GoFundMe for the homeless: A new plan to fundraise with stories

AUSTIN (KXAN) - When Kevin Price moved to Austin a few years back, he was shocked by the number of people he saw sleeping on the streets.

Coming from a small town in New Mexico, he had never seen so many homeless people in one place before. "I knew instantly the first day that I got here I was going to do something to make a difference," he said.

This week, ahead of South By Southwest, he's poised to start doing that, launching an online platform called Hearing the Homeless that connects potential donors to individual homeless people with specific needs through storytelling.

"Kevin is very passionate about it, you know, so I think that’s the motor of the whole project," said Victor Vazquez, a local filmmaker working on the project. He met Price at the Terrazas Branch of the Austin Public Library on Monday, a common hangout for some of the city's homeless.

That's where the pair met up with Chris Gillam. Most nights he sleeps out behind or near the library, and his large rolling suitcase is always in tow. After getting laid off from his moving job in Florida a few years ago, Gillam relies a lot on what people give him.

"She must have seen me and realized that I am in fact a 3X person," he said, digging through a paper bag containing several nice shirts a woman walked up and gave him earlier in the day, "‘cause they’re all 3 and 4X shirts."

Vazquez and Price spent an hour or so talking to Gillam Monday morning, recording his story -- how he ended up homeless, what life is like now, who he is as a person. "That’s really kind of the message behind our program. It’s hearing the homeless one human at a time," Price said.

"Tell me a little bit about where you’ve been sleeping out here," Price prompted Gillam during the shoot. "Pretty much this whole area is my, like, sleeping grounds," he responded, looking around the parking lot and area around the library.

The edited video will be posted online in the coming days, along with several others to start. Price hopes to keep expanding the library of stories on his site, "and then you can donate individually to whatever person whose story moves you," he said.

"Kind of like a GoFundMe for the homeless."

Price plans to put the funds onto reloadable debit cards that allow him to control where the money is spent and for what purposes. "They can use it to go have this surgery," he said. "They can use it to go get this computer; they can use it to get this first month’s rent."

He's hoping to provide an alternative to the services the city already provides. Ann Howard, executive director of the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, or ECHO, in Austin -- one of those current service providers -- called Price's idea a "creative" way to address the problem for those who are still waiting for help.

She doesn't know him personally and appreciates his compassion, she said, but wants to make the videos don't come across as exploitative. Howard said she doesn't have any reason to be concerned, but "I hope he would be careful."

"I wish there was more people like him, you know, that could look past what some people just consider an eyesore," Gillam said.

The people whose stories Price tells, who he calls his "representatives," will also function as art vendors through another facet of Price's project.

He's passed out thousands of 5x7" art boards to several schools around central Texas, as well as professional artists in Austin. The recipients paint or draw whatever they'd like and then return the completed pieces to Price.

"They are really excited about it," Bernadine Nowell said of her art students at Lehman High School in Kyle. She jumped at the opportunity to take part in the program. "Anybody who’s been in Austin can see the need."

They've produced a few hundred of the small pieces and plan to keep doing it, Nowell said, because her students view it as a "real opportunity to help people."

The art created by the students and pros alike will then be packaged into envelopes that Price's representatives will pass out, starting Saturday at his first pop-up event. People then donate what they think the art is worth.

The first pop-up event to distribute the packaged art will happen Saturday during a SXSW conference at the Westin Hotel downtown. He recommended following their Facebook page for times and locations of future pop-ups.

Taken together, Price wants to change the way people view the homeless in Austin.

"I hope it bears fruit and it really works and it has some benefit for me," Gillam said, who added a donated bus pass would go a long way for him. "Or if not me, somebody in the homeless community."

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