Anyone living in a big city has had the experience. You pass a homeless person lying on a sidewalk, huddled in a doorway, camped out in a park or on a subway platform. Sometimes he or she is asking for help in the form of money. Sometimes you give. More often, if you’re like most of us, you hurry past. What, after all, can you really do?
That feeling of powerlessness in the presence of another individual’s suffering is what Ilya Lyashevsky, Ken Manning, and Robb Chen-Ware are trying to address with an app called WeShelter. The three first came up with the idea a couple of years ago, when they were all working in the tech industry in New York.
“We were just regular New Yorkers walking through the city,” says Lyashevsky. “Like other New Yorkers, we were unfortunately encountering homeless individuals, and asking ourselves what we could do about it. Since we were all in the mobile space, we started thinking about how we could use that technology to provide people with something to do quickly, but still have it be meaningful.” WeShelter, built entirely with volunteer labor, is the result.
The question of how to use mobile devices to make charitable giving easier has been vexing developers and nonprofits alike for years. The occasional text-to-give campaign has been successful—although what gets done with some of that money is a thorny question all its own.
But as Ron Lieber wrote in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago, Apple has rules that prevent single-tap donations on iPhones. You have to navigate to another screen and enter payment information there, meaning a lot of people simply won’t bother. And that restriction has effectively limited development on Android apps as well. Concerns about how to vet recipient organizations have also been a factor. (Google does have its own app-based donation program, One Today, which ties a Google Wallet account to a simple one-dollar-a-day giving mechanism benefiting groups selected and vetted by the company.)
WeShelter (currently available for iOS only) circumvents some of these problems by taking your personal money out of the equation entirely. The idea is that when you see a person in need, you’ll be motivated to open the app. When you tap on the green button that comes up, instead of donating your own cash, you “unlock” a donation from a corporate sponsor, whose name then appears on the screen.
“In effect, the sponsor’s brand is kind of the main event,” says Lyashevsky. “There’s a very direct connection to the impulse to do good. The user’s action is directly enabled by the sponsor.”
At the bottom of the screen is a button that will let you call 311, the city’s help line, and connect your directly to an operator who deals specifically with homeless issues. You can make that call if the person you see on the street looks to be in need of immediate assistance. The app will also connect you with the receiving organizations’ websites if you want to learn more or donate additional funds. And you can share your action on Facebook if you’re connected to the app that way.
The amount of the WeShelter donation is variable and not specified, but Lyashevsky says it’s about 5 cents per tap right now; if sponsorship builds, that would be more. The money, which the creators hope hits $1,000* a month by the end of the year, is currently divided equally among three organizations that provide services to homeless people: Common Ground, Goddard Riverside Community Center, and Urban Pathways. WeShelter chose these groups because they offer a comprehensive response to the homelessness problem in the city.
Which is huge. Lyashevsky readily acknowledges that WeShelter donations are a tiny drop in an enormous bucket of need. As the app will tell you after you’ve made a donation, some 60,484 people are sleeping in New York shelters on any given night. Raising awareness about the magnitude of the problem is a major part of the goal.
WeShelter’s creators are well aware that their app could be criticized for encouraging lazy “clicktivism.” Still, they believe it can be an effective way to motivate and activate idealistic people who just want to do the right thing but don’t know how to start. And for an increasing number of Americans, mobile devices are their entry point into pretty much any aspect of life. “For younger people, digital interaction is the most likely way to get them to interact,” says Manning.
“The way we look at it, right now we have hundreds of thousands if not millions of people walking around the streets of cities, and because they don’t have any way of doing something, they don’t do anything,” adds Lyashevsky. “When people engage in a digital way, they are more likely to engage in other ways. We don’t want people to stop at tapping the button.”
Right now only a few hundred people are using the app, but its creators are starting to promote it more widely now that they’ve added some features and worked out some bugs. They’d like to have thousands of users by the end of the year, and to secure more sponsorships in the future. They’re also working toward getting 501c3 nonprofit status. In the future, they’re hoping that homeless outreach workers can use location data from the app to identify areas of special need.
Manning says he and his colleagues believe they can use WeShelter to leverage their tech experience into something truly meaningful. “How do we bring tech down to the street level and actually use it for good?” he asks. “We hope that we can demonstrate that tech can be used for good in this way.”
Correction: This post originally stated the WeShelter app was bringing in $1,000 a month; that figure is what creators hope to reach by the end of the year. The actual current figure is less.