WASHINGTON • It all goes back to the countless hours Mr Huzaifah Khaled spent on trains and in train stations, shuttling back and forth between his home in Nottingham, England, and classes at Cambridge University, some 145km away.
"In the UK, train stations are almost magnets for homeless people," Mr Khaled said.
He talked with them, bought them coffee and, over time, developed relationships with them.
"I essentially developed a very deep understanding of their needs," said Mr Khaled, who recently got his PhD in law.
It hit him that, for the homeless, even basic necessities are hard to access, and the limited hours for drop-in services at day shelters meant people had to schedule their days around visits to the shelter, making it hard to hold a stable job or see family regularly.
"I realised that there had to be a more effective way of getting at least the bare necessities to them."
That was how he hit on the idea of a vending machine for the homeless: a 24/7 pit stop where people can access free food, clothing and other basic supplies.
The first vending machine launched last month at a shopping centre in Nottingham, stocked full of supplies such as water, fresh fruit, energy bars, chips and sandwiches, as well as socks, toothpaste, toothbrushes and even books. The machine was installed by Action Hunger, a charity directed by Mr Khaled.
The initiative has been close to two years in the making. He devoted weekends and evenings to the project, all the while working towards his PhD. "I speculatively approached over 50 manufacturers across England and Europe - most ignored my proposal, a few politely declined, and just before I was about to give up and try to raise funds to buy a machine instead, (N&W Global Vending) responded to my letter and invited me to pitch the idea to them," he said. "They came on board almost immediately afterwards."
N&W Global Vending, one of the world's largest vending companies, gave Mr Khaled a £10,000 (S$18,000) machine for free.
Mr Khaled also reached out to the Friary, a day centre serving the homeless in Nottingham. Now, as a partner organisation to Action Hunger, the Friary gives out keycards to its patrons, which are programmed to permit up to three items being dispensed per day.
Mr Khaled hopes to expand quickly across Britain, as well as across Europe and the United States. A machine will be installed in New York City next month, followed by others in San Francisco, Seattle and Los Angeles.
And Action Hunger has partnered with Rescuing Leftover Cuisine, a food rescue non-profit based in New York City, and is also in talks with Tyson Foods.