Homeless in Vancouver: Shouldn’t be so hard to Google a shelter bed on the Internet!

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      Forget the Internet. The surest way to find  an emergency shelter bed in the City of Vancouver is still to physically go to the Downtown Eastside and start asking around.

      This old-fashioned method has the advantage of being faster and much less frustrating than trying to navigate the various lists and maps of shelters that various governments and non-governmental agencies have created on the Internet.

      For one thing, emergency shelters (like most homeless services) are still largely relegated to the confines of the DTES. And for another, online shelter finding aids appear to be made more to satisfy an expectation that something of the sort should be on the Internet, rather than to truly facilitate homeless people finding and securing a bed for the night.

      And functionality-wise, public sector websites are usually years behind private sector sites. Which is to say that as bad as it is trying to find an emergency shelter bed online, you had best use a desktop computer, because it’s even worse if you try to do it on a mobile device.

      The buzzword for modern websites is to be “responsive”, meaning that they should present a desktop-friendly layout on desktop computers and a mobile-friendly layout on mobile phones and tablets.

      Public sector websites are, for the most part, no more “responsive” than public sector bureaucrats.

      Surfing homeless shelters can be frustrating and how!

      The City of Vancouver’s landing page for finding a homeless shelter, on both a desktop and mobile computer.

      Performing a Google search of “Vancouver BC homeless shelter” (or various arrangements of same) finds a stack of confusing listings which are nothing more than begging ads for NGOs and faith-based groups; underneath these is a legitimate City of Vancouver’s webpage titled “Homeless Shelter Locations throughout Metro Vancouver | City of Vancouver“.

      To the city’s credit, the page displays responsively on a mobile device and—whether on a desktop or a mobile—the first thing a user sees is straightforward blue button reading: “View the shelter directory“.

      However the city does not maintain a shelter directory. Clicking the big blue button takes you to a page of the Vancouver Shelter Strategy website (coded circa 2007), which contains little more than a link to a proprietary Adobe PDF file.

      The unresponsive GVSS page and opening the PDF shelter list.

      The PDF file that was linked there November 2, 2017, is a three-page, letter-size, document, dated “July 15, 2016″—not exactly up to the minute.

      Letter-size PDFs are much easier to read on desktop computers but they are often easier to open on mobiles, as Google Drive does this for Android and (I assume) Preview does this in iOS (as it does in OSX). Windows 10’s Edge browser will open PDFs but it’s generally been left to Windows users to find and install a PDF reader.

      The bottom line though is PDFs should not be used unless document fidelity is as important as content. Even plain old HTML tables should be used cautiously, as B.C. Housing’s shelter map page shows.

      Finding a shelter online is not the same as securing a bed

      B.C. Housing’s shelter map as it is (hard to be seen) on a mobile phone.

      Back to my Google search, which turned up the B.C. Housing Emergency Shelter Map, three results below the City of Vancouver’s shelter location page.

      At its core, B.C. Housing’s emergency shelter map is a custom Google map which anyone can make for free and it functions like any Google map. Clicking on a shelter marker brings up a detail pane listing shelter type, operator, total number of beds and the shelter’s address and phone number.

      B.C. Housing has significantly improved the functionality of its shelter map by adding the ability to search by community and shelter type. It’s a good tool as far as it goes, at least on the desktop—on a mobile it tends to go wrong.

      For starters, I couldn’t even open B.C. Housing’s Emergency Shelter Map page on my Samsung phone; not as long as I was using the latest Firefox browser for Android (44.0).

      could open the page with both Samsung’s baked-in web browser and Google Chrome. But in both browsers the tabular list of shelters was so squeezed by the narrow width of the display as to be completely unreadable. And while the webpage above the list scrolled easily and normally with one finger, the list itself wouldn’t budge until I experimented with using two fingers.

      Even using the map was slow and awkward on a phone. None of the text in a detail pane is live in any way. The phone number of a shelter, for example, can neither be clicked to directly call it and nor can it be copied,in order to paste it in the calling field. You have no choice but to remember it or write it down on something.

      Does anyone have a pen and piece of paper?

      Reduce the confusion and increase the functionality

      Poor functionality—particularly on small screens—combined with a multiplicity of online listings, makes searching for a shelter bed on the Internet needlessly confusing and frustrating.

      • There should only be one online finding aid for homeless shelters in British Columbia.
      • Such a finding aid should be properly responsive and built to commercial standards.
      • It should be as easy as possible to search for shelters by area.
      • It should be a true database-driven website.
      • Shelter bed availability should automatically update in real time.
      • The focus should be connecting a person with a shelter bed, not just a shelter.
      • The possibility of messaging the shelter from within the finding aid to reserve a bed (for the estimated time it takes a person to get there) should be explored.

      By the way, it’s not difficult to populate a relational database-driven website with real-time information from an inventory. Thousands of e-commerce websites can show exactly how much stock of a product is available at a given moment.

      Yet the most ‘sophisticated” online finding aid for B.C. shelters only shows static data, like the maximum number of beds—never the number of available beds.

      As it stands now, you must call a shelter and if you can’t get through on the phone, for whatever reason, you must to the shelter and take your chances.

      Admittedly, the kind of real time functionality that I’m taking about—as well as the planning, coding and maintenance involved—is part and parcel of attracting and serving paying customers. It is probably much harder to justify the effort when the envisioned end users are impoverished homeless people.

      It should also be said that dynamic, database-driven, mobile-friendly websites are a modern day phenomenon. While a lot of public sector websites seem to be hopelessly stuck in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when most webpages really were just that—pages of static HTML code.

      I even question whether B.C. Housing or any other groups maintaining such shelter lists seriously expect any homeless people to use them. There is still a too-common misconception that phones and laptops are a luxury that homeless people cannot (or should not) have.

      Few months go by that my conspicuous use of connected tech doesn’t raise an eyebrow.

      This is outmoded thinking. Mobile devices can be purchased quite inexpensively (along with pay-as-you-go cellular). They can also be found in the garbage. My current laptop and more than one of my phones came out of Dumpsters. My homeless friend Henry has found his share of laptops over the years. And he just spent most of his last welfare cheque—about $237—on a new Samsung tablet, an SD card and a pair of Bluetooth headphones.

      Homeless people need and use phones and tablets for all the same reasons that everyone else does—for work, for buying drugs, to talk to their friends and family, and as personal entertainment units.

      Outreach is about going where marginalized people are in order to connect them to social services.

      And because many homeless people do have access to the Internet—through their own devices or through public libraries—the services designed to help them, such as emergency shelter beds, should be promoted on the Internet but not halfheartedly.

      The responsible agencies, or agency (there should only be one “ministry of social outreach”) should work to use the Internet as effectively as a business may use it to put products and services into the hands of consumers and customers.

      As it is now, the shelter bed finding aids available to B.C. homeless people on the Internet look like pro forma efforts at best—built in the cheapest and easiest ways—more, I think, to satisfy an obligation than the real needs of homeless British Columbians.

      Certainly where shelter beds are concerned, the responsible agencies could do much better, if they wanted to and they should want to.

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      Stanley Q. Woodvine is a homeless resident of Vancouver who has worked in the past as an illustrator, graphic designer, and writer. Follow Stanley on Twitter at @sqwabb.

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