sixth accelerator cohort. This year, three nonprofits focused on preventative or solutions-focused interventions for homelessness — FreeFrom, Good Call, and the Canadian-born Ample Labs — have been selected to receive funding, with $300,000 in funding allotted to the three nonprofits and select Fast Forward alumni working on similar interventions. Led by Fast Forward’s partnership with platform Twilio.org, the funding will go towards addressing the need for technology in nonprofits working with housing advocacy — a space that often falls behind when it comes to innovative, tech-based solutions.
Using Technology to Accurately Assess Challenges
The Toronto-based nonprofit Ample Labs uniquely understands the need for technology to solve homelessness. The social start-up, founded in 2018, creates tech-based tools to aid those facing homelessness. Ample Labs cites a recent survey that found that 94 percent of homeless adults have a phone and consider it their most vital communication tool, pointing to our sometimes antiquated notions that the homeless have limited access to technology. Ample Labs considers this information a focal point, and is creating chatbots — AI-powered virtual assistants — to help homeless individuals in Toronto better access critical services, such as sources of free clothing, food, and shelter.
For Ample Labs founder CG Chen, technology has a lot of room for growth in solution-finding for homelessness. More than just client-facing services (like chatbots), there is also a need for increased technology that nonprofits and their employees can leverage in their outreach work.
“What we are learning that there is a ton of opportunity — such as using real-time communication amongst outreach workers when they’re out on the streets, assessing needs from clients struggling with chronic homelessness and asking for resources in real-time,” says Chen.
Technology can also be utilized to increase efficiency by, Chen explains, “using heatmaps and data to map out needs based on neighbourhoods or locations, and then funding services or programs based on the needs of that neighbourhood.”
Chen points to one of the most challenging aspects of addressing homelessness — its complexity — as a key area where technology can transform our approach to the issue. “The biggest opportunity technology has to address homelessness is first to understand it through data,” she says. She continues:
“I think technology, if put in the hands of frontline staff, services, and clients or users of these services, can transform how we understand service delivery — because we can make real-time, data-informed decisions. There will also be the opportunity to think about prevention and moving more upstream, rather than investing in band-aid solutions and providing help when it’s too late. With data, you can see trends and patterns, and detect anomalies or solve a problem before it becomes big.”
Many, many factors lead to homelessness and under-housing, which means it’s not an issue that can be solved merely by allocating funds. Organizations need to be able to direct, intelligently, the right amount to those in need and towards different solutions that are working.
Co-Creating Solutions with the Community
“One challenge is that technology in this space can frequently be a hammer looking for a nail, with too much focus on the technology itself and not enough focus on finding the right problem to solve,” says Gabriel Leader-Rose, co-founder of Good Call, a startup that provides immediate access to free legal support to those who have been arrested via a tech-enabled hotline.
Another area where tech could pivot in order to better address social challenges? While those facing homelessness may have tech-assisted help at hand, what the space truly needs is ways for the community to help developers and designers create better-suited products.
“People and organizations in the communities we serve can have a justified skepticism or mistrust of new technology,” says Leader-Rose. “One way we overcome this is through community-centred design: ideating, creating, and iterating on solutions with the community to make sure we’re creating something that’s actually useful.”
Scaling Solutions Through Technology
Effectively leveraging technology within an organization can also help accelerate a mission’s progress, according to the founder behind FreeFrom, another nonprofit that received funding from Fast Forward this year. FreeFrom helps survivors of abuse and exploitation find economic justice and opportunity, tackling one of the many social issues that can lead to homelessness head-on.
Like Ample Labs and Good Call, FreeFrom has already implemented technology to help survivors: the organization uses tech-based solutions to train workers at domestic violence shelters and get legal information to survivors through online compensation tools. And the organization’s growing success, according to CEO and founder Sonya Passi, has been largely due to the successful implementation of technology.
“The opportunity [with technology] is greater impact and greater reach,” Passi says. “For example, our compensation tool launched in California last year, in 2018, and had 100,000 users. The year before (2017), using a direct services approach, we were only able to serve 150 survivors.”
Beyond year-to-year goal setting, Passi explains that technology is helping build a road to long-term solutions. “One of the greatest obstacles to long-term safety for survivors is a lack of community,” she says. She continues:
“Intimate partner violence isolates people, but technology connects us. To each other. To information. To services. I think this connectivity is the greatest gift that technology offers in our efforts to shift the paradigm of services to focus on long-term safety for survivors.”
Of course, technology is never going to come in a one-size-fits-all solution to help address homelessness or any other social issue. However, the thoughtful implementation of tech solutions can help organizations approach old challenges through new lenses, better understand needs on the ground in real time, and drive lasting progress.
And for a country like Canada — where 235,000 individuals experience homelessness every year, and an additional one in five households face serious housing affordability issues — these are options worth looking at.