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Where Are They Now?: WeShelter

Nonprofit & Social Cause

Tapping WeShelter's app unlocks donations for homelessness services. We catch up with the founders about their recent work with the New York Mayor's Office, and more.

Using technology as a means to create a genuine solution is a mantra held by many modern entrepreneurs, but few have exercised it as fiercely as the founders of WeShelter. The New York-based startup has seen tremendous progress since we first wrote about them in July last year, and with a focus on innovative technical solutions, the app is taking on one of the most urgent human issues faced by many metropolises today — homelessness.

The app started out as a way to answer that familiar feeling most of those who live in big cities experience on a daily basis — seeing a homeless individual on the street and wanting to offer help, but not knowing exactly what to do. “You kind of just pass it by and don’t say anything,” co-founder Ken Manning explains, “[But] I think people are becoming more conscious of these types of issues, both in a societal sense and in a technology sense.”

Seizing this growing consciousness, their solution was a one-tap app that lets users unlock a five cent donation from corporate sponsors every time they see someone homeless. The funds then go to one of WeShelter’s homelessness service partners. But the app didn’t always have this model. Initially, the team tested a version that let users give microdonations of their own money every time they pass an individual in need.

However, it proved to be cumbersome. “It’s something that any app developer knows — if there’s more than one step to set-up, you lose people very quickly,” Ken tells us. It didn’t help that Apple doesn’t allow donations on iPhone apps, so users had to be thrown out onto Safari, enter their passwords, before they could donate.

“We had a few dozen beta testers, and all of them were so enthusiastic.” Ilya Lyashevsky, another co-founder of WeShelter tells us, “But I swear [in the end] it was just me, Ken and Rob that maybe did it once ourselves.”

Co-founders Ilya and Ken
Co-founders Ilya and Ken

So the team pivoted to the sponsored model, which was a move that not only solved the problem of engagement, but also enabled the startup to bring the business community into the picture. Ilya tells us that many companies already give money to charity, but they don’t necessarily get recognition for it. Through WeShelter, they can get their branding onto a civic engagement app.

When we first wrote about WeShelter, they were seeking non-profit status from the government. They are now certified as 501(c), and getting involved with the city council in even more far-reaching ways. The Mayor’s office in New York recently invited WeShelter to collaborate on a new project:

While tapping the app, users contribute to a crowdsourced map, which is created by gathering the geo-location of each tap. This mapping technology is what the Department of Homeless Services is eager to learn more about — their new Project Home Stat is a live-mapping of 311 requests regarding homelessness.

“New York City is probably the biggest entity in the US that’s fighting homelessness,” Ilya tells us, “It’s a huge organization, both financially and in the number of people that it has helped. It’s very exciting and gratifying that we are able to collaborate with the department.”

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“I think that’s indicative of what you see in private industries as well,” Ken adds. “You have large, complex organizations that often need to do something quickly, and it’s difficult. That’s when entrepreneurs can often step into the picture and help.”

The team also worked this mapping feature by partnering with other non-profits. Recently, WeShelter gave the organization Hashtag Lunchbag access to the technology so they can deliver targeted lunches to homeless individuals.

However, as a non-profit, one of their biggest challenges continues to be a need for more resources. Though they have had tremendous volunteer support, these resources can be unpredictable, and require yet more effort to manage. They have also faced problems with raising awareness, but recent PR efforts led to exposure from Fox News and other cities across the US and in the UK.

WeShelter has recently unlocked the 100,000th donation, and are approaching the 10,000 mark on homeless sightings. The team is currently looking to expand to other US cities, with Silicon Valley as their next target. “San Francisco has a serious homelessness problem,” Ilya says, “And it’s kind of a technology hot bed, so we anticipate a good reception there to a technology-driven solution.”

The next big focus for the team is to create a better way for activating users and helping them find volunteer opportunities — a “next step” for those using the app, which will help further the issue along. “We’ve learnt through user research that [our users] really want to do more than just tap the button,” Ilya says, “And that was actually always our goal, for the app to be a stepping stone and activator.”

Read more about WeShelter here.