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Community / Public space

This app lets New Yorkers donate to the homeless with a single tap – but not with their own money

It’s not something we talk about much, but the likelihood that we’ll donate to a particular charity often has a lot to do with context.

Take last year’s charity success story, the Ice Bucket Challenge. The videos – mostly hosted on Facebook – were seen by millions of office workers and people sitting on their computers at home, for whom the option of entering payment information was only a few clicks away. This ease of transforming an impulse into a donation may well have contributed to the campaign’s success. 

When it comes to donating to homeless charities, however, context often works in the opposite way. We’re most likely to feel compelled to donate while walking past a homeless person; perhaps we feel that donating directly would be irresponsible, and it would be better to donate to a shelter. But there’s no easy way to do this while walking along the street.

To make things even more difficult, Apple has strict rules governing payment on phone apps: you can’t donate with a single tap. Instead, apps must navigate you to another screen where you enter payment details, which would be enough to put many people off. 

In order to tackle this tangle of offputting factors, along with New York’s escalating numbers of homeless people, three app designers from New York have created WeShelter, a phone app that does allow you to raise funds for homelessess with a single tap. In essence, it works by taking your money out of the equation. 

Here’s the set-up: if you feel an impulse to donate to a homeless charity, you open up the app and tap the single green button on the homescreen:

This action – and this is the weird bit – then “unlocks” money donated by a sponsor, whose logo flashes up on your screen. According to the app’s FAQs, the amount unlocked will vary depending on the funding available at that time, but will usually equate to about 5 cents, which then goes to homelessness services in the city. Also from the homescreen, you can call 311, New York’s city helpline, where you could report a homeless person who seemed to need help; or see a list of links to homeless charities.


When you tap the button, the app also asks what prompted you to do so. If it’s that you just walked past a homeless person, the app collects your location data so outreach teams working with the app can better send direct help.

So what’s in it for the sponsors? Ilya Lyashevsky, one of the app’s creators, tells CityLab that it allows companies to have a “direct connection to the impulse to do good”:

In effect, the sponsor’s brand is kind of the main event… The user’s action is directly enabled by the sponsor.

The app company itself, meanwhile, currently operates as a non-profit and shaves off 10 per cent of the money raised for operational costs, while donating 90 per cent to homelessness organisations in the city. 

It’s hard to shake the feeling that sponsors could just donate directly – or that New Yorkers could just get on their laptops and donate themselves. But as another method to harness momentary impulses to help someone out, WeShelter seems like A Good Thing. 
This article is from the CityMetric archive: some formatting and images may not be present.