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WIN: Meeting A Direct Service Need of LA’s Homeless
Mobile technology is the cornerstone of modern communication and information access. Virtually everyone trusts it, grandmothers use computers and cell phones are everywhere. But in an odd paradox, technology access is often seen as a luxury or status item. This mindset too often leads well-meaning folks to wonder suspiciously whether a poor or homeless person in possession of a cell phone is in fact really in need of supportive services. Such thinking also discounts the ability of mobile technology to offer innovative tools designed to support pathways out of poverty.
A smart phone in hand can offer the opportunity for human connectivity as well as a sense of security. Recognizing the importance of communication and knowledge access, the federal lifeline program, begun under the Bush Administration, has been providing homeless and low income individuals access to smart phones for over a decade. Millennials consider cell phones a necessity- one study reported that homeless teens consider smart phones as important as food. Today, the vast majority of the US’s homeless youth, families and adults under age 40 have smart phones.
It only makes sense to leverage trusted mobile technology to offer homeless individuals access to helpful information through free easy to use mobile app’s… like WIN.
Mobile applications are uniquely suited to meet a direct service. And they transform the outreach dynamic by empowering vulnerable students and families to search for and connect with service providers they choose any time they are ready. If you are homeless or living in your car, you can use free WiFi at your local library to download WIN to search for housing, respond to job searches or call a hotline. Couch-surfing college students may use it to locate free food, tutoring or school supplies. WIN offers free access to regional services, directions, helpful information and more.
Access to information and services are the first step out of poverty. The next time you see a destitute person with a cell phone, remind yourself that cell phones and mobile apps’s meet a direct service need of the homeless- access to information. Apps like WIN are a 21st century “Hand Up”.
OCLA Founder/President Denise McCain-Tharnstrom was invited for the second year in a row to present at the annual 40 to None Conference. Held on October 2-4th, 2017, in Philadelphia, this conference focuses on ending homelessness among LGBT and other youth. This year her talk focused on the power of mobile applications like WIN to serve not only youth and adults experiencing homelessness (or severe resource insecurity) but service providers and communities seeking to combat homelessness as well.
In today’s world, no one locates the services they need using a public phone booth! Everyone uses a cell phone- and homeless and severely resource-insecure individuals are no different. After all, the government provides free cell phones to extremely low/no income folks and even without a cell plan, free Wi-Fi is available in libraries and coffee shops across all cities. With 77% of adults owning a smart phone and virtually everyone regularly accessing a computer, a well-developed mobile directory service makes good sense.
Launched in 2015 Our Community LA’s WIN (What I Need) mobile app leverages people’s trust in technology and empowers folks dealing with tough times to find the services they need. Developed with the input of dozens of Los Angeles youth experiencing homelessness, the easy to use WIN app’s look, feel, contents, name and the logo reflect user recommendations. Today WIN connects youth and adults to over 1800 programs in 12 categories of need ranging from essentials such as food, shelter, showers, laundry and haircuts to education and job skills building needed to regain a dignified place in the community. WIN is currently being used in Los Angeles but can easily be brought to other communities.
Dr. McCain announced that WIN is not only getting “a facelift” but that it soon will offer many many new features. WIN’s new release in 2018 will simplify access to supportive services such as shelter beds available, push community & provider announcements to users, and offer 24/7 call lines to users in crisis or who simply want to chat with someone. The new and improved WIN will also offer support for providers and communities with the collection of smart data that maintains strict user privacy while documenting service gaps and other regional needs. She also discussed OCLA’s promotion of a national dialogue around best practices and the need to develop common data metrics.
Homelessness and severe resource insecurity are among the thorniest challenges facing many communities. WIN’s mobile technology empowers users and their communities to connect to different systems and work together more efficiently to protect youth, families and adults in need. The challenge ahead is to get government, philanthropy and others to understand the important role mobile technology can play in empowering folks in need to reach out and access the services available to help them avoid or leave homelessness.
In December of 2016 the Community College Equity Assessment Lab (CCEAL) released findings that approximately 1/3 of California community college students are attending classes while experiencing the threat of homelessness and housing instability and 12% are hungry and concerned about whether and when they will have their next meal. Highlighting the numbers of community colleges students struggling with poverty, the report reinforces the findings of others that these institutions “are more likely than 4-year colleges and universities to serve students, who are working, have dependents, attend college part-time, and who are low-income”. (Nevarez & Wood, 2010).
The report uses the following definitions of housing insecurity: “Housing insecurity also exists along a spectrum where homelessness—lacking a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence—represents the extreme case. Unaffordable housing, poor housing quality, crowding, and frequent moves are other dimensions of housing insecurity” (p. 3) Resorting to auto residence, couch surfing and night-job napping are indeed evidence of homelessness and this report acknowledges the impact on student stress level.
Food insecurity is all too prevalent and interferes with a student’s ability to concentrate and learn. Defined as “the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, or the ability to acquire such foods in socially acceptable ways,” food insecurity may be on the rise given the higher cost of education and the growing number of students with the aforementioned characteristics. (Dubick, Mathews, and Cady (2016). CCEAL suggests that this notion can be extended to students with housing insecurities as well.
The complete report is available here.
Colleges have begun responding to these concerns by creating food pantries, free and reduced lunch programs, and partnering with community organizations to create affordable housing options. The good news is that CCEAL found that students with food or housing insecurities are generally more engaged with their faculty inside and outside of class than those without insecurities. This means they are more open to accepting assistance from trusted college mentors. OCLA’s next challenge is to partner with local campuses to make all students and faculty aware of WIN. Community college students need to know about the array of supportive services available to them including SNAP, emergency shelters, food banks, free health clinics and more.
Reflections on our First Anniversary
BEFORE 2015– How did youth find supportive services? Word of mouth was most common; youth asked other street youth for recommendations. Chance encounters with supportive adults such as outreach workers who offered support or advice was another source. Service Professionals who routinely encountered youth, such as librarians and teachers, were less equipped to assist vulnerable students because a county wide directory of service providers was not available.
Since the 2015 release of the OCLA’s 2015 Countywide Directory of Services for Homeless Youth and the WIN mobile app- The 2015 Directory was fully distributed… the demand exceeded our publication capacity. Librarians throughout the City and County of Los Angeles, as well as staff at all LA County school districts have had access to the comprehensive directory of service providers. Homeless youth and outreach workers alike began to download the WIN app or access listed resources through its web version hosted on this website. Developed with the input of street youth around the county, youth guided the name and logo selection, the choice of service categories, and challenged us to allow users to access the app anonymously. Furthering youth trust, WIN’s database includes providers and programs that accept youth without a referral. Post launch we have regularly outreached to youth in centers introduce them to WIN and its ability to empower them to locate services whenever and wherever they need support.
ONE YEAR LATER- We have received enormous requests for Directory republication even as we also have a need to update it. We are now preparing for the publication of the2017 Directory. Street youth have continued to advise us on needed improvements to WIN which led to a new release in May 2016. This latest edition includes a new category: MORE which connects youth to free services such as haircuts, laundry, showers, classes and Wi-Fi. Please see the website homepage carousel feature article for a more detailed description of the other new features!) We have received county recognition, aligned in-kind and professional support, and most importantly we are getting the word out although more needs to be done. (Read our inaugural newsletter which presents an overarching review of the accomplishments of the past year!)
THE YEAR AHEAD-We celebrate our first year while we continue to look ahead. We know we need to speed up the mobile version of WIN- which means bringing in a professional consultant to work with our volunteer leadership, evaluate its performance and provide a roadmap for performance enhancement. We will be exploring how our back-end data collection can inform national understanding of the needs of homeless youth. And we can no longer limit our outreach to street youth alone so must design new ways to reach other resource insecure youth- From the beginning, we focused our efforts on young people who were living on the streets and unconnected to a caring adult, even while we rejected the narrow HUD definition of homelessness in favor of the broader, more realistic Department of Education’s definition which considers a young person homeless even if they are couch surfing, or sleeping on someone else’s floor. Seven months after we released the WIN app, Prof Crutchfield of Cal State Long Beach released her report that 1/10 Cal State students are homeless. We will be prioritizing ways we can raise awareness about WIN amongst resource insecure/homeless students at community colleges, universities, and vocational schools.
HOW CAN YOU HELP?– Volunteer with us, we need your ideas, time and support to reach more youth! Walk in the November 19th, United Way HOMEWALK, Host a Phoneraiser to benefit LA’s homeless Youth, or volunteer at a local youth dropin center or shelter.
LA Public Legal Service Fair is a WIN for OCLA!
Invited to participate in this year’s Los Angeles Public Legal Service Fair, on Saturday October 24th, Our Community LA (OCLA), set up its booth promoting its programs in support of LA’s homeless and resource insecure youth.
Hosted by the library as a part of its annual Pro Bono Week series of events, the fair lasted from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and provided the general public and service providers with information about free or low-cost legal and social services available locally. The front of the LA Law Library was transformed by the presence of dozens of white tents decorating the entry path. At least 42 legal aid, government, and social service agencies partnered up with the LA Law Library for this year’s fair.
As crowds meandered in between tents, chatting with booth members and gathering flyers, OCLA welcomed dozens of visitors and introduced it three programs: 1) “What I Need” (WIN), its free mobile and web app currently available for Android devices at the Googleplay store, 2) OCLA’s website, www.ourchildrenla.org and 3) the 2015 Directory of Services for Homeless Youth, available in all branches of the LA City Library system, as well as in the LA Law Library.
The crowd was very interested in WIN, a mobile app designed to effectively connect L.A. homeless or at-risk youth ages 12 to 25 with available resources and centers in the L.A. County area, WIN offers a database of over 1,400 free service providers in the county, a searchable system, results sorted by proximity to the user and type of resource specified. While at the time of the fair, the web and Apple versions of the app had not yet been released, several Android users proceeded to download WIN on their mobiles by the end of the event.
For the general public, the Public Legal Service Fair addressed the present need increase knowledge and accessibility to pro bono organizations and lawyers. The fair offered an open, central space for individuals affected by issues such as lack of legal aid, housing, and/or low income. In addition to OCLA/WIN, featured booths included groups as diverse as public interest law firms, Grandparents for Parents, Mental Health Advocacy Services (MHAS), and People Assisting the Homeless (PATH). Piece by Piece, a nonprofit arts organization, allowed attendants to contribute colored, glass pieces to a mosaic that is to be donated to the library upon completion. In addition, the fair offered numerous workshops, including free 20-minute consultations with Beverly Hills Bar Association Barrister attorneys.
Thousands of youth experience homelessness every single day and night in Los Angeles, yet most county residents are unaware of their plight.
Did you know that earlier this year, on just one January afternoon/evening, volunteers counted well over 4000 homeless youth? Or that the majority of these youth were counted on the streets, alone, unprotected, and unsheltered.
Have you ever asked your elected officials how many shelters accept unaccompanied youth under the age of 18 and how many shelters are designated for youth between the ages of 18-25? The answer is shockingly low and does not come close to the thousands of beds that are needed. I was recently told that we have more shelter beds for animals than we do for young people. A fact, if true, is both stunning and deplorable.
Just as painful to contemplate are the hundreds, likely thousands, of additional youth we often do not see and who were not counted that January night. They were anxiously couch surfing, crashing on a friend’s or relative’s floor, sitting in coffee shops until closing, sleeping in cars, studying in all-night university libraries, working evening minimum wage jobs, or finding refuge under a bushes or in back alleys. A few had scrapped up enough money to pay for a cheap hotel room for that one night. Others likely spent that night prostituting their bodies for a bed, were held captive by their pimp or trafficker, were holed up in a crack house, pressed into gang business or found themselves under arrest. These youth were invisible to the “count’ yet they too were experiencing homelessness; they “lacked a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence. Simply put, they too have no home.
This is wrong. We believe that all children and youth experiencing homelessness, including those who are unseen and unheard, are in fact Our Children and deserving of our collective support.
On this website you will find a knowledge center focusing on the many challenges faced by youth experiencing homelessness, periodic celebrations of best practices, model programs and committed individuals who are making a difference, and research and feature stories designed to inform local advocacy efforts for policy change and system reform. The website shall also host the pdf of our 2015 Directory (a resource for librarians and other caring adults who can use a guide to local services available to homeless youth) as well as WIN, our mobile app designed to empower youth to connect to the services they know they need.
We hope you will share with us your news, help us identify policy gaps and funding barriers, regularly visit our research library, use the Directory and publicize WIN to the youth community until such time as together we end youth homelessness in our region.
Denise McCain-Tharnstrom, Founder