‘After a withering and controversial UN report on poverty in Britain it’s hard to avoid the subject. I’m not getting party political but if we don’t notice the rough sleepers all around us outside at this time of year, as the sleet comes down and the Christmas lights come up, then there’s something deeply wrong with us.’
This was the extraordinary plea made by political journalist and presenter Andrew Marr at the top of his early-December, current affairs show. It’s a response to a report filed by a UN rapporteur who identified that the UK has seen a staggering 169 per cent increase in homelessness since 2010 and predicted a seven per cent rise in child poverty, with an exponential growth in the number of food banks.
Across the Pond, a similar trend has started to emerge with the Wall Street Journal reporting the first rise in homelessness, in the US, in seven years. Department of Housing and Urban Development reported that over half a million people were homeless on a single night across the US in 2017.
In spite of numbers declining in 30 States, the increase in homelessness within destination cities for young, well-educated workers has become a serious issue. Rapidly rising living costs and evictions have been identified as the key problems in San Francisco and Seattle, whilst in Los Angeles the issue has been described as unprecedented, where 50,000 sleep rough in the city – second only to New York City, which bears witness to 75,000 people on its streets each night.
However, the news is not all doom and gloom. A bright bunch of new social start-ups have taken flight and are shaking up how we perceive and respond to homelessness. Peter Hay speaks to some of the individuals behind these organisations to find out how technology is changing the face of homelessness for the better.
Like so many industries, technology for the voluntary sector is a challenge. Whilst slower to start than in other sectors, disruption is pushing its way in and forcing organisations to transform and compete with these bright young digital things.
As in all cases of disruption, its need is born out of solving the more urgent problems for a particular group of customers, end-users, or, in this case, donors and beneficiaries, through the deployment of digital technology. The charity sector is no different. Homelessness has become a huge challenge for society, globally, in the current, difficult political and social climate and often those who are the most vulnerable become collateral damage. From the refugee crisis to those suffering from mental health issues, and many other groups in between, homelessness can, and does, affect anyone.
Beam was established in 2017 by social entrepreneur, Alex Stephany. The organisation crowd funds on behalf of specific individuals, without a permanent address, to give them the training and tools they need to help them achieve their goals. Stephany sees the role of solving the problem of homelessness as a collective one: ‘Of course, the government has a role to play; we need more investment in housing, the critical services for the homeless and other vulnerable groups. But I also believe that social problems have, fundamentally, social solutions and we all have a part to play in making progress on these issues.
‘It’s not enough to say: ‘Well, I pay my taxes, therefore, I have no civic responsibility.’
Beam has created a platform that is safe and easy to use so that anyone can help a homeless person and provide them with the long-term benefits that training and education can provide: ‘What we’ve done is build a platform that allows people to make positive and smart investments in people’s futures,’ explains Stephany, adding: ‘All of the campaign budgets are transparently laid out on the campaign page, to the nearest pound, and we also manage the money on behalf of the supporters… we purchase all of the budget items on behalf of the individual.’
In little over a year, Beam has already secured a clutch of awards for its platform, which is backed by the Mayor of London’s office, and is poised and ready to grow in 2019: ‘2018 has really been about proving the model and we’ve proven that this is an incredibly effective, perhaps the most effective model, to help disadvantaged people get into work after long periods of time. And next year is really about scaling the model, helping many more members, and scaling the community of supporters.’
Another organisation supported by Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is TAP London. The volunteer-led charity was also founded in 2017 to drive innovative thinking and solve some of the problems faced by homelessness charities. The organisation partners with another tech innovator, GoodBox, to bring its contactless technology to the voluntary sector and break down some of the pre-existing barriers to fundraising: ‘TAP London uses contactless technology to connect generous Londoners affected by visible signs of homelessness and the services and people who so desperately need it’, explains Co-founder Katie Whitlock.
The service provides a series of contactless points, currently piloting in London, that allows individuals to tap their card and donate three pounds. TAP then distributes these funds evenly across 22 pre-selected homelessness charities.
‘Technology makes a huge contribution in bettering the lives of people that are experiencing homelessness’, explains Whitlock. ‘For example, at a grassroots level, it can help to create connection for those who are isolated, through apps such as NextMeal; it enables people to report rough sleepers who are at risk in seconds, such as in the case of StreetLink; or, as in the case at TAP, it can bring communities together to find struggling services.’
But she reiterates that technology is not the only answer for resolving homelessness: ‘Charities, technological innovation and fundraising ensure that there are buffers and support. But these are lifeboats. For resolution we need to stop people falling in the water in the first place.
‘It is a deep rooted, political issue, and for systemic change to occur we need to re-evaluate our policies, tax spend and the way our government treats our most vulnerable.’
As in any sector, technology can solve or create problems. Stephany makes the point that it comes down to the application of the technology, on an individual level: ‘Technology is no silver bullet and it needs to be applied properly and every organisation’s needs for technology will differ. It’s not without its challenges, particularly with individuals who don’t have access to those technologies or individuals who are not tech-savvy and are struggling to migrate to a digital world.’
Whitlock elaborates, adding: ‘More broadly in society our use of technology is having a huge impact on homelessness. Many innovations – particularly in finance - leave people behind and this increases the poverty premium. If you are poor, you pay more for a loan. If you can only pay in cash, it costs more to use it.
‘It is the social responsibility of those organisations who are changing the rules of the game to ensure that they make it inclusive and usable for everyone.’
Stephany also makes the point that resources are not being responsibly deployed by organisations, more widely, and priorities need to change: ‘Far too much time, money and resources are being spent building products for privileged people, making sure they can get sushi to their desk in 15 minutes. And these challenges aren’t actually the biggest challenges we face as a society.’
One of the other issues faced by homelessness charities is the misconception that every homeless person is sleeping on the streets. In fact, according to recent government figures, 295,000 of the 320,000 people who are homeless in the UK, for example, live in temporary accommodation. As Stephany explains: ‘The reality of homelessness in the UK is that it’s much more likely to be a single mum living with her children in some kind of unpleasant and run-down bedsit. That’s the numerical reality of homelessness in the UK.’
Beam works with this group, specifically; those who might have a roof over their head but lack progression and have poor employment outcomes: ‘Our job is really to empower them to be amazing, which is our slogan, by making sure we’re giving them the right, personalised support through the crowdfunding and also building this network of supporters around them at the same time.’
Whitlock sees a bright future for charities that adopt ‘technology for good’: ‘As more technological innovations crop up in the third sector, I believe we will see a radical change in transparency, engagement and efficiency. In a time of prolonged austerity, this might not stop people from finding themselves homeless, but it will play an increasingly vital role in helping them find a way out and in strengthening the vital services provided by charities across the UK.’
If you would like to learn more about the organisations mentioned above, please visit their websites: