How Vending Machines Can Help the Homeless

Not your average junk food-filled vending machine: Tucked inside an English shopping center, Action Hunger's maiden vending machine is stocked with provisions for homeless people. . (Photo: Action Hunger)

Vending machines are generally not in the business of dispensing healthful nourishment and life-bettering essentials.

One vending machine installed at Broadmarsh Centre, a shopping center in Nottingham, England, takes a markedly different approach.

The inventory of this otherwise ordinary-looking box might seem curious to shoppers who stop to give it the once-over: Bottled water, fresh fruit and energy bars join vending machine standards like chips, chocolate and pre-made sandwiches. Not that odd, really. But also behind the glass, though, are antibacterial ointment, socks, washcloths, toothbrushes and other provisions not typically found in vending machines.

The vending machine in question isn’t, of course, catering to Broadmarsh Centre shoppers. It's for “rough sleepers,” a British term describing people who sleep on the streets — homeless people, essentially. Conceived by charitable organization Action Hunger, this altruistic vending machine stocked with basic necessities, available gratis to those who require them, is believed to be the first of its kind in the world.

With no place to insert cash or credit cards, the automated machine accepts only special key cards distributed by a partnering organization of Action Hunger, which, in this case, is The Friary, a Nottingham-based drop-in center for the homeless. The machine is stocked daily by a team of volunteers with dignity-boosting, hunger-alleviating goods procured by Action Hunger through charitable contributions. Fresh edibles dispensed by the machine are sourced from local food redistribution organizations working to combat food waste.

The machine, however, isn’t a free-for-all. The up to 100 individuals in possession of Friary-issued cards can “buy” only three items from the machine per day, a cap that Action Hunger believes will prevent users from becoming too dependent on it.

“We want our low-cost solution to complement other services that are available, as engagement with professionals and local support services is instrumental to breaking the cycle of homelessness,” explains the charity.

The 29-year-old Nottingham native behind the concept, Huzaifah Khaled, has received some criticism from those who believe an unmanned 24/7 vending machine makes it too convenient for the city's rough sleepers to access food and supplies. A remotely located vending machine potentially might enable homeless individuals to steer clear of shelters and facilities that provide counseling and one-on-one support. In turn, those who need assistance the most risk slipping through the cracks.

Speaking to the Guardian, Khaled argues that the criticisms don't ring true: “We could have not put a limit on how many items people could receive, and not built in a system of checks. All of our users in Nottingham have to check-in with The Friary once a week for their cards to continue working.”

When train commutes lead to benevolent ideas

Khaled came up with the idea for a homeless-assisting vending machine while enrolled as a graduate student at the University of Cambridge, where he recently received his PhD in law. Because he continued to live in Nottingham while attending classes over 90 miles away, Khaled spent a considerable amount of time on trains and in train stations.

“In the U.K., train stations are almost magnets for homeless people,” Khaled explains to the Washington Post. “When I’d be waiting for trains, walking to and from the train station . . . I came into contact with a lot of them."

"I essentially developed a very deep understanding of their needs," he adds. "I realized that there had to be a more effective way of getting at least the bare necessities to them.”

While Action Hunger’s inaugural vending machine — a $13,000 model donated by N&W; Global Vending — is located tucked inside the entrance of a shopping center, train station-based installations are still very much the ideal based on Khaled’s personal experiences, largely because they offer the greatest round-the-clock accessibility and are sheltered from the elements and well-lit. (For what it’s worth, Broadmarsh Centre is adjacent to a major Nottingham bus terminal, although that facility was shuttered last summer for redevelopment.)

Illustration of Action Hunger's vending machine card
Special cards distributed by local homeless-support organizations are the only currency accepted by Action Hunger's special vending machines. Three items per cardholder can be dispensed per day. (Photo: Action Hunger)

Special cards distributed by local homeless-support organizations are the only currency accepted by Action Hunger's special vending machines. Three items per cardholder can be dispensed per day. (Illustration: Action Hunger)

Next up? The U.S.

While Action Hunger’s debut vending machine can be found in Nottingham — an appropriate launching pad considering the city’s associations with a certain folkloric outlaw who assisted the poor — the organization has ambitious plan to expand to larger cities struggling with homelessness.

Per the Guardian, Khaled hopes to raise enough funds to install 25 to 30 similar vending machines across England by the end of 2018, including an upcoming machine in Manchester. He’s reportedly in talks with Network Rail, the government-owned entity that oversees most of the United Kingdom’s rail network, to potentially install machines in select stations.

Simultaneously, Khaled plans to introduce the concept to the United States. In February, Action Hunger’s first two stateside vending machines will be rolled out in New York City. (As reported by the Post, the charity already has secured a partnership with New York-based nonprofit Rescuing Leftover Cuisine to help stock the maiden machines and is also in talks with Tyson Foods. It’s unclear where exactly these machines will be installed.) Following that, there are plans for machines in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, all cities where homelessness is an emergency-level crisis.

Global interest in the concept is growing, too. As Khaled tells the Guardian: “I’ve had emails from people in Greece, Spain, Australia and China, all wanting to know more.”

Action Hunger’s reimagining of the humble, often-maligned vending machine is novel. (The fact that Stephen Hawking serves as the charity's head patron also doesn't hurt get the word out.) But there’s also something to be said about what a massive difference improved accessibility to the basics — food, water, supplies — can make for those living on the streets.

For example, the city of Tacoma, Washington, recently took a similar approach by providing running water to a large homeless encampment on the edge of town and, later, a designated temporary emergency housing site in the downtown area. Almost immediately, city leaders found that providing easy access to such a basic, taken-for-granted resource vastly improved the health and dignity of Tacoma’s homeless while also mitigating water pollution.

“We gave them an opportunity to tell us what they wanted, and they said showers, laundry, bathroom facilities, and a way to wash their hands, and do dishes and cook,” Jeff Jenkins, assistant director of the Tacoma Public Works Department, recently told CityLab. Water is “core to being alive, and it’s also a way ... to maintain a standard of cleanliness."

Back in Nottingham, Khaled is confident that highly accessible vending machines stocked with items like clean socks, toiletries and fresh fruit will help to complement other initiatives and end the cycle of homelessness in that city. “In an ideal world, I would never have needed to start this charity,” he tells the Post. “I would love nothing more than to shutter this charity next week.”