Vancouver's StreetMessenger now displays shelter bed availability in real time on Google maps and expands across Canada to combat homelessness
 

The Vancouver Community Network (VCN) has launched StreetMessenger.ca, which leverages SMS technology to send messages to the cell phones of homeless and street-involved youth with program information, life-saving alerts and real-time updates on available shelter beds displayed on Google maps. Work on this program started in 2014 in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. Leveraging that success, StreetMessenger is now open to every community in Canada thanks to support from the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA), Employment and Social Development Canada, as well as Canadian philanthropists Bob Rennie and Peter Wall.

With the live-launch of StreetMessenger, VCN is working with community organizations in Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto to register cellphone carrying at-risk street and marginalized individuals in their communities.

"We know that more than 67 per cent of people under 30 experiencing homelessness have cellphones. And text messaging is the best outreach tool given posters aren't seen and more than half of emails are never read," said Tracey Axelsson, VCN's executive director. "The reaction has been very positive here in Vancouver and we want cities across the country to know it is available in their communities as well."

Vancouver's homeless count has increased by 30 per cent since 2014. With homelessness on the rise, better access to interventions is needed to reduce these numbers and get people housed. StreetMessenger has been well-received by users in Vancouver. In fact, 97 per cent of people approached by VCN enrolled immediately to receive messages about services offered in their community.

StreetMessenger is an outreach tool that sends time-sensitive alerts on available program information for job skills and training sessions, pop-up health clinics, messages about where a mobile unit is or will be, emergency alerts that can save lives including bad batches of drugs in the community, as well as instantly distributing information about missing persons. The system can send messages in any language.

"When VCN applied to CIRA's Community Investment Program to develop this project we immediately recognized the reach and impact it could have on so many people," said Byron Holland, CIRA's president and CEO. "We believe in supporting initiatives that harness the power of technology to change lives for the better. VCN is linking simple but powerful technologies with smart and passionate people to solve real-world problems. I'm incredibly proud to support this as part of CIRA's commitment to building a better online Canada."

"The work done by the Vancouver Community Network is essential in addressing unique problems associated with the chronically and episodically homeless populations. This organization is taking innovative measures to address enduring social issues with the ultimate goal of having more positive outcomes for people experiencing homelessness. The Government of Canada is proud to support projects like this one in order to help prevent and reduce homelessness," said the Honourable Jean-Yves Duclos, Minister of Families, Children and Social Development.

The final phase of development for StreetMessenger was completed in January and included a process that allows frontline shelter administrators to send the number of beds available via text to StreetMessenger, which then displays it on the Google map icon showing the shelter's location.

Frontline workers tell VCN they spend two or more hours a night responding to calls for bed availability or trying to find a place for someone. This system will let them get back to doing what they do best -- supporting people in their shelter.

StreetMessenger is live and already making a difference in Vancouver. It is certain to have a positive impact on street-involved individuals in Calgary, Toronto and beyond. Clients can enroll themselves by sending a text to 778-819-6826 or visit streetmessenger.ca to learn more.