Empowered by Power: A Technology Solution to Aid in the Growing Homeless Crisis

By Chris Hannon, Associate Creative Director

 

The Observation.

I work in the heart of Seattle, near the historic Pike Place Market. Like many Seattleites, and many urban city dwellers near and far, I am aware of the recent rumblings about the increasing homeless situation. This population is seeing an all-time high in numbers, with nearly 11,000 homeless in Washington State’s King County alone. Near the home office of Smashing Ideas, there is a row of occupants that have started to populate the underside of our viaduct. They are a quiet, insular group, yet one thing stood out – the vast majority of them have cellphones.

This struck a chord. I hadn’t expected this demographic to have cellphones, and it made me realize how little I understand their individual situations or their day-to-day lives. In fact, 70% of homeless adults and 62% of homeless youth have their own personal cellphones, with another 18% having immediate access to one. As a designer whose job it is to help people use technology to improve their business, I do plenty of thinking around how technology is used and I frequently design for the precise wants and needs of targeted audiences, but I hadn’t considered this group right outside my front door. The more I thought about it the more it made sense; my phone is the basis for connecting me to all my resources and loved ones…why would it be any different for someone without a steady roof over their head?

While my own insights are relatively new, I am aware that there has been a long and ongoing conversation around urban homeless populations, particularly in tech hubs. Many lean one way, like the headline grabbing “tech bros” who complain about having to see the homelessto those whose efforts were less than well received (Homeless-Person-As-Mobile-Hotspot, anyone?).

Others are having more thoughtful conversations around equitable design, like San Francisco’s Zendesk and their partnership with St. Anthony’s foundation. Their efforts to optimize websites of homeless resource information for mobile phones is a spot-on step in the right direction for tailoring technology to reach a marginalized audience.

 

Digging Deeper.

With all this in mind I dug around and tried to get a better understanding of the situation for the homeless here in Seattle. It’s a complicated problem. Thanks to Seattle becoming a tech hub of innovation, second only to Silicon Valley, housing prices are skyrocketing. In one of Seattle’s most tech-heavy neighborhoods – South Lake Union, which is home to the campuses of Amazon and Facebook to name a few – the average rent is $2,248/month, surpassing average rents in some of San Francisco’s trendiest neighborhoods. With even non-tech income-level households struggling to make rent in the 7th most expensive housing market in the United States, methods of how and where to house the city’s homeless are divisive.

Seattle’s current approach is Tent Cities. For the tenets of these camps safety in numbers is a preferred way of day-to-day living vs. trying to go it alone. As I learned more about how the land is chosen for the camps (often with great opposition) I learned the sites are literally just empty plots of land or parking structures, usually with no running water or electricity.

This lack of available resources sparked an idea…and a critical question: if information resources for marginalized groups are becoming only accessible through digital means (and they are), how much further of a gap is created for people to try to better their situation if they can’t charge their phones and access these resources?

 

The Right Approach.

The natural go-to solution seemed like a personal portable solar-charger for devices. While a functional idea, it has no real roots in understanding tent communities and how they function. In diving deeper into the complexity of life within these communities, a few things began to emerge as appropriate solutions.

First, individual charging devices could be lost or broken easier than a more permanent/reinforced structure. But it can’t be too permanent, because Tent Cities, by definition, are temporary. Second, it needs to be able to stand up to the weather – and Seattle is notorious for our weather – so the materials and design need to allow for rain/heat/more rain/snow/even more rain, etc. Third, it needs to have a sense of place and community – something people can be comfortable hanging out with, an electronic community hub if you will. In addition, it needs to function primarily as an off-grid power source via solar panels, but also have other options like pedal power or plugin charge when possible, to give 24/7 accessibility. The mobile charging station needs to be able to support several devices at once, as tent cities have up to a 100 residents at any given time.

Aside from being a charger, it needs to provide other useful information pertinent to this community. With homeless resources limited at best, having readily accessible information like Zendesk’s homeless resource optimized site, the forecast so residents can prep their tent for the day’s weather, or which food banks are open and available within walking distance, can equate to survival on the streets. Plus, it’s imperative that it is mobile, something that can be hooked to a trailer hitch and be moved quickly come moving day. It could look something like this:

Empowered by Power

 

A Step in the Right Direction.

This is just one piece of a large-scale, complicated puzzle. At best it only solves a few issues, but in the spirit of equitable design, solving for this one specific group can inform and make better experiences for everyone. By cheaply prototyping and testing this approach, we can quickly validate if it’s a step in the right direction to improve people’s lives and maybe add some valuable information to the bigger conversations taking place locally.

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