With the right app, you can get anything you want. So why can’t the unhoused find one to help them get a roof over their heads?
By Ethan Ward, Capital & Main
This story is produced by the award-winning journalism nonprofit Capital & Main and co-published here with permission.
Vince Williamz’s fall days were filled with dirty looks from neighbors living in the apartment building overlooking Dorothy J. and Benjamin B. Smith Park. Williamz, who has experienced homelessness for seven years, had recently made the Hollywood park his home. At least a dozen tents lined one end of the park, occupied by people in situations similar to that of Williamz, in an orderly row under the windows and balconies of the Hollywood Sycamore Tower apartments. The glares from neighbors would often lead to visits by police officers shortly thereafter, park dwellers said.
On a warm day in late September, Williamz described his difficulties getting connected to services that could lead him to housing. He wished there was an app that could show him available rooms across the region in real time — technology that would reduce the time he put into trying to find a place.
With an app showing available rooms and viable roommates, “You don’t have to go anywhere or drive,” Williamz said. “A lot of times once we get from this situation, we want to be by ourselves. If it was like an Airbnb or something and…no roommates, or if it’s roommates, somebody that I can relate to.”
Without such a tool, home for Williamz had become the grassy city park between N. Sycamore Avenue and Orange Drive, across from the Magic Castle Hotel.
Williamz chose this park because one of the few remaining Project Roomkey sites was located across the street at the Highland Gardens Hotel. Project Roomkey used federal funds to move unhoused people into hotels, with the promise of more permanent placement to follow, but ended up housing only 40% of the thousands it moved off the streets. Many of the Project Roomkey sites have since shut down.
The hotel and motel rooms available via Project Roomkey offer privacy, something many people experiencing homelessness want after being on the streets for long periods of time. “I guess I’m hoping that being near here, somehow I’ll be able to get a spot,” he said, looking toward the hotel as he wiped a hint of sweat from his forehead.
People at the encampment thought being close to a Project Roomkey location would increase their chances of getting indoors, but they misunderstood the process, which involves getting a placement from a housing navigator, an official who likely already had a long wait list for any vacancies. (The Highland Gardens Project Roomkey location was shut down in October and is now operated by a homelessness nonprofit as an interim housing site.)
“I know a couple of guys who work with Urban Alchemy,” said Williamz of the nonprofit group hired by the city to do outreach with the unhoused. “They are doing the best they can. But [they are] the middleman. If people can get rid of the middleman, I think it would be a better situation.”
Most everyone living in the park had a smartphone and likely had access to the internet. If there was technology available to help them, many believed they would have more success finding interim housing. Instead, they say they are on a hamster wheel spinning in circles, doing what they can and hoping for the best.
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Technology continues to transform everyday life. Within minutes we can book hotel rooms online or find one on Airbnb. Food from across town can be at our doorstep with the push of a button. Even volunteers who participated in the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority’s 2023 point-in-time count of people experiencing homelessness relied on an app to report their findings (the LAHSA’s final report on the 2023 count will be released in spring or summer). What would happen if those living in the Hollywood park could use an app to locate available rooms? What if Silicon Valley invested in possible solutions to this ongoing humanitarian crisis?
California is home to nearly 2 million tech sector employees. Tech generates nearly one-fifth of the economic value of what’s produced in the state, and the $520 billion that it contributes to the state’s GDP represents more than a quarter of all U.S. tech output — more than that of the next four states combined.
Veronica Lewis, director of the Homeless Outreach Program Integrated Care System (HOPICS), a social services organization in Los Angeles, said there should be resources to help unhoused people have more control over their destiny.
“I think there are opportunities to empower the folks we are serving,” Lewis said. “If people could see where they can go it would make a huge difference.”
Karthik Murali, head of public health for Akido Labs, an L.A.-based company that uses technology to meet the needs of vulnerable communities, said making a positive impact shouldn’t rest solely with nonprofit agencies. According to Murali and HOPICS’ Lewis, Akido Labs piloted a 2019 program with HOPICS called Home Journey, an effort to assist unhoused people in finding housing. Among users of Home Journey, 81% felt more confident in their search for housing and 63% felt more prepared thanks to gaining access to digital resources.
“The tech industry blew up and did really well” in recent years, said Murali. So it’s “frustrating” to see the lack of anything like similar progress when it comes to helping an unhoused person find a bed to sleep in.
Right now, unhoused people must rely on homelessness service providers while wading through layers of bureaucracy.
Lewis, the director of HOPICS, said that there would also have to be a “significant” investment to create a “people first” infrastructure that better addresses the needs of unhoused people. Many interact simultaneously with public health, probation and foster care systems, and privacy concerns restrict data sharing among agencies. Complications such as these end up harming more than unhoused people.
“The broader community is harmed because whoever is [distributing] taxpayer dollars is doing it in an inefficient way,” Murali said, adding that there’s a lack of knowledge among senior-level policy makers who are far removed from the problem.
“When you think of someone experiencing homelessness, you think of someone on the street with serious mental illness,” Murali said. “But with the 70,000 that we counted [in Los Angeles County], not including people who are invisible … it’s not a monolith. They use social media apps the same way we do.”
Until better tools are developed, both housed and unhoused Angelenos will suffer. Recently, tension over those living in Dorothy J. and Benjamin B. Smith Park has resulted in the erection of a chain link fence around the park. Park Temporarily Closed For Renovation, No Entry During Closure, a sign reads — though there are no signs of renovation. Behind the fence, there is overgrown grass, leaves and graffiti. The neighbors who called the police on people living in the encampment won the battle. The closed park means they lost the war.
One sign of the untapped demand for apps that help people find a place to live is that at least 540 who were seeking housing had filled out an online questionnaire through LA Family Housing, a homelessness nonprofit located in the San Fernando Valley. People who submit their information in hopes of finding a roommate don’t have to be unhoused or even a client of LA Family Housing.
The organization hopes to expand the technology in order to put more prospective roommates in touch with one another. Geoffrey Williams, the shared housing manager at the nonprofit, compared it to Match.com. But instead of finding romance, users find someone to help split the rent.
“As opposed to a dating app where you’re making information publicly available to other users, with our app it’s more like a ballot box,” Williams said. “The information doesn’t get shared with anyone except our team.”
The questions are simple and cover such basics as political views, sexual orientation and preferred neighborhoods. But questions also include what someone would do if a housemate’s dog kept pooping indoors and if shared hobbies are important.
The entire application process, meant to help an algorithm determine compatibility, takes roughly 30 to 60 minutes.
Williams said they’ve successfully matched 50 people who got a bedroom with shared common areas after applicants talked through issues like cleanliness and houseguests to decide if they were a good fit.
“It’s a really groundbreaking approach because in the past, the way it’s been done is … we throw people together and see what happens,” said Williams.
If unhoused people living in the park in Hollywood had access to such an app, they might have been matched in as little as two weeks with a potential roommate, according to Williams. But finding a place to rent would be challenging.
“One of the obstacles we’ve run into is finding landlords who will give it a shot,” Williams said. “One thing we do require of landlords is that every person in the household gets their own lease so it’s not two people on one lease. That helps if someone does abandon the unit or relocates; it doesn’t impact the other person in that household.”
Williams said another challenge is that because there are so few affordable places, homelessness service providers and other agencies will gatekeep information in order to serve their own clients while denying it to others.
In the absence of a city- or countywide effort, “We are forging our way on our own,” Williams said. “The dream is to have [the federal government] adopt the tool and develop the software as something we can present to other regions and have them buy in.”
Currently, said Williams, the unsteady mix of private and public funds, coming from county, state and federal sources, has held back the effort to help unhoused people.
“Everything is piecemeal and kind of scattered with all these agencies at different levels,” Williams said. “Why are each of us struggling to invent this wheel individually and separately? Why isn’t there a centralized effort?”
Lewis, the director of HOPICS, agrees, noting that the lack of a single manager leads to a lack of accountability.
But it’s clear there is demand among unhoused people who want to empower themselves. They wish there was a way to search for Section 8 or voucher friendly housing, and websites that show where beds for drug treatment are available.
There are signs the tide is turning. At a 2022 National Human Services Data Consortium in Seattle, Williams presented the matchmaking questionnaire to a room of people focused on improving homelessness services across the country. He said the response was positive.
“Five years ago there wasn’t that much interest and people said we don’t need that,” Williams said, adding that other cities’ housing shortages may not have been as bad as that in L.A. at the time. “People are now saying we see the need for this.”
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