Homeless Health

Homelessness brings with it compounding problems beyond the need for shelter. One of these, a focus of community groups and support services, is ensuring homeless people retain health with limited access to fresh wholesome food. This research project aimed to find them a healthier quality of life through food.

Early research mapped out territory and key players; the service providers, NGOs and agencies with anticipation that food itself held the key to 'healthy'. The obvious logical course then, was to explore ways to get more good food. Mass catering operations were considered for insights into scale and process, like military and airline catering operations.

Next step explored the definition of nutrition; our social understanding of what it actually is. It was this investigation that expounded the fascinating nexus between food and mental health that was to become pivotal in the thinking.

It was self-affirming to learn from the growing number of scientific studies that emphasise and vindicate the notion of 'bad food = bad thinking'. Evidence that has implications on psychological and physiological levels, including effects on learning and state of mind, both in children and adults.

In a project of limited resources it was necessary to prioritise scope of ideation and seek a solution that could scale easily in application but first prototype quickly to gain traction.

There is little doubt the plight of homeless people is filled with anguish and anxiety. They suffer enormous stress just surviving and a big part of this is securing food.

Notwithstanding adverse influences such as drugs and alcohol, research suggested 'self-determination' to be a factor crucial in wellbeing as nutrition itself. On the strength of this we prioritised ways to lift this burden as a first step toward increased capability in securing good food. 

A business model was developed that placed homeless people at the centre of preparation and distribution of food. Using inner city community kitchens, gardens and donated sources, under professional culinary and nutritional guidance, food would be prepared by and distribution by teams of homeless people in a low-cost novel method.

Acknowledging that religious charities often play an important role in this area, we recognised scope for an agnostic player: unrelentingly dedicated to food, and healthy ways of getting it. The teams would be equipped with portable tables and chairs, reinforcing a shared experience and social exchange. The scheme would also generate other streetwise resources like information about edible plants in urban landscapes; insights about indigenous food sources; and where to get advice, shelter, supplies and services.

This project was a human-centred design process; a cyclical method that returns repeatedly to challenge assumptions from a user perspective. Creating objectively this way can bring solutions surprisingly different to that which initial problem definition suggests. With this method problem framing is part of creative process.

Stefan Kahn