Beacons of hope for the unhoused: Samaritan donation platform adjusts approach, expands reach

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Since joining the Samaritan platform, Raven has found a community and returned to the workforce. (Photo by Judy Furlong)

Raven stoops on a bench tranquilly flint-knapping an obsidian arrowhead by an I-5 overpass in North Seattle. His 10-man tent holds his guitar, banjo, art supplies and essentials. It would be a serene picture, if it weren’t for the cars zooming past on the other side of the chain-link fence.

A driver lowers his passenger window and yells across the fence, his curses drowned out by the roar of the freeway. Raven doesn’t pay him any mind. He’s used to being called names.

Raven, who prefers to go by his tribal name, grew up on his grandparents’ farm on Apache reservation land in the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky. After a difficult childhood, he moved to Seattle to reconnect with his estranged mother, but he says she kicked him out on his 19th birthday when he refused to give her money for drugs.

Raven’s birthday last January marked his 15th anniversary of being homeless in Seattle. His story of becoming homeless as a youth is a common one in King County. According to the county’s 2019 Count Us In Report, 45 percent of unsheltered respondents said they first became homeless while under age 25.

Although that day was a grim marker, it was also the first time anyone ever threw Raven a party. For his 34th birthday, a group of new friends showered Raven with gifts, including a mandolin and wire cutters for his jewelry making.

Raven found this new community on Samaritan, an app and donation platform that a Seattle startup by the same name launched three years ago. Samaritan users can give cashless donations, using their smartphones, to unsheltered people who carry a Bluetooth device called a beacon. The financial and emotional support Raven received through Samaritan helped him land a steady job and put him on a path toward permanent housing.

Raven’s story is one of 50 positive outcomes reported on Samaritan’s website, which includes stories of beacon holders getting housed, finding employment and getting treatment for substance abuse or mental health issues. The stories highlight the success of Samaritan’s initial 500-beacon Seattle pilot.

Samaritan CEO Jonathan Kumar. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

Despite those success stories, Samaritan has faced setbacks in getting funding for its second Seattle pilot. Samaritan founder and CEO Jonathan Kumar said the company has pivoted from its original thinking that city government would be its primary funding source. The new strategy is looking to healthcare organizations for research and potential funding.

On Nov. 14, Samaritan took first prize at the TRAILS pitching contest at the World Congress Reducing Physician Burnout Summit in Arlington, Va. The contest was held by Cambia Grove, a Seattle-based organization that promotes innovation in health care. TRAILS stands for “Traction and Implementation Lead to Solutions.”

The epidemic of homelessness across the country has had enormous costs for health-care organizations, particularly for public health hospitals like Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.

In 2017, Harborview spent an estimated $119 million per year on uncompensated care, EMS aid response, and burial costs for the homeless, according to a Puget Sound Business Journal report on the price of homelessness in King County. That figure only included emergency care that was tracked at about a dozen shelters; it didn’t include ambulance response to individuals on the street or in encampments.

The first prize for the TRAILS pitching competition is $25,000 toward an evidence-based research study at the Primary Care Innovation Lab at the University of Washington. The timing of the research funding is ideal for the Samaritan team since they are looking to get more hard data on their platform.

Kumar said Samaritan is also applying for a $1.5 million commercialization pilot grant from the National Institute of Health and will hear back next spring.

“They’re really interested [in] solutions that are focusing on population health and opioid epidemic populations specifically – and we’re right in line for some of what they’re looking for,” Kumar said.

There are a number of moving pieces that make Samaritan work. First, there are beacons that are distributed by Samaritan’s nonprofit partners, such as Salvation Army and Mary’s Place, to unhoused individuals who choose to participate. Currently, seven out of 10 people approached opt to try it, according to Samaritan.

The beacon has a Bluetooth signal that can be picked up by Samaritan app users – called “samaritans” – who are within about 20 yards of the beacon holder. Once in range, the beacon holder’s profile shows up on the samaritan’s phone. The app displays a profile of the beacon holder with an optional photo, first name and last initial, and a brief story about the person’s situation, including how the beacon holder ended up on the street, if he or she wishes to disclose that information.

Although the beacon is designed to create opportunities for samaritans to connect with beacon holders in person, users can also see beacon holder profiles featured on the app. Once a samaritan has donated to a beacon holder, he or she can send messages of encouragement or opt to meet in person.

The beacon holder’s story can work somewhat like a GoFundMe in that it lists what is needed to move forward, like funds for transit or a down payment on an apartment. Donated funds can be spent at any of the Samaritan-partnered stores or nonprofits, such as Army Navy Surplus, Safeway or Goodwill, but they can also be spent on expenditures at the discretion of a partner nonprofit representative or Samaritan staff.

In order to keep a beacon active for more than 30 days, the beacon holder needs to go for a life-care visit with one of Samaritan’s nonprofit partners. During the visit, a counselor asks questions on the app, such as how the past month went, goals for the next month and what is needed to get there.

Kumar says the life-care partners are the ones who do the heavy lifting by connecting beacon holders with resources for employment, treatment options and housing.

Beacon holders get notifications of donations and messages on their cell phone, if they have one, or by signing into their email. Sometimes the donations are all that transpires between the two parties, but Samaritan encourages its users to do more to connect with beacon holders by going up to say hi or sending an encouraging message through the app.

Raven said Samaritan has been a game-changer for him.

“I don’t even know where to start on that,” he said. “There’s a lot of people I chitchat with throughout the week. I get people contacting me all the time: ‘you want to hang out?’”

“It is impactful, getting a text from someone saying, ‘Hey, have a good day.’ … that can keep someone on the path of not relapsing, not committing suicide, not getting locked up,” he added. “A lot of people don’t understand that about the homeless.”

Raven got a job last spring doing building security – the first steady job he’d held since 2005, and last month he got a new job testing video games. He credits the Samaritan app with helping him get to this point. Aside from the donations on his beacon, which have helped him buy necessities like food and clothing and pay his cell phone bill, he said the most important thing has been the relationships he’s forged through the app.

The samaritans who threw Raven the party helped him practice interviews before he landed his first job, and Samaritan staff has also given moral support.

Currently, Raven and some friends are looking for a house to rent. Beyond that, he wants to save up to buy a foreclosed home that he can fix up and help others struggling with homelessness.

The Samaritan organization has lightly marketed its app since launching a 500-beacon pilot in Seattle in September 2016 with a grant from Paul Allen’s Vulcan. Samaritan staff presented the platform to employees of downtown companies such as Amazon, Google, and Nordstrom and has relied on word of mouth. This year Samaritan surpassed 10,000 downloads of the app.

In 2018, a panel of investors named Samaritan champion of GeekWire’s Elevator Pitch competition, edging out 26 other entrepreneurs in the running.

Jonathan Kumar, CEO of Samaritan, accepts the grand prize for his Elevator Pitch at the GeekWire Summit in Seattle. (Photo by Dan DeLong for GeekWire)

The organization operates as a for-profit public benefit corporation. Kumar said he and his team chose not to be a nonprofit because they felt having to raise money was not a good use of their time. He said Vulcan approached them to provide the original pilot funding after hearing about the startup.

Since the two-year pilot ended, Kumar has been in discussions with the City of Seattle to fund a second pilot. The proposed contract would have provided initial funding of $175,000 from the city to give 750 additional people a beacon in 2020. Despite some strong proponents on the City Council, the first-year funding got reduced to $75,000 in budget negotiations and then was deleted altogether from the final budget vote.

It had been over a year since Kumar had first presented to the city, so he and his team were already exploring other funding opportunities before the vote.

“We’re not excited about working with cities anymore, and we see a much more straightforward opportunity in the healthcare space . . . we do think it’s a little bit more straightforward and less, perhaps, political,” Kumar said.

Through the initial pilot, Samaritan discovered that relatively small amounts of cash donations can lead to positive outcomes for beacon holders. The average beacon holder received about $40 a month, which Kumar said led about 54 percent to start meeting with counselors “because they were able to meet a financial or social need through their beacon.”

When beacon holders received $80 a month, Samaritan saw “the retention rate shot up dramatically,” according to Kumar.

“The average of our life-changing outcomes that we’ve tracked on the pilot page is $440 over six months, which is just under $80 [a month]. That’s not a lot of money, but we’re seeing huge impacts on people’s lives from even $80 a month.”

Samaritan’s larger vision of launching its platform in other U.S. cities is beginning to take shape, beginning with a one-year, 200-beacon trial with the Illumination Foundation, a nonprofit serving unsheltered people in Orange County, California.

The Illumination Foundation will use the Samaritan platform in its Recuperative Care program, which provides a place for unhoused individuals to recover after being discharged from emergency care at local hospitals. The program provides food and shelter at its 45-bed facility, along with medical oversight and social services, including housing referrals.

Samaritan also recently signed a contract with the Skid Row Housing Trust in Los Angeles, an innovative housing-first nonprofit that provides permanent supportive housing to formerly unhoused individuals.

Both organizations are set to launch their programs by the Christmas holiday.

Samaritan is one of several organizations seeking to connect everyday Seattleites with their homeless neighbors. The region has been in a state of emergency over its homelessness crisis since 2015, in part driven by a spike in housing prices that coincided with Seattle’s tech boom.

Other programs include Host Homes King County, where people with a spare room can host an unsheltered young adult, and the Facing Homelessness BLOCK Project, where homeowners volunteer to have a tiny home built in their backyard for unhoused individuals.

Kumar said that relationship-building is key to Samaritan’s success.

“The story of the good Samaritan is about a man who is left for dead on the side of the road, and another person comes by, the good Samaritan, and doesn’t just give him money through an app, he gives up his mode of time and transportation, gives up his to-do list and then just walks with this individual towards restoration,” Kumar said.

For Raven, Samaritan’s biggest impact has been how Samaritan staff and users of the app have related to him as a person.

“It’s that they see us as people – not as a junkie, not as a homeless bum, not as a loser,” he said. “They see people for what they can offer … it’s showing others that hey, there’s a diamond right here that just needs to be cleaned up.”

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