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Tech helps homeless at Christmas (and beyond)

With UK homelessness at levels not seen since the 1990s, it’s hard to avoid the reality that a crisis that exists all year round – and not just at Christmas. How are digital innovators responding to the challenge? Julian Blake looks at some of the latest tech help at hand.

beam375It’s a sad truth that homelessness only comes into the minds of many at Christmas, as the Dickensian ‘goodwill to all’ spirit kicks in for the festive season. Volunteers will help Crisis, and sales of the Big Issue will rise. That’s good news for those at the sharp end, of course.

But with a national housing crisis now more visible than ever, and rough sleeping on the rise, it’s becoming harder than ever to treat homelessness as a seasonal problem. As well as rising numbers of rough sleepers, with more than 4,000 on the streets on any one night, over 77,000 households now live in temporary accommodation – that’s up 60% on 2011. And 62% of all homelessness is ‘hidden’ in places like squats or on friends’ sofas.

Can digital help solve the problem? While it’s clear that long-term solutions are needed – like increasing the supply of affordable homes – tech innovators are turning to crowdfunding, big data and blockchain to help homeless people and the agencies that support them.

One project that’s picked up traction in recent months is Beam, a new crowdfunding platform designed (rather like the Big Issue) to help the homeless help themselves, with a ‘hand up, not a hand out’ approach.

Beam, set by former Just Park chief exec Alex Stephany, claims to be the world’s first crowdfunding platform to help homeless people train up and get into work. “I believe people want to help but feel powerless,” says Stephany. “My question was: ‘how can I take a small amount of money but make the smartest possible investment in someone’s future, helping them out of homelessness for good?’”

Stephany knows a bit about crowdfunding – at JustPark he became a record-breaking crowdfunder, raising the largest-ever crowdfunding round for a tech startup of £3.5m.

Beam’s platform helps homeless people to raise money from the crowd and channel it into training and work opportunities. Its first member is Tony, a homeless man living in a hostel in south London who wants to become an electrician. In under a month, Tony successfully funded his campaign to qualify as an electrician, raising £4,378 from 136 supporters. (Tony’s pictured here, second left, with Stephany, Beam ambassadors James Bowen and “Street Cat” BobBeam, and Beam member Joe.)

A social impact business rather than a charity itself (it takes a modest 9% admin fee), Beam’s individual members are referred through partnerships with registered homelessness charities, including St Mungo’s, The House of St Barnabas and Thames Reach. It also works direct with local authorities to maximise impact like training into work.

The Beam model, still in its early pilot phase, has raised more than £25,000 for individual crowdfunding campaigns, and helped members to create career paths including teaching assistant, courier and construction site manager. One campaign took just five days to fund.

From a donor perspective, anyone can donate to any live Beam campaign, and can also make monthly donations divided equally between every live campaign. Transparency means each campaign shows an exact budget on the platform.

Beam, launched as a pilot in September, already has funding from London mayor Sadiq Khan and innovation foundation Nesta to help get the platform off the ground. It’s a strong vote of confidence for a new startup.

Neighbourly, the social platform that brings together businesses and community projects, is running a focused campaign to support homeless people, following feedback from its community.

Its dedicated ‘no place like home’ funding platform brings more than 50 charities and community projects together in one place so individuals and companies can contribute things like food, clothing, sleeping bags, toys and board games. The campaign runs until February 2018.

“What has hit hardest is the reduction of support for local authorities, meaning that councils have had to cut back on support for those working with the most dispossessed,” says Neighbourly founder Nick Davies. “This campaign aims to support projects delivering essential services to people who, for whatever reason, need emergency support from a local charity.”

Other approaches look to co-ordinate support for homeless people between the often-confusing multitude of agencies that exist out there. In Manchester, Street Support was set up in 2015 as a central online resource to make it easier for homeless people to get the help they need.

The service, founded by Viv Slack and Gary Dunstan, now operates out of Manchester, Leeds, Bradford, Bournemouth, Portsmouth and Liverpool. It allows homeless people to find emergency help, volunteers and others to give help, and find out more about homelessness issues in each place.

homeless300The platform makes it easier for local services to collaborate and co-ordinate, working to agreed standards of service. “Our long term vision is a place-driven citizen-led support network, with people with personal lived experience of homelessness at the heart of everything we do,” says Street Support.

Youth homelessness charity Centrepoint has taken a data-driven approach to addressing the problem. Its Youth Homelessness Databank, launched back in 2014, aims to understand how many young people experience homelessness and what happens to them when they seek help, bringing together data “to build the clearest picture possible”.

Centrepoint found that one of the big challenges of any service was getting the information needed from service users quickly and unobtrusively, to understand how best to help. It has worked with CAST, the centre for acceleration of social technology, on its Fuse programme.

After speaking to young people about what would work best for them, it developed Centrebot, a text-based messaging service enabling people to contact the charity for advice and guidance, through SMS and the web.

Charities overall are rightly facing increasing scrutiny to demonstrate the impact of their work. Donors want to see that their money is making a difference. The arrival of blockchain technology is helping to do this, by creating a transparent audit trail. ‘Blockchain-for-good’ platform Alice.si aims to create trust by showing donors exactly what impact their money makes.

alice1 300Alice is powered by smart contracts on the Ethereum blockchain that ensures the traceability of donations, and keeps funds secure until the charity’s goals are achieved.

Its first live application sees it working with the St Mungo’s charity on the impact of donations on London street homelessness. Charities “only receive donations if they achieve the goals listed on their project page,” explains Alice.si.

Some great positive work being done out there, then, to help people at the sharp end, and to ensure that resources are getting to the places it is needed most.

Others are using technology in far less supportive ways. In Silicon Valley, questions are being asked about what more tech giants can do to help address street homelessness in San Francisco.

While some, like Salesforce, are allocating resource to providing roofs over heads, news emerged this week that one company is reportedly deploying robots to deter homeless people from setting up camp in the city.

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