Why you should care
Because it’s one way to connect people who want to help with those who need it.
It’s a typically gray day in downtown Seattle. Michael stands on his usual corner, holding out an empty coffee cup, hoping for loose change. But the change he needs is more than a couple of quarters: a place to live, maybe, or a job. Only today, those things could be that much closer thanks to a Bluetooth-enabled gizmo hooked on his belt loop. Michael’s Samaritan beacon sends a notification to passersby with a corresponding app, allowing them to see his photo, learn a bit of his backstory and donate with a tap on their smartphones. By allowing Seattleites to learn the stories behind the faces they routinely walk by, while also rendering donations cash-free, Samaritan founder Jonathan Kumar has accomplished his goal. As he explains, “I want the easiest option, when you see someone in need, to be doing something about it.”
When I catch up with Kumar, 28, over Skype, he’s just back from meeting with investors. Tonight, he’ll be handing out more beacons. If he’s tired, it doesn’t show: Kumar’s one of those upbeat types so brimming with energy, it feels downright curmudgeonly not to match it. As Adam Salois, co-founder of Kumar’s first social enterprise app, FoodCircles, says: “He has this way of getting people excited about whatever he’s into — he’s easy to follow.” Perhaps unfashionably for a young techie, that positivity probably owes to Kumar’s Christian faith. He believes divine providence nixed a gig at Google in Texas after he graduated from the University of Michigan (a snowstorm pushed back his start date, followed by an abrupt hiring freeze). The sudden hole in his life plan inspired a somewhat successful, socially conscious startup in Grand Rapids; Kumar says FoodCircles helped feed 7,500 underprivileged local families before a lack of funds forced him to shut it down.
If one story is more emotive, or a photograph is taken in better light, might that cast a person as more deserving than another?
Samaritan, then, is the work of a young guy who has learned tech success doesn’t come easy — even for a good cause. And the idea has already pivoted, following last year’s launch. Originally called GiveSafe, the app was designed to help homeless people shortchanged by an increasingly cash-free society — now Samaritan is more about building relationships. Beacon-holders, who tend to hear about the gadget from volunteers doing outreach, passersby and other beacon-holders, can only spend donations at affiliated merchants selling groceries, clothes and other essentials (to prevent them from buying alcohol or drugs), and they must visit a Samaritan counselor each month for the beacon to remain active. Kumar is also working on a feature whereby donors can stay up-to-date with donees’ progress. By cultivating regular contact with the same merchants, counselors and donors, Kumar intends to help beacon-holders become a part of their communities — building a foundation for getting on their feet. “The outcome isn’t just the money,” he says, but “bringing hope into a situation where there’s usually not a lot of hope.”
Kumar moved to Seattle in 2015 to launch the idea, citing the city’s booming startup culture and progressive politics — plus fewer competitors than Silicon Valley. An initial $30,000 investment lasted 12 months, then he raised $180,000 from angel investors for the current pilot (he’s given out 360 beacons in the past year). Now he wants $500,000 to expand to other cities. “Our biggest revenue play is licensing this elsewhere,” he says, explaining that Samaritan isn’t a nonprofit. The company currently makes money by charging a small stipend on top of donations, which is fed back into the business; it also takes commissions from merchants. (All money intended for beacon-holders goes to them; more FAQs are answered here.)
Sure, he’s an ambitious millennial aspiring to build a profitable enterprise. But you can tell Kumar feels a genuine affinity with those he’s trying to help (though he doesn’t claim to have experienced anything close to their circumstances). He grew up on food stamps in Buffalo, New York, where his parents moved from South India; the family struggled as his father studied for a Ph.D. in business management and his mother stayed home. Kumar’s mother found solace in the church as the family moved around, with relocations to Madison, Wisconsin, and Chicago, while battling to make ends meet. But they kept the faith and, when the father graduated, the family began rising up the socioeconomic ranks. No wonder Kumar believes Samaritan can work.
Still, he concedes it can’t help everyone. The process of maintaining a beacon and keeping counselor appointments won’t work for those burdened with mental illness or alcohol and drug addiction. The profiles also raise tricky questions about “worthiness”: If one story is more emotive, or a photograph is taken in better light, might that cast a person as more deserving than another? It seems the app doesn’t filter for snap judgments.
On the flipside, it was found that “credentialing programs are most promising” for improving the effectiveness of donating to panhandlers, according to a study by Columbia University earlier this year. Professor Brendan O’Flaherty, a coauthor of the report, tells OZY that accrediting panhandlers is the best way he can think of to connect them with people who want to help, but he admits that accreditation is problematic, with “genuine need” in “the eye of the beholder.” (He notes that not all panhandlers are homeless.)
Ultimately, homelessness involves a web of complex issues, so it’s unrealistic to expect that one app can “solve” it. But Samaritan has already helped some — surely better than nothing. In a video interview with Kumar posted to Facebook, Michael says the ability to make choices about his purchases, rather than rely on handouts from shelters, “instills a sense of normalcy.” “It’s just one more thing that keeps me pointed in the right direction,” he explains. “And I’m inspired to pay it forward.”