WASHINGTON (AP) — John Littlejohn remembers the days when lots of people had a couple of dollars to spare to buy a copy of Street Sense, the local paper that covers issues related to the homeless and employs unhoused individuals as its vendors.
Currently, he has noticed a decrease in the number of individuals carrying spare change. Even those with good intentions who wish to assist are more likely to check their pockets and express regret, according to him.
“I used to spend six or seven hours out here and only make $12 to $15,” stated 62-year-old Littlejohn, who was homeless for 13 years. “People would say, ‘I don’t carry cash when I leave the house.'”
However, while technology played a role in causing the issue, it is now aiding charitable organizations and advocates for the homeless in reaching out to those who are at the greatest risk of being excluded in a society that relies solely on digital transactions.
Reworded: A unique mobile application for Street Sense enables individuals to purchase a digital copy and directly contribute to the profits for him. With the assistance of Social Security and his earnings from Street Sense and other additional jobs, Littlejohn now has his own place to live.
In the last 20 years, there has been a significant decrease in cash transactions in Western society. This trend began with a rise in credit card usage for even small purchases like coffee and has been further propelled by the advancements in smartphone technology, making cashless payments the common practice for many.
The impact of this change has been strongly noticed in the world of small-scale charitable contributions such as personal donations to beggars and street performers, as well as the red Salvation Army donation kettles outside of supermarkets.
Sylvester Harris, a 54-year-old from Washington who begs near Capital One Arena, stated that almost everyone carries cards or uses their phones nowadays. He noticed that although some people genuinely want to assist, they no longer carry cash.
The concept of a cashless society can be especially challenging for those without homes. Even though payment apps like PayPal and Venmo are widely used, they often require things that the unhoused do not have access to, such as credit cards, bank accounts, identification documents, or a permanent mailing address.
Nonprofit organizations have faced challenges in adjusting to new circumstances. The Salvation Army has implemented a method where contributors can use their mobile devices to make direct donations by tapping on the kettle.
According to Michelle Wolfe, the director of development for the Salvation Army in Washington, the new system has been implemented in only 2% of the collection kettles in the greater Washington area. However, it has already led to an increase in donations. Wolfe stated that the minimum amount for cashless donations is now $5, but donors often give as much as $20.
Street Sense had to make changes in order to adapt to evolving consumer behavior. In 2013, Brian Camore, the executive director, began receiving numerous reports from vendors stating that customers were interested in purchasing copies but did not have cash on hand. Vendors buy the copies from Street Sense for 50 cents and resell them for $2.
“We noticed a decline in sales and knew we needed to take action,” he stated. “We acknowledged that the market was evolving and we needed to adapt accordingly.”
He eventually learned of a Vancouver-based affiliate paper that created a payment app without the need for cash and obtained the rights to use the technology. Vendors are now able to collect their earnings at Street Sense’s offices.
Thomas Ratliff, the director of vendor employment at Street Sense, works closely with around 100 sellers for the paper. He mentioned that the COVID-19 outbreak has added to the challenges faced by his team.
Initially, it caused individuals to avoid using physical currency due to concerns over the potential spread of germs through paper money. However, the most detrimental effect was the lasting decrease in the amount of individuals working in downtown offices, resulting in a loss of Street Sense’s primary clientele.
According to him, commuters have consistently been the top clients in comparison to tourists.
According to Ratliff, the absence of regular commuters has prompted Street Sense vendors to broaden their scope. They have shifted their focus away from the downtown business district and now frequently use the Metro to reach places such as Silver Spring, Maryland, in search of bustling commercial zones.
Ratliff currently works in tech support for his vendors, assisting them in managing the intricacies of maintaining an online presence. Some of the most frequent issues include: “Updating email addresses, misplacing or forgetting passwords, and losing important documents.”
Some payment services, such as Venmo and Cash App, are more accessible for those experiencing homelessness as they do not necessitate a bank account, only a phone number and email address. However, this can still present challenges. Ratliff noted that many of his vendors frequently change their phone numbers, and having a consistent number is crucial for verifying one’s identity on these platforms.
Some people have gone beyond just using technology to create apps that not only facilitate cashless donations to the homeless, but also connect them with support services to assist in getting them off the streets. The Samaritan app takes a more individualized approach, allowing donors to virtually sponsor a homeless person without exchanging physical money.
The program is currently functioning in seven different cities, such as Los Angeles and Baltimore. It provides special cards to individuals experiencing homelessness, which have a QR code that allows people to donate directly to their account. The app also features profiles of local unhoused individuals, outlining their current situation and urgent needs. Donors can contribute money to fulfill specific needs, ranging from groceries or a security deposit for an apartment to suitable clothing for a job interview.
Jon Kumar, the creator of the Samaritan app, stated that it becomes more challenging to ignore someone once you are aware of even a small fraction of their life. This brings a personal connection to the person in need, including their unique traits and specific needs and aspirations.
Kumar allows charities to use his app technology, and those who receive donations can use them by meeting with a case manager. This also serves as a way for them to access other services like counseling or drug rehabilitation. Along with the donations, recipients can also earn bonuses of $10 or $20 for achieving specific goals, such as meeting with a case manager, applying for a job, or reconnecting with a family member.
Kumar stated that it is unlikely for someone to pay their rent through donations on the street. However, if our platform can assist with finding housing, employment, and recovery, it can have a much greater impact.
Over the years, there have been attempts to overcome the gap in cashless technology. However, these attempts have faced challenges and mistakes. According to Wolfe, the Salvation Army initially tested a QR code system, but it was found to be inefficient and time-consuming.
Kumar initially attempted to assist unhoused individuals by providing them with Bluetooth beacon devices. These devices allowed users of a specific app to locate and donate to beacon holders in their vicinity. However, due to the frequent need for battery replacements, this approach was ultimately discontinued.
Unfortunately, none of these options are flawless and there are still numerous individuals who are not being included. Ratliff stated that a significant number of people do not possess the appropriate disposition or characteristics for this position.
He stated that it takes courage to sell paper and attract customers. Some individuals may be handicapped or weak and are unable to handle the physical demands of selling.
According to Kumar, the developer of the Samaritan app, numerous homeless individuals may not be well-suited for this type of intervention.
Certain individuals may struggle with more profound psychological or emotional challenges that prevent them from being able to navigate the level of organization necessary for the program.
“We are striving to assist individuals who require more extensive and potentially long-term assistance with their mental well-being,” he stated. “Due to the complex and ongoing nature of their difficulties, these individuals are consistently overlooked.”
This report was aided by Gary Fields, a writer for the Associated Press.