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Digital Transformation in the Streets: Technology & Homelessness

Category: Pro-Opinion, technology, street

Digital Transformation in Streets: Technology & Homelessness

You’re likely negotiating your gaze with your computer screen and smartphone as we speak. Can you imagine life without your mobile? Your computer? Or even your handy-dandy tablet? Sometimes I find my eyeline zig-zagging against all three: ipad, iphone and work desktop and hence I look to my dog-eared book for forgiveness en route to work on the tube every morning. For many of us, technology is our access to the rapidly changing landscape of the digital world. Would you be able to manage without it completely?

Digital technology has fast become a modern ‘necessity’. The immediacy in which we use, validate and share information is undeniable; whether it be a picture of our culinary expertise in lunch-making ability, or a selfie sans-makeup to fight the tumours of the world, we validate different facets of our daily existence online. So how is it that many of us turn up our nose if we see someone homeless using a mobile phone? (I myself, having been guilty of this in the past) Do we expect them to favour the age-old method of pigeon letter delivery? With technology starting to become far more affordable, have we become elitist when it comes to who can access technology? Is it time to re-think our perceptions about digital transformation and how it is significantly (and positively) impacting the streets and the homeless?

Homelessness, Technology & Safety

Digital technology has undoubtedly revolutionised the way we live. Social Media is a notable example whereby we constantly consume digital media through the flattering filters of Instagram, the pseudo-communities of Facebook and the real-time ‘soapbox’ that is Twitter.

We take for granted how fundamental our mobiles have become and how it relates to our independence, health and safety, access to the communication and knowledge. As public use of technology exponentially increases, our perceptions around those who are homeless, using it, must also follow suit. Above and beyond “liking” homeless shelter pages and initiatives on Facebook, texting donations to Shelter or subscribing to the Big Issue app, how can technology directly enable the safety and security of the homeless?

In the recent review: “The Potential for Empowering Homeless Through Digital Technology” by Lemos and Crane (in conjunction with Lankelly Chase and Thames Reach) we clearly see how technology is transforming the streets. From collaborative ‘hack days’ to tackle the perpetuating difficulties of homelessness, to apps which can locate the nearest shelter or soup kitchen, technology allows greater agency, independence and communication around issues of homelessness. Technology has led to invaluable resources such as St Basil’s “Virtual Backpack” to be created. The ‘backpack’ provides constant and mobile access to important documents such as passport, NI number etc. so these can never be lost, stolen or destroyed. This is a vital achievement and protects the homeless by ensuring these documents are accessible for job applications or identity verification. Following one of the more recent hack days, concepts are in the works, such as ‘Life Map’ whereby outreach workers would be able to login and track basic needs and statuses of vulnerable individuals they are working with from needing a hot meal to medical attention.

Organisations and charities which work with the homeless are also using technology to revolutionise their ongoing work and projects. Above and beyond online portals for donations, these organisations can run advertising and outreach campaigns engaging with a larger audience of people about the work that needs to be done and opportunities to volunteer. Another example of how technology is having an impact is Street Link, an app encouraging you to reach out and let the organisation know if you see someone sleeping rough. This significantly raises the number of rough sleepers and vulnerable adults they can engage with and begin to help. A recent example of accessibility, is the homeless charity Crisis receiving assistance from top tech organisation Aimar Foundation, loaning out their tech to set up interim internet café over the 2013 Christmas period allowing vulnerable and homeless individuals to look for jobs, send CVs and contact families.

Challenging Stereotypes: The Big Issue

Naturally, change is constantly occurring in the streets of the global ‘tech city’ that is London. We consider Big Issue sellers for example as part of London’s daily “street furniture”. With the loveable book of “A Street Cat Named Bob” hitting number one on the best sellers list, the topic of homelessness (and yes ginger tom cats) has managed to engage with a massive global audience about the cyclical difficulties and stereotypes of homelessness as well as the opportunities The Big Issue brings to those willing to take action against their circumstances.

For those who are unaware, Big Issue sellers are essentially responsible for their own micro-businesses. Those selling The Big Issue actually have to pay for their own stock of magazines. If they cannot sell all of their magazines, the stock is useless on Monday with the release of a new edition. The tag line that it is a ‘hand up, not a hand out’ is especially true as sellers are responsible for their own cash flow and are enabled by their opportunity to sell. The more entrepreneurial the seller, the more likely they are going to sell their stock.

…And when it comes to entrepreneurial spirit, let me introduce you to Simon Mott, the Big Issue vendor who is using technology to help boost his sales in a what is becoming an increasingly ‘cashless’ society. Simon is the first ever vendor to accept card payments for the copies of The Big Issue! In a culture and society where the card is king and cash is secondary, Simon was recently awarded ‘Special Judges’ Award’ at the Lankelly Chase ‘Digital Empowerment Awards 2014’. These awards recognise apps and technological innovation which are in the pursuit of combatting homelessness. In the true spirit of community, Simon used the cash prize awarded to help fellow vendors get access to card readers as well!

No change? No Problem! Simon Mott serves a cashless customer this week’s copy.

See Simon in action, discussing how technology has transformed his business in this video.

Stephen Roberston, CEO of Big Issue Foundation, recognises the stigma around homelessness and technology on a daily basis, questioning the hypocrisy of treating others differently on the basis of their circumstances. He feels that it is time to stop and think about our perceptions:

It is all about challenging stereotypes. For example, it is not uncommon for people to comment that they feel it is inappropriate for Big Issue vendors to be using SMART phones. It's as though there's the deserving and the undeserving poor. The reality is that people who are homeless frequently want exactly the same things as the rest of us. For me this is about citizenship. People who are on the 'margins' both deserve and should have the right to take part in the world in the way that they choose too. It's more than ironic that some people chose to contact us via their SMART phones to complain about seeing others using the same devices. Big Issue vendors are working. They spend the hard earned cash in just the same way as the rest of us. We need to do more to turn outdated and unwarranted opinions on their head. This is just what Simon has achieved by literally pioneering the use of the Izettle device to allow his Big Issue customers to pay by credit card. Whatever next......'cashback' from a Big Issue vendor?!

Simon is a prime example of how we can begin to counteract such attitudes, using technology as an enabling resource in overcoming his circumstances. His technological and entrepreneurial spirit shows no limits, with an Ebay store to get your hands on special edition copies and other items. (He even donates a percentage of the profits to charity too)!

Digital Transformation, Homelessness & London Technology Week 2014

Using the Big Issue as an exemplar, it is clear that technology is enabling a lot of people (homeless or not) to actualize their goals and monopolise on the possibilities and opportunities to find accommodation, employment and create personal and professional networks.

Thomas Carlyle once said that “conviction is worthless unless it is converted into conduct”. This goes for both organizations and individuals. The more we can begin to utilize the gifts that technology grants us, the more we can collaborate as a community and help our fellow citizens regardless of circumstance. As CEO Stephen Robertson so aptly put, it is about ‘citizenship’ and as we are rapidly becoming ‘tech citizens’, it’s probably wise to think twice before we judge someone who is visibly homeless and texting, on a call or playing Angry Birds for that matter.

Want to join in further conversations around digital technology an homelessness? We are holding a talk with The Big Issue Foundation as part of our diversity partnership with London Technology Week:

Digital Transformation of the Streets: Technology & Homelessness with The Big Issue & Salt

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