HUD, Veterans Affairs and Jon Bon Jovi’s foundation launch app challenge for homeless veterans

To paraphrase President Kennedy: Ask not what your country can code for you — ask what you can code to help your country. If you’re a developer, consider empowering your fellow citizens help the homeless veterans in your community. The Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, and the Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation have collaborated to back a new challenge to developers to create a better way to help the homeless veterans using the Internet and mobile devices.

“Last year’s 12 percent drop in Veterans homelessness shows the results of President Obama’s and the whole administration’s commitment to ending Veterans homelessness,” said Secretary of House and Urban Development Shaun Donovan, in a prepared statement. “I want to thank Jon Bon Jovi for being a part of that effort and for using competition and innovation to advance the cause of ending homelessness.”

The idea here is relatively straightforward: use the open innovation approach that the White House has successfully applied elsewhere federal government to tap into the distributed creativity of the technology community all over the country.

“This contest taps the talent and deep compassion of the Nation’s developer community,” said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki, in a prepared statement. “We are asking them to make a free, easy-to-use Web and smartphone app that provides current information about housing, health clinics and food banks.”

While “Project REACH” stands for “Real-time Electronic Access for Caregivers and the Homeless (REACH),” it actually aspires to do something more meaningful: give mobile citizens and caregivers the information they need to help a homeless veteran where and when it’s needed.

This app “will better connect our nation’s homeless to resources that are already available to them in a manner that reaches them where they are,” said Aneesh Chopra, the first US CTO, in a conference call today with reporters. Chopra, who left the administration earlier this year, later clarified that he was serving as a volunteer and judge for the challenge.

To say that improving the current state of affairs with homeless veterans is needed would be a gross understatement. “Homelessness for anyone is a national tragedy,” said Sean Donovan, secretary of HUD, in today’s call. “It’s never worse than for our nation’s veterans.”

The “Obama administation believes that no one who has fought for our country should ever be invisible to the American people,” said Donovan, who noted that while HUD has housed 28,000 veterans and has gotten nearly “nearly 1 in 5 homeless veterans off our nation’s streets,” more effort is needed.

He’s right. Here’s your jarring statistic of the day: One out of every six men and women in the United States’ homeless shelters are veterans. Veterans are 50 percent, according to the VA, are more likely to fall into homelessness compared to other Americans

The Project REACH challenge asks developers to create a mobile or Web application that will connect service providers to real-time information about resources for the homeless and others in need. “What if we had the ability, in real-time, drawing on local data, to help the homeless vet?” asked Donovan today. He wants to see information that can help them find a place to sleep, find services or work put in the palms of the hands of anyone, giving ordinary citizens the ability to help homeless veterans.

Instead of offering spare change, in other words, a citizen could try to help connect a homeless veteran with services and providers.

The first five entries to meet the requirements will receive a $10,000 cash prize and the opportunity to test their app at the JBJ Soul Kitchen. The winner will receive a $25,000 prize.

“At the Soul Kitchen we’ve seen the need for a simple, user-friendly, comprehensive application that connects those in need to resources in their community,” said Jon Bon Jovi, legendary rock musician, chairman of the JBJ Soul Foundation and White House Council Member, in a prepared statement. “As we sought out a solution to resolve the disconnect, we found the VA, HUD and HHS to be of like mind. Together we can provide the information about existing services – now we need the bright minds in the developer community to create a platform to tie it all together.”

Empowering people to help one another through mobile technology when they want to do so is more about the right-time Web than real-time. And yes, that should sound familiar.

Community groups and service providers sometime lack the right tools, too, explained W. Scott Gould, deputy secretary of veterans affairs, on the call today. The contest launched today will use Internet and smartphones to help them. The app should use tech to show which community provider has a bed or find an employer with openings, he said.

“It’s a high tech, high compassion, low cost solution,” said Gould, that “puts the power in the hands of anyone” to use data to help veterans get the help that they need. He wrote more about using technology to help homeless veterans at the White House blog:

Project REACH (Real-Time Electronic Access for Caregivers and the Homeless) challenges applicants to make a free, easy-to-use, and broadly accessible web- and Smartphone app to provide current and up-to-date information about housing and shelter, health clinics, food banks, and other services available to the homeless. It is designed to tap the enormous talent and deep compassion of the nation’s developer community to help us deliver vital information to the people who care for the homeless.

People caring for homeless veterans will be able to use this app to look up the location and availability of shelters, free clinics, and other social services – and instantaneously be able to share this critical information with those in need.

Bon Jovi, when asked about whether homeless veterans have smartphones on today’s call, told a story about a man at the Soul Kitchen who stayed late into the evening. The staff realized that he didn’t have a place to go and turned to the Internet to try to find a place for him. Although they found that it was easy to find local shelters, said Bon Joivthe websites didn’t inform them of hours and bed availability.

“People like me, who want to help, sometimes just don’t know, real-time, if there are beds available,” he said. “Think about the guys like me that have a computer, in the Soul Kitchen, that want to help.”

As healthcare blogger Brian Ahier noted this afternoon in sharing his post on Project REACH, this is the sort of opportunity that developers who want to make a major contribution to their communities can be proud to work upon.

Improving the ability of citizens to help homeless veterans is a canonical example of working on stuff that matters.

“We will, through our broad and deep network at HUD, make sure that whoever wins this competition, will make sure that app and tech is available to more than 8,000 providers,” said Donovan.

If that network Bon Jovi’s star power can help draw more attention to the challenge and any eventual services, more of the nation’s civic surplus just might get tapped, as more coders find that’s there’s a new form of public service available to them in the 21st century.

About Alex Howard

Alexander B. Howard is a DC-based a technology writer and editor. Previously, he was the Washington Correspondent at O'Reilly Media, where he covered the voices, technologies and issues that matter in the intersection of government, technology and society. If you're feeling social, you can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook or circle him on Google Plus In addition to corresponding for the O’Reilly Radar, he has contributed to the Huffington Post, Govfresh, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, National Journal, The Atlantic, CBS News and Forbes. He graduated from Colby College with a bachelor's degree in biology and sociology. Currently, he is a resident of the District of Columbia, where he lives with his greyhound, wife, power tools, plants and growing collection of cast iron pans, many of which are frequently used to pursue his passion for good cooking.
  • one unimportant veteran

    i am no one important. just one of the many veterans.. Just one issue.. I’m not one of the SPECIAL veterans, that get all the attention.. I didn’t serve during war. I wasn’t in a contflict. I was apart of the support people.. You know hmm the unimportant people who repair equipment needed for the rest to do their jobs.  Electronic equip that was used to hear what was going on everywhere.. I was even stationed overseas.  But still I cant be  in the VFW, I dont get the benefits with education that “WAR VETERANS” get so many things.. But I AM AND WAS A VETERAN..  A VETERAN SHOULD BE A VETERAN. no matter when someone served.. U know i can’t help it there wasn’t a war going on . It was when I felt I was needed. But I am just one of probably thousands that get over looked cause we didn’t serve our country AT THE RIGHT TIME. I THINK ANY TIME YOU SERVE YOUR COUNTRY IS THE RIGHT TIME..    maybe someone should rethink all that..

  • M.E.Beach

    I am service connected disabled veteran and have been homeless since February 2010. I have reached out to every Organization that offers help  to disabled veteran’s, I have written to every Gov’t Official in my district, and I remain homeless, sick, in pain, and suffering from severe depression.For one reason or another, I did not qualify to receive assistance. My service dates to not meet requirements…ect….  I have given up, I have lost all faith in my Gov’t and the country I so proudly served for. The only thing I can do now is, when I do find a safe, warm shelter to rest under and try to rest, I say a prayer, no longer for myself but for the Veterans coming home now. My God love and keep them safe, cause the Country we proudly served, is not going to. I my not have mentioned, I am a Female, Honorably discharged, 50% service connected Navy Veteran.

    • Lunardarkside

       I am a female Navy Veteran too. I am 70% service connected and trying to be grateful that I have a roof even though i don’t have running water ever since the well went dry… … and so on… … It’s hard for me not to be resentful when I see commercials on tv somewhere (I don’t have a digital one) soliciting money to go drill wells in Africa. I know those people need water too but what about taking care of those that sacrificed for you first? The whole charity begins at home thing? I will pray for you. <3 We are ALL family. You are not forgotten.

  • Dale B. Kluge

    first I need to say thank so much to all that have given there time, there money and resources for without these people a lot of good men and women myself included might not have got the help needed to regain what they have lost after giving themselves freely to keep use all free.
    I try to make sense of how when I was at the u.s. vets I applied for hud about 3 months on my own they contacted me the lady said rent vouchers could only go to the homeless I said I would do what ever program they wanted me for just a little help while I went back to school. 
    I believe she was a confused as me she was in tears the last time we talked I felt so bad for ever pointing out to her that I could only get a rent voucher if I was homeless (who would I give it to if I was homeless) but I could not get a little help to keep from becoming homeless again.
    It seems it more important to say you got x amount of vets of the homeless list even if its the same person, I don’t get ?. 
               
                                   p.s. thank god I’m still hanging in there for there is 1 other vet that I’m 
    helping so he can make it to.
                                                     Dale B. Kluge U.S Navy   

  • Dan Johnson

    I am a gratefully recovering addicted veteran, I was homeless on the streets for over 10 years. Depression and Meth kept me out there way to long.  When I finally decided I needed help I checked into my local VA hospitals HVRP (homeless veterans rehabilitation program). With their help I got clean (4 years on 4/1/12), got hooked up with a HUD/Vash program, found work and my own apartment. Recovery is anything but easy, however help is out there! Don’t settle for anything less than you deserve, partner with your local VA hospital and be your own best advocate, the help is there.

  • http://www.facebook.com/critter9902 April Crisler

    Hello everyone, I have a question for anyone. I’m a Disabled Veteran, 100% unemployable. I’m recently divorced and also my house burned completely down in 2011. I was lucky that I wasn’t home on the other hand, I was insured to the gills fat lot of good that did me. Its been 1 year 4 months since the fire. I don’t really have a home I’ve been bouncing around, I’m in the middle of a lawsuit with my insurance company because of refusal to pay claim. I am swimming in so much debt from before the fire and it just gotten deeper since the fire. I just don’t know what to do I’m stuck in a hard place and I can’t get help.