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Veterans Affairs and HUD Join With Jon Bon Jovi To Launch Developer Challenge To Help Homeless Vets

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Monday, March 19 2012

The departments of Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development on Monday unveiled a new federal app challenge that is designed to help homeless veterans quickly find shelter and other vital resources in a pinch.

The federal government wants applications developers to create a mobile app that will in essence function like a travel portal for homeless veterans. It would enable anyone to look up the availability of beds and other essential services in real-time in that person's vicinity. The competition opens March 22 and will be open to submissions until July 27th. Finalists will be announced August 24th, and the grand prize winner will be announced November 9th, and will win $25,000. The Veterans Administration will award $10,000 to five finalists.

The challenge came about after rock star and philanthropist Jon Bon Jovi approached former Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra about how volunteers at his JBJ Soul Kitchen in Monmouth County, New Jersey, could help homeless people find shelters. JBJ Soul Kitchen is a "community restaurant," where monetary payment for meals is optional. It's a project of Bon Jovi's foundation and is run by volunteers who either volunteer to help other people, or volunteer to pay for their meal. Bon Jovi is a member of the White House Council for Community Solutions.

During a conference call with reporters, Bon Jovi said that the idea for the project came to him after a volunteer at the Soul Kitchen asked for help finding a bed for the night.

The volunteers at the kitchen searched for information about shelters on the Internet, but couldn't find any information about the hours or availability of beds in the area he said.

When confronted by a reporter about the likelihood of a homeless vet owning a smartphone, Bon Jovi said that the apps are designed as much for people who want to help homeless vets as for the vets themselves.

"When we first talked about this idea, we too thought about how many homeless veterans will have access to telephones? But they're going to soup kitchens, they're coming to places like the Soul Kitchen, they're coming to free medical clinics here in Monmouth County. There are a a lot of places where ladies and gentlemen who've fallen down the socio-economic ladder who just don't know how to access these social services, and there are people like me who want to help, but don't know real-time whether there are beds available, or whether there's a doctor or a dentist, and this project is going to do that."

The goal of the apps contest is ultimately to provide individuals and community groups like Bon Jovi's tools to help homeless vets, and ultimately all homeless people, said W. Scott Gould, deputy secretary of Veterans Affairs during the conference call.

"The contest we're launching today will harness the power of the internet, smartphones and the iPad to help a community group help a homeless veteran find out exactly which shelter in their community has an open bed right now, which employer is looking for a homeless veteran's skills right now, and the closest place to find a hot meal right now. This will be a high-tech, high compassion, low-cost solution."

The point of the app is to unlock the capacity of the resources provided to homeless veterans, he added.

Apps developers can access the necessary data and schema through HUD's Homeless Management Information Systems, but for the prototype for the contest, apps developers are expected to come up with an app specifically targeted at exposing the resources available around Monmouth, New Jersey where the Soul Kitchen is located.

The numbers seem to vary wildly, but according to one count by the VA, there are at least 20,184 homeless veterans who are veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Obama administration has embarked on a comprehensive program to attack the problem and has set itself a goal of 2015 to "end" the problem.

March 19th is the ninth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. President Obama on Monday proclaimed that March 19th would be a day going forth that would be a day dedicated to honoring veterans of the Iraq war.