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Boston nonprofit aims to help the unhoused with prepaid debit cards

GiveCard cofounders and Boston College graduates Lurein Perera and Diksha Thach.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Joseph Freer lives on the streets of Boston with his partner, having lost his housing after losing his job during the pandemic. On a recent day, he was panhandling when a man walked up to offer him a deal.

“He asked me if I could use a Visa card with money on it that I could do with what I wanted,” Freer said. “I said, ‘Of course.’ He said that he would set that up.”

Soon after the stranger invited him to apply online, Freer received a debit card from GiveCard, a Boston-based fintech nonprofit aiming to help stabilize the finances of housing-insecure individuals by distributing money for them to spend freely.

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Cardholders typically receive $250 a month for three months, and since its launch in April, the nonprofit has given out more than 180 of the cards to people who applied for one through its website. Recipients can use them nearly anywhere — liquor stores, smoke shops, casinos, and ATMs are excluded.

Freer, who has another job now, said the money allowed him to purchase better shoes for work. And with winter coming, he used some of it to buy new blankets and coats.

“It was actually very easy to use,” Freer said. “It was extremely helpful, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.”

The program, started by two recent Boston College graduates ― Lurein Perera and Diksha Thach ― serves as one of the first real-world experiments, outside of government programs or academic research studies, in simply handing out sums of money with no strings attached.

GiveCard has received funding from individual donors and, recently, from the Forest Foundation, which makes grants to emerging nonprofits in Greater Boston. It initially partnered with local shelters and posted fliers to spread local awareness about the opportunity. Since then, the nonprofit’s waitlist has grown to about 700 people around the country. For now, it restricts its services to those in Boston and Cambridge.

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Perera and Thach say they designed GiveCard to suit an increasingly cashless world. Often, the simplest barrier to helping someone surviving without shelter isn’t any lack of willingness from passersby, but the absence of physical bills in their wallets.

The digital nature of the endeavor also means GiveCard can track anonymized transaction data and observe an individual’s progress toward achieving stability: How are they spending during their first month versus their third? Perera said the numbers enable GiveCard to measure its impact.

It’s also why people applying to the program must be willing to share their spending data, meet with the GiveCard team on a biweekly basis, and have a reliable way to communicate with the organization — such as access to a shelter phone.

When someone first receives a card, Perera said, smaller and more frequent purchases are common — such as a $6 lunch at McDonald’s, a $10 dinner at Burger King. But once that person is close to securing housing, there tends to be a “severe drop” in everyday spending as the recipient saves for a rental deposit. Other big purchases, such as a $60 Target run or a $100 Stop & Shop trip, can indicate the individual is now housed and has access to refrigeration.

“Our thesis is just give people money and give people autonomy and trust that they’ll uplift themselves in whatever ways they see fit,” Perera said. “And that’s starting to show to be true.”

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GiveCard distributes free debit cards loaded with money to housing-insecure people in Boston and Cambridge.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Out of its 20-person pilot program, three GiveCard recipients have moved into permanent or transitional housing through the help of the card. One participant used the money to purchase a phone, which allowed her to contact shelters and government agencies. She eventually found one willing to place her on a waitlist for subsidized housing. Another used his card to pay for an ID, a necessity when applying for government benefits or starting a job.

For Freer, who spends his nights outside of an MBTA station where warm air floats up from inside, finding long-term housing remains a struggle. He said he would be able to afford rent each month, but he can’t come up with a security deposit and first and last months’ rent.

While he said Perera is putting together a funding campaign to help him and his partner raise enough money to move into an apartment, not every GiveCard recipient strives to put the money toward housing. One man who has been unhoused for about 50 years used his card to finance a bus trip to Colorado, where he met his grandchild for the first time.

“These are just things that people aren’t able to do because they’re so entrenched in poverty,” Perera said. “And government assistance is awesome, but it’s not there yet. It’s not designed to give people this type of freedom. Like with food stamps, you can’t even buy a hot meal.”

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Backed by data showing GiveCard works, the founders say they hope larger donors will be inclined to take it more seriously. Perera said early investors knew it was risky to place their trust in “some kids trying to randomly give out debit cards.”

But the benefits people have reaped from the cards thus far are a reminder of what happens when people in poverty gain the autonomy to pull themselves into a better situation, Thach said.

“A lot of stories about homelessness don’t come from people facing homelessness,” she said. “It comes from people that are housed or have an opinion on how to solve homelessness but have never actually talked to someone facing homelessness. I think it’s important that [people without housing] have a voice in all this, too.”


Angela Yang can be reached at angela.yang@globe.com.