She Reveals Solutions for the 'Hidden Homeless' - OZY | A Modern Media Company
CG Chen at Ryerson University in Toronto. Chen is the founder of the Chalmers app, a first-of-its-kind social-service chatbot that provides critical information to those living on the streets.
SourcePhotographs by Aaron Vincent Elkaim for OZY

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

This chatbot is designed to serve people exactly when they become homeless — wherever they are.

By Carly Stern

When CG Chen answered the phone, she was shocked to hear her friend Simon Bunyi say he was being evicted. Bunyi, 28, had been laid off. His tech job had helped him financially support his family overseas, and he had concealed how precarious his situation had become. 

Bunyi’s friends sprung into action: Chen, 27, searched for information about eviction proceedings while another friend scoured job sites. Hours later, they’d combed through every social service they could find.

After couch surfing for three months, Bunyi found work and got back on his feet. He didn’t become one of the estimated 8,000 people considered chronically homeless in Toronto. But his situation was typical of an invisible group — the “hidden homeless” — who must navigate a patchwork system of services when the rug’s been pulled out from under them.

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“People don’t even know that there’s this entire infrastructure of social services that they can access,” says Chen. Many never turn to their personal networks because “there’s a huge shame factor,” she explains.

Chen spent the next six months interviewing and doing design workshops with more than 100 people facing homelessness. “People don’t even know that there’s this entire infrastructure of social services that they can access,” says Chen. Many never turn to their personal networks because “there’s a huge shame factor,” she explains. But for those who seek help, few digital tools exist. The majority of the “hidden homeless” own a phone — and 86 percent first turn to Google when they lose housing, according to Ample Labs’ research. But they’re often left feeling like “a hot potato” as they get passed around by providers, Chen says.

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Simon Bunyi (second from left) was part of the inspiration for the creation of the Chalmers app.

Chen set out to design a real-time tool to meet people where they are. She created the nonprofit Ample Labs and in 2018 launched Chalmers, a web browser-accessible chatbot. Chalmers asks whether people need food, shelter, drop-ins or other services before determining their location by GPS and providing addresses, even filtering for LGBTQ-friendly shelters. It’s live in Toronto and Barrie, Canada, with 9,500 unique users so far. But 15,000 sessions have been recorded, which suggests the service is sticky, Chen says.

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Chen demonstrates how the Chalmers app works on her phone.

Her enduring challenge: Finding users at the moment they lose housing. “How do you find people who are hidden? They’re hidden for a reason,” says Chen, her tone urgent. “How do you not just find them — how do you build trust?”

Chen moved to Canada from China at age 7 and always felt an entrepreneurial itch. A lackluster student, she failed seven out of 10 mandatory university courses before dropping out. This led her to a brief e-commerce stint selling T-shirts before returning to pursue a design degree. The seeds for Ample Labs were planted during her thesis. “What inspires me is when I see doers, people who don’t just talk,” says Chen, a subtle tattoo of an upside-down cross peeking out from under her ring.

How do you find people who are hidden? They’re hidden for a reason.

CG Chen

Chen started working in tech and brewed ideas for Ample Labs on the side. Two events spurred her on: In 2019, Chen’s mother, Mary, moved into a women’s shelter for 33 days. A slew of circumstances drew people there: Many were refugees awaiting visas, while sudden illness or educational expenses had created hard times for others, Mary says. The year before, Bunyi had lost his housing. “It’s a very emotional experience,” Bunyi says, noting how the first days were particularly harrowing.

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CG Chen’s mother, Mary (left), and Bunyi.

Those junctures are where Chalmers is critical. Beyond logistical information, the chatbot is designed to address emotional needs with programmed empathy. If users tells Chalmers they’re feeling depressed, for example, the bot says it’s sorry, asks if they want to talk to someone and provides phone numbers. And they get surprisingly personal. “We would see things like, ‘I have $500 to live on for the rest of this month. What should I do? … How do I find friends? How do I find love?’” says Chen, who quit her job at ecobee, a home automation company, at the beginning of this year to run the nonprofit full time.

Roughly half of Chalmers’ users are social workers, caseworkers or staff. Providers can use it to connect youth with other resources, says Carlos Moreira, director of youth employment at Covenant House, Canada’s largest shelter. Caseworkers can redirect their in-demand energy while those who need them get speedier services, says Bunyi. For instance, Chalmers provides fast intel for “shelter bouncing,” as most shelters are full unless people call far in advance, says Alex Meli, who experienced homelessness as a university student after moving from Cameroon and now is a developer for Ample Labs.

This type of tool still has inherent challenges, notes Ben Henwood, a University of Southern California social work professor who specializes in homelessness. Beyond technical hurdles — like real-time updates for providers’ changing hours and locations — there are deeper trust problems given how cities criminalize living outside. Henwood expects some to remain wary of revealing their locations and thinks the service will resonate better with youth than aging adults.

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Bunyi and Chen work on developing the app.

Chen says Ample Labs doesn’t sell location data and users remain anonymous. But her platform could provide a more accurate glimpse of homelessness — particularly those hardest to find, like couch surfers — compared to traditional methods, which experts say undercount the true number. Just as the city of Barrie paid Ample Labs to launch Chalmers, data capturing such a hard-to-measure epidemic could prove valuable to city governments. Commodifying data could improve services but endanger those who’d benefit or deter use overall.

Chen has no shortage of questions to wrestle with before scaling. Meanwhile, Ample Labs will continue speaking with unhoused people to understand location-distinct challenges, host monthly co-designs with Covenant House to incorporate feedback and employ those with lived experience, like Meli, to improve the product. All the while, they will press ahead toward a more nuanced understanding of who is actually homeless, says Chen. “How did they end up here?”

OZY’s 5 Questions With CG Chen

  • What’s the last book you read? Grit by Angela Duckworth. I’m super curious about what makes some people grittier than others.
  • What do you worry about? Ample staying alive and my family’s well-being.
  • What’s the one thing you can’t live without? The Bible.
  • Who’s your hero? Jesus.
  • What’s one item on your bucket list? To live in Los Angeles.

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