At the heart of Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood exists a unique juxtaposition.
Inside a two-story brick building is the Impact Hub co-working space and business incubator, a place where entrepreneurs are busily working on ideas to improve the world we live in.
Homelessness. Drugs. Violence.
Now, those two contrasting scenes are coming together.
This weekend, more than 100 developers, designers, entrepreneurs and do-gooders will team up at the Impact Hub for the first-ever Hack to End Homelessness, a four-day event that encourages participants to envision and create ideas to alleviate the homelessness problem in Seattle.
The Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, Real Change and several other local homeless services and advocacy groups have already submitted project proposals, which range from an e-commerce site showcasing artwork of homeless youth to a social network focusing on low-end mobile phones for people who are homeless.
Seattle has certainly made an effort to fix its homelessness problem. Back in 2005, the Committee to End Homelessness established a 10-year plan to dramatically reduce the number of people without homes in the region. By the end of 2014, the goal was to “virtually end,” homelessness in King County.
But fast-forward to today and that hasn’t exactly come to fruition. There are more than 2,300 people in Seattle sleeping in the streets — up 16 percent from 2013 — and city data shows nearly 10,000 households checking into shelters or transitional housing last year. Thousands of others may not be on the streets or in shelters, yet still live without a permanent place to sleep at night.
While some efforts of the committee have helped curb homelessness, it’s clear that there is still a problem — one that has likely been affected by rising rent prices in the area.
Candace Faber, one of the event organizers, said that her team has been shocked by the growth of homelessness in the Seattle metropolitan area. They’re worried not only about how many people do not have a permanent home, but what kind of impact the problem is having on the city as a whole.
“With Seattle experiencing the highest rent hikes in the nation, we’re concerned that, without action, our city will not be able to remain the dynamic, affordable place it is now,” Faber said. “We don’t want to lose our entrepreneurial spirit or wind up with a situation like San Francisco, where you can’t afford to innovate without serious VC backing and there’s serious tension between the housing community and tech workers.”
That raises the question: How, exactly, can technology fix the homeless problem? The stories of these Seattle entrepreneurs helps to provide the answer.
FROM SHELTERS TO STARTUPS
Kyle Kesterson knows a thing or two about being homeless.
That’s because the Freak’n Genius co-founder and CEO spent his childhood living in 14 different homes and apartments, in addition to a bevy of shelters and transitional houses. The moving around and lack of permanent housing made going to school difficult, and finding acceptance anywhere was nearly impossible.
“I was always the new kid, the poor kid, and the smallest kid,” Kesterson says now. “You just become the target of getting picked on.”
By the time he was 15, Kesterson realized that school wasn’t a place that fit his learning style. So, he dropped out to help run his parents’ house-cleaning business in Seattle.
That’s when Kesterson, now a talented artist and designer, further developed his creative skills. The Yuba City, Calif. native would spend hours locked in a room perusing through deviantART.com, a new Internet community where other artists from around the world were sharing their own work and receiving feedback.
“It was cool to see the support for each other, and to look at other people’s work as a source for inspiration,” Kesterson said. “That has been a consistent thing in my life — being around people that were there to offer constructive perspective. When you’re placed around people who do great work, you have a bar to reach for, to strive for.”
Kesterson would go on to land a scholarship to Cornish College of Arts, and later became involved in the Seattle tech scene. The 29-year-old is now running a successful startup, Freak’n Genius, that has built a funny app that lets you manipulate the mouths of your family, friends, cats, dogs, celebrities and really, just about anything.
He’s also giving back and lending a helping hand to those that were in his position not too long ago. Kesterson just started a new intern program and startup bootcamp that is focused on turning at-risk youth into risk-taking entrepreneurs.
“These kids, their attention and energy is focused on the base of pyramid of needs: shelter, nourishment and safety,” he explained. “They don’t have energy or even just the mental landscape to start thinking about problems in a way to solve them, and let alone to build wealth around them.”
He knows because to a certain extent, he’s been there. He knows what it’s like to not have a home, food, or money. It’s a mindset Kesterson is familiar with, and is one that often does not allow people to think creatively about solving problems outside the basic necessities of life.
So now Kesterson, who plans on attending the final presentations at the Hack for Homelessness event on Sunday, is using his own experiences to teach youth about finding solutions to problems with a entrepreneurial lens. When it comes to helping at-risk youth, or those that are homeless, Kesterson says it’s about finding a thriving and supportive environment — the same one he surrounded himself with while surfing through deviantART 14 years ago.
“Externally, our environment plays a significant role in either setting people up for growth and success, or weighting people down, sucking the life out of them, and eventually leaving them at or near rock bottom,” he said.
For Kesterson, it’s entrepreneurs who can help create these environments for people, and show them that they have the ability and power to solve problems and truly make a difference.
“Entrepreneurs need to first focus on the external and internal environments of those that are homeless,” he said. “Support, help, and inspire. Become a part of their network to mentor and make connections with the challenges they are faced with the way we lean on our own mentor networks.”
FIXING THE ROOT
Lindsay Caron Epstein has always, in some shape or form, been an entrepreneur at heart.
She figured out a way to survive after moving to Arizona from New Jersey with only $100. She figured out how to land a few minimum wage jobs and eventually start a non-profit community center for at-risk youth at just 22 years old.
And now, Caron using her entrepreneurial spirit to help figure out ways to fix social challenges like homelessness.
The 36-year-old is CEO and founder of ActivateHub, a startup working alongside other socially-conscious companies in Seattle’s Fledge Accelerator. ActivateHub is a “community building social action network,” or a place where people can find local events put on by NGOs and other organizations working on a wide variety of issues.
Caron found the inspiration to start the company after organizing programs for troubled youth in Arizona and studying the homelessness problem while in school. She became fascinated with how communities were built in a way that could help people and pull them out of tough situations, but there didn’t appear to be an easy way for people to get involved.
“If you do a Google search for poverty, homelessness, climate change — any issue you care about — you’ll just find news articles and blogs,” Caron explained. “You don’t find who in your community is working on those problems and you don’t find out how you can get involved.”
Caron says her company can help those that may not have a home or have anything to do. ActivateHub, she said, might give them a reason to become engaged in something and create a sense of value in the community.
“It gives people a reason to clean up and enables them to make connections,” said Caron, who will also be attending this weekend’s event. “Some people need that inspiration and purpose to change their situation, and a lot of times that motivation isn’t there.”
Of course, ActivateHub alone isn’t going to solve the homelessness problem by itself. Caron knows this and thinks that entrepreneurs can help by focusing on more preventative measures. Sure, technology can be used to help connect homeless people to certain resources, but there’s a deeper issue at hand for Caron.
“We need to figure out how to prevent it in the first place,” Caron said of homelessness. “We need to provide better education and make sure there are extra-curriculars that kids can go to, so if they have a bad home life they can continue to be in a nurturing environment outside. That doesn’t have to do with homelessness.”
Solutions like universal healthcare, affordable high quality education, state-funded mental health facilities and lower housing costs are some of the big-picture ideas, Caron noted.
“Providing services for the homeless is a necessary band-aid, but solving these underlying systemic social issues is the long-term solution,” she said. “If we solve those issues, the current infrastructure we have to deal with the homeless population will be more than adequate.”
CHANGING THE NARRATIVE
This weekend’s Hack to End Homelessness is not going to end homelessness in four days. But the event organizers hope that it lays the groundwork for a sustainable relationship between talented entrepreneurs like Kesterson and Caron with organizations that work on homelessness full-time.
“By designing this initiative in collaboration with service providers and advocacy organizations — a ‘Lean Startup’ approach to a social issue, if you will — we are confident that our work will empower them on an ongoing basis,” Faber said.
Mark Putnam, the new director of the Committee to End Homelessness, said that tech solutions using data to either tell stories or provide insight into which projects to fund or which models to do more of is necessary in his line of work. This can help organizations be more efficient with their funds and subsequently help people get out of homelessness faster.
“At non-profits, we want to show or tell our story in more compelling ways, but we don’t always have the skills,” Putnam said. “If there’s some ability to do this type of event every once and while and get some inexpensive assistance, it could be something we see being done on an ongoing basis.”
Like Caron noted, Faber agreed that one-off tech solutions like an app that helps homeless people find shelters might be a nice idea, but won’t provide much meaningful impact in the long run.
The bigger idea, Faber said, is to “shift the public narrative,” and fix myths about homelessness that create negative attitudes like the the ones that catalyzed her team in the first place.
“By helping people understand the issue better, we can offer people more impactful ways to intervene than offering money on the street,” Faber said. “And public opinion drives policy priorities. If we can get Seattle thinking about homelessness in ways that are both more innovative and more informed, we can catalyze broader impacts.”
Faber, a former diplomat with the U.S. Department of State, sees untapped potential for governments and foundations to use their power and take social good initiatives to scale. When she worked as a policymaker and grantmaker, Faber would often look to local innovators for ideas she could support with a little money.
“We craved accurate information about what kinds of policies worked,” Faber said. “Data-driven journalism and infographics help policymakers, request-for-proposal writers, and decision-makers understand how to make better and more cost-effective interventions.”
That same model can be applied to help fix the rising rent and homelessness problem in Seattle, which Faber said can hurt a startup culture by increasing the cost of business and threaten the conscience of entrepreneurs.
“If we become a city that only a certain demographic can afford to live in, we also become a culture that can only solve the problems of that demographic,” she said.
Faber hopes that her event will result in deeper understanding of the homelessness issue, create relationships between the tech community and housing advocates, and satisfy project outcomes from the hackathon.
“We have a culture of innovation, a technologically talented population, and a social conscience,” she said. “When you put those three things together, we’re able to act as an incubator for solutions that could help the entire world as well as our own community. We’d like to keep it that way.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of a special series of stories by GeekWire, underwritten by the Singh Family Foundation and Seattle-area business leader Steve Singh. The series will focus on important community issues, innovative solutions to societal challenges, and people and non-profit groups making an impact through technology. Do you have ideas for future installments? Contact GeekWire’s Taylor Soper.