Technology, Social Justice, Information Access & WIN

A powerful social equity tool, the WIN What I Need mobile app breaks information barriers that too often restrict underserved populations from learning about and accessing helpful services. Trusted access to information and services is the first step out of poverty. Cell phones and mobile app’s meet a direct service need of the homeless- access to essential information about supportive services.

Technology, Social Justice & Information Access: Meeting A Direct Service Need of LA’s Homeless & Resource Insecure Populations

by: Dr. Denise McCain-Tharnstrom, Founder OCLA

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 needs or deserves free supportive services. Dismissing the possibility that a person may be in genuine need to supportive services merely because they have a smart device 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. Researchers have found that over 90% of homeless and resource-insecure populations have access to mobile phones and regularly access the internet. Family heads of households and college students experiencing homelessness are even more likely to have a cell phone.

Social safety nets are often difficult to penetrate and understand in regions as large as LA County. Accessing the complex web of available services can be difficult to understand, especially for youth and adults who face structural barriers, are afraid to reveal their circumstances to outsiders or who are experiencing resource insecurity for the first time. People who are struggling to avoid homelessness or who are unsheltered, have a critical need for a trusted source of information about helpful services. In addition, service providers, outreach workers first responders and good neighbors often need access to readily available referral tools in order to offer support to a client, patient or fellow resident. It only makes sense to leverage trusted mobile technology to offer homeless and struggling individuals, families and others access to helpful information through a free mobile application like the WIN What I Need App.  

Committed to leveraging technology for good, OCLA developed and launched the WIN app in 2015 to connect youth to essential services. Designed and named with input from homeless youth ages 16-25 who attended drop-in centers around LA County, it sought to offer homeless youth access to a myriad of available resources. Within a year of launch however OCLA realized that WIN was failing to support important users including youth were pregnant or parenting, youth who were attached to at least one adult over the age of 24 and young adults who had aged  out of the youth system and require access to adult or family-based supportive programing. To meet these needs, a revised WIN was released in 2018 to support people in need of all ages while retaining its unique support of youth. (Youth services are uniquely marked in the app with a Youth Only Icon).

The user-friendly WIN app is free to download, free to use, and available for use 24/7.  Once downloaded, WIN is resident on a user’s phone and can be used to search for helpful services even when not connected to Wi-Fi Users without cellular services.  Users without access to a smart device can access the WIN app on OCLA’s website.

A social equity tool, WIN breaks information barriers that too often restrict underserved populations from learning about and accessing helpful services. It offers comprehensive information on more than 2,000 free services available in Los Angeles County including programs providing food, shelter, healthcare, legal aid, government benefits, job training, education support, hygiene support, drop-in/access centers, overnight parking, crisis support and more. Search results may be ordered by those closest to the user and provide detailed summaries of each provider’s services, as well as hotlinks to program e-mails, phone numbers, service addresses, directions, and agency websites. Uses can even narrow their search and look for agencies that offer special services for unique ages or genders or that serve veterans, youth, seniors, pregnant or parenting or re-entering individuals. For users who want to understand more about service types, WIN has a Helpful Information section inside every category page- this section offered both as text (to read) and in an audio file (for listening) which can be accessed via WIN’s text or audio files.

WIN is not only a search tool, it also sends notifications directly to users’ phones alerting them of important community announcements such as Community Resource Fairs, COVD Testing and Winter Shelter updates. It also features an “I Need Help Now” function that connects distressed users directly to emergency services.

Trusted access to information and services is the first step out of poverty. OCLA places a high value WIN users’ privacy and dignity and the WIN app was designed to respect a user’s ability to anonymously search for services. Users are never required to sign-in to use WIN. Users are not required to divulge personal or demographic information; users can download and use WIN anonymously. WIN does not utilize beacons or other tracking devices and cannot “follow” users to discover where they go after they have used WIN. Users can trust WIN to support them, not to “spy” on them.

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 essential information. about supportive services.   Apps like WIN are a 21st century “Hand Up”, enabling users to locate services that offer immediate improvement in security and quality of life as well as opportunities to build a life away from poverty