Hope for the Homeless

We live in a digital age, and if you’re like me you rarely carry cash. Easy access to credit cards and the advent of digital payment services like Venmo and Cash App have made tangible currency almost unnecessary. Let’s be honest it makes everything much easier, no need to carry clunky coins in your pocket or worry about having exact change to pay friends. However, there could be a darker side to this societal shift and it’s affecting the population which is already among the most disenfranchised and vulnerable, the homeless.

Homelessness is a substantial issue in America with the Department of Housing and Urban development estimating over 552,000 individuals without a permanent place to sleep in 2018. These people have needs that aren’t being met and often their only option is begging for money on the streets. Relying on donations from others, just some change or a few dollars could mean the difference between going hungry and having a warm meal. Access to basic necessities like food and clothing is a daily struggle, and that coupled with longer term problems like access to things like job training and legal services is only increasing their difficulties. The trend towards digital currencies is a troubling one for the homeless as less people have the means to give to those in need, even if they want to. With less access to money now than ever before, the already vulnerable homeless population has even fewer resources at their disposal making getting back on their feet nearly impossible.

While a difficult population to reach given their limited resources, technology provides exciting opportunities to solve some major issues homeless experience in their daily life. Lack of physical currency is a common barrier to donations, but another major issue involves the lack of knowledge of where contributions are spent. Networks and platforms enabled by technological advances provide unique solutions to solve these problems by creating accountability and transparency in the donation system, ensuring that money is spent on beneficial items instead of contributing to issues like substance abuse. Here are a few companies that are putting social justice first and are at the forefront of working to improve the lives of those in need.

TAP London is a non-profit company using NFC (near-field communication) to allow potential donors to contribute funds aimed at improving the lives of the homeless. By installing small contribution centers at strategic points in cities, individuals are able to use any NFC enabled credit or debit cards to donate a set amount of money (three pounds) by simply tapping on one of their donation centers. This money is then pooled into one fund which is distributed by the organization and its board of trustees to 22 different charities all working to improve the lives of the city’s homeless.

Greater Change is another group using technology to assist the homeless population, but this time using an app. By allowing homeless individuals to sign up for their service through partnered charities, they can work with support workers to set savings goals for specific purchases such as rent deposits, ID, work clothes, skills courses and tents. Each person will then be given a unique QR code. Through the app, donors are able to give peer-to-peer contributions just like dropping change in a cup. After scanning a person’s QR code they can see personalized bios of the individuals and then choose an amount to donate towards their savings goals. The charity support workers then ensure that donations are spent on the agreed upon items to ensure donations aren’t going towards substance abuse. Donors are then sent a personalized message detailing what their money went towards and some  

WeCount is an online platform and app that allows homeless people to safely ask for items they need and provides a way for people in their community to donate directly. This is important as panhandling on the street can often be dangerous, and this company is using technology to eliminate the need to physically sit outside and solicit contributions in person. Anyone can sign up with an email address or a text message-enabled phone number, and users choose whether they want to donate or receive help. Allowing the homeless to ask for specific items gives them agency in their collection efforts and includes options like outdoor gear, home goods, children’s needs and clothing. WeCount then works as a middle-man to purchase the items and distributes them to users at designated pick-up sites, ensuring that funds are used for the items donors choose to donate to.   

As we continue to move towards more digital forms of payments to purchase our goods and services, the needs of the homeless are even more intensified. With already limited resources, the homeless population is in need now than ever before, and there should be an emphasis on how tech can be used to help. Two of the companies above are located overseas and with similar problems experienced here in America, we need more entrepreneurs focusing on the issue here at home. These companies are leading the way, but it’s only a start.

13 comments

  1. I would have thought the homelessness number would have been much higher. It’s a sad reality but there is not much of an upside for entrepreneurs to create an app like this in the U.S….much higher chances of fortune in every other area. That being said, I’m glad you focused on this. A lot of homeless people do still have smartphones and this gives them an additional way to receive the help they so desperately need. It would be great to implement the NFC technology that TAP London has introduced, seems super easy for folks to give back. Great post!

  2. While I, too am grateful for the positive aspects of digital payments, I enjoyed reading this new perspective on the matter. You mentioned Venmo as an example of a digital payment service, which got me thinking–is there something that Venmo (or any similar type of company) could be doing to combat the issues that arise for the homeless? The Venmo card is a relatively new concept, but what if there was a way to hand out some sort of card to homeless individuals, who could then accept payments to the card via mobile app? No bank account, no line of credit needed. If the card didn’t have any money on it, then it just simply could not be used. I feel like TAP London is definitely onto something, but there should be a way for homeless persons to receive donations in a more timely fashion.

  3. I really like the breakdown of the different apps that you mentioned and they all provide really great ways to help the homeless. I think sometimes we hesitate to give money because we do not know how it is being spent, so these apps are a great way to address this issue and direct all of the money in a positive and transparent way. We often feel so removed from this issue because we presumably have never experienced homelessness and these apps help to bridge the gap between us and those in need. I really like that the WeCount app allows for people to donate items because I know I have clothes or extra personal care items that I would like to give away, but I don’t know where to send them to. These apps do a great job of humanizing an issue that we tend to overlook and I really enjoyed the description of each one! Great post!

  4. Awesome post on an overlooked issue in society! I cant remember the last time I was able to hand a homeless person some change because like you said, I simply don’t carry it anymore. I love the idea these social businesses are focusing on and improving the transparency of the donation process. Although they are great ideas, I wonder what percentage of the homeless population knows they are out there. I’m no expert but I would think this population may be difficult to reach with marketing as they likely have very limited access to digital platforms where the majority of marketing is done today. I’m sure these companies are leveraging shelters and other facilities to get the word out, but I’m sure they still need to come a long way before they are widely accepted and used. Great ideas and I hope we start to see them in North America soon.

  5. This was a really great post on one of the more sensitive topics faced in our society. Like you mentioned, I hardly ever have cash on me and rely pretty heavily on Apple Pay, my debit/credit cards, and Venmo when it comes to handling “money”, but I’ve never really thought of how this use impacts others. It is nice to see that there are companies out there that have realized the impact that digital payment services are having on the homeless community and creating ways that we can continue to help them, even if we don’t have any spare cash or change in our pocket. I like that you touched on a few different apps and described the different ways that they are used, while also touching on the importance of transparency for each of them. Given that people are able to see what the money they are donating is being used for, I wonder if this will lead to more people being willing to donate since they can know how they are helping.

  6. TAP London, Greater Change, and WeCount sound like fantastic platforms that make it easier to help and support the homeless. Over break, I went home and was in the Haight (an area of San Francisco). My cousin had to use the bathroom and we assumed Whole Foods would have public restrooms. I was shocked to find that instead of a sign that says “customers only” the bathrooms are now for “app users only.” The Good2Go app is in San Francisco restaurants and other storefronts. The app acts as a gatekeeper for bathrooms as access requires a smartphone and a QR codes from the app. The app also enforces a pay to use system, which prevents homeless from using the bathrooms freely. You mentioned in your blog how the cash to card transition has negatively influenced the homeless. I believe the shift from customers only to app users only raises the bar once again and prevents some individuals from accessing a basic need, the bathroom.

  7. This was such an interesting post! I lived in NYC for six years before moving to Boston, and even when I was carrying cash with me regularly, I was always hesitant to give someone a few dollars, as opposed to buying extra food or coffee and giving that to someone.

    I think the idea of using apps to facilitate donations is a great idea – anything that makes it easier for individuals to donate will hopefully be beneficial. My biggest concern would be around apps like Greater Change or WeCount, which require a homeless person to seek out help, which they are often very suspicious of, or have access to an email address or phone, which is not always the case. While there are definitely populations that can benefit from these platforms, I do think we need to be aware of the fact that shifting charity to apps can exclude a large number of the people that most need help. That being said, I think these are really exciting organizations, and I’m sure that they are aware of the shortcomings, and are looking for ways to reach even more people. It will be exciting to see if such apps catch on here in the US!

  8. This is an awesome post! I feel awful passing homeless people on the street and seeming like I want nothing to do with them because I have no physical money to help them out. All of these are helping to open the conversation about how we can help the homeless population through personal donations or item goals. I know a lot of people are nervous to donate money, stereotyping that it may be used for something that will not fully benefit the life of the homeless person. These apps allow users to know where their money is going and make them feel more comfortable helping out a specific cause. I hope that more charities realize this issue and get on board with apps and programs like these to greater reach the communities they are trying to help. This is a great start for changing the way to we view currency and using mobile payment methods to still help out those who need it!

  9. Well said and well researched Mason. The shift to plastic over paper has definitely had a significant impact on the homeless population in a way many of us have never thought of. Europe has always been thought leaders in terms of taking care of the disenfranchised, but I think we too have a responsibility to take care of our own. Features that enable tracking and restricting what your contribution is used for may even benefit the homeless population further by easing the qualms of their donors about what the money is used for. This is a great example of technology for the good. We should not just use our tech for the capitalistic interests of our country, but also to give back to those most in need. Technology has a great application in this case through removing donor’s uncertainty and encouraging them to contribute to those they typically walk by. Even geo-fencing has a potential application here, sending push notifications to individuals who walk by homeless people. Great post Mason!

  10. Really great post! It’s awesome to see people utilizing technology to help the underserved community! Hopefully, this technology could be paired with the current efforts to help feed and cloth the homeless tackling the problem from all sides. My concern with the ability to simply donate cash is that it can be misused or mismanaged by homeless folks, and does not help solve the problem. I am lucky to live down the street from the Pine Street Inn, a volunteer organization that helps get homeless folks off the street and provides basic education to help people transition from a hopeless situation to a job. My hope is that tech like this would eventually be used to do the same.

  11. Awesome post. I actually had a conversation about this with some friends a couple days ago. We were walking around in downtown Boston and passed someone asking for money. I told him I was sorry I didn’t have any cash, and we proceeded on our way. Once we were out of earshot, I alluded to the decreasing use of physical currency by cheekily remarking that homeless people should get Venmo. This evolved into a conversation about how the homeless population could benefit from technology, which this post answers in detail. Good stuff!

  12. There’s actually a startup non-profit on campus called GiveCard that’s doing something similar. From my understanding, they give out debit cards to the homeless and people can go and donate to them online. The beauty of it is they can see a lot of what the person spends this money on, creating a level of transparency that wasn’t there before.

  13. Very interesting post! I have definitely noticed the shift away from people carrying cash, but I, perhaps selfishly, haven’t thought much about the implication of that on the homeless population. I have to imagine that there are a good amount of homeless individuals who don’t have a smartphone which may pose an issue for some of these platforms but I know a good amount do as well, and I hope they can benefit from these!

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