Passion. Purpose. Drive. It’s what defines us, what keeps each and every one of us going. So why should it be different for homeless people? That’s where Andrew Funk comes in. The American-born, Barcelona-based entrepreneur saw an opportunity to help the city’s homeless, not through handouts, but by helping them discover what they loved and turning that into a viable business. The founder of #HomelessEntrepreneur tells us about his experiences of sleeping rough, his success in Spain and why his dreams are just getting bigger and bigger. MC, editor.
What led you to start #HomelessEntrepreneur?
I’m strongly convinced that nurturing talent can make a change in everyone’s lives. I believe that unconditional love unites people and creates real social impact that can make the world a better place; we can use it to break down imaginary barriers and build bridges that connect us to a common ground based on empathy and trust. Ultimately, through better communication, we can construct a stronger global community that respects the uniqueness of each individual’s virtues and the complexity of our imperfections.
I wouldn’t say that there was a a-ha moment that led me to start #HomelessEntrepreneur but I would say that every single day that I work on the project I find myself learning more about others as well as myself.
You spent a fraction of the time on the streets, that homeless people do. How did that change your perspective and how resourceful did you have to be?
My first experience as a rough sleeper lasted 24 hours, but I currently spend 5% of the year sleeping on the streets throughout Spain. It’s part of a monthly event we hold called #EveryoneSleepingInTheStreet, to raise awareness and funds. Every experience is different and I learn more and more about the ins and outs of surviving on the street out of necessity. During the event, we are not able to bring money with us, so we’re only able to survive on what we raise while we’re there. It’s all about finding the right resources, whether it’s from the public system or thanks to citizens or small businesses that want to lend a hand.
I’ve also realized that the current system designed to protect homeless people, normally keeps them from getting back on their feet. That insight is helping me to innovate #HomelessEntrepreneur’s model, so we can speed up the process of ending homelessness. Every time I sleep in the street, whether it’s for 24 or 84 hours, I’m able to find another piece of the puzzle to solving homelessness and that motivates me to keep holding the event.
Another important thing is that it’s not just about finding the right resources, but keeping them active, which is one of the hardest aspects for homeless people because they lose credibility if they don’t make any progress, which is why people become numb to their calls for help.
How has the project grown and changed? How different are your goals now?
The project has grown a lot since we started, basically because I was completely clueless at first. I just knew that I wanted to help a homeless person get off the street and create a model that could then be applied to others. The beliefs I had about who would help me and how we would advance changed quickly. Organizations that had seemed like the best places to go, soon turned out to be the ones that would try to block our progress, and those that people never would have thought of started giving us a real hand.
We also started reaching more homeless people, which meant we had to learn to work in new ways with each new person and we did have some unpredictable conflicts. Fortunately, we were able to figure out how to resolve issues like a startup, so we’ve turned these weaknesses into strengths. We are currently helping five #HomelessEntrepreneurs and one of them has been working a fulltime job for the past two months.
The goal is the same: to end homelessness by creating work for people based on their talent and professional skills; but the model has evolved a lot. We have a more intelligent network that’s able to respond faster to the needs of both the organization and the people we are helping. Not only is our network better, but the quality and efficiency of the work is too. Now that we’ve expanded to the US and Chile, we can benchmark and learn from different perspectives that ultimately accelerate everything we’re doing and our #HomelessEntrepreneurs see these benefits every day.
Who or what keeps you inspired?
What keeps me inspired is seeing that the homeless people we’re helping are getting more and more benefit, and so are our volunteers. I never find myself questioning whether or not I’m doing the right thing, which helps me maintain my focus. Every aspect of our project is growing. We document every step of the journey and share our success to get our community excited and even more active.
At the end of the day, what really inspires me is seeing the results and the progress, because it proves that the crazy idea I have to end homelessness isn’t as crazy as it might sound to others.
What does a typical day look like?
There are no typical days, but I’ll give you an example of one specific day this week.
I started by communicating with a few of the #HomelessEntrepreneurs via WhatsApp around 7:30am, to see how they were doing and make sure that they had their day planned out. Then I had a Skype conference with City Hall in Reus, about a training session we’ll be doing with 60 of their social workers mid-May. After that I had a face-to-face with a hostel owner, who’s helping one of our #HomelessEntrepreneurs create a bike tour. I then had a business lunch with a friend, who works for Theodora Foundation – they send clowns to children’s hospitals – to figure out how we can improve the way we raise funds. Afterwards I went to a small school that trains its students to be entrepreneurs, so I could set up a future presentation there. Then I took the metro outside the city to finalise our partnership with a law firm who are going to help us with accountancy and legal issues. After that, I was able to breathe a little and start responding to emails, which I did until 11pm when I had a one hour Skype meeting with our ambassador in North Carolina, Jake Strickland. Then I responded to a few more emails, brushed my teeth and called it a day before setting my alarm for 7am again.
Is this your passion project? Would you say you’ve found your calling?
I’ve always worked on what I was passionate about, whether it was teaching English, translating legal documents or providing digital consultancy services, but I have to admit that my current work is the most satisfying I’ve ever done. Watching a person dance with joy, because tonight he can sleep in a clean bed for the first time after seven years on the streets, is something that’s priceless. My calling has always been to help others and I feel like this project is going to lead me to unknown destinations that will force me, and those around me, to become better people.
What are the some of your biggest success stories?
Ending homelessness for someone and giving them the opportunity to be proud of themselves and their actions is probably what I’m proudest of. Helping someone take the right steps toward getting off heroin or alcohol would also be high on my list. Arranging an interview that led to a full-time job after three years of unemployment, and seeing how that person’s emotions changed… That gave me chills in a good way! And opening doors for someone to be able to fall in love again would be considered a success too.
There are so many success stories that take place on so many different levels while we work with #HomelessEntrepreneurs, that it’s hard to choose just a few. Our entrepreneurs have so many obstacles to overcome that it’s more like a long chain of success stories to actually get back on their feet. Ultimately, what leads them to that point is finding the consistency they need to focus on having good habits, and a healthy environment where a lot of people surround them with love.
How do you help your entrepreneurs to stay motivated and bring their projects to fruition?
The only way to keep #HomelessEntrepreneurs and volunteers motivated is by showing them results, which is a lot harder than it may seem. However strange it may sound, we have to prove to homeless people that their lives will be better if they work hard and become responsible instead of depending on a welfare system that provides almost everything in exchange for next to nothing. Why should they pay for food if they can get it for free from the social lunchroom; why should they buy clothes if they are constantly receiving clothing donations; and why should they pay rent if they’re given a roof over their head at a homeless shelter? Show them that their family and strangers actually care for them and that their dreams are even better when they have their eyes open and they will stay motivated. Give them an audience that appreciates their work and pushes them to be better and their projects will become a reality.
“I have yet to find a problem that goes away because you don’t talk about it.” – Franchesca Ramsay. How would you encourage other people who want to start a project that stands for something?
Whoever wants to start a project that stands for something must first prove that they are willing to stand for it. Put yourself in the shoes of the people you want to help. Taste the food you want them to eat and listen to their complaints and concerns. Surround yourself with wiser people and filter all the noise that doesn’t add any value to your project. Don’t waste one second on people who bring you down and give those that want to help you a few extra minutes. Spread the word about what you want to do with the world and the world will help you come up with a better answer. Understand that kings die and ask yourself why their legacy doesn’t if they rule well. Build a project that is greater than yourself and work as hard as possible to ensure that you are no longer needed. Once you are able to sit and those you want to help can stand, you will be able to smile and say to yourself that you’ve actually created a project that truly stands for something.
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