Online crowdfunding helped Benita “Bonnie” Blair find a place to live after her boyfriend died.
So when it came time for her to move again, she went back to the internet to ask for aid.
Blair, who lives in Independence with her daughter, hadn’t been able to scrape together enough money on her own for a better place to live. She wanted to get away, if only down the block, from drugs and violence nearby.
And again, strangers gave her money over the internet.
“I think that’s highly successful, in my book,” she said.
Blair is not the only person or group using GoFundMe to find housing, a quest that’s unusual in the online crowdfunding world.
GoFundMe is typically used by people who want to chase a personal ambition such as starting a business or making a music album. Successful Kansas City campaigns have gone toward cancer research, dog park construction and the restoration of a gymnastics studio.
Now, with the help of online crowdfunding, Blair can rent a space that’s a little safer and a little less expensive.
Kindness of strangers
GoFundMe has raised more than $2 billion since it was launched six years ago as a platform for philanthropy. There is a minimum donation of $5.
Nationally, GoFundMe’s users have crowdfunded a wide variety of causes:
▪ Six weeks after the shooting at Pulse, an LGBT nightclub in Orlando, Fla., almost $7.5 million has rolled in for survivors and victims’ families.
▪ After Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown in August 2014, supporters of the Ferguson, Mo., police officer gave more than $400,000 for legal expenses before GoFundMe suspended the donation page.
▪ One woman tried to crowdfund her abortion, but GoFundMe pulled the plug on her page before she reached her $2,500 goal.
“Personal causes have always been the most popular on the platform, and so campaigns for housing costs are no surprise,” media director Kelsea Little said.
The people behind the campaigns get to keep the donations even if they don’t meet their goal, and there’s no way for donors to hold recipients accountable. But Little said GoFundMe investigates reported cases of shady fundraising within a day and said that it was rare to see a donation not used for its stated purpose.
Funeral and medical expenses are frequent fundraising targets. Several area residents have had other goals, such as traveling to Philadelphia as a delegate for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders or barbecuing for glory in Kansas City’s American Royal competition.
A tough spot
Blair is on disability with a chronic back condition, and her 16-year-old daughter has autism. She sells watercolors and quilts on Etsy to supplement her fixed income, but she doesn’t make much.
Blair worked for three decades as a legal assistant but developed back problems and started drawing disability benefits in 2010. After two back surgeries, she risks sharp pains if she bends or twists. She tried working at a grocery store, but standing hurt. She tried going back to school but couldn’t sit for long.
She’s in the space between dead broke and getting by. At the welfare office, she said, she was told her monthly income was $41 too high to be eligible for assistance such as food stamps.
“I absolutely hate it,” she said. “I never wanted to be on disability, but here I am.”
She first turned to GoFundMe after her boyfriend’s spleen ruptured. He bled internally, had a stroke and died two days later.
“We all die, I get that,” she said. “But I wasn’t ready for that suddenness.”
She’s seeing someone again — an understanding sheriff’s deputy — but Blair still needed a safe place to stay while she raises Abby. Abby likes reading and playing violin, and says she wants to study math and orchestra when she goes to college.
Blair’s adult sons and others have helped her physically move her property once she had the money. She credits her networks of people on Twitter and Facebook for footing the bill.
One of Blair’s donors was Ali Van Zee, a hospice nurse who lives in California’s Bay Area. The two bonded over Twitter, connected by a shared interest in animal advocacy, and Van Zee donated $155.
“I saw her (GoFundMe) tweet, read the story and wanted to help them,” Van Zee said in a Facebook message. “So many people need help who seem to fall through the cracks in terms of local, state or federal assistance. I do what I can to help.”
Joyce Ricker, who splits her time between Hawaii and Massachusetts, gave $200 to Blair.
Ricker said via Facebook she believes “that we as women and as moms need to reach out and be supportive of other women when they are in need.”
“I believe that securing safe housing is essential to anyone trying to get a good start in life, as getting a job or anything else is almost impossible without an address.”
Blair said she would have considered her GoFundMe campaign a success if even one person donated one dollar. To have a couple dozen chip in $1,000 was a very pleasant surprise.
“There’s people out there, that’s all I can say,” she said. “I don’t know what makes people do what they do.”
She didn’t reach her goal, but she made enough that she and her daughter are moving into the house next door and paying a little less in rent.
With the Great Recession receding in the rear-view mirrow, Americans have been more generous.
Individual donations by Americans have steadily risen since 2009, reaching $373 billion last year, according to Giving USA.
Locally, Catholic Charities of Kansas City and St. Joseph is likely to make GoFundMe part of its fundraising efforts, executive director Steve Hilliard said.
“We’ve had some healthy discussions here recently about using it more,” Hilliard said, adding that Catholic Charities could start using GoFundMe as early as October.
It will be a matter of picking the right case studies for Catholic Charities, which aims to help every individual it can, Hilliard said: “The story and the need have to be well-expressed.”
Using GoFundMe could boost the charity’s efforts to engage millennials. The young generation is often chided for being too lazy and entitled, but Hilliard disagreed. “Millennials are remarkable,” he said.
Habitat for Humanity KC, which builds homes for people in need, does not use GoFundMe for fundraising, marketing manager Carrie Wilson said. The construction charity relies on its “development department” of people going out and getting donations. It also allows for online donations.
Wilson said she didn’t think GoFundMe would cut into Habitat’s donations, pointing out that the site’s donors couldn’t be sure where their money went.
“When somebody is coming to us, they know exactly what they’re giving to,” she said.
Plenty of people are unable to take affordable housing for granted. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that there are 12 million households spending more than half their annual incomes on their homes.
Pitches for housing help have brought in money to desperate people across the country. A woman raised more than $125,000 to buy her grandfather’s home, saving the Ohio man from eviction. A Colorado family lost their home to flooding, and donors offered up $100,000 for temporary housing.
In Kansas City, some efforts are organized, such as the Veterans Community Project, which raised more than $8,000 to build tiny houses for struggling vets. The reStart anti-homlessness charity raised $1,570 for 10 twin beds.
Other campaigns are put on by individuals. There’s a man who wants to have his own house to fulfill a promise he made to his daughter; a woman who wants $80,000 to build a house for homeless families; and another woman who says only that she’s “needing a home for my family.”
Success varies. The Veterans Community Project was funded and then some. Others haven’t seen a dime.
Blair has been blessed by donations outside of GoFundMe, including more than $10,000 in gifts from a woman across the Atlantic Ocean. Her new home is small, but it’s clean and welcoming.
The back door opens and two dogs rush in. One is Buster, a stubborn 8-year-old beagle that acts as Abby’s therapy dog and silently pleads for belly rubs.
Blair doesn’t know if she’d use GoFundMe again. It’s difficult for her to put her story out there.
But the move takes Blair and Abby away from scenes like this:
Late at night, there’s shouting next door, and then furious knocking. Blair opens the door to find a small boy, bruised and beaten. A male neighbor appears, looking jittery and threatening, as if he were on meth, Blair recalled.
When police came, the man “jumped the fence like an antelope,” she said.
That family’s gone now, and no new neighbors have moved in. While the view from Blair’s front step isn’t that different from her old one, she expects fewer knocks like that.