This article originally appeared in The Globe and Mail on Dec. 7, 2015.
Arriving at a shelter after the last bed is filled or last hot meal is served can be devastating to someone in need.
A new, web-based app – the mobile version is coming – has launched to link Vancouver’s vulnerable and homeless with vital information about shelters, free meals, showers and other services in one accessible package.
Developed in partnership with the UBC Learning Exchange and the Downtown Eastside Literacy Roundtable, the tool prioritizes visual communication over the written word. The idea is to make the information as accessible as possible while transcending language and literacy barriers.
“We wanted less text so we developed a system of icons,” said William Booth, the Literacy Outreach co-ordinator at the DTES Literacy Roundtable. “We’ve tested those in the community and these are the icons that the community wants.”
A paw print indicates if pets are allowed. Another icon shows if shopping carts are welcome on site. Others depict identification requirements, availability of phones, WiFi, computers and medical services or if a service is gender specific.
The app’s developer, 29-year-old Kevin Tanyag, is a recent graduate of UBC’s computer-science program. He hopes to see participation by both community outreach workers and residents of the DTES. But that doesn’t come without its challenges.
The first hurdle is communicating the app’s existence. To do that, the team has hired two ambassadors, Wilson Liang and Dianne Campbell, to hit the pavement with the belief that word of mouth is the surest way to spread information in the DTES.
Ms. Campbell, who was once homeless and struggling with addiction, says the app will empower community members to help each other. When she isn’t working on the app, she is an outreach worker for Vancouver Native Health.
“This is something we’ve needed for a long time,” she said.
But Ali Fernie, an outreach worker with Rain City Housing, sees another challenge. She estimates only about 50 per cent of DTES residents have a smartphone and fewer have data plans. Her employer provides her with a cellphone but no data. She says she likely wouldn’t seek out WiFi just to use the app.
She adds that even when beds are full, she can use her connections to find someone a temporary space in a shelter’s lounge or alternative space, something the app can’t do. “That goes so far down here. That is what half of our work is.”
The team at the UBC Learning Exchange, however, says access to technology in the community has become ubiquitous in the past few years and doesn’t foresee the issue as a barrier. With public libraries, public WiFi and programs that provide free or affordable laptops and phones, there’s plenty of tech to go around, said Mr. Booth.
If successful, the app would be a more reliable source of information than rarely updated pamphlets and literature. But that success relies on buy-in from the service providers who will have the task of updating their organization’s information as necessary.
“If this takes off and if it’s beneficial and really helping people connect, then yes, I believe service providers will use it and make it a priority. If it’s not kept up to date, I don’t see a lot of people who are looking for help using the app,” said Jeremy Hunka, spokesperson for the Union Gospel Mission, an outreach and service provider in the area.
The app is currently accessible online at Linkvan.ca and will launch on Apple and Android platforms in the coming weeks.