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caption: Jonathan Kumar, founder of the GiveSafe app, in the KUOW studios. 
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Jonathan Kumar, founder of the GiveSafe app, in the KUOW studios.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Kara McDermott

Could An App Help Seattle’s Homeless More Than Cash?

Entrepreneur Jonathan Kumar was walking through Chicago when he encountered a homeless person. Kumar didn’t stop but thought later that he would have been willing to give the man a couple of bucks if the man could accept credit cards.

That idea germinated for a few years in Kumar’s mind, leading to GiveSafe, an app he's developing in Seattle.

Homeless people who opt into the program are given a small, lightweight beacon, which is about the size of a thumb and can be worn around the neck.

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Passersby who have the Give Safe app on their phone are notified when they are within 10 yards of that person. A photo of the beacon holder pops up along with a bit of that person’s story.

With a few taps, a person can give money. The person who has received the money can spend it at participating retailers, like a grocery store, barber or career counselor.

For Kumar, the app isn’t just about tackling financial poverty, but what he called “relational poverty” as well. The app includes an icebreaker question the homeless person provides, like, “Ask me about the fact that I was on a NFL practice squad for a week.”

“Our goal is certainly to encourage interaction. Is that going to happen every time? Probably not; we're not going to be able to force people into having conversations,” Kumar said. “But we will help people, even when they can't have a conversation, contribute in in a small way where they hadn't before.”

One stipulation of the GiveSafe beacon is that it automatically turns off every month. To reactivate it, the holder must meet with a counselor at partner nonprofit. Kumar said these ongoing check-in conversations are the true winning outcome to the project.

Should giving come with stipulations?

“The reality is – borrowing from some of the words we’ve gotten from nonprofit staff – when we give cash we’re ultimately – not to every person – funding a drug industry, and that leads to some serious consequences,” Kumar said.

Kumar said the purpose of GiveSafe is to drain some of the negative outcomes of giving and channel it instead toward bus fare or a new backpack.

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“But what if on this particular day, what that person needs is a smoke or a drink? Who are we to make that judgment?” KUOW’s Bill Radke asked.

“I understand sometimes the thing that people need most is something to address that craving from an addiction standpoint,” Kumar replied. “And if someone wants to give cash so that [a homeless person] can buy cigarettes, we’re not condemning that.”

Produced for the Web by Kara McDermott.