There have been nearly 300,000 GoFundMe campaigns in the US related to homelessness over the last three years. Some see it as a sign of a broken social system and dwindling options for those in need
Dave Schulman’s long decline toward homelessness began 18 years ago, when, as a reserve police officer in southern California, he fell from a wall and seriously injured his neck during a response to a robbery call. In the years that followed, he lost his ability to work, his wife left him and the bank foreclosed on his Costa Mesa house. Depressed and in constant pain, he has recently been on the verge of losing the trailer that he now calls home, because his truck broke and he could no longer move it from place to place.
But Schulman’s luck changed in January, when a former police colleague recognized that he was on the edge of losing everything and organized a GoFundMe fundraising campaign
“It was partly me just realizing that this guy was about to go off a cliff,” said Clay Epperson, the former officer who organized the campaign. “He was days away from being on the street with nothing.”
With little hope of help from social service agencies, more and more people like Schulman are relying on online fundraising sites to avoid homelessness or even to get off the streets.
In the last three years alone, people have created more than 280,000 GoFundMe campaigns in the US related to homelessness, raising over $69m from more than 1 million donations, according to statistics retrieved by GoFundMe after a request from the Guardian. Other crowdfunding sites, such as YouCaring, HandUp and YouHelp, also handle thousands of campaigns for people seeking to avoid homelessness each year.
Depending on which way you look at it, this development is either an uplifting testament to the compassion of strangers or an indictment of a broken social safety net. Only about one in four Americans in need of government housing assistance actually receive it.
“The government is there to help and there are many great NGOs there to help, but with all of these institutions and systems in place, many people fall through the cracks,” said Rob Solomon, the CEO of GoFundMe. “Income inequality is a gigantic issue and that drives a lot of these campaigns.”
Experts warn that such sites hardly offer a level playing field to get help to the neediest.
“It’s a shift away from distributing resources to where they will do the most good, to more of a popularity contest” said Jeremy Snyder, an associate professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, who has studied the effects of crowdfunding on medical patients and others in need. “If you have a large social network, media savvy and the ability to use computers, you tend to do well. But that might not match up with those who need the help the most.”
The implications, he said, are troubling. “I think in a one-off way, crowdfunding is a powerful way to help someone,” he said. “But if this is the new way to address homelessness, it’s very concerning.”
Crowdfunding campaigns to fight homelessness have achieved some high-profile successes. One homeless man in Philadelphia ended up getting over $400,000 to buy a home, after he gave his last $20 to help a women whose car had broken down and his story went viral.
Supporters of a UC Berkeley student named Ismael Chamu raised nearly $100,000, after a Los Angeles Times article revealed that, while he was attending one of the nation’s most prestigious research universities, he and his immigrant family were living in a trailer with no heat and no sewage hookup and were about to be evicted.
Lower-profile recipients include Jennifer Polk of Ventura, California. When her landlord gave her three days to come up with late payments or be evicted from her apartment, Polk was told she couldn’t get government housing help because she hadn’t already been homeless for 24 hours.
So Polk, 34, who was juggling several jobs and trying to break into comic book illustration, took matters into her own hands. She put up a GoFundMe page titled “Homeless Prevention” and implored her social media contacts to “PLEASE I beg of you donate! We have 3 days to get this!”
After three days, she only had half of the $3,000 she needed to avoid eviction. In the end, however, she said the donations were enough for a deposit on a new place.
“It was basically a Hail Mary,” said Polk, who now has a new rental and a new job in classic comics restoration. “At least it helped me raise the money to remain housed.”
But not everyone is so fortunate.
A single mother in the Detroit area started a campaign on YouCaring to raise $1,500 for a deposit on a new apartment, after her landlord told her she had to leave because of a remodel. She only raised $150. Another mother posted pictures of her two young children, who were with her in a family shelter, and pleaded for people to help her get money for a deposit, but raised a mere $350.
Skills needed for successful crowdfunding campaigns “tend to match up with markers of privilege”, said Snyder, noting that the best crowdfunders may be those who are the most educated and are best at marketing themselves.
Still, Megan Hustings, director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said crowdfunding sites could inspire a profound emotional shift in givers.
“These are the kinds of acts of compassion that we should encourage,” she said. “Once someone is hooked on caring and taking action, maybe that can become addictive.”
The GoFundMe for Schulman, the reserve police officer, could hardly have come at a more critical juncture in his life.
He settled his disability claim for his police-force injury years ago and had little income. Although had had a career as a computer programmer and private investigator in addition to working for the police on weekends, he now suffers so much pain he cannot sit in front of a computer.
But the campaign and the encouraging notes people sent him helped lift the depression and loneliness he had suffered for years. The efforts to help him raised about $10,000. Supporters have offered him a place to park his trailer and may have even found him permanent housing. The police friends he has reconnected with are helping him secure a more regular income and obtain treatments that may reduce his pain, and he aspires to join the workforce again so he can become independent.
“It’s a wonderful thing: people you know and people you don’t even know, they read your story and help you,” said Schulman.
“It’s not just financial, it’s the kind of help a friend would give.”
Alastair Gee contributed reporting to this story.
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