Monday, April 22News For London

Homelessness: Is contactless the solution?

Despite being one of the richest countries in the world, the United Kingdom faces a growing issue with homelessness. Many charities collect money and support those without a home but unfortunately, they fail to reach everyone in need.

Homelessness rises in London
Homelessness rises in London | Source: Orlando Del Maestro

Stephen, 55, an ex-serviceman from the armed forces, represents a soundboard for many who have lost faith in charity. He is of the opinion that charities cheat people in the name of donation. “I would love to know where the money goes. But I already know where it goes. It goes for wages and it’s all a con. That is all it is. You’ve got the Royal British Legion. Last year they raised 42 million pounds. But it never went to the ex-servicemen. 75 percent of the people that live on the street are ex-forces. We are in a society now. We’re being lied to.”

In London, homelessness (people sleeping rough) has affected more than 8,000 people (Statista 2018). Despite the efforts and the money spent by charities and support groups, the number of people sleeping on the streets is rising.

A recent report from housing charity Shelter revealed that more than 320,000 people are homeless in Britain. The figures are only an estimate that take into account only the people sleeping rough, living in temporary accommodation and in hostels. Several charities believe there are many more not included in these numbers.

Contactless payment for a cashless donor

With the rise of electronic payments across the UK, fewer people are carrying cash and public engagement with the homeless is lowest than it has ever been.

In an increasingly cashless society, charities are adopting the contactless form of payment to match with Britain’s drop in cash use. In the bid to adopt the modern ways of moving money and offer convenience to people who wish to donate, TAP London, a non-profit organisation supported by Mayor Sadiq Khan, has dedicated itself to help improve the lives of homeless Londoners.

This two-week-old organisation has launched 35 contactless donation points across London and all the money from this scheme will be distributed to London Homeless Charities Group, a group of 22 charities that works to combat homelessness in London.

The donations are fixed to £3 and TAP London takes larger ones on its website. Katie Whitlock, Co-founder of TAP London, explains the reason for putting a cap on the amount of donation: “We thought to keep it as £3 as it is the probably same amount as coffee or just a bit more than riding on the tube and it felt like a lot of people would be willing to donate more than £1 or £2 but sometimes not as much as £5.”

Whitlock explains that the money doesn’t directly go to the homeless people but to the charities who provide specific services. “Once the money is tapped, it goes to the Tap Foundation bank account, which is a separate charity, run by independent trustees, they then hand money, which is gift aided, to the London homeless person charities groups,” she said.

The purpose of the money is helping people in many ways. Whitlock added: “The money will cover a whole spectrum of services, for example, palliative care, end of life care, people who are sadly passing away in hospitals (due to chronic diseases), specialist youth services, shelter, food, mental health, sanitation and everything you can think of.”

TAP London has over 15,000 people engaged and they have raised more than £6,000 in their first week.

Does the charity sector support this scheme? 

The move towards this centralised, electronic form of donation has divided opinions within the charity sector. Some organisations embrace it as a new, modern initiative that provides a unified and fair way of tackling the issue. While others are less convinced that it will have the predicted impact on those who are most in need and worry that work at the grass-roots level is not being represented.

The Salvation Army is one of the 22 charities involved in the scheme. It will use the funds donated to help people who are homeless but still working – someone who might have experienced a relationship breakdown and have found themselves with nowhere to go for example – by offering a supported housing option, which prevents people from becoming homeless, and helps them towards independent living.

A representative from the organisation, who did not want to be named, explained his confidence in the scheme working: “This scheme have proved to be beneficial in supporting across the sector. Last year Londoners donated £200,000 to homelessness charities through the Mayor’s London Homeless Charities Group, and made a record number of referrals through StreetLink, which helps outreach workers find rough sleepers and offer them support.”

Evolving Housing will receive a part of the money collected by Tap London. Laura McLellan told us that with the donated money they will provide work opportunities and learning activities across three rough sleepers services in Croydon and Bromley. “We will give bespoke one to one support, direction and guidance to 191 homeless people”.

Grass-roots charity Street Kitchen is more sceptical. Unrepresented by the Mayor’s scheme, they promote first-hand co-operation with people on the street through their work providing free food, clothing and social support to the homeless in the boroughs of Camden and Islington. Helen Doyle works for this community support centre. She believes groups like hers, which have established strong connections with the neighbourhood are being left out.

Street Kitchen in Camden Source: Orlando Del Maestro
Street Kitchen in Camden | Source: Orlando Del Maestro

“Grass-roots would not directly benefit because we are not within the legal framework that charities are in, we also don’t have the hierarchy within the way that charities work. So there’s no high-paying CEOs, everyone of us is from the local area, some may have experienced homelessness before and none of our volunteers are paid.”

Doyle thinks that the human contact that Street Kitchen provide on a daily basis should not be disregarded in this age of technology. Having an active and social role in helping the homeless is much more effective way of understanding the issue they face.

She said: “If you’re doing technology to technology, you are removing the human factor, and we think it is far better that people who maybe don’t know much about homelessness actually begin to learn and engage with people who are suffering, who are destitute, who have got nothing.”

Tap London and street kitchens: Listen to our podcast.

Ben and Ollie work as street fundraisers for homeless charities. They welcome TAP London as a unified solution that will help bring about greater, long term change.

They see it as inclusive scheme that collects the services of many homeless charities and is also fairer economically for aiming to help all homeless people in London as opposed to being selective with people you see on the street. “It unifies all the charities for homelessness. If we want to move forward as a group and as a country then it’s a beneficial thing. If you pick and choose it’s not equal, it’s not fair on everyone, and I believe (TAP London) is a better way for quality charity giving,” said Ben.

In a fast-paced city like London, they praise the scheme for being user-friendly and providing the public with a simple solution of helping the homeless through embracing technology. However, they are concerned that the shift towards electronic payment is widening the gulf between the general public and the homeless.

From a homeless person’s point of view, to see someone tap their card on a terminal instead of giving a £3 donation directly to them could be frustrating, they said. Ben and Ollie believe that donating should be done with ‘affection’ and that the simple action of tapping a card may not involve a conscious understanding of where the money is going and to what degree it may be helping.

Do the homeless have faith in this centralised form of charity-giving?

In spite of the work of charities, and the money donated, homelessness is rising and great cuts being made to the public sector over recent years, leaving more people vulnerable. For those living on the street, the question comes down to how much trust they have in charity aid. Their faith in this scheme is determined by their experience with charities and to what extent they have been helped by them.

Zahary Zaharryeff, 49, a homeless man from Bulgaria who has travelled all around London says that he has trust in charity. His faith is such that he believes every time he visits a centre or a charity, he will get everything that he needs.

On the other hand, Stephen (55), already mentioned above, laments the lack of communication in society today. He dismisses new technological methods of helping those in need and says that speaking to people and saying something as brief as ‘Good Morning’ is the best way to bring people together. “People come by me and they go Good Morning, how are you? It’s a greeting! It is communication and there’s nothing wrong with it.”

Additionally, Vaana, 22, who hails from Turkey says that staying in hostels is very expensive for her. She said: “I stay in the park because the hostel asks me £10. I am pregnant, I stay with my mother and my three-year-old kid. If I go with them, they ask for £30. I can’t afford that.”

What does the potential donor think about it?

Scott, 30, believes there may be alternative options that could have an even greater impact on remedying the homeless situation in London. He points to obligations of French supermarkets to give away all their unused food to homeless organisations and a restaurant initiative in the United States that hand out tokens to paying customers to invite a homeless person for a free meal as other ways of helping that should be explored.

Lauren Smith (17) and Mya James (18) talking about TAP London | Source: Sara Albo
Lauren Smith (17) and Mya James (18) talking about TAP London | Source: Sara Albo

Lauren Smith, 17, and Mya James, 18, think it is a good idea that could go a long way to mitigate the homeless crisis in London. They think it works for those who question the effectiveness of a first-hand donation to someone on the street and welcome a method that goes towards a long term projects. Yet, they believe social inclusion is as important as financial inclusion. Beyond donations and financial support, those who are on the fringes of society may need social contact more than anything and that more inclusive, communal spaces like shelters and care centres are needed in times like these.

Those without a home do not benefit without contact. Charity-giving should be as much a form of social inclusion as it is financial inclusion, and for all that contactless payment serves the donor and provides long term changes, more than anything in these changing times, the homeless need social interaction.


Text: Barkha Goenka (Editor) and Orlando Del Maestro (Sub-editor)

Interviews: Barkha Goenka, Cristina Escobar, Orlando Del Maestro, Sara Albo

Video: Cristina Escobar, Orlando Del Maestro, Sara Albo

Audio: Cristina Escobar, Orlando Del Maestro, Sara Albo

Edits: Barkha Goenka, Cristina Escobar, Orlando Del Maestro, Sara Albo