PHOTO BY MABEL SUEN
Forget soup kitchens. Thanks to a new app, feeding homeless kids instead entails connecting them with favorite restaurants.
St. Louis is set to be the first city to test out a new app aimed at solving hunger among homeless youth and veterans by connecting them via smartphone with free meals.
According to Not Impossible Labs, the company behind the app “Hunger: Not Impossible” (HNI), the idea behind the app came from a statistic — 50 to 60 percent of homeless young people and veterans have cell phones, but not access to regular meals. That was a problem they wanted to solve, and they developed a project that would use cellphones to help with hunger.
The app taps into the resources homeless people are already using — cell phones and local nonprofits. If they opt in to the app, they’ll get a text twice daily asking if they want to order a meal. If they say yes, they can choose a restaurant based on their location and pick up their online order.
The first three-week pilot program took place in Venice, California, and it’s now coming to St. Louis in partnership with the local non-profit Covenant House Missouri. The organization hopes to begin rolling it out after Thanksgiving.
Erika Suhr, the project lead on the HNI app, says it could help free up time for homeless people to look for jobs and other long-term resources, rather than spending all day traveling between different charities so they can access breakfast, lunch and dinner.
“The biggest thing that they don’t have going for them is time,” Suhr says.
Sue King, the executive director of Covenant House, says the app will give the young people she works with an easy way to access food when they need it.
“They wake up in the morning and they’re hungry,” King says. “There’s always different challenges and roadblocks that our kids face when they’re looking for something to eat.”
For now, HNI isn’t partnering directly with any restaurants — Suhr says it’s important to preserve the anonymity and dignity of the participants, so they are treated like any other guest. While they may explore other options as the program expands, the meals are currently paid for by a combination of public donations and corporate sponsorship.
Covenant House will help Not Impossible Labs verify that its pilot participants are experiencing genuine need. King says that during a focus group with some Covenant House residents, they were optimistic about the app’s accessibility.
“Everyone has a cell phone,” King says. “Even if you’re homeless, you have a cell phone.”
Covenant House is also preparing for its annual “Sleep Out” event on Nov. 17. St. Louis executives and business leaders will spend the night in the Covenant House’s parking lot, each pledging to raise at least $5,000 from sponsors.
The Sleep Out takes place in 17 different Covenant House locations across the U.S. and Canada.
The event helps raise awareness about homelessness in addition to fundraising; one of the goals is for participants from the corporate world to talk more about homelessness when they return to their communities.
That’s all part of Covenant House’s mission, which is focused on providing services to all homeless youth — they’re the only organization in St. Louis where any child can go for help without being screened out for reasons like criminal record or mental health diagnosis.
For Suhr, that makes Covenant House a perfect partner for the program, which wants to utilize, rather than compete with, local resources.
“The way we’ve designed this is to partner with local NGOs [non-governmental organizations] and tap into their resources,” Suhr says.
Suhr hopes that the app will ultimately be available much more broadly and that NGOs who think it will help their community will be able to request the service. For now, the pilot in St. Louis will serve about 100 people for an initial 30 days.
The public can donate to HNI online
, or to Covenant House via its website