NEWSLETTER SIGNUP

By signing up to our newsletter, you agree to our terms.

Do Something

Download and use the StreetChange app

static1.squarespace

Download the StreetChange app for your iPhone (an Android version is in development) to give it a try and help someone in need.

Connect WITH OUR SOCIAL ACTION TEAM



Read More

The Citizen on homelessness

Click here for a full list of The Citizen’s reporting on homelessness.  Below are a few choice cuts:

Help the homeless and hungry

Let our Do Something Guide help

We’ve created our guide to help you find simple ways that you can make a difference in the lives of those experiencing hunger and homelessness.  Click below to learn how you can help!

Meet the Disruptors: StreetChange

A local psychiatrist’s app helps users help the homeless—and provides certainty about where their money goes

A local psychiatrist’s app helps users help the homeless—and provides certainty about where their money goes

There wasn’t anything unusual about this particular evening. Penn Psychiatrist Andrew Siegel was strolling home from work in Center City when a familiar thing happened: A homeless person asked him for money. And just like every other time this occurred, he felt an inner tug-of-war. On one side there was an urge to help, on the other apprehension about handing over cash.

He decided not to give, and continued on. That’s when things veered slightly from the norm. As he moved along down the road, he began to focus on the discomfort he was feeling. What was this ethical dilemma that plagued him every time he encountered a homeless person panhandling? He asked himself: Why do I feel so ambivalent about giving?

“It came to me that evening,” Siegel says. “I came to understand that the tension stemmed from the concern that I didn’t know where my money was going.”

What if the person misused it to buy drugs or alcohol? Wouldn’t that cause more harm than good? And more fundamentally, he was concerned that whatever help he gave wouldn’t result in long-term change.

So he started dreaming up a fix. “What could a potential solution look like?” he asked himself. “What would have to be accomplished to both satisfy a person’s short-term needs but also help them take the steps necessary to get off the street?”

Fast-forward a couple years, and Siegel has developed a solution that seeks to cover all those bases: an app called StreetChange.

Siegel wondered: Why do I feel so ambivalent about giving? “I came to understand that the tension stemmed from the concern that I didn’t know where my money was going,” he says.

He partnered with Dan Treglia, a researcher at Penn’s School of Social Policy and Practice, and Michael Brody, President and CEO of the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania (MHASP), to create the location-based smartphone tool that allows individuals to donate everyday goods to people experiencing homelessness while also connecting them with outreach programs in the city.

Here’s how it works: Outreach teams from MHASP hit the streets to meet with homeless individuals who may want to participate in StreetChange. Willing participants answer a few questions about themselves and provide a list of everyday items they need. Then they’re given a key fob that emits a signal when they’re within in a 100- to 150-foot radius of the app.

This is how StreetChange looks on your phone
This is how StreetChange looks on your phone

When a StreetChange user is in pinging distance of one of those key fobs, the app pops up with a photo, profile and list of 10 to 15 requested goods—anything from a toothbrush to socks to a haircut voucher. Then the user has the option to donate any amount of money toward those items via PayPal.

That’s when the second tier of help comes in: MHASP contacts the homeless person to let them know when they’ve received enough donations to purchase an item on their list. That person then goes into the nearest outreach center to pick it up. There they come in contact with caseworkers or peer specialists who can discuss with them strategies to achieve stable housing, healthcare and job training.

“We put the services and the funded item in the same location to increase engagement,” Siegel says. “[The person] can refuse services if they want, but the idea is that we’re making it more likely the engagement will happen.”

Thanks to a startup grant from the Barra Foundation, the app was launched in beta version in December. So far, 28 homeless people have been enrolled through MHASP and users have been actively donating.

Similar to apps like Instacart and Uber, StreetChange taps into the idea of the convenience economy, giving users the opportunity to accomplish a goal with just a few clicks on a smartphone screen.

“We wanted to make the process as easy as possible to potential donors,” says Siegel. “We made an assumption that to require people to carry anything more than what they already carry would limit the usability of the program.”

Everyone has a smartphone, and an internal study showed that users would happily include an app like StreetChange in their repertoire of phone icons.

In his research, Siegel found that 80 percent of people who work in Center City are asked for money at least three times a week. These same people said that they would be more willing to give if—like Siegel— they knew where their money was going, and if it was going toward some sort of systemic change.

Siegel and team are nearing completion of the six-month pilot program funded by Barra, which, along with hosting focus groups, has opened their eyes to ways they can improve the user experience.

The next step is to seek more funding and try to bring in stakeholders—people who are in the nonprofit, fundraising and venture capital realms who can help them take StreetChange, currently an LLC with plans to become a 501c3, to the next level.

When a StreetChange user is in pinging distance of one of the registered homeless individuals, the app pops up with a photo, profile and list of 10 to 15 requested goods—anything from a toothbrush to socks to a haircut voucher. Then the user has the option to donate any amount of money toward said items via PayPal.

They also need programming expertise. Siegel and Treglia both come from the social service world, which, while providing an integral perspective important to StreetChange, doesn’t do much good when it comes to creating the infrastructure necessary to improving the application.

StreetChange is still very much in its beginning, fledgling stages. Its basic functionality is intact, but it doesn’t have the polish of a commercial app. Plus, the database is small. At the moment, most of the clients are located in Center City, which means you won’t get pinged if you’re, say, in West Philadelphia or Fishtown.

“It’s at such an early stage that it’s not something I’m able to integrate into my daily life yet,” says Siegel. But having the process in motion has alleviated that ethical dilemma he struggled with on that night years ago in Center City.

“I’ve accomplished what I’ve set out to do,” he says. “Now we need to make a lot of small improvements—improve the usability so people have a good experience from the first time they use it.”

The app is currently available for free via the iTunes store—but only for iPhones. Siegel says they’re in the process of getting a version developed for Android.

If you’re interested in volunteering your services—or donating—to help StreetChange grow, email info@streetchangephilly.org.

Header Photo: Andrew Siegel (right) and Dan Treglia, courtesy of Anup Sharma

The Philadelphia Citizen will only publish thoughtful, civil posts. We want to be a communal space. But that doesn’t mean you have a First Amendment right to be an idiot. Send us an insulting, offensive and/or wildly off-topic comment and not only will we refrain from posting it -- we will laugh at you before we hit delete.

Recent Tweets
@THEPHILACITIZEN

@thephilacitizen @@thephilacitizen
The Citizen
@thephilacitizen
One in five Philadelphians is at risk of going hungry every day. How *anonymous* food pantries can help: https://t.co/eJWSgWr9Qq 
The Citizen
@thephilacitizen
High school principal @selmekki reflects on what our immigrant and refugee students need most: https://t.co/dMpV6WyI6d 
The Citizen
@thephilacitizen
Series of forums works to strengthen relationship between local black youth and @PhillyPolice: https://t.co/1C4SlJhDqE 
The Citizen
@thephilacitizen
"The residents of Philadelphia don’t want people ripped out of their homes ... That hurts all of us.” https://t.co/YzHAN19wkQ 
The Citizen
@thephilacitizen
At our Citizen Speaks event, five university presidents discuss the role colleges play in shaping our city: https://t.co/D2iI21W7D0 
The Citizen
@thephilacitizen
READING LIST: Citizen writer @romney_jp publishes new book, "Printer's Error: Irreverent Stories from Book History." https://t.co/uQ04jOyK7A 
The Citizen
@thephilacitizen
.@XGames launches anti-bullying campaign, inspiring extreme sport athletes to take on all forms of harassment: https://t.co/NfcianTq9h 
The Citizen
@thephilacitizen
Today's special report on Sanctuary Cities is a long one. Here are some key facts to get you up to speed:… https://t.co/hT5G083aAb 
The Citizen
@thephilacitizen
If he doesn't step up, 2018 could be a repeat of the 2016 election—with Philly and PA the ultimate losers: https://t.co/tr9GN3IMV2 
The Citizen
@thephilacitizen
From The @guardian, Mexico City's deportee work program hopes to help ousted migrants resettle:… https://t.co/EX5LCQb2cP 
The Citizen
@thephilacitizen
To combat youth poverty rates, Nashville adopts program that connects teens and young adults with employers: https://t.co/gK78HFlrP1 
The Citizen
@thephilacitizen
.@irinnews writes about how women farmers are battling climate change in Zimbabwe: https://t.co/VS2t6zBXkF https://t.co/3BuvYbP2XT 
The Citizen
@thephilacitizen
RT @signsofsolidrty:PHILLY: Join us tomorrow for our #ArtOfTheProtest sign-making workshop with @MuralArts at the @KimmelCenter (FREE):… https://t.co/3blF2lUrL2 

LOAD MORE

Be a Citizen Editor

Suggest a Story