PJ Gach posing for her fashion blog.

PJ Gach posing for her fashion blog. Photo: Facebook.

Earlier this year, when fashion blogger PJ Gach found herself freshly unemployed and two months behind on her rent, she turned to a notoriously scary place for help – the Internet.

After getting repeatedly rejected for rental assistance from the government, she fired off a series of tweets to fellow bloggers and readers, saying “Can you please help? Could you pls RT? I may be homeless in 36 hours.”  

“I’ve been tweeting my heart out,” Gach told The New York Observer. “But if worse comes to worse I have someone who will take my dog, then I’ll be homeless. Homeless.”

Being a freelance writer can be tough. And you do occasionally have to rely on the kindness of to make it through. (Free Wi-fi for the one cup of coffee you purchase, editors throwing you a quick turnaround story before pay day) But what’s the etiquette of asking for anything more than a reliable internet connection?  Is it financially kosher to ask strangers to crowdfund your rent?  

At the time of Gach’s ‘rental crisis’, the New York-based freelancer was living alone in a two-bedroom apartment in Harlem for $1700 a month. Like her, many of her writing pals were living from paycheck to paycheck so couldn’t afford to help, and since her parents have passed away, the Hanna Horvath solution was out of question.

There was also another pesky problem: people who are facing imminent homelessness traditionally looked more ‘homeless’ than Gach. Being a white, well-dressed fashion blogger, Gach felt that her “middle class status” was holding her back from getting the financial assistance she deserved.

Having worked as a full-time freelancer, I must say I feel torn about Gach’s plight. On the one hand, I’ve felt the panic of not knowing whether my credit card would go through every time I dared to splurge on things like a bunch of basil. On the other, I’ve never once contemplated reaching out to friends – let alone strangers – to pay for my living expenses. And in Gach’s case at least, one can’t help but ask the obvious questions: could she not have taken in a roommate? Was there really no chance of a temporary – albeit less aspirational – part-time job? Are there absolutely no further steps one should’ve taken before tweeting Perez Hilton for urgent financial assistance?

Fundraising may have once been an altruistic gesture, but these days it seems like our personal problems have increasing taken on the rallying tone of legitimate social causes.

Forget old-timey campaigns like the Biggest Morning Tea or MS Readathon, as one struggling renter puts it, “Why can't I just throw a party and have people just donate money to a cause? The cause being me."

The full force of this only hit me when I woke up to an unusual Tumblr plea for rent donation one day. It came with the following postscript, “Don’t even dare tell me to ‘get a job’, I currently have two and I work as much as I can and GUESS WHAT living is STILL EXPENSIVE and I am NOT RICH.”

While some people might choose to rationalise the social cringe with a casual, “desperate times call for desperate measures”, a closer look at some of the ‘campaigns’ that are running on crowdfunding sites like Go Fund Me reveals a slightly different story.  

Nestled among the pleas for medical funds and university fees are what’s best described as ‘lifestyle’ emergencies. Typically, these fundraisers are middle class battlers who appear to be struggling with the difference between wants and needs.

There are ' “devastated” gap-year students campaigning for money “to go to Costa Rica as a vacation ...so we could relax and enjoy each other’s company before we had to buckle down, study, and get serious”, career-weary grownups rallying for sabbatical ‘sponsors’ because they “see an opportunity to tell a story”.  And, perhaps my favourite, the man who posted: “Single father of 2 young kids and working full time...needs a free Harley.”  

It’s hard not to be shocked (or at least amused) by the sheer outrageousness of some of these requests, yet according to a recent report on Forbes magazine, the appeal of personal crowdfunding sites like IndieGoGo, FundAnything and GoFundMe are growing by day, with the latter raising more than $37 million in 2012 alone.

The rationale is simple: “It’s a lot less uncomfortable to ask someone to check out your campaign than to put your hand out,” says Brad Wyman, chief creative officer of FundAnything. These personal fundraising campaigns also seem to benefit from what feels like the bystander effect in reverse – every donation, social media shares and retweet is visible to the public – making it more appealing for others to join in. In other words, the more social capital you have and the bigger your reach, the more likely you’ll have strangers paying for your personal cause.  

This may well explain why fashion blogger PJ Gach managed to keep a roof over her head in the end. But it’s also an ironic reminder that those who truly need a leg up are probably least likely to ask for it. Or at least not via Twitter.