When a homeless person on the street asks for change, helping sometimes seems like a binary choice. You can give some money—not knowing if it might be used to support an addiction—or you can tell yourself you'll make a donation later to a local homelessness organization.
In San Francisco, there's another option: you can hand out a gift card that someone can take to a local service center and exchange for clothes, food, or services like a night at a cheap hotel.
"Everybody knows the terrible feeling of walking past a homeless person on the street and they ask you for help—and you want to help them—but you're not sure how," says Rose Broome, co-founder and CEO of HandUp, the organization piloting the new gift cards. "With gift cards, you can say, yes, I can help you...I think it gives the community a meaningful way to interact and have a conversation."
HandUp first launched in 2013 with another innovation that works a little like Kickstarter for the basic needs of someone living on the street. The platform lets homeless members ask for help with a specific need—like money for dental work, or a laptop for school, or a mattress—and then hand out business cards to people passing by, who can later send them money through secure SMS to help them reach their goal. But because not everyone on the street is part of the platform, the organization realized that they could use an alternative.
"We had a lot of our donors telling us, 'Hey, this is great, but there's this one guy on the street that I see every day, and I want to help him—and he's not on your site," says Broome. "What we realized is that it would be so much easier to just hand them a gift card that that individual could redeem through the nonprofits."
Each donation is tracked through a code, so the donor can later see how it was used, and the recipient can send a note of thanks. "People have said 'this is a miracle, this is exactly what I needed today,'" Broome says. Because the gift card is redeemable at a homelessness nonprofit, it's also a way to connect someone with other services, like counseling or help finding work or housing.
At the moment, each gift card is worth $25, an amount large enough that someone will be motivated to redeem it, but low enough that donors feel they can afford it. The process sometimes takes a couple of steps—someone might take their gift card to one of the nonprofit partners, and exchange it for another gift card that can be used directly to buy clothes at Goodwill or a few sandwiches at Subway. But eventually HandUp hopes to also make the cards usable directly at places like a grocery store or farmers market, or to pay for a place to stay.
Beyond helping someone meet an immediate need, HandUp sees the cards as a way to help connect people with their homeless neighbors. "I think the homeless community can often feel invisible on the streets, and I think the public doesn't always know what to do," says Broome. "It's scary, it's confusing, you're not sure what to say, and so people just walk by and ignore each other. With the gift cards, it's certainly a way you can help fund some basic needs for somebody, but it's also a way you can show them you care and be able to acknowledge them and look them in the eye. I think that matters so much."
Over the last six months, the pilot program in San Francisco helped 400 homeless people, the founders say, and now they are partnering with more nonprofits. HandUp also hopes to expand to other cities.