Pensacola, Florida (PNJ) -- While many parents spend their weekday mornings getting theirchildren on the school bus and heading off to work, 34-year-old JasonKing uses the hours before noon to prepare more than 100 sack lunches.
Thelunches aren't for the former network engineer and Army veteran's threechildren. They are specially made for Escambia County's homeless, andKing, along with a handful of volunteers, has handed out more than27,000 of the meals since March.
That's right: 27,000 sack lunches.
Kingis the founder of Sean's Outpost, a Pensacola homeless outreach centernamed after King's friend, Sean Dugas, a former Pensacola News Journal reporter who was a homicide victim in 2012. Remarkably, Sean's Outposthas consistently hand-delivered meals to the homeless since March withbarely more than a $1,000 in cash donations.
Besidescash, the organization also receives donations in bitcoins, apeer-to-peer currency that is traded online, stored on computers and canbe bought and sold with real money. The value of bitcoins hasskyrocketed this year, rising above $1,200 per bitcoin on some exchangesin November.
Kingsaid Sean's Outpost sells its bitcoin donations to local buyers forU.S. dollars or uses them to buy digital gift cards. King and volunteersthen use the money or gift cards to pay for the sack lunches. Themodest contents are deeply appreciated.
Oneday last week, scores of homeless people received a brown bagcontaining bologna on white bread, barbecue-flavoresd potato chips and astrawberry flavored Nutri-Grain breakfast bar. When King arrived at hisfirst lunch delivery, Wayside Park in Pensacola at the base of thePensacola Bay Bridge, there were already three homeless people waitingfor him.
Among the group was Mari, a petite 46-year-old woman wrapped in a scarf, jacket and matching red sweatpants and sweater.
Marisaid she lost her job after being arrested for driving under theinfluence in Gulf Breeze. Unable to find work with a criminal record,Mari said she was out on the streets by May.
Mari now says she lives at Wayside Park. Despite claiming to have a"million dollar view where I can afford the rent," Mari's life is farfrom a paradise.
"There are times when Ihave nothing to eat. Look how skinny I am," she said, pulling on herloose-fitting garments. "If I didn't have (Sean's Outpost), I'd probablypass away. Wherever I go, they find me."
Usually,Sean's Outpost volunteers hand out lunches to the homeless onPensacola's streets and at makeshift campsites all the way up toBrentwood Park in Escambia County. Over the course of their five-dayweek, they serve about 1,000 meals, King said.
Bitcoinhas allowed the direct action charity to easily and instantly acquireinternational funding. Sean's Outpost has received donations from morethan 40 countries, all of which King said he plans to invest locally.
Sean'sOutpost has received more than 200 bitcoins, he said, but it'sdifficult to equate that to a solid dollar amount because the value ofbitcoins has fluctuated widely this year.
WhenKing received his first donation in March, exchanges valued a singlebitcoin at about $50. By November, that value had skyrocketed to morethan $1,200.
On Tuesday, a bitcoin had a value of about $640.
Perhapseven more intriguing than the number of bitcoins Sean's Outpost hasreceived is how little King has to do to attract donors. Bitcoinenthusiasts do most of the solicitation by discussing the outreachcenter on Internet forums and blogs.
InDecember, users of Reddit, an entertainment website, raised money tofund an "Angel Tree" style project that Sean's Outpost hosted. In thespan of a few hours, about 50 gifts for the homeless were paid for byReddit users.
Withsuch strong support, Seans Outpost's staff of less than 10 people isable to direct virtually all of its focus on preparing food,distributing meals and documenting its work to post online. It's atransparent, 21st century, perpetual-motion charity paradigm that Kingsaid he hopes will catch on.
"Ifwe're out hustling to make a dollar. We're not feeding people becausethat takes time and effort and mental bandwidth away from you," Kingsaid. "When you give us a bitcoin, we show you what happens to it.Because of that, we've never really had to ask for the support."
Gambling on bitcoins
Oddly enough,Sean's Outpost serendipitous marriage to bitcoin was set in motion by aflippant Internet wager King made in March.
InFebruary, King and his wife began volunteering at a weekly homelessfeeding event near the Loaves and Fishes Soup Kitchen. At the time, theywere only volunteering under the name Sean's Outpost and weren'tplanning to start their own charity.
Butin March, during a discussion on Reddit about whether a digitalcurrency could have any real value, King claimed he could feed 40homeless people if someone sent him a single bitcoin, which was valuedat about $50 at the time.
Kingreceived more than 10 bitcoins in less than 12 hours. Before a day hadpassed, he was in the streets handing out sack lunches paid for with thedonations. He posted photos proving he had used the donations to feedthe homeless back on Reddit.
"That just resonated really well with the (online) community and they have not stopped supporting us," King said.
Theorganization's largest donation came in December. An Auburn, Ala.,resident and Reddit user donated 11 bitcoins, which were valued at about$1,050 each at the time, to the outreach center. King said the donationcreated an endowment fund for 2014.
Despite the rapid influx of money, the Sean's Outpost's setup has remained humble.
Food,drinks and other supplies are kept in a tiny storage facility known asthe Bitcoin Homeless Outreach Center on Old Palafox Highway. Meals areprepared assembly-line style every morning inside an old church buildingowned by the outreach center's attorney.
BecauseSean's Outpost buys supplies on a need-to-distribute basis and theprice of bitcoin continues to fluctuate, the charity's financialsecurity is not certain. However, King doesn't envision Sean's Outposthaving to switch to cash donations anytime soon.
"Webelieve in bitcoin, and we believe the value is going to go up," Kingsaid. "Sean's Outpost is inseparable from bitcoin. We are one and thesame."
Now,bitcoin activists from Austin, Texas, Toronto and Barcelona, Spain, areinquiring about starting their own Sean's Outpost charter, King said.It's an opportunity to make helping the homeless become viral.
"We're documenting a better way of doing homeless outreach," Kingsaid. "We can pass that information on to another group of people whowant to help people in their area."
Filling a need
The advent of Sean's Outpost has seen particularly good timing, statistically speaking.
In2013, the EscaRosa Coalition on Homeless counted 830 homeless living onthe street or in emergency housing in Escambia County, a six-year high.In 2012, only 572 homeless were counted in the survey.
Buteven the larger, most recent number doesn't account for all thehomeless living in Escambia County, King said. Many homeless areunwilling to come forward to be counted.
"What they report and what we see are completely different," he said.
Withonly 253 emergency beds available to the homeless in Escambia County,according to the EscaRosa Coalition on Homeless, a majority of thehomeless are living exposed to the elements this winter.
And for a homeless person in Pensacola, the political wind blowing from City Hall nowadays is even colder.
InMay, the Pensacola City Council approved a series of controversialordinances that banned camping on city-owned and residential propertyand prevented anyone from sleeping, bathing and shaving in publicrestrooms. "Camping" in the ordinances included sleeping outdoors in atent or sleeping bag, covered with a newspaper or cardboard, or insideany kind of temporary shelter.
Sean'sOutpost is now providing a camping spot in Escambia County for homelessfolks who fear being cited by Pensacola police under the ordinance.
InJuly, Sean's Outpost acquired Satoshi Forest, a 9-acre undevelopedproperty in West Pensacola named after the pseudonym taken by theanonymous creator of the bitcoin, Satoshi Nakamoto. King pays theprivately held mortgage in bitcoin has labeled the property a homelesssanctuary.
Hewants Satoshi Forest to become sustainable by utilizing permaculture,aquaponics and forest gardening, and by creating a kitchen area. Kingsaid he envisions paying the homeless in bitcoins to build their ownportable small homes situated on trailer hitches.
Dubbed BitHouses, the tiny shelters on wheels are actually classifiedas recreational vehicles and take about three weeks and $7,500 to make.The structures can provide shelter for three people. They're wired forelectricity and will be outfitted with solar panels, King said.
"Abig part of our vision is to build something sustainable," he said. "Itwould be amazing if we were growing enough food to feed all thehomeless we serve."
ButEscambia County doesn't share King's enthusiasm. On Dec. 3, thecounty's Office of Environmental Enforcement cited Sean's Outpost forallowing tent camping, accumulation of trash, nuisance conditions andfor keeping a BitHouse on the property as a storage building.
Kingsaid the violations have since been dropped, but code enforcement hassaid no one can camp in Satoshi Forest until King appears before thecounty planning board.
EscambiaCounty Public Information Officer Bill Pearson said a representativefrom Sean's Outpost has met with a code enforcement officer and a memberof the county Planning and Zoning Division concerning a rezoning orvariance of the property.
Recordsfrom Escambia County Environmental Code Enforcement still show the caseas open. The case will be reviewed again in January by the county.
"Theyhave even gone so far as to go out and tell homeless to vacate," Kingsaid. "We will not evict anyone from our land. Period."
Amongthe homeless living at Satoshi Forest is a man who calls himself"Swampy." He said he spends about 30 hours a week clearing debris fromthe Satoshi Forest to help make campsites and paths for other homeless.
Swampysaid Satoshi Forest will not only provide the homeless a place to live,but a mailing address, which seems trivial but is infinitely important.Without a mailing address, it's nearly impossible apply for any type ofgovernment aid, or more importantly, a job, he said.
"Thisis exactly what the homeless need," he said. "Give them a sanctuarylike this. Let them go out and make it on their own. This is the onlycure."
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