Cash Is Sinking & Tech Is The Ark Our Homeless Need

A cashless society is just around the corner, so what are we in the digital sector doing to help our homeless?

Catriona Campbell
Nov 12, 2019 · 6 min read

Every day, we go about our purchases, casually tapping contactless for this, Apple or Google Pay for that, grateful for the usability of these functions. Our preference for digital payments merely grows stronger by the year too — according to the Access to Cash Review, only 1 in 3 payments are now made with cash as compared to 1 in 6 just a decade ago.

A cashless society is undoubtedly inching closer, but do we blink as this happens? Nope! And why? Because the switch will work to our advantage.

Yet, the move to a cashless society also represents a catastrophic threat for many of the most vulnerable groups in society — including homeless people. Shelter estimates there are at least 320,000 in the UK, many of whom rely on cash donations to pay for hot meals or hostel stays.

The cynic in me wants to believe most passers-by turn their heads to the homeless, with little sympathy for a plight they’ll never face — although it has been said we’re all just one bad decision away from the streets. However, to my surprise, the Access to Cash Review found that donating to the homeless is one of the main uses of cash today. With that in mind, it’s important to think about how the UK’s homeless population will cope as they lose access to this vital source of income.

Here, I don’t intend to address the strengths and drawbacks of a cashless society, whether we’re ready for one, or whether it’s the right thing for everyone — these are definitely concerns for another blog though. Like it or not, the change is coming, so my primary concern is the solutions we in the digital sector are developing to mitigate the problem.

I wish the answer was as simple as, say, online bank transfers, but these aren’t feasible in most cases. The Access to Cash Review states that around 1.3 million adults in the UK — many of whom are homeless — don’t have a bank account. Without an address or proof of identity, homeless people are usually unable to open bank accounts, meaning cash is their only option.

Challenger bank Monzo seeks to change the situation with its financial inclusion initiative. This entails opening limited accounts for the homeless using unconventional identification documentation, like a benefits letter or one from a homeless shelter. Lloyds has followed suit to make banking products and services available to those affected by homelessness.

Back when I was working on a UK government social security project, my team discovered that, while most homeless people don’t have a fixed address or bank account, they do have a basic mobile phone and keep the same number over time. Moreover, the response rate to text messages was good, so we made the decision to start sending benefits information via text.

With a background in UX, I’m obviously led by design thinking, so for me it’s a priority to work on solutions like this, which are not only practicable but also user-driven. Without such a focus, we might as well wave goodbye to any uptake by our intended users.

Today, it’s possible to pick up a simple PAYG smartphone for as little as £15, which opens the door to even greater possibilities for the homeless than the most basic phones. Even if users can’t afford top-ups, they can access free public Wi-Fi — for example, in libraries — and subsequently a host of life-saving services and apps for food, shelter, addiction recovery, mental health services, and other resources.

Centrepoint is drawing on the widespread presence and use of smartphones among its service users by building a social networking app where homeless people can find support and share advice and where data on their experiences of homelessness can be collected via self-reporting.

Next Meal is one of many, many apps designed to help the homeless access resources. It combines GPS tracking tech with a database of places in London offering free food to those who need it. Much of this food would go to waste otherwise because, even though perfectly edible, it’s unsellable.

For those who do have identification and an address — even if it’s just one they access for mail — and can open a bank account, card readers may be an option. These are available for as low as around £20 but require a data or Wi-Fi connection.

Data can be eaten up quickly on a PAYG phone, and urban Wi-Fi isn’t yet widely available. On top of that, even if homeless people set up shop outside a café or store, they’re often required to purchase something to access the Wi-Fi code. For this very reason, we need more projects that expand reliable public wireless networks.

Many sellers of The Big Issue have bought card readers by themselves in recent years to get around the “I don’t have any cash” problem, but now the publication has gone totally cashless, providing vendors with the machines.

Though, the psychology of seeing homeless people with tech like card readers and smartphones could be problematic, leading to the erroneous assumption that, if they can afford such technology, they can’t be in need to the extent they purport to be.

A number of organisations seek to circumvent this issue of mistrust and help the homeless in alternative ways. I’ve downloaded a few of the apps designed for use by the general public looking to help, and I can happily report they’re easy to understand, make the process of donating simple, and help combat negative assumptions of homeless people.

TAP London is my favourite so far — to date, the non-profit organisation has raised over £120,000 from 90 handy digital payment points across the city. All money raised is redistributed to the homeless through the London Homeless Charities Group.

The Greater Change app is also great, facilitating donations to specific homeless people with defined long-term goals, such as getting tools they need to work, raising money for an apartment deposit, or accessing education. Moreover, donations go straight to the provider of the goods or services, including landlords, colleges, and so on.

The Giving Streets app allows people to donate with their phones using a QR code. The homeless benefit immediately from access to a wide range of goods and services where they can redeem donations received, and givers are provided feedback on how their donations are spent.

I believe we’ll see the use of QR codes more and more to help homeless people because they’re instantly accessible, user-friendly, and don’t provoke the same sort of assumptions as smartphones and card machines.

The Big Issue is already using QR codes on copies of its magazine to make them re-sellable — readers can pass on copies to friends who can then scan the code, ensuring the original vendor will be paid again. Clever, huh?

The Access to Cash Review states that SituationStklm — a Swedish publication similar to the The Big Issue — provides vendors with a QR payment badge rather than a card reader. And there’s no reason to believe we shouldn’t use a similar method with rough sleepers.

All the solutions discussed here employ UX thinking to make it easy as possible for givers to donate or for homeless people to access the resources they need. They’re designed around the idea that people want to help, and those who truly do will seek them out as we move towards a cashless society — and that’s fantastic.

That said, there is a valid concern the organisations developing these solutions are doing so to alleviate the guilt of those with little hard cash rather than out of a moral obligation and with the real needs of the homeless at heart.

The optimist in me hopes this isn’t the case, and that my sector really does want to help homeless people on their journey to accomplishing some form of financial independence. Even if that makes me a bit of a Pollyanna, I guess the fruits of these labours are still there for the picking even when motivations are somewhat misguided.

We haven’t yet arrived at a cashless point, so there’s still time to crack on with even better digital solutions. It’s coming soon nonetheless, so we’d all better doff our caps to it — just don’t leave them on the ground and expect to see anything in there by the end of the day.

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Catriona Campbell

Written by

Behavioural psychologist; AI-quisitive; EY UK&I Client Technology & Innovation Officer. Views my own & don't represent EY’s position.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +800K followers.

Catriona Campbell

Written by

Behavioural psychologist; AI-quisitive; EY UK&I Client Technology & Innovation Officer. Views my own & don't represent EY’s position.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +800K followers.

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