For many people who are homeless, it can be difficult to get access to social services, shelters and permanent housing without a valid ID. A report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development notes that those who are homeless face numerous structural barriers to obtaining services, including stigma, geographic and transportation limitations, the complexity of benefit applications, lack of provider staff knowledge — and ID and documentation requirements.
“Homeless people may not be able to supply required documentation, given the difficulty of obtaining and keeping photo identification and related documentation,” the report says.
One organization that partners with nonprofits is aiming to use technology to help. Mini City, a social enterprise organization in Atlanta, uses wristbands enabled with near-field communication to help homeless people get access to services.
“It is an exclusive membership for homeless citizens only,” the organization says. “It unlocks a world of services at no charge to them, such as securing legal identification and generating vital employment forms.”
The organization distributed 500 NFC-enabled wristbands — similar to Fitbits or Nike FuelBands — to help Atlanta’s homeless get access to services. While that may not seem like it will make a huge impact in a city where about 3,000 people are homeless, Mini City projects an annual savings of nearly $2.2 million dollars for the city of Atlanta if only 30 percent of its pilot participants complete the program.
How Mini City Uses Tech to Help the Homeless
As Motherboard reports, Mini City was founded in 2017 by tech designer India Hayes, communications professional Amber McCain and filmmaker Anita Jones with the goal of helping homeless people in Atlanta “replace lost or stolen documents so they can obtain government identification.”
“Vital records are not typically top of mind for people when serving the homeless population,” Jones tells Motherboard. “We’re looking to fill that gap and allow people to take the next step out of transitional housing or off the street.”
Homeless people need IDs not just to access services but to gain a stronger sense of security in society, experts say. “Whether it’s eating, sleeping, or going to the bathroom — all of these can become criminal acts when performed in public,” Eric Tars, senior attorney with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, tells Motherboard. “If you’re targeted for these activities and you don’t have an ID, you’re even more likely to be taken to jail and saddled with fines you can’t pay, which is just one more barrier to saving first and last month’s rent on an apartment.”
How does the organization’s solution work? Mini City partnered with NFC company Tagstand to create the wristbands. Each wristband is programmed and used as a “membership” bracelet, according to Tagstand, “granting every wearer access to a variety of essential benefits, by virtue of a simple tap of the wrist.”
Each wearable holds an identifier number given to homeless citizens when they begin the process of obtaining a government ID. Users unlock Mini City’s app by tapping the wristband on a tablet at Salvation Army and other nonprofits like ReStart Atlanta— allowing them to book shelter beds, find nearby employment and medical resources, and check the status of their ID applications.
Mini City says that its wristband pilot protects the homeless population’s privacy, and the wristbands do not contain GPS chips and do not hold any information beyond the user’s identifier number. It does not store the information users use to apply for an ID.
“We absolutely never want to geolocate any homeless citizens, and we don’t store sensitive information,” Hayes tells Motherboard.
When users log in, the organization’s app relies on what the organization has dubbed a “security triple-check,” and asks security questions, requires a PIN number and takes a photo of each user that it compares to photos on file, Motherboard reports.