‘Ask Alex’ bot aims to educate the public about the reasons for youth homelessness

Date: 2nd May 2017
Category: Basic Health and Welfare
Author: Cyrenians Scotland

Cyrenians has become the first organisation to create a digital robot to educate the public about homelessness. Alex has been created after Cyrenians carried out research that uncovered 15% of Scots believe young people are homeless out of personal choice.

A quarter believe it is because they have refused to accept help from family, friends or the benefits system. Cyrenians' Ask Alex bot exists in Facebook Messenger and will answer questions about his life and why he is has nowhere to live.

Alex, 20, has a job but no guaranteed hours and is currently staying a room in a B&B. He hasn't heard from his mum in years after falling out with her when he was a teenager.

Cyrenians hope Alex can break down barriers, allowing the public to ask the questions they might not feel comfortable asking a real person while learning about homelessness as well as the prevalence of conflicts in the home.

The charity's research also found that Scots believe a rift/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.

Commenting on the launch, Ewan Aitken, Chief Executive at Cyrenians said: "The problem we have today, as this poll demonstrates, is that when a young person is homeless most people tend to believe it is through some sort of choice.

"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."

Alex is a composition of real life cases and information. He will answer questions about how he ended up living on the streets and the factors that have prevented him from finding somewhere to stay.

Speaking about the launch Alex said: "A few months back, I spent a night on the streets, the scariest night of my life. Right now I stay in a bed & 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."

In addition, twelve leading homelessness, housing and anti-poverty groups have attacked the current "lack of political leadership" and urgency in relation to tackling homelessness in Scotland.

In an open letter to Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities Angela Constance and Housing Minister Kevin Stewart, they called on the Scottish Government to create a national homelessness strategy to tackle this "complex" problem.

Shelter Scotland, Positive Action in Housing, the Church of Scotland, Who Cares? Scotland, the Cyrenians, Simon Community, Legal Services Agency, SCVO, SFHA, Streetwork, The Poverty Alliance and NUS Scotland all signed the letter.