Where Are The Apps To Aid DC’s Homeless?

Via Wikimedia Commons

In Washington, D.C. the homeless are part of the landscape. An experience this evening was a vivid reminder of the digital divide – and what the smart phone community can do about it.

Tonight I was walking out of church – NCC’s location at the GALA Theatre in Columbia Heights. The message was serving in the local community and abroad. We got a nifty brochure on all the opportunities available.

Ironically, God must have been ready for me to put my passions into action – – ASAP. My friends and I stepped out into the bustling intersection at 14th and Park and an older woman approached us from under the movie marquee lights.

“Please,” she said, with tearful sobs, “Can you help me? I need to find a shelter tonight. And I’m hungry.”

I looked to my two friends and said, quite helplessly, “I don’t have a smart phone. Can one of you look up the address of a nearby shelter?” My two friends got to work, whipping out their GPS-enable devices.

But the best result that came up was “animal shelter,” and it was not going to do our friend Rita – as she introduced herself – much good.

This dilemma reminded me of the great brainstorming that came out of DC Week’s CityCamp DC, a two-day un-conference to plan tech projects to help the city. Ideas included bridging the digital divide with a computer lab on wheels, and donating smart phones to low-income job applicants.

Here’s what needs to be next: a smart phone app that can locate homeless shelters. And with a city full of smart-phone-toting professionals, why not use our privilege of technology to help our brothers and sisters who need a bed for the night? Maybe then we’d be less reluctant to help our neighbors on the street. We can begin put some of that wi-fi wealth to use.

I don’t have a smart phone, and I don’t know how to design smart phone apps, but there’s got to be someone who does. (Maybe something will come out of the next edition of Apps for Democracy? I defer to the Corbett bros., here….)


About Meg Biallas

Thoughts From A DC Intern Turned DCist. A twenty-something goes beyond traditional tourism to achieve Washingtonian authenticity.
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7 Responses to Where Are The Apps To Aid DC’s Homeless?

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Where Are The Apps To Aid DC’s Homeless? « Capital Comment -- Topsy.com

  2. Meg,
    I hear you loud and clear. The first few “Apps for” contests that have happened around the globe were ground breaking and proved the model. Now its time for local municipalities to get behind the idea that civic innovation can help bridge the digital divide and challenge local developers to solve these problems. It’s time to focus on the people that need help instead of focusing on new technologies that simply make the divide wider.


    • Meg Biallas says:

      Thanks, Joe. I am glad to hear that the Apps For Democracy contest is looking into local civic apps. You’re right: this is definitely an opportunity that will help bridge the digital divide.


  3. kelli says:

    during dcweek rockcreeksm.com started developing an app like this…i’m not sure where it’s at right now. it was geared more toward providing real-time availability of space within shelters, which will require buy-in from the shelters. in the long run, i think it will create less work for the shelters to input their data into a web-based system as opposed to the paper & phone-hotline system they currently use. however, change is always a hard-sell. in the meantime, a basic search should definitely be more helpful than results that include animal shelters. not good. but i’m not at all surprised either. shelters could probably use some help in getting higher search results for their websites (and probably some shelters don’t even have sites). also, i know some people who are working on a google docs database of local shelters. i’ll let you know when i find out it’s live.


  4. Meg: we did create http://appforthehomeless.com/ for DCWEEK. We have since spent the Summer putting as much data as we could gather into it. The data has been gathered from any source we could find and is still incomplete.

    Meg, Our idea was simple: put DC-area resources for the homeless online in a mobile optimized format with geolocation so anyone from and aid worker to a concerned citizen with any sort of smartphone could direct those in need to help. The results can be further filtered by “Counseling, Food, Medical & Overnight Stay.” There is also a category for “Volunteer Opportunities.”

    There was a suggestion that the app could also contain vacancy data, but since no one is gathering that it probably won’t happen.

    Currently we are looking for a responsible organization to take the tool over so that it is updated frequently. Our dream would be to see it become a national resource rather than a local one.


    • kelli says:

      this is great news! i’m glad to hear the update & i’ll spread the word!


    • Meg Biallas says:

      Thanks, Scott. I am glad to hear there is progress on this. I am not all that acquainted with local homeless groups, but I wonder which ones would be willing to step up? Thank you for your work on this!


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