I got to sit down with Jason King, founder of Sean’s Outpost Homeless Outreach and two of his friends who help with operations (Michael Kimberl and Adam Richard) to discuss how Sean’s Outpost has used donations from the Bitcoin community to feed and house the homeless in Pensacola, FL. It was an enlightening experience, and validated my belief that Bitcoin can be used to do so much good for the world in an easily accessible and effective way. Many of the photos are from the Sean’s Outpost blog, where you can follow their progress as they help the most downtrodden of Pensacola.
How did Sean’s Outpost start?
Jason King: So, Sean’s Outpost is named after my best friend Sean Dugas who was murdered last year, and I’m trying to keep his memory alive by figuring out something to do. Through Sean’s funeral, I met a man named Nathan Monk who had been a big homeless advocate in the area, but had recently fallen on hard times and his mission was closing down. There was going to be a hole in homeless outreach in Pensacola, so my wife and I decided we would do something; feeding the homeless, trying to take care of people. We started Sean’s Outpost in his name, and that was sort of our first jump down the rabbit hole in helping homelessness and dealing with poverty in Pensacola.
Why did you choose Bitcoin as a way to fund your project and what are some advantages for using Bitcoin to fund homeless outreach over traditional methods like cash donations?
JK: So, how Sean’s Outpost merged with Bitcoin was kind of serendipitously. I’ve been a Bitcoin proponent since 2010. So, I was sort of monitoring on the forums on reddit and the subreddit /r/Bitcoin, and earlier this year when we broke the $30 mark for price there was a shitload of speculation over it where people were arguing over whether there was a real value to Bitcoin or it was just imaginary numbers that we created on a computer with no real value to it. Then it broke $50 and those same conversations were there and I jumped up and said, “Hey, obviously this is a very interesting time to be in Bitcoin right now, but if you guys want to argue over whether this is reality or not, one Bitcoin will feed over 40 homeless people in Pensacola right now. If you guys want proof Bitcoin is real, send them to me, I’ll cash them out and feed homeless people.” And that’s pretty real, so that’s basically how we got started.
What are advantages? Well, there are a lot of advantages to it. One that comes to mind is [the time] from the moment we decided we were going to accept Bitcoin, we got a Bitcoin, and had converted and were feeding people with that Bitcoin was less than twenty four hours. With any other payment method, that would be unheard of; like with PayPal you would still be waiting for them to send it to your bank account or if you were getting a traditional merchant account you wouldn’t even be through the application process. So, with Bitcoin we were going to take payments and take them from anybody in the world, and we were able to set it up immediately. Anyone being able to send money to us in the world instantaneously is very valuable, and we’ve gotten donations from over twenty three different countries.
That’s awesome. Like you were saying earlier, many people regard Bitcoin as difficult to understand or it’s some kind of scheme and seems highly technical for your average person. How has it been received by the homeless community?
JK: I think to be honest is most people don’t care, and I can explain Bitcoin to them and if all they see is the end result that Bitcoin is paying for all this they say, “Oh, well it must be cool.” A lot of people say Bitcoin is hard to understand technologically, but if you think about it a credit card is really hard to understand technologically too, and we had a huge adoption problem with credit cards when they first started to release them. People were very skeptical of them, and if you had someone sit down and try explain it to you how an entire credit card network processes your transaction they can’t tell you, but they know how to use one. So, maybe you can’t explain to me how the blockchain works and you can’t tell me what the crypto-graphic hasing algorithms are, but you can probably use Bitcoin. We have homeless guys using Bitcoin, we have guys out on MLK (Plaza) with Android apps and they use Bitcoin. They do jobs online to earn more Bitcoin, and use it to buy Papa Johns to have delivered to the park. People are very, what’s the word?
Adam Richard: Adaptive.
Michael Kimbrel: They’ve definitely adapted to it quickly. The first day Jason showed one gentleman how to set up a wallet, and we went and ran some errands.
AR: Only a couple hours later, not very long at all.
MK: Yeah, it was just a couple hours, and the one gentleman had showed two other guys how to set up their own wallets and had loaned them some money or shared some of the Bitcoins with them to where they all three of them had Bitcoins.
AR: And then they all found Bitcoin Talk, all on their own. We didn’t give them any information. They were all nose deep in researching Bitcoin.
MK: They were even trying to figure out how to mine Bitcoin on their Androids. It was like, “Whoa, okay guys!”
That’s cool that they just picked it right up. Another criticism people have is that private charity is inadequate at meeting the needs of the downtrodden. What would you tell those critics who say we need the government to take care of people because private charity doesn’t do enough?
JK: I would say that probably private charity doesn’t do enough, and in those instances where private charity doesn’t do enough it’s because government is getting in the way of the private charities. I would say the government is woefully inept at dealing with its people. Just today, we have a homeless lady that we have been dealing with for about four months, she’s just the sweetest kid who contracted this horrible disease…she’s disabled and unable to walk now. In the system, she’s eligible for social security disability, but it was a pain in the ass to get it. And this is someone who, if you believe in the system, deserves that disability and it was a nightmare for her to get it. So, finally, today she had a check in her hand. It was like she could see the light at the end of the tunnel and she was gonna get off the street today.
MK: After being in the hospital two times…
JK: After being in the hospital two times, living in a train car, being unable to walk/paralyzed; this was such a terrible story. So, she’s got this government issued check and we have to go get her an ID card and fight with the DMV because she doesn’t have proper identification even though the government approved her for this and she didn’t have the identity to apply for that. So, there’s all this red tape, but now she’s got the check and she’s got this ID card. She went to two banks and three check cashing places and none of them would cash her check for her because she failed the credit ID verification, and what was kicking back is her permanent residency wasn’t verifiable by the computer system. This is a homeless person! So, finally she was able to cash it, but she had to cash it at some usurious check cashing place that took 6% of her check just to get her money, and you know that’s government benefits at work. That’s the government at work. Private charities like Sean’s Outpost are much more efficient.
I met these guys (Michael and Adam) through Food Not Bombs, and I think Food Not Bombs is the bar for setting the standard for pure efficiency for providing direct action for helping people. I’ve gotten a lot from these guys, and we’ve totally joined forces together and we’re making this big push to help here, but we’re on a much, much smaller budget with fewer people than the larger homeless organizations here. We are doing as much if not more than most homeless outreaches here. We go out and provide direct support now; we don’t pontificate about it, we don’t have meetings about a meeting or hold a fundraiser…
MK: A $10,000 fundraiser (laughter)…or horse races… (more laughter)
JK: If you’re hungry, here’s some food. You need a place to stay? Let’s get you a place to stay. It’s all about boots on the ground here, and government is terrible about that.
MK: It’s all bureaucracy; it’s all numbers. (laughter)
JK: I’m a former military man; it’s not all great. We’re terrible at doing a lot of stuff, and in the end even with the military you have these huge battalions, but the people doing the work are small, efficient teams filled with deadly motherfuckers. That’s the theory: when you paint in broad strokes, you’re gonna miss a lot, but when you have a small group of dedicated people set on accomplishing a task you can get a lot further. I come from a technology background straight up out of the start-up technology world, and there’s a concept of methodology there that a small team of highly trained, efficient people can knock an incumbent off of their seat by being more focused and result oriented, so we’re trying to apply that same thing to philanthropy and nonprofits.
That leads into another question I have. Have any public officials or activist groups come out in support of what you’re doing? You mentioned partnering with Food Not Bombs, any other groups come out?
JK: Well, Food Not Bombs, and there’s some other local outreaches like Helping Hands and just individuals that have shown support, but there are homeless support groups that think what we’re doing is terrible because we’re not asking permission. You know, we’re not holding meetings to discuss things about homeless people when we haven’t actually talked to them as people. And it’s counterproductive because I never would have thought that feeding someone who is hungry would have been such a political statement. I never would have in a million years thought there would be so much aversion to what we’re doing, but there is. There are tons of people who look at us like we’re feeding stray animals, and around here it’s terrible. It’s illegal to be homeless in Pensacola.
I was just about to say, The Panhandling Ordinance passed in May of this year that pretty much made homelessness illegal. So, you notice people have been criticizing you, what have public officials or other groups been saying to you?
JK: I’m a military veteran so to me they speak out of both sides of their mouth. They can’t come out and say “You know we’re completely against what you’re doing.” Or, “We appreciate your passion! However, sleeping in a public park is a criminal act and you’re going to go to jail.” The talk like yes they understand what we’re doing, but the truth is they don’t. They don’t understand what we’re doing, and we’ve done public records requests and we’ve actually seen the emails from local business owners and city councilmen and how they speak about these people. They don’t talk about them in terms of being human, they talk in terms of [them] being garbage.
AR: Yeah, literally, garbage. “When the beggars descend on downtown Pensacola…” I think was an exact quote.
MK: “When the beggars descend on Palafox.” But yeah, that was from a local business owner.
JK: There’s an entire class of people here that don’t see homeless people as people, but as a problem or a nuisance. It’s a huge problem and a trend in Florida; down in Orlando they literally put up signs saying “Don’t Feed the Homeless” like they’re stray dogs.
In Mobile (Alabama) they do that, too. I noticed it when I was there a few years ago they had the signs everywhere, and I wondered if it would eventually come to Pensacola because it’s similar situations and sure enough it did. I remember reading the homeless being described as “eyesores” I kept seeing that term “eyesore” numerous times in PNJ (Pensacola News Journal).
JK: We all three spoke at city council meetings when these ordinances were passed, and it’s a basic numbers game. We’ve got over 1,000 homeless people in Escambia County and 30 permanent homeless shelter beds. So, even a basic math level it’s 970 people that will have no place to sleep, and criminalizing them doesn’t give them a place to sleep or a place to go; it gives them a jail cell. And as a taxpayer, that’s just a waste of my money to put someone [in jail]. I’d much rather they sleep on a park bench instead of paying a hundred dollars a night for them to stay in jail.
AR: I think it was more than a hundred dollars a night.
JK: I think it depends on how far into the system they get, processing…
MK: It also depends on medical and mental problems. Once you’re arrested, it’s the state’s responsibility to cover all medical and mental problems, and the price varies depending on the issues. A lot of homeless people have mental issues.
JK: I think the statistics on that are if you were to house a homeless person in a permanent residence it’s about $6,000 a year. To house them in prison is about $36,000 a year, and then [at] a mental institution is $115,000. It goes up exponentially, so can’t we just build some shelters to get these guys off the streets? “No, we can’t do that. We don’t have money for that.”
AR: And not just empty school buildings, the city’s littered with abandoned buildings. Everywhere you see there’s an empty building somewhere that looks like it’s been abandoned for five or ten years even. Boarded up places all over…
JK: I have a really bad taste in my mouth over the City Council passing the ordinances. We had tons of people going down there when these meetings are usually empty, but the last one we filled the chambers. And they augmented the amount of time you can speak because we were going to go into the next day with speakers; it was a laundry list of people speaking out saying this is horrible, we can’t do this, and no one spoke up for it [in favor of the ordinance]. Except for one lady, and that was at one of the preliminary meetings. No one spoke up for these ordinances at all, and they [City Council members] didn’t even care. It’s because they don’t have to listen.
MK: And right after that, while I was in the hospital, they passed [a motion] that now you’re not even allowed to speak as long as you used to be. You can only speak for three minutes now, and you can’t even speak at the Monday meetings anymore.
Have you run into any problems trying to build these small houses? Anyone saying you’re violating codes?
JK: Currently we’re not violating any laws because we’re building on trailers. There’s no building code associated with building a recreational vehicle, so there’s no code to violate as long as we’re parking them where trailers can be parked at, and everywhere we’re talking about [building them] currently that’s the case. That being said, we assume it won’t be very long before those laws start getting made and we start having problems.
I saw on your blog that you received a large sum of Bitcoins from Butterfly Labs/Bitcoin Development Fund. What’s the latest on how this donation is being applied to homeless outreach? Is it mostly for food or for the houses?
JK: It’s mostly going towards food. And a huge cost that a lot of people don’t think about, especially in Pensacola where homeless populations are diversified and all over the place now—we used to have a couple areas that were really dense with homeless people where you could go in and hook a bunch of people up—but they bulldozed them all down and ran everybody off, so fuel is a huge cost in making sure food gets to people. But most of what Butterfly Labs has given us has gone towards food, and that’s what we told them we would spend it on.
How can people get involved/donate, and what are you looking for more now—volunteers or donations?
JK: What we need more than money is boots on the ground. We need a hand because there’s only like four or five people who are active all the time and some people that provide intermittent support. We could do a lot more with more volunteers. Money is great and Bitcoin is fantastic, unfortunately we live in a world where shit costs stuff, so we gotta pay for it somehow. We could use more volunteers.
What is your vision of the future in regard Bitcoin, the threats that might come to it and also the opportunity it provides to individuals?
JK: In terms of the threats that come to it—and I could be completely optimistic on this—I think the genie’s out of the bottle in terms of crypto-currency. And even if it ends up not being Bitcoin, I think there’s so many advantages to instantaneous, worldwide open platform payment that you control and there’s no middle man involved in; you don’t have to deal with the bank or pay transaction fees. I think there’s too much value to that to say, “We don’t need that shit anymore.” But I think as much as governments might deplore or try to regulate it and as much as banks may hate it, crypto-currency is here. There is no going back; I think that Bitcoin or a form of crypto-currency will probably in the next twenty years or so completely ape every other form of currency on the planet. I could be wrong, but there are just too many ups, and our legacy of banking system is terrible; it’s criminal, and banks that rob you want to give you classes on managing your money!* There’s too many people that see problems with that and would be much happier managing their own funds and not needing to use banks, but rather Bitcoin. It has [central banking] been obsolete for a while. That was sort of the joke we were making while we were getting these phone calls about this homeless lady not being able to cash her check; this was a government check, so they were like, “Well, I don’t know if I can honor this check because I don’t know if this government check is worth anything. [laughter] Huh, it does say backed by the good faith of the government, I don’t know if I can really value this here!” Yeah, I think Bitcoin’s probably here to stay. Mad love to Litecoin, too, mad love to Litecoin. Today was actually Litecoin Thursday, all of our sack lunches said “Sean’s Outpost loves Litecoin” on them.
MK: Going back to your question about people not knowing a lot about the technology, I would be one of those people. When I first met Jason, I didn’t know anything about Bitcoin, or how to have a wallet or any of that. Jason showed me a lot about it and I also started doing my own research, and the thing that really sparked my interest in it was that it is based off of an economic theory that by saving your money it causes the value of money to go up which is something that helped pull us out of the Great Depression and as a culture the United States has lost sight of that. The theories behind how crypto-currency worked really clicked with me, and as far as technology goes I am the opposite end of the spectrum from where Jason comes from; he’s headfirst into technology, I don’t even have a smartphone. I have fought having a computer until about five or six years ago. Even though I just got my own computer it’s been fairly easy for me to pick up on how to use and spend Bitcoin, so it really doesn’t take long. Technology for this younger generation as opposed to my generation is like breathing to them, it’s second nature.
*Recently big banks in the area like Bank of America have begun projects to reach out to people in Pensacola to teach them how to handle their finances. One can only assume the first piece of advice would be maybe not blow so much money that someone else needs to bail you out.
Original content by Meghan, copyleft, tips welcome