Compassion Reporting on poverty fighting and criminal justice

Crowdfunding joins war on homelessness

Effective Compassion | GoFundMe as a housing charity has pros and cons
by Rob Holmes
Posted 5/09/18, 01:29 pm

Americans began nearly 300,000 GoFundMe online fundraising campaigns to help with their own or friends’ housing problems since 2015 alone, according to a report by the U.S. edition of The Guardian. The numbers show more people are taking the drastic measure of publicizing their need as widely as possible online when facing homelessness from fire, eviction, or simply not having resources to buy or rent a place.

More than 1 million people donated about $69 million to GoFundMe campaigns to help people either avert or move out of homelessness in the last three years, The Guardian reported. Other crowdfunding platforms like YouHelp also host similar campaigns each year.

Erin and Chris Coble, with their children Finn and Mallory, then 6 and 5, respectively, lost their Chagrin Falls, Ohio, home to a fire just before Finn started first grade in August 2016. Less than two years later, the Cobles had a new home with the help of $50,877 in donations that rolled in after a neighbor, Pam Spremulli, began a GoFundMe campaign. “It takes a village,” Spremulli wrote, in thanks to those who donated. But in reality it was more than those in the local village who responded.

Not all who visited the campaign page were willing donors. “I’m confused, they didn’t have home insurance?” Nick Lechnowskyj asked on the comments page. In the same thread, Brian Vasquez compared the Cobles’ tragedy to his own troubles of surviving a house fire and being in foster care: “I wish I had the same help.”

The Guardian wrote that people’s broadcasting of their needs to strangers proves the United States has a “broken social safety net.” But it many cases, crowdfunding uses technology to broaden and more quickly activate the net since anyone can help with little red tape involved, whether recipients are known or unknown to the donor.

The democratic, online method of helping individuals also has a stewardship perk: Since the crowdfunding site only disperses campaign-generated money directly to the cause or person named, it’s hard for outright scamming to happen, say, if a person attempts fraud by using another’s tragedy to procure money. And people are savvy enough to know whether their beliefs align with what they are being asked to fund. The Daily Dot noted GoFundMe once shut down a 2014 campaign appealing for funds for a woman’s abortion. It later changed its policy, calling abortion a legitimate “medical procedure.”

Liz Gerber and Julie Hui of Northwestern University studied crowdfunding and identified four main reasons people respond to online appeals. Three of them had to do with the desire to feel connected either to a person, community, or cause. “When projects are successfully funded, the success is shared between requester and supporter,” Gerber and Hui wrote.

While crowdfunding provides meaningful support and makes both the giver and receiver feel good, it doesn’t always reward the most deserving or the neediest causes.

“It’s a shift away from distributing resources to where they will do the most good to more of a popularity contest,” Jeremy Snyder, associate professor at Canada’s Simon Fraser University, told The Guardian. Snyder has studied crowdfunding’s effects on people with medical and other needs and described the tool as a good “one-off way” to help homeless people, but not the preferred way. Crowdfunding relies on the art of attracting people to one’s plight. If people turn to a local ministry or agency they may secure long-term help and address the deeper causes of some homelessness.

YouCaring YouCaring Protesters in Johnson City, Tenn.

When city bans camping, where will the homeless go?

A Tennessee town last week passed a ban on people camping on public property effective July 1. But activists said the ordinance has done nothing to help the homeless and only unfairly targets an estimated 200 of them.

Johnson City, Tenn., Commissioner Joe Wise told the Johnson City Press the ban responds to a “specific behavior” and is not designed as a solution to the city’s homelessness problem: “It’s about prohibiting people setting up camp in public [right of ways].”

As in other U.S. cities, business owners in shopping and commercial districts say street sleepers or campers disrupt their businesses and cause people to avoid encumbered streets or sidewalks. And the town’s city attorney, Jim Epps IV, said people have alternatives available to setting up camp downtown, though it’s not clear whether the law will push people to the area’s 16 shelters instead of seeking their own temporary solutions outside. Johnson City Press reported more than 50 churches in the area have homeless outreach ministries.

Members of the Washington County Democratic Party and the Northeast Tennessee Democratic Socialists of America protested from the steps of city hall. The NTDSA later began the online crowdfunding campaign “Solutions Not Citations” to build a $37,700 “way station” near downtown. It would provide storage lockers, toilets, and day facilities for homeless people. Organizers said its practical effect “will take the pressure off downtown business owners.” —R.H. Alamo Square Park in San Francisco

California dreamin’—of a cheaper state

Nearly 1.1 million Californians immigrated to other states than moved into the Golden State from 2006 to 2016, according to findings in a joint Next 10 and Beacon Economics study.

Published this month, the study, “Growth Amid Dysfunction,” analyzed census data and tracked trends in housing, migration, and employment, noting the state suffers the highest housing costs in the country. Low-income people are leaving for places with more affordable homes even as the state adds jobs for those with fewer skills or less education. Statewide, lower income jobs in the fields of leisure and hospitality, retail, healthcare, and agriculture accounted for 30 percent of total state employment for 2016.

But available employment has not staunched the flow of poorer people leaving as home construction—especially affordable homes—lags. Most who leave earn less than $30,000 a year in a state ranked 48th worst for rent. California renters spend an average of 32.8 percent of their earnings on housing.

Worse news is that people fleeing California might not find much better elsewhere. Nationally, Bloomberg’s Vince Golle reported the stock of existing homes is at its lowest level in 19 years, which has fueled demand and a surge in prices. Home prices are rising across the nation as the price of building materials skyrockets—lumber costs have gone up 16 percent just since December last year. —R.H.

Rob Holmes

Rob is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute’s mid-career course. Follow Rob on Twitter @SouthernFlyer.

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