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Beacons Bring Hope to Seattle Homeless

The BLE-based GiveSafe app enables users to be alerted when a homeless person is within their vicinity, as well as view that person's history and make an anonymous contribution.
By Claire Swedberg
Dec 29, 2016

Since August of this year, charity-based technology startup GiveSafe has distributed 70 Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacons to individuals living on the streets of Seattle. The beacons, as well as an app provided by GiveSafe, enable residents and commuters to identify when a homeless person is near, to read about his or her life story and anonymously provide a monetary contribution. The homeless person can then redeem that donation by presenting the beacon for food or personal supplies at participating stores.

GiveSafe started as a concept by Jonathan Kumar, the company's founder. Kumar had already founded FoodCircles, in Michigan, which provides "Buy one, feed one" vouchers from participating restaurants via a website. Users buy a voucher, then visit that restaurant, purchase their own meal and contribute the voucher to feed a hungry person. Kumar wanted to see, however, if there was a way to further help those in need. He envisioned a system that could make the public aware of the homeless around them, by providing their stories to create a picture of each individual and how he or she ended up in that situation. The same system would also (in Kumar's concept) enable people to make anonymous contributions to the homeless without having to directly engage with them.

A homeless person wears a beacon, enabling others to anonymously donate money to that individual.
The system Kumar developed is intended as an alternative to the existing status quo, in which city residents and workers typically pass homeless people on the street without noticing them. In addition, Kumar says, the goal is to reduce the number of interactions in which the homeless approach potentially reluctant passersby for handouts.

GiveSafe was launched this summer in Seattle with an Android- and iOS-based app, as well as content-management software hosted on GiveSafe's server to manage beacon transmission data and payment distribution. The company acquired BLE beacons to be worn by the homeless.

The beacon-based GiveSafe solution allows Seattleites to anonymously donate to a specific individual, learn about his or her story, and approach that person if they so desire. "Most people who give feel uncomfortable engaging with an individual and want to be anonymous," explains Andrei Villasana, the company's software engineer. By using the GiveSafe system, members of the public can provide help without interacting directly with recipients. But conversely, he says, for those who do want to interact, the app offers that opportunity as well. For instance, an app user who connects with a specific individual's life story may want to speak with that person. The BLE technology enables the user to know when that individual is near, and to find that person based on the alert and his or her photograph.

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