The NYC Homeless App, Formed From Complaints Posted to Facebook

A screenshot from NYC Map the Homeless
A screenshot from NYC Map the Homeless

Some New Yorkers drop some change when they pass a homeless person on the street. David Fox makes an app.

The 25-year-old engineer from Murray Hill developed an app called NYC Map the Homeless, which aims to collect data that Fox will eventually send to city officials to help them address the issue of homelessness.

The app encourages its users to snap photos of homeless people they see on the street and upload them to a map, which identifies regions with high concentrations of homelessness. Users can also add hashtags to their photos to describe what they saw, such as “#Violent,” "#PassedOut,” “#NeedsMedicalAid,” or “#AggressivePanhandling.” So far, the app has been downloaded about 1,200 times.

According to the Coalition for the Homeless, New York City is home to more than 58,760 homeless people. These rates are the highest the city has seen since the Great Depression. A majority of those living on the street suffer from mental illness, addiction, or severe health problems, which, according to the group's research, more often affect single homeless adults than whole families. It is also common that many seemingly homeless individuals actually have homes, while many people truly without a home aren't on the street, but in shelters. While the homeless are stereotyped to cause public disturbance, many of them are not harmful.

Fox is one of a growing number of Murray Hill and Kips Bay residents who've become frustrated by the homelessness in their neighborhood. He belongs to the Facebook group “Third and 33rd (and Beyond),” where members actively post photos of homelessness from around the neighborhood — that’s how Fox got the idea for his app. The group, which has nearly 600 members, says it raises awareness, encourages participation in community board meetings, and informs residents what they should report and to whom.

One photo, taken by Kips Bay resident Yael Feder, features a homeless man’s feet hanging over the top of a planter:

A homeless man in a planter, as seen on the Facebook group
A homeless man in a planter, as seen on the Facebook group
Yael Feder

“A number of residents of the Kips Bay–Murray Hill neighborhood have noticed over the past year, year and a half that the homeless problem in our neighborhood was growing by leaps and bounds, and behaviors becoming more intolerable,” says Janet Martin, a member of the Facebook group. “Nobody should have to look outside his window and see someone masturbating on his doorstep.”

Neighborhood residents are very often confronted with aggressive panhandling, people passed out on the street, and urinating or defecating in parks meant for adults in the company of children, Martin says.

She says that part of the neighborhood’s problem is the Mainchance Drop-In Center, located at 32nd Street between Lexington and Park. Mainchance asks only for identification from those who wish to use its services. “We’ve asked them to do more than ask for ID from people,” says Martin. “We’ve asked them to screen for drug and alcohol abuse, screen for sex offenders, screen for anyone who has an outstanding arrest warrant and refer them to the police." But she says Mainchance, which is part of the Department of Homeless Services, has not been very responsive.

“You can’t just give people a meal and turn them loose on the streets until the next meal if those people are dangerous to the community or if they’re going to go out and urinate, defecate, masturbate, and have sex in public. That isn’t right.” She adds that meals aren't enough: "If they are attracting with meals people who need drug, alcohol, and mental illness treatment, they should have offerings to address this, and not in a neighborhood dense with children and schools."

For more than a decade, Mainchance has functioned as a soup kitchen, serving New Yorkers in need — not only the homeless, but also the working poor, and LGBT runaways. It is strategically situated near two major transportation hubs: Grand Central and Penn Station.

“Mainchance, like many other facilities in our communities, provides much-needed services to New Yorkers in need, not just the homeless. [Mayor Bill de Blasio's] administration is taking aggressive measures to reduce homelessness while ensuring the safety of our communities. We have staff working 24/7 to bring unsheltered New Yorkers inside to help them get housing, and while New Yorkers are in shelter, we work to provide critical social services to help them eventually transition into permanency,” a spokeswoman from the Department of Homeless Services tells the Voice.

Martin says the neighborhood is beginning to see progress, but not enough. "We are not trying to shame homeless people. Most homeless people conduct themselves with great dignity despite their circumstances. We are focused on the small minority of homeless with drug and alcohol problems and mental illness who create a risk for our communities, especially children and the elderly, through their public actions on our streets," she says. "Those are the homeless we need to keep our neighborhoods safe from and who shouldn't be in it."

However, Lindsey Davis, director of crisis services at the Coalition for the Homeless, says that taking photos of homeless people to give to service providers might not be part of the best solution. “There are some privacy concerns I would have about that,” says Davis. If a homeless client feels like they are being followed or is having their photo taken without consent, they may become less trusting. “When they do meet someone who could provide them assistance, it makes it harder to engage them,” says Davis.

She also worries that information recorded by a private entity could be used by people who don’t have benevolent intentions. She mentioned one of the Coalition’s clients who had been set on fire on the train. “I would hate to see something like that be an unintended outcome of documentation,” says Davis.

For his part, Fox says that his app creates more accountability and gives the public a better sense of what’s going on than the city’s own 311 app.

“It’s also sort of a black hole on what actually happens to the submissions immediately after they are submitted,” says Fox about the 311 app. While the 311 app features a “Complaints” tab where users can create a “Homeless Assistance” alert, it also attempts to cover everything else under the 311 umbrella. 

Fox says he wants to use the insights and live data feed from his app to provide data not only on where large homeless populations exist, but also on where specific incidents are occurring most. Singling out homeless people photographically is not meant to shame homelessness, Fox says, nor is passing them by without acknowledgment. “I’m not living under the impression that completely ignoring homeless people and giving them privacy is somehow helping them live good lives or bringing us any closer to actually helping them,” says Fox.

While he doesn’t think dropping change is a good solution — it encourages homeless people to return to the same areas when homeless services should be providing aid — Fox says he wants to use data to help find “smart solutions.”

Data on homelessness is lacking, Fox says. "The hope of my project is to bolster this data.”


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