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Is this the future?

December 10 2012
Hey, total stranger, do you have mental health problems?


A homelessness campaign group in America is taking a high-tech approach to helping people off the streets.

The 100,000 Homes campaign has launched an app for users of modern ‘smart’ mobile phones that enable volunteers to register rough sleepers in their area and help them get access to medical treatment and housing.

The campaign has already had some success with volunteers registering rough sleepers with pen and paper, but the mobile phone version makes collecting information and responding to it quicker and easier for outreach workers.

However, there may be concern that even if volunteers have the best of intentions, they may not be properly trained to deal with vulnerable people. There is a clear set of guidelines for volunteers, although the rules include very general instructions such as “be yourself” and “be sincere”.

There may also be questions about the how accurately non-professional volunteers will be able to assess somebody with mental or physical health problems. One of the questions on the form is “Do you have a mental illness?”, for example.

The app lets volunteers record rough sleepers’ age, health problems, how long they have been on the streets and whether they have spent any time in institutions such as prison, hospitals or the Army.

“Everyone has their own story about a homeless neighbour in their community, and this app finally gives people a concrete way to do something about it,” said 100,000 Homes campaign director Becky Kanis.

Kanis said the point of the app is not for volunteers to take over the job of professionals, but to help in alerting them to where people in need are living. “Too often, we walk by folks on the street and assume there’s no solution, but the truth is that local professionals know what to do. Homeless Connector is about making sure those professionals know everyone on their streets by name, and it enlists community members in helping them achieve that goal,” she added.

Closer to home, a similar scheme has launched in Wigan with the aim of alerting a charity to rough sleepers in the Lancashire town.

The app, from charity Riverside, enables local people to tell outreach workers where rough sleepers are living in the area. It remains to be seen whether this is a scheme which can be replicated on a bigger scale. It is also not clear whether or not rough sleepers will feel comfortable with members of the public reporting where they are to local authority staff.

A government website called has also launched, where people can report a rough sleeper in their area. Rough sleepers can also fill in the form themselves to tell their local council where they are bedding down.