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Maria Shriver

Building Empathy With The Power Of Technology

Image: TeamHomelessGoPro
HomelessGoPro co-founders Kevin F. Adler, Erika Barraza, Heather Warnken, and Adam Reichart. Courtesy Kevin Adler

What’s it like to walk a mile in another man’s shoes? That’s a question Kevin F. Adler, a 29-year-old San Franciscan sociologist and ed-tech entrepreneur, is working hard to answer. His idea was simple: find a homeless volunteer to wear a camera and document their life on the streets. The result was Homeless GoPro, and for Adler the project is personal, inspired in part by his late Uncle Mark, a schizophrenic who was homeless on and off for thirty years.

“This past Thanksgiving, I visited the gravesite of my Uncle Mark,” shares Adler. “I really had no idea who he was, how he lived his life, how people interacted with him, what he saw on a daily basis aside from Thanksgiving and Christmas. The idea occurred to me to do a project that would connect with people in Mark’s situation.”

With a camera donated by GoPro, Adler set about finding his first volunteer with the help of two homeless service organizations: HandUp, a fund-raising platform which enables users to make direct donations to individuals, and Project Homeless Connect, which is focused on health and human services. Before long, Adler found Adam Reichart, a 44 year-old Floridian who had been homeless in San Francisco for six years.

“He wanted to understand our motives, he wanted to know what the project’s goals were. His passion, obviously, was to get off the street but also to raise awareness about what homeless people face, what he individually faces, and to build empathy.”

Here, Adler discusses how life has changed for Adam, addresses the project’s critics, and reflects on the power of the “fragile, shared human experience.”

Is there an effort to help get Adam get off the streets?

Absolutely. We all agree, and Adam would say the same, that the wider goal is building empathy as an end in itself, and the transformative power of empathy is to get people more interested in supporting other service organizations, to be more likely to stop and speak and make donations, and to be able to better understand each other’s situations.

But already we’ve been able to raise a few thousand dollars for Adam through his HandUp page. He’s been able to be in a room since the project started, so he hasn’t been on the street, he’s been in kind of a halfway house. It would take about $6,000 to have him housed for 6 months, which we would love to be able to raise to help him get on his feet and for him to be able to get ready to find work and start having more of a normal life again.

Do you think the project has made him think differently about his situation or led him to him understand the passersby he interacts with in a new way?

It’s interesting because most of my attention has been on how our team of volunteers have had their perspectives shifted by seeing the daily implicit traumas that Adam faces: the rejection and being cast aside, the looks that affect him on a deep level. I think going in I probably imagined that the biggest issue is simply being homeless; your primary concern is getting off the street. That may still be true, but it’s also the little looks and indignities. Adam sells the “Street Sheet,” as opposed to panhandling, mostly because he sees it as a job. He considers it a dignified way of making money as opposed to just asking, and he makes less by doing that, but it’s just important to him. I don’t know if he’s an anomaly on that, we want to find out.

I think he’s been a bit blown away by the outpouring. He said something to me that really struck a chord: the finances have increased a bit, but the humanity has increased a lot. He’s relaying stories of people coming up to him now and saying, “Hey, Adam. We’ve seen you here for the last three years and maybe said ‘Hi’ once, or donated once or twice, but we had no idea of your story and just how thoughtful you are, and I want to thank you for sharing a little bit more of that. Can I give you a hug?” This to me -- listen, we want to get him off the street -- but as a baseline, he said it’s a totally different experience now...

The project has had its critics who say it’s gimmicky and exploitative. What's your take on the criticism?

Well, I think the first thing I would say to people is that Adam is an adult. I would refer them to our website and the blog post entitled “Why I’m Doing This,” where Adam explains his reasoning.

Over the last week, over 250 people have signed up to get involved in this project, and the largest single group of people wanting to get involved are either homeless people or homeless shelters. We’ve had at least a dozen homeless individuals, or people who were previously homeless, say, “This is what I’ve been waiting for...I want to tell my story,” and asking if we can extend this otherwise inaccessible $300 piece of technology to them. Homeless shelters have been asking us to work with them. One expert in New York City, who works on housing issues, has said Homeless GoPro is an example of emerging best practices in issues of homelessness.

I understand the concern. Any time the words “tech workers” and “homeless” are in the same sentence someone is going to raise an eyebrow. You start thinking of exploitative projects where the homeless are used as WiFi hotspots or things of that nature. This is a very different beast, and I think it takes a little bit more time to read why people are doing it, the fact that we’re working with homeless service providers, the fact that Adam has wanted to share his story. And really, at a baseline, that documenting an experience is a simple way to verify and celebrate a person’s life.

Technology has allowed us to achieve unprecedented levels of connectivity but it’s also fed self-absorption and loneliness. What do you think is the key to making technology work for the greater good?

It’s a question I love and I think the way I feel the most qualified to answer it is based on why I work in tech...I always wanted to build platforms that people would use to connect with each other and do great things, building a greater sense of our common humanity.

My passion is people, it’s not technology. Technology is a tool. If you want to build a house, it’s probably a good idea to have a hammer on hand. Right now, technology can play an incredible role in elevating voices and sharing perspectives that would otherwise be unattainable. One criticism is, “Well, this is online, why don’t you just get off the computer. It’s so sad that we have to sit in the comfort of our homes to understand a homeless person.”

Well, this is just a starting point. Have you walked with Adam before? Have you taken time to walk in their shoes? I haven’t. Maybe others are better people than I am, but I find myself on a daily basis mostly ignoring the homeless people I walk by, not having conversations, donating once or twice here and there. So this is something they can reach people.

Growing income equality makes it increasingly difficult for people at opposite ends of the spectrum to relate. San Francisco encompasses both extremes -- how has that impacted the city, and does it make it an ideal environment for a project like this?

It’s one of the main reasons why I took the leap of faith and pushed this project to commence, because the discourse is so heated right now. You know, we hear of the Google Bus boycott, and Google Glass wearers having their glasses smashed, it’s a very heated moment in the city. My background is in politics, I love policy, but the contribution here is -- look, there’s no one quick fix.

Obviously, the city has just an abysmal dearth of affordable housing, and I think everyone would agree that that at a core level is a huge problem. It’s effected Adam directly. In the last few years, as a very small, poignant example of how tech workers and the emergence of tech has influenced him, he used to pay $150 a week for a halfway house where he was able to stay, kind of a hotel, and now it’s up to about $350 and that’s just in a few years. I don’t think the amount of his donations has more than doubled in that way. Now, technology tools like HandUp and online fundraising have promise but there’s still just a huge lack of affordable housing. That being said, I think there needs to be a starting point of empathy and understanding in order to have the conversation...

To build a better city that works for everyone, because we’re all in this together and no one should be kicked out, we need to find ways for everyone to be part of our community because that makes everyone’s life better. Diversity is a wonderful thing for everyone. But in order for that to happen, you have to understand each other’s situation and I think that’s why at a core, fundamental highest level, our vision is really to capture and rediscover the fragile shared human experience in our midst.

How do you envision this type of GoPro project expanding or evolving?

We would love to be able to be a conduit by which individuals in other places, in other parts of San Francisco, other parts of the United States, other parts of the world, can bring Homeless GoPro to their community. I think that’s going to be our mission outfitting a network of incredible volunteers many of whom are homeless, and many of whom are not, using technology to document life as it’s rarely seen but often felt, and building empathy through firsthand perspective.

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