Evacuated from homeless shelters, hotel residents rely on tech to stay connected – CNET


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Elizabeth Softky moved from a homeless shelter to a motel by the Pacific Ocean in March. Tech has helped her stay connected to friends and medical professionals.

James Martin/CNET

This story is part of Tech for a Better World, stories about the diverse teams creating products, apps and services to improve our lives and society.

Like most of us, Elizabeth Softky needs her phone and computer. They are her lifeline to stay connected to friends, family and health care providers during the coronavirus pandemic. But for Softky, connection is extra essential. In March, she was evacuated from a homeless shelter to a motel, an experience shared with several thousand other people in California facing homelessness when the pandemic began. 

Now in her own room in a small motel on the coast of Northern California, Softky is continuing to get back on her feet after losing her home and livelihood while she fought cancer last year. Her tech devices are a big help.

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In an extreme version of the lockdown faced by others in the state, about 14,000 formerly unhoused Californians have been living in motel and hotel rooms for months, mostly alone. They’re riding out the coronavirus pandemic in a program the state hopes will keep huge numbers of vulnerable people from getting COVID-19. It’s only a small fraction of the estimated 150,000 people experiencing homelessness in the state. Still, states around the country are looking to California as a model for how to protect people who may have been living in tents, cars or crowded homeless shelters while dealing with severe illnesses, addiction, and advanced age, all of which put them at high risk of complications from the novel coronavirus.  For some hotel residents like Softky, tech has proven instrumental for making the new system work. 

The motel room gave her a chance to reflect on what she’d been through. It also made her lonely. “It was like, wow,” she said, “I’ve never felt this hunger for human contact.” 

Other hotel residents are in a similar situation. While people undoubtedly benefit from moving into their own rooms from shelters, tents or cars, loneliness is a major concern. Now, there’s not much to distract them from thoughts of hard times and traumatic experiences, said Emily Watters, a psychiatrist who treats patients through a county homeless services program in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“It’s just such a gift to be able to see my patients have their own room, and have a chance to heal,” Watters said. However, it leaves them without “this whole community that keeps people going and keeps people surviving the trauma.” 

Creating digital communities

Softky uses her smartphone and laptop to go to Zoom church services and keep up with her Meetup group from the town she lived in years before she lost her home of 14 years. She uses them to talk to doctors about her treatment. And she uses them to talk to a volunteer named Joan Scott through a program called Miracle Friends. Started by entrepreneur Kevin Adler as an offshoot of his nonprofit Miracle Messages, Miracle Friends connects people who’ve been evacuated to hotels with volunteers who can talk with them on the phone. The idea is to provide a social connection to relieve what Adler calls “relational poverty,” or the loss of friends, family and community that many people experience when they become homeless.

“Our broader theory of change is that relational poverty is poverty,” Adler said, adding, “loneliness is deadly.”

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Softky outside of the hotel where she’s been living during the pandemic.

James Martin/CNET

Before the pandemic, Miracle Messages tried to connect people who were homeless with family or friends. Now, it’s partnering with homeless services in San Francisco to connect hotel residents with friendly volunteers. So far it has made more than 100 matches.

Scott, the volunteer, talks and texts frequently with Softky. The two quickly learned they had plenty to talk about.

“They did a random match up, but we have so much in common,” Scott said.

Both are born volunteers. In her role as senior director of corporate responsibility at Dolby Laboratories in San Francisco, Scott creates volunteer programs for the company’s employees and finds organizations for the company to support financially. Though Softky is the one receiving help now, she won an award for her volunteerism in college, and she ran a literacy nonprofit for six years before getting her cancer diagnosis. 

Navigating a health care crisis

Dave Nelson, another hotel resident at the Northern California hotel, is using video services to keep up with physical therapy and fitness classes to help recover from an emergency leg amputation in October. Nelson struggled to do his rehab exercises at the homeless shelter where he’d been living because the open plan facility was full of obstacles and other people. Now, from his hotel room, he’s not just doing physical therapy. He’s also connecting to tai chi and yoga classes on his computer.

“It’s not as good as going to a yoga class,” Nelson said, but it’s still a good way to stay on track with his recovery. He also talks with Kris Foss, a Miracle Friends volunteer, about once a week. 

Foss said she wanted to get involved because homelessness is such a big problem in the Bay Area. Talking with Nelson has been interesting and educational, she added. Nelson, an aeronautical engineer, was flying to Southern California for a contract job last year when a gangrene infection prompted doctors to amputate his leg after he stopped on a layover in San Francisco. After that, he wasn’t able to travel on for the contract job. His health insurance was due to kick in shortly, when the job started, but he didn’t have it when he needed it.

“I never expected to talk to someone with a story like this,” Foss said. “His story is so emblematic of our health care crisis in this country.”

“They’re people to be loved”

While health emergencies are common among the people staying in hotels, others are fighting addiction. Tech can help them stay connected to twelve-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, said Antonia Fernandez, an addiction counselor in Northern California. It’s not perfect, because the group chemistry is different when people aren’t there in person. Some of her clients don’t like the video meetings or struggle with the tech needed to connect. But it works for others, and there are some nice benefits, too.

“You can attend a meeting in Hawaii right from your living room,” Fernandez said, adding, “you get different faces all the time.”

Adler, the creator of Miracle Friends, hopes more volunteers will connect with homeless people in their communities. There’s plenty of focus, rightfully so, on solving the systemic problems that lead to homelessness, he said. But he added that the personal impact of living without a home should remain in focus.

“People who experience homelessness are not problems to be solved,” Adler said. “They’re people to be loved, just like you and me.”

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