I was honoured to be able to take part in #homelesshack Manchester, following on from the recent London homeless hack.
It was brilliantly organised with lovely, supportive hosts making everyone feel totally at home.
I’d never taken part in a hack before, but my experience definitely gets awarded 10/10. Valtech hosted the hack in their Northern Quarter offices, and the event was also delivered by Manchester Digital, Sigma, and Street Support. Other organisations that contributed were Transport for Greater Manchester, Swirrl, The Albert Kennedy Trust, ukgovcamp and BT.
It was a two-day event with all meals provided. We got into hack groups and brainstormed our ideas to solve the problem of homelessness in Manchester. A huge topic, I know. My group was made up of myself and four awesome men: Colin Steele, Jake Kraweckyj, Sean O’Mahoney, and Steve Hilton.
The first day was mainly presentations delivered by some of the many organisations involved in supporting homeless people in Greater Manchester, including Manchester City Council, Greater Manchester Police and Street Support.
Greater Manchester Police
I think everyone was particularly taken with PC Dave. He told us about his team’s efforts to manage the steadily increasing homeless population of Manchester. Dave is in a team of two people.
I was sad to hear that the public are frequently critical of the police. People think they are simply hassling homeless people, when in reality PC Dave has the hard task of connecting people in need with the right services.
He also has to tackle crime against the public, such as homeless people leaving needles sticking out of the grate covering someone’s business. I think he deserves a medal.
Mooch, formerly homeless
Another highlight of the talks was Mooch, a formerly homeless man who is now an advocate for homeless issues. He works for The Big Change, which provides financial support to help people rebuild their lives away from the streets.
Mooch was hilarious and charming, speaking candidly about his struggles with alcohol, time spent in prison and on the streets. He told the audience unequivocally that giving money and food to homeless people are some of the worst things you can do.
These presentations revealed that there are many behind-the-scenes support services available for homeless people. They are provided with everything they need, from having their clothes washed, to cups of tea, to food (everything apart from a house, of course!).
Support services actually use food to entice homeless people to engage with them, so it’s counter-productive for the public to provide food as well.
Finally, giving homeless people money only fuels harmful addictions, even though it does have the side effect of temporarily alleviating your own guilt.
Image: members of hack teams watching presentations
Don’t give change, create it
This particular issue led to my hack group, Stop the Spiral, coming up with the tag-line: “Don’t give change. Create it.” Our tag-line has been picked up by the upcoming Oxford homeless hack to advertise their event. It sums up how using your time and energy to solve the problem of poverty and mental difficulties is better than dropping some change.
I was so inspired by the wonderful people working so tirelessly to stem the tide of homelessness in Manchester. Manchester is a magnet for homeless people from the surrounding areas because of it’s existing homeless community, and we are dealing with 10 more new arrivals per week (according to Viv from Street Support). This is clearly unsustainable, and the level of homelessness is far too high as it is (ie it’s higher than zero).
The problems we face
But there are many difficulties, not least in part because homelessness is just poverty, plain and simple. Most (if not all) homeless people are suffering from mental and emotional difficulties, for which there is no help available now, due to the government’s austerity policies. Homeless people also cannot access GP services without an address.
More cuts are planned and the problem is getting worse. There isn’t enough affordable housing. Many homeless people even struggle to stay re-housed, because their allocated properties are often far from their communities. This drives them back to the streets and the people they know best.
Homeless people suffer from terrible stigma, alleviating people from the guilt of not helping. Our current government isn’t listening to the increasing numbers of the public who say they think tackling homelessness should be top priority. Instead, we have an ailing Conservative government making £1 billion deals with DUP, but apparently unable to fund mental health services or create more homes.
Stop the Spiral
When I moved to Manchester in January, I was totally overwhelmed by the numbers of homeless people on the streets. Many of them are filthy, lots of them do drugs openly, some of them stagger like zombies high on Spice. Everyone begs. And that’s just an average day in Manchester City Central.
It’s a shame, because Manchester is a fantastic city, and this kind of deprivation is heart-breaking. Homelessness is increasing everywhere, not surprisingly since the most recent economic crash in 2008.
People who used to rely on the now practically non-existent mental health services and housing benefits have been catapulted on the streets, and are addicted to drugs or alcohol. With a government closing its eyes to the problem, there seems very little hope.
But I came up with an idea as I walked through Manchester every day. I wanted to think of a way we could simply find places for these people to live, right now, and also provide them with positive support in the community. It hit me: homeless Airbnb. Hear me out.
Another member of our hack group, Steve, had come up with the same idea. We fleshed out this idea to target people at risk of homelessness, who are about to be evicted from their homes or are fleeing domestic violence. We want to build a platform to connect them with loving homeowners who have a spare room they are willing to offer. We called it Stop the Spiral.
This prevents vulnerable people from having no choice but to fall into the murky world of life on the streets, where their becoming addicted to drugs is almost inevitable. It frees up our precious public services for the homeless people who really need help. It will wake the government up.
Stop the Spiral delivering our presentation
Why we need Stop the Spiral
Here’s something I wrote for the project:
“What’s needed is a change in perspective. That’s where Stop the Spiral comes in. Connecting vulnerable people with a spare room in their community to halt their spiral into homelessness.
One human need we can all empathise with is loneliness. When you offer your spare room to a vulnerable person, you are also offering your support and love. That’s why Stop The Spiral is better than simply finding more housing for some of society’s most vulnerable people.”
We are very proud that our group won the hack. I believe this is the way to tackle homelessness at its root cause. Stop the Spiral not only provides an immediate solution to the housing shortage, but will also make the government sit up and take notice.
Something else I wrote:
“A grassroots movement can be a positive change to help empower the community and enable them to band together, making a powerful statement about belief in compassion and community.”
And that’s just it. We don’t have to sit around and wait for the government to stop austerity (it’s not going to happen). We have to take change into our own hands, and open our hearts to the real solution that benefits everyone.
Image: Stop the Spiral winning the hack
The other groups were amazing too, with solutions focused around helping homeless people access vital services they need, and coordinating services.
One group proposed a way to connect the homeless network, policy and tech in a more coordinated effort to tackle homelessness.
There was a working app that people can use to find help for homeless people in the field. It would incorporate a management workflow to help PC Dave manage his many enquiries about homeless people.
Another team made a working wireless portal for homeless people to access the internet from a Raspberry Pi.
There was an app for people fleeing domestic violence to seek help.
Another group showcased a charity lottery campaign to help fund essential services for homeless people.
One group also came up with a street obelisk that homeless people can use to locate support services in Manchester. Street Support will hopefully be looking into taking some of these ideas forward.
I am so very grateful to Valtech, Manchester Digital and the other organisations for providing us with this opportunity to help tackle homelessness in Manchester. I love the idea of business being used to power social good. I’m also very grateful to the people who came up with the original London hack that is now spreading to the rest of the country.
If we can tackle homelessness successfully anywhere, it’s going to be in Manchester. It’s such an inspiring place to live with many amazing, talented people. The instinctive outpouring of love and support after the recent bombing definitely showed that we do things differently in Manchester.
Don’t give change. Create it.
If you want to find help for someone who is homeless or you’re simply curious, head over to the Street Support website.
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