Idea #6: Gift Cards for the Homeless

We’re often confronted with people who are asking for money at the corner of an intersection. Personally, while I feel bad for the person, I am reluctant to give them straight cash because a) I don’t know that they will use it for food or something else that they really need rather than alcohol and b) I don’t want to encourage them to stand on corners asking for money. I have no idea what someone who does that kind of thing makes in a day. Probably many factors come into play in that equation.

Some people offer up straight food or drink and that is good if the person is really hungry or thirsty at that moment. Of course, the less perishable the gift is, the better.

In thinking about possible alternatives to the problem, I came up with the idea of forming a non-profit whose whole goal is to raise money to help the homeless, but also actually help the homeless too. You include the homeless person in the loop more tightly by giving them gift cards, which are redeemable at any participating homeless shelters in the metro area which the non-profit is serving.

Here’s how it would work. You hear about this program and think it’s a great idea. You go to (ok, that’s not a real domain) and you make a $20 donation. A set of gift cards is then sent to this caring soul in the mail. They throw a few of these cards into their purse or wallet and the next time someone asks them for money and they determine they want to help them out, they hand them a gift card. They explain that they can take it to any of the homeless shelters on the back of the card to get extra stuff. When they exchange the gift card for stuff at the shelter, the shelter then has a touchpoint to try to help that person. The collected card would then be “turned in” to the non-profit, in exchange for a cash donation to help cover the cost of the extra help they are giving.

This is cool for a number of reasons…here are a few that quickly come to mind:

  • The card is portable so they can easily stuff it away in their pocket or bag and take it with them for later when they are needing some help.
  • You’re giving them something of value to them but without the risk that they’ll burn your dollars on a couple of 40s. This will help those of us who don’t feel quite right giving straight cash.
  • Having the card encourages them to seek help from an organization set up to help people in their situation.
  • The card is something tangible for them to hold onto and not spend immediately. Saving money when you’re in dire straits must be incredibly difficult to do. Perhaps having a gift card would be easier to hold onto.

Perhaps you can think of other reasons why it’s good or bad? Does anyone know of programs out there today that work like this? How do you handle homeless folks who approach you for money, either while you’re in your car or walking down the street downtown?

If you have feedback on the idea, please let me know in the comments.

Known Implementations: None.

A similar concept (using food gift cards instead of money), but without the shelter part from Ian Warshak:
iwarshak: @damon neat idea. we recently started giving the homeless gift cards to mcdonalds/whataburger instead of cash.