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Want To Feed The Homeless? Send Them To Restaurants When They're Slow

In a pilot, homeless youth in California dined on Subway sandwiches instead of visiting a soup kitchen.

Want To Feed The Homeless? Send Them To Restaurants When They're Slow

[Photo: Petardj/iStock]

When Mick Ebeling sees opportunities for technology to fix problems, he doesn't hold back. In 2013, he traveled to Sudan for a month to make a prosthetic arm for a kid named Daniel, who'd had his arms blown off by a barrel bomb. Earlier, he helped Tony 'TEMPT' Quan, a LA graffiti artist who'd been paralyzed with a neurodegenerative disease. Ebeling's Not Impossible Labs (NIL) built the Eyewriter, allowing the artist to paint by eye-strokes. Ebeling, also a movie and TV producer, believes in "technology for humanity's sake"—the opposite of technology that doesn't help anyone.

Now, Ebeling is turning his attention to homelessness. His new 'Hunger: Not Impossible' initiative, announced in New York last week, links up people sleeping rough with free meals at restaurants when they are least busy (between the hours of two and five in the afternoon). He figures this helps the restaurants as they need business. And it certainly helps the homeless. If you're hungry, you don't care about when you eat decent food, as long as you do eat it.

[Photo: Alex Jones via Unsplash]

NIL piloted the idea recently with homeless youth in Venice Beach, California. Working with the charity Safe Place for Youth and several Subway restaurants, the groups sent out text messages asking people if they wanted to visit certain locations to pick up meals. Most of the people targeted took up the offer.

Ebeling sees several advantages to the system. Recipients can redeem meal vouchers without the stigma of entering a soup kitchen. Charities can deliver food to vulnerable people efficiently, while ensuring people have access to nutritious, healthy offerings. And, it may be possible to win discounts on the food, as restaurants have an incentive to get rid of their meals in the afternoon when there are no other customers.

"If you give any business an opportunity to make money when otherwise they wouldn't make money and do it an organized way, logic would say that's something that would be interesting for them," he says.

In the pilot, NIL picked up the tab because Ebeling was just trying to prove the concept works. But, if the project takes off, Ebeling hopes to raise outside philanthropic funding and get buy-in from restaurants.

"We think this could be used for veterans or augmenting student programs as well. It can be deployed at a local level by a church in Duluth or a institution in SF, helping the people they serve. If we get it right, we could cover a massive footprint."

We'll come back in a few months and see how the 'Hunger: Not Impossible' project is getting on. But it seems promising. Surveys show that more than half of the homeless have cellphones, opening the possibility of feeding people where they are, rather than having everyone come to the same central place for food.

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