He has noticed that fewer people are walking around with coins now. Even well-meaning people who want to help, he says, are more likely to pat their pockets and apologize.

“I could be here for six or seven hours and only get $12 to $15,” said Littlejohn, 62, who has been homeless for 13 years. “People are like, 'I don't leave the house with cash.'”

But just as changes in technology contributed to the problem's emergence, further advances are now helping charities and advocates for the unhoused to identify the people most at risk of being left behind in a cashless society. It helps us reach out to the.

A special Street Sense phone app allows people to buy copies electronically and receive their profits directly. Thanks to Social Security and income from Street Sense and other side jobs, Littlejohn now has his own apartment.

One of the major changes in Western society over the past 20 years has been the decline in cash transactions. It started with more people using credit cards to pay for small things like a cup of coffee. As smartphone technology has advanced, this trend has accelerated to the point where cashless payments have become the norm for many people.

This shift is being felt strongly in the field of street-level philanthropy, from individual donations to panhandlers and street musicians to red Salvation Army donation kettles outside grocery stores.

“Everyone just has a card or a cell phone now,” said Sylvester Harris, 54, from Washington state, begging near Capital One Arena. “You can tell the people who really want to help you, but even they don't have the cash anymore.”

A cashless world could be particularly difficult for people without housing. Electronic payment apps like PayPal and Venmo are widespread, but many of these options require something out of reach, such as a credit card, bank account, ID, or a fixed mailing address.

Charities are struggling to adapt. The Salvation Army has built a system where donors can basically tap their phone into the kettle and pay directly.

Michelle Wolf, director of development for the Salvation Army in Washington, said the new system has only been installed in 2% of collection bins in the Washington metropolitan area, but it is already leading to an increase in donations. The minimum amount for cashless donations is currently $5, Wolf said, and donors typically reach $20.

Street Sense required similar advances to keep pace with changing consumer habits. Executive director Brian Cammore said he started receiving “anecdotal reports” from distributors around 2013 that people wanted to buy copies but didn't have the cash. Each vendor buys a copy from Street Sense for 50 cents and sells it for $2.

“Sales were down, so we had to do something about it,” he said. “We recognized that times were changing and we had to change with them.”

Eventually, he heard about Associated Newspapers in Vancouver, which had developed a cashless payment app and licensed the technology. Vendors can now redeem their profits at Street Sense offices.

Thomas Ratliff, Street Sense's director of vendor employment, works directly with about 100 of the paper's vendors. He cited the COVID-19 pandemic as an additional factor making life difficult for the team.

First, people avoided using cash for fear that exchanging banknotes could become a vector of infection. But most damaging was the permanent reduction in the number of people working in the downtown office, cutting off Street Sense's major customer base.

“Compared to tourists, commuters have always been our best customers,” he said.

But without the constant flow of familiar commuters, Ratliff said the vendor has had to expand its reach. Rather than concentrating on the downtown business district, Street Sense vendors now take the Metro to places like Silver Spring, Maryland, to find commercial areas with steady foot traffic. Things have become more frequent.

Mr. Ratliff currently works in technical support for vendors, helping them navigate the complexities of a modern online presence. The most common problems include “changing email, losing or forgetting passwords, and missing documents.”

Certain payment platforms, such as Venmo and Cash App, are more outdoor-friendly because they don't require a bank account, just a phone number and email address. But even that can be daunting. Many vendors change their cell phone numbers frequently, Ratliff said, and a fixed phone number can be an important factor in verifying identity with these apps.

Some companies are taking this technology a step further, developing apps that not only enable cashless donations to the homeless, but also aim to direct homeless people to support systems that can help get them off the streets. . The Samaritan app takes a very personal approach by allowing donors to help sponsor unhoused people essentially without using cash.

The program, currently running in seven cities including Los Angeles and Baltimore, distributes special cards to unhoused people with QR codes that allow individuals to donate directly to someone's account. The app itself contains dozens of mini-profiles that describe the situation and immediate needs of local unhoused people. Donors can fund specific needs, from groceries and an apartment deposit to clothing appropriate for a job interview.

“When you know even 1% of someone's story, it's much harder to get past them,” said John Kumar, founder of the Samaritan app. “It personalizes the person in need – the specific specificity of his or her personality, needs and goals.”

Kumar licenses his app technology to charities, which allow recipients to redeem their donations by meeting with a case manager, which in turn serves as a route to providing other services such as counseling and drug rehabilitation. It works. In addition to direct donations, recipients can earn $10 or $20 if they meet certain criteria, such as meeting with a case manager, submitting a job application, or contacting an estranged family member. You can also receive a dollar bonus.

“No one is going to pay their rent with street fundraising. But if our platform helps people find housing, find work, and pursue recovery, those things are much more impactful.” said Kumar.

These efforts to overcome the cashless technology gap have been through many years of trial and error. Wolfe said the Salvation Army initially tried a QR code-based system, but found it was “too clunky and too time-consuming.”

Kumar's early efforts included experimenting with providing Bluetooth beacon devices to unhoused people. This allows app users to see and donate to beacon holders in their area. However, this model was eventually discontinued because the beacons required periodic battery replacement.

None of these solutions are perfect and many people are still left behind. Ratliff said many people simply don't have the right temperament or personality for the job.

“It takes guts to sell newspapers and attract customers,” he says. There are also people with disabilities or frail health conditions who are unable to bear the physical stress of selling their products.

Kumar, the Samaritan app developer, said many unhoused people are “not well suited for this type of intervention.”

Some have more serious mental or emotional issues that make it impossible for them to navigate the level of structure required by the program.

“Many of the people we are trying to serve need more intensive and perhaps permanent support from a mental health perspective,” he said. “Those people are always left behind because of the multi-temporal nature of the challenges.”

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