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A London borough uses digital addresses to help the homeless

The London Borough of Lewisham is using a product called ProxyAddress to match rough sleepers with virtual addresses tied to vacant buildings. This makes it easier for those experiencing homelessness to apply for jobs, get bank accounts, and access vital services.

A London borough uses digital addresses to help the homeless media 1

Newsworthy

ProxyAddress Launches First UK Trial to Give Stable Addresses to Homeless | The Fintech Times

The service uses the duplicated address details of existing homes to provide those facing homelessness with an address to use to access support.

ProxyAddress Launches First UK Trial to Give Stable Addresses to Homeless | The Fintech Times

'Having an address got me a job when I was homeless' - BBC News

A new scheme is giving homeless people virtual addresses to access essential services.

'Having an address got me a job when I was homeless' - BBC News

Highlights

  • Homelessness is an ongoing issue, with the pandemic and economic downturn causing an increased risk of eviction and loss of residence.

  • Once a person does not have a permanent address, it is increasingly difficult to get a job, mail, or a bank account, which makes it harder to get back on their feet.

  • The London Borough of Lewisham is piloting a tool called ProxyAddress, which provides homeless people with a digital address they can use for mail forwarding or other services.

  • The provided addresses are donated by property owners, at no cost or credit risk to the owners.

Summary

Most of us don’t think about it all that often, but a home address provides much more than a roof over your head. It’s a key to access: Access to credit. Access to work. Access to mail.

So when a person loses their home (and related address), it can set off a chain of reaction, reducing that person’s ability to use vital services, and making it difficult for them to get back on their feet.

One borough in London is taking an innovative approach to stopping this spiral. To maintain connectivity and access to services, the $ London Borough of Lewisham is pairing rough sleepers with unused addresses around the United Kingdom$ .


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London Borough of Lewisham, GB removes barrier to social services for the homeless with ProxyAddress

The match is digital — the building isn’t actually providing a home, but by leveraging it as a “home address,” these homeless people can apply for work, maintain a bank account, and have a better chance to improve their situation.

Homelessness in London

While homelessness has always been an issue in London, the pandemic and its ensuing economic issues $ exacerbated the risks$ . Without work, rents and mortgages cannot be paid. When housing payments aren’t made, evictions follow, threatening to drive up the number of rough sleepers, with no permanent address, on the streets. (This problem isn’t unique to London — it’s happening across the globe, from $ the United States$  to $ Australia$ .)

London authorities recognized this risk and enacted a number of emergency measures and services to prevent it. London’s Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has pledged $ over £700 million a year$  to combat rough sleeping. Those already homeless were put in temporary housing, $ such as hotels$ . Those facing the loss of a home were granted a stay, as evictions were paused during the public health crisis.

But many emergency measures weren’t permanent; $ eviction courts eventually returned$ . At the same time the risk of eviction didn’t disappear. As one $ news outlet reported$ :

“In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, more than one in 20 people believe they are likely to face homelessness within six months – this rises to one in ten for under 35s.”

So what’s the solution? More jobs and affordable housing, right? Well, jobs are often tied to a permanent address: if you don’t have one of those, it’s harder to get hired. And creating affordable housing is slow and expensive — something $ British architect Chris Hildrey was well aware of:$ 

"I know how long it takes to build houses and we do need more social housing in this country. But what we also need is a solution for now, if we have to wait a decade or two for houses to be built."

Hildrey’s “solution for now” is faster, cheaper, and easier to provide: a digital address that people can claim for official services, use in a job hunt, and forward mail and information to wherever they actually are.

How ProxyAddress works

$ ProxyAddress$ , Hildrey’s platform that pairs rough sleepers with a digital address tied to a vacant building, was born out of the architect’s understanding of the homeless issue around the UK.

How it works is fairly straightforward: ProxyAddress has assembled a database of vacant or unused residences. After obtaining permission from the property owners, $ which range from local governments to developers to individuals$ , ProxyAddress creates a digital duplicate of the address and assigns it to someone who has registered as homeless through their local council.

The person experiencing homelessness can’t actually stay at their borrowed address, but they can use it for everything from job applications to medical registrations to mail forwarding. These individuals can update their current temporary address in the ProxyAddress system, so that mail sent to the “proxy” will be forwarded to wherever they actually are.

ProxyAddress is free for rough sleepers to use, as it is for those donating addresses; local governments pay for the service. The property owners lending the addresses can do so without impact to their credit or property value.

The Lewisham pilot

The idea first came to architect Chris Hildrey while he was completing a residency at the $ Design Museum in London$ . It received awards and grants but took a few years to be put into practice, due to a series of roadblocks and pandemic-related slowdowns.

The $ London Borough of Lewisham was the first council to pilot$  use of the service. Participants can have their $ post redirected from their ProxyAddress to a collection location$ . The Financial Conduct Authority and a few banks, including Barclays and Monzo, are participating in the project to ensure the Proxy Addresses were secure and not tied to fraud. $ Says Hildrey$ :

“We make sure the person receiving the address is who they say they are. It is not the location that's important for banks — it's the information stored behind the address — credit referencing for example. The main problem is that when someone has no address they have a thin file and that can put them in a difficult position to get credit."

The borough is focusing on 20 individuals experiencing homelessness for the trial. It’s a small slice of the homeless population, but $ Lewisham mayor Damien Egan has big expectations for its impact$ :

“I’m really proud that Lewisham will be the first local authority to trial this new service which will make it much simpler for homeless people to access the services they need to get back on their feet.”

Beyond the value on an individual level, ProxyAddress also could provide economic benefits and cost savings to the local government. Under the $ Homeless Reduction Act$ , local councils are required to intervene and try to prevent homelessness at an earlier stage. This can make a big impact on local budgets. $ According to ProxyAddress$ :

“By the Government's own figures, the public cost of each case of entrenched homelessness is £24-30,000 per year to say nothing of the human cost.
We estimate that if just one person in 10,000 of those using a ProxyAddress is able to escape or avoid entrenchment, then the public purse saves money and makes impact. Not only does this help prevent new cases of homelessness from escalating, it also means that councils can focus their efforts on those already experiencing the acute effects of entrenched homelessness.”

Applying the ProxyAddress concept beyond London

If the Lewisham pilot succeeds, ProxyAddress expects to expand within the United Kingdom. This will be done thoughtfully, $ says Hildrey$ :

“Different boroughs have different systems, factions and constraints. So we would need to make sure we can work in each of those, as well as in different legislative environments. We want ProxyAddress to be available nationwide in the future.”

And while the UK is the current focus, the concept has global legs. Providing temporary postal addresses for homeless people to use can easily be done beyond the borders of Britain. In fact, it already is.

In Ireland, people without a permanent address can get an $ Address Point$ , which provides a “fixed address” where they can receive mail. In Sydney, individuals experiencing homelessness can apply for a free PO box for 12 months. In the U.S., General Delivery allows for the delivery of mail to those without an address.

The homelessness issue is a massive, complex load to solve. But by seeking “solutions for now,” like providing a ProxyAddress to help residents get back on their feet, local governments can find small wins that still improve the lives of their citizens.

Additional Story Information

Governments

LB

London Borough of Lewisham, GB

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United Kingdom

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