In November of 2015, Jonathan Kumar stood on a street corner in Seattle and watched wincingly as a man begged for 20 minutes and not a single car opened a window for him.
“He stood there painfully, seeking diabetes medication for his feet after recently ending up on the street,” Kumar, who was working for a tech startup at the time. “As person after person passed by him, I eventually approached him and had a conversation. I realized that, despite the undeniable visibility of the problem, it was not being seen that affected this man. Edward was experiencing not just financial poverty, but a profound sense of relational poverty.”
It was that one encounter with Edward that spurred Kumar to take the matter into his own hands – and by September 2016 the Samaritan app was in motion and the first smart wallet – also referred to as a “beacon” – made its way into the hands of a needy individual in his community.
“Our primary outcome is unhoused individuals, improving their factors for better health and housing outcomes,” Kumar explained. “And the secondary outcome is the cultural change of helping people realize the humanity behind situations of homelessness. In Seattle, housed residents with the Samaritan app can learn the stories of beacon holders.”
Here’s how it works.
People with the app on their phone will receive a notification when in close proximity with a homeless person – referred to as a “beacon holder” – and they are then given the opportunity with a click on the profile to learn their name and background, what led them to the streets and if the user chooses, to donate money to assist.
Beacon holders are only able to use the funds donated to them at approved partner locations, which include businesses such as supermarkets, second-hand clothing stores, coffee shops and clinics. Individuals are first enrolled and issued beacons – also called smart wallets – from certified nonprofits and medical clinics, such as the Salvation Army and community centers that focus on street outreach and case management.
Once a person has a beacon they can access funds from passersby and other individuals and organizations endeavoring to help. Samaritans can give directly to an individual, write them a letter of encouragement, offer an introduction or connection depending on their skills, hire them for a gig like making art or music and invite friends to also join.
There is also a “general fund” people can donate to, which is divided equally over all those in need, depending on the goals they complete or positive actions they take in their community, Kumar said.
Samaritan data to date shows that donors – or “Samaritans” – have invested some $100,000 in their local beacon-holding population and more than 1,000 notes of encouragement have also been sent their way. The beacon is free to use, but each holder must renew it on a monthly basis by sitting down with a designated counselor to “share progress, set goals and share needs for the 30 days ahead.”
According to Kumar, the app has been used by more than 10,000 “good Samaritans” in the Seattle area alone and has helped hundreds to “address critical needs and dozens to enter housing, employment and substance disorder treatment.”
By the end of 2018, Seattle was deemed to have the third-largest homeless population in the United States, just behind New York and Los Angeles and the fastest growing – with more than 12,000 officially declared homeless, an increase of 4% from the previous year.
But homelessness is far from isolated to a few major cities and over the past decade has spawned into a national epidemic.
Kumar’s long-term goal is to see the app spread across the United States.
“Samaritan’s vision is to equip health organizations and nonprofits in 100 cities and by 2023 to surround people struggling through homelessness with the financial and relational capital needed to leave the street,” he continued.
On any single night in the US, over half a million people sleep on the streets or in emergency accommodations – according to the 2018 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress. Between 2017 and 2018, the unsheltered population increased by 2%, meaning an additional 4,300 Americans spent their nights without a roof over their heads.
Next up, the app is expected to roll out in Los Angeles – which has almost 60,000 homeless people – in time for Thanksgiving. The Illumination Foundation and Skid Row Housing Trust are expected to utilize the app’s technology, as well as the Bowery Mission and New York Rescue Alliance in New York City, which has a homeless population of more than 63,000.
In particular, Kumar underscored, several US veterans have benefitted from becoming beacon holders and the app has served as a way for people to directly support individuals who have served the country. For one, John was struggling with mental illness and addiction for decades after having served in Vietnam. After accepting a beacon, he received $136 in just 10 days – along with several messages of support and fortitude.
“Without spending a dollar, John checked into a full-time patient rehab for the first time,” Kumar recalled, noting that John attributed his new lease on life to the complete strangers who had invested and believed in him, fueling him with a desire to invest in himself.
Ultimately, the Samaritan message is simple.
“These are our neighbors. As much as others ignore them, you don’t have to. We’re never more likely to do something than in the moment we see the need with our own two eyes,” reads the mission statement. “This app exists to provide a simple, compassionate response. Walk with, not by.”