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Resolving homelessness in the digital era

TechCrunch TechCrunch 21/06/2016 Jonathan Sposato

The explosion of tech companies setting up headquarters in major cities has encroached on the homeless population, but the mentalities around this issue differ. Twitter established its headquarters in the Tenderloin district, a highly underdeveloped area of San Francisco, in an attempt to help rejuvenate the community. More recently however, on the opposite spectrum, entrepreneur Justin Keller called for the removal of the homeless in San Francisco, describing it as a burden on the wealthy.

Like San Francisco, the tech industry is growing rapidly in Seattle, and we, too, have the same dilemma — our city has the third largest homeless population in the nation, and it’s only growing. According to the latest One Night Count results, there are at least 4,505 unsheltered people in Seattle. But unlike San Francisco, we have the opportunity to get ahead of this issue and truly make a difference.

While we are in a tech bubble with regards to the market, I’d say we’re also in an even smaller bubble — one that causes us to look away or avoid interacting with the homeless, especially while we’re traveling to and from work.

Consider this scenario — you’re racing to get to work, laptop bag in tow, coffee in one hand and likely your phone in the other. You see a homeless person on the street and you know you have spare change, but that entails shifting your belongings around, reaching for your wallet and handing out the change. Also, in the back of your mind you wonder if they will use your money for drugs or alcohol, rather than clothing, shelter or food.

We’re focused on gaining assets others have, instead of helping others gain what we have.

The sad truth is that most of us wouldn’t disrupt our routine to help out in this situation, even though it would only take 30 seconds. I think it is time to reflect; “Now, how can we change this?”

What’s missing is the notion of “us.” “Us” as a community, society or nation isn’t part of a national conversation of betterment. It’s not a part of our daily lives. Stemming from Tocquevilleian and Jeffersonian philosophies, we’re focused on gaining assets others have, instead of helping others gain what we have. We’re failing to measure society by how we treat the disadvantaged class.

However, there are a few housing initiatives already in place that we can look to for inspiration, which leverage a company’s influence to better the community. For example, the Community Pillar program by Zillow works with local landlords and property managers to modify their standard tenant screening process to help applicants with low incomes or unemployment to be able to obtain housing. Aggregating these options eases the search for those individuals who are financially strapped but eager for a fresh start. Easing the housing process through a service like Zillow is also a key step in helping others build the right foundation to long-term stability.

Amazon recently partnered with Mary’s Place to turn a building on campus into an emergency family shelter until the spring of 2017. The partnership also created an Amazon Wish List where anyone can donate to the families served by Mary’s Place. Providing a temporary solution shows we have opportunities all around us to capitalize on for future initiatives. Even more, combining Amazon’s services with the families in need not only helps financially support those in need, it creates a channel for aid through a convenient tech service most of us already use.

As members of the Seattle tech community, we need to use our ideas, technology and resources to help the homeless. If we pool our resources, we can fundamentally change our interactions and involvement with the homeless. We’ve all seen homeless individuals or families in our community — now’s the time we begin to interact with them, not avoid them.

When I go out at night to distribute blankets or clean socks, I am told that more than any material item, a friendly human connection that offers someone dignity is what keeps someone from giving up. Let’s not forget they are humans just like you and me, and they need our help now more than ever.

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