Founder Amy Varle Introduces
'UBER FOR HOMELESSNESS'
In September 2021, I gathered a group of incredible human beings, from all over the country and from all walks of life, to travel on-mass to the Prime Minister’s office at Downing Street:
Inviting a diverse crowd of some of the most committed, talented and selfless people I’m privileged to know - financial investors, property professionals, lived experience leaders, charity heads, representatives from housing associations, faith groups, media companies and voluntary organisations, as well as some of the very special people who receive a combination of our varied services - many I have known, admired and collaborated with professionally for much of the last ten years.
We united as one to present the findings of our collective response to the homelessness crisis during the Covid-19 pandemic: Together, we provided accommodation and support solutions to vulnerable people in homelessness crisis all over Britain, via trials of our ‘social networking for social housing’ concept: sociallyhomes.com.
Since 2011, I have worked independently to research, design, develop and promote innovative and compassionate solutions with potential to address homelessness.
Having lived in hostel accommodation as a teenager, though I didn’t suffer the misfortune of sleeping rough, my own experience of homelessness had a lasting and profound impact on me.
I have dedicated the entirety of my professional career and the last 20 years of my life to serving those who have no home.
In 2016, following the positive evaluation of some of my very first (self-designed and very haphazardly-managed) ‘homeless housing pilot schemes’, I was proudly awarded a Travelling Fellowship from the Churchill Trust.
This was a phenomenal boost to assist the evolution of my work, giving me real credibility as a highly ambitious, yet newly-emerging and relatively inexperienced ‘junior’ social innovator.
The ‘travelling’ part of my Fellowship afforded me the incredible and truly life-changing opportunity to explore professional trialling, testing, scaling and growth on a level I had merely dreamt of before.
Road-tripping alone across the East and West coasts of America during the summer of 2016, my remit was simply to book tickets to anywhere in the world I could immerse myself in learning and formally report back on my experience.
Leaving my 10 year-old daughter behind, I set off into the great unknown with a very small amount of money and a suitcase filled with (what I now know was) entirely unsuitable clothing, along with a schedule which saw me trekking exclusively across all of American crime hot-spots my Mum had repeatedly told me I WASN’T ALLOWED TO GO.
As I landed at San Francisco airport, having cried solidly for a whole 11 hours on the shoulder of the unlucky (yet extremely polite) non-English speaking gentleman sitting next to me, I contemplated the immeasurable gravity of what I had signed myself up for.
It was undoubtedly one of the most terrifying and exhilarating feelings I’ve ever had in my life.
Reflecting now, almost six years later, in eager anticipation of my long-awaited return, I realise that the privilege of this truly unique experience altered every part my inner core:
Re-purposing my very reason for being, I have continually evaluated my soul purpose, my vision, goals, beliefs, drive, expectations, delivery, capabilities - my very existence and role as a human being on this earth - ever since I stepped foot off the plane
It was thanks to taking that daring leap of faith that I found myself standing on the steps of Downing Street just a few months ago, surrounded by a beautiful rainbow dream team of solutions and hope.
What a fitting way to close the last decade and begin the next chapter, aligning and celebrating each and every piece of the finished jigsaw we have all worked so hard to collectively create.
Together, we are sociallyhomes.com.
Can you amplify our vision?
On touchdown in California, I immediately felt at home - connecting with innovators, creators and the truly magnificent global enterprise leaders I had long admired and strived to professionally emulate from afar.
After spending the previous few years being laughed out of meetings in Britain for my seemingly ridiculous idea that we simply *give homeless people homes*, here, my vision was embraced; my innovative - and seemingly progressive - thought-process was nurtured and encouraged.
It was a truly incredible feeling - I felt accepted, included, valued and amongst friends; at home for the first time in a very long time.
I was hosted at iconic locations such as the Tenderloin District in San Francisco the globally-known heart of American homelessness, Los Angeles’ Skid Row. Less of a row, more of a city - thousands of displaced people roamed miles and miles of tent-lined streets.
I felt breathless at times as I began to be exposed to depravity and human misery on a scale I had never really imagined existed before. Having taken an Uber to Skid Row from the Hollywood Walk of Fame, I've never been so stunned when I arrived to find that these two worlds existed so closely side by side.
I found America a confusing and conflicting place to be. The shocking disparity between the rich and the poor, the priviliaged and the margionalised, was on a scale I found impossible to comprehend. Compared to life at home in Manchester, homelessness here all seemed so normalised and ignored; almost invisible to many of the people around me.
I remember crying buckets of tears as I sat people-watching whilst the sun went down one beautiful evening, in a pretty spot of bars and restaurants on Silicon Valley’s Santana Row.
I couldn’t understand how all the people here could possibly look so happy and carefree, when I’d spent the day volunteering just down the road, in the vast network of adjoining jungle encampments, where people were living in bushes with the animals, eating scraps of leftover food they’d foraged from public bins.
Wanting to make the most of every invaluable learning opportunity I could find, I immersed myself in the experience to the very best of my ability - despite struggling hugely with mentally processing the enormity and complexity of the problem I was tasked with not just trying to understand, but to somehow, create solutions for.
And so, I visited non-profits, outreach services and a range of crisis responders, went to church and university, had coffee with investors, drank beer with entrpreneurs, ate wierd fruit offered by corporate offices, held banners for campaigners, pieces of wood for home designers, discussed designing and planning with land owners and builders.
I attended conferences, debates and roadshows, visited congress officials, financiers, policy creators and governmental decision makers - anyone that would see me that was tasked with co-ordinating the mass relief efforts towards the visibly shocking and ever-evolving humanitarian crisis.
After leaving each location, having sat on the ground with so many broken souls - most, victims of horrific and unimaginable truamas - the unloved and abandoned, the mentally tortured, the racially abused, the dying, the disabled, the starving, the sick, the black, the white, the old, the young....
I found it near-impossible to switch off from the impact of my experiences.
I'd arrived in the US full of bravado - having created my own personalised pocketbook of help I could call upon and extend to anyone I passed on the streets in Britain, I'd never really recognised my (now ridiculously-obvious) lack of power to make real and immediate, lasting change for people who were homeless - and the complete insignifigance I had in realistically helping any of the people I encountered on my travels.
I'd hold their hands, look into their eyes and feel a little a piece of their pain, listenening to heartwrenching - yet entirely relatable - stories of misfortune, tragedy, crisis, bereavement, loss and decline.
As I moved on to the next city, the next project, the next innovation, I became repeatedly tortured by the thought that I wouldn't be returning to any of the friends I was leaving behind.
Most of them would die, right there on the floor, where we'd said our final goodbye.
The mid-way point saw me venture East, and you can picture my touchdown in New York not dissimilar to that of Kevin’s in Home Alone 2.
Watching the Manhattan skylign approach, feeling butteflies in my tummy, I think I was more excited than I ever been in my life:
'If I can make it here, I can make it anywhere.'
The contrast, however, between the East and West coasts of the USA was staggering - and not just when it came to the approach taken towards addressing homelessness.
Effortlessly summed up one day by a real-life Tony Soprano-looking character on the train back to Brooklyn - the first person to talk to me in what seemed like a very long time - hollering to ask me why I looked so glum.
'I came here to chase my dreams! But it's so much harder than I thought...'
I'll never forget him raising from his seat to deliver his dramatically acted out reply, for the benefit of the entire carriage of commuters:
'Let me tell you somethin' Amy. New York doesn't give a f**k about your dreams. Everybody here came with a dream...'
'In fact! Why don't you tell me all about yours? So I can chew them up, spit them out, and then STAMP ALL OVER THEM' !!!
Welcome, my friends, to New York.
After the informality and friendliness of California, now, it was fighting through communter crowds on the subway to meet CEOs in shiny suits for insanely difficult to confirm, precisely-timed and efficiently managed meetings; skyscraper offices and exposure to the kind of business environment I'd only had before thanks to Netflix.
It was right about this point I started to regret not packing any real shoes for the trip.
I was about to be given a precious and rare insight into the most progressive enterprise work in the world, feeling privileged, excited and immensely hopeful when I recieved meeting confirmations from people I considered true heroes of our time.
I repeatedly pinched myself as I was immersed in and out of this seemingly super-elite discovery bootcamp - welcomed to visit some of most impactful models in action, I was beginning to imagine how I could encorporate all of this magic at home.
This was my Kevin in the toy shop moment.
I spent all of my time inbetween meetings collecting my thoughts, over thinking and trying to make it all fit together, sketching out rough designs on the back of napkins as I ate $1 pizza on the sidewalk, sitting on the roof of my building, pondering for hours and hours as I took inspiration from the skylign.
At Back on My Feet – rehabilitation targeting entrenched homelessness via the power of running and communities - I was hosted by the incredible Terrence Grechberg, who kindly invited me to experience BOMF’s annual gala ball in the Marriot Marquis in Times Square – a truly unforgettable evening.
Their friends at Bombas Socks off-set profits from designer accessories to allow pro-bono supply of good-quality essential products to New York City’s most marginalised.
After walking about a million miles in my flip-flops over the previous month or so, the Bombas treats I was kindly gifted from founder Dave Heath felt like heaven on my feet.
A story for another day how is I came to meet with Jeff Scheuer, VP at the iconic Breaking Ground New York, my Number 1 source of inspiration over the previous few years and first choice bucket-list meeting target, which arose only via a spontaneous (slightly accidental) break-in at their Manhattan corporate office, which somehow, resulted in a nod to my ‘tenacity’ and a much-treasured hour of immeasurably valuable time granted.
I was incredibly humbled to connect with the late Arne Sorenson, Marriot International Incorporated’s (then) CEO and one of the most selfless and committed corporate philanthropists I’ve ever encountered. Celebrated for his contribution to Back on My Feet whilst I was in the city, I was highly impressed to hear that Arne didn't just give money - he often went running with the non-profit organisation and Manhattan's street homeless community too.
Arne’s progressive approach to corporate social responsibility has informed every part of my work since, enabling me to lay the foundations for a impact-focused, community-led, commercially competitive enterprise model: One with the ability to be forever self-sustaining, as it is simultaneously societally-serving.
It took five more years to be able to present that model: Its pilot evaluations, collection of many techniques, assessments, adaptations and audits, range of outcomes, successes and failures, the many valued contributors and contributions, the collection of frameworks, strategic plans and range of conceptual designs.
The finalised and packaged solution, along with a solid business proposal demonstrating unquestionable potential to address homelessness: Efficiently, effectively, with compassion, and at scale.
We are a global gathering of good souls - working together for very different reasons, and in very different ways - yet ultimately, we find that we align via the very same vision, purpose and goal.
We just want to give people homes.
Can you amplify our vision?
In 2020, I was honoured to receive two further awards of grant funding from the Churchill Trust; my ‘Activate Award’– a new program for Churchill Fellows aiming to support the practical incubation of historical research findings - arrived, however, just as the world was plunged into the uncertainty and unknown of the Covid-19 pandemic.
With Britain placed under strict lockdown and curfew conditions, the plan accompanying my successful application – hosting a series of seminars, roundtable debates, conferences and workshop sessions – was no longer feasible.
I received incredible guidance as I brainstormed through options with my mentor Derek Bardowell at the Trust - and though some award recipients decided to delay their project - or even decline the award altogether - I had a strong feeling that as each of us now navigated this unexpected, catastrophic humanitarian crisis, as a person who had spent the last decade proudly calling myself a ‘social entrepreneur’ -
My role was now akin to a soldier being called to war.
I had to accelerate my output. Fast.
Since my return from America in 2016, I had phased out my personal and hands-on approach to homelessness response and was no longer working person-by-person, house-by-house.
The evolution of my delivery had become more strategic and directive, concerning larger and more ambitious initiatives, placing me alongside corporate developers, social funders, housing associations and local authorities.
I felt increased frustration that I could work with amplified value distributed across the board if I stopped ‘doing’ when it came to homeless housing - and made the essential move to focus on empowering others:
Connecting, inspiring, upskilling and guiding my treasured network of professional connections, so they could work more effectively together and be better positioned to reach more vulnerable people.
My burning desire to start working on a digital product – the only way I had ever realistically foreseen myself removed from the operational design and management of every single housing solution I was connected to - was becoming less of a bucket-list dream and more of a fundamental necessity to my output each day.
I was frequently tortured by the thought, that if I had now proven the methods to facilitate housing for 100+ people, what would happen if I taught everything I knew about housing people, to say, 10 people, who then, went away and did the same? What if they then passed on their knowledge too?
Ultimately, I wanted to find a way to house everybody, not just the people I was aware of, or that I could physically reach.
I had started to imagine the solution to homelessness (and also to me actually obtaining some kind of family-work-life balance, whilst also hopefully regaining my own sanity) lay in me creating some kind of referral marketing networking hub for impact investment; a 'JuicePlus' for creating good-quality sustainable, accessible homes, where local support options could align too?
I already had all of the pieces of the jigsaw needed and my proof of concept was solid. Derek gave me the confidence to launch my ‘partnership network’ initiative via an intensive and bespoke mastermind program and professional peer-peer support group, hosted entirely via digital platforms.
Could we persuade people to subscribe to methods, products, tools, resources, experts and experiences, instead of multi-vitamins, milkshakes, movies or mascara?!
The transformative decision I was about to make was a major risk to take - freely sharing a precious decade’s worth of my unique contacts, resources, strategies, frameworks, tools, pitches, funding options, assets and leads, I very quickly launched a new wave of uniquely armed ‘competitors’ into my own marketplace.
However, the group that remained committed to the vision later emerged victorious: A close community of trusted business partners, mentors, advisors and friends, forming close enough bonds to transact on multi-million pound investment deals together, racking up unit after unit of new accommodation solutions by the day.
We innovated as we went, hosting over 100 digital tutorials, workshops, strategy sessions, networking events and deal clinics online, along with meeting in-person to hold socially-distanced learning sessions during 'walks and talks' on the beach, live-streaming my visits to building sites, outreach services and soup kitchens, inviting members for coaching sessions in my garden and to consult on scheme design over outdoor drinks at the pub!
The unique experiences we shared helped to build a special rapport and close bond between participants, enabling each of us to discover the true value in collaborative working as we each amplified both our individual and collective output.
We worked to the directive of each governing local authority we encoutered - creating framework, processes and systems, along with publishing toolkits of practical guides and resources to help navigate the process. This ensured designs and proposals were sustainable, compliant and sustainable, ie within a local authority remit and budget.
As we completed our pilot year and began to evaluate, combining the group's output in order to understand the scaling and growth potential of our now rapidly-evolving concept, it was astounding to learn how many new homes and support options were incubated by our members and made safely accessible to vulnerable people in need.
As a team, we created over ONE THOUSAND units of high-quality accommodation solutions, which were matched with a diverse range of appropriate support agencies and personalised packages of care.
Over TWENTY MILLION POUNDS of public money was saved via the impact our community collectively demonstrated.
In September 2021, I was delighted to invite a collection of our diversely talented participants to formally align as impact investors, buisness partners and co-founders of our creation, sociallyhomes.com.
Our newly-evolving tech-for-good start-up community enterprise is already changing lives all over Britain and as we now develop our technology hub and begin to expand our reach, we have already been dubbed the future ‘Uber of Homelessness Resolution’.
I will always remember my meeting with one of my real-life idols, Kara Zordel, representing Project Homeless Connect in San Francisco. As we shared breakfast and discussed the many vibrant social innovations operating across the city, she told me:
‘Amy, we are the greatest artists of our time;
Because we are creating change’.
I thought this was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever heard, and I still pass on those words today, as we continue to create our rainbow canvas of hope to end homelessness together.
Can you amplify our vision?