Jonathan Kumar stood watching a homeless man holding a sign on a busy Seattle street corner. Person after person walked or cycled by. No one stopped. No one even talked to the man. Kumar finally walked up and asked the man why he thought people weren’t helping him. His answer was simple, “No one believes me.”
To most people walking by, it’s easy to assume those cardboard signs and “I’m sorry to bother you, man, but…” speeches are scams or maybe just someone looking to buy drugs or alcohol. And there are shades of truth to that judgment—about 20 percent of homeless people struggle with substance abuse, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. But the idea that these statistics mean people don’t need or deserve help is wrong. If anything, the opposite is true.
A UX designer with memories of living on food stamps, Kumar wanted to fight poverty by developing a sense of trust between city pedestrians and the homeless. The result was Samaritan, an interactive cashless app connecting citizens of Seattle through a storytelling platform. Samaritan focuses on fostering long-term relationships and offering supportive direction instead of throwing money at “the homeless problem.”
Samaritan makes it possible for city goers to learn about, connect with, and fund the purchase of basic necessities for individuals experiencing homelessness they walk past every day. The program also provides consistent, long-term support for those wanting to leave the streets and re-enter society.
“People often think of homelessness as a resource or financial problem,” says Jason Keil, Chief Marketing Officer of Samaritan. “But we find that it’s not just resources, but relationships that are needed. That’s part of what’s great about Samaritan: yes, [it’s] a simple and effective way to give simple financial capital, but ultimately it empowers relationships.”
From “Humans Of New York”-style stories and icebreaker questions to alerts and messaging boards, the Samaritan app helps participants navigate their first interactions and build lasting connections. The project’s tagline “Walk with, not by” captures Samaritan’s belief that people thrive in communities, not isolation.
“I’m never going to be homeless, and I’m not saying that out of pride,” Kiel says. “I have a web of family and friends, people who care and are going to take me in if I fall on hard times. But not everybody has that.”
Samaritan’s goal isn’t just about facilitating face-to-face conversations—it’s about meeting a person’s short-term needs in a simple, streamlined way. “Many of us don’t have time, don’t carry cash, or aren’t sure how the cash recipient will spend the cash. Samaritan provides a simple, effective way to address this,” Kiel says.
By offering a secure, third-party donation platform and notifications every time funds are spent, donors can see the impact of their contributions immediately. Samaritan also ensures accountability through their merchant partners, who require identification before purchases and restrict sales of alcohol and other substances.
How it works
The Samaritan app connects app users with the homeless population via a Bluetooth beacon, a technology often used for business marketing campaigns. Volunteers at nonprofit partners distribute beacon necklaces to homeless participants, or “beacon holders.” When they come in, beacon holders are given a simple, four-question interview and have their photos taken for their app profile. Once activated, this quarter-sized piece of purple plastic sends out a low-energy signal 10-20 yards in every direction to the smartphones of nearby pedestrian app-users.
Whenever a pedestrian passes by a beacon, a push notification is sent to their phone which links to the holder’s app profile. “You can see their photo and read their story, learn a little bit about their background, how they ended up on the streets or where they hope to go,” Keil said.
The app’s cashless platform allows people to send money directly to beacon holders through secure processing platform Braintree, or by donating directly to merchant partners where beacon holders can shop for essentials.
“We are essentially handing out free digital wallets,” Keil said.
Seattle partners range from grocery stores and coffee shops to barber shops, motels, and life coaching facilities. Participants can check their beacon balance at partnering locations, attend programs, or use funds to buy safe lodging for the night.
The majority of purchases tend to be made at grocery stores on hygiene products. Hot meals are a close second. But Samaritan also aims to meet long-term needs, like local transportation, haircuts, job training, and even housing.
Once a month, the Bluetooth beacon battery dies and beacon holders are asked to come in for a replacement and sit down with a nonprofit counselor for a “life care visit.” Keil says this “provides a little bit of an accountability component.”
Kumar based the Samaritan model on a UK charity called Broadway (now St. Mungo’s Broadway), which tested a “personalized budget” concept to combat homelessness in 2010. Instead of offering generic resources, the charity asked 15 homeless individuals what they needed to change their lives and provided funding to help them get it. Of the 13 who participated, 11 were able to get off the streets.
Studies around the world have shown that a social support system exponentially increases the likelihood of people experiencing homelessness re-entering society. A 2009 study based in Toronto found that the social isolation aspect of homelessness leads to deteriorated physical and mental health and encouraged the “integration of homeless individuals into social networks.” In 2015, a group of Australian academics discovered an important link between offering reliable resources and relational networks and support as parallel services.
Giving more than money
The beauty of Samaritan is not the savvy tech solution or the cashless system, but the focus on homelessness as a long-term issue. “It’s not just resources,” Keil said, “It’s financial capital and relational guidance. That two-pronged model has led to some pretty incredible outcomes.”
One Samaritan user shared his experience of walking into a partner Army-Navy Surplus store. “He never made a purchase, but it was a big deal for him to go inside the store and be empowered to shop and browse,” Keil says. That sense of normalcy, of being part of society, Keil says, gave the man a sense of dignity.
Another beacon holder had a similar experience when his profile was featured on the app as “Beacon Holder of The Day.” He kept seeing notifications of people donating throughout the day and was so overwhelmed by the attention and interest, he checked into a rehab clinic that same day. None of the money donated was spent. Instead, it was the confirmation of community support that prompted him to take that step. “He felt like the city was really investing in him,” Kiel says.
As a social venture, Samaritan faces the same challenge as many young enterprises: self-sustainability. Thanks to its public benefit corporation status, the project is able to earn revenue (even while donations remain categorized as charitable and therefore tax-deductible) by licensing hardware and software to companies and groups seeking to research and prevent homelessness. The project also generates income by charging a commission to merchants who see an uptick in sales as a result of their new partnership with Samaritan. Individual donations also include a small stipend—for instance, a donation of $10 will register as $10.75, with $10 going to the beacon holder and $.75 going to the company. The stipend percentage increases on a sliding scale according to the size of the base donation, and Samaritan encourages app users to think of it as a “strategic investment” in helping Samaritan care for homeless populations in other cities.
The project is currently only active in Seattle but will be expanding to New York City, Austin, Oklahoma City in 2019 and projects a presence in 100 cities total within five years. In the meantime, Samaritan’s development team is continuing to roll out new features to improve the platform, like a two-way messaging system for donors and beacon holders, an automated recurring payment option, and a beacon holder search function.
For Keil, it’s Samaritan’s mission to give those experiencing homelessness a chance to share their stories that really drew him to the project in the first place. “So many of these individuals are passed by thousands of people every day. Samaritan humanizes people, that’s the beauty of what it does.” In the end it’s really about the sense of community, of support, of being invested in as an individual, that act as a catalyst for change and empower beacon holders to help themselves.