Panhandling Through an App

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My first impulse is to recoil from the image of homeless people carrying bar codes so people can easily scan them to purchase their daily hit of good feeling:

A new social innovation project, called Greater Change, hands homeless people a QR code, similar to the kind issued for online tickets.

Passersby who wish to give money – but who may not have any change in their pocket – can scan the code using their smart phone, and make an online payment to the person.

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The donation goes into an account which is managed by a case worker who ensures that the money is spent on agreed targets, such as saving for a rental deposit or a new passport.

The program also raises the specter of human-tracking, if the app grabs information about the location of each donation.

But these negative reactions probably miss the unique circumstances of the homeless, who are typically in their predicament because they have some problem that has moved beyond their control, be it addiction or mental illness.  Having donations go to some account that is allocated for purposes that will help them reduces the concern that they’ll use the money to feed their problems.  This is essentially a more flexible version of my practice of carrying around supermarket gift cards.

Of course, money is fungible, so whether it’s a gift card or a credit to a welfare account, nothing prevents the recipient from using that money to free up cash for the purchase of drugs, or whatever.  Still, incremental improvements remain improvements.

These cards would also help donors determine which panhandlers are truly needy.  Not long ago, I spotted a young guy who didn’t look especially destitute energetically soliciting funds on the street, and for some reason, I got the strong impression that he was just trying to raise enough money to buy something at the liquor store on the corner.  Such people wouldn’t have the donation cards.

To improve the program further, we should consider the extent to which government really needs to be involved.  I think, for example, of affiliate programs from banks and other organizations that have negotiated discounts for members.  Banks, for example, could have special accounts that come with these cards and restrict the use of the money.  Opening the process up in that way would help alleviate the human-tracking concern, too.



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