Should We Develop A Device So That We Can Swipe Our Credit Cards To Help The Homeless?


Recently, I was walking down the Delmar loop in St. Louis in the middle of the day, something uncharacteristic of me, as I really only head that way in the evening. While walking by some men clothed in heavy jackets, one asked “Hey man, could you spare some change?” I apologized to him that I didn’t have any on me and I proceeded.

I really never have change, nor do I think many other people (perhaps I’m wrong in assuming this). It occurred to me that the advent of the credit card has greatly affected the amount of metal in our pockets, and consequently, the amount we can give to beggars on the street. I wonder if these men, who were used to getting change from people, have realized that carrying around change is less common and have thus adapted to new forms of solicitation. Street Wise, a newspaper in Chicago sold by homeless people, is a good example of this.

While walking, I had the idea of some kind of device beggars would be able to carry around where if they solicited money from people, they could swipe their cards and give as much as they wanted. Of course, this poses several issues: getting the devices to these people, the stealing of devices amongst beggars, and the fact that many people may not trust beggars swiping their cards. It also may just not be an efficient use of resources compared to helping homeless/beggars in other ways.

To address the first issue, while I was working at Potbelly (a Chicago-based Sandwich Shop) in high school, we would have a homeless man, Robert, come in often and we developed a good relationship. And believe it or not, Robert had a cell phone, subsidized by the government. So it’s not a farfetched idea to distribute electronic devices to homeless people. And with the growth of mobile payment, that would only make this kind of thing easier.

To address the second issue, one would have the same problems stealing devices compared to them collecting change. The device itself doesn’t further incentivize stealing. If infrastructure was built so that when these beggars would liquidate the money in their “swipe” account, they would have to provide a password or authenticate themselves somehow, that would make these devices even safer than just carrying around change.

The final issue is a tough one to address. I myself am careful about where I use my credit card because I am paranoid about the number being used wrongly. I doubt I’m the only person to feel this way. Unfortunately, the stigma of a beggar, who is desperate, only heightens this paranoia. Of course, all it takes is diligent perusing of your credit card bill but some people don’t want to go through the hassle.

Like I said, I was just brainstorming this the other day, trying to think of critiques, and rebuttals to those critiques. Perhaps I’m even crazy in thinking this is a viable program. Perhaps helping homeless people in other ways is a better use of our resources. There is a short-term long-term trade-off here. Should we create programs that will allow them upward mobility beyond asking for money (long-term) or should we help them sustain their lives in the short-term by introducing a program such as this one? That’s a question we should ponder.