Using cloud tools and donated technology to aid people experiencing homelessness over Christmas

Gary Flood Profile picture for user gflood December 20, 2022
The UK’s largest homeless charity aims to mount an even bigger Crisis at Christmas than ever, thanks to use of free provision of Office 365, Teams, secure endpoints, and refurbished devices

An image of people using laptops at a table in a cafe
(Image by LEEROY Agency from Pixabay )

In 2018, we reported on how the UK’s biggest homeless charity was using hardware and IT services provided pro bono to cope with its busiest period, the Christmas holidays.

Four years on, in the run-up to the next surge in demand for the services of that organization - Crisis - we went back to see what had changed. 

And it turns out that quite a lot has. And like for many users, a lot of that change comes down to the impact of COVID-19 and cloud technologies.

What hasn’t changed is that the charity still runs Crisis at Christmas - a special campaign where across nine sites across in the UK, including London, people experiencing homelessness are able to get much needed warmth, healthcare, food, company, but also support services for a time-limited period. 

The service has been run every year since 1967. Stats from the 2021 Crisis at Christmas show that hotel accommodation, hub services, food and wellbeing packs were provided for 2,000 people who were experiencing homelessness in late December.

That ‘2,000’ figure actually underplays the scale of the operation. Just on food alone, Crisis expects to serve 31,000 meals and provide 200 tons of food, with at least 1,200 guests needing to use their free hotel rooms or the beds being provided at other centers for the period.

Making that happen is a complex logistical operation. It involves close co-operation between permanent Crisis staffers, workers at its network of warehouses, and the welcome army of short-term volunteers who donate their time during the festive period to help. A central part of the whole operation is the charity’s dedicated East London warehouse facility, where all food and clothing is stored for distribution to each temporary location. 

All of that requires data and communications for helpers on the back end. But to aid users and help them improve their situation, Crisis also offers a range of services. Some are focused on basic needs, like the ability to get a shower, dental care, eye tests and a haircut, whilst others focus on face-to-face support sessions with expert volunteers for health, employment or benefits needs.

Again, that needs IT - as does the final support being offered, the virtual help. Here, users get temporary safe access to the internet to check their email, perhaps for the first time in months, to do things such as update their resumes, access potential new jobs or gain further support online.

Clark said:

One lady brought in a USB stick and put it into our kit to finish off her book, but really we want to offer whatever during opening to ease guests out of homelessness any way we can.

All this would be a big job for any mid-size organization. It’s an even bigger hill to climb if you are a non-profit and depending on donations to function.

Luckily, Crisis has a reliable IT partner for the Christmas project - a London-based IT charity called The Aimar Foundation.

Aimar is a not-for-profit consultancy helping charities build long-term capacity with their IT via technology infrastructure and support. 

This is run by the same individual we spoke with in 2018, Simon Clark, who is the CEO of the Foundation.

In 2018, Clark was then employed by Morgan Stanley. He has since transitioned to being part of the UK customer success unit of Microsoft.

Clark and his team help Crisis as lead point and operator of a range of other donated IT.

This includes 250 endpoints from German-based software company IGEL, which offers a set of thin-client endpoints that are fast to set up, but also secured using its proprietary cloud edge OS. Refurbished Lenovo laptops from a Manchester company called Tier 1 Asset Management are also deployed, as well as color printers donated by Konica Minolta.

During COVID-19 and now in the Vaccine Economy, these endpoints and other kits are set up in temporary Internet Cafes for both helpers and guests. In previous years, Aimar relied on older technologies to make all this happen - especially VDI/desktop virtualization, which was the main way the desktops accessed the Web.

However, to match the scaling up of Crisis’s needs, Clark said last year the decision was made to instead move to use a set of apps running in the Microsoft Azure cloud, for both for guest desktop applications and back-end systems. Another factor was a rise in the cost of using VDI.

Of course, a further consideration in this digital upgrade was the impact of the global health crisis, which for a while closed the option of hosting facilities, or guests in hotels.

To ensure help could still be provided if a Crisis worker or volunteer got sick and the whole shift then had to self-isolate, Clark and his team had to look at new ways of guaranteeing support.

He said:

Rather than having a desktop in the cloud, we’ve shifted to apps and data to the cloud and migrated to Office 365 and Teams for volunteers.

One platform to support people

Three separate clouds have been set up: one for the Christmas campaign, one for Crisis to use all year round for operational purposes, and a third for Aimar to run its own applications, monitoring and management tools (separately from data and applications hosted on the Crisis spaces).

Cloud is also the new home for the main Aimar business app used for the campaign, C-Log, which has been rewritten from Microsoft Access to Microsoft Dynamics 365. Use of the latter means older paper-based processes for providing items like new clothing for guests at Crisis hubs has been automated, winning back an estimated 60% in back office team time.

In addition, Aimar and its project partners also now make extensive use of unified communications to support cross-team collaboration and allow advisors to work and support guests from anywhere they need to be based.

For example, the endpoints now allow apps like Office 365 and Microsoft Teams to run natively on each device.

The use of Teams centralizes Crisis’s work on one platform, instead of solely using email or mobile calls and texts. 

A software-based 3CX virtual PBX hosted by Gradwell Communications is also being offered for free. This is expected to handle the large volume of calls team members will need to make during this busy period, avoiding the need for them to use their own data.

Summing up what supporting Crisis at Christmas means for him and his colleagues, Clark concluded:

This is an effective use of IT gifting and sponsorship to deliver a service that wouldn't happen otherwise. 

This is also a great story about technologists using their day-to-day skills to give back to the most vulnerable at arguably the most difficult time of the year.

If you wish to donate to the campaign, please go here.

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