Idea File: Three creative ways to address homelessness

Georgetown University and Ogilvy recently released a study about which causes Americans care about the most. Not surprisingly, unemployment/low wages are number one. But homelessness isn’t too far behind.

The other day while browsing my favorite entrepreneurship-focused site, Springwise, I came across three innovations that seemed like they could be replicated beyond their pilot cities and have a positive impact elsewhere:

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In the U.S. alone, as many as 3.5 million people make benches and streets their home in a given year.

1. Homeless-led city tours

Sock Mob’s Unseen Tours of London employs homeless guides to show you the nooks and crannies you might not ordinarily explore. Along with British history, the guides interweave their own stories and experiences from the area – surely making the tour less yawn-worthy. At the end, you can go to a pub or cafe and chat more.

Most of the profits go to the guides, and eventually Sock Mob hopes to turn all of the leadership over to them, too.

A thought: Consider letting the guides choose where to go at the end of the tour, as they may be recovering from substance dependence issues.

2. Green gym + job generator = healthier Detroit?

Recognizing that good health is just as important as a good meal, Cass Community Social Services in Detroit erected a gym in an old warehouse where homeless people can work out. The equipment ranges from treadmills to boxing bags – not to mention stationary bikes that generate electricity.

It’s the first of its kind in the U.S. And not only does the gym raise environmental awareness, but it helps create jobs. Clients pull their weight by rescuing illegally dumped tires, for example, and making mud mats out of them.

A thought: Gyms don’t exist in a vacuum. There’s a whole exercise panorama to consider, from workout clothes to appropriate food to medical care for potential injuries.

3. Refashioned parking meters that collect donations

When parking meters are ready for retirement, what happens? Usually, they find their way to antique shops, are sold on eBay or, sometimes, are turned into bike racks. But here’s an interesting idea: piggy banks to raise money to end homelessness. Last fall the city of Montreal teamed up with a local magazine to park 70 colorful ParcoDons, or meters, around one neighborhood. Local celebrities also helped by jazzing up the change collectors. The hope is to raise $40,000 over the next three years.

It’s a win-win situation: meters get a second life, and loose coins go to a good cause.

A thought: What if people who are homeless could participate in each step of the project? Celebrities are a great way to raise the profile, but is there a way to involve others in the painting and installation of the meters?

What do you think?

Are these innovations helping the cause? Do you have more examples of successful projects where you live?

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Comments (8)


  1. Matt writes:
    May 27, 2011 at 5:09 am

    I am one of the actual Guides on the Unseen Tours. I note your thoughts about attending pub/cafe at end of tour and would just like to point out that we all offer a destination based on our personal circumstances, so some of the guides who have had such issues as alcohol dependency don’t take their clients to the Pub! (But they still manage to have a good time with clients!) Many thanks for highlighting our Tours we hope that one day they will exist in many more countries around the Globe where homelessness occurs.


  2. Samantha writes:
    May 29, 2011 at 10:40 pm

    I am so overjoyed to learn of innovations like these! I am especially interested in innovative ways to intervene when we witness child abuse, neglect or less than ïdeal circumstances. As we are all part of the greater human community, we can offer our assistance to others in need. One day, on a NYC subway, I saw a mother with a little girl in distress. The mother was very inpatient and angry. So I decided to offer an activity book and crayons (kept them in my bag for just such an occasion) to the little girl. Bith mom and daughter were overjoyed and I spent the next hour of my commute enjoying coloring and teaching with the little girl.
    So many creative solutions remain unearthed! I applaud you for highlighting some here!


  3. JANE ROBERTSON writes:
    May 30, 2011 at 9:54 am

    I congratulate you on publishing these innovative ideas to enhance the lives of our homeless populations in cities across the globe> Having lived in cities from Weattle to London, winters can be grim & injurious to the health if sleeping under a bridge on cardboard.

    In Seattle, I gave my massage table to a Native American called Mr. Smiles> Everyday, all day long, he greets everyone getting off the ferries in Seattle holding a colorful hand painted sign that says “SMILE”. The sign was so artistic and decoative that he sold it & began to make more. Talk about entrepreeurship !!

    IDEA; Having been homeless myself & sleeping in my car with my dogs, I found that it could be difficult finding a safe place to park and sleep for awhile. Neighborhoods are no good, people get nervous & call the police. Likewise even church parking lots, and nevermind pulling off a two lane road. The Highway Patrol in Texas was right there when I was brushing my teeth outside of Austin.

    SO !! HOW ABOUT CONTACTING WALMART, COSTCO, and a few more about designating certain areas of their GIMONGOUS well lit parking lots for overnight homeless folds’ R & R ?? There could be a morning exit time before the store gets busy, so customers would not be diterred or put off.

    FEEDBACK & SUGGESTIONS/IDEAS ??? Contact me @ janerobertson7@gmail.com with your feedback.


  4. Andrea Grimaldo writes:
    May 30, 2011 at 10:33 am

    This is great! I live in Chicago and to me the meters are a great idea to raise money for awareness in any organization in that matter.


  5. [...] Source: Celeste Hamilton Dennis, May 24 2011, http://www.idealist.org/blog/en/idea-file-three-creative-ways-to-address-homelessness/ [...]


  6. Cher writes:
    June 2, 2011 at 8:06 pm

    While these innovations are nice, they’re only managing the homeless. I think the best one would be the tour guide program because it gives them the independence and autonomy that they need to learn to become more productive in society. I think that all of the programs, if in existence, should have a focus on teaching the homeless how to change their character.


  7. Rekha writes:
    June 12, 2011 at 8:23 am

    True, these innovations are only “managing the homeless” by taking a band-aid approach to issues that go beyond the person facing homelessness. However, focusing on teaching the homeless how to change their character is absurd. Clearly, you are unaware of issues regarding homelessness and the barriers that many individuals and families face (recent lay-offs, lack of employment history, evictions/foreclosures, criminal record, drug/alcohol abuse, low literacy, language barriers, lack of social support, disabilities either mental or physical, childhood trauma, domestic violence, generational poverty, a combination of some or all, and the list goes on).
    Being homeless is not due to a character flaw. Situational or chronic homelessness occurs for various reasons. Clearly some of these issues exist due to policies that do not address the needs of many people (esp. low-income) or those that create the perfect storm leaving many people vulnerable and without a safety net. Since the recession, local shelters have seen a huge spike in the number of people (including children) that they are having to serve with limited funds. I can tell you it’s not from character flaws, but real issues we all need to think hard about and try to address as a nation.
    We could have more organizations (both grassroots and well-established) that address the different facets of homelessness collaborate with each other. By partnering up they could share best practices and use some of these ideas as projects, and work together to reduce the incidence and prevalence of homelessness (ideally, to eliminate it).


  8. Anthony writes:
    June 13, 2011 at 9:42 pm

    These are great suggestions. Check out what we’re doing to end homelessness: http://www.knoclothing.com – we’re leading a socially conscious fashion movement and we’re working in 83 communities across the country.


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