In Depth

Digital Commerce Wages War On Homelessness

Recently available data reports that approximately 525,000 people in the United States are homeless. The good news about that rather gloomy figure is that it represents an overall decline — in 2007 there were over 650,000 homeless in America. The bad news (other than reality that more than half a million people in the United States are sleeping in shelters or outdoors are night) is that it has been accompanied by an uptick in the number of families who are not technically homeless, but who are doubling up (or tripling up) with family and friends because they are unable to afford a place of their own.

While there is very little disagreement that the macro problem of homelessness needs more and better solutions, when confronted by the homeless on an individual “street” level, people genuinely face a problem: They want to help, but they aren’t sure how to do that.

“People are frustrated and confused. Then people who are homeless feel invisible or they feel like people don’t care about them,” HandUp founder Rose Broome noted in an interview with TechCrunch. “But I know a lot of people who care. They just don’t always know how to help.”

Broome’s inspiration for her HandUp’s digital commerce platform came out of a common urban experience: walking passed a homeless person, wanting to help, not being sure how, and from that uncertainty continuing to walk. But while most people forget about that experience shortly after it is over, Broome saw a problem waiting for solution.  

She believed people wanted to help, but just handing out cash made them nervous that they might just be making a problem worse.  Or they just might not be carrying cash. People are less and less likely to have small bills on them so they walk by the homeless with nothing useful to give.

HandUp was created to offer an alternative channel for help — first as a socially conscious crowdfunding platform that allowed users to fund specific needs for homeless people. Those campaigns range from raising funds for medical care, technology, food or shelter. For example, Jeff needed dentures, Ken is trying to stabilize his housing situation.  

Those funds once raised are distributed to the local homeless population through local partner organizations Project Homeless Connect. Those organizations help the homeless set a user profile.

And those profiles are themselves a way to address a main problem that groups who work with the homeless face:  because they don’t have steady addresses, homeless people  are notoriously hard to keep track of. Every visit to a nonprofit, or hospital, or emergency walk-in clinic or government agency is always starting from ground zero. Creating these profiles starts to tackle the problem by creating virtual locations where homeless citizens can be found.

HandUp is now expanding its efforts past crowdfunding — and into developing a solution that works at the immediate and ground level motion of interaction with the person in need that first inspired Broome to start this project.

In partnership with Project Homeless Connect, HandUp is launching $25 gift cards that can be given out to those in need as one passes them on the street.  

These are not exactly the gift cards the average consumer is used to. After purchasing one online through Project HandUp website, the group will send along a $25 plastic gift card and some tips on how to engage someone while handing it out.  

From there, those gift cards can be redeemed for food, clothing, transportation or for paying bills after they are redeemed at Project Homeless Connect’s drop-in office in San Francisco.

Funds, in the form of cash, are never directly put into recipients’ hands; instead, the gift card purchases are managed by a PHC case manager.

And for those who want to give, a spokeswoman noted, they’ve found a way to make it seamless.

“How we shop is changing — why shouldn’t digitization change how we donate? And if we can help people not just with getting the things they need, but also with a donation [to] hopefully get someone on a better path, we really think the nation is full of people who are waiting for this way to give,” she said.

So far, most will have to wait a bit longer, as HandUp is only available in San Francisco. But the goal is to grow — and they’ve got the patrons to prove it.

HandUp works with 14 U.S. nonprofits, and it also has some solid backing, with Google.org giving it a $500,000 grant for its efforts. Additionally, they have raised $870,000 in funding from Tumml, Urban.Us, the Launch Fund, SV Angel, Version One Ventures, Eric Ries, and Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff.

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