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Homeless People Don’t Need an App, They Need a Fucking House

It's really not complicated. Homeless people need homes. So we should give them homes.

Illustration by Rose Wong.

Last summer, Seattle counted twelve thousand homeless residents, the highest number ever recorded in its annual count. Seattle also added about twelve thousand apartment units last year.

It’s like a line from an old seafaring poem: Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.

But rest easy, Seattle’s tech wizards are here to disrupt homelessness. A new app called Samaritan allows Seattle’s housed population to donate to their homeless neighbors. It works like this: Samaritan gives homeless people who sign up for its service “beacons,” bluetooth-enabled devices worn like necklaces. Samaritan app users are alerted on their smartphones when they pass someone wearing a beacon.

Users can then read the profile of the beacon-wearer, and donate money if they’re so moved. Donations can be redeemed at select stores and restaurants. They cannot be used to buy alcohol. The beacon-wearer must check in monthly at a participating nonprofit, or else their beacon is disabled.

Samaritan isn’t the only homeless-donation app to come out of Seattle. There’s also WeCount, which allows users to donate specific items — sleeping bags, coats, backpacks, toiletries — to homeless people. The founder of WeCount, a tech entrepreneur who has sold multiple companies to Google, raves to the press about the “huge emotional ROI” (return on investment) donors get from participating.

Seattle may be pioneering in this field, but it’s not alone. In Philadelphia, an app called StreetChange combines the bluetooth-beacon idea with the tangible-donations idea. In order to be eligible for a StreetChange beacon, a homeless person needs to complete a survey listing their goals and the steps they plan to take to reach them.

The person can then build a registry of items they need, and passersby can donate to their registry. When they have enough funding to procure a particular item, they can go to a participating brick-and-mortar store and pick it up.

There are some surface-level problems with these apps. For one, all of them take pains to safeguard the donor against the possibility that the recipient will use the donation inappropriately. The unspoken notion is that homeless people need help, but they also need to get their acts together. These attempts to sidestep uncertainty about the afterlife of donations entrench the idea that it’s people’s worst habits that make and keep them homeless.

But what’s more concerning is that homelessness itself has become so normalized that our society’s supposed luminaries of innovation are focused on easing the daily strain of living without shelter, with a buck here and a blanket there.

What about ending homelessness altogether? That would be real innovation.

The truth is that eliminating homelessness is no more technically difficult than building a complex web of bluetooth beacons, item registries, participating stores and nonprofits, and smartphone donor-users. It is only more politically difficult. And that’s because it requires tax- ing the rich and redistributing our society’s wealth.

In the end, there are no shortcuts. If we want people to live in homes, we must make homes for them to live in — not have them rely on the mercy of the tech gods.