Three students at the Harvard Graduate School of Education are approaching the problem of homelessness in a different way.
By Brian E. Wagner

What might help homeless people overcome poverty? The question is one that many have attempted to solve via shelters, food kitchens, and short-term employment opportunities. But three students at the Harvard Graduate School of Education are approaching the problem in a different way.

Cindy C. Yang, Hannah R. Fidoten, and Farhan M. Quasem identified lack of internet access as a crucial hindrance towards locating jobs and long-term housing opportunities. Through their startup, Mobilzr, they seek to provide physical WiFi devices to homeless people in order to improve digital literacy.

I sit down with Yang and Fidoten one morning in lobby of Gutman Library, and they explain their inspiration for the startup.

“What first drew us to it was just the daily commute through Harvard Square and seeing the homelessness,” Yang recalls. At a hack-a-thon last fall, they realized technology’s potential in addressing the issue. “We have an affinity towards technology journalism solutions,” she adds.

While various shelters and food organizations already exist to assist homeless people, there is currently no group that focuses primarily on providing internet access, according to the students. The students believe that, with WiFi devices, homeless people can gain agency in their job searches and lives in general. “We decided to focus on how we could get these devices to them so that they could take advantage of the technology that any of us are so accustomed to using,” Fidoten says.

Though their inspiration came from homeless people living on the streets of Harvard Square, the students explain that they have a different target audience.

“We’re working with individuals in transitional housing programs, so they actually have a place to live at the moment,” Fidoten explains, “but they’re working on finding a better job and housing that they can pay for on their own.” Many of these transitional housing organizations do not have WiFi, and for those that do, many of their occupants don’t have devices to access the internet in the first place.

Along with providing internet-accessing devices, the students are working on a curriculum that will accompany the device. It will provide its recipients with instruction both in general technology use and for specific apps, such as LinkedIn, to help with housing and job searches. Yang tells me about a promising app on the horizon called Micro Employment Opportunities, which MIT students are working on. “A local business might post something like ‘Help me take out the trash’ and then homeless people could get experience or short-term benefits,” she explains.

Mobilizr is in its earlier stages of development; its three creators have not yet filed for non-profit status. They have decided to first test their idea through three separate pilots. In these pilots, they distribute their devices to their target transitional housing organizations and work on educating homeless people there. Their first pilot launched in February, and their second will be in April. They are using an IndieGoGo campaign, which allows the general public to donate any dollar amount, to help fund their second round.

These pilots may vary drastically; the students have discovered that the transitional housing programs have very different demographics from one another. The first shelter the students visited housed many women who may have been escaping abusive homes, while a second shelter housed men recovering from substance abuse. Differing demographics requires tailored, nuanced approaches towards helping each individual shelter, they explain. More importantly, Yang adds,“It’s really just about finding shelters that prioritize finding innovative solutions.”

The three creators of Mobilzr do not have any plans yet for assisting homeless people who have not yet reached a transitional housing program.

“We may not be able to solve the entire homeless situation,” Yang says. “But we just see a need that’s not being met.”

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