San Diego's Homeless Community Turning to Bitcoin and Alternative Finance During Economic Uncertainty.
Image Courtesy of Envato Elements
"It feels like the system has kind of just given up on us." - Mary, 42
With so much uncertainty swirling around the economy in general and social programs not a guarantee, the popularity of bitcoin is on the rise among San Diego's homeless.
I had a chance to catch up with Mary (name changed for anonymity) last week near San Diego State University. She was taking a break from "soliciting donations" off El Cajon Blvd.
What caught my eye was the giant QR code on her sign. When asked she told me that it links directly to her bitcoin cash wallet.
Facing hurdles in the traditional banking system, she told me that bitcoin and decentralized finance is catching fire.
What is Bitcoin
Digital gold. That's probably the easiest way to think of bitcoin.
It's a digital currency and store of value that creates scarcity through the complex cryptography protocols. Instead of spending time and resources digging increasingly deep holes in the ground to pull gold out, bitcoin miners spend resources to solve increasingly difficult cryptographic problems.
Bitcoin's Increased Adoption
The price of a single bitcoin has exploded since it was created in 2008.
Chart Data via CoinDesk
The first transaction conducted in bitcoin was a pizza. 10,000 bitcoin.
In April of 2021, bitcoin saw an all time high price of $64,000. As bitcoin has moved from a dad to an asset even some major institutions are investing in, the financial sector has taken notice.
Payment apps like PayPal and Stripe are providing a bridge between traditional banking and bitcoin. A bridge San Diego's homeless population is using to their advantage.
How San Diego's Homeless Are Embracing the New Digital Currency
Image Courtesy of Envato Elements
With nothing more than a smartphone, San Diego's homeless population are accumulating assets and improving their position.
Mary, who gets a monthly check from the government, uses a spate of bitcoin apps on her phone to earn interest, get loans, and leverage her small income.
And she does this largely off grid and under the radar.
I asked Mary to break down what she's doing and how her situation has changed since becoming "chronically homeless" in 2011.
"It's not like I can just get a credit card you know?" Mary tells me. The homeless, as a community, she tells me, make do.
Mary's system relies on three apps on her prepaid Android phone. There are many alternatives to each, but she sticks with these when she recommends them since she earns referral fees for people who she signs up.
She largely uses free wifi around the city, citing Balboa Park specifically when the weather is nice.
Photo Courtesy of Envato Elements
*Note* these are not recommendations or referrals here.
Saving and Lending
Mary is using an app called BlockFi to replace her savings account. While a savings account at a traditional bank pays under 1% interest, Mary is earning 8% interest on her stable coins. Stable coins are digital tokens that are tied to the US dollar. So one USDC for instance is equal to one US dollar.
BlockFi also will extend Mary a loan based on half of what she has deposited for 12% interest. So if she needs extra cash, she can borrow that at half of what a credit card might charge. And that's if she can get one.
When I walked up to Mary to ask her about her sign, she was filling out a survey on an app called Cointiply. Cointiply lets Mary earn coins that she can exchange for bitcoin when she reaches a certain amount, approximately $5. Mary says she earns roughly $10 a day working in her spare time on this app.
She says she can do this when the traffic on her corner is slow or while she's enjoying her coffee. It's a nice distraction that keeps her out of trouble.
The Cash App by Square has become Mary's go to link to the real world. They issued her a debit card that she funds with her bitcoin. This allows her to spend seamlessly wherever she would otherwise use her visa card. Vendors, like the motel she stayed in last night, are none the wiser that she's using bitcoin.
What the Future Holds for Mary
For Mary, the future isn't clear. She's sober for 4 years in June.
For now, Mary is convinced that she's better off taking her financial future into her own hands. A "self sovereign" as the bitcoin community describes it.
She will continue to earn and save in this new medium while acting as an evangelist for Bitcoin's adoption.
In the meantime, if you see Mary and her QR code adorned sign in the college area, consider saying hi and throwing her a few satoshis.
"There's a perception that we're all drug addicts and degenerates," she tells me. But some are just doing their best, struggling against a system that forgot about them.
Is Mary worried about the volitility in bitcoin?
"No. What? No. What else do I have to lose?"