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With Cell Phones So Prominent Among Homeless Youth, Advocates Say App Can Help

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
Released over the summer, the city's Big Burgh app helps connect homeless individuals to medical care, meals and other useful services.

In the short period of time that the city’s Big Burgh mobile app, aimed at helping the homeless find resources, has been available, it has far exceeded usage expectations.

Launched at the end of August, the app has seen 11,000 site visits, said Bob Firth, founder of Informing Design, which created the app.

"To put that in perspective, the app of the entire region of Australian, with 23 million people in the same time period, got 20 percent fewer site visits,” Firth said. “The app for San Francisco, which has 850,000 people, got 35 percent fewer site visits."

San Francisco and Australia, Firth said, have had the app longer than Pittsburgh. The Big Burgh app directs users to free medical services, meals, clothing and other types of assistance. It was created by the Informing Design along with suggestions from homeless youth, police and social services.

Page views on Big Burgh average at three – higher than other regions’ average of two. 

Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
At the seventh annual Homeless Children's Education Fund summit, Evan Frazier, Senior Vice President of Community Affairs for Highmark Health, said youth homelessness "deserves everyone's attention."

"Big Burgh really does seem to be doing something right," Firth said.

Advocates for the nearly 3,000 homeless youth in the Pittsburgh region have worked to connect and engage the population with resources through social media.

Since the release of the city’s Big Burgh mobile application just more than two months ago, members of the collaborative design team said they’ve updated and improved Big Burgh and hope to continue to spread word of its existence throughout Allegheny County. 

At its seventh annual summit, the Homeless Children’s Education Fund brought together professionals to talk about the theme of social media engagement. Founder Dr. Joseph Lagana said many of those at the meeting didn’t understand how prevalent cell phone use was among the youth homeless population. 

“They don’t realize because they don’t think they can afford it, they don’t realize that they would rather have a cell phone than other things,” Lagana said. “They would sacrifice to have the cell phone.”

In collaboration with other agencies and nonprofits, the HCEF is working to get word of Big Burgh to the suburbs, where the number of homeless youth is higher.

Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Works by homeless artists are displayed throughout the main lecture room at the Wyndham Hotel downtown where advocates met to talk about eliminating youth homelessness in Allegheny County.

“Instead of letting the young people up to their own volition to how they solve their problems,” Lagana said, “now they can actually use that mobile app to get the services they need rather than simply relying on each other.”

Firth expects usage will decline in the winter as the weather gets colder, but once spring returns, he said it'll likely return to high page views again.

According to the National Center for Homeless Education, children without a steady household are four times more likely to have delayed development and drop out of school 60 percent more often than their peers.

Access to education is core to the mission of HCEF, according to Lagana. He said while it’s still difficult for students frequently switching schools to stay on track, awareness of homelessness and its impact is increasing.

“Teachers are becoming much more sensitive to it,” Lagana said. “As they look across their class of 25-30 kids, they might start thinking, ‘Who in here might need some special attention? Who in here might not have slept well last night?’”

Lagana said increased awareness also manifests through the arts. Recently Point Park University displayed and auctioned the work of homeless artists.

In downtown Pittsburgh, the nearly one-year-old 412 Zoneprovides a central space for homeless youth to access resources. The facility includes showers, a kitchen, washers, dryers, job training and childcare.

Katie Blackley is a digital editor/producer for 90.5 WESA and 91.3 WYEP, where she writes, edits and generates both web and on-air content for features and daily broadcast. She's the producer and host of our Good Question! series and podcast. She also covers history and the LGBTQ community.