On a single evening in January 2016, there were just under 555,000 people experiencing homelessness in the United States, according to homeless charity, Project Home. 120,000 of those were children under the age of 18, and over 77,000 individuals and nearly 9,000 families met the legal definition of chronically homeless: ‘unaccompanied homeless individuals with a disabling condition, who have either been continuously homeless for a year or more, or have experienced at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years, where the combined length of time homeless in those occasions is at least 12 months’.
You will struggle to find more accurate or up-to-date data online about the actual number of homeless people – homeless people that are not registered as homeless or known to the hundreds of shelters across the country are difficult to track. Shelter, a UK-based charity that campaigns to end homelessness and bad housing conditions in England and Scotland celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2016, by releasing what it described as a ‘robust lower-end estimate’ of the number of homeless people in the UK – 254,514 people.
Homelessness is an issue that is both hyper-local in its visibility and international as a problem; one that we are all aware of, but one that most people would struggle to offer a suggestion to fix. And it extends far beyond what we can actually see; for every homeless man or woman we see on the street, there are thousands more legally defined as homeless – broadly speaking, that is without having access to a secure long-term home of their own.
The job of the organisations currently responsible for tackling homelessness – local authority services and the charity and voluntary sectors who manage the large majority of shelters – is to identify homeless individuals and families and then link them to housing and employment services to help to find them both a home to live in and either employment or welfare support to pay for it, whilst ideally also finding temporary accommodation in short stay homes or hostels. And for the most part, that process hasn’t changed for decades.
In December 2014, social entrepreneur and sociologist Kevin Adler went for a walk down Market Street in San Francisco. His mission for the evening was to spend time talking with the homeless people on the street to ask them: ‘do you have any family of friends that you’d like to record a message for?’ The messages were then recorded on Adler’s smartphone. One such message, from Jeffery Gottshall, who had been registered as a missing person for 12 years, was recorded for his sister who he hadn’t seen in 20 years; within an hour, his sister had been tagged in the video which had been posted to a Facebook group for his hometown in Pennsylvania; three weeks later the pair reunited, and Miracle Messages was born.
“I grew up in a small town with a small family and learned from a young age to look at my extended network of classmates and neighbours like a family, so it never really made sense to me why people in my community might be seen as valuable and some as less valuable, especially given the values that I grew up with – partly due to my faith, and believing that we’re all brothers and sisters, and then also having an uncle who was homeless for 30 years, on and off the streets,” says Adler of his early life.
“My graduate work and undergrad work really focused on how social capital can form from disasters and shared traumas. I am fascinated by the question of why we trust the people we trust, what leads us to feel less connected with our neighbours, and then how can we reverse that and so I wrote a book on that topic, and most of my academic work looked at how negative events can bring people together.
“Since then, my professional journey has been marked by the question of how seemingly positive events, technologies and movements can be used to a similar result – to bring people together?”
Between graduating from University and the founding of Miracle Messages, Adler had been working predominantly in the education technology space, launching three startups, all three similar to Miracle Messages, with the aim of connecting people and providing new support systems for an underserved population. But that evening on Market Street in 2014, proved a turning point in his life.
“It was hearing the first person on the street say something along the lines of, ‘I didn’t realise that I was homeless when I lost my housing, it was when I lost my family and friends that I realised.’ That to me really opened up my mind to the problem; the fact that this issue of family reunification is not one that is prioritised by a lot of service providers, and that a lot of people think about their loved ones but don’t have a recourse to connect. So, that really led me to wonder how many people on the streets have this desire to reconnect; became homeless in part because of a fracturing of their social support, and what would it take to rebuild that.”
Read more in Ethos issue 03