A social-enterprise tackling homelessness, is currently being piloted in Lewisham. ELL spoke to its founder, Chris Hildrey.
For people who find themselves homeless, the very fact that they lack a home forms an obstacle in accessing the services they need to make a quick recovery. Because there is one thing banks, GPs and other essential services ask of you: an address.
Now, a scheme providing homelessness’ “solution for tomorrow” is currently trialed in Lewisham. The project – ProxyAddress – duplicates an existing, empty, or unused address and gives this, the new Proxy, to someone who needs it to access vital services. Addresses used to be a tool to categorise the city and function as a route instruction for personalised deliveries, such as post.
“But nowadays, post is only a very small part of it. Addresses have become a means of identification,” Chris Hildrey, award-winning London-based architect, owner of Hildrey Studios and founder of ProxyAddress, explains. If someone wants to open up a bank account, register with a GP, get a library card, apply for a job or access financial help, they need an address.
“The number one cause of growing homelessness in the UK is the end of a shorthold tenancy. Most people who end up losing their homes have every potential to recover quickly. But the by losing their address, they lose the means to access the services that are supposed to help them.”
ProxyAddress aims to reduce the number of people who become entrenched in homelessness, which will allow local councils to invest their resources in the people who need them most.
Ideally, homelessness could be solved by building more houses. “But a building is, generally speaking, the solution that would take the longest and is the most expensive. A building isn’t always the best answer to a question, and architects should realise that,” Hildrey argued.
“A solution for tomorrow”
While doing his residency at the Design Museum in 2017, Hildrey’s original idea was to look at current austerity measures. “I could see how this was affecting public spaces. Public land is being sold off, parks and public toilets close, social housing is reduced…” But in the end, he decided homelessness was by far the most “urgent and acute need” to address.
What was necessary, according to Hildrey, was: “a solution for tomorrow”. “Even if we have enough homes in over 10 years, we need to help people in the meantime. Because there are more and more people losing their homes every day.”
Hildrey spent eight months during his residency roaming the country to speak to people who found themselves homeless, charity workers, policy makers, regulators and “anyone who would listen, basically”.
“My job as a designer was to understand the reality of the world and design around that. To do that I had to listen. I would propose something and ask: ‘would that work for you?’ Usually they would tell me ‘no’ and then I would go away and think again.”
Not your average start-up
Even though Hildrey often refers to ProxyAddress as a start-up, there is an essential difference in the way he wants his business to function. “Start-ups are usually built fast and fail quickly. I can’t do that with ProxyAddress. It would be disastrous for us to say: ‘Well I’m sorry but you cannot access your GP anymore as we’ve gone bust’. We’re trying to build a lifeline for people here.”
“You always assume society has a safety net for you, but for a lot of people there is none.” Hildrey thinks the project will have the most impact on people who are about to become homeless or have just lost their homes. “It’s a lot less difficult to catch someone in a safety net right on the edge of a canyon than it is to have to drag them out from the bottom of the cliff.”
Hildrey has been praised repeatedly for the project. Most recently, ProxyAddress won in the human rights category in the Innovation in Politics Institute awards a few weeks ago.
“Changing tires on a moving car”
The pilot scheme, carefully designed over a three-year period, had to be restructured to fit the ever-changing environment due to the pandemic. “We were basically ready to go. We had some fantastic additional partnerships, and then lockdown happened and nobody really knew what to do. Some stakeholders were just frozen,” Hildrey said.
“It was like changing tires on a moving car. It’s all going so fast, you can’t really get a grip on it.” At the “11th hour”, the entire scheme had to be redeveloped for it to work during a lockdown, rather than an everyday situation. “It was a big challenge,” Hildrey recalled.
The pandemic has led to a further increase in homelessness and even though an eviction ban was in place in the UK, its numbers still grew with tens of thousands of people, The Guardian reported.
A nation-wide survey Hildrey had conducted before his ProxyAddress research found that 1 in 20 people in the UK thought it ‘likely’ or ‘very likely’ they would be homeless within the next six months. For people under the age of 35 that was 1 in 10 people. Also about 1 in 5 people knew somebody who had been homeless in the past three years.
Shelter, a charity for housing and homelessness, found in their 2019 research that 170,068 people – about 60 percent of the UK total – found themselves homeless in London. This came down to 1 in 52 people. Three of the four ELL boroughs have even higher counts with 1 in every 36, 1 in every 39, and 1 in every 43 people being homeless.
After six months the pilot’s outcome will be evaluated on both its qualitative and quantitative impact on homelessness. “I want to make sure ProxyAddress works the way it should before making it widely available. I get a lot of emails from people asking me for a ProxyAddress, and it breaks my heart every time to have to say ‘actually, we need to do this pilot first’, but we can’t afford to fail with this.”
If the trial proves to be successful, the next steps would be to broaden the area where the scheme will be available and the scope of the scheme itself. “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.”