'I don’t feel helpless’: Giving strangers coronavirus aid with a click

Nicholas Kulish, The New York Times

Posted at Mar 19 2020 01:57 PM

'I don’t feel helpless’: Giving strangers coronavirus aid with a click 1
Shea Serrano, a Texas author who used Twitter to spur more than $10,000 in direct donations to people facing financial hardship during the coronavirus pandemic, in his office in Houston, Sept. 29, 2017. On social media, outpourings of generosity during the pandemic are part of a shift toward direct online giving. Michael Stravato, The New York Times

Shortly before midnight Thursday, author Shea Serrano was at his home in San Antonio, lying comfortably on his sofa watching television. He could not shake a bad feeling about all the low-wage and hourly workers losing desperately needed tips and shifts because of the coronavirus outbreak.

He felt he needed to do something. So he tweeted.

What for many would be a futile act — venting into an endless stream of chatter, jokes and invective — meant, for Serrano, activating his dedicated following of 345,000 Twitter users. By Sunday night he had raised $10,000 — not for a traditional charity like the Red Cross but to send directly to people who posted screenshots of student-loan statements and past-due medical bills.

Serrano’s tweet (which contained an obscenity) asked “who has a bill coming up that they’re not sure they’re gonna be able to pay,” then requested a copy of the bill and a Venmo connection. It has been retweeted nearly 10,000 times.

“I knew as soon as they started closing stuff down, we were going to do something,” Serrano, who published a 2015 bestseller, “The Rap Year Book,” said in an interview. “I’m acutely aware what it means if someone loses even one shift. If you’re making $7 an hour and you’re not going to get $56, that screws up a lot of stuff.”

His feed quickly turned into a collective outpouring of stories about chronic illnesses and looming debt burdens. Serrano accepted some donors’ money and redistributed it to those in need; many of his followers sent money directly to complete strangers, using mobile payment systems like Venmo and PayPal. As the Twitter user JCSourWine put it after helping an expectant father with his car payment, “All we got is each other.”

The way that people are responding to direct requests for assistance online are just the latest example of how crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and GoFundMe have changed the way people look at cries for help over the Internet. For younger people, the collection plate has moved online.

“The millennials and now the Z’s in their wake are unanchored from traditional institutions and societal practices,” said Paul C. Light, a professor of public service at New York University. “It’s the peer-to-peer model, and the people who are using it are also clearly reacting positively to it.”

An American expatriate living in Taiwan, Adedoyin Oyelaran, was watching the coronavirus spread across the United States when he saw a Twitter thread by writer Roxane Gay. She had announced that she would help 10 needy people with $100 each to stock up on groceries, adding, “Maybe others can help if you have a little extra.” Oyelaran decided to join in and ended up sending four people $100 each.

“When I’m able to help others in need, it’s also therapeutic for me,” Oyelaran said. “I don’t feel helpless just sitting here watching people in need.”

He said he still gave money to traditional charities, like the United Way, but preferred the immediacy of giving directly, given urgent demand. Oyelaran cited a survey by the Federal Reserve that found that 4 in 10 US adults wouldn’t be able to cover an unexpected $400 expense with cash.

“It just takes one episode, and there’s a tailspin from there,” he said.

Oyelaran said he performed some due diligence — looking up people on Google and reading back into their social-media feeds — to see if anything about the requests seemed amiss. One woman sent photographs of the diapers she had bought with the money he sent and a time-stamped receipt. He said he found the verification reassuring but not necessary.

“If people are bold enough to come out and ask strangers for help, they probably need it,” Oyelaran said.

Gay ultimately doubled her initial pledge, giving 20 people $100 each to help with their bills. She described herself as “really encouraged and heartened” by her followers who donated to others in need.

“People need immediate relief,” she said. “They need food. They need water. They need health care. They need prescriptions.”

Serrano, 38, grew up in south San Antonio, with his father driving a bus for the city and his mother working at a corner store. He ended up in Houston working as a middle school science teacher, explaining cellular structure and the periodic table to eighth graders. His wife was also teaching, and they made a comfortable enough living on their two salaries until she gave birth to twins and had to stop working after medical complications.

“All of a sudden, it’s one person making $42,000 a year for four people,” Serrano said.

Housing costs and car payments took up $2,000 of the $2,200 he brought home each month. Everything else was a hustle, including writing blog posts at night for as little as $20 each.

He landed a job with the website Grantland, since shut down by its parent company, ESPN, that enabled him to quit his teaching job and begin developing his fan base.

Serrano’s Twitter feed is highly personal, with photographs of his wife and three children, posts about the ups and downs of his beloved San Antonio Spurs and observations about his favorite TV shows.

He has included charitable giving drives on his Twitter feed for some time, whether for a local nonprofit, relief for hurricane victims or simply help for people who need money to buy their children Christmas presents. When Serrano started sending money last week, he quickly hit Venmo’s daily $3,000 transfer limit. A contact at PayPal, which owns Venmo, helped him get an exemption, he said.

In a statement, the company said it was “inspired by how our Venmo community is helping one another during this time.” It added, “We encourage you to continue to be mindful when transacting with Venmo, including who you send money to and accept money from.”

Serrano said he thought part of the reason he led the charity drives on Twitter was to recapture some of the good feeling he got from working as a teacher but also to fight the same feeling of helplessness that Oyelaran experienced.

“There’s nothing I can do about this thing besides keeping my family inside the house for the next two weeks,” Serrano said. “For those two hours we were doing it, you got to not think about the crappy part of everything for a bit and think about — there’s not going to be good coming out of it, but we can do good.”