Homeless In San Francisco? There's An App For That | KUOW News and Information

Homeless In San Francisco? There's An App For That

Mar 26, 2014
Originally published on March 26, 2014 12:26 pm

Homeless men and women in San Francisco have a new way of finding services such as food and shelter.

It’s an app — Link-SF — that links homeless people to available shelter, food, medical supplies, a place to bathe or use the computer.

The app was created by the start-up Zendesk with the non-profit St. Anthony Foundation. The foundation realized that nearly 40 percent of the lower income or homeless men and women using its Tenderloin Technology Lab had mobile phones.

Here & Now’s Robin Young speaks with Megan Trotter, the program manager at the Tenderloin Technology Lab, and Del Seymour, who was formerly homeless but now operates a small business.

There are federal programs that provide low income and homeless people with cell phones and talk and text plans.

The homeless, more or less, have a right and need access to high tech opportunity and devices.
– Del Seymour

“The homeless, more or less, have a right and need access to high tech opportunity and devices,” Seymour said. “Cell phones when they first came out, they were luxuries. But now they are necessities.”

Tech companies like Google and Twitter have been the focal point of affordable housing advocates’ criticism. Zendesk created the Link-SF app because it signed a community benefits agreement when it located to the Tenderloin, a historically impoverished neighborhood in San Francisco. But Trotter and Seymour see the relationship between the tech industry and the poor differently.

“I don’t think this project is the only thing Zendesk is doing,” Trotter said. “As far as does it make up for tech companies coming in and displacing people, I don’t know. But I think that the community benefits agreement and the opportunity that can develop through partnerships are exponential, and we are just starting to see what can come out of this.”

Seymour says many so-called “techies” are also struggling against unaffordable rents. He says the tech industry’s obligation to low-income communities they are disrupting is to take a chance on them.

“Our teenagers need to be assimilated into the tech industry,” Seymour said. “They have that natural ability to work technical devices. And I think the tech companies need to think about bringing some of these kids in off the corner. And that would get some people out of the Google hate bus.”


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Homeless men and women in San Francisco have a new way of finding services like food and shelter. There's an app for that. It links them to available housing, a place to bathe or use a computer. It was created by the startup Zendesk, along with the nonprofit St. Anthony Foundation, which provides food and shelter and has a technology lab.

And then they realized that nearly 40 percent of the lower-income and homeless men and women using the tech lab had cellphones. So the new phone app is called Link-SF. We want to learn more from Megan Trotter, program manager for the St. Anthony Foundation Tenderloin Technology Lab. Welcome.


YOUNG: And we're also joined by Del Seymour. He's been homeless in the past. He now runs the Tenderloin Walking Tours. Del, welcome to you as well.

DEL SEYMOUR: Thank you. Thank you so much.

YOUNG: And both Del and Megan are at KQED in San Francisco. And, Del, I want to start with you. People are probably surprised to hear that homeless have mobile phones.

SEYMOUR: Well, there are several programs, most are by the federal government, that allow homeless people in the nation to acquire cellphones with unlimited amount of voice and unlimited amount of text. So it's almost no reason for anyone not to really have a cellphone if you follow through and apply for the program.

YOUNG: So that it helps them in emergencies. We hear it becomes a lifeline.

SEYMOUR: Well, you know, now, a phone is necessary you do almost anything in life. Cellphones, when it first came out, of course, they were luxuries. But nowadays, it's a necessity. So why wouldn't a homeless need one?

YOUNG: But - well, but you've explained that they get them through a subsidized program. And, Megan, we understand they charge them at BART stations and at places across the city. And to you, some listeners might be surprised that a nonprofit, St. Anthony Foundation, has a tech lab. What's done in the tech lab?

TROTTER: Yeah. So St. Anthony's is a large multiservice organization that offers a lot of different services. And one of the services is the Tenderloin Technology Lab. We're a free computer access and training center for primarily homeless and low-income individuals and really came out of seeing this as a need for the community. You know, as government resources, jobs, everything moves online, there becomes a higher demand for it.

YOUNG: Yeah. Well, people can look for jobs, look for housing, be on the computers there, maybe get involved in a project. But now, they have this app that they can use on their sometimes government-subsidized smartphones. I'm on the app right now. It offers help in looking for medical help, housing, food. Del, what kinds of things do you see people finding on these phones?

SEYMOUR: Well, I think the most important thing will be a temporary shelter bed, a 90-day shelter bed. You can go on that phone, and, you know, directly to a 311, which is a centralized switchboard at city hall, and you can apply for a shelter bed which is your first step stone towards permanent housing. Because as long as you exhibit a satisfactory stay-in at 90 days, the city will elevate you into a SR hotel, transitional housing and on into supported housing and hopefully into permanent housing.

YOUNG: Well, let's explain, too, what's going on in San Francisco right now, the context for this. As you both well know, there's been huge protests about the gentrification of the city and how the tech - the high-tech community has moved in, driven housing costs up. Zendesk, the customer service startup company that created this app, did so because when they move to the Tenderloin, they signed a community benefit agreement. They get tax breaks, but they have to do community activities. One of them was creating this app.

Megan, just - is that sort of the equivalent of green-washing for this company? There's so many problems in San Francisco now when it comes to housing. Does an app take care of the fact that another high-tech company has come in and taken up some of the available housing?

TROTTER: I don't think that this project, you know, is the only thing that Zendesk is doing. As far as does it make up for tech companies coming in and displacing people, I don't know. But I think that the community benefits agreement and the opportunities that can develop through partnerships are exponential and really is - we're just starting to see what can come out of this.

YOUNG: Well, and I know that Zendesk was applauded by your mayor, Mayor Ed Lee, for coming up with this app. Del, what do you think? Maybe it's a way - even though the high-tech companies are displacing people in San Francisco, maybe through things like this app, they're uniting people who might never been connected to something high-tech.

SEYMOUR: Well, certainly, you know, as I said before, the homeless more or less have a right and need access to high-tech opportunities and devices as anyone else. You mentioned that Zendesk is coming in, taking away available housing. You know, I don't feel the same because the housing that we have in the Tenderloin and our low-income, our affordable housing, not one bed, not one unit of that housing will be displaced as far as - we got watchdogs that's watching this whole situation.

Now, some of our other neighborhoods, some of the so-called techies are displacing people who make a little less in them. But there's a group of people that have the idea that techies are making six figures. Most techies are making $50,000, which isn't really an affordable way to San Francisco. So they are just as in need of housing as anyone else.

So I don't feel that by them coming into the lower-income neighborhood, mid-market neighborhood, they're displacing any people per se in the mid-market neighborhood. Those are two different housing stocks.

YOUNG: Right. I guess it just pushes everybody down a bit, right? So...

SEYMOUR: Sure, sure.

YOUNG: ...even pushes out the higher to the mid and then the mid push - kicks out the lower. And it's got a chain effect. But what about that idea, though, that if high-tech is really coming into San Francisco and has been for a while, it's even more important to hook up the homeless community to make them a part of the high-tech community in a funny way by having this app.

SEYMOUR: Well, you know, there's more that needs to be done to that. That's just a part of it. You know, of course, the lower income, homeless, needy neighborhoods and folks, our teenagers, they need to be assimilated into the tech industry as interns or startups.

You know, most of these kids stand on the corner doing nothing with their lives. They can get on their smartphone and do every app in the world, I mean, as fast as anyone in the tech company. So they have that natural ability to work technical devices. And I think that tech companies need to think about bringing some of these kids in off the corner, and that would really - that would get some people off of the Google hate bus.

YOUNG: The Google hate bus. Megan, what are you seeing the homeless use the phone for and the app?

TROTTER: The biggest thing that we're seeing use it for is really just to find the basic services around them. So, you know, whether it's finding a shelter bed or finding medical care right away, or we've seen people use it even in our lab, you know, our computer lab fills up. And so they're using the technology piece to find another computer lab that's open right now that they can get access right away.

YOUNG: Well, Del, do you use it now? Do you use Link-SF?

SEYMOUR: I haven't used it lately. Thank God, I'm not homeless anymore. So most the services I don't need.

YOUNG: I was going to ask, if you don't mind, how did that happen? How did you pull out of homelessness?

SEYMOUR: I was such a broken piece of machinery. I'm like a broken down car. You can't fix a broken down car with a screwdriver. I needed a whole roll off tool kit. So we could be here for an hour. As I tell you, there are many ways it took to get - it wasn't quick, and it wasn't easy. But thanks to my reconnection with my spiritual leader, reconnection with my family and help from people like - I was a client of St. Anthony's for the last 22 years. People like St. Anthony's that removes some of the obstacles to getting back on my feet.

You can have a simple obstacle - say, I'm offered a job 50 miles from here, which is that far from the Bay Area. But it takes a $14 roundtrip train ticket to get there. St. Anthony's will supply you with that train ticket until you get your paycheck. If I go to work, where I'm going to eat? They'll supply you with food for the first two weeks until you get your paycheck.

So places like St. Anthony's Glide Memorial helped to get you - but you got to go to them. They don't come out and knock on your door. You need to go and knock on their door.

YOUNG: Well, a little plug there for St. Anthony's from Del...

SEYMOUR: A little bit.

YOUNG: Yeah. From Del Seymour, who runs the Tenderloin Walking Tours now, but was once homeless and, as he said, a client. And we've also been talking to Megan Trotter, program manager for St. Anthony Foundation Tenderloin Technology Lab, using a new phone app for the homeless. Megan, Del, thanks so much for talking to us about it.

SEYMOUR: Thank you so much.

TROTTER: Thank you.

YOUNG: And, Jeremy, it strikes me that we also talked in this hour about rental rates squeezing out people. Nobody gets hurt more with that story than the low income and the homeless.



YOUNG: HERE AND NOW is a production of WBUR Boston and NPR in association with the BBC World Service. I'm Robin Young.

HOBSON: I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.