Chei couldn’t have picked a worse time to be unemployed.
About six months after she was laid off by a printing company, she lost her apartment and had to move in with her older sister. She also started being evicted from her job interviews because she had nowhere to live. With no steady income and no social security checks to fall back on, Chei said the couch-surfing and charity she found didn’t go far.
A growing network of tech platforms and startups aims to address that problem. The latest is Freenap, a nonprofit in Minneapolis that uses data from companies to find and help poor people get government benefits.
According to the organization, just 60 percent of eligible people in Minnesota live within a five-minute walk of a food shelf or homeless shelter. In Fort Worth, in Texas, only 27 percent of people on the federal food stamp program go to the food bank closest to them.
“Poor people are overwhelmed,” said Katherine Hauri, co-founder of Freenap. “They’re looking for someone to turn to. For a lot of people, the only people they know to turn to are in poverty themselves.”
Already, Freenap’s startup has helped more than 1,500 people in Minneapolis, where it is based, to get public assistance. If a person has more than three dependents and makes less than $1,000 a month, the state offers a mix of food stamps, cash assistance, and rent subsidies. In total, there are 65 emergency food organizations in the Twin Cities, many of which seek to serve low-income people in a variety of ways, including making sure they have enough money to eat.
With help from government agencies, Freenap has built apps and websites that help low-income individuals apply for various kinds of aid, including housing, food stamps, and health insurance. Part of Freenap’s mission is to shift money from the government to nonprofit social services.
It all starts with figuring out what kinds of resources are available close to where low-income people live, according to Mr. Hauri. For instance, Freenap’s app helps people apply for the state’s universal health insurance program, known as MNsure. The state pays for about three-quarters of the cost of the program. People who live in poverty and make too much to qualify for tax credits can qualify for the program’s basic benefits, which include emergency care, mental health and dental care, and prescription drug assistance.
People who have income between 100 percent and 300 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible for both plans, Mr. Hauri said. “That’s a pretty wide range,” he said. “But people are pretty happy to have whatever amount of their income is.”
The most common thing people ask Freenap for, he said, is free meals. A lot of the nonprofits and food shelves the organization helps connect with are Christian-based and often offer church meals and are frustrated with families with inadequate income who aren’t meeting certain participation criteria, he said.
“Some food pantries give out multiple free meals each week, but not everyone is going to get something,” Mr. Hauri said.
Freenap’s app is effective at helping people fill out applications for the various federal programs they may need. “People don’t just plug in their income,” he said. “A lot of people would have to be a little hungry to fill out that application.”
Freenap started offering help in 2016 but has recently been ramping up to meet the increasing demand. The company hopes to expand to some 100 agencies in the Twin Cities by the end of the year.
Mr. Hauri’s concept for Freenap is not new. In the United States, there are other platforms and nonprofits that also try to help people apply for public assistance programs. For instance, MileWise, a San Francisco-based startup, works with local businesses to help the homeless.
Mr. Hauri says Freenap is a better option for many low-income Americans, especially because it is so easy for them to use. It’s also a way for businesses to get a vested interest in the area, which he said will make it easier for a company to be recognized for providing assistance.