What do you do when a homeless person asks you for money? For a group of software developers in New York–who saw panhandlers day after day, and initially felt powerless to help–the answer, of course, was to make an app.
“It really started with us living in New York City, and, unfortunately, seeing a large number of people living on the streets,” says Ilya Lyashevsky, co-creator of WeShelter, the new iOS app. “All of us sort of had the same reaction, which was we felt terrible about it, and we wanted to do something about it, but we didn’t really have a good way to act on the impulse in the moment. Every time you see someone you’d wonder, ‘What’s my best response here?'”
There didn’t seem to be a good answer, but the team thought an app might be able to help. The concept behind WeShelter is simple: Every time you walk past someone living on the street, you tap a button, and that triggers a corporate sponsor to give a donation to a local homeless service organization.
The donations are small–usually five cents per tap, with the occasional option to give more with a share on a social network. Of course, with enough participation, the donations could make a difference for a struggling nonprofit or shelter. But the founders say the app isn’t fundamentally about fundraising.
“We don’t see it as replacing the traditional path of giving,” says Lyashevsky. “Really it’s about engagement and getting everybody in on solving the problem. You have millions of people walking around New York seeing people in desperate straits, and they’re not doing anything. We don’t think it’s because they’re hard-hearted. It’s just that they feel there’s nothing they could do.”
The app also includes a button to call the city’s homeless outreach operator if someone seems to be in need of immediate help. “The city has this amazing service you can call, and within a couple of hours that team will be there to try and help,” he says. “Most people don’t know it exists.”
New York has nearly 60,000 people living in homeless shelters, and another 3,000 people living on the street. The chances are high that someone walking around the city will pass multiple homeless people every day, so the developers wanted to make the app’s main feature–the donation button–as simple and seamless as possible, in the hopes that people will use it over and over.
At first, they tested a version of the app that asked people to give microdonations of their own money. That failed miserably, for a couple of reasons. Apple doesn’t allow direct donations through apps, so users had to log in to a Paypal account separately. “Nobody did it,” says Lyashevsky. “The other factor is that it’s your money–it’s hard to make people give away their money, even in small amounts.” So instead, WeShelter is working with local companies to fund the donations, and hopes to soon partner with larger corporations to help them scale. This does raise the question of whether the whole premise is more of a feel-good measure to alieve our own guilt than anything else.
The app will add new features, like a way for the sponsored nonprofits to share volunteer opportunities with users, and possibly a map of nearby homeless services, for passerby who want to help someone on the street find food or shelter. The data collected from each tap will be turned into real-time homelessness maps that the city can use to plan services or send outreach teams.
WeShelter also hopes to eventually expand outside New York. “We happen to be based in New York, and the problem is dire here, so this is our testbed,” says Lyashevsky. “But if it works, the beauty of a mobile app is that it just takes a little bit of work on the development side to make it work anywhere.”
New Yorkers can download WeShelter on the App Store.