The UK's first ever vending machine designed for the homeless has been opened in a Nottingham shopping centre.

Rough sleepers are now able to get three drums of goods per day from the machine. These items include water, warm clothes, sanitary products and food. The limit aims to prevent dependency on the machines from developing, the charity said.

"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", it added.

In order to access the machine, a key card is required and recipients must attend weekly local support services in order to keep it activated. This novel scheme has been launched by new charity, Action Hunger, and has drawn support from globally-renowned companies such as Uber and Google.

A novel idea

The mastermind behind the project is Nottingham local Huzaifah Khaled, who'd developed the scheme over the past two years whilst studying for a PhD in Law at Cambridge and Harvard. The 29 year old, who is set to begin his new job at Goldman Sachs, came up with the idea after speaking to homeless people while waiting for a train home on his daily commute from Nottingham.

“It struck me how many would tell me that during the evenings and nights there were no services open for them,” he said.

“In Nottingham we have two centres that are open about four hours a day. It struck me that there must be a better way to get necessities to these men and women.”

Mr Khaled began by writing letters to around 70 vending machine companies across the UK, Europe and US asking if they would be willing to donate a machine to this revolutionary project. After countless rejections, he managed to persuade one of the world's largest vending companies, N&W Global vending, to supply a machine worth £10,000 for free. He then got the Friary, a drop-in advice centre for the homeless people of Nottingham, to get involved and help out by dishing out the key cards to those in need.

The next breakthrough came when he managed to get the shopping centre group, Intu, onboard to house the vending machine in their Broadmarsh shopping centre. This was particularly powerful as basing the vending machine there means it will be accessible 24 hours a day.

He said: “The more I talked with local homeless services the more I realised the use of the card had to be linked to local services as we didn’t want to be seen as encouraging any type of rough sleeping.

“If you want to get benefits in this country you need an address and organisations like the Friary let them use their address, help them find work and get a home.

“People attend [charities such as the Friary], but it can be weeks apart or months. Few attend on a weekly basis, which we hope the cards will help.”

In terms of filling the machine itself, all the stock is donated by local companies and charities. The majority of the food is provided by the charity Fareshare, which works hard to redistribute surplus produce from supermarkets that would otherwise end up in landfills.

Rallying support

Further partners have now joined the project, including Google, which is using its AI ‘Brain’ project to help analyse data from the keycards in order to determine how the vending machine is being used. This will be particularly useful to inform stock needs for the future, and establish which the most popular and in-demand products are.

The machine currently provides users with access to water and food such as fruit, energy bars, crisps and even sausage rolls. It also stocks essentials such as sanitary products as well as warm clothing and foil blankets. When stock is used up, it is down to volunteers to replenish the machine and ensure items are available to keycard holders 24 hours a day. In addition, the charity has recently managed to strike a deal with food delivery company Uber Eats to help keep it fully stocked.

Since launching the machine a couple of weeks ago, the charity has been flooded with offers from other companies across the world who are keen to aid in expanding the scheme. Some of these companies include Amazon and stateside giant Tyson Foods. It also looks like there is a high demand to set up similar schemes in countries such as Greece, Spain, Australia and China, with enquiries coming in from across the globe.

Long term goals

Mr Khaled describes the response to the initiative as “humbling”, but admits he is now having to search for a new CEO to take over the charity before he starts his new position as an associate of Goldman’s Technology, Media and Telecoms investment banking arm.

It already seems like we will be seeing a lot more of these vending machines crop up across the country in coming months, with Action Hunger planing to roll them out in Manchester and then Kings Cross, London.

Whilst the rapid expansion of the scheme is obviously extremely rewarding for Mr Khaled, he said the ultimate aim for the project was to ensure the service the charity is providing eventually became obsolete.

“Longer term what we want to see and what we really want to know is whether giving someone a card over a period of time gets them off the street.”