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How Silicon Valley is changing the way we help the homeless
Hacktivation matches techies with nonprofits
Aaron Thorup, The 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress - photo by Aaron Thorup

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.
"Rent has gone through the roof and there's a shortage of housing, and people are priced out of their homes, and nonprofits are priced out of their leases," says Stewart. "So there has been a lot of tension. A lot of animosity. A lot of colorfully worded op-eds." Stewart, who founded ReAllocate, an organization that connects people — often with specialized tech or business skills — to volunteer social innovation projects, came up with HACKtivation as a way to bridge the two communities.
John Mills, whose mobile data start-up is in the Twitter Marketplace building, donated his time to build a new website for St. Francis Living Room, which provides services for homeless and low-income seniors.
Mills worked with Greg Moore, the St. Francis program director. "We sat down with him and did what we do best — talked about problems and went to work," says Mills. Over the course of the weekend Mills got the website content up — video, a Facebook page — and showed Moore how to upload and operate it.
Mills says that people want to help the community, but often that help is misguided.
"Engineers have a nice life, a nice house, they don't overlap with homelessness except for the neighborhood they work in," he says. He uses the term "domain knowledge" to describe the expertise that nonprofits bring to events like HACKtivation. Techies have the "know-how," he says, but they don't understand the problems. "Nonprofits know what's going on on the street," he says.
He says he tried to treat HACKtivation the same way that he treats his customers, by understanding their needs. "A lot of it comes down to empathy, instead of taking a heavy-handed approach like you already have the answers, build by listening."
Looking Ahead
Since Stewart launched HACKtivation last spring, the event has donated over 5,000 hours of development and business expertise to nonprofits over the course of three hackathon events.
Larkin Street, a homeless youth shelter, found that their original vision for a social network was too much to develop in just one weekend, but developers made them an app that allows youth to reserve a bed using text messaging. The Homeless Prenatal Program got an online sign-up system for volunteers.
One of the next projects to come out of HACKtivation, says Stewart, is to help put technology into the hands of low-income and homeless individuals themselves. A HACKtivation volunteer came up with the idea of creating a live screen "billboard" that could be placed in a high-traffic public space like the food line at Glide Memorial Church where members of the community can post events and information.
"A lot of this population doesn't have computer literacy, they don't know how to use a touch pad or a computer — they don't have Facebook, or Instagram, or Spotify. So a lot of the information they get is just through word of mouth," says Ilana Lipsett, who co-founded the event with Stewart. A community board would allow for new information sharing, she says. "For example, it might say, 'Is this line too long?' Here are some other places to get food nearby."
In the meantime, HACKtivation has brought groups together that otherwise might not interact. "At HACKtivation they come face to face," says Stewart. "Homeless, artist, nonprofit, tech, it's been great to get them all in the same room. We have had praise from people across the board."