VARUN BHANOT & ANISHA SETH | UNHOUSED.ORG
The number of people sleeping rough in London accounts for almost a quarter of the entire homeless population of the UK, so it’s clear that more needs to be done to help. And that’s exactly what Varun and Anisha are doing with Unhoused.org, a non-profit online shop where for every item you purchase, another of the same is delivered to someone homeless.
Where do you live in London and what do you like about the area?
I live in Chigwell, just down the Central line and Anisha lives in Maidenhead (and commutes to Moorgate everyday!). Anisha loves the vibrant nature of London and how diverse it is; there is no city on earth where you find people from so many backgrounds! I love the calmness and stillness of being in the green area of Chigwell – which is only 25 mins from the City – so can easily retreat to a proper suburb after the hustle and bustle.
What inspired you to set up Unhoused.org together?
We got engaged last year and wanted to give something back to the world as we had such an outpouring of love from all over! We’ve both always worked in the City. I work amongst the tech startup cluster in Shoreditch, and Anisha works for a corporate accounting firm in Moorgate. The one inequality we both see everyday in London is homeless people everyday. Anisha was formerly the chairperson of one of Ernst & Young’s Diversity Networks and I’ve been building a tech company for the last few years. So we put our skills together and thought we could try and help solve a major social issue.
How are you using technology to help tackle homelessness?
Our first project is taking the “ASOS” or “Amazon” model and applying it to homelessness. We call it StreetWear – the UK’s First Online Shop for the Homeless. The idea is that people can buy their basic winter clothing on the site, and for every item bought, an equivalent is donated to the homeless. It’s quite simple but has been extremely effective. Our data analytics tell us the average basket size on the site is around £23. This is extraordinary as people would never give £20+ to a homeless person on the street, but since we’ve designed a safer, trustworthy mechanism of giving, it has increased people’s donation size. People have also perhaps reached “donation apathy” where they just don’t give anymore – but as we are providing something in return, it gives people more of a purpose. Lastly, we send a photo or video of the donation so the giver sees the final result of their “purchase” – it’s a complete feedback loop, something that we felt was missing from normal donations with charities.
What’s next after the StreetWear shop?
We have many ideas for Unhoused.org and especially taking tech trends I have noticed in the tech industry and applying them to social problems. Often the latest bleeding edge tech won’t touch social problems, as they are commonly exploited for profit making businesses first. Charities, generally, are therefore slow to innovate. One example is taking fintech (financial technology) and open banking technology and applying it to set up a digital bank for the homeless – a bit like Monzo or Revolut but for the unhoused. Another is developing micro-mortgages for slum dwellers to purchase their first micro-home. We’re also looking at developing tech that could make clothing more durable and sustaining for the homeless – there’s a lot cooking in our lab!
Describe your perfect day in London.
We both love meeting for breakfast in Soho – it’s so peaceful but exciting at the same time – we love Balans Soho Society and Bill’s, of course. It feels like there’s a world of possibilities when you’re in Soho. Our day would definitely then be donating our products to the homeless shelters and seeing their reactions at all the brand new items we give. It’s just so cold at the moment, it’s the perfect thing to do. And then it would have to be a nice hipster brunch – avocado and eggs benedict in Shoreditch!