The Homeless Fall Through Digital Divide

One unintended consequence of an increasingly digital society is the impact it’s having on the homeless. When asked, “What’s in your wallet?,” people are mostly replying with “Not cash.”

“It has became harder to make money,” says Billy Richardson, a formerly homeless veteran who lived in the tunnels of Las Vegas, but now resides with family near Houston. “I stayed out there until I made $14 or $15 because it got me a pizza, a 2-liter Mountain Dew, and, depending on where I went, cigarettes. If I had anything left over, I would get an ice cream cone.”

Richardson panhandled at Interstate 15 and Sahara Avenue and lived on the streets until recently. “It really became a struggle. … It’s usually the females who say, ‘I only have plastic or a phone.’”

In a 2014 survey, Bankrate.com, a personal finance website, found that nearly one in 10 Americans carried no money in their wallets.

A 2015 report by the Federal Reserve Board saw an increase in mobile payments in 2012, with almost half of consumers having access to mobile banking in 2013, and about one-fourth reporting that they had used mobile payments during 2014.

Wendi Adams, a homeless grandmother who reads crime novels outside the Bank of America near Fremont Street, has also seen a decrease in donations. “A lot of people don’t have cash on them anymore. Before, people were handing out cash and now it has declined. I would have made anywhere from $35 to $40, and today I made $5.”

You can still help even if you don’t use cash. Matt O’Brien, founder of Shine a Light, a community project that helps homeless people, thinks it’s better to offer to buy food than give cash. “I specifically chose to give them a $10 gift card to McDonald’s. I’ve seen [cash] support a bad habit of theirs.” 

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