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In a 3-day competition, we researched the Pittsburgh homeless sheltering system and designed Porchlight, a concept for an Airbnb-like service for the homeless. Porchlight alleviates pressures on shelters by finding newly homeless individuals housing in volunteered spare bedrooms.


2 days, October 2014

Competition Details


Jason Azares, Ron Kim, Jim Martin, Michael Richardson

My Contributions

User Interviews
Survey Design and Analysis
Low-Fidelity Prototype
Presentation to Judges

First, the obvious question: Why doesn’t the city just build more shelters?

We were surprised to find that there is a whole subset of the homeless population that we hadn’t considered before: the newly homeless.

Originally, we were expected to engineer a physical, tent-like structure as a solution for the chronically homeless. Now we saw an opportunity to take different approach: to free up shelter space for the chronically homeless by finding alternative housing for the newly homeless.

We interviewed two formerly homeless individuals

Photo Courtesy of TexasEagle.

Photo Courtesy of Tony Atler.

Interviewee 1
A house fire forced his family to live in a trailer home. Luckily it was during the summer when he and his siblings weren’t in school so they could park it in camping grounds.

Interviewee 2
A home foreclosure forced her parents, two siblings, and a dog to live in a Super 8 hotel for three months. She lived with a family friend an hour away from her high school.

According to the interviewees, what the newly homeless really need is normalcy*

Many newly homeless individuals stay with family and friends. But, this is not always possible.

A home-away-from-home

Not living in a tent on the streets Avoiding the highly regimented environments of homeless shelters

Staying in the same neighborhood

Keeping an existing job without having to travel far Kids remaining in the same school

Feeling “Normal”

Not being subjected to the shame of being homeless Keeping homeless status private

*Defined by the formerly homeless individuals we interviewed

What does a temporary, home-away-from-home look like?

We had our doubts…would people open their homes to the newly homeless?



In our survey of 114 individuals, 26% indicated that they are interested in opening their homes to newly homeless individuals.

Shared economy services like Airbnb and Uber are becoming increasingly popular. People are becoming more receptive to interacting with strangers and sharing assets.

Porchlight is an Airbnb-like service that helps case managers connect newly homeless individuals with generous homeowners.

Porchlight Members
A homeowner can volunteer the use of a spare bedroom.
A case manager in the area is assigned the new guest. Case managers are often appointed by a city to help homeless individuals navigate social services.
newly homeless individual or family creates a verified profile to become a guest.

Follow case manager Kelly through her use of Porchlight to help Jane find housing

1. Notifications tell the case manager what to do next. Kelly decides to finish Jane’s verification.

2. Kelly reviews and signs off on Porchlight’s automatic criminal background check and the guest’s submitted references and social media accounts.

3. Porchlight helps Kelly communicate with Jane by prompting messages after each step in the process.

4. Porchlight uses an algorithm to recommend homeowners for each guest.

5. The case manager selects the best match, Rhonda. Rhonda’s spare bedroom is available now, only 5.3 miles away, and Rhonda is also a Christian like Jane.

6. Again, Porchlight helps Kelly send a quick message the homeowner. This time, the message automatically includes a link to an anonymized version of Jane’s guest profile for Rhonda to review before accepting the stay.

7. While Kelly waits for the homeowner to accept the placement, she can do other work. Porchlight will alert her when Rhonda accepts or the request expires.

8. When the homeowner Rhonda accepts the placement, she and Jane receives each other’s contact information. They get in call each other and set up a time for Jane to arrive.

9. The case manager checks in periodically to see how the stay is going. After the stay, Rhonda and Jane will rate each other.

Three Design Challenges and Our Solutions

1. Make good matches for homeless individuals and homeowners while maintaining their privacy

2. Ensure peace of mind for the homeless and homeowners

3. Help case managers provide a personalized experience

3-Day Process


Interview with a case manager

Two members of my team went to a homeless shelter in Pittsburgh and were fortunate enough to track down a case manager for an hour-long interview.
  • The City of Pittsburgh owns many abandoned buildings that it could convert into shelters but there’s a strong community outcry against building them.
  • Shelters can provide many services, such as mental health or drug abuse counseling.
  • All types of people use shelters, including a professor going through a messy divorce.

Demographic Analysis

We reviewed the 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress to learn about the demographics of the national homeless population.
  • Only 18% of homeless people are considered chronically homeless, while 82% of people are homeless for less than a year and are actively working to get back on their feet.
  • Most homeless people are just like you and me, do not have criminal backgrounds, mental health or drug abuse issues, and even have jobs.

Interviews with 2 formerly homeless individuals

I spoke with two college students whose families were homeless for a few months due to a home foreclosure and a house fire.
  • Homelessness is much more common than I imagined.
  • Parents want their children to feel as normal as possible, especially by staying in the same community and school.
  • Friends of friends volunteer spare bedrooms for the sake of helping others, sometimes encouraged by their Christian faith.
  • They want to keep their homeless status private so that people continue treating them with respect.

Concept Validation

Survey to see if homeowners would volunteer

Inspired by the stories of the formerly homeless interviewee taken in by a friend of a friend, we conceptualized the Airbnb-like service. But, before we pursued the concept further, we wanted to test the assumption that homeowners would open up their homes to homeless strangers. We surveyed 114 Americans through Mechanical Turk and found support for our concept.

Many homeowners are willing to shelter


Ranked motivations show that financial incentives are not the most important

  1. Helping people to find shelters during emergencies
  2. Helping people in need
  3. Monetary compensation
  4. Utility discounts
  5. Tax breaks
  6. Meeting new people

Some homeowners show preferences for certain guest characteristics

  • Families whose homes are destroyed by fire or storms
  • Women who suffered from domestic abuse
  • Children who are accompanied by adults


Low-fidelity prototype to gain feedback

With a teammate, I sketched the initial prototypes to lay out the vision. Because the competition was only 2 days long, we did not have time to revisit the users and, instead, received feedback from 3 peers.

Based on feedback, we made improvements to make placements more efficient with a streamlined workflow and use more types of verification for safety.

Mid-fidelity prototype as a presentation tool

A teammate was the visual designer of the mid-fidelity prototype. We created this version as a presentation tool that helped judges visualize a final product. It was made simultaneously as we created the low-fidelity sketches so it’s not a second version.

This prototype’s use of colors and image assets convey a trustworthy tone and puts people at the forefront of the service.


We took 3rd place despite being in an engineering competition

We pitched the concept to judges who were impressed by our research that served as compelling evidence. Our team placed 3rd overall despite being in an engineering contest where other contestants made physical shelters.

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