The San Francisco Bay Area – specifically Silicon Valley – is the symbolic representation of the country's wealth and entrepreneurial achievement, a monument of American capitalism and creativity collectively pushing the country along the cutting edge of innovation. The Bay Area is ground central for the booming, trillion-dollar tech industry. San Francisco itself is the most expensive city in America by pretty much every possible metric by which we define "expensive."
Yet is also has a very visible homeless population of roughly 7,000 people.
It is out of this cognitive dissonance writ large across a major metropolitan that Rose Broome launched HandUp
Broome started HandUp as a side project after seeing a homeless woman shivering in a doorway on a frigid winter night in San Francisco and thought to herself, why
"Why, in this city where we have so many innovations and all this big thinking, where we're solving all kinds of problems we didn’t even know we had, why do we have this huge problem staring us in the face?" She asked rhetorically, and still asks rhetorically even now. "There must be a way for technology to help solve this problem," she thought to herself. "There must be something I can do."
"I wanted to help that woman," she explains. "And I knew that other people walked past her and wanted to help her too. But how do we capture that and catalyze that?"
When she had the idea of launching a crowdfunding-style website for the homeless, she reached out to a software engineer friend, Zac Witte, to set it up. They found a human services organization, Project Homeless Connect, that wanted to offer exactly these kinds of resources to their clients and got to work on HandUp.
They also joined the San Francisco nonprofit urban ventures accelerator Tumml
, where they were encouraged to take HandUp from a side project to a full time endeavor. In two and a half months they launched their pilot.
HandUp partners with human services providers across the country that work with homeless and in-transition populations. HandUp manages the system and software – things that many nonprofits they currently work with had ideas for and were even writing grants for, despite being far outside their realms of expertise – while the nonprofits handle on-the-ground efforts, working with their existing client and donor bases and doing further outreach.
"We want to plug into these existing organizations and be a piece of that to help bring technology and continue to catalyze movements that we see nationally around poverty alleviation," says Broome.
With HandUp, those in need post their personal stories along with photos and videos to request donations for specific needs, perhaps a laptop with which to create a resume and fill out job applications or money to pay utility bills in order to stay in their homes. Baby clothes and diapers, basic hygiene essentials, medical expenses for much-needed procedures, rent, security deposits, moving expenses, mattresses – things the rest of us take for granted, all among the needs listed by HandUp members.
"What donors like about HandUp is the transparency. They can see where the money is going, who it helped, and how it helped them," Broome explains. "Everything is tracked and going directly towards members' needs. You can write a check to a nonprofit and know it's going to their mission, but donors want to see where the money goes and how it's managed. Someone who might think, 'I want to help in a more meaningful way but I'm worried if I give this person cash I will be hurting him not helping him' can give a larger amount because of the transparency here."
Broome says they try to be very mindful of donors' motivations. Some donors are motivated by compassion, while others are more pragmatic in their approach that homelessness is a public health and safety issue. Some are more concerned by the social costs of employment and education expenses. "We embrace different donor motivations...we're not trying to convert everyone."
HandUp works with 17 partner organizations across America from San Francisco to Detroit, with interest expressed internationally. Right now though, Broome says, they are focused and getting the product and features "right" before they try to grow aggressively. The interest and need is most certainly there for them to do so once they are ready.
In the two years since HandUp launched, 1,153 members have signed up, 3,268 needs have been met, and $936,000 has been raised (as of October 14, 2015).
Members work with case workers at service organizations to get their profiles posted and to access and utilize their funds, while HandUp has also introduced paper gift cards that can be purchased by donors, physically handed out to someone on the street, and redeemed at the nearest partner organization.
HandUp will also send members messages from their donors, which has returned something of an unexpected response from members.
"We have learned that one of the most powerful parts of HandUp is this feeling members get that 'somebody out there cares about me, they can see me, they're sending me this message of hope and encouragement, and now I don't feel alone.' It's something that's so easy to forget. We think about the basic needs of a person but forget the human connection. We often think of technology as dividing people and being really impersonal, but here is this empowering experience."
A fundamental problem that seems
to exist with HandUp's model – using technology to meets the needs of the homeless, the very population least likely to have access to such technology – is more indicative of our own prejudices in our perceptions of what poverty is, and what it should be. If you've ever heard someone decry a homeless person's "right" to poverty by pointing out the cell phone in his or her hand, then you are already familiar with this unique form of social prejudice.
"If you were to go homeless, what would be the last thing you gave up?" Broome posits. "That phone is that person's address. It's their lifeline. It's their connection to friends and family. It's important for the homeless to have technology and access to technology. It's another means of poverty alleviation."
"Most homeless people have access to cell phones," she explains. "They occasionally have access to emails. Some have smart phones and we will email them and send texts to alert them of donations. So many of them are able to use texts or email, and even if they don't have access they can visit their case managers."
Poverty doesn't look like what we think it looks like. A family living in poverty might not be appropriately skinny as befits a starving person. They might even be a bit overweight, because the food that is available to them high in fat and sugar. And many homeless people have cell phones, because that is all
She uses the analogy of witnessing a person getting hit by a car in the street. If you saw this, you would call 911; you wouldn't stop to ask, "Well, were they jaywalking?"
"We have to go over the notion of what poverty looks like," says Broome. "We try to encourage a practical approach: this is a problem that affects everyone and we need to find solutions. We see ourselves as having a role in educating the community and dispelling myths."
For this they use their blog to answer simple questions like, where do homeless people sleep? Why are so many people homeless in San Francisco? Why don't they just go to a shelter? "We try to be an interface to the community." (The answer to that latter question, by the way, is that all of the shelters in San Francisco are totally full – very few people want
to be out on the street.)
Additionally, most people who are drug addicts are not homeless. One major cause of homelessness is losing a job and having no safety net or support system. In San Francisco there's also a lack of affordable supportive housing and employment opportunities that are accessible to the community.
"Fifty million Americans live in poverty and the wealth gap keeps growing. We can't blame that on the individual. These are systemic problems and we need to start thinking of systemic solutions," says Broome.
"How and when do we start thinking about how we reinvent our social safety net? That's opening a big can of worms. I have friends who are doing AI startups and working on self-driving cars. They're taking big risks and have big ideas, but when do we start thinking about big ideas for poverty? Instead we're failing in the same way we've been failing for decades. At HandUp we're trying to inject a little bit of perspective and urgency into the conversation. I have an opportunity and an imperative to use the voice that I have and that HandUp has to help create more momentum around these issues beyond our own work."
Urban Innovation Exchange is presented in partnership with Meeting of the Minds and Kresge Foundation. For more stories of people changing cities, click here and follow @UIXCities.