National Edition

How Silicon Valley is changing the way we help the homeless

Published: Monday, June 2 2014 1:00 a.m. MDT

New Yorker Vince Verdi walks past a display of photographs of homeless people displayed below ground at the West 4th Street subway station in New York, Wednesday, May 21, 2014.

Kathy Willens, Associated Press

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Evan Howard needed to make giving money easy.

He was in charge of fundraising for one of San Francisco's oldest and best-known community outreach organizations for hunger and homelessness— Glide Memorial Church. For the past decade, receipts from the offering plate and mail drives had been declining.

He knew the community wasn't less interested in helping — people had just become used to making payments with a click of a button, not by writing a check. He tried everything he could think of — a text-to-give mobile tool, a phone app — but he ran into glitches with all of them. He had been trying to solve the problem for two years and had pretty much given up on the project when he was invited to a unique event that puts San Francisco's tech talent to work for local nonprofits.

Much like Silicon Valley hackathons in which developers stay up all night coding a project, "HACKtivation for the Homeless" pairs local nonprofits with techie volunteers to take on small projects. Kyle Stewart, who co-founded the event with community organizer Ilana Lipsett, moved to the Bay Area for a tech job, but shifted into nonprofit work and was surprised by how little nonprofits embraced technology in downtown San Francisco, where companies like Twitter, Spotify, and Uber have offices just down the street.

"I really felt like we needed to bring some of that talent to the nonprofit world," says Stewart. "Organizations that don't have enough employees, money, capacity — one thing you can do to build capacity is be more efficient, and tech does that."

Volunteering with a tech twist

Since HACKtivation is essentially a weekend volunteer event with a tech twist, the idea was to choose projects that could be managed within a two-day window. "We wanted to do something where we could get in, have an impact, and get out," says John Mills, co-founder and CTO of Zenput, a local start-up, who volunteered at the event.

When the event kicked off on Friday night, nonprofits pitched their projects — from a homeless safe house that wanted to open at Etsy shop, to a center for homeless teens that wanted a social network to keep members in touch. Then tech developers shopped around and matched with projects that suited them.

In the case of Evan Howard, from Glide Memorial Church, a couple freelance developers tackled his online donation project by thinking about how they would want to pay if they were to give to Glide.

They came up with a mobile-friendly app that works through Amazon's payment system and allows people to pay via Paypal or credit card with just a few clicks. Howard debuted the new system several weeks later during a Sunday meeting when they were raising funds for a new women and children's center.

The processors at Amazon auto-notify when someone makes a donation, so Howard set up a screen during Sunday services to live-stream a tracker to show how much they had raised. Within two hours, they had doubled their usual donations from such a drive from $2,000 to $4,000.

"People were just as generous as they usually were, but I was able to see who was donating, and many of those people gave again later in the meeting as we got closer to our goal," said Howard. Many givers, he said, were people who don't usually write checks or give cash, so he was able to reach the tech-savvy population that he was hoping for.

Building bridges

The Central Market and Tenderloin districts of downtown San Francisco have long been home to homeless and underserved populations and the organizations that serve them, but over the course of the last decade, high-tech startups have moved into this revitalizing neighborhood, resulting in some heated conflict between the two groups.

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