Finalists named in contest to create app to aid homeless vets
WASHINGTON — It took the staff at the Virginia data firm Qbase just a few weeks to build a mobile app that maps all of the overnight shelters, mental health centers and Veterans Affairs facilities across the country.
But officials said that’s just the start. The final version will allow shelters to update their bed counts in real time. Veterans will be able to search for specific needs, like facilities that accept children or pets. The goal is to include every resource possible that homeless veterans can turn to when they find themselves in trouble.
All that, and the work only cost the VA a few thousand dollars.
On Tuesday, officials from the VA, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Department of Health and Human Services unveiled the five finalists — including Qbase — in their Project REACH contest, designed to provide easy-to-use resource tools for homeless veterans and advocates.
The contest was launched in March with a push from rocker Jon Bon Jovi, who founded a community kitchen in New Jersey to help impoverished families.
He said he was moved to push for better resources after meeting a homeless man there last winter and realizing that he didn’t know what assistance groups were available nearby.
“Here was a guy who didn’t know where he was going to sleep, and now we have innovations to find these resources in real time,” he said. “This is going to give people help and hope.”
The contest finalists each received $10,000 and a chance to refine their software over the summer, for a chance at an additional $25,000 award. Each of the groups selected said the competition was a helpful push to use their database experience for public service. Contest organizers plan on announcing the winner in November, and pushing that application out to homeless advocates and facilities in the following months.
VA officials said it was a low-cost way to get immediate results from a sea of available but confusing data on homeless resources.
Jonah Czerwinski, director of the Veterans Affairs Innovation Initiative, said nearly all of the bed counts, medical facilities and financial assistance details for the homeless programs are already available online. The trick is getting them into an easily adaptable – and useable – format.
“We’ve been pleased with what we’ve seen, not just from the functionality of these applications, but also the user experience,” he said.
The five finalist applications are all geared toward use both by assistance groups and veterans themselves. Czerwinski noted that many veterans struggling financially still own cellphones, and can access some of those resources before they end up on the streets.