Most of the people who will read this article will have never visited a homeless shelter and will never experience being homeless. The picture I selected to accompany this post has reinforced the common view of homelessness as being people sleeping in doorways or on park benches. In fact, homelessness is simply not being able to afford housing. A homeless person could be sleeping on the street, but they could equally be moving between the homes of friends and relatives or living in their car. It’s also a myth that all homeless people are unemployed. A key challenge they all share is accessing the support and assistance they need to get back on their feet.
“It’s estimated that nearly a third of the workforce [in America] is one bad accident, one large medical bill, one missed paycheck away from financial ruin, including losing their homes.”
Digital equality is becoming the biggest problem in society. It divides the world into those with access to information, services and opportunities, and those without. Most of us have multiple connected devices to choose from and the internet is just another utility. We turn on the tap we expect to get water. It’s estimated that as many as 85% of homeless people in America own a smartphone. Leveraging free internet provided around the City, these mobile devices can be the key to accessing the services and support needed to change lives.
Organizations like askizzy.or.au  based in Melbourne, Australia, have created a mobile website to provide local information and support for the homeless. Historically, Apple and Google required credit cards to download apps  so organizations like askizzy opted for the simplest website they could create. This also provides access from almost any internet connected device. Services offered through their website range from healthcare and shelter to clothing and food.
Streetlives, based in New York City, is a community-built platform that will enable people who are homeless or in poverty to easily find, rate and recommend social services across the city. The team are not designing technology and pushing it down, they are listening and working with the homeless community to understand what they need. As well as helping improve the understanding of available services, any well adopted technology can collect feedback on the services provided and help to better target support.
Blockchain for Change
Last month I was forwarded a news article about a company called ‘Blockchain for Change’ .
“Three thousand homeless people in New York are about to receive a special holiday gift: a free smartphone that allows them to manage their digital identity, access shelters and food pantries, and make use of financial services. The initiative, which uses blockchain technology, may be the first time a distributed computer ledger has been employed to help a homeless population.”
‘Blockchain for Change’ are positioning their technology as a solution for reducing fraud associated with government benefits, while also providing better access to critical resources for low-income and underserved people.
Their first product, Fummi, is an Android application that provides each user with a digital identity (SmartID) created within an Ethereum smart contract. The solution introduces Change Coin, an ERC 20 token, that is used as currency within the Fummi ecosystem. It provides access to a Fummi marketplace and enables secure transactions and safe storage of money and information. Tokens spent to access the service will be returned to a working capital account before being redistributed in order to acquire new users.
The SmartID and stored value enables online payments for individuals that do not have bank accounts, but this is severely restricted by limiting the stored value to Change Coin.
Their whitepaper talks about access to peer-to-peer lending, and the ability to donate Change Coin to non-profits. It also talks about trading Change Coin on exchanges which raises the potential of people buying Change Coin as an investment. I would be interested in seeing more about their plans for tackling the underlying issues.
DigitalTown are also looking at how they can respond to this specific issue. Our goals of inclusivity and interoperability have already created a well aligned set of services.
- Anyone can get a verified digital identity, which soon will include a verified photo, attestations and control of personal data.
- SmartWallet combines Fiat money with crypto tokens, each of which can be transferred in person or online in exchange for goods or services.
- The solution includes locally created information, discussions, and projects that encourage residents to work together for the good of the community.
Can blockchain offer value?
There are a several ways that I believe blockchain could have a positive impact.
- Self-Sovereign Identity. People can store their identity data on their own devices and provide it efficiently to those who need to validate it, without relying on a central repository of identity data. Establishing a digital identity is a positive step forward. Relationships would need to be built city by city to enable this identity to be integrated with existing services.
- Personal Data. Important information including medical history can be stored on or off the blockchain and linked to an individual through their digital identity. This information moves with the individual and can be shared instantly with permission.
- Stored Value. Stored value in a digital wallet that enables Fiat money to be sent and received electronically, either remotely or in person from device to device, could be of significant value. It enables access to online goods and services and provides a secure alternative to traditional banks.
- Verified Data Sources. An open platform will result in contributions from many sources. There is real value in the sharing of local knowledge within the community, and the community can provide feedback to ensure the most valuable information is promoted. It’s important that certain information be clearly identified as from a trusted source. Blockchain would enable us to track the lineage of any data.
- Anonymous public data.The public nature of the blockchain would enable independent analysis of data. The option for individuals to participate in an anonymous location check-in service and to share information about the services being used could result in a better and more efficient support network.
The single most important requirement is to listen to the users of any proposed solution. Many homeless people already feel like the system has let them down and it’s no place to experiment with new technology for technologies sake.
Organizations making a difference:
 In December 2017 Apple removed this requirement. Google had already removed it a few months earlier.