Tech sets out to help the homeless

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Google “tech,” “San Francisco,” and “homeless” right now, and you will undoubtedly find the tale of Greg Gopman, former CEO of AngelHack, whose notorious Facebook comments comparing homeless people to “hyenas,” among other things, earned him a viral dose of public shaming delivered via Twitter and the blogosphere.

Needless to say, the less-than-angelic entrepreneur didn’t score any points with vocal critics of the tech sector as a driving force of gentrification in San Francisco.

“I looked at this tech boy’s face and wondered if he ever really worked in his life,” scoffed longtime activist Tony Robles, in an editorial for POOR Magazine. “He has pampered written all over his face.  He says he been all over the world, to third world countries even (clap clap clap). I hope he wasn't as big an assh**e overseas as he is here in the Bay Area.” 

In this climate of flaring tempers, increasingly defined by escalating tension between the haves and the have-nots, tech entrepreneur Rose Broome is wading in with something she believes can help solve homelessness in San Francisco and elsewhere: A startup.

HandUp is unlike any homeless services provider. It doesn’t operate as a nonprofit, nor does it provide shelter, accept donated blankets or foodstuffs for those in need, or connect people directly with mental health services or substance abuse counseling.

Instead, in accordance with a Silicon Valley-based formula that encourages a technology user to share in order to earn points and broaden one’s circle, it is based on digital profiles.

HandUp “members,” who include individuals living on the street as well as those at risk of becoming homeless, are aided in the creation of their own webpages, where they write out their bios, pose for professional photographs, and make a list of items they need. They are also given something like business cards, to hand to people on the streets as a way to direct them to their website. 

Donors may then visit the website, surf through the member profiles, and decide how much to give and to whom. The whole transaction can occur without the donor ever having an interaction with an actual person on the street, but Broome says the donors express interest in how the members are doing, while members express curiosity about who has chosen to help them and why. If the donors feel uncomfortable selecting an individual, they can contribute to a general fund.

Once a member has received a donation, they can go to Project Homeless Connect, HandUp’s partner organization, to redeem it for things such as clean socks or canned food. "It really depends on what the person needs," Broome said. "People need their phone bill paid, bike locks, temporary housing, help with ordering things online. We want this to be open because people have all kinds of needs." So far, with a pilot program, Broome says members have averaged $200 in donations per month.

HandUp plans to begin fundraising for its corporate development soon, and it’s won public praise from Bevan Dufty, appointed by Mayor Ed Lee to address homeless issues, and Sup. Jane Kim.

Broome told the Bay Guardian that she got her idea after witnessing a homeless woman sleeping on the street last winter. “I was like, why, in a city with so many resources … have we not figured out some new ways to tackle homelessness?” she wondered.

That is a good question. It’s a question that many a homeless advocate, affordable-housing activist, clergy member, Occupy protester, health-care provider, government employee, candidate for office, international visitor, or generally compassionate individual has likely asked as well. But the problem persists.

HandUp isn’t the first tech-based initiative to try and tackle homelessness: There’s also this, and this, and this.

As Salon.com writer Andrew Leonard put it in an article where he reflected on HandUp and his interactions with Jason Calacanis, HandUp’s lead investor, “I also detected what I thought was the unstated assumption that if the almighty tech community just got around to devoting its attention to the issue, then it could be fixed, lickety-split.”

Broome, who partnered with software engineer Zac Witte to formulate the HandUp platform, attracted some criticism for taking the for-profit route. HandUp is registered as a benefit corporation, a kind of corporate entity that has a positive social mission “baked in,” as she puts it, to its raison d'être.

“We don’t want to be constantly struggling, and constantly fundraising,” she explained when we asked about why HandUp is a for-profit entity. “Our social mission is very core to what we do.” A mechanism for generating revenue will come further down the line, she said – not by taking a cut of the donations, but through partnerships with retailers who will be part of the system for redeeming donations.

Broome acknowledged that her idea might be dismissed as too simplistic. “It’s sort of a cliché, that tech people want to pull out a phone and solve a problem,” she said.

And while the basic desire to help is laudable, it's hard to see how great of an impact this could have when considering the broader economic picture. The Bay Area is ground zero for a sweeping national trend of income inequality, and the housing affordability crisis is undeniably a key reason why there are so many people without homes. This very crisis is fueled by an influx of tech employees. HandUp doesn’t begin to approach this root cause.

It’s also a bit questionable that members are expected to publish their names, images, and life stories in order to get their needs met. Some members, out of desperation, are even sharing details about past incarceration, drug use, or medical problems, which could actually hinder their efforts to land a job or find housing in the long run.

But Broome says personal stories contribute to HandUp’s greatest strength, which is to “humanize” the problem of homelessness for prospective donors who may not understand their plight or otherwise think twice about them. “We help put a really human face on homelessness. It’s hard to have an understanding of what homelessness is like,” but by giving people a forum to share their story, “It helps you have empathy.”

Do San Franciscans really need that much help feeling a sense of empathy? If they are anything like Gopman, then maybe so. This week's Guardian editorial dives into this a bit.

Kara Zordel, executive director of Project Homeless Connect, acknowledged that HandUp is not a cure-all, yet said she was pleased to see new energy and “to have anybody from the community coming up with some idea.” After all, a startup that aims to tackle homelessness could lead to a flood of donations from tech workers, a demonstrably better outcome than tech workers sounding off on Facebook about how disgusted they are by the homeless.

“I don’t think this is a good fit for someone who is ill on the street, but there’s not one program that’s going to fit every single need,” Zordel went on. For people who are mentally or physically ill and living on the street, there is still vast unmet need, she added.

“If I could have one wish, it would be for medically based housing in San Francisco,” Zordel went on. “Even if we have 1,000 different housing units, we have a lot of medically fragile people,” who would require a high level of care in order to improve, she explained.

At the same time, she emphasized that any person who approaches Project Homeless Connect with a need will be treated equally, whether they participate in HandUp or not.

“There’s no way I would feel comfortable sleeping at night thinking that somebody on HandUp is more deserving than somebody who’s not,” she said. And on the whole, she agreed, the problem of a lack of housing for those out on the street should be prioritized. “Until we meet the needs of the homeless,” she asked, “Are we really going to feel whole as a city?”

Comments

I feel sure they will be very happy to get off the hook so lightly.

Posted by Guest on Dec. 18, 2013 @ 4:51 pm

but his money is still welcome!

Posted by Guest on Dec. 18, 2013 @ 5:13 pm

All the Bay Guardian hand wringing accomplishes is an open invitation.

The lemmings at the Bay Guardian can piss and moan, in the end millions is spent by the city and the throng of non-profits around town, and nothing will ever change.

City services should be for the citizens of the city, not just some fuck up who drops by.

Posted by Matlock on Dec. 18, 2013 @ 5:18 pm

professional SF progressives when it relates to their preferred non profits or city programs. But when it pertains to tech workers and their shuttles then they demand the STRICTEST standards!

Posted by Guest on Dec. 18, 2013 @ 10:56 pm

Certain groups need to finance the world view of progressives.

Certain groups because of their terrible choices are entitled to do as they wish.

Tech companies should not be able to use bus stops for a few minutes at a time.

Camping out on the sidewalk all day with you mean asocial dog is encouraged.

Posted by Matlock on Dec. 20, 2013 @ 2:33 am

This is so wrong, on so many levels.
Where do I begin?

First, some personal thoughts on becoming homeless.
Number 1: I (we, my wife and I, but I will use myself only for this) am not homeless (although I have recently learned my building in Hayes Valley will be put on sale in the near future; it is unlikely I will be able to find another apartment to remain in San Francisco as I cannot afford current market rents). I have never been homeless. Nor am I involved with any organization that deals with the homeless. I can only imagine what it would be like to be homeless. And I’m sure I don’t have a firm grasp on all the needs of the homeless (some working, some not), such as help with ordering things online which I would not have thought is a major concern.

Number 2: If I become homeless I will not want my name and picture on a website (creation of their own webpages, where they write out their bios, pose for professional photographs, and make a list of items they need) for donors to peruse and deem if I am worthy of their charity, some of those perusing donors no doubt being former co-workers, family, friends, acquaintances, etc. And then there’s my family on the other side of the country, and my ex schoolmates from college and high school (this is the internet, after all). Please, tell everyone on earth how I have failed. I know I would feel ashamed, right or wrong, for the situation I find myself in. I'm pretty sure I could adjust my expectations and my (loss of) sense of self-worth enough to accept help and charity when it's offered, but I would want to keep my humiliation and shame to a minimum. And yes, things could get so bad eventually that I would need to put even those last shreds of dignity aside and accept what I would consider further public humiliation, but I would resent it for being a price I am made to pay to survive. And then adding my short bio with my needs would only further my sense of resentment for having to 'perform' in order to receive my charitable donation, and it puts me in competition with others to make my plight more ‘worthy’ to be selected by beneficent donors.

Number 3: If I become homeless I expect I will be more concerned with eating, having a place to sleep, and my personal safety before anything else. I doubt I would find very much free time/opportunity to visit the 'community/web center' to create my home page (while guarding my meager belongings). No matter how many facilities you offer.

Number 4: It appears, according to the story and the HandUp website, that the program's objective is to help me live homeless more comfortably, not to end my homeless state.

Now, to the meat of the matter.

The tech people are obviously so out of touch with reality outside of their inner circles it makes me want to start a petition to require all tech graduates to also complete a liberal arts program before they can graduate. They just don't seem to have a clue. Their ability to empathize with the problems of the homeless runs the gamut from 0 to 1 (my apologies, Dorothy).

I donate/lend to KIVA. I do not have to interact with those I lend my money to, in fact it is impossible, as I cannot afford to travel to the places my money goes. And truthfully, I don't want to go. I don't want to meet them. I just want to help when I can. But to offer as a perk/inducement to donors of this program shows a dumbfounding lack of sensitivity.

Regarding (and not a non-profit), this just screams startup/venture capital/good for my tech resume to me. Somehow, someway, someone wants to make a profit from this. The motivation is suspect.

<"We help put a really human face on homelessness. It’s hard to have an understanding of what homelessness is like,” but by giving people a forum to share their story, “It helps you have empathy.”> Well, let me suggest this to you: A photo on a webpage is not actually a human face. It is a representation of a human face. The actual human face is sitting on the grass in Civic Center, and under the freeway in a tent, or living in a car parked behind Best Buy. Gather your friends, jump on the google bus and take a detour on your way to Mountain View. Stop the bus, jump off for a minute and empathize. That single statement puts the whole ‘tech community approach’ in a nutshell. They only see the problem, and it’s solution, through their own narrow lens, via the cellphone app, or an email, or a website. If they could they would offer chits for Amazon drone deliveries to your cardboard refrigerator box. They seem incapable of doing otherwise. Not a single aspect of this ‘solution’ requires the donors (obviously the heroes here) to ‘get their hands dirty’.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. If you think that a google shuttle bus surrounded by protesters in a Muni bus stop is a powerful symbolic image of the haves vs havenots problems in this city, wait till you see the image of the google shuttle bus burning down in the Muni bus stop. If something doesn’t change for the better we’ll see it sooner than we’d like.

Posted by gussdolan on Dec. 19, 2013 @ 3:13 am

Nobody owes you a rent that you clearly cannot afford.

Move to Oakland.

Nor is your threat of arson very convincing. You just sound angry at yourself for not succeeding.

Posted by Guest on Dec. 19, 2013 @ 6:53 am

Guest, you have a one track mind with the many complex issues surrounding affordable housing in sf, or really the entire Bay Area ( I can always tell its you by the two or three line dismissive suggestion to move to Oakland ), and once again, if your response to gussdolan was all you could muster, it seems you don't do much thinking. Why do you center on him moving away, instead of the main points of his comment- his thoughts on Handup? That is what the story is about, correct? Engage in some critical thinking once in awhile.

Posted by Guest on Dec. 21, 2013 @ 10:57 am

except in a trivial way by building the odd BMR unit here and there.

Accepting that expensive cities are, er, expensive would go a long way to aiding your understanding of this and any other complex issue.

Posted by Guest on Dec. 21, 2013 @ 11:10 am

Blah. You're hopeless.

Posted by Guest on Dec. 21, 2013 @ 11:21 am

one-line prejudice is evidence enough that your viewpoint is worthless.

Posted by Guest on Dec. 22, 2013 @ 5:24 pm

Using the little while of reimbursing period of around 30 days lenders supply the amount beneath this mortgage from GBP80
to GBP1,500.

Posted by Johnathan on Mar. 15, 2014 @ 9:36 pm

I wasn't too comfortable with it either, and you put a lot of my feelings into words.

PS... don't mind the trolls

Posted by Greg on Dec. 19, 2013 @ 12:28 pm

someone who disagrees with Greg who Greg cannot refute.

Posted by Guest on Dec. 19, 2013 @ 12:54 pm

This seems well intentioned.

But it also reveals just how out of touch and naive the people behind it are.

Also, there's already a 'handup' website. It's run by a church in Milton Pa and has almost the same business model as this one.

I give this 6 months til fade out.

Posted by Randall Chenery on Dec. 20, 2013 @ 8:36 am

Like a lot of tech applications, these are good intentions but poor understanding. Like a lot of what's going on in Silicon Valley, people think they can solve social problems with technology. That's not going to happen here.

All this is is a model for people to give money to homeless people without interacting with them. It's just about taking what was once a social interaction and moving it to a web browser so you don't have to actually *deal* with that person.

A hundred bucks and a jacket isn't going to get someone off the street. It might help them subsist a little bit longer, but it's not going to get them out of there. Ending homelessness is a problem that has to work on a government scale, because it takes a large up-front investment to build the shelters, networks and connections the homeless need to really get into a place and stay there. Not to mention drug counseling, rehab, dealing with alcohol abuse, etc.

A lot of tech workers think they can solve social problems in very libertarian ways using technology, but these aren't actual solutions, they're bandaids. Likewise, someone mentioned an app that helps homeless people find shelters with beds - again, nice for helping homeless people subsist but even helping them find beds doesn't actually address finding a home, finding work, making this work long-term.

That's not to say that donating to the homeless is bad, or that it isn't appreciated - but IMO the app basically sounds like a web browser version of walking down the street and actually giving something to a homeless person. It's nice that people can do it from their phone or browser or whatever, but it A) doesn't reach the people who aren't on the app (another major problem with tech) and B) doesn't actually address any of the social issues for homelessness, so people are still just as poor off as they were before.

Mostly, though, it makes me concerned that the tech industry really thinks it can solve social problems from behind a computer screen rather than by interacting with people. That's just not a good trend.

Posted by Jason on Dec. 19, 2013 @ 9:13 am

but your sentence "It makes me concerned that the tech industry really thinks it can solve social problems from behind a computer screen rather than by intereacting with people" caught my eye.

I don't think it is the tech industry's responsibility to solve a City's social problems. IMHO, that is for society as a whole to deal with, with government leading the way. The tech industry should be a good citizen of the city they are in, however. And if somebody comes up with an app that alleviates the suffering of even 20 people, I'm all for it. And if they can manage to run a successful business doing it, I'm in favor of that, too. A win-win in my book

Posted by guest on Dec. 19, 2013 @ 10:17 am

But what I'm referring to is the fact that these tech "solutions" we keep seeing don't actually involve the community or getting involved. It's like those videos last year about Kony 2012 where a bunch of people felt that if they all clicked "Like" on the video, it would somehow get Kony caught or killed.

In the end, the video received thousands or millions of likes. But it doesn't matter because Kony is still out there, still using child soldiers. I think the term people were throwing around was "Slacktivists," people who share and forward articles from computer screens, but don't get involved at the ground level.

At the end of the day, if you want to solve homelessness it involves a group effort at the ground level, interacting with, communicating with and being amongst homeless people. It involves leaving your computer and getting out there and doing something, and what concerns me is applications like HandUp making people think that sending some money through an app is enough, then returning to their bubble, and trying to pretend the problem doesn't exist anymore.

Posted by Jason on Dec. 19, 2013 @ 10:45 am

for incisive analysis and thoughtful commentary (unfortunately sullied by personal attack from the move to Oakland simpleton).

Food and rent riots coming soon to a neighborhood near you. For this phenomenon, San Francisco will lag other parts of the country.

Posted by Guest on Dec. 19, 2013 @ 9:38 am
Posted by Guest on Dec. 19, 2013 @ 10:55 am
Yep

All those protestors need is a massage at the end of a police baton and they'd re-think their advocacy of violence real quick.

Posted by Guest on Dec. 19, 2013 @ 11:51 am

Or else it's the ass-raping in the big house that achieves that.

Posted by Guest on Dec. 19, 2013 @ 12:09 pm

have some experience with that kind of thing eh?

Posted by Big House Greg on Dec. 19, 2013 @ 2:06 pm

intellectuals who get banged up for protesting tend to leave prison with an anal cavity far larger than when they arrived.

Posted by Guest on Dec. 19, 2013 @ 2:17 pm

If I buy an indulgence from the website, can I go back to wishing the homeless would just go away?

Posted by Chromefields on Dec. 19, 2013 @ 10:48 am

The last two paragraphs say that Project Homeless Connect won't differentiate between those who have received donations through HandUp and those who haven't, so the company's claim that people redeem donations for goods is false. It's plain, old fundraising, which is fine, but seems really disingenuous.

Posted by The Tens on Dec. 19, 2013 @ 3:56 pm

You'll never be royals (roy-als)
It's not in your blood, we were born from gods and angels,
you obviously came from mud-
Let me be your ruler (roo-ler)
You can call me King "G",
And, baby, I'll rule (Irule-Irule-Irule-Irooooo)
Let me live that fantasy. (woe, woe.... woe-woe)

Posted by JoetheSFRepublican on Dec. 21, 2013 @ 12:44 pm

... is awesome.

:: slow clap :: 

Posted by Joe Fitzgerald on Dec. 21, 2013 @ 1:45 pm

Rumor has it Gopman lived, by himself, for years, in a subsidized unit at 420 Berry St..

420 Berry is BMR housing supposedly reserved for families.

Posted by Hoke Moseley on Dec. 21, 2013 @ 3:02 pm

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