In December, Greg Gopman, former CEO of AngelHack, infuriated the public and reinforced tech stereotypes of disconnection and entitlement when he posted a rant on his Facebook page:
“Why the heart of our city has to be overrun by crazy, homeless, drug dealers, dropouts, and trash I have no clue… In downtown SF the degenerates gather like hyenas, spit, urinate, taunt you, sell drugs, get rowdy, they act like they own the center of the city… It's a burden and a liability having them so close to us.”
Gopman's lament mobilized other tech workers — from Salesforce, Pocket Gem, Spotify and Zenput — who spent the last weekend in March working with a dozen nonprofits to come up with solutions for the homeless problem. It was techie disruption paired with social service, a clash of new and old S.F. cultures.
“One loudmouth techie can't represent the voice of all techies,” says food hacker Tim West, who rallied Rebecca Jean Catering and Feastly to help sponsor the event. “So instead of defending techies on the Internet, we decided to do something in the real world.”
The result was HACKtivation for the Homeless. In a typical hackathon, teams of engineers, designers, industry experts, and idea-people brainstorm and end up with a rough beta product — app, site, or service — in just a few days. Sometimes the ideas never come to fruition or simply serve as an inspiration for future ideas. Rather than seeking for-profit solutions, HACKtivation is more like the organization Code for America, which aims to improve cities by bringing together technologists and nonprofits and finding solutions to problems outside the purview of city government. In the case of HACKtivation, the problems to be solved often revolved around a nonprofit's lack of resources.
So, software engineers Allen Pan and Gustavo Ambrozio and office manager Jasmine Fallstich of mobile gaming company Pocket Gems spent 23 hours trying to figure out how the Homeless Employment Collaborative, an organization that finds employment for the homeless, could simply stay in touch with its program graduates. The Pocket Gems team's solution was a smartphone service that automatically sends HEC alumni brief, straightforward survey links via text message.
“We wanted to know how the folks who were employed when they left us are doing now,” says Karen Gruneisen, associate director of Episcopal Community Services, one of the 10 partner agencies that comprise the HEC. “So, the gift of the smartphone, with data service in exchange for completing the survey, will provide the incentive we need, and get our graduates connected to the web — extremely important for all of us in today's world.”
Meanwhile, the need for text-messaging services that provide anonymity — which allows people who may be dealing with parole, homelessness, or drug addiction to get in touch with service workers without fear of repercussions from the law — rang true for other organizations, like Larkin Street Youth, which got help from techies to set up SMS and app services that alert people on waitlists when there's a bed opening in the emergency shelter.
Glide Memorial Church's tech volunteers created a simple text-messaging service for victims of abuse. The text hotline allows women to anonymously correspond with female mentors.
Some critics attribute the tech companies' altruism to mandated conditions by the city's Community Benefits Agreement: payroll tax breaks given in exchange for a tech company's time spent aiding community organizations. But of the companies represented at HACKtivation, only two — Yammer and Spotify — have CBAs in 2014.
Ilana Lipsett is a co-organizer of HACKtivation and co-founder of Freespace, a free artistic community center. She says that HACKtivation shifted dynamics: Instead of nonprofits asking tech companies for donations, they were collaborating as partners.
Which meant old-school nonprofits getting a lesson in techie culture. Several days before HACKtivation, tech and nonprofit employees met for a “data jam” potluck, which entailed scouring social services websites to better understand local nonprofits' needs.
Throughout HACKtivation, which kicked off at Glide Memorial Church on Friday night and moved to Yammer offices for the bulk of the hacking, tech workers say the goal was to engage with homeless people in an attempt to bridge the communication gap. “[It] was a good reminder to me that homeless people are not that different than anyone else, but at the same time there is a gap between my life and their lives that can make it hard to communicate sometimes,” says Pocket Gems' Pan.
It's a start, anyway. HACKtivation has spawned smaller hackathons every other Wednesday at Freespace and Code for America's offices. But Andrea Mia worries it's not enough. Mia, managing director of Anne Bluethenthal and Dancers ABD — a Mission-based dance company — spent 30 hours working on a new WordPress site for ABD with a handful of hackers that weekend. She says while it's a good sign that techies have an interest in these causes, “this is but a drop in the ocean of tech workers. … Many people in the tech world who do care about the homeless and others in S.F. fail to bridge the connection between their moves here for [large] starting salaries and the surge in evictions and priced-out residents of S.F.”
Mia's concern, a not-uncommon one, is that S.F.'s new tech culture will force out its older ones. “At this rate, artists and activists who make S.F. the awesome, cool, weird, and stimulating place that cares for all its people, including people currently homeless, will be forced to leave the Bay entirely.”
A problem requiring further brainstorming all around.