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Chris Creighton (31) has been homeless for the past two years.
Chris Creighton, 31, has been homeless for the past two years.

Chris Creighton knows he doesn’t look homeless.

Standing next to GiveSafe founder Jonathan Kumar, in a black blazer and gray button-down, Creighton could easily be mistaken for a co-founder of the Seattle tech startup. Instead, he’s a beneficiary of its app, which enables cash-free donations to people living on the street.

Creighton works at a thrift store and keeps an eye out for nice clothes, like those he donned for GiveSafe’s launch event at Impact Hub in Seattle Wednesday. He works hard to look presentable, despite obstacles like finding a shower and a safe place to sleep.

He recalls a recent incident when GiveSafe helped him hold down his job. He was out of money and it had been three days since his last meal.

“I had nothing left,” he says, his large eyes pensive. “No other resources. I was considering stealing my co-worker’s food from the break room because my stomach was hurting terribly and, that night, I was able to get food and I was able to get hygiene products. That might be why I still have my job.”

Creighton sleeps in his ex-girlfriend’s Kia Spectra. He’s been homeless for two years and, though he’s managed to hold down steady employment, finding a place to live has proven to be more challenging. He feels squeezed out of Seattle’s rental market, which has become increasingly competitive and expensive due to an influx of high-paid tech workers.

“Making money in this city doesn’t seem like it’s ever been a problem. If you really, really try, there’s a job out there for you. Getting accepted into a place to live here now that the rent keeps going up higher and higher?” That, he says, is another story.

Creighton recounts a conversation in which a property manager told him, explicitly, that he wanted a tenant who worked for Microsoft, Amazon, or Google.

“What job you have makes a difference,” he says.

Creighton is frustrated by his situation, which he describes as a “catch-22.” Even though he is struggling, having a steady job disqualifies him from many social services, like food stamps. GiveSafe gives him the option to get food and other essentials.

The app, which officially launches this week for iPhone and Android, works in conjunction with electronic beacons that partner non-profits are delivering to homeless people in Seattle. “Citygoers,” as GiveSafe calls donors, receive notifications when they pass someone wearing a beacon, even if the app isn’t open. They can click through to donate money that beacon-holders can spend at partner retailers, like Grocery Outlet, to get food and other essential services.

GiveSafe founder Jonathan Kumar in front of the startup's non-profit partner, Seattle's Union Gospel Mission.
GiveSafe founder Jonathan Kumar in front of the startup’s non-profit partner, Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission.

Beacon-holders are required to meet with counselors regularly to use the service. Every month, the beacon turns off and its bearer has to check in with a counselor at a local non-profit to have it reactivated.

“These monthly interactions are critical because we believe in this two-fold model of financial resources coupled with relational guidance,” says Kumar. “Every touch point for these beacon-holders — whether it be with someone on the street that gets to know their story or interacting with a local business to redeem something they need or those monthly check-ins with counselors at non-profits — all of that is a psychological reminder that people care for them and want to help them.”

Two days a week, GiveSafe operates out of the Impact Hub co-working space in downtown Seattle. The Union Gospel Mission, one of the startup’s non-profit partners, is conveniently located across the street. Several homeless people, listening to music and tossing a football, greet Kumar warmly when he stops by. He’s clearly a familiar face.

A GiveSafe beacon allows homeless people to collect donations for essentials.
A GiveSafe beacon allows homeless people to collect donations for essentials.

One man using a wheelchair asks, “When am I getting my beacon?”

“It’s on the way,” Kumar tells him.

In addition to goods from partner organizations, beacon-holders can also put their donations toward one-on-one meetings with career counselor Andrea Cole. Those sessions cost $20, which is about one-tenth her typical rate. Cole recently helped a homeless man in GiveSafe’s network secure a job at Safeco Field.

“It was neat to have an impact on someone,” she said. “I help people all the time that pay me handsome wages and that was probably my most significant one.”

When citygoers receive a notification about someone in need, it doesn’t just prompt them to donate. The app also includes a personal story explaining how the beacon-holder ended up on the street.

Users who pass Steve Gross, a genial man from Iowa who stays at the Union Gospel Mission, will learn that he’s struggled to keep up with the costs of an expensive terminal illness.

Steve Gross, a beacon-holder struggling with a terminal condition, stays at Seattle's Union Gospel Mission.
Steve Gross, a GiveSafe beacon-holder.

Gross has received several donations through GiveSafe. He’s saving the funds for furniture and household items when he secures a more permanent place to live.

“I see it as a really good thing,” he says. “This way, you’re almost in a position where you’ve got to spend the money wisely for stuff that you need.”

If a beacon-holder has a need one of GiveSafe’s partner organizations can’t fulfill, his or her counselor can purchase the items on their behalf and charge dollars donated through the app. GiveSafe will then reimburse the counselor.

Unlike many of its partners, GiveSafe is a for-profit startup. The app charges donors a small fee on top of the donation on a sliding scale, with the percentage decreasing as the size of the donation increases. For example, when people give $1, GiveSafe charges 15 cents, and the percentage goes down from there.

GiveSafe has a similar mission to nonprofit WeCount, another donation app that launched in Seattle this summer. With WeCount, people can make anonymous requests for essential items they need and Seattle-area residents can fill that need by dropping the items off at designated donation sites. [Editor’s note: WeCount co-founder Jonathan Sposato is GeekWire’s chairman.]

“We’d love for competitors to tap into local, mobile giving,” says Kumar. “WeCount addresses an amazing, totally different use case.”

Seattle-area angel investors, including Mike Ma, Vikram Chalana, Awesome Foundation, and Nathan McDonald, provided $30,000 in proof-of-concept funding to GiveSafe. The startup plans to raise a pre-seed funding round in the coming months.

In the long-term, Kumar hopes to license the technology to major non-profits and other cities.

“It costs between $14 to $40,000 per year, per person living on the street in terms of social services, jail time, hospital visits that are completely uninsured, obviously, it’s incredibly costly,” he says. “So when you have even just 4,000 people in Seattle, I think that’s like $200 million per year … Given, how expensive it is, we see it as a market — offering solutions that provide data on compassion.”

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