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App Connects Homeless Youth With Services


A new app, in development, could connect homeless youth with services ranging from mental health care to a meal.


The Homeless Children’s Education Fund worked with Bob Firth, founder of Informing Design, to create the Big Burgh Homeless Services app. Pulling out his iPhone, Firth shows how a prototype works.


“It starts with a ‘who’ screen, and you point at a dial in terms of what gender you are,” Firth said.  “And you select one of these. What this enables us to do is, all services may say they welcome everyone but there’s one place that gets mostly 50- and 60-year-old men and you wouldn’t want to steer a 24-year-old female there. So this is basically taking the 300-page directory of services, boiling it down to who it applies to and very quickly giving you a very short narrative of how you get engaged with that service.”


Firth said that the organizers behind many of the homeless resources in Pittsburgh say it's common for the homeless youth to have access to smart phones. However the app was also designed to be used by bystanders who may want to help out someone they see, as well as police. 


Twenty-five years ago, Firth became famous locally for an Atlas called “Pittsburgh Figured Out” and the brightly colored way-finding signs posted high on poles at key city intersections. The Big Burgh Homeless Services app integrates Firth’s maps in an online format.


The new app features what Firth calls a panic button. He said that it’s like the Uber ride sharing service, but for outreach workers to quickly be summoned.


“They check into the app like they are an Uber driver offering driving services, except what they are offering is ways for the homeless to reach out for them, to them and connect,” Firth said.


Firth was drawn into this effort by Joe Lagana, CEO of Homeless Children’s Education Fund. Lagana said he’s been working with city police officers on the idea for about a year, because they’re on the front lines of dealing with people on the streets. He said the app will help them stay up to date with date.


“Obviously the information is dead as soon as they print it, so immediately the information is inadequate,” Lagana said.


Lagana said he hopes that the Big Burgh app can improve relations between police and homeless youth, who he said sometimes perceive that police are strictly in the business of chasing them down.


Several homeless people in their 20s and 30s interviewed said they are skeptical about the role the app will play in the hands of police, like Tylor Kynor, who’s been homeless nine times in the last 10 years, and now works at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center.


“I’m worried about it, because we do see a lot of homeless individuals coming in here that are scared to go anywhere near a cop,” Kynor said.


While the cops will be the first to have access to the app, the Homeless Education Fund is also looking to get loaner smartphones in the hands of what they call “trusted homeless youth,” and to implement the Big Burgh software at libraries and shelters.


Four foundations have pitched in about $80,000 for the development of the app. Most of that will go to keep the information about shelters and services updated for two years.  


Firth is donating his labor in hopes that he’ll be able to reproduce a successful app in other cities.


In this week's Tech Report calendar

  • Feb. 1 is Cyburgh. Carnegie Mellon University and the Pittsburgh Technology Council host a day-long program about developing a secure cyber domain.