Homeless Coach Bridges Digital Divide

Project provides digital connection for homeless

Homeless Coach founder Tom Baum outside the nonprofit's RV. That's a replica of Austin's Pennybacker Bridge on the roof.
Homeless Coach founder Tom Baum outside the nonprofit's RV. That's a replica of Austin's Pennybacker Bridge on the roof. (Photo by John Anderson)

The technology gap has become a bane of modern life, cutting students off from educational opportunities and businesses from clients. Now that so much day-to-day interaction takes place electronically, that gap is broader than ever for homeless people. "We try to bridge that gap," says Homeless Coach project founder Tom Baum, and the group is using a converted RV and the power of social media to help people get off the streets.

This is not about helping homeless people update their Facebook statuses. The point of Homeless Coach, Baum explained, is to create a community around that person, using the power of social media. During weekly sessions, he said, "We get a homeless enrollee in the RV, along with members of the community, and we get donations of Austin original food, sometimes entertainment, and we share that in and around the RV with streaming video." The vehicle is fitted with webcams and laptops that break down the digital and personal divides between the homeless and potential supporters and services. Being mobile is vital, Baum said, "because it is important to be able to go to where [enrollees] are at, because they don't have the ability to be mobile and get to where we're at."

But this is not drive-by social services. At the core of the coaching process is the MyHero scorecard, which breaks the goals for getting a person off the streets into five sections: mobility, home and shelter, employment and purpose, relationships and community, and overall health. Baum said, "It really addresses five major categories that would need to be addressed in anybody's life to get them off the street." The scorecard also allows for regular updates to sponsors – whether they are businesses, faith groups, or individuals – on how each individual homeless person is doing. Combined with the digital connection, the nonprofit helps the participants stay engaged as they transition from the street to temporary housing to a permanent home. Enrollees meet with volunteers in the RV once a week to work on each individual problem or opportunity as it arises. Baum said: "Each coaching session is aimed at looking at each of these categories and saying, 'OK, what is the next step?' Pure and simple. Don't worry about the whole kit and caboodle, let's just focus on the next step." Through using these manageable, week-by-week steps, the program already has its first graduate. Baum said, "He has basically gotten himself off the streets by figuring out how to sell his artwork and sell newspapers on the street, to get enough money to get himself into an apartment."

The genesis of the project was a 40-day immersion course on homelessness that Baum took with Mobile Loaves & Fishes in 2008. That educated him on the realities of homelessness, an experience he shared via webcam. He explained, "I was streaming the stories of the homeless during those 40 days and 40 nights, and while I was doing that, the Austin Well Bible Church got on the Internet and saw how powerful it was just to send a little chat to someone." To keep the project going, the church donated a 1986 Winnebago to be turned into a mobile social media platform. For a while it served as home to one of the people being coached through the program: Now its renovation is in full flow. The process is driven by determined volunteers. On the day the Chronicle visited the coach in Southeast Austin, the temperature outside was in the mid-90s; inside, the small thermometer was tipping toward 114 degrees as volunteers from Austin Marble & Granite installed a handmade sink donated by one of the company's customers. The interior is being decorated by foster kids from the Aus­tin Children's Shelter and artists with disabilities through Imagine Art, while Xtreme Power and Sustainable Waves will be installing solar panels and storage batteries. While the digital media component is up and running, the suspension still needs work, and the group is still looking for exterior vinyl siding.

Like the repairs, the coaching sessions are an intensive process. Compare it to Mobile Loaves & Fishes: That charity reached a milestone on June 27, when volunteers delivered their 2.5 millionth meal to Austin's homeless. Even with just a one-hour weekly session with each homeless person, the coach can only reach 25 people over the course of the six-month program. However, Baum said, with extra RVs "it could become franchise-able."

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Homeless Coach, Tom Baum, social media

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