Seattle-area residents eager to help people who are homeless have a new web-based app that will allow them to more personally and directly donate to local folks in need.
WeCount, launching today, creates a peer-to-peer online network where people can make anonymous requests for things that they need — a sleeping bag, socks, coats, personal hygiene items and other essentials — and someone else can fill that need by dropping off the items at approximately 30 sites around the city.
“There really needed to be a much more direct way that people can get in touch with each other to provide items critical to survival,” said Jonathan Sposato, co-founder of the Seattle-based nonprofit WeCount, a tech entrepreneur and investor who is also PicMonkey CEO and GeekWire’s chairman.
You get this “huge emotional ROI (return on investment),” he said, by knowing that a specific person now has a warm sleeping bag or backpack for their belongings.
When people register with WeCount, they can ask for items or fulfill requests while maintaining their anonymity. The site does not ask for users’ last names so identities remain private. Donors drop off requested items at locations such as emergency shelters, housing units, community service offices and churches and other religious facilities. The recipient picks up the item that’s labeled for them, with oversight from staff at the drop-off site to ensure that people take the correct donations.
Organizations partnering with WeCount to provide drop-off and pick-up sites include the City of Seattle’s Human Services Department, Union Gospel Mission, the YMCA, United Way of King County, Seattle University, All Home, Downtown Emergency Services Center, the Low Income Housing Institute and Facing Homelessness.
The launch of the app comes at a critical time in Seattle, where Mayor Ed Murray last year declared a state of emergency in response to the homeless crisis. The city is currently seeking to clear out “The Jungle” encampment along Interstate 5, further illustrating the seriousness of the issue.
In January, more than 4,500 people were living without a shelter in King County, according to the annual One Night Count. An additional 3,200 people were in emergency shelters and 2,983 were in transitional housing. Rising housing costs, driven in part by the region’s booming tech economy, bear some of the blame for the growing crisis.
“The thing we know for sure, is there are definitely people in need and there are definitely people who want to help. And the trick is, how do we provide that connection?” said Rex Hohlbein, executive director of Facing Homelessness, a Seattle-based nonprofit working to build awareness about the issue.
“I’m very hopeful that [WeCount] have found what will be a very easy and direct way of giving,” he said.
The network relies on people having access to a smartphone, tablet or other device with internet connections, but research suggests that shouldn’t be a problem, Sposato said. He cited a study by the nonprofit All Home, which found that 90 percent of people who are homeless have regular online access through a personal phone or other device, at a public library or other locations.
“If you think about, if you were to lose everything what you would hold on to? If you lost your home, you’d hold on to your car and hold on to your cell phone. If you lose your car, you’re still going to hold on to that cell phone,” said Lisa Gustaveson, program manager at Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry.
“They will sell everything else and hold on to that cell phone,” she said, “because it’s their lifeline.”
Gustaveson, who provided feedback on the project as it was developed over the past year, said one feature she particularly likes about WeCount is the fact that when people sign up on the site, they’re joining a community — not specifically enrolling as a giver or a receiver.
Like Hohlbein, she’s optimistic that it will make a positive difference.
“For folks on the street, it’s hard for them to ask for things that they need,” she said.
The WeCount service is free. Sposato has provided the financial backing for the effort, which is a 501(c)(3) and can accept public donations. Other communities outside of Seattle and the state have inquired about setting up a program in their area, Sposato said. It’s not clear exactly what the financing model could look like elsewhere.
In coming months, ads promoting WeCount will be popping up on Metro buses to get the word out about the effort.
Sposato was inspired to create the WeCount community after participating in evening “search and rescue” missions led by Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission in which volunteers go out at night in vans delivering needed supplies and resources to people without shelter. He began noticing people in need of items and going to Big 5 or other sporting goods stores to pick up sleeping bags or backpacks for them.
He had the chance to meet and talk to some of the people who were homeless and found that many had been recently employed, but then illness, unemployment, divorce or other challenges derailed them.
“Life took a weird turn. Usually it’s a couple of things happening at the same time and they didn’t have a safety net,” Sposato said.
He developed the WeCount app with his co-founder Graham Pruss, who has personal experience with homelessness, having lived on the street for a time as a teenager. Pruss is also director of WeCount, and is working toward a Ph.D. in social anthropology and a national expert on homeless people living in their vehicles.
The hope is that one day WeCount can be expanded to help assist homeless people who are seeking resources and trying to find transitional housing. There are other websites and organizations working to connect people in need with support, including 2-1-1 Community Resources Online. Sposato hopes that WeCount’s efforts can complement other endeavors, and he’s open to suggestions about how to improve what they’re doing.
“There can be backlash or criticism that you’re being too prescriptive or narrow or broad in your solution,” he said. “I’m very sensitive to that and very willing to hear feedback from the community, from the homeless community.”
Hohlbein, of Facing Homelessness, said the app is a great idea, and the next challenge is getting people who have the ability to help solve the homeless problem through charity and public policy to feel a connection to the issue and take action.
The WeCount app “is a tool,” Hohlbein said. “And it’s up to us to engage our hearts and find how to make use of that tool in a beautiful way.”