Over the past five months, Sean’s Outpost has come to be perhaps the most well-known charity in the Bitcoin community. Sean’s Outpost, a homeless shelter in Pensacola, Florida run by Jason King, first started accepting Bitcoin in March 2013, carrying a simple message: “When we break down cost, it runs about $1.25 to make a bagged lunch and get it delivered to a homeless person. 40 meals = $50. $50 is K1 BTC. Here is your chance to make a guaranteed, phenomenal return on your investment. Donating 1 bitcoin right now will put food in the tummies of 40 homeless people.” Four days later, Sean’s Outpost had raised over over $600, and over the months that followed Sean’s Outpost and the Bitcoin community developed a symbiosis closer than either had thought would happen. King has become a regular presence on the Bitcoin Reddit community, participated as a speaker in the 2013 San Jose Bitcoin conference, and even ran as a candidate to become an industry member of the Bitcoin Foundation. Five months later, Sean’s Outpost has collected over $30,000 in Bitcoin funds. Now, Sean’s Outpost is going to be expanding much further than anyone imagined.
Enter Satoshi Forest. The location at 1999 Massachusetts Ave, Pensacola, FL encompasses nine acres of wooded land that will now become, as Jason King describes it, “a homeless sanctuary, a place where the downtrodden can find respite from the ‘crime’ of being simply being poor.” The property cost $89,000 to purchase, which, King writes, “for acreage within the developed part of greater Pensacola, is dirt cheap.” The mortgage on the property, valued at $600 per month, will be paid entirely in Bitcoin – not, King clarifies, by converting the BTC donations that they receive into USD, but sending bitcoins directly to the mortgage holder as payment. The mortgage holder is in fact a real-estate company with properties in Florida, Alabama, Colorado and California and, thanks to the Sean’s Outpost crew’s efforts, the company is now accepting Bitcoin for its entire portfolio.
King’s description of homelessness as a “crime” is no exaggeration; recently, the Pensacola City Council passed a “camping ban” ordinance that prohibited, among other things, sleeping outside or in a temporary shelter, washing, shaving, washing one’s clothing or preparing food in public, public urination and “aggressive solicitation, begging or panhandling”. “I have been told that if I bring someone freezing [who is sleeping outside] a blanket, I will be aiding and abetting in a crime,” King wrote in a recent interview. In fact, King was forced to keep Satoshi Forest secret until now simply because he was afraid that, even though everything he is doing is entirely legal under the “no camping” ordinance and Pensacola zoning law, “someone could come in and stop us at any moment”. Fortunately, no one did. “It happened,” King writes, “it’s done. Satoshi Forest is real. It’s not shipping in two weeks. You can go to 1999 Massachusetts Ave. in Pensacola and put your hands on it. And we just got our filed deed back from the county, so it is most definitely ours. And by ours, I mean the collective goodwill of the Crypto Currency community.”
The Sean’s Outpost crew, including Jason King himself as well as his wife Leslie, Mike Kimberl and Adam Richard, intends to use Satoshi Forest as the base for a number of projects. The first, and most obvious, are the “BitHouses”. As the name suggests, the BitHouses are intended to serve as proper homes for the homeless, and will be designed as “recreational vehicles” (ie. houses on wheels) and not static houses or buildings in part to reduce the risk that zoning rules and inspection requirements will be used against them, and in part so that people can leave with them “if they get on their feet and want to move to their own space.” One of these homes will be able to house two people – “up to four if you are ‘really familiar’ with that person,” and will each cost about 65 BTC to produce. The houses will also be sold to the public One Laptop Per Child-style: you pay for two, one goes to the homeless and one for yourself. Although construction is starting in the fall, weather should not be a problem; “One of our first ‘projects’ in the forest is the construction of a large pole barn that we will be able to accomplish all of the construction underneath.”
But Satoshi Forest will not stop there. Once housing construction is well underway, they also intend to add a large kitchen for preparing food, and then begin organic farming operations which he later intends to expand to aquaculture. Ultimately, King writes, “we envision Satoshi Forest morphing into an organic farm/makerspace with a Summer Camp feel. Apart from the obvious of growing food to further our operations, learning how to farm is an invaluable skill and one that is slowly being taken away by the corporate food monopolies. There’s something damn near magical about showing someone how to plant and grow their own food. There’s not much more pride to be had then eating food you grew. Construction/Makerspace is the same, it’s showing someone that they have abilities to turn a stack of raw materials into something of value.” The “summer camp” aspect is also important; “everyone at summer camp lives in conditions very similar to being homeless,” King explains, “but no one is looked upon like being a worthless piece of garbage.”
And ultimately that is what Sean’s Outpost and Satoshi Forest are all about: providing food for the homeless and giving them blankets to keep warm, but also being a place where “people who have no hope can find a little, learn a skill, find people who look at them as fellow humans.” At one point, King found a man under a local bridge who had been put on the streets in little more than boxer shorts after being admitted to an emergency room following a cardiac attack. “He was really depressed,” King recalls, “[he] felt like the whole world was against him.” As it turned out, the man was a decorated Marine veteran and a master carpenter, and once Sean’s Outpost took him in he even helped provide ideas for the housing construction projects. Over time, he started getting better, worked odd jobs to save up money to buy a van, and “as of last week he actually has a full-time job and an apartment.”
Sean’s Outpost has become a testament to both Bitcoin and the ideals that many in the Bitcoin community hold dear. One and a half years ago, Jon Matonis wrote an article entitled “Could Bitcoin Become the Currency of System D?“, where System D refers to the underground and informal economy that makes up one sixth of the world’s GDP. The “D” stands for “debrouillardise”, a French word perhaps best translated as “MacGyverism” – using the natural human capacity for creativity and ingenuity to take maximal advantage of limited resources to solve complex and meaningful problems. We can see this in the real world everywhere; people in France and Spain laying down an array of sunglasses on a towel and selling them for a few dollars each every day, vendors selling food on the street, and much of the informal person-to-person trade that happens over the internet.Much of this trade is never registered in censuses or tax forms, and operating costs and revenues are very low, and yet the value generated by this so-called “shadow economy” for its participants is all too real. In fact, this economy often acts as a crucial safety net to keep people alive in those places where formal economies and governments are simply not there. Sean’s Outpost, in many ways, is similar. Rather than being a project dreamed up by bureaucrats seeking to get people into “the system” as quickly as possible, and earn generous salaries along the way, Sean’s Outpost is a grassroots operation borne out of compassion and experience interacting with real people, and stretches every dollar (or rather, every bitcent) far more than most people can hope to achieve. In a time when many people simply don’t have the money to pay increasingly high mortgages and rent, the fact that Sean’s Outpost can produce a fully-functional home for two to four people for less than ten thousand dollars, and pay for a meal for $1.25, is hugely invaluable for the people it serves. The shelter is funded by donations from thousands of people around the world, North Americans and Europeans, rich and poor, individuals and corporations alike; in this regard, it is one of the best examples of the entire Bitcoin community pooling its resources together.
Now that Satoshi Forest has gotten through the initial hurdle of setting itself up, the harder work is about to begin. Building homes for dozens of people is no small task, and it will take many months to set up the housing and organic farming projects. Once it is complete, though, Satoshi Forest can be a model for many similar projects elsewhere. It does not even need to be specifically about the poor and homeless; many people voluntarily choose seemingly “lower class” lifestyles either because they want to work on projects that benefit the community but which are not monetarily well-rewarded, or simply because they prefer a more communitarian means of living; there are already a number of communities in Europe which are organized around precisely that model. A homeless shelter in Florida, specialized startup incubators and living spaces in Silicon Valley, a city district in Berlin, and meetup in hundreds of cities around the world all point to one conclusion: Bitcoin has become much more than just a currency.
Vitalik Buterin is a co-founder of Bitcoin Magazine who has been involved in the Bitcoin community since 2011, and has contributed to Bitcoin both as a writer and the developer of a fork of bitcoinjs-lib, pybitcointools and multisig.info, as well as one of the developers behind Egora. Now, Vitalik's primary job is as the main developer of Ethereum, a project which intends to create a next-generation smart contract and decentralized application platform that allows people to create any kind of decentralized application on top of a blockchain that can be imagined.