After countless people walked over the body of a homeless man on the Upper West Side of New York City before someone called an ambulance, Daniel Modell (dmnyc on the forums) decided he didn’t want to be “the one who walked by.” He wrote:
"If just one person had decided not to walk past this man, and instead, stop to talk to him, ask if he needed some help, just show him that someone cared, he might not have died that day in such a sad way."
I wanted to find out more about Daniel, the project he calls ChangeCup, and the people he has met on the streets of NYC.
Cheryl Hulseapple: How did you get started bringing coffee and food to the homeless?
Daniel Modell: I started this campaign on February 3 in response to reading a story in a local newspaper about a homeless man who had died on the street and people just kept walking over him. I knew that this was a symptom of a huge problem, and I decided that the best thing I could do would be to try to bring some awareness of this crisis to people who, by and large, have been totally desensitized to it.
This cup of coffee is for a guy wearing only socks in the subway at 49th & 7th, who didn't want to give his name. pic.twitter.com/TT61Nbc6Ln— ChangeCup NYC (@ChangeCupNYC) March 11, 2015
CH: How many homeless people are there in the city?
DM: Statistics say that there is an average homeless population of around 64,000, with over a third of those being children, but those numbers are only what is reported by the shelter system, so it’s hard for me to know if that’s accurate or not. The fact that there is even one homeless child in the United States should be enough for massive action, but clearly, that hasn’t happened.
CH: The day you decided to take your own action, what were your initial plans or expectations?
DM: When I started, I had no real expectations other than to deliver coffee on #TippingTuesday, a day when people seem to be generous with their tips. After a few tweets, I began receiving enough tips to deliver coffees throughout the day, so I decided to see if I could keep it going. I began by simply promoting the idea on ChangeTip to see what would happen. I had recently watched a YouTube video from a man named Adam who had been using his Bitcoin debit card to buy coffee and food for the homeless people of Montreal, as well as handing out cash during the holidays. It was a simple act that I thought could, if repeated by enough people, grow into a small movement.
CH: What kind of response have you had?
DM: While the response over Twitter has been modest, in some ways, it has been better than expected. A few people made very generous donations, which made up for the lack of many smaller tips, but hopefully over time, this will begin to even out. I don’t think I actually received many tips (if any at all) from people who were new to to Bitcoin, so there is definitely a lot of work to be done to explain what Bitcoin is, and how to use it. That said, I have received a lot of words of support from many of my uninitiated friends, a few who have expressed genuine interest, but want me to do more to explain how it all works. This is leading me to think that I need to create some first-hand tutorials just for them.
In the first week of my campaign, I raised close to US$100, and managed to double that by the end of the second week. It trailed off a bit, but I didn’t want to sound like I was just going on Twitter to ask for money. I knew that posting photos and accounts of the people I was helping would speak for itself. The reception was overly positive, though I did receive a couple negative messages about posting photos of the people I was helping out. I did not see anything wrong with doing this, because, to me, it felt like I was humanizing the face of homelessness. One of the first few people I bought a coffee for explained to me just how lonely he felt to be in this situation, and in fact, asked me to take photos of him so people would recognize him. I always asked for permission when taking photos, but lately, I’ve tried focusing more on photos of the drinks and food I’m providing, though I think this may be less effective in the long run. It’s all an experiment, so we’ll see.
CH: How much time do you devote to your efforts?
DM: I have a family and a full-time job, so I can’t be out there all day, but I do try to get to a handful of people each day. Basically, the times a day when I can be out there helping people are on the way to and from my office when I’m commuting, and when my schedule permits, on my lunch break. I enjoy taking walks in the middle of the day anyway, so this is a good way to combine both efforts. I have at times gone out late in the evening, because there is a Starbucks and some other stores where I know I can purchase coffee until about midnight near where I live. I also connected with the staff at an overnight homeless shelter nearby, and last night, I ordered pizzas and brought a box of coffee from Dunkin' Donuts.
Over the years of living in this city, I have a pretty good idea of where I can find people, but sometimes, it’s just a matter of being in the right place at the right time of day. Once I got off the train because I saw a man digging through a waste bin in a subway station. I asked him his name and if he would like me to bring him a coffee. He told me his name was Juan, and said he would prefer a hot chocolate, so I told him to wait there for five minutes. I knew there was a Starbucks directly above the train station, so I went upstairs, loaded up some money on my phone using Fold, which is an app that will generate a temporary Starbucks card within seconds of receiving a Bitcoin payment, and was on my way to delivering his drink in no time. He was stunned by this act of kindness, and I saw the look on his face change from sadness to joy like the flip of a switch. This is one of the rewards that really inspires me to do this.
CH: Does your family ever go with you?
DM: Usually, I am by myself, but I did in fact spend a Sunday walking around the Village with my family, and thought it would be a really valuable lesson for my children to see that the people that most others ignore and walk past are just as human as the rest of us. My daughter was probably the most excited to help people, and I let her bring a few drinks as well. I think we found six people to help that afternoon. My family is definitely on board with this.
CH: How many homeless children do you see?
DM: I have not actually seen any homeless children in the last couple of months, and generally speaking, I don’t see many at all in my trips around the city. Hopefully there are some safe indoor places where children can stay during the worst parts of this winter. The youngest people I’ve met have been in their late teens. One, who was sitting in a doorway, who seemed very distraught, asked me if I could help him buy a phone card to call home, so I just gave him some cash.
Another young man who I have actually spent quite a bit of time talking with is named Cassius. I found him living out of a sleeping bag in the entrance to a subway station on 5th Avenue. He was there with two of his older brothers, while they awaited word on whether they would receive an offer for temporary housing. He was also sharing a corridor with a very nice couple from the Midwest, who had fallen on hard times due to health issues, and lost their jobs, and eventually, their home. When I saw that he had an Android smartphone, I had the idea to tell him about Bitcoin, and explain the source of the money that I was raising. I had been telling people on and off that I had been receiving donations from people on the Internet, and even talked about Bitcoin to a few, some who I think genuinely understood the idea, but I saw this as a great time to try a new experiment.
CH: Do you ever help people create wallets and send them Bitcoin?
DM: Yes, Cassius didn’t have any minutes on his prepaid mobile plan, but he had been able to connect to the free Wi-Fi, a recent addition to the NYC subway system, and a real lifeline to many people who are in his situation. I asked him if he had a Twitter account, but he said he didn’t. He was mostly using the phone to receive email. So I asked him if he could open the app store and download Mycelium. With that on his phone, I was able to instantly send him a dollar in Bitcoin. I also posted the address on Twitter, and a chat group that I participate in with several other people involved in the tipping community, and by the end of the day he had received around US$8. I went back to check on him later, and he seemed pretty stunned by this. I made sure to return with some printouts of articles he could read about the subject, and brought him a notepad so I could show him how to make a backup of his wallet’s master passphrase.
April and Eddie, the couple sitting nearby, had also taken an interest in the subject, so I made sure to show them how to do the same thing on their phone. Unfortunately, April’s phone was a bit outdated, so we weren’t able to download the latest version of the wallet app, and I’m researching some other alternatives for her.
Apart from just receiving bitcoin, I wanted to make sure to explain how it could be used as well. I demonstrated using my own phone how they could purchase gift cards using Bitcoin, and that all of their basic day-to-day needs could be met this way, from personal items at drug stores, to coffee, inexpensive fast food, clothing and groceries. They instantly grasped the concept, and Eddie confided in me that he had been having a really difficult time receiving money from his family, who he said genuinely wants to help him, but due to his lack of a bank account and a permanent address, it has been a real challenge. Once he saw how quickly I could send him the equivalent of a dollar electronically, with just an app on his phone, a light bulb went off.
CH: What other plans do you have going forward, and would you like to share anything else?
DM: Ultimately, I’d like to try to get some help to fund a smartphone drive and Bitcoin education sessions to show people how this can help them. This could come in the form of events at public libraries and other places. Most of it will probably have to start through word of mouth, and perhaps I’ll find some help from others who can join me in doing this kind of outreach. I feel like there are so many places where the system has literally failed people who should never have found themselves in such a terrible situation. Most of the people I have encountered did not appear to me to be suffering mental problems, or exhibiting signs of drug addiction. There are people all around us who have just fallen through the cracks of society, and are looking for some kind of way to get back on their feet. Can Bitcoin be one of these ways? I certainly hope so.
What I see on the streets of New York is mostly a chance to help people become self-sufficient in a world that has abandoned them, by way of a basic understanding of a technology that is open to the world to use, but limited to those with specialized knowledge and access. If I can help narrow that gap, then I will feel that I have accomplished something even more valuable for them than bringing them coffee.
In the past week, I have been profiled on the ChangeTip blog as the tipper of the week, and added as a featured cause on their tip redirection page. I decided that this would be a good time to give a name to my activities, so ChangeCup NYC was born. If others are encouraged to take similar actions where they live, I’ll know that I have helped to bring about some positive change in the world.
All LTBc earned from this article will go to Daniel (dmnyc) to support his efforts to give to the homeless. If you'd like to help, you can do so in the following ways:
Donate LTBc: 18rw7mias4ewYtSRwpt4mML7wfScBpqv5W
Donate BTC to ChangeCup: changecup.tip.me