These gifts cards could change how you help the homeless

San Francisco is so often highlighted for its wealth that it can be shocking to see how severe the city’s homeless problem has gotten. Walk down a street in almost any highly-trafficked neighbourhood and you’re likely to spot at least a few homeless people. In select spots, you’ll even find mini tent cities.

It’s hard to know what to do as a passerby. But HandUp, a startup that aims to make it easier for donors and nonprofits to to have an impact on poverty, has one possible solution: gift cards for the homeless.

The cards, which are now available in San Francisco, can be purchased by donors and distributed to the homeless, who exchange them for goods and services (clothes, food, and so on) from HandUp’s local nonprofit partners. Every card comes with an info sheet, including information and maps for redemption centres.

HandUp’s gift card program launched in the fall of 2015, and according to founder Rose Broome, it’s been a success. The executive director of Project Homeless Connect, a HandUp partner, told Broome that she passed by the same homeless man every day and always encouraged him to come into her organisation’s headquarters. He never did — until she gave him a gift card. Then he came in the next day.

“People like [the cards]. They’re engaging, and people like the flexibility of knowing they can use them how they want,” says Broome.

According to Broome, awareness about the gift cards is growing among San Francisco’s homeless population.

HandUp recently teamed up with Lava Mae, an organisation that turns old buses into bathrooms and showers for the homeless, to offer gift cards to people as they finished their visits. The next day, there was a line stretching out the door of people wanting to redeem their cards at Project Homeless Connect.

Big companies have also expressed interest in the cards. Google recently bought $15,000 worth of gift cards for its employees to distribute, and for a limited time, the tech giant is also giving out free additional cards to anyone who purchases gift cards on HandUp’s website.

Broome’s dream is to one day make the gift cards redeemable for housing, so recipients could go into an SRO and exchange them for a night’s sleep. But first, HandUp is piloting the existing program’s first expansion in Detroit.

The gift card project is just one aspect of HandUp’s work. The three year-old for-profit company has backing from investors like Salesforce founder Marc Benioff, venture capital fund 500 Startups, and Eric Ries, and also offers a platform that allows nonprofits to raise money for programs or groups of individuals. Nonprofits can work with HandUp to track what happens to the cash.

HandUp is now working with 50 nonprofits across the US.

“For a long time, there was this focus on international poverty and giving. Now everyone’s thinking about income inequality and the housing crisis, and people are recognising that poverty is right here at home on our doorstep,” says Broome. “People want to see their impact and that there is more accountability around how their funds are used.”

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