By Wendy K. Leigh
Who knew there’s a night in January each year devoted to counting homeless people living on the streets of Seattle? Unusual connections form when more than 1,000 people bundle up on a cold winter night and pull an all-nighter roaming the pavements with strangers – especially when it’s to document the misfortunes of others.
It was just such a night, the third Thursday in January 2015, that tech entrepreneur and investor Jonathan Sposato met formerly homeless Graham Pruss, now a PhD candidate in Social Anthropology at the University of Washington. After bonding during One Night Count 2015, the two forged a connection that would eventually become WeCount, a web-based app that facilitates direct, peer-to-peer donations of essential items to those living on the streets.
“We connected over another double-digit increase in unsheltered homelessness from the previous year, and agreed that we needed to work together,” explains Graham.
With these two civic-minded dynamos, there was about zero chance that they’d fail when joining forces. Technology and social activism pretty much go hand-in-hand in Seattle these days, but it takes a lot more than a great idea. Boots-on-the-ground isn’t just a euphemism for the powerful WeCount team that’s now impacting the city; it’s literally people from all walks of life interacting and tackling the problem – on the streets and through their smartphones.
Sposato, who is the the Chairman of Geekwire, CEO of PicMonkey, and has sold two companies to Google thus far, notes that there’s a real causality between the rise of Seattle’s amazing tech industry, and the last of housing affordability. A Journal of Urban Affairs study reported in 2015 shows that for every increase of $100 in median rents, the homeless population in metro areas increased by an average of 15 percent.
“I think the tech industry in particular has an empathy gap. We’ve gotten so good about all the intimate and narcissistic little details that go into making the apps and services we create so dang compelling – with much of these apps what I consider discretionary entertainment – that we sometimes don’t pull our heads up to look at the bigger picture of the community around us. We are causing people to look inward, not outward. We stare at our phones thinking we’re connecting to everyone, but in reality live isolated lives devoid of less physical contact than ever before,” states Sposato.
How it Works
Through the WeCount app, a homeless person can post a need for a sleeping bag, a clean shirt for a job interview, a coat to keep warm in the winter, a child’s backpack – whatever is a real and pressing need. Anyone can anonymously log in to the website or open the app, and then click to supply that item. About 30 secure dropboxes throughout the city facilitate the exchange, with items labeled for the specific person.
From its inception, WeCount has partnered with some of the largest social services providers in Seattle, including the Downtown Emergency Services Center, the United Way, Compass Housing Alliance, the Low Income Housing Institute and the Union Gospel Mission.
Extending the Safety Nets
Graham is no stranger himself to programs like these. While living as a homeless teen on the streets of San Francisco, a community meal volunteer gave him a quarter to call home, which saved his life and put him on a path to extraordinary accomplishment. Along the way, social safety nets literally kept him alive while gaining the education and foundation to start giving back – in a big way.
“After the birth of my son when I was 18, our young family relied on medical coupons, food banks, and Aid for Families with Dependent Children while I worked two full-time jobs and attended community college,” notes Pruss.
Public-funded programs, including a grant from the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program. have also facilitated his progress through increasing levels of higher education. But a “nose in a book” kind of guy, he’s not. Graham’s doctoral work in sociocultural and applied anthropology focuses on “vehicle residency,” the largest segment of unsheltered people in Seattle, documented at 36%. And he doesn’t study it from afar.
“I began this research in 2011 by purchasing an RV and sleeping temporarily on Seattle’s streets, to understand how parking law and enforcement may influence the development of settlement patterns in public space,” he explains.
Why it Works
With the third-largest homeless population in America and up to 10,000 homeless people living on the streets every night, Seattle takes the growing crisis seriously. There are lots of approaches that help – but what makes WeCount stand out is that they empower people to give directly to one another using technology that “cuts to the chase.” Graham credits partner Jonathan Sposato’s background in consumer product design, peer-to-peer economies and large-scale tech development for bringing a focus on community-building and a superior user experience.
“What if we flipped the model?” Sposato wondered. “What if we all this tech know-how and power could actually cause people to notice real people who are in need in their very communities? What if we challenge ourselves to make meaningful contact with people outside our own comfy bubbles? What if doing good *was* as easy as using a social media app?”
The approach is increasingly recognized by industry leaders in community initiative programs, evidenced by receiving the 2016 Comcast NBCUniversal Technology Innovation Award, and being honored by Seattle Mayor Ed Murray with his 2016 Innovation and Equity Award.
WeCount is taking it to the next level by partnering with major online retailers to integrate third-party purchases into the existing system. Hyper-local consumers will be able to purchase tax-deductible survival items through online partners who then deliver the items to dropbox locations.
From families sleeping on the ground each night to those donating supplies, WeCount is making sure that everyone matters in Seattle. Those who want to help out through funding, volunteering or providing connections to potential partners can hop on the bandwagon through WeCount.org.
“WeCount is more than a name, it is an imperative – we believe that we can all make a difference, as individuals and society, when we are empowered to work together.” – Graham Pruss