Philly Lawyer launches new app to help people in need

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Nikki Johnson-Huston was spurred to launch a new smartphone app after growing up in poverty and facing homelessness during her youth.

Johnson-Huston wanted to go beyond simply giving people who she encountered on the street money to doing something that has a larger impact.

The Center City-based attorney has launched Donafy, a free app that allows Philadelphia residents to locate and donate to nearby nonprofit organizations that service people in need of emergency housing, food, medical care, mental health, job training, LGBT and legal services.

The name Donafy is a portmanteau of donate and notify. The app is launched at a time when about 12,000 people access shelters in Philadelphia per year, according to Project HOME, an organization that works to break the cycle of homelessness and poverty.

“For me this is really a tool. This is sort of my way to be able to give back to a city that has given me so much,” Johnson-Huston says of the new app.

Johnson-Huston said Donafy can help people who are homeless and those living on the edge. She says many individuals who live in poverty and are homeless have more access to smartphones than they do to computers, so this is the best way for them to seek help.

“We’re really trying to catch a lot of people before they end up homeless. A lot of times because there is a stigma associated with it, a lot of people wait until the last minute, and they’re really desperate before they get help,” Johnson-Huston said.

The app also allows people to notify Philadelphia’s 24-hour outreach team about the location of someone who is homeless and needs help getting off the streets.

Donafy can be downloaded through the iPhone app store and is only available in Philadelphia. Plans are in the works to expand the app’s range to Philadelphia suburbs.

The app enables people to make donations via PayPal to more than 100 nonprofit organizations throughout the city.

“What we are hoping is that it allows smaller organizations that people never heard of get some publicity, so that people can see all the great things that are being done here in Philadelphia,” Johnson-Huston said.

She wanted to be able to give people a way to make small donations.

“You can give any amount that you want but we focus on $1 to $10 because we call it micro-philanthropy. The idea that all of us are doing a little bit can have a big impact,” she said.

She and her husband Shawn Huston used their personal funds and worked with developers from India to launch the app. Johnson-Huston would not reveal the cost of their investment.

Johnson-Huston is pleased that the app has been well-received since its March launch. She was surprised that the app has received so much attention because of its focus on issues around poverty.

“It’s hard to get people to pay attention to poverty. They talk a lot about the effects of poverty, but it’s hard to get people excited about anything to do with poverty. They accept that’s how it is, so my heart has been full to see how people have responded to it,” she says of the response.

“I think that it was important for someone like me who has been through this experience to be part of the solution.”

Johnson-Huston is a Detroit native who was born into poverty. She grew up without a father and her mother struggled with drug and alcohol addiction. The family moved from Detroit to California after a bus accident left her grandmother disabled. When Johnson-Huston’s mother later decided to move, she took her two children with her.

When Johnson-Huston was nine years old, her family lost their home. They went from staying in hotels to staying with friends and ended up on the streets. Johnson-Huston experienced the horrors of staying in shelters with her mother and her younger brother, Michael. The family didn’t ask for help, because they were afraid that she and her brother would be placed in foster care.

Johnson-Huston was later sent to live with her disabled grandmother who lived in Section 8 housing, while her brother was placed in foster care.

Johnson-Huston earned a scholarship to attend St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia; however, she had a hard time adapting and failed out of college after her first year. She later worked as a live-in nanny for a couple who encouraged her to return to college. She returned to St. Joseph’s and graduated in 1998. She enrolled in Temple University Beasley Law School and graduated in 2004 with a law degree, a master’s in business administration and a master’s in taxation at the age of 29.

After graduating from law school, she worked as an assistant city solicitor where she represented the Department of Revenue in business tax litigation.

During her first year at St. Joseph’s, Johnson-Huston had lost contact with her brother. They reconnected 11 years later in 2004 and she later found out that he had been addicted to meth and had contracted HIV. In 2010, Michael attempted to hang himself in a court-order rehab facility and ended up brain dead. Johnson-Huston and her family had to take him off life support.

She developed a platform by starting to do motivational speeches for nonprofits where she shares her story of overcoming poverty, homelessness and fought through adversity to achieve her dreams.

“I decided to use that platform for something good. I knew that I wanted that platform to mean something,” she said.

“I wish I had seen someone coming up when I was talking about this when I was coming up, because I felt so alone. I felt so embarrassed. I felt so ashamed. When you growing up as a kid, you want to be like everybody else, you don’t want to be homeless,” she said.

“For a long time, I tried to forget about it. When I first started talking about this, there were people who suggested that I don’t talk about it. They thought it would hurt my career, that people would think less of me and think that I’m less smart because I failed out of college.”

She says it’s important for young people to know that there is life after failure.

Johnson-Huston views using her platform as a way to honor her brother’s memory.

“I can’t do anything to bring my brother back, but I feel like this is a way of honoring him and honoring people like him by amplifying my voice and giving voice to other people and also a way to honor my grandmother and all the other people out there who helped make my life possible,” she added.

As a tax attorney, Johnson-Huston advocates for individuals and businesses to resolve their Philadelphia city tax issues.

Johnson-Huston is a member of the board of directors of the Philadelphia Bar Association and has served on the board of trustees of Project HOME. She received an Eisenhower Fellowship in 2012 to travel to India and New Zealand to study ways to end generational poverty.