Oakland is building a new phone app for its homeless residents
As Oakland contends with the human tragedy of its homelessness crisis, the city is getting an app that officials hope will make life just a little easier for people living on the streets.
With a few taps on a smartphone screen, the Homelessness Resource App will connect unhoused people with shelter, mental health help, food banks and other services. It’s designed to be a more direct and tech-savvy alternative to the main way Alameda County currently offers help — the 211 phone line.
The app, set to roll out by the end of July, won’t solve all of the city or the county’s problems. Not all unhoused people have access to a smartphone or a place to reliably charge their phone. And the new technology does nothing to address the biggest challenge — there aren’t enough shelter beds, affordable apartments or other resources to go around.
But it may make it easier for some unhoused people to find what they need, said Lara Tannenbaum, manager of Oakland’s community housing services division. And it will help the city keep people up to date about new offerings — including cold-weather shelters — or changes in existing services.
“It’s the 21st century. We didn’t want to keep printing out paper sheets and then things would change and things would have to be updated,” Tannenbaum said. “That led us to an app, because that’s the age that we live in.”
The app is being designed by a team of three Code for America fellows, all of whom are women of color who have firsthand experience with housing insecurity.
Currently, people who need almost any type of help — from long-term housing, to a bed for the night, to a hot meal, to legal aid — are directed to call 211 and access Alameda County’s helpline. The phone line, staffed 24/7 by the nonprofit Eden I&R, has access to a database of nearly 900 agencies that offer 2,200 different programs, according to Executive Director Alison DeJung.
But the call center fields about 300 calls per day, and sometimes high demand forces staff to keep callers on hold for 20 minutes or longer. Other times, a caller will leave a voicemail, but when staff tries to call back, the caller’s phone may be dead or they may be otherwise unreachable.
Oakland’s new app would pull resources from the 211 database and put them directly into the hands of an unhoused person, outreach worker or case manager.
“We don’t want to take 211 away,” said Adorable Jasmine, the Code for America team’s project manager. “We want to make sure people are getting access to that information and offer people more options.”
The app also could help the city track how many people are accessing which services — data that would be useful for future funding and policy decisions. And anyone would be able to download it and use it to help an unhoused person they come across, Tannenbaum said.
Future versions of the app may include alerts notifying users of new shelter options or pop-up food banks, or functions that help unhoused people stay in touch with their case managers.
For Jasmine, 35, her work on the app has brought her life full circle. She fell on hard times about five years ago, coming out of grad school at San Francisco State University while also trying to recover from domestic abuse. She bounced from place to place, including couch-surfing at friends’ houses. Eventually, Jasmine enrolled in a tech training program at Geekwise Academy, and then landed the nine-month, paid Code for America fellowship.
“Now I’m able to pay it forward and contribute my time to people who may be in similar situations or have fallen on hard times,” she said. “You can be any type of person from any type of class or background and end up in a place of housing insecurity in the Bay Area.”
Oakland is investing $6,500 in the app — $1,500 for the initial setup, plus $5,000 to access the 211 resource database.
City officials have been working on the project idea since 2018, when they realized they didn’t have a unified place for resources that was updated in real-time.
A high school intern in the city’s IT department started drafting what an app might look like. Groups from the Aspen Tech Policy Hub (an incubator that trains tech policy entrepreneurs) and U.S. Digital Response (which helps governments with tech challenges) built off the intern’s work. Finally, the city partnered with Code for America to bring the project across the finish line.
The Code for America fellows have developed a working prototype, which is being tested by frontline workers and unhoused people.
But an app won’t fix what DeJung said is the biggest problem with 211 — when her employees answer the phone, often there’s just nothing they can do for the person on the other end.
“I think there just gets to be this frustration of, ‘why would I call, I called before, they just asked me a lot of questions and there was nothing to connect,’” DeJung said. “It just comes from navigating a landscape where there’s just not enough resources.”
Vera Sloan, an outreach worker with Love and Justice in the Streets, rarely bothers to call 211 on behalf of the unhoused people she works with. She recently called the hotline for a 73-year-old disabled woman who needed a bed that night. Sloan spent about 15 minutes navigating pre-recorded messages before giving up.
But Sloan doesn’t think an app is the answer.
“I’m sure this is extremely well-meant, and I’m sure there are a handful of unhoused people who actually have the resources and the capabilities to navigate something like that,” she said. “(But) I think it’s going to give them a lot of information they already know: Places they have called and haven’t called them back. Places they have been and been turned away. Or places that don’t work for them.”