‘Hi, I’m Alex. Ask me about my story’ … messenger bot aims to explain the real causes of homelessness

A Scottish charity has launched a Facebook Messenger ‘bot’ to provide more information about the real causes of homelessness amongst young people, after research found nearly half believe it is through choice or a refusal to accept assistance. The charity Cyrenians hopes that the bot, called Alex, can break down barriers to understanding; allowing the public to ask questions they might not feel comfortable asking in person. Alex is a composition of real life cases and information, and will answer questions about how he ended up living on the streets and the factors that prevent him from finding somewhere to stay.

“The problem we have today is that when a young person is homeless most people tend to believe it is through some sort of choice,” said the charity’s chief executive Ewan Aitken. “However, the causes of homelessness and why people find it hard to get out of it is incredibly complex.  Cyrenians work with young people who find themselves in this situation giving them the advice and support they need to get back on their feet. But we can’t do this alone.

“We need the public to understand that young people can be homeless for any number of reasons outwith their control.  The launch of Alex is a massive step towards making that change.  If people find this a useful way to understand more, we will introduce similar technology to support our front-line service work with those at risk of homelessness or dealing with conflict at home. Users can ask Alex questions about how he ended up in his situation, get to know him a little, and even find out how they too could help a young homeless person with just a small gesture of kindness.”

The poll, commissioned by Cyrenians, found that 15% of people in Scotland believe young people are homeless because of personal choice and 25% because they refuse to accept help from family, friends or benefits. The study also found that Scots believe a rift or argument with family (85%), lack of affordable housing (59%), excessively consuming drugs (64%), and excessively consuming alcohol (54%) are the main causes of homelessness amongst young people in Scotland.

The charity gave an example of Alex’s response to questions about his experience: “A few months back, I spent a night on the streets, the scariest night of my life. Right now I stay in a bed and breakfast in Edinburgh. I have a roof over my head, but it’s not a home. Not even close. I really struggled to get my life back on a positive path. Luckily for me Cyrenians were able to provide me with the help and support I needed to turn things around. I’m still on that journey, and things are getting better but I know a lot of people who haven’t been so fortunate. I hope by allowing the public to ask me questions they might not feel comfortable asking in person, I will help to break down barriers and teach them about homelessness in Scotland today.”