Birmingham, AL resident Sherri Ross Walters recently learned she was the only non-New York City resident among four winners to place in the 92nd Street Y’s Genius Start-Up Competition. She was among the 50+ that entered the contest, organized as part of the organization’s 7 Days of Genius festival.
Walters learned of the competition via a friend on Facebook sharing the link to an article from Inc. publicizing it in February. Her entry involved developing a citywide resource “to help the homeless find information in real time.” Information accessible would potentially include identifying which area shelters are open, available beds, and where meals will be served. All of this would be available to users via a small box mounted on bus stop poles. How she came up with the concept is indicative of the passion she’s shown to other efforts in the city in recent years, including the Birmingham Girls Club and Birmingham Dance Walk.
“I chatted with a sweet homeless man named Dave at a restaurant one day after buying him lunch,” said Walters via an email exchange earlier today. “He described having to get to the shelters early to get a place in line for a bed that evening. That really spoke to me.”
The area’s recent winter storms also had an impact on the development of the idea. “As our community was posting away on Facebook offering up shelter, baby items, medications, food, and the like, I knew that a lot of homeless people would never see that information,” she said.
“I love what our city does by opening Boutwell (like this) for them in extreme weather circumstances along with the amazing work our shelters and various groups do, but I wondered about the other nights of the year, along with what Dave told me,” she continued. “How many hours do they spend in line at a shelter and do they always get a bed? What if there were a fast, easy way for them to get the information they needed before trekking across down only to find out the shelter is full. Or that an organization that normally serves meals has run out of food for the evening. We have so many wonderful groups in our community that offer help – I wanted to create one place where the homeless could get that information.”
Walters finished as second runner-up in the competition, securing a pass to the 92Y Spring 2014 Talks Season Pass. She is currently investigating ways to move forward with the project locally, including pursuing conversations with city officials to determine feasibility, and the homeless community to “help pinpoint the greatest needs for the first phase.” She is also hoping to work with others to “develop a prototype and plan, including entrepreneurial friends to discuss business plan and funding and engineers to talk about the application once needs are determined.”
She points out, according to the website OneRoof, that Birmingham has nearly 1,500 people on any given night who experience homelessness. Walters thinks her idea can make a difference. “I am hoping that with this new communication system, they can find the resources they need to spend a safe night indoors, as well as get food, toiletries, and the help they need. I also envision this being a tool they can use to help each other by staying in touch, finding lost friends, and reporting emergencies if needed,” she said.
According to the competition’s webpage, “The entries were judged by 92Y, Cornell Tech and venture capital firm RRE Ventures on the ideas’ innovation, potential impact and implementation plan.” The winners were announced at the Genius of the Start-Up event held on Monday, March 3. The series of events continues through March 10 and can be watched via live stream on the 92Y’s website or follow the Twitter hashtag #thatsgenius.