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San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee announces homeless app

Feb 28, 2014
San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee. Photo: JP Mangalindan/Fortune.com

FORTUNE -- More homeless San Franciscans carry cell phones than you might think.

St. Anthony's Foundation runs a tech lab in San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood that offers computer classes, tutoring, job search counseling, and Internet access to lower-income and homeless residents of San Francisco. Nearly 40% of lower-income guests who use St. Anthony's tech lab -- a full 2,400 individuals -- own cell phones, according to the nonprofit, which also offers shelter, housing, meals, medical, and other services. Earlier Friday, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, St. Anthony's, and Zendesk, a customer service startup, announced Link-SF. Accessible via desktop and mobile, the mobile-optimized website is aimed at homeless residents seeking shelter, food, medical, hygiene, and tech services.

"Here in the mid-Market [St.] area, it is challenging, but now we have better solutions, and we’re using technology to provide an answer." Mayor Ed Lee said at a press conference Friday, referring to Zendesk, which developed Link-SF over the course of 10 months. "They are talking and working with the people in the city they’re working in. This is what San Francisco should be about."

MORE: What if America's unbanked had mobile wallets?

St. Anthony's and Zendesk argue that a significant chunk of Link-SF's usage will come from mobile, despite users' lower income status. Zendesk software engineer Ken Nakagawa, who led development, researched by visiting Metro PCS and other local Tenderloin cell phone stores to learn which devices were popular. Unsurprisingly, more inexpensive phones like LG's 3.5-inch Motion trumped competitors like the iPhone or Samsung Galaxy line that dominate business use. According to a spokesperson for St. Anthony's, many lower-income users charge their cell phones at outlets in public facilities like BART stations, as well as shelters. "For these users, these mobile phones are becoming more of a lifeline," said Nakagawa.

Link-SF has been up and running for nearly a month and has already helped users like Edgar Aguilar find a job. Aguilar, 24, is a recovering alcoholic and drug addict from the Tenderloin who has been clean for nearly eight months. Nearly a month ago, he used Link-SF at one of St. Anthony's free-to-use computer labs to land a job with Acrobat Outsourcing, a hospitality staffing company. Aguilar, who hopes to start working within the next month, calls Link-SF a "lifesaver."

Mayor Lee did not otherwise comment on the city's general efforts to gentrify, or "revitalize" San Francisco, a controversial effort as the tech industry continues to push up rental prices -- in part because of high salaries, as well as company tax breaks -- and in doing so, force some non-tech workers out of the city. In recent months, the so-called class warfare issue has erupted in public protests of tech shuttles and events like this year's Crunchies awards.

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