UC Hastings Team Wins Hack Homelessness Competition

A marketplace app where users can sell services to one another and get paid in crypto. A digital wishing tree used by unhoused people to request money for an umbrella or help toward their monthly grocery bill. A kiosk that dispenses clean needles and opioid overdose reversal medication. And a platform that educates tenants of their rights. These were among the ideas that came out of the third annual Hack Homelessness competition hosted by UC Hastings’ LexLab.

Working in teams, participants spent a week identifying and innovating solutions for addressing some of the most pressing legal issues related to housing insecurity in the Bay Area. Underscoring the notion that there is no silver bullet for remedying the homelessness crisis, the contest challenged participants to find bite-sized solutions to problems such as inadequate tenant protections, lack of affordable housing, and limited access to support services.

Four teams, comprised of current and former UC Hastings students plus members of the public, rose to the challenge.

Led by second- and third-year students Aashi Patel and Angeline Brom, the winning team, Home2Stay, created a web and mobile platform to facilitate legal aid and to educate tenants on the cusp of eviction of their rights. Employing a trauma-informed approach, the app allows tenants to complete a questionnaire and upload a comprehensive timeline and documents supporting their case.

“Tenants often show up to see their attorneys for intake interviews with shoeboxes and binders of information that’s often not relevant. Legal aid attorneys don’t have the time or resources to sort through that kind of information and conduct multi-hour interviews,” says Patel. “Tenants deserve—and attorneys need—a solution. With Home2Stay you don’t need a lawyer to know what protections you have as a tenant.”

As part of their research, Patel and Brom traveled to Los Angeles to interview tenants facing eviction and harassment.

“Before we even got to their story, they showed up with a huge white binder with rent notices and papers from, like, five years ago detailing how their landlord has harassed them,” says Patel. “And that struck us that people’s lives, people’s stories, are reduced to a binder. That’s all they have to stand up for themselves.”

The experience reinforced the team’s desire to find a way to use technology to alleviate issues commonly faced by overwhelmed tenants, Patel says. The duo plan on creating a legal tech company to take the app from idea to product.

“[The team] identified a clear issue that is experienced by tenants around organizing their case documentation, an issue that’s experienced by the legal aid community,” says Megan Abell, director of advocacy at TechEquity Collaborative and member of the panel judging the competition.

LexLab cofounder Alice Armitage, who created the Hack Homelessness initiative and teaches an accompanying design thinking class at UC Hastings, said the initiative sprang from her desire to teach law students how to better address complex real-world problems by adding design thinking, technology, and collaboration skills to the critical thinking skills they have already developed in law school.

“I chose the problem of homelessness to set my course within because it has been a growing crisis for years, and one that is very evident to all members of the UC Hastings community due to our location in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco,” Armitage says.

Kevin Thomason, a UC Hastings graduate and director of the Lower Polk Tenant Landlord Clinic, returned to his alma mater to participate in the hackathon, introducing an idea he described as “a little crazy,” but not so crazy that it couldn’t be done. In fact, he pointed out, a similar initiative is already underway in Denver.

“Basically you use crypto to create a labor-bidding agora for people experiencing homelessness and people experiencing poverty,” Thomason says. He explained that you combine a second idea in that “the money in that parallel economy is also shared with them, similar to how Miami—and soon NYC—use crypto to generate real cash.”

Say a business owner needs window cleaning. He or she can use the app to solicit bids. The bidder is compensated in tokens or cash upon completing the task.

Guiding Thomason’s idea development is a philosophical belief that poverty and wealth inequality are at the root of all social ills. “You fix those,” he said, “all the other ones start to fade.”

For 2L Sasha Madani, a photo of smiling young professionals walking past a homeless encampment in San Francisco inspired the “Village.” Based on the wishing tree model and a Seattle-based program called “Samaritan,” Village is a platform Madani developed with teammates Sam Elias and Derrick Moon that enables unhoused people to share their stories and request help directly from their community.

Maybe someone needs money to renew their driver’s license. Or they need a new sleeping bag to protect them from the elements. They make the request on the app, which can be accessed by a passerby via a QR code strategically placed in highly trafficked areas such as grocery checkout counters and bus stops.

The idea is to “encourage people to walk with—not by—people in their community,” Madani says. “All it takes is one act of kindness to help someone rebuild the world around them.”

Jillian MacLeod, Jameelah Najieb, Olivia Zacks, and Leaf McCrum of the Second Chance team offered a solution in the form of “harm reduction kiosks” to address San Francisco’s growing overdose crisis.

Citing a troubling statistic that more people in San Francisco died last year from drug overdose than from the coronavirus, the Second Chance team shared its proposal for kiosks placed in neighborhoods with the highest homeless populations. The machines would provide easy access to drug kits and Narcan, also known as naloxone, allowing drug users and good Samaritans to quickly treat overdose emergencies and potentially save lives.

Martina Cucullu Lim, executive director of the Eviction Defense Collaborative and member of the judging panel, praised the team for identifying one barrier for individuals who are experiencing homelessness: passerby not knowing how to help or not knowing whether they can help.

“Some of the reasons that people don’t help are because they’re worried about the liability issues,” Lim says. “It’s true. It’s real.”

The weeklong Hack Homelessness design competition culminated in a final showcase on Nov. 6. Contestants were judged on problem identification, feasibility, impact, and presentation. The winner of the competition, Home2Stay, received $1,000 to donate to a housing and homeless service provider of their choice.