THE BLOG
01/13/2014 04:12 pm ET Updated Mar 15, 2014

It's Time We Got to Know Our Homeless

While working with the San Francisco homeless community over the past six years, I have often thought about and wished there were a better way for people to get to know the over 4,000 people living on this city's streets. A way for people to identify with them as real people with families, children, brothers and sisters. A way to stop labeling them as second-class citizens, or worse, as "trash" and "degenerates [who] gather like hyenas, spit, urinate, taunt you, sell drugs, [and] get rowdy," as local entrepreneur and former AngelHack CEO Greg Gopman so famously said in his recent Facebook rant. Although Gopman apologized after his post blew up in his face, it highlighted a point of view many living in the opulent bubble of the tech world seem to share as they scurry past the homeless on the sidewalks of San Francisco every day.

As someone who has worked for many years in the tech world and with the homeless, I am keen to find a remedy for this shameful attitude and bridge the gap between these two major subcultures of San Francisco -- neither of which is going anywhere anytime soon. My suggested solution? Let's get to know the homeless. Let's ask them to make an honest effort to tell us what they need and how we can help them. Let's stop assuming that all they want is drugs and alcohol and money for both.

Sabeen Ali, who took over as CEO of AngelHack after Gopman resigned in October (in what appears to be the wake of his social media fiasco), offered a similarly proactive sentiment on the Anglehack blog: "If the presence of the homeless and poverty bothers us (which it should because no human being should have to live in poverty) then we should do something about it." Well, a few coders and entrepreneurs have done something about it.

HandUp is an easy-to-use online system that lets you make a donation to a specific homeless or at-risk person via the handup.us website or an SMS message. Homeless and at-risk people are encouraged to register through community partner organizations like Project Homeless Connect, create profiles that tell as much of their story as they are comfortable sharing on the HandUp.us website, and are given personalized business cards with their donation information. They can then receive donation points redeemable for things like food, clothing and medical care. One-hundred percent of the donations go into the recipients' accounts. As a side note, HandUp is a Public Benefit Corporation, which can be thought of as a cross between a traditional corporation and a nonprofit organization.

This ingenious idea doesn't just make it easy for people to donate money to a specific person and feel confident that it will be used for their welfare; it also helps connect the homeless community to those who have the resources and goodwill to give. It helps donors get to know donation recipients personally and individually. To me, this type of relationship-building is what is going to remedy our homeless "problem" in San Francisco.

For comparatively wealthy San Franciscans who hesitate to give a dollar to that guy standing in the median on Van Ness Avenue during a red light stop for fear he will simply use it toward a bottle of whiskey, there is no longer any excuse to roll up the window and avoid eye contact. With HandUp, you can look that person in the eye and ask him for his card, then use your cell phone (once you've parked, of course) to donate money directly into his HandUp account, knowing that money will go toward things like dinner, a new pair of shoes, dental work or even a laptop computer that will help him get back on his feet.

With the fulfillment help of Project Homeless Connect, who facilitate the process of funneling the right donation to the right person for the right thing (e.g. a $20 donation to fund a jacket for Aaron), the HandUp platform lets those in need make connections, hand out cards linking to their profiles and get funding for specific items. More importantly, it helps people like Greg Gorman hear the stories of the otherwise nameless people they step over on the street as they hustle to work -- to hear how each person lost his job, couldn't afford rent, was forced to beg on the streets for medicine for his child. If Greg had a chance to get to know his neighborhood homeless man, even from the safety of his own desk, perhaps he could connect more with the reality of the situation and identify less with the inconvenience that homeless people pose on a lunch run.

You can't solve a problem by avoiding it, and you certainly can't make something go away by hiding it. The only solution to is to face it honestly and work with it. Handup.us gives those on the streets -- and those off the streets -- a real chance to connect and learn about each other, and of course, help each other.

Right now the system is in beta, and I encourage you to visit it, review the profiles of those living on the streets, and, if you see fit, make a donation. Then, I invite you to consider going out and talking to some of the people you see on the streets. Instead of cash, find someone you feel a connection with and buy him dinner. Ask him to tell you his story. You might be fascinated to learn that he once too had a job, a family and a house. (Like Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT), who recently spent a vacation day doing just this.)

Sometimes life is hard on people, and they need those more fortunate to take interest, instead of making assumptions and turning a blind eye. Handup.us helps with that mission, and I praise them for the hard work that has gone into launching this startup.

This piece is part of my Businesses With Impact series. I'm highlighting companies that fit within what I consider to be a scope of "significant social impact," meaning that they exhibit a high degree of operational awareness of corporate responsibility, social capital investments and philanthropy. While my research is not qualitative per se, I am confident about featuring companies doing inspiring things to change the world in real ways. If you have a suggestion for a company or individual to feature, please contact me.