How the UK’s biggest homeless charity uses technology to deliver a Christmas Day to those in need

Profile picture for user gflood By Gary Flood July 1, 2018
Summary:
Morgan Stanley and Crisis at Christmas deliver a huge operation every December, using a mix of new and old technologies, to get people living on the streets some much needed services.

Crisis at Christmas

While there is no national figure for how many people are homeless across the UK, 4,751 people slept rough across England on any given night in 2017 - a 15% increase compared to the previous year, and more than double the amount in 2010 - but close to 160,000 people may not have a permanent home; more or less the amount that goes to Glastonbury every other year.

The data comes from Crisis, a charity that works to help single homeless people find and keep a rented home and which says it works to move people from the instability and vulnerability of homelessness to a stable and rewarding life.

Key to that work is Crisis At Christmas, the organisation’s annual attempt to give a bit of Yule cheer - and practical support - to homeless people in centres across the country for a week. Last year, for example, nine Crisis at Christmas locations were opened in London, as well in Birmingham, Coventry, Newcastle and Edinburgh. There, volunteers served 32,267 nutritious hot meals out of 300 tons of donated foodstuffs, carried out 795 health screenings, repaired 605 items of clothing and delivered 1,463 advisory sessions, delivered free dental and eye care and even hairdressing and veterinary time for pets - help all freely given by the over 10,000 volunteers who gave up nearly a quarter of a million of their own holiday hours to help.

Crisis at Christmas, then, is clearly a major logistical operation in itself. Add in the fact that one of the multiple services that the charity offers its users at that time of year are Internet Cafes, and you might start to wonder how on Earth a non-profit can manage all this. The answer is a group called The Aimar Foundation, which provides free IT services to voluntary organisations like Crisis.

Aimar is the brainchild of senior technologists at the London arm of global financial services Morgan Stanley, specifically Frenchman Thomas (Moss) Mosimann, the name being the small village South West France he is from. Currently, its CEO is Simon Clark, an executive director with that big City firm, and who was one of the original founders of the Foundation back in 2006:

Aimar’s mission is to provide innovative technological solutions for small and medium sized charities, most of whom either don't understand technology, how it can enable them, or simply can't afford it.

Clark, purely in his own time, works with around 15 other Morgan Stanley’s technology team colleagues in London and Budapest to try and address that gap when he can - something he says merely aligns with the company’s own ethics and commitment to encouraging staff to give back to the community when they can. To that end, Aimar works with a range of groups, such as the Shannon Trust’s work on prisoner literacy [www.shannontrust.org.uk], but the Crisis work is its largest single annual commitment - indeed, when diginomica government spoke to Clark at the end of May, he said he was already working with Crisis on planning for the December 2018 Christmas initiative.

Thin client - a real game-changer

Why is all that hard work necessary? Well, as stated - this is a big project, one you really want to deliver. And before Aimar came along, that was often touch and go:

We had a colleague volunteer his time for a Crisis at Christmas, and he came back to suggest we looked to help as the technology being used was non-existent, or so old he had to cannibalise parts out of some machines to get others more or less working.

That was ten years ago, and for the first few of the partnership that’s happened every December since Aimar did what a lot of IT charity supporters do - turn older kit deemed past its commercial usefulness into something helpful:

When we first started out, we were essentially using old machines from the firm; big companies recycle their desktops every three to five years, and our first year we were just like, ‘Let’s take some of this old kit that we’re not using anymore and just put it into these sites’.

That worked well enough, he stresses - but wasn’t really very flexible. And as the job doesn’t get any easier year by year, that could be tough:

Can we literally have three to four days to get into ten or eleven locations around London and build something that will allow not just the Crisis staff who run the sites, but the homeless guests to come in and use technology over the opening period.

The real game changer for Aimar’s work with Crisis, he says, is when it switched approach completely five years ago, by a strategic shift to a completely different way of delivering an IT service - thin client.

That’s in the shape of equipment from IGEL, which delivers a centrally controlled and hosted virtual desktop infrastructure with much faster to deploy endpoints than the still good, but still ‘fat’, desktops Clark had previously been able to deploy. Around 300 devices get loaned from the supplier per project duration.

To the homeless Crisis at Christmas end user, what that looks like is free access on-site to the full suite of Microsoft Office applications delivered over Citrix in seven languages (English, Spanish, Polish, Russian, Latvian, Lithuanian and Romanian), fully configured to allow someone to knock up a CV and then download it to a memory stick the team can provide, or access support or advice services.

All that functionality is complemented, says Aimar, by the ability to surf the Web, free online data storage and even Voice over IP (provided, completely free, last year by Gradwell Communications; that last bit matters, as Clark says for some users, that free phone service is their only way to speak to their families once a year.

‘Without the technical support we receive we really wouldn’t be able to deliver the service’

Using a thin client approach is possible by even more free help at the back end out, of the datacentres of hosting firm Nasstar. And while Aimar’s recent stints with Crisis have been made a little easier by the fact that the Christmas projects now tend to happen in schools and colleges instead of the previous basically derelict buildings, it’s the technology uplift that he reckons is the most dynamic change Aimar’s been able to provide its client and all its thousands of seasonal helpers and service users.

We have invested so much in the stability of the technology solution that this thing now runs like clockwork.

That being said, he still needs his core team of 15 to be augmented by other Morgan Stanley colleagues - which he says is never a problem, despite the time of year:

It's becoming quite an army now; for the actual event itself, I would say we're probably 200, 250 strong. Not only do we have to have an army of volunteers to go out and implement the solution we've engineered and then decommission it, for the go live period we also have people on site as the first line of support, so if the guest has a problem they go to an Aimar badge person on-site and we also have run an Aimar support Center in the main Crisis operations Centre.

Finally, let’s be clear this hard work does get appreciated, with Ian Richards, the head of Crisis at Christmas, having gone on record to state that:

The logistical operation at Christmas is now so complex that without the technical support we receive we really wouldn’t be able to deliver the service.

Let’s let a busy IT guy like Clark explains why he does this:

The only address that they have for most of these guys is their email address. So if they come into our facility and use that email to connect with family and friends - and if we can just get one person reconnecting into society, to make that first step out of homelessness - then it's all worthwhile.