Modesto teens develop award-winning app to help homeless population

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Divya Katyal and Haiying Zeng created an award-winning smartphone app that helps to serve the homeless population.

MODESTO — Most teenagers are concerned with fitting in or hanging out with friends. For two local teens, they’re concerned with increasing the functionality of their smartphone app to help serve the homeless population.

Divya Katyal, 13, and Haiying Zeng, 14, students at Elizabeth Ustach Middle School, have developed an app that aids in identifying and locating homeless citizens for purposes of lending a helping hand. The app, called Homeless Network, shows the location of homeless shelters and nearby stores and other outlets where helpful items can be purchased. It allows users to pin a location on a map where a homeless person might be taking up temporary residence.

Though the app was created during Katyal’s and Zeng’s participation in a summer coding program called CodeX, the idea came from Katyal’s family.

“My family and I, once or twice a year, distribute these homeless care packages, and, usually, we drive around for about two to three hours,” Katyal said. “Afterwards, we don’t feel like we distributed them all to those in need, so I wanted to create a way for it to be more accessible to find the locations of these individuals.”

“I do think this has changed the way I look at the problem of the homeless population because I don’t think I realized how many there were before,” Zeng said. “I do hope the app can make an impact on reducing the number of the homeless population.”

According to a report issued in 2017 by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, there are 134,278 homeless in California on average on any given night. For the entirety of the nation, the number comes in at 552,251. California totals more than one fifth of the U.S. homeless population.

A census taken of Stanislaus County’s homeless population in 2017 revealed more than 1,600 people were living on the streets or in shelters.

Prior to developing the app, Katyal and Zeng did not know a lot about coding, but their math teacher encouraged them to learn about different programming languages. While working on the app, they learned JavaScript and HTML by using MIT App Inventor.
“It’s gotten easier for me to code,” Katyal said.

“I mostly did the coding and the color scheme,” Zeng said, who, like Katyal, has a strong interest in math and science.

The mentors at CodeX challenged the students to create an app that could be used by the community. That challenge became two competitions involving six schools. The first competition was held within Ustach Middle School, which Katyal and Zeng won.

A “Code Night” was held between all six schools. Students had to give a presentation. The judges based their decision on the presentation, the creativity of the app design and the benefit to the community.

Homeless Network won that competition as well.

Katyal and Zeng’s mentors at CodeX encouraged them to submit the app to the Congressional App Challenge. They created a video to accompany the app submission, and after a little more than a month, they found out they had won.

“I admire these young students’ attention to issues in our community and their desire to serve those less fortunate,” said Congressman Jeff Denham (R-Turlock) in a statement. “Homelessness is a serious issue, and here in the Central Valley we see far too much of it.”
According to Denham’s office, he recently sent a letter to the House and Senate Committees on Appropriations requesting a fix for expiring Transitional Living Program (TLP) and Maternity Group Home (MGH) grants to prevent a funding gap that would harm homeless and runaway youth programs in communities nationwide, including the Center for Human Services shelter in Modesto.

The Congressional App Challenge is a nationwide student coding competition hosted by members of the U.S. House of Representatives. It offers the chance for students to code their own apps for mobile, tablet or computer devices on a platform of their choosing. Zeng and Katyal coded Homeless Network on the Android platform.

“It’s encouraging me to go further with the app and put it to use in the community,” Katyal said. “It’s given me the courage to purse a career in technology. Usually, being a girl in tech, we don’t get as much encouragement to pursue careers in technology.”

Katyal said the experience has helped spur other ideas, like an app that helps those with diabetes.

“As a parent, it’s good to know she’s already on the right path, and she’ll make a difference in society,” said Shalini Katyal, Divya Katyal’s mother. “They’re using their talent in helping people. That’s the best thing.”

The Modesto Police Department has showed interest in the Homeless Network, stating it could help them better serve that population by getting them the help they need. It could also be useful to healthcare providers in delivering care.

As the app gains in popularity, the teen duo is looking to make updates and expand the uses of the app, but it could mean a larger financial base to work from. They are looking for any companies or individuals that would be willing to sponsor or partner with them to support further development of Homeless Network.

Though the app isn’t available to the public yet, it will be soon through the Google Play store for Android phones. Katyal and Zeng are looking at creating an iPhone version after that.

Those who wish to offer support or help in some way can contact Shalini Katyal at [email protected].

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