London is a 21st century city with history stretching back as far as Roman times. It is known for its iconic landmarks featuring both modern and historic sites delicately fused together with 13 protected sight lines that allow us to see the central city from as far as 10 miles away. London, with all its beauty, has literally been built to be noticeable.
Something even more noticeable but a lot less of a pretty sight is the number of homeless on London’s streets. A nationwide problem but a particular problem in London with almost a quarter of all England’s rough sleepers in the capital.
Over 8,800 people were sleeping rough on the streets in London in the last 12 months. An 18% increase compared to the previous 12 months. Even more worrying is that the homeless we see on the streets only account for a small fraction of those who exist out-of-sight. Referred to as the ‘hidden homeless’, there are up to 400,000 nationwide without permanent accommodation at any given time.
Although London’s geopolitical factors such as unemployment, the lack of affordable housing and poverty have a massive effect on these figures, they are very simplistic explanations for a complex problem. Each individual has their own diverse and personal issues. In relation to rough sleepers, these personal problems become a much more weighted factor, with 80% having either alcohol, drug or mental health issues. Delve even deeper into why these health issues occur and you find all manner of catalysts including physical and mental disabilities, a lack of education, relationship breakdown and domestic abuse.
There is another fundamental issue to consider. What does it mean to be homeless? If we give every homeless person a home, have we really solved the problem? The Finish capital of Helsinki has done exactly this by fast-tracking the giving of a home to anyone that needs it regardless of their present problems. Their argument is that the safety and security of a home is needed before attempting to fix any personal problems and homelessness self-perpetuates homelessness. Although a truism, I also happen to think that displacing the most vulnerable people in our society out-of-sight might just help us to keep them out-of-mind.
The UK government has announced a reverse in its previous cuts in spending, with a £1.2 billion fund with the intention of halving numbers by 2022 and eradicating homelessness entirely by 2027. This problem cannot be fixed by just chucking money at it and regardless of whether we house every homeless, the needs of the vulnerable homed will still be there. This is a human problem not just a bricks and mortar problem.
Onto the question of using tech to solve homelessness. Can tech alone solve the problem? No, it can’t. Can tech assist in solving the problem? Of course it can, but any successful outcome is dependent on the creativity and hard work of the numerous charities and support groups that are working on the frontline. Most of which are staffed by individuals that are volunteering to help the problem out of the kindness of their hearts.
Some stats suggest that as many as 95% of homeless have access to a mobile phone with 80% of those being smart phones. To the homeless, a pay-as-you-go phone is not merely some extravagant accessory, it’s a lifeline to connect to vital support and to help combat social exclusion. Still, the most vulnerable of rough sleepers do not have any kind of phone so any apps and sites targeted at them are useless. You can give a phone to someone homeless and tick a box but some homeless are not tech literate let alone language literate. They need to interface with people.
Taking all these considerations into account I find it surprising that almost all creative technologists are focussed on building independent app-based solutions. Don’t get me wrong! There are some wonderful examples of apps that will make the world of difference. Apps such as Beam which crowd funds training and skills will go a considerable way to helping the hidden homeless into work and innovative projects such as Helping Heart will help the homeless take donations in our modern cashless society. But for every helpful project there are ten that really aren’t going to make a difference.
My point is that no-one knows the problems and how to fix them better than the charities and support groups. As a creative technologist, the best thing you could possibly do is work with them in using technology to enhance their services. That could still be a self-contained app, published and promoted by one of the charities but could also be technical innovation of a support organisation’s logistics and operational programs or maybe of new ways to raise awareness to increase volunteers and donations.
Speaking of donations. The government simply does not give enough money to these support organisations to function. Almost all of them depend on donations and volunteers to function in their most basic capacity. This brings me onto a global problem with using technology for any good cause.
Although technology can positively help societal issues, its macro ‘main-stream’ effect on society has been to disconnect us from each other in a human-to-human way….and this is only going to get worse unless something changes. Studies have shown evidence that teenage children are becoming a lot less empathic to each other in the school environment and this lack of empathy has a positive correlation to the frequency and overall time that certain technologies are used, in particular social technologies.
People donate money for disaster relief because they feel empathy for the victims. They feel good to give something they have to someone who has greater need. In the same way, no-one gives money to someone homeless in order to get them off the street. We donate because we feel a sense of empathy and may even try to visualise ourselves in their worn shoes, wondering how on earth we would cope in such difficult circumstances. With less empathy there will inevitably be less donations both to the street homeless and to the charities.
So, what can be done? Well it’s a very complex problem with no simple solution but there is something all of us can do right now. Start a conversation with someone who is sleeping rough and simply ask them how they are. I promise you, that one conversation will not just help you to understand more about them, it will help you to understand more about yourself and most importantly bring about a moment of authentic connection.
photo by: Tom Parsons