Tech approach for homeless youth

05/07/2016 - 12:03

Vinnies has embraced technology in its latest tactic to engage street youth.

Tech approach for homeless youth
SMART CALL: Mark Fitzpatrick (left) and Tommy Shin have teamed up to improve the accessibility of services. Photo: Attila Csaszar

Vinnies has embraced technology in its latest tactic to engage street youth.

The St Vincent de Paul Society WA has taken a digital approach to its work with the state’s homeless youth, offering a free app to those aged between 12 and 25 to enable better access to a suite of services.

The web and mobile app, named Passages, was developed in collaboration with Perth software and development company Lateral, led by chief executive and 2016 40under40 winner Tommy Shin.

“After hearing the presentations from the homeless youth when I participated in the CEO Sleepout in 2015, I wanted to help out by doing what my company did best – building apps and technology,” Mr Shin told Business News.

The app was launched at the 2016 CEO Sleepout last month (see pictures on facing page), which brought together more than 100 Perth business leaders to raise awareness of (and money for) the homeless.

Donations in Western Australia to date total $673,102.

Vinnies chief executive Mark Fitzpatrick said although it was difficult to determine the exact statistics surrounding homelessness due to outdated census data, he estimated that about 40 per cent of those who were homeless in the state were under the age of 25.

Of these, Mr Fitzpatrick said, Vinnies helped about 3,500 homeless youth through its Passages Resource Centre program – a joint venture between Vinnies and the Rotary clubs of Perth and Mandurah.

Passages acts as a referral service, as well as providing accommodation options, bathroom, kitchen and laundry facilities, computer and internet access, and workshops to assist in the transition out of homelessness.

Mr Shin said the app would act as an electronic notice board for support services, the centre’s opening hours, food availability, community support and updates on donations.

“When I heard that smartphones are the most important belonging to youth experiencing homelessness, it made sense for Passages to have an app as a tool of communication to assist them with their services,” Mr Shin said.

“Street-present youth live by their phones – often the first thing they ask for when they come into the Passages centre is to charge their phone or to get access to the password or WiFi; their phone is the primary way in which they can find shelter for the night, food, etc.”

Mr Fitzpatrick said the app was designed in discussion with Passages staff as well as through workshops with Passages youth, with its features tailored to their needs.

Mr Shin said one challenge that presented itself during the process was to overcome the issue that the majority of street present youth were not the owners of their phones nor did they have access to credit cards.

“This made access to the App Store and Google Play Store an issue… hence the idea and development of a web app,” Mr Shin said. 

The app uses icons to accommodate users who struggle with literacy. It also includes crisis support numbers as well as iCal and Google calendar integration, so users can be reminded of upcoming events at the centre.

Over the next few months, users of the app will be encouraged to provide feedback to drive future development phases. Mr Shin believes even though the program is currently based in WA, the same principle could be applied to similar programs in other states.

Mr Fitzpatrick is confident that engaging youth through the app will assist those in need and that Lateral will continue to play a vital part in this.

“We’re looking forward to building on what we’ve established so far in the last 12 months,” Mr Fitzpatrick said.

“If you asked me five years ago if I’d considered technology for a homeless service … it wouldn’t have even crossed my mind.”

Lateral has invested $30,000 to date, which covers development of the app, analysis and project management.

Lateral has also agreed to donate a percentage of profit per contracted job to the charity this financial year, with the donation total estimated to be between $50,000 and $100,000.

Mr Shin said the company had committed to helping homeless youth find employment with CV advice and checks, skills training and access to education, especially in information technology and science.

“Teaching someone how to earn money is more important than just giving donations,” Mr Shin said.

“If we can assist even one youth experiencing homelessness and provide them with an opportunity to access services, that will help them transition to a life out of homelessness; then we hope this will cause a domino effect to inspire others to help.”

Street Connect

Anglicare WA has also committed to helping homeless youth via its Street Connect program that services homeless people from 15-25 years old.

The initiative operates out of a brightly decorated 22 seater bus that is fitted with a counselling room and is stocked with food, medical kits as well as additional resources.

The program is purely backed by donations from the public and receives no government funding.

On the morning of September 4 this year Anglicare supporters will take the Central Park Plunge, with all proceeds from the event going toward Street Connect.

Anglicare is currently recruiting volunteers online to tackle Perth’s tallest 52 storey building on St George’s Terrace.

Other charities participating in the plunge include Ronald McDonald House, the Fiona Wood Foundation and Kids Camp Inc.

Heat Up the Street

Well-known food franchise SumoSalad has partnered with charity Oz Harvest to deliver its Heat Up the Street campaign to give food to the homeless and others in need.

OzHarvest redistributes surplus food from outlets that would otherwise go to waste to 800 charities across the county.

50 cents from each salad or soup purchased from Sumo’s harvested menu range from June 2 to August 31 will go toward Oz Harvest to provide meals to the less fortunate.

OzHarvest founder and chief executive Ronnie Kahn said just one dollar can go a long way and can feed two people in need.

“Since 2004 Oz Harvest has delivered over 50 million meals and has rescued over 17,000 tonnes of food from ending up in landfill,” Ms Kahn said. 

“Nearly 90 per cent of agencies reported not having enough food to meet total demand, almost a third of agencies require double the food.”

This is Sumo and Ozharvest’s first initiative together and both intend to run the Heat Up the Street campaign every year.

The goal for this year is to sell 100,000 bowls of soup.

Sumo co-founder and chief executive Luke Baylis said over 88,000 bowls have been purchased so far and believed creating an interactive approach was key to consumer engagement.

“Rather than the old school tins and trying to get the customer to donate we decided that the purchase would generate an automatic donation from Sumo,” Mr Baylis said.

“The partnership works so well together – Oz Harvest’s mission is to nourish our country, Sumo’s mission is food with purpose.”

If consumers post on social media using the hashtag Heatupthestreet Sumo will donate an additional 50c per post. 

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