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NYC's Homeless Men And Women Soon To Have Access To Free Vending Machines

(Action Hunger)
(Action Hunger)

People who are homeless in New York City will be the first in the country to have access to free vending machines, dispensing items like food, socks, shampoo, books and more.

The project started in January in Nottingham, England, as the brainchild of Huzaifah Khaled, founder of the British charity Action Hunger (@_actionhunger). Khaled joins Here & Now‘s Robin Young to discuss the initiative.

Interview Highlights

On where the idea for the vending machines originated

“I was studying for my Ph.D. in law at the University of Cambridge, but at the time I was actually living in Nottingham, which is some hundred miles away. So my commute resulted in me spending a lot of time on trains and at train stations, and the latter tend to be magnets for the homeless in the U.K. So I subsequently came into contact with lots of them and I developed friendships with many over the passage of time. It led to me developing an acute understanding of their needs. And I learned over time that even access to basic necessities like food and water were sporadic and oftentimes cumbersome, and that’s because many shelters for the homeless have fairly disparate opening hours. And I realized that there had to be a more effective way of at least ensuring that the bare necessities are always available.”

On reaching out to people who are homeless

“I think homelessness is now so deeply entrenched in our society that it’s acceptable for many of us to just walk past a man, a woman on the street without even a second glance.”

On items that can be vended

“At the moment the machines dispense water and fresh fruit, energy bars, crisps, chocolates. We also have socks and tampons, toothpaste and toothbrushes. Something that we weren’t expecting, but at the moment has been very popular, is just books. Books and reading material. We initially had just one drum of books and we’ve actually upped that to two drums.”

On the initial concepts for the vending machines

“It was actually initially going to be a refrigerator, but I realized after discussing this with many partners and organizations that a fridge is not ideal because there’s no barrier to access. … But with a vending machine you can actually very, very closely stipulate who has access to the good within. And over the last 16, 17 months the idea has mutated from a fridge into a model that’s really working tremendously well.”

On how the vending machines work

“We’ll install vending machines and they’re only accessible with the use of electronic keycards. They’re about debit or credit card sized cards, and they permit each person to vend up to three items per day. And these cards are only exclusively vended via our partner organizations, and these organizations tend to be day shelters or outreach centers or another form of outreach service.”

On preventing someone from wiping the entire machine out

“We’ve done that primarily by limiting only three items to be vended per day. And actual continued use of that card is predicated on the user attending a local service every single week. So, if a person doesn’t appear for, say, three successive weeks, we can suspend that card. We don’t really want the homeless men and women to be dependent on our service. We want to actually encourage and funnel attention to local services because that is really the only way for homelessness to be curbed altogether, through sustained and continuous contact with shelters that have the capacity to actually deal with the root causes.”

On how the machines are working in Nottingham so far

“The early data and feedback has been very, very promising. In fact, it’s far surpassed even our own expectations. It’s offering them a little more dignity. It’s giving them a little more agency over their own lives. It’s really heartwarming to see our service being used exactly as designed.”

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