This Canadian Designer Wants To Eliminate Homelessness With A Chatbot

August 15, 2019 | Tech Nonprofits, Blog

This Canadian Designer Wants To Eliminate Homelessness With A Chatbot

By Shannon Farley, originally posted on 7/24/19

If you’ve spent time in cities like San Francisco, Toronto or New York, you’re likely familiar with the devastating scene of homeless people camped out in doorways and along freeways. But what we don’t see everyday are the millions of people who are invisibly homeless, struggling to stay housed. CG Chen, founder of tech nonprofit Ample Labs, is fiercely committed to easing the plight of homelessness by building products designed in partnership with the homeless. Ample Labs just launched Chalmers, a free chatbot connecting users with up-to-the-minute emergency services like free meals, beds, and access to mental health services.

Shannon Farley: Take us back to life before Ample Labs. What were you up to during the 9-5?

CG Chen: I was living in a very comfy tech bubble and everything around me was glamorous…kidding, kind of. Before Ample Labs, I was working at a cool tech start-up, funded by a VC firm from Silicon Valley where our biggest concern was…when is the fridge going to be restocked with La Croixs?!

Farley: What happened that woke you up to the reality of homelessness?

Chen: I visited Skid Row for the first time in 2017 and it changed everything. I was in LA on vacation seeing the fancy places like Beverly Hills and Hollywood when I heard about Skid Row. I had to see it out of curiosity. My experience visiting Skid Row was one of pure shock and disbelief. I heard stories about folks that had grown up there, and then raised their children there too. During the trip, I met a woman running her own nonprofit to teach people living on Skid Row how to do things like use computers and build resumes. This really sparked my imagination and pushed me to ask myself if I could do more.

Farley: How did you take the inspiration and turn it into action?

Chen: I got a group of friends together and we just started brainstorming how we could do something to help homeless individuals. We honestly came up with hundreds of ideas, from opening an e-commerce shop to sell stuff made by the homeless, to creating a resource newsletter, to teaching tech bootcamps at shelters. After a few weeks of endless brainstorms, we decided to just stop with all of the thinking and start spending time with people actually facing the problem. We spent the next year going to shelters, and simply chatting with people there. We called ourselves Ample Labs.

“After a few weeks of endless brainstorms, we decided to just stop with all of the thinking and start spending time with people actually facing the problem.”

Farley: Something personal happened to you during the very earliest days of Ample Labs that deepened your connection to the issue of homelessness. Can you tell us the story?

Chen: In the midst of this season of brainstorming, I got a call from my good friend Simon. He’d just been laid off from a job at his Fortune 500 company and was on the verge of homelessness. Simon like many hard-working immigrants spent most of his take home pay supporting his mother and sisters. He’d run out of savings supporting his family, so I invited him to stay in my living room. Up until this point, the problem of homelessness had been “out there.” Now, it was right in front of me and it completely changed my perspective. I saw how a couple of months of bad luck can have devastating consequences. I’m proud to share that Simon is no longer homeless and today, serves as the Community Lead for Ample Labs.

Farley: Given that homelessness is a multi-faceted issue that is extremely challenging to solve, how did Ample Labs decide what particular solution to build?

Chen: We quickly learned that the issue of homelessness is widespread. We are based in Toronto, where 1 in 10 Canadians experience invisible homelessness, meaning they have nowhere to live so they have to temporarily live in their car or with someone they know – like Simon. At the same time, we spent a lot of time in the community listening, and kept hearing the same stories again and again; people found it really hard to navigate the system. They often felt like they’d been passed around from one service to another, not knowing where to find what they were looking for. The stories we heard were heartbreaking, from people spending hours in the freezing cold because they didn’t know where the closest shelters were, to folks losing their home because they didn’t know how to deal with an eviction letter.

It came down to two big pain points: knowing what was available quickly and understanding how to navigate the system. These learnings, paired with the fact that 94% of homeless adults have cell phones, over half of which are smartphones, meant that a chatbot simply made sense. So we built Chalmers, a friendly chatbot that would address these two pain points by connecting those facing homelessness with up-to-the-minute, emergency resources with the click of a button.

Farley: How does Chalmers work?

Chen: Chalmers is a web-based chatbot, accessible from any smartphone or desktop. Chalmers recommends resources – like shelter space or free meals happening right now – closest to you. Chalmers is empathetic and understands basic negative emotions, which when encountered, points people to mental health support. It’s a supportive friend to go to when you’re having a hard time and don’t know where to turn.

Farley: You tested Chalmers out over the past few months in beta. How was Chalmers initially received by the Toronto community, and what were the most significant learnings for your team?

Chen: A lot. First, there’s very little trust in the system. We hear time and time again that people have been let down by the system, and when information is not up to date, users will completely stop using a service. With this in mind, we host a #datathon every month or so to insure that our data is current. The second learning is that people want choice, so we’ve developed alternate options in Chalmers, enabling users to choose where they go for a free meal or bed. Finally, we’ve heard horror stories of LGBTQ youth getting abused by going to certain shelters. Users need to know if a service is a good fit for them before they go, so we’ve developed search filters to help with that.

Farley: What will the world look like when Ample Labs is successful?

Chen: Everyone will get the help they need in a timely manner, so they can get back on their feet before it gets really, really bad. We want to create a world in which chronic homelessness is eradicated.

Farley: What keeps you and your team motivated to put all of your energy into Ample Labs?

Chen: Moments like seeing the excitement in people’s eyes when we do a demo, hearing positive feedback about why users appreciate it, or thinking about the possibilities of what Chalmers could be are all powerful motivators for us to keep putting our all into this. That’s the greatest fuel for us to make Chalmers faster, smarter, and better.

Farley: What’s the best piece of advice you’d pass on to other entrepreneurs?

Chen: Take a leap of faith – you either fall or fly. And don’t give up when it gets hard.