New app a smart idea for group aiding homeless

FORT COLLINS – Nancy John of Homeless Gear tapped the glowing glass screen of a smartphone as she stood in the dark among a crowd of homeless people who were asking for food, clothing and supplies.

She’s using an app developed by a volunteer for the nonprofit Homeless Gear. It’s a simple piece of technology that records data such as names of homeless people and supplies given to them, but it delivers big benefits to the nonprofit.

“It’s really helped a lot in terms of streamlining our process,´ said Nancy John’s husband, Ken John.

Ken John started Homeless Gear in 2008 after selling his Fort Collins athletic equipment company Promats and retiring just a few months earlier. The nonprofit travels throughout Colorado three nights each week to distribute essential items it collects with help from donations. Last year, Homeless Gear had 4,000 interactions with a total of 1,000 homeless people. Volunteers contact from 15 to 65 people on the nights they go out.

Late one Tuesday night, the Johns parked their new van on Linden Center Drive outside the Catholic Charities Northern homeless shelter across from New Belgium Brewing Co. Ken John knelt in the back of the van, its back doors swung open, and handed a small bottle of lotion to one man, a loaf of bread to another and a hooded sweatshirt to one other. Homeless people crowded around the van seeking supplies before some of them retired for the night in the shelter.

Homeless Gear, which employs four full-time workers, moves its van to locations of other nonprofits to reach people who, as Ken John puts it, have “sort of dropped out of the system” – people who have stopped going to all the traditional places to get help.

Homeless Gear aims to help those who have lost hope survive, at first, and eventually transition them back to live productive lives.

The nonprofit has gotten a boost from the mobile app that its volunteers have used the past several months.

Jeff Lee, software lead tech for Hewlett-Packard in Fort Collins, developed the app for the Android mobile operating system as a volunteer project for Homeless Gear, which he learned about through his church. He had never developed a mobile app, so for a few weeks he spent his spare time writing code.

“It took me as much time to learn how to do it as it took me to do it,” Lee said.

Lee’s hours spent developing the app have led to hours of saved time by employees and volunteers who formerly had to enter data into a computer manually, including names of homeless people, their ages and ethnicity, whether they are a new or repeat homeless person and what kinds of supplies the organization has given them.

Volunteers and employees used to write the data on notepads and return to enter it “line-by-line” on computers, Ken John said.

The app gives volunteers much needed handheld technology so they can do their work seamlessly in the field. When they return to the Homeless Gear office after a night’s work, they simply plug their smartphones into the computer and upload the data.

Recording that kind of information is important to Homeless Gear because it is used in grant applications and show the effectiveness of the program to donors, said David Rout, program director at Homeless Gear.

“That’s obviously really important to the growth of this program and to our organization as a whole,” he said. “Ultimately, it’s important in the sense that we’ll be able to provide more and better services for the people.”

The organization also makes contact with people who recently lost their homes and may not know what kinds of services they can use, said Rout. They tell people how to find shelter for the night or refer them to the Sister Mary Alice Murphy Center for Hope, a Fort Collins hub for services to the homeless.

Once people want to get back on their feet, Homeless Gear connects them with volunteers who team up to help them find jobs.

“When they are ready to get on track, we’ll be the interface,” Ken John said. “The goal is to get them up and off the streets permanently.”

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