09/03/2012 04:12 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Treating Homeless People as Consumers

When I walk in the front door of a new homeless services agency I never know what to expect. Most are very nice. Many are still holding on to traditional thinking. A few have a closed culture refusing to open up to anything new, especially social media and empowering our homeless friends to have a voice. But every so often I run into a service provider that challenges the process and has a culture of change. That was what I found when I walked into Broadway in London, England this past July.

The first time I had heard of Broadway was when I read the BBC story "Rough sleepers in London rise by 43 percent in one year." My friend Jenny Edwards, who is an icon in London's homeless services, suggested I meet with Howard Sinclair before my short trip was over. I have a lot of respect for Jenny and her work so I cleared up some time on my last day in the UK. I am so very glad I did!

When I arrived I was escorted to a conference room, where a small group of Broadway employees had gathered. We started to talk and in no time I could tell this meeting was a little different than most. In fact, I was a little humbled once I figured out they wanted to learn from me. See, normally when I walk into a homeless service provider's facility it becomes a "dog and pony" show with the managing executive trying to show me all the cool stuff they do. There is nothing wrong with that, and people should be proud of the work they do in helping others. Plus, I get to learn, because there is something new I can learn at each facility (I have toured several hundred service providers in over a hundred cities and in three different countries) yet it is extremely rare and very smart of an agency to use the time for a two-way exchange of information and learning.

We live in a world where a 22 year-old nanny can use social media to change Bank of America. Social media has helped transfer power from brands to the consumer. But in homeless services, we don't really treat our clients as consumers. We don't. We just throw at them the services we think they want and our homeless clients have very little say -- in anything! It's changing! After hearing me rant, Tim Richter, former CEO of the Calgary Homeless Foundation, started a culture change of listening to our homeless friends. The result helped Calgary Homeless Foundation get people the services they actually need, which saves lives and saves money. When I started We Are Visible I thought homeless service providers would start listening to their 'consumers' like Comcast Cable or Verizon Wireless do. But what happened was I saw homeless people helping other homeless people over social media, while service provides are still broadcasting like it's old media. (WAV 2.0 should be launching in a few weeks to help facilitate peer to peer support)

You cannot even imagine how excited I was when Howard started talking about using social media for Broadway's clients to give real-time feedback on services they provide! One thing I love that Howard says in this video is how we all filter information -- but having information unfiltered , right or wrong -- presented directly to the public is what's important! Comcast Cable or Verizon Wireless can no longer control what a consumer says to the public. This forces them to be better companies and have better services. Nonprofits continue to try and control the message their clients present to the public when we all lost control years ago. As Howard said "if you're attempting to control communications, you're attempting to control people." I have been preaching to homeless services that the very best communication and marketing strategy right now is to let go and empower our homeless friends with social media.

If you're doing good works helping people, let the people you're helping tell it directly to others.

In this video interview we talk about Broadway's culture of listening to our homeless friends and the importance of social media. We also talk about homelessness in London. Please support Broadway and their great work helping our rough-sleeping friends get off the streets. They just may be the first homeless services organization that I know of to actually empower homeless people with social media. I am excited about the possibilities.

Special thanks to British Airways for sponsoring's UK Tour.