Ashley Sundquist uses Google Maps as more than a way to get around. She’s turning it into an invaluable resource for people experiencing homelessness in her community.
Sundquist has a rapport with a few homeless community members in Santa Monica, where she lives. Connecting with this community is a habit she’s long cultivated wherever she lives, whether in Los Angeles or the many East Coast cities she once called home. In January 2020, she was chatting with one of them, a man named Joe who often hung out in front of a local library. After Sundquist asked him how she could help out, he explained that, while he knew there were resources for homeless people in the community, he had trouble finding them.
He needed a map.
As a Google Maps Local Guide, someone who helps others get acquainted with places on Google Maps via contributions like written reviews, photos, and fact-checking information, Sundquist had the answer. She scoured local websites and created a Google Maps list of homeless shelters in Los Angeles County for Joe.
Ultimately, Sundquist wanted to make resources for homeless people more accessible. “I could immediately see how impossible it would be to navigate all of these websites, especially if someone is already struggling with mental health issues or they have limited access to technology…,” says Sundquist.
Joe was blown away by her initial map and asked her to make others. Since then, she’s made ones to help people in Los Angeles County find free food, free showers, mental health resources, EBT-eligible restaurants, and resources for young people experiencing homelessness. She’s also created COVID-specific resources, like places with free WiFi and locations like fast food restaurants, that offer free food to Santa Monica residents during the pandemic.
The information was always there, she says. It just needed to be curated into one place.
“There’s just something about having a map that’s always there, you can never lose it. All you need is the link,” Sundquist explains.
While Sundquist isn’t the only person to make resources like these, her lists caught the attention of Google Maps, which hadn’t heard of people using its resources in this way.
Most people use Google Maps lists to save places they want to go or remember, says a Google Maps spokesperson. Sundquist’s lists, on the other hand, focus on helping others rather than herself. They also take advantage of her own local knowledge, like if a church offers free meals. Google Maps as a company might not have this information, which is why Sundquist’s on-the-ground experience comes in handy.
Sundquist’s contributions could inspire more people to create lists like hers, says the spokesperson.
Indeed, Sundquist’s received messages from people in three U.S. cities and 20 countries around the world, who want to do the same thing in their communities.
“They’re ordinary people wanting to do extraordinary things in little ways in their neighborhoods,” says Sundquist. “If everyone could do something like this in their city, then we could help so many people.”
She’s responded to every note and helps when she can, such as teaching someone how to make a Google Map.
“This isn’t about me, it’s not about what I’m doing,” she says. “It’s about what others can do as well.”
How to connect with homeless community members
She also suggests first getting to know community members struggling with homelessness to listen to their unique story and better understand their needs, as she did with Joe.
“You can understand the needs and the challenges before rushing to make your own solution based on your own assumption,” says Sundquist.
After, find local resources for people experiencing homelessness. Search for shelters, food banks, and other similar organizations on Google Maps. Then visit their websites to see their meal schedules and intake application process. Call these places to ask about their criteria to stay at their facility, if they offer transportation, or whether they have available beds.
Once you’ve gathered this information, you can use these instructions to make a Google Maps list.
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Follow up after making a list
You’re not finished after you’ve made a list. Stay connected with those you’re helping to follow up on their progress and ensure they understand the information you’ve gathered on the Google Maps lists. Request suggestions for future maps, and ask for feedback on the current lists, such as edits and additions.
Keep the lists updated and spread the word about them. Sundquist mainly relies on word of mouth, while also sharing news of the maps on her website, the Local Guides Connect platform (where Google Maps Local Guides communicate with one another), her Instagram account, and with family and friends.
Sundquist continues to make maps with Joe’s help, who recommends types of lists she should make next and gives feedback on current lists.
“He’s an out-of-the-box, open-minded thinker and serves as a consultant to me, identifying unique challenges that the Google Maps lists can help solve,” says Sundquist. “He is constantly sharing the maps with anyone who will listen to him, both housed and unhoused individuals around Santa Monica.”
During the pandemic, she also became involved with her local Salvation Army’s weekly outside dinners for around 150 community members experiencing homelessness. During the meals, she jokes and chats with them, while also spreading the word about her Google Maps lists.
Currently, she’s working on a new list Joe recommended to help women and children find shelters for pregnant women, breast milk banks, clothing donation centers, and other important services.
In the future, she wants to expand her efforts to other cities and hopes her efforts to get out the word about her maps will inspire others to create similar lists in their communities.
“You don’t need to have all of the answers. You don’t have to have a professional degree in this. I certainly don’t,” says Sundquist. “You are qualified just by showing you care and want to help your city and not waiting for others to do it for you.”
This content was originally published here.