Can crowdfunding help San Francisco's homeless?

HandUp connects donors with those in need


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San Francisco is home to one of the densest concentrations of startup tycoons in the country. But not everyone here enjoys the fruits of the tech revolution — the city also hosts 7,350 people living in the street or in shelters, and thousands more in deep poverty. In neighborhoods like the Mission District and the Tenderloin, multimillion-dollar condos stand in jarring contrast to a sizeable population that sleeps on sidewalks and lives out of shopping carts.

Inspired to connect the city’s least and most fortunate, in 2013 Rose Broome launched HandUp — a crowdfunding system designed to improve the lives of San Francisco’s homeless.

In one of the most expensive cities in the world, even the fully employed can sometimes only barely eke out a living

The idea is simple: case managers from local nonprofits identify clients who could benefit from a direct donation — say, a new outfit for an at-risk man actively seeking work. They then work with their clients to create an online profile on the HandUp page that tells their story and details their needs. Through such profiles, potential donors get insight into the lives of recipients, create relationships, and can better understand how their donations could make an impact. When a donor backs a certain need (100 percent of every donation goes to the recipient) case managers ensure that the money is appropriately spent.

"Homelessness is not just one thing," says Sammie Rayner, head of partnerships and operations at HandUp. It can be a working family burdened by debt, an out-of-work single mother, a veteran, or even a struggling student — some individuals find themselves homeless for just a few weeks; others have been living on the street for decades. And poverty doesn’t mean unemployment: in one of the most expensive cities in the world, even the fully employed can sometimes only barely eke out a living. By tailoring donations on a case-by-case basis, HandUp allows each of these individuals to petition for exactly the kind of assistance that would help them most.

Take the case of Jenelle Mitchell, a working mother supporting two young boys. Mitchell is in the midst of completing a degree in urban planning so she can get a stable job and better support her family. But without the resources to purchase a laptop, she was having difficulty finishing her online courses. With her case manager at Compass Family Services — one of HandUp’s nonprofit partners — Mitchell created a profile on HandUp and posted her need. Within 24 hours, she’d received the necessary $500 to purchase a new laptop.

"Technology isn’t a silver bullet," says Sammie Rayner. "It’s not going to completely solve poverty." But with $850,000 raised in a recent seed round, there’s a good chance HandUp will bring relief to men and women like Jenelle Mitchell who are eagerly looking to kickstart a new beginning.