The Vancouver Community Network has launched StreetMessenger.ca, which uses SMS to send messages to the cell phones of homeless and street-involved youth with program information and real-time updates on available shelter beds.
StreetMessenger sends time-sensitive alerts on job skills and training sessions, pop-up health clinics, messages about where a mobile unit is or will be, emergency alerts on bad batches of drugs in the community, and information about missing persons. The system can send messages in any language.
Development of the StreetMessenger program began in 2014 in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, and is now available across Canada. The Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA), Employment and Social Development Canada, and Canadian philanthropists Bob Rennie and Peter Wall supported the program.
“We know that more than 67 percent of people under 30 experiencing homelessness have cell phones. 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.”
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 available beds via text to StreetMessenger, which then displays it on Google Maps showing the shelter’s location. Frontline workers have told VCN that they spend an average of two or more hours a night responding to calls for bed availability or trying to find a place for someone.
“The work done by the Vancouver Community Network is essential in addressing unique problems associated with the chronically and episodically homeless populations,” said Jean-Yves Duclos, Minister of Families, Children and Social Development. “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.”