January 19, 2017; Fast Company, “Co.Exist”

Why are up-and-coming techies so entranced with thinking up new gadgets to respond to homelessness? They’re often like small science projects. You can imagine them submitted for credit at school, or alternately for a venture capital grant in contest philanthropy. At least this one has the benefit, apparently, of having had some input from potential users, but the concept is…well…just a little scary.

Perhaps you’ve been in this situation: You’re walking down the street in a city, say New York City or Chicago or Atlanta, and you spot a homeless person asking for money. Two thoughts enter your head:

  1. If I give money, am I helping this person buy food, or get alcohol or drugs, or support some other addiction?
  2. I don’t carry cash much anymore, so I don’t really have anything to give.

An Amsterdam-based advertising agency, N=5, studied this problem and developed an innovative technology with the potential both to help panhandlers and make sure the donated money goes to a supportive end. The Helping Heart Jacket is a warm, comfortable winter coat equipped with a device that enables a donor to tap their smart credit card against a pocket to make a one Euro donation. The money is redeemed via a sort of bank located at designated official homeless shelters.

Merel Hoogendorp, N=5 Account Director and member of the design team, explained, “The account is used to pay for food, showers, or even for building up savings.” According to Hoogendorp, people who are homeless were involved in the development phases of the jacket. The jacket is still a prototype, and the agency is still looking for additional partners, such as the aforementioned shelters.

Organizations for the homeless have been very positive. Advocacy organizations appreciate that this system can be used to help a homeless person save for long-term goals like housing or job training. Giving in this automated way raises a lot of issues—some existential, some practical. What if your credit card is declined? Will you get an automatic receipt? Has intermediation of giving as an act of sharing gone way too far? What are your thoughts?—Jeanne Allen