“When I heard about it, I knew I wanted to be part of this,” said Alex Meli, 24, a homeless York University computer science student.
“It was an opportunity to help those who are experiencing the same thing as me,” said the refugee from Cameroon who has been sleeping at Covenant House youth shelter since last fall when he could no longer stretch his OSAP loan to pay for housing.
“A couple of guys at the shelter are using it and they told me it is very useful, especially the free meals feature,” Meli said Sunday as he visited downtown shelters and drop-in centres with fellow Ample Lab volunteers to spread the word.
Launching Monday in Toronto, Chalmers is believed to be the first so-called “chatbot,” or interactive technology, specifically designed for the homeless and those at risk of losing their homes, said Elisa Traficante of Raising the Roof, a national advocacy organization dedicated to preventing homelessness.
Most people under age 35 experiencing homelessness own smart phones to help them connect with social services, jobs, friends and life beyond the streets, Traficante said. And while they may not be able to afford service contracts, they are still able to access the internet via Wi-Fi in coffee shops and other public spaces. Even older, chronically homeless people use the internet regularly on computers in public libraries and drop-in centres, she added.
Numerous services and supports are available to people in precarious housing situations, said Ample Labs Executive Director CG Chen, 27. But finding out how and where to find the support is often onerous and time-consuming. Chalmers aims to streamline the information in an accessible, real-time and user-friendly format, she said.
“Chatting with Chalmers is designed to feel like texting a trusted friend who is intelligent and empathetic and always there when you need them,” Chen said.
When users log on to chalmersbot.app, Chalmers introduces itself as a chatbot that can find resources such as a free meal, drop-in, clothing, shelter or emergency services. A simple tap or click on one of the five topic buttons prompts Chalmers to locate the closest service and hours of operation. A map assists with directions and the quickest route.
Chen set up Ample Labs in early 2018. Since testing began in January, between 700 and 800 people a month have used Chalmers and have received about 6,500 referrals, including 4,000 meals and 800 overnight shelter opportunities, she said.
Shelter workers and others serving the homeless are starting to use Chalmers, including Toronto Public Health outreach workers, who began using it last week.
“We believe this app will assist us in helping our clients access the services they need, which is an important part of the work we do,” said Shaun Hopkins, manager of The Works, a harm reduction program that offers a needle exchange, safe injection sites and other services for people struggling with addictions.
In August, Chen is meeting with Toronto’s shelter housing and support services to explore the possibility of connecting the city’s shelter system to Chalmers so users can better access emergency shelter. Currently, Chalmers can only provide the central intake number and address of the city’s Streets to Homes assessment centre on Peter St. The goal would be to give users the location of the nearest available bed, Chen said.
“We are really hoping they see the benefit of working with us,” she said.
Ample Labs has already seen how the technology can provide even more support to people facing homelessness, she said.
“When someone experiences job loss or domestic violence, they may not want to tell people, but a chatbot is anonymous. It’s not a person. You can ask for resources without having to feel any shame,” she said.
“We started to build empathy into Chalmers, because in our data testing we were starting to see people typing in things like ‘I am suicidal,’ and ‘I am depressed,’ and ‘I am lonely,’ ” she said.
Now Chalmers will say, “I’m sorry to hear that, let me think about how I can help,” she said. Chalmers can refer people to crisis support lines and even a meditation web app.
“At the end of every interaction, we try to point users to a real person because right now Chalmers is very limited. But it will get smarter over time as people use it. That’s the beauty of artificial intelligence,” Chen added.
Chalmers is particularly helpful for refugees, who make up about 40 per cent of shelter users, said Natasha Rollings with FCJ Refugee Centre.
“People who have made an asylum claim are not eligible for many services until they have regularized their status,” said Rollings, who has introduced it to many of her midtown Toronto clients. “This app can provide information on free services for everyone.
“There is no other place that I know of that is collecting this data and providing it to the community in such an immediate way,” she said.
Chen’s interest in designing technology for the homeless began about five years ago when she was studying graphic design at OCAD University. Her mother’s recent experience living in a women’s shelter due to domestic violence reinforced Chen’s belief in the technology’s broad potential.
She came up with the chatbot idea when her friend and fellow tech designer Simon Bunyi faced eviction himself a year ago.
“He was so ashamed, he didn’t even tell his family,” Chen said. “When he finally came to me and told me about his situation, it took me about four hours of Google searches before I could find the help he needed. That’s when I realized we had to design something with speed in mind.”
With the help of Toronto tech company Ada, which provides customer service chatbot platforms for companies such as Telus and Air Asia, Chen and her team at Ample Labs began to build a chatbot for the homeless.
Chen, who quit her job in January to work on Chalmers full-time, has supported the project through almost $12,000 in crowdfunding and a $25,000 grant from an American company that supports tech non-profits. While Ample Labs staff of about 40 are still volunteers, the company pays $20 per hour to homeless people who participate in co-design feedback sessions.
The tech non-profit is currently partnering with Raising the Roof to use Chalmers to provide instant, interactive information and support on homelessness prevention for anyone in Canada facing eviction.
“The eviction prevention chatbot could live on our website and on the sites of hundreds of our partners across the country, so people with initial concerns about their tenancy could have their questions answered and be linked to the appropriate service in their own communities faster,” Raising the Roof’s Traficante said.
Together, the partners are seeking about $400,000 from private foundations as well as provincial, federal and municipal social innovation funds.
“We think it’s a really amazing idea,” Traficante said. “When it comes to technology, the sky’s the limit in terms of the different ways we can streamline services so people never have to experience homelessness.”
Laurie Monsebraaten is a Toronto-based reporter covering social justice. Follow her on Twitter: @lmonseb