Frederick Joseph is no stranger to the benefits of a good GoFundMe campaign — since his #BlackPantherChallenge took off in 2018, allowing kids to see Black Panther for free, he’s raised more than $1.5 million for various causes through the platform.
So when he saw his fellow New Yorkers and others struggling to pay rent and buy groceries amid the coronavirus pandemic, he knew what he had to do.
Joseph, 31, launched the #RentRelief campaign on GoFundMe in late March, initially aiming to help people pay their rent ahead of April dues.
Since then, the project — which has so far raised over $274,000 for more than 900 people, he says — has evolved into getting people immediate help with necessities.
“It’s really become survival money,” Joseph, an author and marketer, tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “A lot of stories that we get are frankly all about people trying to make it to the next week.”
To get the ball rolling, Joseph put out calls on his Twitter and Instagram accounts encouraging people to give him a shoutout, and let him know how much money they needed and what it was for.
He says he got about 10,000 responses in the first three days, and after about three weeks, that number has ballooned to more than 100,000.
Those in need don’t have to follow Joseph on social media or even explain their situation — they simply have to leave their Cash App, Zelle or PayPal information and let him know what they need help with.
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After some vetting by Joseph and his team to make sure the requester is a real person, he sends over $200 and posts evidence of the transaction on social media.
“As the situation economically has become more dire in America, so have the requests,” he says. “We went from being asked for $25 to help out with some food or $10 in money for light bills to people now sending over pictures of empty refrigerators and videos of their children asking for help.”
People initially received between $50 and $200 depending on their request, but Joseph says that now, anyone who asks for help gets a flat $200.
“We have stories on a daily basis that make me cry. No exaggeration,” he says. “One story in particular, a woman named Precious, to whom my fiancée and I actually donated $200 each extra. She actually shared a video of her HIV medication that she’s out on. Her son has been diagnosed with COVID-19, and her other son has autism and she’s been furloughed… She sent us a video back crying and thanking us. And we’ve just gotten so many of those.”
Several famous faces have even stepped in to help, including actress Patricia Arquette, who gave $10,000, and journalist Soledad O’Brien, who donated $5,000.
When it comes to sifting through the thousands of requests pouring in, Joseph says he wishes he could do more, but that he and his team tend to choose based on situations, like, for example, a recent request from a man who had been furloughed along with his wife.
“It’s kind of hell on earth [choosing] because for every one person that you’re giving to, there are a thousand others who aren’t getting,” he says.
The donations have even extended into places like the U.K. and the Philippines, far from the Long Island City apartment where Joseph has been social distancing with his fiancée, Porsche.
“I believe in human nature. I believe that people want to do the right thing,” he says. “This is a moment where people are given the opportunity to be a part of something bigger than themselves.”
As of Wednesday afternoon, there have been 606,800 cases and 25,922 deaths attributed to coronavirus, according to The New York Times.
Meanwhile, GoFundMe.org, the company’s non-profit and advocacy arm, has launched a fundraiser that offers support for organizations and individuals affected by coronavirus, the platform said in a statement provided to PEOPLE.
“By donating to the GoFundMe.org general relief fund, the donation supports many individuals who have started fundraisers on GoFundMe related to this pandemic, and organizations dedicated to serving the people,” the company said. “Donations to the general relief fundraiser of GoFundMe.org, a United States charity, are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law, and will broadly support communities impacted by coronavirus.”
As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments. To help provide doctors and nurses on the front lines with life-saving medical resources, donate to Direct Relief here.
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