Penn partners on new app to aid vulnerable youth exiting foster care

Youth leaving foster care lack traditional family resources to help them apply for public benefits, school, or even a job. A new web app unveiled by the School of Social Policy & Practice (SP2) and the Juvenile Law Center of Philadelphia literally puts these types of vital resources at the fingertips of vulnerable youth aging out of the foster care system and experiencing homelessness.

On May 1, to coincide with the start of National Foster Care Month, the Youth Matters: Philly web app was launched at a news conference organized by SP2 and the Juvenile Law Center. The web app is optimized for use on a mobile device. It can be viewed and downloaded to a smartphone, putting the power into the hands of young people seeking resources in the city’s extensive social service system. When saved to a mobile phone, the app becomes an information portal to a webpage with maps and more than 20 different web sources. If a young person is experiencing homelessness, he or she can use the app to find the name and number of a nearby shelter.

The story of how Youth Matters: Philly came to be is a tale of serendipity.

It began when Johanna Greeson, an assistant professor and co-director of the Child Well-Being & Child Welfare specialization at SP2, reached out to Hack4Impact to develop the web app. Hack4Impact is a student-led organization of software developers at Penn who collaborate with nonprofits to create web tools for social good.

Hack4Impact had already contacted the Juvenile Law Center after learning about its advocacy work on behalf of at-risk youth. The students had inquired if the Center had any projects in mind that the students could collaborate on to develop. The idea that the Center suggested was almost exactly what Greeson had discussed.

The Hack4Impact team of School of Engineering and Applied Science students Zhiyu (Annie) Meng, technical lead; Rani Iyer, project manager; and developers Ben Sandler, Brandon Obas, Kyle Rosenbluth, Sanjay Subramanian, and Stephanie Shi went to work. The web app was soon ready to launch.

“Anyone can use the web app by going to it, but the target audience is foster youth navigating the system of resources available to support them,” Iyer says. “This web app compiles lots of resources that foster youth used to learn about through physical pamphlets, which were less frequently updated, less accessible, and not as comprehensive as our web app.” 

Greeson says: “I am so excited that this vision has become a reality. We are incredibly grateful for the students’ time, expertise, and energy. Together, we have created something that I hope will provide vulnerable youth in Philly with better information and resources, ultimately contributing to improving their well-being.”

Sue Mangold, executive director of the Juvenile Law Center, says older youth transitioning out of foster care face a number of challenges, such as securing housing, navigating educational opportunities, and moving into adulthood.

“Because young people increasingly rely on apps to find what they need, Youth Matters: Philly is a much-needed tool to help them at a critical time in their lives,” she says.

The web app can be searched by location, name, or resource type. Resources vary from food banks to clothing, and from emergency shelters to health care.

Advanced search features enable customization. For example, young people can seek resources for education or find out where to get health insurance. LGBTQIA youth can find safe and judgment-free places to talk or discover housing opportunities targeted to them.

Both the Juvenile Law Center and the Philadelphia Department of Human Services have started training staff and youth service providers on how to use the web app.