In California, there are more than 150,000 people experiencing homelessness. Unhoused residents face significant hurdles when trying to find employment, register for government benefits, or sign up for health care without proper identification. Many of these services require an address, leaving those without one behind.
But what if there was a way to connect homeless people with addresses? This question became the inspiration for Paper Homes, a web application designed to match individuals experiencing homelessness with addresses donated by property owners. The app won the Stanford McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society Most Ethically Engaged Hack at this year’s virtual TreeHacks. The hackathon attracted more than 2,000 undergraduates from colleges and universities around the world. Students Matthew Chiang, Kelly Chong, Meghan Lo, from Western University in Canada, and their teammate Michelle Li from the University of British Columbia had 36 hours to turn an idea into an actual project. This year, the theme was hacking for the future: addressing deeply impactful problems and building creative, unique solutions.
“The things we make in tech influence so many people,” says Chiang. “We chose this issue because if you’re a person facing homelessness, it’s so hard to get out of the hole. We wanted to help.”
Paper Homes acknowledges that an address is no longer just a location – it is a de facto means of identification. Generally, homeless shelters cannot be used as one’s permanent address, but unhoused residents associated with a homeless shelter can use Paper Homes to sign up and immediately match with a donated address linked to a vacant home.
During the 36-hour hackathon, the group created a functional prototype of the app but there is much work still to be done. The team envisions working closely with housing associations, real estate companies, and private donors to ensure a large number of address donations. They’re optimistic about this strategy – considering that there are over 1.2 million vacant homes in California. This number includes homes owned by individuals and corporations, and apartments, vacation homes, and dwellings for rent or sale.
Paper Homes will also be working to develop a strong partnership with California homeless shelters and with their support, users will have the ability to set up mail forwarding to a particular shelter. It’s important to note that Paper Homes solely provides addresses for people, not a place to live and addresses expire in six months. However, individuals can choose to renew their addresses every six months as needed and as a donor, you can view your donated addresses and the individuals matched with them on a dashboard.
From an ethical standpoint, the development team recognizes the need to ensure data privacy in order to protect the homeless population. “Given that we will be storing sensitive and confidential information about the user’s identity, this is top of mind,” says Chong. The group agrees that without privacy, the potential dangers may outweigh the benefits.
Another factor to consider is who has access to the technology. A UCSF study published in 2018 found that the vast majority of homeless adults had access to cell phones but had limited access to the internet. While access is still an issue, the group firmly believes that a free and highly effective platform can significantly benefit this vulnerable population.
TreeHacks judge Collin Anthony Chen immediately noticed Paper Homes during the competition. “What impressed me the most was how they were able to identify an urgent social problem and come up with a creative solution that was not only efficient, but also tried to take seriously the privacy concerns and barriers to access,” says Anthony Chen, the Center’s Associate Director for Undergraduate Outreach.
As far as the next steps, the group hopes to design a proper user consent form for the homeless population and private donors. The form would present the terms and conditions while removing any concern about the confidentiality of the data. An additional step would be to expand their prototype to serve residents of other states. And ideally, meet with homeless shelters and train individuals on their technology.
“It would be great to see what we can do together,” says Chiang. “To get our product out there and really make a difference.”