One September morning, I finally plucked up the courage to speak to a homeless man that I regularly see in Prestwich. That conversation was the start of Street Support.
Like many of us, I had noticed an increasing number of homeless people on the streets. I felt really sad and frustrated that in a country like the UK people could find themselves without somewhere safe to sleep.
Knowing that charities advise not to give cash as it encourages begging, I wasn’t sure what I could do to help. I would often offer to buy people I saw a coffee or something to eat, but beyond that I felt helpless. Donating to a national homeless charity made sense, but it felt so distant and intangible, I rarely got around to actually doing it.
There was a young guy I had seen locally a few times, but never knew what to say. For some reason this day was different. I got over my fear and made myself ask him a few gentle questions – if he was cold, where he stayed at night, how he ended up there. He was pragmatic and gentle, just told me how it was, without a complaint. It blew me away…and I regret that I didn’t ask his name.
He had been made redundant a few months before, paid his rent until his savings ran out, and was then evicted. (I found out later this is now the number 1 cause of homelessness in the UK). Without a fixed address he couldn’t access benefits or get a job, and was on a 9 month waiting list for housing. As a young single male he was at the bottom of the list for temporary accommodation. I was shocked to find that most shelters have now been closed, and most that are still open need to charge for a bed. Sometimes he would make enough money begging to pay for somewhere to sleep, often not.
There was literally nothing I could say. I felt helpless, and I can only assume that is how he felt too, but a hundred times more so.
It really affected me. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I sat with my partner trying to think of something we could do, and had lots of conversations on social media trying to come up with ideas. Coming from a digital background I was sure that technology could help somehow.
I started to develop the concept of shelter vouchers that people could pay for through a mobile, and the homeless person could redeem. It seemed to have real potential, and thankfully Gary Dunstan from Doing Good Digital agreed to partner with me to try and make this a success. We were really fortunate that Dot Forge felt the same, and when we applied for their social impact accelerator scheme, they decided to take a chance and support us in developing the idea.
I felt we had something that could make a real difference, we even had a cool name ‘SleepSafe’, but once I started talking to experts and reading the research, I soon realised that with so few shelters it was problematic. It still encouraged a victim mentality, for the homeless person to beg for help. It would make us feel better, but the next morning they would still be on the streets, still have other unmet needs, still die young.
I arranged to meet a experienced outreach worker called David, who has helped homeless people for many years as a volunteer. Through conversations with him, our research, and spending time with some of the charities and voluntary groups, a bigger picture started to emerge. There were many amazing projects I knew nothing about, with different charities and voluntary groups providing a whole range of services. As the council budget cuts hit, and central services were reduced, compassionate individuals could use social media to start outreach projects and get other people on board. It was inspiring and confusing – I was really surprised that I hadn’t heard so much of this was going on!
Gary asked a key question. “If you could do one thing to make the situation for homeless people better, what would it be.” David gave the answer that was the seed of Street Support – help the existing groups know what each other are doing, so they can co-ordinate, be more efficient, help more people.
All the research we found and the conversations we had had with other charities others backed this up. The motivation and ideas are out there, but they are not connected, coordinated or easily accessible from the outside. Many of us that care and want to help don’t know how to get involved.
Street Support will help to remove these blockers. Firstly, we will make it easy to find help for a homeless person through a mobile, relevant to their needs and location. Secondly, we will make it easy to give help, by responding to specific things that local projects need, from money or volunteers, to clothes or food containers.
So much has happened in the last few weeks. We were introduced to the Coalition of Relief (COR), comprising many of the grassroots groups in Manchester, and the wonderful Mikey, that co-ordinates their efforts with the council. We visited The Booth Centre to find out about the work they do, and spoke to Coffee4Craig, Barnabus and many more. All of them had the same response – yes we need this, please can we have it now!
And now we have a team of talented digital experts making this happen: social researcher Kim Foale, one of my favourite developers Vince Lee, talented designer Alexander Atkinson, user experience developer Phil Lennon, copywriter Danielle Styles and more giving their time generously to guide us along the way.
The Manchester groups are on board, and we are working on an app that the charities, outreach workers, and members of the public can use to find help and give help to homeless people.
We have more features in development, including the give help section, where anyone can respond to things that local organisations need, from clothing and food containers, to volunteers with specific skills and funding.
We are talking to national charities, and looking for like minded businesses to partner with, so we can expand the network to other cities, and add more features.
I’m so glad that I took the chance to have that conversation. I hope that one day I will get the chance to thank that man, and tell him about the Street Support Network that he inspired.
I hope you will join in, follow and support us, and help every homeless people get the help they need.