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Housing

The innovative ‘nap pads’ that could save the lives of homeless people

Hundreds of homeless people die on Britain’s streets every year – but new technology being piloted in York could save countless lives.

On a small strip of land tucked away in a corner of York sits a dark grey metal structure about the size of a shipping container. 

Two security cameras are trained on four numbered doors running across the front. Each secured by a keypad, the doors open into small, modest rooms equipped with a single bed, a toilet and a sink. 

They might not look like much, but these “nap pads” are the first of their kind in the UK, containing technology that could save the lives of hundreds of homeless people – and keep many more off the streets in winter. 

Every year, hundreds of people die in the UK without a stable place to call home. It’s only recently, thanks to the efforts of organisations like the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the Museum of Homelessness that an official count has been possible.

According to the most recent count from the museum, 976 people died without a stable home in 2020. Causes of death vary from drugs and alcohol to suicide, pneumonia and diseases like cancer, all exacerbated by the danger and instability of life without a home.

Figures released by the National Records of Scotland on Tuesday based on separate calculations show an estimated 256 people died north of the border while experiencing homelessness last year – a rise of 40 deaths on 2019 levels. More than half of those were drug-related.

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Charities like the Salvation Army have worked tirelessly to end the scourge of homeless deaths, most of which are preventable. The challenge has always been providing somewhere warm and dignified while also ensuring that people remain safe.

Though hostels are usually the first port of call, many long-term homeless people feel unable or uncomfortable with staying in them for reasons ranging from no-pet policies to safety fears over sharing with other people. 

An alternative piloted in many cities over the years is container-style accommodation. Bristol started a project back in 2013, and many other areas have followed on since. 

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But when Malcolm Page, assistant director of homlessness at the Salvation Army, was considering a similar project in York, he felt there was still a vital piece missing. 

“There’s a number of container-based solutions already, but I felt we needed to think about it a little bit more.

“As we always do, we wanted to provide someplace for people to sleep safe, clean and dry, but we also wanted it to be safe for them.” 

Working with service users and tech developers on the design, the Salvation Army came up with “nap pads”: containers that not only provide a warm place for homeless people to sleep, but can also track the vital signs of those using them.

The pods employ technology which scans the top of the bed to monitor a person’s heartbeat and breathing. If either becomes irregular or stops for thirty seconds, an alarm sounds on the outside of the container, the door unlocks and an alert is sent to a call centre, who can contact the emergency services. 

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Every pod can be controlled remotely via an app by workers at the Salvation Army, who are able to lock and unlock the pods as well as change the entry codes. 

If rolled out more widely, the technology could prevent hundreds of homeless people from dying needlessly every year, and instead offer them a gateway to a more stable life.

Inside a “nap pod”. Each uses about the same energy as a lightbulb to heat and power.

“A lot of people are frightened to go into hostels”, says Page.

“Maybe these pods would just encourage them to come in from the cold and allow us to develop a relationship with the individual. That would allow them to move onto something more suited to their needs.” 

Jay, a 19-year-old originally from Leeds, says the pods would have been transformative for him several years ago.

Following a relationship breakdown, Jay found himself homeless in York at 16, and, after an unsuccessful stint in a hostel, was forced to sleep on the streets in the run-up to Christmas. 

“It was probably the lowest point in my life. I ended up sleeping on a bench trying to keep my back protected from the wind. 

“You just couldn’t stay warm, it was freezing. You woke up and your feet were freezing. It was really, really rough.” 

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Had the nap pads existed at the time, Jay says he would have “taken the opportunity to use them straight away” over a night on the streets. 

Now in stable accommodation, Jay has conducted a test-run of the pods on behalf of the Salvation Army, joking that “the mattress is more comfortable than my own!”

He says they could be “life-changing” for older or longer-term homeless people who are stuck in cycles of rough sleeping and unable to change the pattern.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Page, who says the pods can work as an interruption to the cycle of rough sleeping, allowing charities like the Salvation Army to intervene and help homeless people into stable accommodation and better lives. 

Given their size, Page says the pods have the advantage of being easy to situate in all kinds of small spaces across the country.

“A church recently got in touch to ask whether they could have a pod in their car park as they often have homeless people knocking on their door with nowhere to go,” he says. 

He stresses that the pods would only be for “short-term use”, with homeless people referred to them by charities like the Salvation Army as a safe stop-gap for rough sleepers. 

After the pods go into operation in York, Page hopes the concept can be deployed across Britain to save and improve lives everywhere. According to service users he’s spoken with, the pods have the potential to transform the lives of society’s most vulnerable.

“I spoke to a service user who said it would have totally transformed the way he thought about going into temporary accommodation. 

“He was nervous about going into hostels – he said these pods would have made such a difference to his life.”

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