Charitable giving to the homeless in Harvard Square is getting a technological makeover.
Fifteen tablets, using touchscreen and wireless technology, are being installed at local stores to give residents and visitors the opportunity to donate money with the swipe of a credit card.
“This is a lot like the Salvation Army kettle but using 21st-century technology,” said Denise Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association. “As a society, we just don’t really carry change anymore and a lot of people don’t even carry cash, so this will be a much more effective and efficient way to give.”
The initiative was spearheaded by the business association and Leaf Holdings Inc., a Cambridge start-up that designed the system and donated the tablets. It will benefit seven Harvard Square charities aiding the homeless.
The tablets allow users to donate from $1 to more than $100 for food, clothing, and shelter. They have already been installed at seven local businesses and will be available at eight more locations this month.
Youth on Fire director Ayala Livny, whose organization will receive a portion of the donations, said the project exemplifies Harvard Square’s spirit.
“It’s combining cutting-edge technology with a business association that has a very strong, progressive community outlook to benefit a group of of organizations supporting people who are struggling in the area,” she said. “In a way, I kind of think this would only ever happen in Harvard Square.”
Nearly 500 people are homeless in Cambridge, according to Census Bureau data. But Cambridge Police Commissioner Robert Haas said that number has been growing in recent years.
“When we saw an uptick in panhandling and begging, that was disconcerting to a lot of folks,” Hass said. “But businesses sort of said, ‘Oh, police will take care of it,’ and service agencies were working but not really cohesive. Now, we’re all working in one of the most unique collaborations I’ve seen in a long time, and the relationship has really paid off.”
While some business communities might want to avoid the homeless, Jillison said, Harvard Square aims to make the place welcoming to all people. Even so, she said, many do not feel comfortable giving directly to panhandlers.
“The problem is, people throw change in the cup but can’t really know where it’s going,” she said. “A lot of times, that money is used for illicit behavior, whether its drugs or alcohol. But by giving to the agencies, we can make sure homeless get the care they need in a transparent, trackable way.”
The electronic system could lead to less interaction between the broader community and the homeless, but Livny said she hopes those who donate will also engage with the homeless on a personal level.
“Our members often say the hardest thing about being homeless is the sense of being invisible. People walk by you, pretend you don’t exist,” she said. “But so many will tell you, you don’t have to give us money. But have a conversation; look us in the eye; say have a nice day. There’s power and dignity in that.”
If the program is as successful as the community hopes, Jillson said she’ll work to expand it in Harvard Square and hopes it serves as a model for others.