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World Changing Ideas

LawyerBot Now Helps Homeless People Get Government Housing

Can difficult public assistance needs be automated?

[Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images]

From the creator of the LawyerBot, an online advice-giver that walks people through the process of getting out of parking tickets and arguing with airlines for compensation over delayed flights, comes a new site that could be even more useful. It is helping newly evicted folks claim housing aid and benefits.

The site is called DoNotPay and is run by Londoner and Stanford University undergrad Joshua Browder. So far, some estimates say that he has saved people up to $4 million by appealing wrongfully issued tickets. Now, inspired by a letter he received from a woman in a U.K. hospital, Browder has added government housing applications to the list of services.

The letter came from a woman scared to leave hospital because she’d been evicted from her home and had nowhere to go. In the U.K., new evictees can claim a place in government housing, but you need to make an application. And folks who have just been kicked out of their homes aren’t always in the best shape to write letters and gather information.

[Photo: Flickr user Tim Patterson]

Browder’s new service is available from the DoNotPay.co.uk site, and users follow along in an instant-message style chat with the lawyer-bot. They answer questions and provide the required information, and then the site spits out a legally sound application designed, says the Washington Post "to maximize an applicant’s chances of getting placed in a home."

Evictions are on the rise in the U.K. According to the Guardian, last year they reached a record high, with renters being kicked out of 42,728 households. That’s a 53% increase since 2010.

Browder plans to expand his eviction-bot to New York, but not everybody is convinced that it’s a good idea. "Automation can be helpful, but it can also be incredibly flawed," New York Coalition for the Homeless’s Shelly Nortz told the Washington Post. "A lot of our clients don’t fit into cookie-cutter situations and I’m afraid of vulnerabilities that could rise from a 'bot handling applications and other legal issues."

That’s true, but it ignores the fact that many people won’t get to see a human legal adviser, even a free one, whereas anyone can visit an Internet cafe, or use their smartphone to consult with Browder’s LawyerBot. It might not be perfect, but it’s way better than nothing, and once people are in the system, they can always seek out more nuanced advice or legal aid. Using DoNotPay doesn’t preclude other options. Nortz, however, seems to live in a world where homeless people can just wait around for the the City of New York to build them a new home:

Nortz believes that there are better solutions to the problem of homelessness in New York, citing more government funding to build housing as the top priority. "These issues are a lot more complicated than a parking ticket," she said.

The LawyerBot is exactly the kind of democratization that the Internet is great at. Anyone has access, any time they need it, to a resource that was previously scarce or expensive. And in this case, those people really, really need it. Maybe one day, all lawyers will be replaced by chatbots. One can only hope.

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