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Tech doing good? SF tackles homelessness with smartphones

At a time when San Francisco is under fire for being too "techie," some local nonprofits have teamed up with a leading enterprise-technology company to try to show the tech industry's philanthropic side.

Donna Tam Staff Writer / News
Donna Tam covers Amazon and other fun stuff for CNET News. She is a San Francisco native who enjoys feasting, merrymaking, checking her Gmail and reading her Kindle.
Donna Tam
3 min read
Edgar Aguilar, a Link-SF user. Donna Tam/CNET

About two or three weeks ago, recovering addict Edgar Aguilar walked into a tiny computer lab situated in the Mid-Market area of San Francisco -- the new battleground for the friction between the tech industry's wealthiest and the city's most vulnerable residents. He had been checking out a new mobile site advertised by a flyer he spotted. It promised an easy way to connect the homeless to social services. Just out of substance abuse rehab and unemployed, Aguilar figured he'd give it a try.

He had no idea that less a month later, he'd share the floor with some of San Francisco's most powerful officials. On Friday, Aguilar stood next to San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and other civic and nonprofit leaders as they officially launched the new Link-SF homeless services mobile site, the same site Aguilar used to find work as an on-call hospitality worker.

"That's really been a blessing for me," he told a group of reporters who crammed into the computer lab at the St. Anthony Foundation.

A computer lab inside a homeless services nonprofit is not the usual place for a tech industry press conference, but it is sobering, and it may be the most powerful. Downstairs, the rain poured down intermittently outside as homeless and low-income people waited in line to eat.

San Francisco's officials wants the mobile site, the brainchild of Zendesk software engineers and nonprofits St. Anthony Foundation and the Gray Area Foundation, to be a symbol of what could be. In a place where tech, and those who have supported tech businesses through tax cuts, is vilified, this partnership is meant to show what kind of good a business like Zendesk, an enterprise software company, can do.

The Link-SF site, accessible on the Web but optimized for mobile phones, is pegged as a "Yelp-like" site for homeless services. Users can look up resources for food, shelter, medical services, and places to access showers or technology. Aguilar said he appreciated that the site showed him all the nearby computer labs open for the public and even told him how long it would take for him to walk to each one. Having access to a computer helped him apply for jobs.

It may seem odd to create a site for mobile phones when you're talking about serving the poor. After all, they're in need of the most basic of services. But Zendesk Software Engineer Ken Nakagawa, one of seven engineers who worked on the site, said most of the impoverished population in San Francisco have mobile phones and those devices have become lifelines to important resources. According to St. Anthony, 45 percent of people who use the nonprofit's technology training program own a smartphone.

Zendesk was the first company to sign up for a Mid-Market location, which also came with a tax cut (like the one made infamous by Twitter). Nakagawa said he and his team visited the local Metro PCS store, located near Zendesk's office, to find out what phones are the most popular among the residents in the are so they could design with the choice operating systems in mind.

For sure, Zendesk's contribution to this project can't singlehandedly solve the tension highlighted by Google bus protests and home evictions spurred by the rising value of property in a tech-centric economy. But it could provide a modicum of hope that people in tech actually want to be a part of the local community, not displace it.