Growing up in Atlanta, Ga., Neha Halebeed remembers seeing people experiencing homelessness and wanting to find a way to help out, despite never carrying cash on her. As a rising college freshman, Halebeed developed a proposal for a cashless donation system, which she later submitted to the Reimagine Challenge 2020 last fall. Out of 838 submissions, Halebeed was one of the 20 winners.
While Halebeed — now a sophomore majoring in communication and specializing in applied analytics and innovation — has long wanted to help those experiencing homelessness, she said the pandemic made her idea for a cashless donation system even more necessary.
As the coronavirus made people nervous to touch surfaces, Halebeed wanted to develop a touch-free solution similar to Venmo that could directly transfer money between people. She later realized not everyone had access to a mobile device to receive funds, so she thought of implementing QR codes.
“It’s good to know that people think that the idea is important as we transition to a cashless society, which has its challenges, especially as it marginalizes certain communities — not just people experiencing homlessness, but also undocumented [people] and also people who rely on cash to pay less taxes, such as small businesses,” Halebeed said.
After talking with her father, JP Halebeed, when she first had the idea of creating a cashless donation system, he told her to look into companies already doing this. This led her to find Giving Streets.
Giving Streets is an app launched in Greece that allows users to scan a QR code to donate directly to an organization. Halebeed said she found the app as a solution to donate to the houseless population in the United States, in hopes to encourage donations as the world moves into a cashless society. She messaged the founders of the app through LinkedIn two days after finding the company, and explained her idea to bring the app into U.S. app stores.
Halebeed’s father said he is proud of his daughter’s accomplishment and what she has done so far with Giving Streets. JP said that when his daughter developed this project just before her freshman year at USC, he was there to ask her questions and get her thinking.
“I [was] more of a sounding board, I would say. I would [ask] questions a lot … There are organizations that already [exist] … you don’t want to create another organization to do the same thing,” JP said.
In September, Halebeed said she initially decided to enter the Reimagine Challenge — a challenge where university students submit solutions to movements or problems — after receiving an email about it from USC. After submitting a four-page short proposal, she was invited back to a second round in which she wrote a 12-page proposal outlining her idea.
Halebeed proposed two stages in her paper. Stage one involves asking smaller businesses to place QR codes around their area for individuals to donate through the Giving Streets app to a partner organization helping those experiencing homelessness. Stage two involves implementing QR codes associated with specific people experiencing homelessness to receive the money directly.
While Halebeed has reached out to multiple partnering organizations that have expressed interest in the first stage of her project, the Weingartz Center, an organization that builds and provides services for people experiencing homelessness in the Los Angeles area, is her biggest partner so far.
When reaching out to partnering organizations, Halebeed said she set up calls to discuss her proposal and received feedback from potential partners about implementing stage two.
“I want to hear input [about stage two and donating directly to a person] — even if it’s negative input — because I obviously don’t want to put something into existence that’s going to harm the people I’m trying to help or the people that we’re trying to help,” Halebeed said. “I think the QR code solution directly to people is very tricky, but also really reliant on where the people are located.”
For the second stage of her proposal, Halebeed also received help from USC professors, such as Tom Sloper, professor of information technology, who helped outlined her plan for this project, and Ali Rachel Pearl, who helped her think about the project’s ethical implications.
Pearl was Halebeed’s professor last spring, and Halebeed reached out to her through email in October. Halebeed asked for help with the legality of marketplaces for social enterprises and wanted referrals to professionals in the mobile payment or legal industries.
“I stepped in and said, ‘I think before you go to that level, we should take a step back and think about the ethical considerations of this project,’” Pearl said. “‘Let’s actually talk about what this project is doing in relation to the unhoused community in ways that might potentially be harmful, even though it’s intended to be the opposite.’”
After Halebeed presented her project to Pearl, the two talked about design justice principles, Halebeed’s approach to community engagement, and discussed books and other resources that could be helpful for Halebeed’s idea.
“I love how invested she is in using her talents to address social issues,” Pearl wrote in an email to the Daily Trojan. “I hope she continues to be curious about the most ethical ways to address the needs of a community she is not part of.”
Timothy Li, a part-time lecturer of information technology, is another one of Halebeed’s professors who provided guidance on her proposal. He said he believes Halebeed’s project deserves the attention of a wider audience and that Halebeed will lead the way in delivering resources to those in need.
While Halebeed is glad she can help generate resources for individuals experiencing homelessness, she recognizes the issue itself stems from overarching problems such as systemic racism that require policy changes beyond the scope of the app. Halebeed said she hopes to have the Giving Streets App launched in the United States by the end of this year, starting with L.A. and later, Atlanta.
“[My] long-term goal is for this business to not exist because that would mean that people aren’t experiencing homelessness and that we’ve gotten to a point where everyone has a house,” Halebeed said. “I don’t know how long that will take or if it will happen in my lifetime, if it’ll happen before the world dies out. But hopefully, at some point, everyone has a house if they want one.”
A previous version of this article misspelled Neha Halebeed’s last name as Halebleed. The correct spelling is Halebeed. The Daily Trojan regrets this error.