We tried to imagine the unimaginable: being homeless in St. Louis. Unfortunately, this is a reality for thousands of people. The even more heartbreaking reality was imagining walking miles to get to a shelter only to be told there were no vacancies. We decided to address this specific problem. Furthermore, after conversing with representatives from various shelters, they expressed concern because of the lack of a database that keeps track of overflow availability.

What we learned

We talked with Tim Huffman, a subject matter expert from SLU, and Judson Bliss, a St. Patrick Center representative. We learned that the new Homeless Management Information System, to be released in December, would include bed listings for all shelters in St. Louis. We were surprised to learn about winter overflow, a kind of flexibility shelters have in extreme weather conditions to "give a client a blanket and chair because that's something." So, while overflow capacity is not the same as "beds," it gives clients safety and shelter for the night. Furthermore, we learned that some churches and parishes in the STL area also open their doors in overflow capacity ways. Logically, we thought the HMIS to be implemented in shelters would also track the overflow availability. We were shocked and disappointed that no such system exists. So, in our project, we created a way for shelters to track their own overflow, shelters to view each others' overflow, and clients to see where overflow vacancies exist in the absence of beds.

What it does

Our software is a website that connects clients to shelters with vacancies, including overflow, after creating an account which includes all criteria necessary to accommodating them. These criteria include age, gender identity, the number in party, and if special assistance is needed (handicap accessible, accepting of LGBTQ+, accepting of people with mental illness, etc). We to use a Google API to use the intersection a client is closest to to aid in finding a suitable shelter. Our biggest caution was making sure our software would be accessible. This website is mobile friendly, so clients can access on their smartphones. Our subject matter expert stated that most clients are within one degree of separation from technology. We believe that our software will be accessible to all homeless people, even those without cell phones because of proximity of free wifi and public libraries. Additionally, we addressed three types of shelters: 23 CoC Emergency Shelters in the St. Louis area, Church/Parish Overflow shelters, and shelters in generous people's homes. The idea to provide shelter in people's homes, or community capacity, came from the special needs of those who aren't in the gender binary, and would feel uncomfortable in forced male or female emergency shelters. Another example of clients who could make use of individuals who have developmental disorders or mental illness, who may find emergency shelters overstimulating. Finally, LGBTQ+ teens who have runaway from home may be more comfortable in someone's home. The main point of our idea is to provide a shelter that is not only a space to stay for the night, but a place where clients feel safe and comfortable. There is a feature that allows all users, both clients and shelters, to view other shelters' beds filled and overflow space. Viewing overflow space is crucial because, as of now, there is no such database. Furthermore, church/parishes and home shelters can turn their visibility to clients on and off depending on the overall filled bed count, the weather for that night, etc. Finally, a survey feature for clients to fill out after staying at an shelter allows shelters to receive feedback about their strengths and weaknesses, which ideally will lead to necessary improvements being made.

How we built it

We used html and javascript to code the website. Given the short time frame, we wanted to ensure that our idea would be fully communicated, even if our code wasn't complete. We used Balsamiq Mockup to create a complete rough draft of every element of our extensive website. Our programming plan includes using the Google Sheets API to update occupancy data using realtime vacancy information inputs provided by shelters and to fetch that data on the Find a Shelter page to accurately list available options for clients to utilize.

Accomplishments we're proud of

Our idea, which benefits both clients and shelters, is original, as no current software tracks overflow capacity. In terms of production, we have been efficient in our time, especially given our 3 person team size. We have thoroughly enjoyed GlobalHack, and it was a great first Hackathon.

What's next for SSS

Hopefully, we can advance through the rounds of judging, so, if nothing else, our idea can be shared with the widest audience possible. We'd love to be able to further develop the software with new front-end, keeping the user experience fresh and clean. Then, our ultimate goal is to put SSS out into the world, making it a vital tool for both clients and shelters in St. Louis.

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