A safe and secure currency for people experiencing homelessness has been launched to help bring choice back to those on the streets. Jon Hope explains its purpose and how the scheme is being adopted across the UK.
World Homeless Day always brings our work into sharp focus. Although the government provided temporary support for rough sleepers during the pandemic in many parts of the UK, the situation for those on the streets is now worse – especially with many people continuing to work from home and spending less time in town and city centres. This means there’s less awareness of the problem, but according to the Observer 130,000 households were made homeless in 2020*, and this year the cost-of-living crisis and risk of a deep recession will only make things worse.
BillyChip was the idea of my late son, Billy Abernethy-Hope, who was an ambulance driver in Bristol. After helping support those on the streets himself – both personally and through his work – Billy was left disheartened at how little the general public gave to homeless people, for fear of the money being used for drugs or alcohol. Billy’s ambition was to find a solution to this problem and the seeds of the BillyChip scheme were sown.
After losing Billy in a road accident in Thailand our family established The BillyChip Foundation in 2018 as part of our commitment to create a legacy for Billy. The BillyChip is the first currency platform for those who are homeless or sleeping rough, and helps remove stigma – allowing members of the public to overcome some of the barriers they might have when choosing whether to give. Although BillyChip is not the solution to homelessness, it can play a huge part in supporting those living rough.
‘You’re fabulous and don’t you ever forget it!’
Billy’s much-loved phrase is printed on every BillyChip. The words don’t just mean a lot to his family – they send a clear message to the person buying or exchanging the chip too.
How the scheme works
BillyChip is the first scheme of its type in the UK, and offers a safe and secure currency. People can buy a BillyChip token online or from participating food and drink outlets – most often, we see people adding a BillyChip to their own tea or coffee order at a café. The purchased BillyChip can then be passed on to rough sleepers and homeless people as an alternative to cash, which they can then redeem for food, drink or – in the future – other products.
Outlets joining the scheme receive a starter pack containing BillyChips and point-of-sale materials. Each month, they supply details of chips sold and redeemed and receive a payment to cover the costs of redeeming a BillyChip. Volunteers are helping spread the word too, encouraging their local cafés and outlets to get involved.
For those who want to give something to support someone on the streets, it removes any hesitancy about giving money to a rough sleeper. Instead of worrying that money will be used for drugs and alcohol, the BillyChip ensures that any exchange is only for food and drink. Using a BillyChip also promotes human interaction and conversation, without the worry that the person handing over the chip might be contributing to a habit.
Bringing back choice
BillyChip also means those on the streets can go into a café or restaurant to order and pay for a food or drink item of their choice – and it’s this choice that’s a vital part of the equation. It recognises that those who are homeless may have their own dietary issues, as well as particular likes and dislikes. Being able to order a coffee with a particular type of milk, or a gluten-free sandwich with a favourite filling is important too, especially for that individual’s self-esteem given the particular challenges they are facing.
Growing the scheme across the UK
After establishing ourselves in Bristol, BillyChip enjoyed some great local support – firstly with independent cafés, and then further afield. Some of our local emergency services started championing BillyChip too, with the police community support officers (PCSOs) in our local police force, Avon and Somerset Police, wearing interactive BillyChips on their uniforms to help raise awareness. The PCSOs use the chips as a reminder of the scheme and to create a talking point with the community as they go about their work.
As the scheme picked up pace and expanded across the South West we began working on a partnership with Greggs, who are currently trialling BillyChip in seven of their outlets across Bristol city centre. And we’re also in the process of launching the scheme in London, through our partnership with Change Please and AMT Coffee.
According to Shelter 274,000 people were registered homeless in 2021, and 70,000 households were under threat of becoming homeless.
Spreading our reach
Our work has seen us being able to offer BillyChip across a growing number of outlets in the UK, but we’re determined to do more. The aim is to spread kindness and compassion to the homeless community and ensure that the BillyChip is available in every high street across the UK.
We also want the concept of a cashless currency to develop further to support the homeless community. As we expand, it’s clear that BillyChip’s potential can grow. For example, even some of the charities with retail outlets whose remit is to help the homeless don’t offer them any concessions, making their retail offerings inaccessible to the very people they are intended to help. We’re hoping that the BillyChip can overcome this and allow rough sleepers to buy clothes and other items from these shops.
There’s a lot we can – and want to – do, and we’ve been encouraged by how our simple scheme has been so recognised and adopted in a fairly short space of time.
Find out more about our work at www.billychip.com