Helping the Homeless With Your Phone: An Altruistic Startup Gains Traction in Denver

Helping the Homeless With Your Phone: An Altruistic Startup Gains Traction in Denver
Courtesy of Purposity
While there are plenty of traditional ways to assist people experiencing homelessness — by personally getting to know them and asking how you can be supportive, donating money and goods, volunteering — it was only a matter of time in the digital era before there was a personalized way to help via your phone or computer.

Purposity is a nationwide tech company that connects users to individual stories and tangible “needs” that can be fulfilled within minutes by purchasing requested items off Amazon. Users get a personal story a week via a text message describing an individual in need who’s close by. The story is accompanied with an item-ask that the user can decide to purchase. Individuals in need are kept anonymous for their privacy and safety.

"The items range from a package of underwear to full beds and frames. But the average need is around $30, which is a low threshold for many users,” says Jamie Rife, a local Purposity representative. “They get to connect to a story, and get a thank-you message from the person who's receiving the item. It's a transparent system that eases people into the idea of giving in a manageable way."

Purposity teams up with local nonprofits, which do the work of submitting needs and individual stories to the website on behalf of their clients. The team at Purposity edits and curates the submissions before they are sent to users. And when a need is fulfilled, it is the nonprofits that receive the items and distribute them to clients.

In Denver, Purposity has teamed up with Volunteers of America, Urban Peak, the Gathering Place, Mercy Housing and the Denver Public Schools Homeless Education Network.

click to enlarge COURTESY OF PURPOSITY
Courtesy of Purposity
Rife, who previously worked as a state coordinator in Colorado, educating homeless youth, says that Purposity’s focus in Denver is on individuals experiencing homelessness. But across the nation, it has helped all sorts of people, including families that are housed but need help making ends meet.

The outfit is headquartered in Atlanta, where Rife lived in 2015. She approached a friend, Blake Canterbury, with the idea of launching a digital platform that would use storytelling to inspire the public to help individuals in need. Canterbury became the founder of Purposity, with Rife helping cement a partnership with Atlanta Public Schools before she moved to Colorado with her husband.

The company took off once it partnered with Atlanta Public Schools. And as the platform has spread to all fifty states, Rife has seen plenty of amazing stories and acts of altruism. In Denver, that includes a user who bought pots and pans for an elderly woman who had just moved from a homeless shelter to transitional housing. "The outreach worker said she burst into tears, and said she couldn't believe that someone would do that for her," Rife recalls.

Rife explains that the company makes money through paid sponsorships. Foundations, nonprofits and businesses can pay to have their names displayed on each individual need as well as the main Purposity page for each geographic zone.

While the company keeps users engaged with text messages, the links in those messages go to Purposity’s website, which is where the entire platform is based. Rife says the company will unveil a phone app sometime this fall.

Since launching in Denver last November, Purposity has attracted over 650 regular users in the Mile High City, who have fulfilled over 450 needs. The company uses data to determine how many needs are posted each week so that certain requests don’t get buried.

"I will say this: If a need is posted, it's going to be met," Rife says. “In Denver, we’re running between fifteen and forty needs per week. And we’ve found that the biggest group of users, nationwide, is women aged 25 to 44.”

Rife expects the number of participants to increase dramatically when the app goes live.

"What I found is that stories change public opinion," Rife says. “And [Purposity] is really part of this larger vision for people to find purpose in their lives."
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Chris Walker is a freelancer and former staff writer at Westword. Before moving to the Mile High City he spent two years bicycling across Eurasia, during which he wrote feature stories for VICE, NPR, Forbes, and The Atlantic. Read more of Chris's feature work and view his portfolio here.
Contact: Chris Walker