Technology has built the cashless society. Progress helps the homeless so they are not left behind

WASHINGTON (AP) — John Littlejohn remembers the days when many people had a few spare dollars to buy a copy of Street Sense, the local newspaper that covered homeless issues and hired homeless people as vendors.

Today, he finds that fewer and fewer people are walking around with change. Even well-meaning people who want to help are likely to pat their pockets and apologize, he said.

“I’d be here six or seven hours and I wouldn’t get more than $12 to $15,” said Littlejohn, 62, who had been homeless for 13 years. “People are like, ‘I don’t leave home with money.'”

But just as technological changes helped create the problem, further advances are now helping homeless charities and advocates reach those most at risk of being left behind in cashless society.

A dedicated Street Sense phone app allows people to purchase a copy electronically and the profits go straight to him. Thanks to Social Security and his income from Street Sense and other side gigs, Littlejohn now has his own apartment.

One of the biggest changes in Western society over the past two decades has been the decline in monetary transactions. It started with more people using credit cards to pay for things as trivial as a cup of coffee. It has accelerated as smartphone technology has advanced to the point where cashless payments have become the norm for many.

This shift is felt strongly in the realm of street-level charitable giving, from individual donations to carnivores and street musicians to the Salvation Army’s red donation boxes outside grocery stores.

“Everybody just has cards or phones now,” said Sylvester Harris, a 54-year-old Washington resident who drives near Capital One Arena. “You can tell those who really want to help you, but even they just don’t have the cash anymore.”

A cashless world can be especially frightening for the homeless. Although electronic payment applications such as PayPal or Venmo have become ubiquitous, many of these options require items beyond their reach—credit cards, bank accounts, identification documents, or fixed mailing addresses.

Charities are struggling to adapt. The Salvation Army created a system where donors can essentially tap their phones on the kettle and pay directly.

Michelle Wolf, director of development for the Salvation Army in Washington, said the new system has been implemented in only 2 percent of collection pots in the greater Washington area, but has already resulted in increased donations. The minimum non-cash donation is now $5, and donors typically top out at $20, Wolfe said.

At Street Sense, such advances were necessary to address changing consumer habits. Around 2013, CEO Brian Camore said he started getting “anecdotal reports left and right” from sellers that people wanted to buy a copy but didn’t have the money. Each seller buys the copies from Street Sense for 50 cents and sells them for $2.

“We were losing sales and we had to do something about it,” he said. “We realized that times were changing and we had to change with them.”

Eventually, he heard about a paper partner in Vancouver that had developed a cashless payment app and licensed the technology. Sellers can now redeem their winnings at Street Sense offices.

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

For starters, it scared people away from using cash for fear that exchanging paper money would be a vector of infection. But the most damaging part was the steady reduction in the number of people working from head offices, cutting into Street Sense’s core customer base.

“Travelers have always been the best customers compared to tourists,” he said.

But without that steady stream of familiar travelers, Ratliff said his suppliers have had to expand their territory. Instead of concentrating on the downtown business district, Street Sense vendors now often travel by subway to places like Silver Spring, Maryland, to find commercial areas with steady traffic.

Ratliff now provides technical support for its vendors, helping them navigate the complexities of a modern online presence. Among the most common problems: “Changing emails, losing or forgetting passwords, losing your documents.”

Some payment platforms like Venmo and Cash App are more convenient because they don’t require a bank account, just a phone number and email address. But even that can be intimidating. Ratliff said many of his providers change cell phone numbers frequently, and a permanent phone number can be a key element in verifying your identity on these apps.

Others have taken the technology a step further, developing apps that aim not only to enable cashless donations for the homeless, but also to direct them to support systems that can help get them off the streets. The Samaritan app takes a deeply personal approach by allowing donors to essentially help sponsor a homeless person without using cash.

Currently operating in seven cities, including Los Angeles and Baltimore, the program distributes special cards to homeless people containing a QR code that allows people to donate directly to someone’s account. The application itself contains dozens of mini-profiles of local displaced persons, describing their situation and immediate needs. Donors can give money to fund specific needs, from groceries or a deposit on an apartment to clothing suitable for a job interview.

“It’s a lot harder to get away with someone when you know even 1% of their story,” said John Kumar, founder of the Samaritan app. “It personalizes the person in need—his personality and the tangible specificity of his needs and goals.”

Kumar licenses his app technology to charities, and recipients can redeem their donations by meeting with a case manager—which serves as a pathway to providing other services such as counseling or drug rehabilitation. In addition to direct donations, recipients can also receive $10 or $20 bonuses for meeting certain milestones, such as meeting with a case manager, submitting a job application, or even reaching an estranged family member.

“No one will pay their rent through street donations. But if our platform helps a person push for housing, work, recovery, those things are much more impactful,” Kumar said.

These efforts to bridge the gap in cashless technology have seen their share of trial and error over the years. Wolfe said the Salvation Army initially tried a system using a QR code, which proved to be “too cumbersome and too time-consuming.”

Kumar’s early efforts included an experiment with providing homeless people with Bluetooth beacon devices that allowed app users to see which beacon holders were in their area and donate to them. But the beacons needed regular battery replacement and the model was eventually abandoned.

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

“You have to have the courage to sell paper and attract customers,” he said. Others are disabled or frail people and “couldn’t stand the physical stress of selling there”.

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

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

“Many of the people we’re trying to serve need more intensive, perhaps ongoing, support in terms of their mental health,” he said. “These people, because of the polychronic nature of their challenges, they are constantly left behind.”

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Associated Press writer Gary Fields contributed to this report.

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