Washington, D.C. is both a rich city and a poor city. Filled with federal workers and contractors, the nation’s capital has a high cost of living: Average monthly rent on an apartment runs about $2,000 and according to some estimates the base annual income needed to “live comfortably” in the capital is roughly $103,000 annually — a little less than double the national average salary.
That is the rich — or at least well-off — side of Washington, D.C. But according to Census data, 17 percent of city residents live below the federal poverty line and more than 6,900 people in the city are homeless, according to the District’s point-in-time count conducted in January of last year.
Finding ways to help those residents living in poverty or dealing with homelessness, Breadcoin Co-Founder Scott Borger said, can be challenging. Many people want to give funds to the homeless, Borger noted, but are genuinely concerned about just handing out money. People want to help, they don’t want to risk feeding someone’s addiction.
That is why in 2016 Breadcoin was created — as a new form of currency for D.C. residents in need. Borger noted that the idea was inspired by bitcoin and other digital currencies, though it is in itself quite different. Breadcoin is a physical gold token, about the size of quarter, that is inscribed with part of the Lord’s Prayer on one side, and a picture of wheat on the other.
The tokens sell for about $2.50 apiece and are worth $2.20 when traded for food at one of six vendors (11 total locations) in Washington. The vendors then redeem the coins for the $2.20 in cash they are worth — the 30-cent difference between the cost of the coins and their redemption price is the margin that keeps Breadcoin afloat, along with a bit of help from investors and donors. It also helps that all of the staffers are volunteers, which keeps overhead low.
But the goal, according to Borger, is to help the coins move into a more mainstream place — since after two years there are roughly 2,800 coins in circulation. Part of that evolution, he said, will be an education among the users themselves. Many Breadcoin customers, Borger noted, are a little dubious about the little gold coins at first and whether they will really be tradable for food anywhere. Many, he added, are concerned they might get in trouble for trying to spend “fake money.” So the education around Breadcoin, he said, is ongoing.
But it isn’t the only educational effort that Breadcoin is looking at in 2019. Borger said the nonprofit is hoping to recruit people who are generally financially stable to purchase and use the coins — because the more regular a form of currency Breadcoin becomes, the less stigmatized it will be.
And when working with homeless people, stigma is not something the organization can ever afford to forget. It affects Breadcoin’s target audience acutely, but its influence is felt throughout the business. Today, Breadcoin is accepted at bakery Captain Cookie and several food trucks and stands. And the fact that those are all walk-in and takeout dining options is not a coincidence. Persuading businesses to get involved is not always an easy thing to do, particularly with sit-downs where there is a lot of fear that inviting in the homeless might alienate other customers, so Borger said the organization decided to start with carryout businesses where management tends to be a little more flexible.
Breadcoin’s goal today is to expand its D.C. footprint, and continue to raise awareness about the project. But its goals for tomorrow, Borger said, are much bigger. Breadcoin would eventually like to see its product move into other cities and rural areas gripped by poverty — and ultimately into schools where it can be used to help children in need purchase things like lunch and supplies.
Moreover, he wants to create a world where people look at the homeless instead of through them when they move through their lives.
“It’s a different perspective, and that’s just by having the coins in your pocket,” Borger said. “It changes your heart. It’s good to be reminded that a small amount of money can make a huge difference in someone else’s life.”