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photo credit for image of Henry, above, and installation wall, below: Chris Hildrey

15 January 2018

Architect Chris Hildrey has developed a novel way to help people experiencing homelessness obtain a permanent address.

Architects are used to solving urban challenges by creating structural solutions, but architect Chris Hildrey has taken a more conceptual approach. With input from Glass Door staff and many others, he's developed a unique approach to give those experiencing homelessness access to a permanent address.

Chris, 33, is one of four recipients of this year's "Designers in Residence" program at the Design Museum. The young artists have been given space in the museum's new Kensington building, funds and assistance to pursue any topic that fits inside this year's theme of "support".

After speaking with politicians, campaigners, journalists, charity workers and individuals experiencing homelessness, he was struck by the irony that those without a permanent address found it almost impossible to qualify for governmental or organizational services. He told the NY Times:

Chris HildreyWithout an address, a person cannot access any social security benefits, including housing, jobseeker’s allowance, child tax credit, income support, et cetera. Nor can they open a bank account, get a driver’s license or join a library — the latter also providing public internet access. With no address history, there is also no financial history, preventing any future access to credit.

A novel solution

Chris explored using "proxy addresses" to get around the problem. He points out that there are actually thousands of unused addresses in London, such as unused office, retail and residential properties. The address doesn't even have to be real: Chris found out that a third of streets that have a number 14 avoid using the number 13, for example.

These empty or unused addresses are can be reassigned, even if there is no actual property corresponding to the address. A person wouldn't need to live at the address, he or she would just have access to the postal ID.

The address can be then used to apply for a library card or bank account, for example. Mail can be forwarded straight through the postal service wherever is needed. For someone with a chaotic lifestyle, a permanent address can provide an anchor of stability that allows them to still access other services like benefits and identity documents.

example of how ProxyAddress could be assigned

An assigned "ProxyAddress" could help those in need unlock support from the government and other agencies. photo: Chris Hildrey

The installation

For the project, he interviewed Glass Door overnight workers Henry Stevenson and Eddie McCormick and communications manager Melissa Kerschen. He also took photos and filmed his interviewees speaking on the topic of what having an address meant to them. The resulting films and photos were used to create a shifting installation at the Design Museum that draws viewers in to interact with -- and find out more about -- the ProxyAddress project.

ProxyAddress exhibit, photo credit: Rosie Reed Gold 
Above: Interactive unit explores how a proxy address can help. photo credit: Rosie Reed Gold

close-up of installation wall with Henry and Eddie

above: close up of video wall featuring Glass Door staff members Henry (left) and Eddie (right). 

Next steps

Chris is now working with the borough of Lewisham to test the system. Says Chris: 

The aim for the ProxyAddress project was always to make it a reality - to help remove the needless conditions that lead to entrenchment in homelessness while also offering councils a way to meet their new duties with ever-reducing budgets. By working with councils such as Lewisham, we're able to test the proposal in the real world and progress towards a wider roll out across the country.

The exhibit will be on display until 31 March 2018 on the top floor of the Design Museum. Entry is free.

For more on the ProxyAddress project, see Wired Magazine's coverage.