A Social Experiment: Reaching the Homeless Through Text

To my friends in the Bay Area —

First, let me state a few things about the factors that have shaped my perspective around the topic of homelessness. Being self aware is important to me to for productive communication and learning, so I feel it’s important to stay aware and very open here:

  • I’m fully aware that I’ve been living in Palo Alto for the last 4 years, one of the wealthiest cities in the country, which has had an impact on my perspective.
  • I’m aware that being in tech, one of the most progressive industries, has certainly had an impact on my perspective.
  • I’m aware that my views on technology, personal progress, opportunity creation, the impact of the private market on the public sector and vice versa and working as a business leader have all contributed to my perspective.
  • I also know who I am, and I know my values are anchored in a care for people, a strong religious upbringing and being taught “when much is given, much is required.” I deeply care about our world and feel that Family is the most important thing.
  • Finally, I recognize that I am not an expert on poverty alleviation nor do I claim to be a voice of the homeless community in California or in the United States. I’m just an average white guy trying to become a better man and build a great future for myself and others.

*rolls up sleeves*

San Francisco’s Tenderloin

Two years ago, I worked as the first employee at a startup in the Tenderloin district in San Francisco.

For those of you who may not be familiar with the area, the Tenderloin has been the home of Raphael House, the first provider in the city of shelter for homeless parents and children, since 1971. It is an ethnically diverse community, consisting of families, young people living in cheap apartments, bohemian artists, and recent immigrants from Latin America and Southeast Asia.

The Tenderloin is also home to a large population of people living in extreme poverty, the homeless, and numerous non-profit social service agencies — soup kitchens, religious rescue missions, homeless shelters and single room occupancy hotels. From drug deals to flying bullets, anyone who has experienced walking through the Tenderloin is likely to claim they’ve “seen it all.”

Meet Kerry

This is a photo of my friend Kerry:

Photo courtesy of Kerry

Kerry lives in San Francisco and does not have a place to call home.

When I first met Kerry, he was sitting in a wheel chair on the corner of a crosswalk. It was a chilly night in October and the dim street light cast over a man hunched in his seat, wearing a gray beanie and blue Nikes. The first thing I noticed about Kerry was a large Android phone on his lap with a bright screen glowing in his face.

Curious about his phone and remembering the stat about mobile phone ownership, I felt impressed to stop and talk to Kerry.

The Challenge: Texting Kerry

After a brief introduction, I asked him about his phone and then proceeded to do something spontaneous: I asked Kerry for his number and for his permission to share his number with my audience on Snapchat. Kerry accepted my idea and allowed me to proceed with the social experiment.

After providing a quick video intro to my audience and then adding it to my Snapchat story, my invitation was simple: Text him.

Text him!!! A message to my Snapchat audience on behalf of Kerry

Using Technology to Text the Homeless

The startup I worked at built software that made it super easy for businesses to reach their customers through text messaging, Facebook messenger and other chat apps (because no one likes calling Comcast).

At the time, we were interested in partnering with St. Anthony Foundation, a San Francisco based non-profit that serves the homeless community and low income individuals. Wanting to gain a better understanding of the community, I came across a report titled the San Francisco Homeless Count Report.

In the report, two key figures stood out to me:

Many members of the homeless community own a feature phone, which is perfect for receiving text messages. Our vision was to give people and organizations like St. Anthony’s the ability to communicate with every homeless individual in San Francisco who owned a feature phone.

Knowing users read 98% of their text messages, this presented an opportunity to reach over 5,000 community members with information around available shelters and other important messages via text.

The Result

Kerry received hundreds of texts that night and throughout the week. Most important, I believe Kerry felt like he had a friend.

Kerry would go on to share some of his accomplishments (Tic Tac Toe Champ!) along with his interests in education, web design and technology.

Mobile: A Lifeline to Society

Having access to a cell phone is crucial for all of us, but it’s especially crucial for someone like Kerry. A cell phone provides Kerry with a way to make phone calls and find paid work. It helps Kerry find locations where he can stay for the night. It has helped Kerry find transportation to soup kitchens and work sites. And perhaps most importantly, it has helped him feel like a normal person.

Without a phone, it’s possible that people like Kerry may be fined or arrested for loitering in public. What’s interesting is that by typing or talking on a phone, the perception of connectivity allows the individual to stay in places longer than they would otherwise.

Unfortunately, we’ve seen some pretty negative perspectives from entitled leaders and professionals in the area. Seeing a homeless person with a cell phone can bring up the kind of reaction San Francisco’s city supervisor had:

While the message isn’t ill-intended, it reveals an honest question many of us have considered:

What is a homeless person doing with a cell phone if this person can’t even afford to find a place to live?

As vulnerable members of our society receive access to a cell phone, there are opportunities to change their circumstances via two-way communication. These individuals are in need of eye contact, access to communication, and most important a friend.

Focusing on the Individual Through Technology

Our message is simple: Bridging the digital divide is possible.

It starts with focusing on the individual. With Kerry.

We want to avoid the callousness to poverty that comes with wealth, ego and being “busy.”

We want to build a community that bridges the digital divide between those who have and those who do not: through text.

We admire the efforts of California providers like Virgin Mobile’s Assurance Wireless, which give users a free cell phone with 250 free texts and 250 free minutes to start. This allows people to get a head start with making and confirming job appointments.

Poverty is undoubtedly a global issue, but we have an opportunity to show the world that through kindness and technology, we can all lead by example. Let’s become kinder, more informed citizens and use the power of text to build relationships with our friends who are in less fortunate circumstances.

The Ask:

1. Send a text 📲 and say hello to Kerry:

He’s expecting your text! Just be sure to let him know you learned about him from this article. Kerry is interested in advice, jokes, stories, rides, job connections and other opportunities to learn.

Square One Labs is a startup studio powering and automating better messaging services that help you bridge the gap between your online and offline life.

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