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Shelter Helper App Connects Case Workers with Available Shelter Beds in Real-Time

In Los Angeles, homelessness is so pervasive it’s become part of the city’s landscape. With nearly 59,000 homeless people, a housing crisis, and an economy shaken by a global pandemic, the problem is vast, complex, and likely to grow. It’s a conundrum that may only be solved by a myriad of small innovations from many disciplines.

Los Angeles County is investing in building new homeless shelters, yet many of the existing shelter beds are not filled. There are many reasons for these empty beds, including hygiene and safety issues. One big challenge, however, may be the lack of a tracking system to notify case workers of open beds, according to L.A. Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) as reported by LAist.com.

Enter Shelter Helper – a mobile app that tracks and alerts case workers of available beds in local shelters in real-time. The app, while still under development, is on the fast track to being piloted with local community organizations.

Shelter Helper was developed by USC Iovine and Young Academy undergraduates Alyssa Goldberg, Ryan Selden, Elizabeth Gunton, Chloe Keywell, Ashley Pakzaban, and Myles Willett during the Academy’s class, Discerning and Making. The Academy partnered with USC’s Initiative to Eliminate Homelessness to challenge students to apply their human-centered design strategy skills to the wicked problem of homelessness in Downtown Los Angeles for an entire semester.

“This is something many people are trying to solve and the solutions are sometimes very complex,” says Brenda Wiewel, director of USC’s Initiative to Eliminate Homelessness. “The students came in with a fresh perspective and came up with a simple, easy-to-use solution.”

For ten weeks, six student teams researched key stakeholder areas – government, business, consumer, people experiencing homelessness, nonprofits, and philanthropies. Using the research, students created “relationship maps” to visually display data connections, areas of overlap, as well as gaps in services or support.

Professor Matthew Manos teaching Discerning and Making class, Fall 2019

“The goal was not to end homelessness, but to uncover new ways to lift up work being done by frontline workers at the local level,” says Prof. Matthew Manos, assistant dean of academic strategy and lead faculty for Discerning and Making. The class was co-led by Davina Wolter, assistant professor of design with support provided by Trent Jones, an instructional assistant at the Academy.

Using these “maps” as a guide, students formed new teams to propose innovative solutions based on the opportunities uncovered. In addition to Shelter Helper, solutions included a tool to improve the process of giving and receiving in-kind donations; a mindfulness center for all residents of Downtown Los Angeles to enjoy; a platform to provide tools and information for at-risk communities; and a research process to better understand the needs of homeless students on USC campus.

“The Academy brings the innovation angle. Other groups may focus on policy, law, or medicine, but Academy students bring in a wider net and a human design-centered approach which incorporates multiple disciplines into the process,” says Wiewel. “This approach has yielded a number of unique solutions which are long-term with immediate practical benefits to the world.”

Alyssa Goldberg, Shelter Helper team member

While Shelter Helper was developed over the course of the semester, its inspiration had earlier roots. Team member Ryan Selden was volunteering in fall of 2019 where he noticed a significant gap in the information provided to case workers on behalf of their clients regarding bed availability. With first-hand knowledge, the Shelter Helper team saw the opportunity to help caseworkers through technology.

“Shelter Helper was inspired by the belief that homelessness is a huge problem and we have to tackle it together with many small innovations that will have a big impact,” says Alyssa Goldberg, Shelter Helper team member. “We came up with Shelter Helper by starting ... with the user.”

The experience of studying homelessness comprehensively and holistically for an entire semester was an invaluable lesson in empathy. Goldberg shares how student perspectives changed and influenced how they approached the shelter system. They also understand the flaws in how society treats people experiencing homelessness.

“The students now have an in-depth, professional-level understanding of this complex issue as well as a personal awareness,” says Wiewel. “I feel this is already a big contribution.”