Students’ online hub offers resources for combating housing insecurity during the pandemic.

In the global efforts to combat COVID-19, staying at home has played an important part in limiting the spread of the virus. What happens, however, when you don’t have a home?

As they brainstormed in early April for Rice’s 48-Hour COVID-19 Virtual Design Challenge, a group of Rice students were struck by how much housing insecurity increased one’s vulnerability to the coronavirus. “We saw that, while we had homes from which we could practice social distancing, other Houstonians without permanent houses cannot easily do so,” explained Annie Xu ’23. “Working with local homeless shelters and transitional housing organizations is an obvious, yet much underestimated, way of addressing this disparity.”

The weekendlong hackathon-style event was hosted by Namita Davey ’22 and Sanjanaa Shanmugam ’22. Taking place after most students had gone home, the competition gave undergraduate teams itching to make a difference the opportunity to workshop solutions for problems posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Brought together by their involvement with the Center for Civic Leadership, Stephanie Hu, Srivinay Tummarakota, Angela Lin and Xu, all from the Class of 2023, spent the competition developing a social impact solution for the vulnerability caused by housing insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic.

To address this issue, the team designed OwlShare, an online donation hub that would connect donors to local homeless shelters in need of supplies and financial support. Their proposal was declared the winner of the virtual design challenge by a panel of judges, including Ashley Taylor, director of education at the Rice 360° Institute for Global Health; faculty from the Center for Civic Leadership; and Rice faculty with health, technology and social impact expertise. Encouraged by the positive reception of their project, once the competition was over, the team set out to bring OwlShare to life.

With guidance from mentors in the Liu Idea Lab and Design for America, the team began by contacting homeless shelters in the Houston area and creating a donation guide featuring information tailored to each organization’s specific needs and characteristics. This approach was shaped by the students’ work with the Center for Civic Leadership, which helped them recognize the value of asset-based community development, where a community’s inherent resources are used to further sustainable development.

The OwlShare website currently features a directory with up-to-date information about 11 different shelters in the Houston area, as well as donation instructions for each shelter, an interactive map and guidelines for safely donating supplies.

Since first publishing the website in mid-May, the team has received positive feedback from both community members and affiliated shelters. “Several homeless shelters were elated to see that college students wanted to bring attention to ways to support their organization,” shared Hu. “We hope that our users and related community members can help OwlShare reach a wider audience, encouraging more donations to homeless shelters in this dire time.”

Although no further shelters have been added since the guide was published, the team welcomes any information users may have about additional organizations that require support. If you are an alumnus or community member interested in their work or in shedding light on other issues related to COVID-19, please reach out to the OwlShare team at owlshare.rice@gmail.com.

For further information about OwlShare and to see how you can help a homeless shelter in Houston, check out their online guide here .

“Tiny Acts of Kindness,” a project from Rice’s Office of Public Affairs, features stories about Rice Owls responding to the COVID-19 pandemic in kind, creative and effective ways. Read the Rice Magazine series here.

 

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