Networked Urbanism

design thinking initiatives for a better urban life

Design critics: Belinda Tato and Jose Luis Vallejo, principals of Ecosistema Urbano

Using QR Codes to Raise Awareness of the Problem of Homelessness: Mart Schaefer

These are 3 strategies that will hopefully inspire other creative people out there. Use your skills and develop new tactics to give homeless people the voice they need to be heard by the public.

Note: The film clip at the beginning of this video IS NOT MINE. it’s from a short film by John Elerick called “Spare Any Change?”. I thought it was funny and it sparked my imagination early in the design process.


In 2013, the estimated number of people in Portland considered homeless varied between 3,000 and 15,000 depending on how strictly the term was defined. They all shared something in common, however… they are virtually invisible to the rest of Portland’s population. In order to get help, the homeless need to get noticed. And in order to get noticed, the homeless need to employ tactics that will help them catch the public’s attention.


The creative class has unique problem solving skills that can be applied to this situation. The following ideas were developed as an example of what could ultimately evolve into a suite of guerrilla social tools that could be used to combat the invisibility of the homeless. These tools vary in complexity, required infrastructure, cost or potential reach, and are intended to jumpstart the process of bringing creative talents to bear on a complex social issue. They all play with the concept of the Quick Response Code (or QR code) as a means of bridging the digital and material worlds and in so doing attempt to subvert and capitalize on the public’s love affair with the smartphone.

“Hate Panhandlers? Campaign”

A large piece of cardboard is cut to resemble the shape of a person sitting on the sidewalk or pushing a shopping cart. The shape is painted white and emblazoned with a provocative phrase and a QR code that links to a URL. It reads: “Hate panhandlers?” with a QR code. The code links to a donation page headed with the message: “Then help the homeless”. That phrase has different meanings depending on whether the target perceives the homeless with sympathy or disdain. This idea is both social criticism & clever indictment of people who ignore the problem.

“Sleeping Rough”

A fundraising event where people sleep on the streets for a night to bring awareness and empathy to the issue of homelessness. Participants would either pay an entry fee or solicit pledges to cover it. Participants receive a cardboard sign with a preprinted QR code that connects to an event webpage. The page has info, takes donations & has a video recorded by the participant, who talks about their personal experience with the event/homelessness/the homeless. During the event, participants will be encouraged to panhandle on behalf of the cause. They will engage pedestrians in dialogue and try to get them to donate by scanning the QR code and visiting the event webpage.

“The Complicated QR Code Project”

And finally, a system that allows people to donate money to panhandlers via a QR code. This solves a problem for both the donor and the recipient… The donor gets to avoid a situation they feel uncomfortable in, that might keep them from helping someone in need—whether out of distrust, disgust, lack of cash, change, time or the like. Now they can donate directly to that person via credit card. Like the sleeping rough event, signs with QC codes on them are key. Potential donors can snap a photo of the code and later, when they have a few spare minutes, can process it with an app then decodes it and launches a personalized webpage. That page is either linked to that specific individual and ready to take a secure online donation, or linked to a shelter or food bank where those donations can be paid in toward meals, services or a room. Donors have the additional comfort of knowing their money isn’t getting used for alcohol or drugs.

Comments (1)
  • Did this ever get acted upon? I have been thinking of doing something similar for a while and and doing some light research on how it has already been tried. Any input?

    Jon patberg, April 19, 2016 at 3:26 am - (Reply)
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