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A few days before Christmas, a homeless man collapsed right outside the Houses of the UK Parliament. His death prompted a much needed public debate about the worsening plight of rough sleepers in Europe. Earlier this year, a study by the European Federation of National Organizations Working with the Homeless (FEANTSA) showed that the number of homeless and displaced people across the continent has grown exponentially. In Germany alone, there were more than 800,000 homeless in 2016 and countries like the UK, Ireland and Belgium have had double digit increases over the last few years.
While there are many services available to help rough sleepers cope with life on the street, they often don’t know about these facilities or don’t realize they could have access to them for free. Victoria Mandefield, a 24-year-old French entrepreneur, is on a mission to help the homeless more easily navigate big-city-life and find appropriate support in their daily struggles. She has created Soliguide, a user-friendly platform that centralizes data about all public services and facilities that can cater to the needs of vulnerable citizens, such as where to eat, to shower, to find shelter or get social welfare. Founded in 2016, when Victoria was still a student, Soliguide is now operational in three French cities (Paris, Nantes and Bordeaux) and stores up-dated information from more than 4,700 local services. The platform can be accessed online through a mobile-friendly website, but also through two interactive kiosks on the streets of Bordeaux; a third kiosk will be installed in Paris in the first months of 2019.
Mandefield originates from a small town located in the Les Vosges region, in the North East of France. She grew up in an environment of social solidarity, where it was “natural” for the community to help someone in need. “When I arrived in Paris for my engineering studies, I was genuinely shocked at the number of homeless people sleeping on the street, and at how indifferent Parisians were to poverty”, Mandefield explains. This unsettling realization drove her to volunteer for charity food distribution activities on the streets of the French capital. “The people I met were adorable, even though they were leading a rough life”. For instance, there was “a guy in Paris who would do amazing magic tricks every time we stopped by”, she remembers fondly.
The Aha Moment
During her volunteering work, people often told Mandefield that “they were lost about where to go”. At first, Mandefield started keeping an updated list of available services on her phone, until she had “the real aha moment”. “I saw a homeless person trying to sleep on a bus stop bench, while kids were playing on an interactive screen. I found the contrast striking … Why shouldn’t this technology be used for helping that person sleeping right under it?”, Mandefield recalls. So powerful was this realization that she went home and began sketching the first interfaces for Soliguide the very same day.
In one and a half years, Soliguide has facilitated more than 26,000 orientations- a term that the organization uses to describe the search process a vulnerable person goes through to find a service that responds to their individual need. Every such orientation can have a tangible impact on the lives of its users.
I remember last year in Nantes, one homeless person I know had a serious bruise. He didn’t have health coverage, so he had no way of getting treated. I popped up my smartphone and typed ‘health’ into Soliguide. I was able to give him an address where he could be nursed without health coverage.
It’s not only people living on the streets who use the platform but social workers too. According to Mandefield, around 50% of all telephone operators handling emergency calls in Paris use Soliguide to direct homeless people towards the specific municipal services appropriate for their needs.
Christmas for every woman
The winter is a particularly harsh time for rough sleepers, Mandefield points out:
Every year, frozen corpses are found in the winter. But maybe the most awful part for homeless people … is to be alone during this holiday period. A lot of them have cut ties with or lost their families, which is why this period is particularly painful.
That’s why this holiday season Mandefield and her team have launched a crowdfunding initiative called Noël pour Toutes (Christmas for every woman) to fulfill a wish for 40 homeless women living in the suburbs of Paris. “They asked for really sweet things, normal things, like: I would like to go to the SPA or go to Disney Land”, she explains affectionately. The campaign is running until mid-January and people can help through financial contributions or by offering to accompany the women during their desired activities.
Helping more people across Europe
Soliguide’s research shows that around 60% of rough sleepers own a smartphone, but 9 in 10 people own a phone. So, to expand the platform’s reach, Mandefield and her team are raising funds to build a Chatbot that would answer people’s specific questions via SMS. Moreover, Soliguide has recently broadened its scope to cater for refugees, and plans to expand further around Europe. “Today, about 50% of our budget comes from grants, but our aim is to reduce that ratio over the next year”, she explains. Soliguide is selling the platform on a software as a service model to large European cities interested in achieving an easier integration of homeless people and refugees in society. “My long-term vision is to develop it anywhere it is needed”, says the driven 24-year-old.
December 28, 2018 at 07:07AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs