Apps Contest Aims to Help Homeless Vets

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Not many Department of Veterans Affairs projects can say they got their start from Bon Jovi. But that’s exactly how the program known as Project REACH (Real-Time Electronic Access for Caregivers and the Homeless) began.

The idea behind the contest to create an app that provides up to date information for service providers helping the homeless came from Jon Bon Jovi’s Soul Kitchen, a community restaurant in Monmouth County – when volunteers realized they didn’t have good access to information on shelters or other services in the area their patrons might also need.

It’s also where the five finalists in the contest – including two area developers – are beta testing their apps before a winner is announced on November 9.

It took about two “hackathon” weekends and several weeknights for John McCarthy of Queens to create his app, called “Reachous.” The main focus of the app is to enable providers and the homeless to find and reserve beds at shelters, but it also provides access to other local resources like health services, job opportunities, legal assistance and counseling.

“In general, I have an interest in how do you use the web’s ability to mobilize people to create social good,” 29-year-old McCarthy said.

He and his Reachous co-founder, Grace Cheung, 30, were happy to learn they were one of the five finalists selected. “We’re just really excited to be doing this. I think we’re really excited about working on homelessness issues in general and just bringing our expertise in technology and social media.”

Other finalists include JJAppCo, LLC of Manchester, NJ, Binary Group from Arlington, Va., Qbase of Reston, VA and Makati Kai Tech of Kiel, Hawaii.

The fact that the VA is getting innovative in using mobile technology is good news to Tom Tarantino, chief policy officer for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. He notes that many of the vets from today’s wars had IM accounts and email before they could drive.

“So the fact that the VA has been ramping up their use of technology, specifically wireless and digital technology, it’s really encouraging, and it could go a long way towards fixing some of these serious problems we have in our community, like homelessness, like substance abuse,” Tarantino said.

The digital-savviness of today’s veterans is one of the reasons the VA teamed up with the Departments of Housing and Urban Development and Health and Human Services for this challenge.

“We realize that the growing population of veterans aren’t necessarily going to look for a brick and mortar facility right away to see whether the VA can be there to help them,” explained Jonah Czerwinski, director of the VA Innovation Initiative. “They’re going to instead want to access us in a mobile environment or online to first feel it out, see what’s there and what’s available to them.”

An estimated 144,842 veterans spend at least one night in an emergency shelter or transitional housing program, according to the VA. While the focus of the challenge is on helping veteran’s homelessness, which the department has set as a goal to end by 2015, he notes the app can have wider applications for anyone experiencing homelessness.

The five finalists are beta testing their apps in New Jersey, where the idea was conceived They have gotten feedback from users and have been making adjustments before the second beta test. That’s what McCarthy has been spending his free time on recently.

A winner will be announced on November 9, two days before Veterans Day.