Chris Reynolds was a few weeks shy of 47 when he bought his first brand-new bed. Photos and videos uploaded to his Facebook page mark the event. In one, he flops onto the mattress with a dramatic sigh of relief. In another, he hands over the check to a sales clerk. Then, he’s pictured outside, pointing to the storefront and beaming, or “doing the Vanna White,” as he calls it.
Reynolds documented the shopping trip with all the fanfare of a major milestone because he considered the mattress an important step to getting his life back. Donations for the bed were raised through a charitable crowdfunding platform called HandUp, which has been called “a Kickstarter for the homeless.” The website helps donors give to homeless people who commit to using the funds for a dedicated need, like phone bills, security deposits or medical bills. Even seemingly small things like a new bed can have a profound impact.
“They’re giving me back my life,” Reynolds says, “they’re giving me back my self-esteem.”
For most of the past two years, he would stretch his 6-foot-4 frame on the floor of his empty apartment to sleep. Before that, he bunked in various homeless shelters in the East Bay. Reynolds became homeless after working for more than two decades in East Bay schools as a sign language aide for deaf students—a job he loved. But after work dried up in 2008, he spent several years on unemployment.
“Life,” he says, “just kind of came to a dead standstill.”
With nothing to fall back on, Reynolds became homeless just before New Year’s Eve 2011, living in his car for a while before bouncing from shelter to shelter. It wasn’t until 2013 that he secured a room in supportive housing through Abode Services, a housing nonprofit that provides shelter to low-income and otherwise homeless residents in Alameda, Santa Clara, and Santa Cruz counties. Along the way, case workers and social services helped him find work and enroll in college, the first steps toward rebuilding his life. But some gaps remained unfilled—relatively small expenses that seemed insurmountable without a disposable income—until he learned about HandUp.
Since launching in 2013, HandUp has expanded throughout the Bay Area, including Silicon Valley, with a homeless population of around 6,500. The startup claims a simple core mission: to use technology to help people meet basic needs, while encouraging dignified human connection. Rose Broome, CEO and co-founder of the charitable app, was inspired to start HandUp after walking by a homeless woman sleeping on the street one bitterly cold San Francisco night. She wanted to help but, at that moment, didn’t know how.
“A lot of donors come to us telling us stories of that feeling,” Broome says. “That’s such a painful experience for people.”
Frustrated by the lack of innovation in the safety-net sector, she began looking for new solutions. Eventually, she decided to start HandUp as a public benefit corporation rather than a nonprofit. Public benefit corporations are for-profit entities legally beholden to a given social mission. Broome garnered funding from Tumml, an urban ventures accelerator, followed by an angel investment from Jason Calacanis’ Launch Fund. Backers now include Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and “super angel” investor Ron Conway.
But HandUp isn’t limited to investors. Through their fiscal sponsor, Netroots Foundation, they can accept grant funding and have attracted big players in the philanthropy world. The company became part of Google.org’s portfolio, and now every dollar given to someone on HandUp is matched by the Mountain View-based search giant.
“The benefit corporation (status) let us make it clear ... that our social mission is a big priority for us,” Broome explains. “But it also gave us the flexibility that every other for-profit tech startup has.” Unfettered by the cumbersome fiscal requirements nonprofits face, HandUp has grown tremendously—from one partner to 15. Earlier this year, Abode Services became the latest to enter the fold.
“HandUp is a good model for directing people’s compassion to the sort of help that people really need,” says Louis Chicoine, executive director of Abode Services. “Once the basic needs are met, what we find is people thrive and they really do stay housed. They start to be able to look at other things, including improving employment and income.”
Nonprofit partners act as gatekeepers between HandUp and the homeless clients, called “members.” The organizations vet each person, create online profiles and determine which needs could be met. Once a fundraising goal has been reached, HandUp releases the money to the partner organization, which then buys the item or service for the member. The website never doles out cash, and funds cannot be used to buy alcohol, weapons or anything illegal, of course. Once a member launches a campaign they are bound to that goal.
Most partners use HandUp selectively, only with clients who meet certain criteria. Project Homeless Connect is one of the few “open” sites. Through their drop-in service “Everyday Connect,” they make HandUp available to anyone who needs it. They now have more than 200 members on the site.
“HandUp is a great tool to engage people,” says Emily Cohen, director of programs for Project Homeless Connect. “When we in the past might have had to say no, we can say ‘no, but we have this tool where you can get it for yourself.'”
In addition to member profiles, partners have a general fund, which allows for more flexibility in case of emergencies. On a recent afternoon, Cohen heard someone pounding frantically on the door. She opened it to find a young transgender couple escaping a roommate who had threatened to kill them. She knew she could get them into a shelter the next day, but not that night. “They can’t go home, they don’t feel safe,” Cohen recalls. “So we were able to use HandUp funds to put them up in a hotel room for the night.”
HandUp is focused on expanding within the Bay Area, while staying responsive to community needs. After recently learning that donors wanted a way to give to people they encounter in their daily lives, HandUp piloted gift cards. Donors could buy $25 gift cards to give to people in need, who could then redeem them through Project Homeless Connect.
Since its start, HandUp has fulfilled over 2,100 needs for impoverished people. Like Margaret, a member living with end-stage MS, who got a shower chair and gel cushion. Or Michael, who overcame drug addiction, mental illness and a severe head injury, and raised money for a new pair of dentures. And, of course, Chris Reynolds, who now has a dignified place to rest. The website has raised nearly $730,000 for needs like these, small items that allow members to return to a stable life, take the next step or simply feel whole again.
“I’m feeling confident,” Reynolds says. “I’m feeling more sure of myself.”
That confidence has taken him back to school, where he studies broadcasting to pursue his dream of becoming, “the next Dennis Richmond of the Bay Area.” Social services have helped Reynolds get back on his feet. But knowing that strangers care and want to see him succeed has given him resolve to follow through.