Hacking against homelessness: how technology is rising to the housing challenge

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Our recent “Ideas in practice” briefing for our members highlighted the difficulties in calculating the numbers of homeless people. And, as we’ve previously reported, the official figures don’t reflect the full scale of the problem.

But there’s little doubt that homelessness continues to affect large numbers of people. Worldwide, more than 1.6 billion people are estimated to have inadequate shelter. And figures published last month suggest that in the UK homelessness is a long way from being beaten.

Local and central government, along with homelessness charities are working hard to tackle the problem, but new approaches are needed to prevent and address the issue. One of these is the idea of hackathons.

Applying technology to help the homeless

Hackathons are collaborative challenges where teams of skilled technology developers (or ‘hackers’) compete to solve a given problem or demonstrate innovative use of technology under a tight time constraint.

They originated in Silicon Valley, and have often been used by technology companies such as Google and Apple to develop commercial ideas. The “like” button on Facebook was one such idea to emerge from a hackathon in 2007.

However, social enterprises and charities have also been exploring the possibilities of hackathons, and some have specifically focused on homelessness. Recent examples emerging from the US include:

  • A 2014 hackathon where teams of digital developers and designers got together to brainstorm, prototype and pitch ideas on tackling homelessness in Seattle. The winning idea centred on a system to allow homeless people to digitise personal identity documents.
  • An app developed by coders in New York to help keep homeless people off the streets and give them the care that they need.
  • A weekend-long hackathon in Tampa, Florida, which developed a smartphone app to help the homeless population more easily find resources such as shelters and soup kitchens, and a web-based survey to help calculate the scale of homelessness in Tampa.

UK hackathons

The hackathon idea has also taken hold in the UK. In 2012, Westminster City Council brought together a group of digital developers and housing charities to apply their minds and skills to tackling homelessness.  The stakeholders set out their objectives, challenging the developers to build something useful and accessible, either for homeless people themselves, for the charities and local authorities supporting them, or for members of the public:

  • Homeless Link wanted to offer people a means to act when they see a rough sleeper, to prompt support services, and to inform people of what is offered to rough sleepers locally.
  • The Single Homeless Project (SHP) charity was looking for a way of enabling its clients to be inspired and motivated to use digital technology and to learn how to use it in a cost effective way.
  • Westminster City Council highlighted the need for rough sleepers to be shown they were valued members of the community.

Among the ideas to emerge from that first hackathon were:

  • an app allowing the public to submit information about people they see who are sleeping rough
  • an application connecting Homeless Link’s data with geo-location data to identify the nearest suitable service for a homeless person to contact
  • a personal organizer for homeless people to log their contact with government agencies and track their applications for benefits

The homelesshack website has continued to report on how these and other applications have been developed and updated.

In April this year, the Business Rocks festival in Manchester included a homelessness hackathon that challenged participants with the question: ‘How Can Tech Solve Global Homelessness?’ Contestants were asked to focus on mental health service solutions through social media, and were made aware of the everyday challenges and systematic needs of the homeless and most vulnerable, in the UK and across the world.

The winning idea was an app to encourage, support and help find work opportunities for homeless and vulnerably housed people. Other pitches included a website to connect homeless people with relevant support services, an app to facilitate crowdfunding for homeless support projects and a remote postal service for people with no fixed address.

And this coming weekend, teams of coders, designers and housing professionals will take part in a hackathon in Edinburgh. They aim to come up with creative solutions to support people facing homelessness or poor housing.

Making it happen?

As these examples demonstrate, there is no shortage of good ideas on how technology can be leveraged in the cause of addressing homelessness. It remains to be seen whether these imaginative and innovative solutions can be developed to tackle one of the world’s greatest social problems.


Further reading

Out of sight, out of mind? Britain’s hidden homeless

“It was one mate’s floor one night, another mate’s sofa the next night. There’s so much pressure not to let people know how bad your situation is, but deep down, you’re absolutely falling apart.”

In February, the latest Homelessness Monitor was published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) and the homelessness charity Crisis. Official estimates of rough sleeper numbers in England in 2013 were reported to have reached 2,414, a 37% rise since 2010.

But the authors suggested that the true figure could be at least four times that number because of a category of homeless people who rarely make it into the official statistics. These are the ‘hidden homeless’: people living in bed-and-breakfasts, in overcrowded squats, and hostels, on the floors and sofas of friends and family, and sometimes sleeping rough in the unlikeliest of locations. Often, they fall short of getting help from their local authority because they have been assessed as intentionally homeless, or they are not considered as priorities.

The problem is not a new one. But the Homelessness Monitor also indicated that today’s hidden homeless includes higher numbers of families, single and separated people, women and young people.

Any one of us could find ourselves in this position. It might take a breakdown in mental health, or the sudden impact of a job loss, a broken relationship, a rise in rent. In addition, changes to government housing benefit rules have meant people under-occupying accommodation are seeking smaller homes, substantially reducing the availability of one-bedroom social rented accommodation for single homeless people.

In 2012, a Department for Communities and Local Government evidence review of the costs of homelessness in England had difficulty in pinning down a definitive account of the financial costs to the government, or the opportunity costs to the rest of society. However, it did highlight the £345m spent by English local authorities on homelessness in 2010-11. Even though the hidden homeless may not be appearing on official figures, local councils are still providing tens of thousands of people with related support services, such as debt advice and family mediation.

The human costs of hidden homelessness are easier to identify. A ComRes poll last year found that one in five UK 16-25 year-olds had to stay with friends or extended family on floors or sofas in the previous twelve months because they had nowhere else to go.  Some were made homeless after they were evicted, others because of family relationship breakdown, and one in ten was forced to leave home due to domestic violence. Their chances of finding work, or sustaining their education will be greatly reduced.

Tackling the problem of hidden homelessness goes to the heart of a wider issue: the shortage of affordable housing. But it also means addressing the difficulties that can drive people from their homes.

Launching a 2014 report into homelessness among women, Alexia Murphy, head of the St Mungo’s women project, suggested that preventative solutions are achievable:

“An ‘easy win’ is to build better bridges between GPs and social services. Before women become homeless, they are often presenting to health professionals with headaches, depression and stress – but the root cause here is usually social.”

However, the problem also needs resources, and although there are government initiatives and support services to tackle homelessness among vulnerable people, housing campaigners believe more should be done.

In 2004, Shelter published a report highlighting the plight of the hidden homeless, and proposed 17 solutions to the problem. Ten years later, another report, from IPPR North , indicated that things were no better:

“Homeless households living in unsupported temporary accommodation represent a hidden social problem. It is absent from official statistics, and the acute and complex problems associated with such households are left unrecorded. This cannot continue”

Meanwhile, the voices of the hidden homeless, such as the one which opened this blog post are still struggling to be heard.

“If you’ve got nowhere to call home you’re always uncomfortable, always unsettled, you’re not safe.”


The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on housing policy issues. To find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Further recent reading*

Addressing complex needs: improving services for vulnerable homeless people

Search for a home (homelessness in England)

Getting the house in order: keeping homeless older teenagers safe

Not home: the lives of hidden homeless households in unsupported temporary accommodation in England

Homelessness in Scotland 2014: getting behind the statistics

*Some resources may only be available to members of the Idox Information Service