Charity.com: In a cashless society, technology could help the homeless

Being spontaneously charitable on a street level has become difficult in a cashless society, but technology could also solve the problem it created, says Eoin Weldon.

A sound once heard on a daily basis is waning. It’s an ancient, comforting jingle that has echoed through the streets of villages, towns and cities since the fifth century. My pockets haven’t been stretched by a currency bulge in years and now just contain a phone and wallet.

Just five years ago a fistful of coins and some crumpled notes — the remnants of last night’s bar funds — would be pressed annoyingly against my upper thigh a few times a week. S ince then today’s technology-driven world has firmly pushed currency out of my pocket and to the brink of obsolescence.

Laborious coins and notes never really stood a chance when you consider how convenience hungry we all are. A slicker replacement was always coming.

With a disposition to resist technology I was slow to let go of cash but the break was very near clean when I finally did. Unsurprisingly, people are easily wooed by the way a card-only system simplifies our daily financial transactions.

After going cashless I was hooked, another moth happily banging its head off the bright, alluring bulb. My last remaining use for cash is to fuel my apartment block’s vintage washing machine and dryer on laundry day.

Turns out swapping cash for cards earned me an unwanted saving too, on discretionary charitable donations. I unintentionally gave up my ability to help a homeless person or reward a busker for a song well played.

Buy the homeless person a sandwich you say. Yeah, I can do that, I have done that, but the homeless do require things other than food and I doubt many buskers want to see a messy sandwich dropped onto the pristine velvet interiors of their instrument cases.

Plus it was a convenience thing, the appeal of handing a homeless person some coins and getting on with your day. Nowadays being spontaneously charitable on a street level is more difficult and complicated.

The planet’s ominous, ever-widening wealth gap paired with the destructive culture of lavish corporate CEO bonuses means the numbers living on the streets are only rising.

Before the mass use of cards a homeless person may have survived by painting prints or an amusing sign, making jewellery, having a cute dog or busking.

Technology’s ruthless nature seems to be rubbing salt in the wounds of the downtrodden but ultimately technology could solve the problem it created.

Different cities across the world are taking a modern approach to helping the homeless survive in a world no longer spun by physical currency.

Mouse clicks and card taps now make the Earth rotate. So in Washington DC, the people behind Street Sense — a newspaper written by and in aid of the homeless — have worked with software developers to create an app allowing customers to purchase the paper digitally.

You simply meet a homeless vendor on the street, select that vendor’s profile from a list of other homeless people selling the publication and transfer a direct donation electronically.

Vendors themselves don’t need a smartphone for this role which helps as we tend to assume a person who owns a phone isn’t worthy of charity.

In Seattle, another app is proving to be a literal beacon of light for those trapped in darkest depths of poverty. Entrepreneur Jonathan Kumar’s Samaritan app gifts a Bluetooth-enabled “beacon” to a homeless person.

Anyone feeling charitable when passing a “beacon holder” can simply donate via the app. Beacon holders can then use any donated funds to purchase goods from local participating merchants.

Kenneth S Rogoff, an economist at Harvard University, envisions a day when physical currency will barely exist and predicts that in five to 10 years the United States could become a dangerously “cash-light” society for the homeless.

According to a recent survey 38% of Americans would ditch cash completely if they could, while 34% say carrying it has already become a rarity.

Both American apps are interesting solutions but they’re designed to help panhandlers and street vendors already connected to charitable organisations.

Many people begging on the streets have mental health or substance abuse issues so there’s

no guarantee they will gel with the resource providers. Others living on the streets end up lone wolves over time and may distrust any organisation trying to help them. The reality is you can’t save everyone.

In Europe, a sartorial surprise has given hope to the global homeless population. The “haves” and “have nots” in the Netherlands are becoming more close-knit thanks to a jacket.

Last year, Dutch ad agency N=5 garnered media attention by launching the Helping Heart Contactless Jacket program. Aside from keeping the recipient warm in the cold winter months the heavy coat is made with a special electronic patch sewn in over the heart area of the wearer, hence the name.

The patch enables a passerby to transfer a fixed donation of one euro to the jacket wearer in an intimate and symbolic way, by holding their debit or credit card over the person’s heart until the transaction is complete.

An online bank account receipt along with a personal thank you from the homeless person arrives to the donor shortly after.

The only way the homeless person can spend the money received is through an official homeless shelter since the donations can only be used for a meal, a bath or a place to sleep.

The homeless person can also choose to save the money first and spend it on bigger goals such as training courses or accumulating savings. This controlled spending method also helps to filter out the stigma that many homeless people are addicts which often influences whether a person donates or not.

In England, they have found a way to help the homeless by giving them the ability to help themselves. TAP London — co-founded by Polly Gilbert and Katie Whitlock — is a non-profit employing homeless people as charity fundraisers.

Their model is an experimental one which involves hiring homeless vendors on a commission-only basis.

Equipped with contactless card readers the vendors sell art cards for £3 apiece, and all without any cash changing hands. One pound goes to a homeless charity and the remainder to the vendor and so far TAP London’s work has raised over £7,000 for charity from 3,000 odd taps.

Meanwhile, Dublin-based homeless charity the Peter McVerry Trust is asking the public to help identify empty or abandoned buildings that could be converted into housing for the homeless.

Using their app, people can log the locations of empty properties in and around Dublin City. With the information gleaned from the aptly-named Reusing Dublin project, the charity hopes to earn a slice of the €50m the Government has set aside to provide social housing to the homeless.

It’s obvious that technology created the cashless-society problem for the homeless but it’s also becoming clear technology is the most viable solution.

With a bit of luck technological advances will bring forth even more positive change for the unfortunate masses. Until then, if coins no longer clink in your pockets and you want to help the homeless, just remember ... there’s probably an app for that.


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