Let’s say you know someone who has had a tough time of it during the Great Recession. It could be a neighbor, someone in the extended family or someone you’ve come across in the course of your daily business as a real estate broker.
That particular someone lost his job and, after hanging in there for the past couple of years, has finally depleted his savings. Now he and his family are in danger of losing their home. They are depressed and feeling stranded, not really knowing where they are going to be living next month.
You want to help, but don’t have a clue as to where to find the necessary aid. Everyone wants to know where they can turn for help.
The answer to this question will soon come from Aunt Bertha. Or, to be exact, www.auntbertha.com.
The brainchild of Erine Gray of Austin, Texas, Aunt Bertha is intended to be a kind of online social worker, where people can find services for those in need.
Specifically, the site collects all federal, state, county, city and charity program information on need-based services, making it all available to anyone with Internet access.
"Using information we learn about programs, and what we learn from the user, we match people with services," Gray says.
The site is for any need, whether it’s health or education. But during Aunt Bertha’s test phase, Gray saw a lot of people coming to the site for help finding shelter.
"We don’t focus on housing, but it has been a big part of what we do," Gray says. "Very early on, we had several people contact the site saying, ‘I’m facing foreclosure, what can I do about it?’ They were looking for housing programs and in some cases shelters."
The site makes it easy for people in need to find government-run housing programs, or temporary housing, or solutions offered by nonprofits, he said.
"One of the things that we have been able to do is point them to resources so they can find transitional housing," Gray explains. "If someone has lost their residence due to a foreclosure, we redirect to a local charity or non-profit that focuses on finding people housing. That’s been a common chase."
But shouldn’t banks or any some other entity be doing this?
"There are government-run call centers that will help people find services and they do a good job," he says. "Our goal is for the people who want to find solutions themselves. It’s hard for people down on their luck to work with someone else — they are embarrassed. The feedback that I receive from our users is they would like to find this information themselves without having to talk with someone at a call center."
Gray’s own experience helping his disabled mother — he became her guardian when he was 26 — motivated to put his training in economics and computer science into the start-up firm.
"It was one of those circumstances in life where you are dealt a situation you don’t know how to deal with," Gray recalls. "I had to help her navigate the system, find services. There are all sorts of programs out there. I was familiar with computers and I still had trouble navigating the system."
The idea for Aunt Bertha gestated for about six years until almost two years ago when he started building out the concept.
I asked him where the name Aunt Bertha came from.
"Everyone has a family member that they trust, who they went to if they got in trouble and maybe going to your parents wasn’t such a good idea," he says. "So, I was looking for a maternal name from the 1950s and came up with Bertha. The site became Aunt Bertha."
The website was launched in June 2011 to serve the Austin area. It has since been rolled out across Texas. Currently, it’s collecting data from localities in Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arkansas. The intent is to roll Aunt Bertha out state by state.
Steve Bergsman is a freelance writer in Arizona and author of several books. His latest book, "Growing Up Levittown: In a Time of Conformity, Controversy and Cultural Crisis," is now available for sale on Amazon.com.
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