KENAI — A project designed to simplify finding help for Alaska’s homeless population and inspired by a former University of Alaska Fairbanks graduate student’s work with homeless youth is steadily gaining traction in the state.
Brainstormed by Mindy Courter, the Time of Need smartphone app was created by students in the UAF computer science program in the spring semester of the 2015-16 school year as a project for the department’s senior capstone class. Though the bulk of the work was done that semester, the app became ready to download from the Apple iTunes store this summer, Courter said.
Courter, who is now getting a master’s degree in social work from another university, used to work with young homeless people through the Fairbanks Counseling and Adoption’s Street Outreach and Advocacy Program, which she said serves at-risk youth ages 10-21. It was there she noticed the gap she hopes the app will fill: a disconnect between the organizations that provide services to homeless or near homeless people in the state that could make getting access to those services more difficult.
“… Because when you think of the target population, no matter what age range, when they are nearing homelessness or they are homeless they become a vulnerable population,” Courter said. “And when you’re in crisis … how hard should it be to get resources when you’re already in that state of crisis?”
The Time of Need app serves as one place users can look that lists organizations that offer services like food, shelter, transportation, employment assistance, veteran services, support groups and other things that would be helpful for the state’s homeless population. Here on the Kenai Peninsula, that could include organizations like Love Inc., Kenai Peninsula Journey Home, Peninsula Community Health Services or the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank.
It organizes the services by category, and then by proximity to the user depending on what they enter as their location. The list of resources is kept in a database that can hold information on as many organizations as can be gathered, Courter said.
Shannon Thomas was formerly with the university’s Office of Information Technology and helped get the app finished and published on the university’s app store.
“The app also has features to allows users to customize their resource categories,” he wrote in an email. “The layout is designed to be easy to navigate and help homeless (individuals) learn about resources in their area and locate them.”
One limitation of the app is that, since it was a product of a one semester’s work plus some final touches after the computer science class had ended, it is only available for iPhones right now. Once the computer science students got into building the app and learning different formats, Courter said they realized they wanted to focus solely on the app for iPhones and would not have time to get to one for Androids. She and others behind the app are in talks with the computer science department at UAF, though, to see about the possibility of a future class taking up the app for Androids as a capstone project.
Time of Need is available to be downloaded, and Courter is in the process of spreading the word and getting it out to the organizations that provide services. One hurdle to successfully getting word out about the app has been overcoming the misconception that homeless people don’t have cellphones, she said.
“That’s what I always want to emphasize when I present this to people,” she said. “Lifeline allows you to have a cellphone with data for a very low cost amount and to these individuals … this is their lifeline, this is how they get told about housing options or how they can order food boxes, and this is something that they need — a phone is something that they need and they will have, so if it’s priority of, ‘What resource should I have?’ a phone’s going to open more doors for them.”
The app has also been specifically created with its target population in mind so that it can work on a variety of phone plans.
“The (computer science) students designed a native app which would require less bandwidth to run and update,” Thomas wrote in an email. “It does not consume much of the user’s data (if they have a data plan). There are also features to set the user’s location so the app can be used offline or with wifi and no carrier coverage.”
On the brink
While it was born of inspiration from Courter’s work with at-risk young people, the Time of Need app is for anyone who is homeless no matter their age, she said. Courter also hopes it will help those who aren’t yet homeless but who are right on the brink.
Often, she said, those who are facing impending homelessness are tasked with juggling multiple pieces at once to make sure aspects of their lives are covered. If they were able to get help in certain areas during that precarious time, like employment assistance or food, they might not be pushed over the edge into being homeless, Courter said.
Another hurdle in spreading the Time of Need app is getting the word out to the population that needs it, Courter said. She plans to have a flier or some similar marketing tool created, which she will put up in places where members of the homeless population go to get away from the elements, she said. This includes bus stops and stations as well as grocery store notice boards.
Still, hitting the streets might not be enough to get the app in the hands that need it. Courter is also working to get service providers to download the app so they can see how it functions and then pass it on to the people who come to them for help.
“I think getting it in the hands of those who provide services will be instrumental into the success of this app, and I think it might be beneficial to some of those organizations as well because sometimes there’s a disconnect of services,” she said. “So it would be nice to have a resource where they could say, ‘We can’t offer you that here, but here’s the place that can.’”
Ideally, as more resource providers hear about the app, more will come out of the woodwork and ask to be listed on it, Courter said. The current list includes hundreds of entries using information from organizations that was publicly available, she said, but service providers have an option to include more information if they want.
Courter said she would like to get to a point where organizations use their own login information for the app’s database, where they could go to update their own service summaries or hours of operation should they change.
Those who have tested and reviewed Time of Need so far have had some pretty obvious feedback for Courter: list more resources. Courter said she’s excited to grow the database as more service providers hear about the app and pass it on to their clients.
She plans to contact groups and coalitions outside of her physical reach in Fairbanks through email to let them know what the app can do for the state’s homeless population. Courter thinks the fact that it can now be downloaded and provide people with a visual should help, she said.
Working on the Time of Need project has also involved some battling of the general stigmas that go along with not having a place to live, she said, whether that involves the assumption that homeless people won’t have smartphones or some other aspect of losing one’s home.
“Homelessness isn’t an inherent trait, so it’s not like the individual was homeless from the get-go,” she said. “Something happened. I mean, essentially we could all be homeless next month if we don’t get paid.”
While she was still with UAF, Courter hit the Fairbanks streets and panhandled as part of a cultural awareness project.
She said she has heard from others that not many people think they see homeless people out and about in Fairbanks. This can be misleading, she said, because many members of the homeless population are in fact benefitting from services that provide them with clothes, showers and more.
“Whenever I talk to people about the homeless population in the area, outside of the area, through social networking with my friends back home, when we have these conversations about homelessness, they’re like, ‘How do you know they’re homeless?’” Courter said. “And it’s having to understand that there is no one look (that equates to homelessness).”
• Megan Pacer is a reporter for the Kenai Peninsula Clarion and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.