It’s a major victory: helping a homeless man get a place to live in San Francisco after 15 years on the streets. His salvation came from high school classmates who found him online. And they found him through a startup website that’s acting as a kind of social-network-cum-Kickstarter for the city’s neediest residents.
The site, HandUp, gives nonprofit agencies a way to put profiles of their clients online, along with those clients’ needs, pictures and personal appeals. That gets around a common dilemma that even HandUp’s co-founder Rose Broome encounters herself.
“I don’t give money out on the street,” Broome says. “And I respect if people want to give cash as well, but we think by building a system where there is this transparency, where you do know that the money is going to basic needs, that people will give more.”
Currently HandUp is working with Project Homeless Connect to help the nonprofit’s clients build personalized pages. That way, instead of standing on the street expecting a handout, they can hand out business cards with their information and a link to their page. Donors can also text $5 donations with their smartphones. The money is converted into points that the HandUp member can use to get their needs met. They cannot cash out the donations.
“We let them know (by mobile phone) that they have a donation, and they can go in to Project Homeless Connect to redeem their donation for food, clothes, medical care, housing, other basic needs,” Broome says. “We help empower them to use these points for what they need.”
HandUp came about, as many innovations do, in one of those ‘Why, in a wealthy society like ours, can’t I just pull out my phone and ____?’ moments. Broome says for her it was the sight of a homeless woman sleeping on the Church Street sidewalk during a particularly cold night last winter.
“I wondered, ‘Why can’t I pull my phone out right now and do something to help this woman, to make a donation for her, to get her a bed to stay in tonight?’ And so I started brainstorming that with my friend Zac (Witte), and he totally surprised me by saying, “Rose, if you help get this set up, I will build it for you.'”
The Bay Area’s wealth gap is wide, and growing ever wider, so HandUp is just a part of the possible solution for helping needy people get back on their feet. Broome says nonprofits in other cities are inquiring about HandUp, hoping that the model can be replicated there as well.
Maybe they’ll even have success stories like Marvin, the man who made it off the streets after 15 years. Marvin was among the men that San Francisco police ordered off of Market Street, away from a longstanding hangout for chess games that had apparently become a haven for drug dealing and other crime. Lowell High School, his alma mater, was organizing a class reunion when an alumnus heard about his plight. They created a HandUp page, and overnight he got the donations he needed to get transitional housing and case management.
“It’s incredible,” Broome says. “I know that there are so many people out there who want to help, who have resources, who care. And it’s a matter of building a pipeline, building a little system that helps strengthening those relationships and make… people feel comfortable donating.”