When San Francisco’s Tech Sector Meets Homelessness, It’s Not Always A Huge Disaster

Handup is a smart service that makes it easy for residents to donate directly to homeless people through their phone–which is a giant step forward for how the tech community has been relating to the city’s most needy residents.

When San Francisco’s Tech Sector Meets Homelessness, It’s Not Always A Huge Disaster
[Image: Abstract via Shutterstock]

Though it is a wealthy city, San Francisco still has the sad distinction of possessing a large homeless population,. It’s nearly impossible to avoid passing multiple homeless people while walking downtown (much to the dismay of some incredibly insensitive tech entrepreneurs). Unlike most pedestrians, who just walk by while feeling guilty, Rose Broome decided to try to do something about the realities she saw.


Handup, a for-profit company created by Broome and co-founder Zac Witte, is a text messaging platform that makes it easier to give to the homeless. Broome explains: “Last year, I saw a woman sleeping on the sidewalk and it hit me–why can’t I push a button and transfer resources from my phone?”

Many people that Broome knows in the tech sector–she has worked in tech for years, most recently at Superbetter–are wary of donating money directly to the homeless. They don’t know how their cash will be spent. Handup sidesteps all those issues, allowing donations to the homeless that can only be redeemed through Project Homeless Connect in exchange for clothing, food, and other necessities (though it also saves even the most generous person from having to interact with the homeless directly, which is problematic in its own right).

While Handup requires a cell phone or Internet access to make donations, the service can be a completely analog experience for the homeless people it serves. They sign up for Handup through partners (like Project Homeless Connect), and receive a custom business card listing information like their name and basic needs. That card can then be handed out to people on the street, who can learn more information about each homeless Handup user at a website.

Here’s the online profile for a Handup member named Alvin, who needs money for dental work:

I was hit by a car while riding my bike and when I hit the ground, my teeth were badly damaged. I worked in retail service and being a people person, I like to smile, but don’t, because I’m self-conscious. I really miss that smile! My dentist is really trying to help me out, and can get the work done for $600.

When someone is ready to donate, they can give money either via Handup’s secure SMS system or on its website. All of the donations go to Handup’s members, but donors are given the option of gifting an additional $5 to Handup, too.

A graduate of urban ventures startup accelerator Tumml, Handup now has nearly 100 homeless members with profiles on its website. It’s hardly a panacea for San Francisco’s epidemic of homelessness, or for the forces of gentrification that continue to draw stark lines between rich and poor in the city. At the very least, it’s a show of goodwill from the larger community. And if Handup plays its cards right, it could grow to become a tool for the many cities across the U.S.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.