How One Website Plans to Help NYC's Homeless Better Navigate the City's Shelters

How One Website Plans to Help NYC's Homeless Better Navigate the City's Shelters

A pair of entrepreneurs want to apply the lessons of Yelp's success to improving the lives of New York City's homeless.
February 13, 2017, 12:00pm

If TripAdvisor allows people to review hotels, why can't homeless people review shelters?

That's one idea behind StreetlivesNYC, a new website where the homeless can find and review social services like shelters, soup kitchens and food banks across New York City. The website, which will launch this summer, allows users to rate and review on an online platform, the first of its kind in the largest city in America.

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In a report released in September by Coalition for the Homeless, over 120,000 sleep in the municipal shelter system due to lack of affordable housing, eviction, job loss and domestic violence. Last year has been the highest for the number of homeless people living in New York City since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Most homeless people can get online easily. Many have smartphones, others go to internet cafes, libraries and public internet kiosks, like the LinkNYC stations (but web browsing was recently removed from 400 LinkNYC kiosks because homeless people were using them for hours at a time and some were caught watching porn) . Since 62 percent of homeless teens have smartphones, they've become a lifeline for organizations to help get get them off the streets.

Yet there are few trusted resource guides for homeless people. One is the website of the Coalition for the Homeless in New York, which has an online list of information with searchable types of assistance with keyword and location. However, there is no living database for those who are or might become homeless in the city, which is why StreetlivesNYC co-founders Adam Bard and Marco Righetto started building this website last year, which is currently in its research phase. "There are several sites run by charities and by the city which show a selection of resources, which are difficult to navigate without prior experience, though none are designed with the community for mobile, nor tuned knowledge sharing and feedback," said Bard. "It seems like the homeless population is equally invisible offline and online."

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Last year, Bard and Righetto started working with the communities at the Ali Forney Center for homeless LGBT youth in Harlem and the St.John's Bread & Life in Bed Stuy. Volunteers helped offer user research and feedback of what they would want in a website that would help fill a need. "We heard a dedicated platform would be useful, so it made it perfectly clear that this was a project to commit to," said Righetto.

Anthony Butler is the executive director of St. John's Bread and Life in New York City, uses "digital food pantries" where people can pre-order their groceries online before pick up. "Some people think poor people are too stupid to pick up technology," said Butler, who has seen 70 percent of homeless people walk into St. John's with mobile phones. "It's a reliable way to contact people, email doesn't work terribly well, but texting works fairly well; we set up appointments for them and we are a mailing address for a lot of people who don't have a stable address."

Though it is early to tell, Butler sees the need for Streetlives, "as it will help locate where the better services are," he said. "It's almost like 'word on the street' and connecting it in a more formal way--talk to this worker, they'll help you, go there on Thursdays, that sort of thing. It's just putting it on a digital platform."

In responding to voiced needs, the site will have a crisis text line which refers people to emergency resources, alerts from other users in the case of bad weather or other warnings and "safe sleep spot groups," which allows groups of people to privately organize where they will stay that night. They also want to help homeless people offer good reviews when there is a venue that offers free meals for vegetarians, for example, or if certain locations are dangerous.

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The city of New York's homeless department is trying to convert many of their homeless resources to an online platforms, says Butler. They have a 311 hotline, but apparently, it doesn't serve all the types of poor and homeless people out there. "I've been pushing for a long time that they have to talk to the folks they serve, but they don't test them with homeless people and that seems kind of dumb to me," he said. "If you're putting out a product, you should test it out with the customer."

But he sees some resistance from private agencies who have shelters or food banks, as some of them are funded by foundations. There could be complications to their funding if their services are ranked. "What if your funders see that?" asked Butler. "If you have poor services, you should fix them. One bad review doesn't mess up everything, it's like a restaurant review."

Foundations are not alone, the directors and employees also need to know how they're doing. The StreetlivesNYC site will allow workers of the organizations to log in and see how they're doing. "Has anyone written that they got a job through you?" asks Bard. "Is there someone that no longer comes through your doors and you lost touch with but is now recommending your service?"

In the coming months, they'll be partnering with more city service providers and are creating a coalition for funding. They are also working with advisors like AskIzzy, which helps homeless people find services online in Australia and StreetSupport, which is an online support system for homeless people in Manchester and Leeds. "Ideally, we will be moving from a pro bono to a funded project," said Righetto.

After the launch of StreetlivesNYC, they want to launch the project in other cities like San Francisco, Chicago and London. In the end, they hope the site will be fully powered by its users, allowing it to be a place for building community, sharing experiences and sparking important discussions.

"Our long term goal is to help bring all stakeholders together to improve the system, backed by community data, moving it from a model of charity to one of justice," said Bard.