Homelessness is widespread and hard to solve, affecting more than 560,000 people in the U.S. and hundreds of millions around the world.
It’s a complex and intractable problem, with countless agencies and nonprofits working to tackle root causes and provide systemic solutions. But while there may not be a one-size-fits-all formula for homeless people in every community, technology and innovation can help fill in the gaps.
Gadgets, apps and prototypes are temporary fixes, of course — we need to tackle poverty, lack of affordable housing, unemployment and more to truly arrive at solutions. But in the meantime, innovations can offer much-needed support to some of the world’s most vulnerable populations.
From a winter coat that takes contactless donations in Amsterdam to commercial shower trailers that offer hygiene and dignity in San Francisco, these eight inventions think outside the box when it comes to the issue of homelessness.
1. The EMPWR coat
The Empowerment Plan, a Detroit-based nonprofit that aims to lift people out of poverty and homelessness through employment, created an innovative coat that doubles as a sleeping bag and an over-the-shoulder bag for homeless populations.
The EMPWR coat is a durable, water-resistant jacket made of Cordura fabric from workwear company Carhartt, upcycled automotive insulation from General Motors, and materials from other donors. It costs $100 to “sponsor” a coat, distributed to those in need.
EMPWR coats have been donated across 40 states in the U.S., seven Canadian provinces and a few other countries around the world, according to the Empowerment Plan website.
2. Lava Mae mobile showers
Launched in June 2014, Lava Mae is a San Francisco-based nonprofit offering mobile showers and sanitation to people experiencing homelessness. The goal isn’t just cleanliness — it’s to provide dignity and “radical hospitality.”
The effort started when founder and CEO Doniece Sandoval converted a defunct San Francisco city bus into a mobile shower unit, and has grown to provide commercial shower trailers and other hygiene services to more than 2,400 people.
Lava Mae is currently expanding to Los Angeles. At the end of 2016, Sandoval received KIND Foundation’s $500,000 grand prize for “transforming her community through kindness.” She plans to use the money to help other organizations reproduce Lava Mae’s model.
3. The WeatherHYDE tent
WeatherHYDE is a reversible tent created by billionBricks, a nonprofit working with homeless and displaced communities in South and Southeast Asia.
It protects homeless populations and impoverished communities in lieu of affordable shelter, with one side keeping out cold temperatures, and the other side lined with reflective panels to keep out extreme heat. The goal of the easy-to-assemble tent, according to billionBricks, is to save children’s lives, offer privacy for women and allow for adaptation to urban environments.
A Kickstarter campaign to provide 500 tents to families in need raised more than $145,000 in November 2016.
4. Helping Heart contactless payment jacket
Amsterdam media company N=5 came up with a new, high-tech way for people to give money to people experiencing homelessness: Wireless payments, through a jacket pocket.
The Helping Heart jacket is a prototype that takes contactless donations — all you need to do is hover your smart credit card over the front pocket to help someone in need. Donations have a 1 Euro limit, and all of the money has to be redeemed through an official homeless shelter. It’s never redeemed as cash; all money goes toward food or places to sleep, or things like vocational training courses and even savings accounts.
Trials within the homeless community garnered positive feedback, while advocacy organizations support how the jacket helps people toward long-term goals. While still in early stages, N=5 hopes to produce the Helping Heart jacket at scale in an affordable and compact way.
5. The GiveSafe app
GiveSafe is an organization that distributes quarter-sized “beacons” to homeless people through shelters in Seattle, Washington. People with the GiveSafe app will receive a notification when they pass someone holding a beacon, providing more information about the person and an opportunity to donate money.
People experiencing homelessness can use the donations at select stores or through a nonprofit counselor on things like clothing, transportation, haircuts and more.
The goal is to “remove the friction and barriers to giving.” Currently running as a pilot program, GiveSafe is available on iPhone and Android.
WeCount is an online platform and app that allows homeless people to safely ask for items they need, and provides a way for people in their community to donate directly. Anyone can sign up with an email address or a text message-enabled phone number, and users choose whether they want to donate or receive help.
Categories for donations include outdoor gear, home goods, children’s needs and clothing. People can either donate gently used items they have on hand, or see what homeless people in their community need specifically.
WeCount then matches the donated items with those in need at specific pick-up sites. The service is currently available in Seattle.
7. DoNotPay chatbot
An undergrad student at Stanford University created an AI chatbot to help people get out of parking tickets, but he soon found another use for his innovation: Providing homeless people and refugees with free legal aid.
DoNotPay, launched by 19-year-old Joshua Browder, asks a user a series of questions to figure out the best way to help them. The bot then takes that information to draft a claim letter, saving people on legal fees that can run into hundreds of dollars.
He conferred with lawyers to help him craft responses for homeless people specifically, and also researched trends on why public housing applicants are denied in order to help particularly vulnerable populations (those living with mental illness, for example).
While currently focusing on the UK, Browder hopes to expand DoNotPay to the U.S. soon.
8. PSINET algorithm
Algorithms aren’t just for Facebook News Feeds. One algorithm, created by a team of social workers and computer scientists at the University of Southern California, can actually help prevent the spread of HIV among homeless teens.
Through artificial intelligence, the algorithm (called PSINET) helps organizations identify the best person in a given homeless community to spread HIV prevention information among young people. The selection is made using math and data, based on a mapped-out network of friendships.
The algorithm was developed in collaboration with My Friend’s Place, a local homeless drop-in agency in Los Angeles, and showed that the use of PSINET resulted in 60% more information spread than through the typical word-of-mouth efforts.