Between 2009 and 2017, homelessness has been on the increase. In just 8 years there has been a 169% increase in rough sleeping in England. As these numbers rise, so do the case numbers for local authorities - up 34%. (Crisis, 2018)
There are a variety of reasons why someone might be homeless. Sadly, many people view homelessness as the result of personal failings, and consider that if the economy is going well, there is no excuse for not getting on. But this belief is belied by the facts, which show that homelessness is caused by a complex interplay between a person's individual circumstances and adverse 'structural' factors outside their direct control such as family breakdown and disputes, sexual and physical abuse in childhood or adolescence, having parents with drug or alcohol problems, and previous experience of family homelessness. People who have been in care, the armed forces, or in prison are especially vulnerable to homelessness. Problems can build up over years until the final crisis moment when a person becomes homeless.
Solving homelessness is hard. Tackling problems that lead to homelessness is a complex business and normally requires support from public bodies, friends and family, combined with a lot of hard work from the individual or family in trouble. This week the Government announced its £100m strategy to tackle rough sleeping on England's streets and we were keen to understand how they plan to take on this complex issue. At the same time, we took a look at one 'solution' being tested on Oxford...
Currently in Oxford, a scheme called Greater Change is being tested. The scheme allows homeless people to sign up and receive a QR code (with a lanyard). The idea is that a homeless person can hang the lanyard around their neck, or display the QR code on a sign. People passing by can scan the code with their phone which will take them through to the Greater Change app and read up on the homeless individual (proving that they are in fact homeless and not lying), and then pay them directly into an online account. This account is monitored by a case worker who ensures “the money is spent on agreed targets”. (BBC, 2018)
The main ‘selling point’ behind this scheme is that it first confirms the person is in fact homeless. Many people doubt 'beggers' and it is very common for people to say things like: "They make more money than a banked in a day", They aren't really homeless - they are making loads of money" etc. This scheme also eliminates any doubt the donor might have concerning what their money will be spent on if they donate as it is controlled by a case worker. A lot of people want to help homeless people but they worry their money might be spent on alcohol, drugs or gambling addictions. Most people want to know that their money is going towards a goal that could turn their life around.
A couple of years back, the charity Crisis did some research and found that street sleepers were almost 17 times more likely than the average person to be a victim of violence, and 15 times more likely to suffer verbal abuse." (Guardian, 2016) Shamelessly, some attacks are for the money homeless people might have on them. This technology allows homeless people to save funds in a safe and secure location with no risk of being robbed.
One of the major upsides to social media is the connection capabilities. If every homeless person has a QR code and a story, backed by a case worker (so we know they are real) these stories could be shared online and donations could flood in.
"Do you think, though, being scanned, it feels like you're an object in a supermarket?" (BBC, 2018) Well yes, I do actually. I like this idea, but I can't ignore the fact that this app dehumanises the homeless by reducing their presence to simply a bit of digital code.
Will this idea lead to a further breakdown of communication between the general public and the homeless - or maybe it will connect us? I am not sure. Right now, I have no idea who is homeless in Lincoln. The only way to find out is to visit local support groups and shelters and meet people face to face. But this is not something we all do so could our communication 'through the app' widen the gap between 'us and them' (creating a digital shield) or actually allow us to get to know homeless people better?
I’ve often wondered about the lack of interaction the majority of us have with the homeless. Why is that? Is it because we can't connect or relate? Do people really care about homelessness? Are we just all inward focused? Or do we (and by we, I mean people with homes)?
It would be great to think that everyone who scans these codes when they see them hanging around the neck of a homeless person - or presented on a sandwich board next to a make-shift tent and sleeping bag - the donator will strike up a real conversation with the individual. Now that might be nice, but I think this could be unlikely.
The homeless already feel isolated from the rest of the world. Just spend a little bit of time watching any documentary on homelessness, or spend 10 minutes watching who interacts with a homeless individual in the middle of a town centre. Homeless people say they are very lonely surrounded by lots of people. I imagine it’s a frustrating and painful experience every day.
I started drafting this blog last week and to my amazement, this week the Government unveiled its "Plan to end rough sleeping in England by 2027". (BBC, 2018) It is promised that £100m will "help people turn their lives around" by tackling multiple different factors that can cause homelessness, from mental health services, drug addictions and lack of housing funding. Charities have welcomed the plan, but have stated that it is "a step forward but not a total fix". (BBC, 2018)
I think we have suddenly woken up. Homelessness is an issue. And its a biggie. Tackling judgements, attitudes and outdated myths about homelessness is something that every single one of us can do to make a difference - even if we are not prepared to donate or volunteer.
Technology can be an enabler and apps like this one is something. But there are other things we can all do if we are not willing to donate money via a barcode. Such as:
We shouldn’t have to rely entirely on technology to remind us of our basic humanity. It certainly can makes things easier as our lives become busier and more complicated, (and helpful if we want to donate, but have no loose change in our pocket) but it is not just about money. And homelessness cannot be solved simply by chucking £100m at it. Even technology solutions need to be human when it comes to solving human issues. Bt it's a start. And we certainly do need to start.