UW iSchool collaborates to help homeless youth

Homeless youth served by Street Youth Ministries in the University District can now participate in technology literacy and life skills classes offered through a partnership with the UW iSchool.

Basic computer skills are necessary to build a resume, find a job website or complete online employment applications. Everyday life skills are just as crucial for homeless youth, so the curriculum combines low-barrier technology skills with ways to work on issues that might prevent youth from setting and achieving their next goals.

It was Jill Woelfer, a 2008 alumna of the iSchool's Master of Science in Information Management program, who first began to explore the needs of homeless youth with iSchool Associate Professor David Hendry in mid-2007 for a student design competition.

Woelfer and Hendry discovered U-District agencies serving the homeless had hundreds of brochures and flyers with considerable duplication. For her capstone research project, Woelfer tackled the task of developing an information architecture to categorize information for the homeless and develop prototypes for design.

"The goal was how to employ information more effectively so homeless youth, in particular, could make more effective decisions. It was also about understanding how information supported the values of service agencies in the U-District," Hendry recalls.

As a result of Woelfer's project, Street Youth Ministries (SYM), which serves youth ages 13 to 22, developed an interest in the iSchool's research expertise, interdisciplinary approach and emphasis on using information to meet broad humanistic goals.

Last spring, the Washington Legislature allocated $500,000 to better support the state's community technology programs. The goals of grant program were shaped by research by the iSchool, with participation from a network of collaborators across the state. As a result, the Community Technology Opportunity Program (CTOP) was established. Developing job skills, increasing academic performance and fostering community engagement are among the benefits of community technology centers.

Street Youth Ministries applied for and received a $35,000 CTOP grant to equip its drop-in center with computers. Based on their earlier work together, SYM chose to work with Hendry and Woelfer as key collaborators.

Tyler Bauer, program manager at SYM, notes his agency is inundated with requests to become involved in a variety of UW student projects. This one, however, stood out. Hendry and Woelfer were interested in how information systems could improve the lives of homeless youth and better equip them to have a voice.

"People working together is really powerful in the context of using technology and learning," Hendry says.

The first series of six sessions ended in early March and five homeless youth completed them. Thus far, the striking result has been their new sense of confidence.