Gift Cards for the Homeless: A Better Idea Than Throwing Them in Jail?

San Francisco has had it with the homeless.

First came the Chronicle’s obsessive summer of op-eds and thinly reported screeds; then came Mayor Lee’s announcement threat that the homeless must leave before the Super Bowl PR machine rolls into town; and yesterday Supervisor Scott Wiener put a semantic twist on the whole fracas, arguing it’s not the homeless we’re vilifying but unsavory “street behavior.” 

The public outcry has no real center but, like a dragnet, implicates everything from mental illness and substance abuse, to access to public restrooms and street encampments. There’s a cacophony of complaints (and rallying cries) but precious few actionable solutions aside from criminalization. 

Which is what’s notable about HandUp.

[jump] As KQED reports, HandUp is a crowdfunding site for “homeless people and neighbors in need” that this week launched a program whereby San Franciscans can donate $25 gift cards to the homeless.

The gift card, which can only be redeemed at Project Homeless Connect (HandUp hopes to recruit more gift card partners in the future), can be exchanged for food and clothing, or put into a savings account for dental or pet care. Project Homeless Connect will also refer homeless clients to housing, employment, and health services.

Even if the gift card isn’t redeemed, HandUp says 100 percent of the $25 will still go towards homeless services. HandUp has facilitated more than $897,000 in donations since launching in 2013.

While a gift card won’t solve homelessness by a long shot, and while the challenges of scaling such a program are significant, it's at least preferable to reading another self-satisfied media lament

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