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How Crowdfunding is Helping Americans Avoid Homelessness

Ave Schulman seriously hurt his neck, falling from a wall while chasing a robber. Unable to do any work and pay his mortgage, the bank foreclosed his house in Costa Mesa and his wife abandoned him. In constant pain and depressed, he almost lost his trailer home, due to his inability to move it as his truck broke down. Clay Epperson, a former colleague, understanding his plight, organized a fundraising campaign on GoFundMe to help raise funds through Outside in America which is a year-long series on homelessness in western USA. The project highlights people facing a devastating crisis, enabling readers to help solve the problem. Clay realized that Schulman was desperate and almost on the verge of living on the street with nothing material to his name.

The GoFundMe for Schulman, a reserve police officer, came at a very critical period as the disability claim for his injury was settled ages ago and he had little income despite being a computer programmer and private investigator and working for the police on weekends. He suffered much pain and could not sit at a computer, but the campaign and encouragement of strangers helped lift the depression and loneliness he suffered for years. The efforts secured about $10,000. Supporters offered a site for his trailer besides permanent housing. Police friends secured a more regular income and identify treatments to reduce pain, and he aspires rejoining the workforce and becoming independent. It’s not just the money but the help any friend would provide.

Raising Funds by the Homeless

With little help from social service agencies, more unfortunate people rely on fundraising sites online to dodge homelessness or stop living off the streets. Crowdfunding campaigns to combat homelessness have achieved successes. A homeless person in Philadelphia, whose story went viral, secured over $400,000 to purchase a house after he parted with his last $20 for purchasing gas for a lady whose car had stalled. A student from UC Berkeley Ismael Chamu, managed to raise about $100,000, after an LA Times piece revealed that he and his family, who were immigrant, lived in a trailer without heat and sewage hookup, facing eviction.

The landlord of Jennifer Polk, 34, of Ventura, California gave her three days’ notice or face eviction. Polk was ineligible for government housing help as she was not homeless for more than 24 hours. Polk, already juggling multiple jobs and an aspiring comic book illustrator, decided on action. She put up ‘Homeless Prevention’ as the title of her GoFundMe page, requesting her friends and contacts on social media to donate and that too within 3 days!  But after 3 days, she had only half of $3,000 which needed to avoid getting evicted. Later donations were adequate for a deposit on a different place. Polk has a new rented home and is working for classic comics restoration and is grateful for the help she got to raise money and remain housed.

Not All get Help

A single mother from Detroit started a YouCaring campaign to collect $1,500 for a new apartment’s deposit, as her previous landlord ordered her to leave because of her home was being remodeled. She only managed to raise $150. Another parent posted images of her 2 young children, who were forced to live in a homeless shelter with her. She pleaded to people to donate money for a deposit, but in the end only raised $350. Diverse skills have to be employed for successful crowdfunding campaigns, skills which the privileged have aplenty, because these crowdfunders are usually well educated and good at marketing themselves. But crowdfunding sites inspire a profound emotive connect with givers, the connect being acts of kindness that should be encouraged. Once hooked on being considerate and taking action, it may be addictive.

In the last three years, people have created over 280,000 GoFundMe campaigns in the US related to homelessness, raised $69 million from more than 1 million donors (GoFundMe statistics upon request from the Guardian). Crowdfunding sites, such as YouHelp, YouCaring and HandUp also deal with many campaigns for people trying to avoid homelessness each year. Depending on your viewpoint, this speaks volumes about the compassion of strangers or points to a broken social safety net. Only 25% Americans needing government housing assistance, actually receive it. The government and great NGOs do help, but despite institutions and systems in place, many people fall through the cracks as income inequality persists, driving many such campaigns.

Not a Panacea for Homelessness

Experts warn that such sites fail to offer a level playing field to secure help for the neediest. It shifts focus away from distributing resources to where most needed, to more of a popularity contest as per experts who studied crowdfunding effects on medical patients and others in need. With a large social network, being media savvy and having the ability to use computers, you tend to succeed but this may not match up with those needing help the most. The implications are troubling even though in a one-off way, crowdfunding is a powerful medium to help someone; but it does precious little to address the issue of homelessness.

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