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(Photo via Flickr/Jason Burrows).
(Photo via Flickr/Jason Burrows).

Profiting from the homeless feels wrong but with more and more people struggling to put a roof over their heads every day, the best efforts of government and non-profit organizations appear to be insufficient to fix the problem. It is time to draw additional innovators to the search for solutions.

Seattle is a hotbed for marketing technology innovation and homelessness is to a large degree a marketing problem.

Just as marketers seek to identify and address the needs of individual customers, solutions for macro-level homelessness need to identify and address the needs of individuals who find themselves homeless. To make a difference, we need to solve individual problems before scaling to the group as a whole.

Jeff Shulman, UW professor and host of the new Seattle Growth Podcast.
Jeff Shulman, UW professor and host of the new Seattle Growth Podcast.

I call on marketing technology innovators to think about ways to apply their knowledge to homelessness. Marketers use data and well-timed marketing interventions to transition prospects into customers and to keep customers from becoming former customers. There’s an opportunity to apply these talents to help identify or implement interventions that can transition someone from homelessness to a home and to keep that person from becoming homeless again.

Innovating for the homeless is incredibly rewarding.

There are several companies, like Toms Shoes and Equinox Studios, that have made financial sense out of solving social issues. Moreover, companies can gain valuable exposure by lending expertise to a problem at the forefront of many minds. Contributing resources to the fight against homelessness can bring economic, social, and individually satisfying intrinsic benefits.

There is no shortage of potential contributions that can chip away at the larger problem. It may be an innovative payment and enforcement solution that helps get individuals with poor credit or a past eviction into housing units.

The contribution may be technology solutions to help organizations collect better data and draw insights from it, facilitates communication and coordination between private and public organizations, or matches individuals in need with available resources. There are over 140,000 individuals who are homeless or unstably housed in Washington alone and a big opportunity to apply business technology to reduce that number.

It is time to start thinking of business and technology solutions to the homelessness crisis facing Seattle and many cities around the country.

If individuals and companies do not take action to help their fellow community members in need, governments will take action that can have a serious impact on everyone. For instance, Seattle is proposing “a right to camp on public spaces throughout the city” policy, which opponents say not only poses a safety risk to the whole community, but also perpetuates homelessness.

As the old proverb goes, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Take that first step by learning more about individuals who have struggled with homelessness and those who have struggled to help the homeless. Then start thinking of micro-level solutions. A big difference can be made by tackling even a small part of the larger problem.

Talking with members of the homeless communities to understand their needs can be daunting. Admittedly, I had reservations about venturing into managed homeless camps for the Seattle Growth Podcast. But in meeting these individuals, I saw how many of them were not much different from you or me. And I left inspired to help them. I hope you will listen to their voices and then think about how your next innovation can change their lives and yours for the better.

Editor’s note: Jeff Shulman will discuss this issue and other challenges and opportunities growth brings to Seattle with John Connors of Ignition Partners, Maggie Walker, co-founder of Social Venture Partners, and John Creighton, Port of Seattle Commissioner on Oct 17th 6 p.m. to 8 p.m at the Impact Hub Seattle. More details here.  

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