Panhandling 2.0

Using Technology and Design to Improve the Experience of Giving and Receiving


On a daily basis, I walk or drive by multiple people holding cardboard signs asking for help. Figuring out who and how to help has always been an issue for me. It’s not glamorous to admit but my default solution has been to ignore nearly everyone who asks for help. I’ve been able to ignore people for a number of reasons, the biggest reason being I don’t think handing over a buck will really help.

Last winter made me reconsider my solution. While walking to work, I pass through the famous Pearl Street outdoor mall in Boulder, Colorado. If you’re not familiar, this area is known for hula-hooping hippies, street performers and tourists. However, the scene is much different at 9am on a cold winter morning; it’s mostly homeless people shivering in their sleeping bags. Those who are able to find a warm place to stay are missing on those winter mornings. All that’s left are those who really do need help. I felt terrible walking by them. I wanted to help but I didn’t know how.

Being a User Experience Designer, I turned to the best way I know how to solve problems; the UX Design process. What resulted is a concept I feel could help improve the experience of both giving and receiving help. Before we dig into the details, I’d like to share what I learned from doing a bit of research.

What I’ve learned about giving

I’ve spent the last couple months trying to understand how people feel about giving to those who ask for help on the street. I’ve talked with my parents, friends and fellow Slicers. It seemed that everyone I talked with had similar feelings as myself. People want to help, they just don’t know how. To learn a bit more, I sent a survey to my co-workers at Slice of Lime.

Survey parameters

As a person who questions nearly every data set I come across, I should talk a bit about the survey. The survey was 100% focused around people who are on the street and asking for help (no charities or other forms of giving). The survey had 16 responses. All respondents have a lot in common; they live and work in the Boulder or Denver area and work for Slice of Lime. The topic itself also introduces some weirdness… Check out this research by Thea F. van de Mortel (hell of a name!) for some nitty gritty details on how people answer questions that have a “politically correct” answer. Having said that, the survey was anonymous and participants were encouraged to be honest. As UXers, we know honesty is a good thing — even when it hurts a bit :)

OK, that’s out of the way. Below is a summary of what I learned from the survey.

People give for emotional reasons

Almost all answers to open ended questions revealed that emotions play a large role in why people give.

A few quotes:

“I feel bad for them.”

“If I’ve got something on hand, and feel compelled to give (just sort of a gut feeling) I’ll give.”

“…I see the same person and just have a nudging to give. Not sure there is a rhyme or reason.”

From the survey:

81.3% agreed with “I feel good after giving to someone in need.”

Most people do provide help of some sort

Over the course of a year, the majority of people do give something. The numbers below do not take other forms of charitable giving into consideration — only giving directly to someone asking for help.

People give more than money

The most popular item people give is leftover food. This is most likely related to some of the details in the “People are concerned if their contribution will really make a difference” section below. There is no chance of food being misused so it’s an easy thing to give.

A couple quotes:

“I had extra food after a meal. I also give money, but try to avoid it if possible and give them something they can eat or use.”

“I’ve given food or things (blankets/clothes) to people more often than money.”

People are concerned that those asking for help may not even need it

There is plenty of talk (like this and this) of people who are making good money from panhandling. I should point out that what I’ve read makes this issue seem pretty rare. This study conducted in Portland showed the average hourly wage reported by panhandlers as $4.96 per hour. Regardless, people (including me) are concerned that some people may be receiving more than their fair share. People also expressed concerns of not knowing who really needs help vs. those who have deliberately chosen to live on the street and are capable of taking care of themselves.

From the survey (reasons for NOT giving):

31.3% agreed with “I don’t trust that they really need the money.”

56.3% agreed with “I feel like there are a good number of people who make decent money from panhandling and are actually not in any need of help.”

A quote:

“I feel bad and want to help, but I also think some people are making a lifestyle out of begging.”

“Doesn’t seem like the money really helps them and there is no way to know if that is a lifestyle choice or a last resort.”

People often don’t have anything on hand to give

A common theme throughout my conversations was that people often want to give but don’t always have something on hand they feel comfortable giving. The survey results also showed this to be true.

People are concerned if their contribution will really make a difference

Money or food may temporarily solve immediate issues (hunger, shelter, etc.) but not everyone is convinced giving in a small way will help someone improve their life on a larger scale. Many people also fear that if they give money it will be used to purchase drugs or alcohol — this is a valid concern; a study in San Fransisco reported that 44% of people they interviewed admitted to using money given to them to purchase drugs or alcohol.

From the survey:

43.8% agreed with “I don’t feel like my contribution will actually help them.”

25% agreed with“I’m afraid they’ll just go buy drugs.”

How can we REALLY help people in need?

This is a huge problem to tackle and I don’t want to oversimplify something as complex as homelessness. Everyone’s needs are unique. Having said that, there is information out there that can point us in the right direction. While looking for the best way to help I came across a 2010 study by Juliette Hough and Becky Rice conducted in London. The researchers asked homeless people to make a plan and provided money for them to purchase items they felt they needed to get off the street. Each participant worked with a “broker” who helped manage a set budget (the actual amount available was not disclosed to the participant). Together, the broker and participant made a plan and worked towards purchasing the needed items. There were no rigid requirements of how money was spent or assessments of what participants “really” needed.

The study ran for 13 months. In this time, 11 of 15 participants moved into some sort of “accommodation” (i.e. a more permanent residence — primarily hostels). At the time the results were published, 4 of those 11 had gone back to the streets but 7 continued to live in their permanent residences. Those 7 had lived in their permanent residences between 4 and 11 months. Two additional participants were seeking “accommodation” at the time of publication (page 6). Many other positive results were also noted such as reconnecting with family, learning how to pay bills, pursuing education and addressing medical/mental health issues (page 7).

I did a bit of digging and was unable to find any information related to how those seven participants who moved into permanent residences are doing today. The method outlined in the study is definitely not a silver bullet but it did open my mind to some new ideas.

You can download the full report here. All references to page numbers in this section are relevant to the PDF titled “supporting-rough-sleepers-full.pdf” (except where a different study is mentioned).

Below are a few insights I took away after reviewing the report.

It doesn’t take THAT much money

The average amount spent per participant was about $1210 (£794) over the course of one year (page 7). The participants purchased a wide variety of goods: furniture, mobile phones, TVs, clothing and even a camper van. Some of these purchases (i.e. TV) seem unnecessary but the study notes these type of purchases can actually motivate people to find and maintain permanent residences. Money was also used for education, paying off debts, acquiring birth certificates or passports and temporary housing (page 22, 62).

Giving people control over helping themselves increases success

Multiple participants mentioned having the ability to choose what they needed helped them take pride in making progress (pages 6–7).

“Throughout the interviews, many people used the phrases ‘I chose’ or ‘I made the decision’ when discussing their accommodation and the use of their personalised budget, emphasising their sense of choice and control.” (page 6)

Many homeless people don’t trust traditional “help”

Many homeless people view themselves as outsiders and don’t actively seek help. This is not because they want to stay homeless but because they’ve adjusted to living on the streets and have been jaded by past experiences with impersonal and inflexible solutions (pages 29–31).

“Key to breaking down these barriers was building a relationship with the project coordinator over time, and being asked about what they wanted rather than being presented with a repeated offer of hostel accommodation.” (Page 28)
“When [coordinator] first told me about the personal budget, I thought it was a con job.” (Participant Quote, page 30)

A personal connection with someone can help keep things on track

Each participant chose a person to guide them throughout the process of implementing their plan (page 6). In addition to supporting participants in acquiring the things they needed, these relationships helped participants deal with the stress arising from making major life changes (page 56).

“Personalised support from one worker who is seen to care enables the development of a trusting relationship and supports people through anxieties and difficulties during their transition from the street to a settled life in accommodation.” (page 56)

Drug addiction is a tricky problem…

Although some participants used the support provided to deal with addiction issues (page 5), it’s not a highlight of the report. One participant actually ended up selling the things they’d purchased to buy drugs (page 9). For some people, treatment may be a precursor to success if addiction issues are involved (page 57). Having said that, another study also conducted by Juliette Hough and Becky Rice found that some alcoholics were able to make progress towards kicking their addiction by simply changing their environment — i.e. getting off the streets (page 12).

Putting it all together…

Alright, we’ve explored a lot of information. Let’s recap and pull out the key concepts so we have a solid framework for understanding how we can improve the experience of giving and receiving help.

How to make giving a better experience

  1. Weed out those who prey on people’s generosity or don’t really need help
  2. Provide transparency into how a gift will be used
  3. Make giving easy and convenient
  4. Provide confidence that a gift can make a real difference in the receiver’s life

How to make gifts more effective

  1. Allow those in need to pick the type of help they want to receive
  2. Introduce a trusted guide to help make a plan when possible
  3. Focus gifts towards things that can help a person make larger changes in their life

How to engage those in need

  1. Give people flexibility and ownership over their experience
  2. Allow people to slowly build trust in a system (or a person) over time

What solutions already exist?

Before trying to solve some of the problems related to giving and receiving, I went looking for existing solutions. There are tons of programs and organizations out there to help people in need; I chose to focus on solutions that are utilizing technology and have a fair amount of press. To make a long story short, there are some good solutions and some bad ones — but nothing seemed to solve all the problems I identified.

I’ll spare you the details of my analysis, but check out WeShelter, HandUp and Carebacks if you want to see a few modern solutions. The most interesting solution I came across was HandUp. HandUp has created an online crowdfunding platform that allows people in need to share their stories and raise money towards larger and more impactful solutions that could help improve their situation.

After digging around, I feel there is still plenty of room for improvement. I decided to try and create a more comprehensive and usable solution.

A More Comprehensive and Usable Solution

We have two audiences to keep in mind. I’ll refer to them as Givers and Receivers. Givers are those providing some form of help and Receivers are the ones who receive the help… Makes sense. Right? In order to move towards a complete solution we need to make sure the needs of both user groups are being met.

Setup Process (Receiver)

1. The Receiver completes a simple and low friction registration process at a public kiosk (or computer at a shelter). They specify what type(s) of immediate help they need (food, clothing, shelter, transportation) and provide details about their situation.

2. After registration, the kiosk dispenses a unique identifier (NFC enabled) for the Receiver to collect donations.

3. The Receiver attaches their unique identifier to a sign or simply carries it around.

Giving Donations (Giver)

1. The Giver taps their phone or wearable to the Receiver’s unique identifier. After tapping, the mobile app automatically opens and displays the Receiver’s personal story.

2. The Giver can then select the type of gift and the amount they would like to give. They can choose to help with an immediate need or put funds into an Advancement Fund. An Advancement Fund is a holding account that can be unlocked by the Receiver to help acquire larger, more impactful items or services.

Redeeming Donations (Receiver)

1. The Receiver returns to the kiosk and taps their unique identifier to bring up their account details.

2. The kiosk dispenses vouchers for the gifts given to the Receiver. The vouchers can be used as credit at local businesses for food, clothing, transportation or shelter.

3. From the kiosk, the Receiver can always see how much has been donated to their Advancement Fund (whether they’ve opted in or not). The Receiver can unlock this fund by connecting with a volunteer who will help manage the fund.

Unlocking and Implementing the Advancement Fund (Receiver)

1. When the Receiver is comfortable, they meet with a volunteer to create a plan and discuss their Advancement Fund. Over time, a trusting relationship is formed between the Receiver and volunteer.

2. The Receiver continues to raise funds until their Advancement Fund reaches a level that allows them to acquire everything they need to implement their plan.

3. Once the Advancement Fund is released, the Receiver and volunteer work together to implement the plan.

Adding Some More Detail

We’ve addressed each issue we’ve uncovered in the “Putting it all together…” section above except for weeding out those who don’t really need help. So, let’s address that and add some more detail to what’s been outlined in the story above.

Weeding out those who really don’t need help

Automatically detecting patterns that reveal fraudulent activity could help identify people abusing the system. The ability for a Giver to flag a Receiver as someone who may be abusing the system could also be an option, although this feature could easily be misused. Most importantly, requiring the Receiver to work with a volunteer before accessing their Advancement Fund will help reduce the risk of misuse.

Make giving easy and convenient

Enabling donations VIA a mobile app makes things fairly convenient. Setting up bank account information beforehand will help streamline the transaction. Also, when a Giver doesn’t have time to read a Receiver’s story right away (like when they’re stopped at a stoplight) the Giver can save and review the Receiver’s information later in the day.

Provide confidence that a gift can make a difference

The key feature here is allowing people to give towards an Advancement Fund that can only be accessed with the guidance of a volunteer. Givers can still choose to help with immediate needs if desired (food, clothing, transportation, shelter).

Give Receivers flexibility and ownership over their experience

The Receiver controls what type of immediate help they’ll receive and if they want to unlock the Advancement Fund. Once the Advancement Fund is unlocked, the Receiver has complete control over how it’s used. The only requirement is that the Receiver works with a volunteer and the fund is used to acquire things that could help the Receiver improve their situation on a larger scale (education, treatment, housing, IDs, laptop, etc.).

Allow Receivers to slowly build trust in a system (or a person) over time and introduce them to a guide when possible

Receiver’s are in complete control of how often and in what way they use the system. Of course, there is some incentive for them to move towards working with a volunteer in order to unlock their Advancement Fund. Once they do meet with a volunteer, we’d want to make sure it’s a low pressure situation and allow the Receiver to move forward at a pace that’s comfortable for them.

Provide transparency into how a gift will be used

This is built into the system by allowing Givers to specify what type of help they’re providing in the first place. They can choose to help a Receiver with short term needs or to put money into their Advancement Fund.

What’s next?

Good question… I don’t know. As with any new idea, there is plenty of room to learn more and test the overall concept. The biggest gap in knowledge I see is understanding how to get people in need to adopt the system in the first place. It’s possible we’d need to build in some motivation outside of simply receiving donations (corporate sponsors who match donations?). I also omitted any details around how interactions between a volunteer and Receiver could be managed. It’s possible the volunteer would need to be very hands on in order to be effective.

In all honesty, I think it’s apparent that just an app is NOT a complete solution. A complete solution will most likely involve a group of hardworking individuals who leverage technology. There are still a lot of questions and areas to explore. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas! If you want to get involved, let me know. You can email me at jake [at] sliceoflime [dot] com.

Title Photo by David Nitzsche, via Flickr