An address is a person's identity.
In California, there are over 1.2 million vacant homes, yet more than 150,000 people (homeless population in California, 2019) don't have access to a stable address. Without an address, people lose access to government benefits (welfare, food stamps), healthcare, banks, jobs, and more. As the housing crisis continues to escalate and worsen throughout COVID-19, a lack of an address significantly reduces the support available to escape homelessness.
This is Paper Homes: Connecting you with spaces so you can go places. 📃🏠
Paper Homes is a web application designed for individuals experiencing homelessness to get matched with an address donated by a property owner.
Part 1: Donating an address
Housing associations, real estate companies, and private donors will be our main sources of address donations. As a donor, you can sign up to donate addresses either manually or via CSV, and later view the addresses you donated and the individuals matched with them in a dashboard.
Part 2: Receiving an address
To mitigate security concerns and provide more accessible resources, Paper Homes will be partnering with California homeless shelters under the “Paper Homes” program. We will communicate with shelter staff to help facilitate the matching process and ensure operations run smoothly.
When signing up, a homeless individual can provide ID, however if they don’t have any forms of ID we facilitate the entire process in getting them an ID with pre-filled forms for application. Afterwards, they immediately get matched with a donated address! They can then access a dashboard with any documents (i.e. applying for a birth certificate, SSN, California ID Card, registering address with the government - all of which are free in California). During onboarding they can also set up mail forwarding ($1/year, funded by NPO grants and donations) to the homeless shelter they are associated with.
Note: We are solely providing addresses for people, not a place to live. Addresses will expire in 6 months to ensure our database is up to date with in-use addresses as well as mail forwarding, however people can choose to renew their addresses every 6 months as needed.
How we built it 🧰
We built the backend in Node.js and utilized express to connect to our Firestore database. The routes were written with the Express.js framework. We used selenium and pdf editing packages to allow users to download any filled out pdf forms. Selenium was used to apply for documents on behalf of the users.
We built a Node.js webpage to demo our Paper Homes platform, using React.js, HTML and CSS. The platform is made up of 2 main parts, the donor’s side and the recipient’s side. The front end includes a login/signup flow that populates and updates our Firestore database. Each side has its own dashboard. The donor side allows the user to add properties to donate and manage their properties (ie, if it is no longer vacant, see if the address is in use, etc). The recipient’s side shows the address provided to the user, steps to get any missing ID’s etc.
Challenges we ran into 😤
There were a lot of non-technical challenges we ran into. Getting all the correct information into the website was challenging as the information we needed was spread out across the internet. In addition, it was the group’s first time using firebase, so we had some struggles getting that all set up and running. Also, some of our group members were relatively new to React so it was a learning curve to understand the workflow, routing and front end design.
Accomplishments & what we learned 🏆
In just one weekend, we got a functional prototype of what the platform would look like. We have functional user flows for both donors and recipients that are fleshed out with good UI. The team learned a great deal about building web applications along with using firebase and React!
What's next for Paper Homes 💭
Since our prototype is geared towards residents of California, the next step is to expand to other states! As each state has their own laws with how they deal with handing out ID and government benefits, there is still a lot of work ahead for Paper Homes!
In California alone, there are over 150,000 people experiencing homelessness. These people will find it significantly harder to find employment, receive government benefits, even vote without proper identification. The biggest hurdle is that many of these services are linked to an address, and since they do not have a permanent address that they can send mail to, they are locked out of these essential services. We believe that it is ethically wrong for us as a society to not act against the problem of the hole that the US government systems have put in place to make it almost impossible to escape homelessness. And this is not a small problem. An address is no longer just a location - it's now a de facto means of identification. If a person becomes homeless they are cut off from the basic services they need to recover.
People experiencing homelessness also encounter other difficulties. Getting your first piece of ID is notoriously hard because most ID’s require an existing form of ID. In California, there are new laws to help with this problem, but they are new and not widely known. While these laws do reduce the barriers to get an ID, without knowing the processes, having the right forms, and getting the right signatures from the right people, it can take over 2 years to get an ID.
Paper Homes attempts to solve these problems by providing a method for people to obtain essential pieces of ID, along with allowing people to receive a proxy address to use.
As of the 2018 census, there are 1.2 million vacant houses in California. Our platform allows for donors with vacant properties to allow people experiencing homelessness to put down their address to receive government benefits and other necessities that we take for granted. With the donated address, we set up mail forwarding with USPS to forward their mail from this donated address to a homeless shelter near them.
With proper identification and a permanent address, people experiencing homelessness can now vote, apply for government benefits, and apply for jobs, greatly increasing their chance of finding stability and recovering from this period of instability
Paper Homes unlocks access to the services needed to recover from homelessness. They will be able to open a bank account, receive mail, see a doctor, use libraries, get benefits, and apply for jobs.
However, we recognize the need to protect a person’s data and acknowledge that the use of an online platform makes this difficult. Additionally, while over 80% of people experiencing homelessness have access to a smartphone, access to this platform is still somewhat limited. Nevertheless, we believe that a free and highly effective platform could bring a large amount of benefit. So long that we prioritize the needs of a person experiencing homelessness first, we will able to greatly help them rather than harming them.
There are some ethical considerations that still need to be explored:
We must ensure that each user’s information security and confidentiality are of the highest importance. Given that we will be storing sensitive and confidential information about the user’s identity, this is top of mind. Without it, the benefit that our platform provides is offset by the damage to their security. Therefore, we will be keeping user data 100% confidential when receiving and storing by using hashing techniques, encryption, etc.
Secondly, as mentioned previously, while this will unlock access to services needed to recover from homelessness, there are some segments of the overall population that will not be able to access these services due to limited access to the internet. While we currently have focused the product on California, US where access to the internet is relatively high (80% of people facing homelessness have access to a smartphone and free wifi is common), there are other states and countries that are limited.
In addition to the ideas mentioned above, some next steps would be to design a proper user and donor consent form and agreement that both supports users’ rights and removes any concern about the confidentiality of the data. Our goal is to provide means for people facing homelessness to receive the resources they need to recover and thus should be as transparent as possible.