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Homeless? Need Food or Shelter? There's an App For That

Emily Wendler / KOSU
Xavier Espinoza, 14, poses at the church where he volunteers his time. Espinoza and his mother were homeless for many years, but have had a stable home for the past two.

Seeing a homeless person in Oklahoma City is not that rare. But seeing a homeless child, on the other hand, is quite uncommon.

But did you know that there are 25,000 homeless children in Oklahoma?

We at KOSU didn’t either. We looked into it and found that the number of homeless kids has grown fairly rapidly over the past few years.

However, two brothers are trying to find a way to help these struggling youth.

For many people, when they think of homelessness, they think of a gritty life on the streets. Sleeping on cardboard boxes, under bridges, and digging through trash cans.

While this is the reality for some homeless youth, recent data released by the State Department of Education shows most homeless kids are doubled up with other families or are couch surfing by the grace of their friends.

Xavier Espinoza, a 14-year-old boy in south Oklahoma City, says when his family was homeless they moved around a lot.

"We would just bounce from house to house to house," said Espinoza, "We didn’t have a steady home."

He said the lack of stability in their lives led to more trouble.. 

"My mom couldn’t keep a job. She was selling drugs and doing drugs," he said.  "I would do whatever I wanted.. it didn’t matter what time I came home.. I would do whatever."

The state data also shows that homelessness is becoming a reality for more and more children each year.  The Department of Education counted almost eight thousand new homeless youth since 2010. 

Kathy Brown, the homeless liaison for Oklahoma City Public Schools, said part of the problem is a lack of affordable housing. But also said there are so many reasons people become homeless. 

"You know, maybe it was one small thing. Maybe the Mom got laid off of work and it was a day-to-day paying bills, and that’s sets them off into the downhill spiral of homelessness," she said. 

A few years ago Brown noticed an increased number of homeless students in her district, so she started looking for additional ways to connect these kids to the services they might need. 

She reached out to the City Rescue Mission—the state’s largest homeless shelter—for ideas.

Two brothers who had been working with homeless youth for over twenty years presented the idea of a cell phone app, and Brown said she liked the idea immediately. 

"I was like sure, this sounds like a great thing. This is exactly what we need."

Brown said there are many agencies out there that can help kids find food, shelter, clothing, tutoring but  many don’t know where to look for them.

"Especially if you’re a young individual, you’re not going to know where these are. And if it’s like on the weekend and you don’t have someone to call- it's all right there at your fingertips."

The app—called the HYPE Tool Kit App—works kind of like Yelp.  A person can type in what they’re looking for and find the nearest shelter, or whatever it is they need.

And yes, according to Brown, homeless kids have cell phones.

"I don’t know really any individuals that I work with that do not have a phone," she said. "Even my families that are at the shelters that I work with- they all have cell phones."

Adam Jones, the Community Relations Manager at City Rescue Mission, and his brother Tony, came up with the idea for the app.  Adam says it’s not just for homeless students, but also for those who want to help.

"Let’s take you for example. If I asked you, hey, if you saw someone in need would you want to help? I think 9 times out of ten when we ask anyone that, because we’re human beings and we genuinely, on some level, care about others. We would want to help, right?" said Adam. 

But Adam said it can be difficult to help others when you don’t understand the severity of their problems.

"What we’ve discussed is if we can give you a tool that says I don’t know what you’ve been through because I’ve never been through it, but I know some people who do know what you’ve been through- when you can take confidence in that you'll be way more apt to help."  

He said part of the hope for the app is to empower kids in school to pay more attention to their surroundings and be aware of the issues friends are having, and reach out to them.

Adam said they've been promoting the app at Oklahoma City Public Schools, through churches, and youth groups. It officially rolls out on June 20, and will be available for free on Google and iTunes platforms. 

The Jones brothers think this app is the first of its kind, and hope that success in the Oklahoma City area will lead to its state-wide expansion, and beyond. 

Xavier Espinoza, the 14-year-old boy who bounced around with his mother for years said he wishes something like this had been available when he was homeless. 

"We wouldn't have had to stay with our cousins for a while, and we probably would have gotten some help sooner," he said. 

Espinoza said things are good now, and him and his Mom have been living in the same apartment for two years.  But, he said, if he had to, he would definitely use an app like this.

"If my Mom didn’t come home one day I would just pull out my phone.. or if she didn’t come home at all… I’d find help…."

Emily Wendler was KOSU's education reporter from 2015 to 2019.
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