SEATTLE — What if you combined the functionality of Venmo and GoFundMe with the user interface of a dating app to fight homelessness?
“Samaritan” is a new startup out of Seattle that provides homeless people with small "beacons" (a key fob that functions as a smart wallet) which they can obtain through local nonprofits. People who download the app get notifications when they cross paths with a homeless person and are invited to read their stories and donate money through the app.
The “beacon holders” can then use their funds at local Seattle partner businesses — like coffee shops, grocery stores, and thrift shops — or ask their counselor to apply the funds to their rent or a different purchase.
Seattle's homelessness problem has risen to crisis-level proportions, with an estimated 12,000 people on the streets each night and hundreds of unauthorized homeless camps across the city. Jonathan Kumar, who'd been working for a tech startup in Seattle, thought technology might help, and came up with the idea for Samaritan in 2015.
Kumar started the app with an initial grant from Vulcan, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s company, which has been funding programs to end homelessness. Right now, there are some 10,000 people in Seattle who use the app, for some 500 beacon holders (about half of whom are active).
Samaritan largely operates as a nonprofit, funded by private and public grants, but Kumar is hoping to quickly scale the app and make the company profitable by licensing his technology to various cities across the United States.
Kumar also hopes that the app will push people to interact more with their local homeless population: “The easiest thing we can do is to ask someone for $5. The hardest thing we can do is to say, "Take this person out to coffee,” he said.
VICE News went to Seattle to try out the app for ourselves and see whether the app is actually fostering connections — or just giving people an easier way to donate to the homeless and eliminating the need for interaction.
This segment originally aired June 26, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.