When Kate McClure's car got stuck without gasoline on I-95, $20 became transformational.
For Johnny Bobbitt Jr., $400,000 could have been transformational — but has, so far, turned out much differently.
The saga started with an act of kindness by Bobbitt — a homeless person in addiction — when he gave his last $20 to McClure, became a viral sensation (including an appearance on Good Morning America), and then saw the story turn into a criminal investigation. McClure and her boyfriend, Mark D'Amico, raised $400,000 for Bobbitt — only a portion of which he said he received. Now Bobbitt is armed with lawyers and the couple are likely to face criminal charges.
While Bobbitt's story of addiction and homelessness is tragically common, having your story go viral is rare. The sad truth is that to get out of poverty in the age of GoFundMe, you need a lot of luck. After decades of devastating government cuts to the safety net that is supposed to ensure people's most basic necessities are covered, and with platforms such as GoFundMe that brings charitable causes to people's laptops and phone, those with a good story are those who are deserving of assistance.
Who, then, is responsible for the well-being of all the people who are suffering but don't have a story compelling enough for Good Morning America or the Philadelphia Inquirer?
The not-so-happy ending to Johnny Bobbitt's story is not only that he didn't get the donations meant for him (GoFundMe said it will compensate him the full amount), but that charity will not solve complex problems like addiction, homelessness, or poverty.
The $400,000 that GoFundMe raised could have made a difference to a single individual, but it feels like a drop in the bucket when we consider the 6,000 homeless people on the street every night in Philadelphia.
The fact is, though, that even $400,000 can go a long way. For example:
For a person in addiction, having an ID could be the difference between being able to access treatment or not. Getting one requires a birth certificate, which in Pennsylvania costs $20 and in New Jersey $25. With $400,000, Pennsylvania could waive the birth-certificate fee for 20,000 people and New Jersey could waive it for 16,000. A state ID is also not free and $400,000 is enough to waive the ID fee for 13,115 people in Pennsylvania and 16,666 in New Jersey.
$400,000 can also literally end homelessness for many.
"The reason people are homeless is because they don't have the money to pay the rent," according to Liz Hersh, the director of the Philadelphia Office of Homeless Services. With $400,000 her office could add 26 more shelter beds that would serve through the year 70 to 80 people. Further, it could pay for rapid rehousing — one year of rent and supported services — for 38 individuals. According to Hersh, 80 percent of those who are rapidly rehoused will not return to the street. In other words, $400,000 could end the homelessness of 30 people. That's a lot.
With $400,000 the city could buy 5,333 doses of naloxone — a medication that reverses an opioid overdose — potentially saving as many lives. The money could also pay for a methadone treatment — the gold standard of addiction treatment — for 85 people for a year. Sister Mary Scullion, executive director of Project HOME, a nonprofit that works at the intersection of homelessness and addiction, is in the midst of developing 100 recovery housing units in Kensington for homeless people in addiction. The housing is coupled with employment, health care, and recovery services. With $400,000 she could fund 21 to 24 units — depending on extent of services — for a year.
The money could also put food in many people's mouths. The $400,000 could pay for a year of food for 110 people — according to the estimated cost of the second-to-most generous meal plan of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Further, according to Dr. Mariana Chilton, the director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities and a professor at Drexel University, $400,000 is enough to run the Eat Cafe — a West Philadelphia restaurant where costumers pay what they can — for a full year.
More uses for $400,000: Six four-year scholarships to Temple University, 16 years of a living wage in Philadelphia for one person, and anywhere between 22 to 41 years of rent in the Philadelphia area (depending on the neighborhood). It can also buy Bobbitt's dream truck — a 1999 Ford Ranger — 107 times.
Scullion says charity will never reach everyone. "Government involvement in ensuring the most basic human needs is just so fundamental," she says. The existence of homelessness, a relatively new phenomenon in its current mass magnitude, is the result of "a safety net that has been shredded in so many ways over so many years like it's death by a 1,000 cuts."
Chilton agrees: "More of our taxes ought to go to social services to help people who are struggling."
Knowing that $400,000 can go such a long way, the push must be on government to spend every spare penny on social services — on the thousands of people who, unlike Johnny Bobbitt, didn't go viral.