Homeless, Unemployed, and Surviving on Bitcoins
- BY DANIELA HERNANDEZ
- 6:30 AM
Paul Harrison, Chris Kantola, and Jesse Angle, scrounging for bitcoins outside a public library in Pensacola, Florida.Photo: Michael Spooneybarger/WIRED
Jesse Angle is homeless, living on the streets of Pensacola, Florida. Sometimes he spends the night at a local church. Other nights, he sleeps behind a building in the heart of the city, underneath a carport that protects him from the rain.
Each morning, he wakes up, grabs some food, and makes his way to Martin Luther King Plaza, a downtown park built where the trolley tracks used to run. He likes this park because his friends hang out there too, and it's a good place to pick up some spending money. But he doesn't panhandle. He uses the internet.
The park offers free wireless access, and with his laptop, Angle watches YouTube videos in exchange for bitcoins, the world's most popular digital currency.
For every video he watches, Angle gets 0.00004 bitcoins, or about half a cent, thanks to a service, called BitcoinGet, that shamelessly drives artificial traffic to certain online clips. He can watch up to 12 videos a day, which gets him to about six cents.* And he can beef up this daily take with Bitcoin Tapper, a mobile app that doles out about 0.000133 bitcoins a day — a couple of pennies — if he just taps on a digital icon over and over again. Like the YouTube service, this app isn't exactly the height of internet sophistication — it seeks to capture your attention so it can show you ads — but for Angle, it's a good way to keep himself fed.
Angle, 42, is on food stamps, but that never quite gets him through the month. The internet provides the extra money he needs to buy a meal each and every day. Since setting up a bitcoin wallet about three or four months ago, he has earned somewhere between four or five bitcoins — about $500 to $630 today — through YouTube videos, Bitcoin Tapper, and the occasional donation. And when he does odd jobs for people around Pensacola — here in the physical world — he still gets paid in bitcoin, just because it's easier and safer. He doesn't have to worry as much about getting robbed.
Jesse Angle isn't your average homeless person. But he shows that bitcoin is changing the world inmore ways than you might imagine. Some believe it could provide a major boost to the country's640,000 homeless, not only in providing extra pocket change for those on the street, but by helping urban homeless shelters more quickly secure donations for hot meals, beds, and blankets.
Angle learned about bitcoin through Sean's Outpost, a Pensacola charity that has raised about $32,000 through a program that solicits donations in bitcoins rather than American dollars. So far, it has received donations from 25 different countries, and this has bought almost 16,000 meals for Pensacola homeless.
"Bitcoin beats the shit out of regular money," says Jason King, the founder of Sean's Outpost. "We've resonated so well with people because it's direct action. There's no chafe between donation and helping people." That could change, as regulators in the U.S. put the clamps on the use of bitcoin. But for now, in the world of the homeless, it reduces chafe in more ways than one.
Paul Harrison, after his computer loses battery power in the middle of a video game. Photo: Michael Spooneybarger/WIRED
Bitcoin: The Great Equalizer
Jesse Angle says bitcoins are harder to come by than spare change shared by people walking down the streets. But there are other reasons for him to go digital.
"It's a lot less embarrassing," he says. "You don't have to put yourself out there." And unlike panhandling in Pensacola, using an app like Bitcoin Tapper won't put him on the wrong side of the law. This past May, Pensacola — where Angle has lived since April — passed an ordinance that bans not only panhandling but camping on city property.
Yes, you need a smartphone to earn bitcoins — or some other device that gets you onto the internet. But the homeless carry mobile devices more often than you might expect. Angle's homeless friends Chris Kantola and Paul Harrison also have phones, and they aren't unlike people living on the streets in other parts of the country. At San Francisco's Tenderloin Technology Lab — a nonprofit that provides the city's poor and homeless access to computers — organizers say that many of its clients use personal phones to connect to the net. Android is the mobile platform of choice.
You also need power, but that's not that hard to come by. When Angle and his pals run out of juice for their phones, they walk from Martin Luther King Plaza to the local Pensacola library, where they can plug into outdoor outlets on the side of the wall.
The bitcoin system could become an equalizer for the country's homeless, a place where the stigma of living on the streets isn't as pronounced. "Homeless people don't like to raise their hands and say they're different," says Mark Horvath, an advocate for using the internet and social media to help end homelessness. "Nobody does." In the bitcoin world, they don't have to.
If you're homeless, the great thing about bitcoin is that you can set up a wallet without an ID or a street address. And once you start filling this wallet, there are plenty of ways of converting bitcoins into cashand food and other goods, all without identification.
After earning his money with apps like Bitcoin Tapper, Angle turns to another tool called Gyft, an Android app that converts his bitcoin reserves into gift cards for places like Papa John's pizza. He can then buy a pie online, have it delivered, and share it with Kantola and Harrison.
The next day, his friends might return the favor. They too have their own bitcoin wallets. "We're kind of the homeless geeks," Angle says. "We all got laptops and smartphones."
Angle gives Kantola a shave in the park, after packing up his computer. Photo: Michael Spooneybarger/WIRED
A Bitcoin Shelter From the Storm
Angle used to work as a network engineer and a computer repair technician — as well as a carpenter and a pool cleaning guy, among other jobs — but the work eventually petered out, and he wound up homeless when his roommates moved out of his apartment and he couldn't afford the rent on his own.
After a few months, he got back under a roof, but that didn't last, so he decided to live on the street for a while, rather than yo-yoing between home and homelessness.
He was the first of his group to start using bitcoin. He became a regular at Sean's Outpost, and one day, after Jason King, the organization's founder, mentioned the digital currency, Angle pulled out his Android phone and asked King to help him set up a digital wallet. "When he left," Angle remembers. "I showed my friends which app to get."
King is a longtime fan of bitcoin and its mission to create an online peer-to-peer network for transactions. When he started Sean's Outpost, he didn't set out to help the homeless through the digital currency, but that's what happened. As the value of a bitcoin topped $50, he saw the milestone as an opportunity to prove the nay-sayers wrong, to show them that bitcoin wasn't just the latest geek fad, but something of real value.
In addition to helping people like Angle make their own money through bitcoin, King began soliciting bitcoin donations to Sean's Outpost. "If you give me one bitcoin," he'd say, "I can feed 40 homeless people in Pensacola. That's proof that it has real value."
He took to reddit to advertise this new model, promising to put donor names on each bagged lunch made possible through bitcoin donations. Within 12 hours of launching, he had given out 80 meals — something he couldn't have done so quickly if he'd raised money through more traditional means. Even Paypal, he says, is a dinosaur compared to Bitcoin because it can take days to set up an account, and it saddles people with fees and restrictions. More recently, he started taking donations in Litecoin, a digital currency not unlike bitcoin.
Using these new-age money systems, King is also tapping into what you might call the digital nouveau riche — all those people that jumped on digital currency early, when it was dirt cheap, and quickly amassed fortunes. "Some tech guys and nerds like myself who got into it early now have millions," King says. "For that group, it's a very tangible concept to take virtual currencies and help people with it."
Other charity organizations are working along similar lines. Bitcoin100 was started with the sole purpose of encouraging charities to accept bitcoins, and it now counts the Khan Academy and the Virtual Doctor Project among its success stories. A woman named Connie Gallippi has launched the first bitcoin-only charity — the BitGive Foundation — hoping to build a multi-million dollar fund for environmental and health-related causes. And in San Francisco, Project FEED is using bitcoin toaccept donations for hoodies that can clothe the homeless this winter.
Meanwhile, Sean's Outpost has opened something it calls BitHOC, the Bitcoin Homeless Outreach Center, a 1200-square-foot facility that doubles as a storage space and homeless shelter. The lease – and some of the food it houses — is paid in bitcoins through a service called Coinbase. For gas and other supplies, Sean's Outpost taps Gyft, the giftcard app Jesse Angle and his friends use to purchase pizza.
King has also started recruiting the homeless to build houses for other homeless people to live in, and whenever possible, he's paying them in bitcoin. Just this month, Sean's Outpostannounced Satoshi Forest, which King calls a "sanctuary for the homeless." The $90,000 nine-acre plot will contain multiple homes for the homeless, dubbed BitHouses.
In the first 18 hours after the announcement, redditors donated roughly 10 bitcoins, or two months' worth of mortgage payments, and King managed to convince Bob Dale, the property holder, to take the $600 mortgage in bitcoin. This is the only property for which Dale is currently accepting digital currency, but so far, he says, "it's been a good experience because bitcoins have gone up in value, so it's more than I would have gotten in regular dollars."
In the long-term, King wants to morph this into a business in the "buy-one-get-one-free" spirit of Tom's Shoes, Warby Parker, and rubberit. Jesse Angle and his friends Kantola and Harrison want to help with this new endeavor, but they may have trouble getting to the BitHouse location because they don't own cars. Watching videos on YouTube earns you only so many bitcoins.
Chris Kantola shows his frustration after losing his Wi-Fi connection on a bench in Martin Luther King Plaza. Photo: Michael Spooneybarger/WIRED