A new Seattle nonprofit is revolutionizing the way its residents help homeless people obtain the essential items they need, such as sleeping bags, tents, clothes for job interviews, and toys for their children.
All they have to do is ask.
WeCount, an official nonprofit and digital platform used to help match people looking to donate items with those who need them, is essentially the Uber, Lyft, Airbnb or TaskRabbit of homeless services.
The peer-to-peer model, which co-founder and tech entrepreneur Jonathan Sposato said has never before been used by a nonprofit, lets people who have items to donate give them directly to people in need.
With a statewide homelessness increase of 19 percent projected for 2016, the service has been put into play just in time.
“As I interacted with homeless people on my way to work, I was impressed with the fact that, for the most part, what they need is not money, but to be given a sense of dignity and the acknowledgement that others still care about them,” Sposato said.
In an attempt to give help and keep hope alive for Seattle’s growing homeless population, Sposato teamed up with Graham Pruss, a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology with a focus on wealth inequality and poverty, and got to work trying to find a new solution to the problem.
Pruss himself briefly experienced homelessness as a teenager and relied on social services as a young adult.
“I saw that there was a tremendous amount of people who wanted to help, and that there was a huge social services net that was active that homeless people weren’t aware of,” said Pruss, who also has a background in hardware and software development.
“If we want to increase the awareness, funding, and outreach of those services, we have to increase the communication around them. And that’s where this technology comes in.”
How It Works
People who are in need of items and the people who have items to give sign up for an account at WeCount.org.
Once your account is created, you can request one of the 200 items in a database, or agree to donate one of those items. The giver drops off the item at one of 25 Seattle locations, where the person in need can pick it up. Last names aren’t used on the site in order to maintain anonymity.
According to All Home, a community partnership to end homelessness in the Seattle area, 90 percent of homeless people have internet access, either through their own device or at a public place, such as a library.
“I gave a cell phone to someone two days ago,” Pruss said. “The immense rush of knowing that I gave something to someone that they could use to improve their lives really gave me a lot of personal satisfaction. That sense of goodwill is what gets us to care and what changes the conversation.”
Pruss added that visiting the drop-off locations allows people to see firsthand the work that is being done in emergency shelters, and could help connect a homeless person with social services they might not have known were available to them.
When WeCount officially launched on June 1, representatives from about 10 cities in the United States called asking if the model might be used to address their homeless issue.
Therefore, the nonprofit is looking to expand in Seattle first, and both Sposato and Pruss think the model will be scalable in other cities because it is already working well in Seattle.
But, Sposato said, the key to success is partnering with social service agencies already doing work on the ground.
“We have to change the conversation, the awkward moments when you walk by a homeless person with a sign and think ‘Should I look away? Should I give them money?'” Sposato said.
“If we can make the ability to help your fellow man just one click away, I think we can really enable something good to happen.”