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Spare some change? Helping the poor in a cashless society

Why We Wrote This

Big technological shifts can often leave the poor behind, at least at first. But a nonprofit in England is attempting the reverse with mobile payments that promote spontaneous generosity.

Toby Melville/Reuters
Stuart sits under a bus shelter where he sleeps opposite Windsor Castle in Windsor, England, Jan. 4, 2018. A nonprofit venture in Britain has developed a mobile payment system to make it easier for passersby who don't carry cash to donate to panhandlers.

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As more people are comfortable going without cash, panhandlers, who rely on small donations from passersby for food and other necessities, are feeling the squeeze. Attempting to help is Greater Change, a not-for-profit venture in Cambridge, England, that aims to facilitate mobile payments to people facing homelessness while also helping them save for long-term needs. “This is trying to tackle an increasingly cashless society,” says Alex McCallion, the program’s founder “and trying to tackle a problem where people are less generous, or don't give at all, because they wonder if their money is actually helping.” But some observers see a dehumanizing element in the system, which allows donors to scan a QR code worn by the person in need and view the individual's profile. “Instead of just giving money out of the goodness of your heart,” says James Shearer, a formerly homeless journalist who founded Spare Change News, a street newspaper in Boston, “now you're picking and choosing.”

“Sorry. I don’t have cash,” is one of the most common phrases panhandlers hear from passersby, if they hear anything at all.

And it’s becoming truer each year: In 2016, Gallup found that just 24 percent of respondents made “all” or “most” of their purchases with cash, down from 36 percent who said they did so five years earlier. The polling company attributes this trend to the rise in digital payments and mobile credit card readers.

“It’s a real problem for us,” says Michael Shorey, a former panhandler who now sells Spare Change News, a Boston-area biweekly street newspaper, across the street from Harvard Yard in Cambridge, Mass. Created to help people experiencing homelessness, each issue sells for $2, cash, of which Mr. Shorey earns $1.50. “People are always asking me if I have one of those things I can chip my phone in.”

In a city of the same name, more than 3,000 miles east, is a venture attempting to address the challenge that today’s cashless society poses to people in need. Greater Change, a not-for-profit program in Cambridge, England, aims to facilitate mobile cash transfers to people experiencing homelessness or who are in vulnerable housing situations.

The program offers panhandlers a QR code, such as the kind used for online tickets, on a lanyard. Passersby can scan the code, which brings up a biography of the person in need and an option to donate.

But they don’t get the money straight away. Instead, participants meet with a support worker, who helps them to set a savings goal for a purchase that could make a long-term difference, such as a passport, which is needed for work in Britain, or a rent deposit. Once the goal is met, the money goes directly to the passport office, to a landlord that has been vetted by the support worker, or whomever provides the needed good or service.

Thanks in part to anonymous matching donations, the program has helped 11 people reach their savings goals so far, says Alex McCallion, the social entrepreneur and recent Oxford graduate who founded the project within Aspire Oxford, a charity that offers stable jobs to people facing barriers to employment.

“This is trying to tackle an increasingly cashless society,” says Mr. McCallion, “and trying to tackle a problem where people are less generous, or don't give at all, because they wonder if their money is actually helping in the long run.”

Since its launch, Greater Change, which was incubated at Oxford University, has received considerable attention from the British press. “People have been getting funded quickly,” thanks in part to the news coverage, says McCallion. 

But not all coverage has been wholly positive. Some reports have expressed unease at the idea of asking the needy to wear identifying insignia, a practice that recalls the notorious “beggars’ badges” required by some communities in England, Scotland, and Ireland between the 16th and 19th centuries, as more and more people were driven to vagrancy after losing access to communal land.

“It’s designed to increase the overall amount of money given to help poor people,” says David Hitchcock, a historian at Canterbury Christ Church University who specializes in homelessness in early modern England. “But that always goes hand-in-hand with a desire to differentiate the people who deserve help from the people who don't.”

Others warn that the giving mechanism encourages would-be donors to stand in judgement of the poor, looking at their online profile instead of interacting with the person in front of them. “Instead of just giving money out of the goodness of your heart, now you're picking and choosing,” says journalist James Shearer, who in 1992 helped found Spare Change News in Cambridge, Mass. “It takes away the human interaction.”

McCallion emphasizes that, unlike the beggars’ badges of old, the QR codes are entirely optional: They can be put on a card, for instance, instead of worn around the neck. Or they could not be used at all. Similarly, participants concerned about privacy need not use their real names or a photo in their bio. “It’s designed with a lot of flexibility in mind,” says McCallion, “keeping it such that people can use it the way they want to use it.”

He also points out that office workers can often be seen wearing scannable badges without shame, perhaps suggesting that any discomfort with the technology is really a displacement of our discomfort with homelessness itself.

In addition to creating opportunities for charitable matching, Greater Change’s system has one other advantage over cash: It can’t be stolen. Practically speaking, a QR code is no different from a piece of paper with a web address on it. Stealing one won’t give you access to anyone’s bank account, and they can be easily replaced.

The pervasiveness of theft in the homeless community was highlighted when Shorey, the Spare Change vendor near Harvard, had a bag containing his Spare Change vendor ID badge stolen out from under him while he spoke with a reporter.

“It’s not a big deal,” he shrugged. “It happens a lot.”

Shorey doubts that Greater Change’s savings system would work for panhandlers in the United States. “They need the money right away,” he says, pointing out a bench where, he says, a number of homeless people have been found dead in recent years.

McCallion, who has been working with homeless populations for about four years and says that he initially experimented with a system where donations could be immediately redeemed for food and other necessities, but that, at least in Oxford, those short-term needs were already being met by charities and social services. If Greater Change were to export its program to other countries, it would adjust accordingly, McCallion says.

Dr. Hitchcock, the Christ Church historian, is skeptical of a genuine dichotomy between short-term and long-term donations. “It's probably a bit of a false choice,” he says, “you can probably do both if you're a generous person and you want to help. You could download this app and donate money and ask a homeless person what they want.” 

It’s that last one – looking up from your phone to interact with the person in need – that some say is the first step to addressing homelessness. “It's about making the connection,” says Shearer, the Spare Change founder who himself experienced homelessness a number of times. “I tell people, when you walk past homeless people, just smile, talk to them. They’re human beings."

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