Much to the chagrin of its advocates, Bitcoin has been closely associated with the Silk Road, the online market place that’s earned the nickname of “the Amazon of drugs.” It’s a valid relationship to establish given that the cryptocurrency was the favorite method of payment by merchants and customers of the site. It’s also worth noting that the recent arrests of Charlie Shrem and Robert Faiella—an executive for BitInstant and a Bitcoin exchanger, respectively—were a result of their alleged associations to the Silk Road.
But not everything about Bitcoin has to be nefarious. Believe it or not, the cryptocurrency can be used for good. Case in point: Sean’s Outpost.
The Pensacola, Fla., based organization provides meals and shelter to the city’s homeless population. Founder Jason King named the company after his friend Sean Dugas who was murdered in 2012. A few months after the incident, the existing center that was operating in town was planning to shut down. “My wife and I decided that we would start feeding a meal one day a week, and one day grew into two days, grew into four days [and so on],” King told Fusion.
In March of 2013, King says that he was cruising the Bitcoin forums when he witnessed the debate about what the currency was capable of, and what its limitations were. “I just said flippantly ‘hey, if you send me Bitcoins worth $50, I will go feed 40 homeless people with it, and then we can stop having this argument.’ ” he noted.
Once he has the Bitcoins in his digital wallet, King makes bulk purchases of goods from online retailers who accept the currency, or he makes purchases at Target through Gyft.com, a gift card website that allows users to swap Bitcoins for dollars. Target is one of many retailers that accept the gift cards.
Since then the Bitcoins have kept flowing in. According to King, the organization has received Bitcoin donations from 43 countries to date. He likened the flow of funds to the ease of monetary transactions across borders that Bitcoin allows, along with the socially conscious and globally minded nature of early Bitcoin adopters.
An ordinance banning public camping is in effect in Pensacola, functionally making homelessness illegal in the city. This ban resonates with the global Bitcoin community, King explained. “I think that if you are in another country, and you see that somehow just being poor is illegal, that can resonate with you as being wrong.”
Bitcoin offers concrete advantages to fundraising for charities, like minimizing third party transaction fees from companies like PayPal. But King said that the IRS has not offered any guidance on how to report donations that flow in from the virtual, nearly anonymous currency.
Sean’s Outpost fed over 30,000 meals to the homeless in Pensacola last year, King estimated. They have also purchased nine acres of forest as a homeless sanctuary entirely with Bitcoin. Many homeless residents camp out on the site daily.