Mark Hovarth has already shown how the Internet can draw attention to homelessness. A few years ago, he started interviewing the homeless in Los Angeles, and the resulting films–raw, unedited and full of human detail–were a big hit on YouTube.
Now he wants to take on an even tougher challenge: actually helping the homeless with technology. Hovarth has started developing We Are Visible (WAV), a network that connects homeless people together, and aims to improve communication with outside groups and agencies. It’s like a social network (“A home online for those without one”) where privacy and confidentiality are paramount.
Hovarth started thinking about WAV after meeting a girl in an alley in Chicago. She didn’t have much to her name, but she did have a cell phone, and every night she would tweet out sentiments like “I’m not lonely because you’re all with me.” Later, he observed how some homeless people would chat and help each other online, even when they were perfect strangers.
“You need to talk to people,” says Hovarth, who was on the streets himself for a time. “That’s why Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous are so powerful. Peer-to-peer support is just amazing.”
Hovarth is focusing on reaching younger people, who are most likely to have a cell phone. In 2011, a study found that 62% of homeless teens carried one, and that many considered connectivity as important as food.
Several states already offer Warmlines, peer-staffed phone-lines that anyone can call for a chat. And there are examples of innovative crisis services using social media (like this Twitter-based suicide line in Toronto). But Hovarth says groups focusing on homelessness haven’t often embraced new technology approaches.
“The nonprofits are very donor-centric. If you look at their websites, it’s all, ‘Hey, give us money.’ That’s not bad necessarily, but rarely do they have a user experience for that mum who’s in a library looking for help for her family. Their online presence is almost ignorant to homeless people.”
We Are Visible is still new and not yet fully functional. Hovarth only announced the idea in earnest at a recent hack weekend, and he’s now looking for development help and funding. But he’s convinced that technology can do more for homelessness than it’s doing today: “We need to see how technology can benefit a homeless person’s life, not just a nonprofit’s.”