(UNW) – THE NATIONAL ALLIANCE to End Homelessness estimated that there were more than 567,000 homeless Americans in January 2019. The United States’ overall homeless population is expected to swell, as advocacy groups report more individuals seeking relief since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
The U.S.’ immediate neighbor to the north is also contending with struggling homeless individuals during the pandemic. And the co-founder and CEO of a Vancouver-based nonprofit has been championing a simple solution to combat the ongoing challenge: give homeless people money.
Claire Williams co-founded Foundations for Social Change, a nonprofit organization focusing on innovative solutions in the charity sector, in 2016. Her organization gave $7,500 Canadian dollars ($5,800) in cash to 50 homeless individuals and tracked their progress between spring 2018 and September 2020.
Foundations partnered with the University of British Columbia to track participants’ progress, splitting them into four groups – two of these received cash payments, while the others did not. Out of 115 total participants, 50 received cash or coaching and workshops, and the other 65 received either the workshops, or neither. To fund the program, the organization received CA$475,000 from the Canadian government and slightly less than CA$1 million from foundations and private donors.
The results were remarkable, Williams says. Participants in the program drastically cut down the number of days they spent homeless, and in many cases had money saved up at the end of the year.
Williams spoke to U.S. News about the inception and impact of her program. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What is the homeless situation in Canada right now (and British Columbia in particular)?
The situation is pretty dire. The last comprehensive numbers came from 2016; 235,000 Canadians every year experience homelessness, and on average 35,000 Canadians on any given night. It’s not really an accurate representation as the point in time counts often miss invisible homelessness, for example people living in their cars or couchsurfing. We’re seeing growing numbers of people who can’t afford to live.
The financialization of the housing market is driving up rent. Our federal government used to build social housing, and they stopped doing that in the mid-90s. I think 47% of Canadians are living paycheck to paycheck. Five out of eight Canadians are worried about someone [they know]becoming homeless. We need to catch people before they become chronically homeless – or homeless altogether – so that they don’t become entrenched in that experience.
How did you come up with this project? Why did British Columbia seem like a good place to try this out?
It was born out of a desire to improve the world. I wanted to continue making a difference in my community. … My cofounder and I were inspired by a TED Talk about the power of direct cash transfers to eliminate poverty [in Africa]. We thought, “Why don’t we try this here in the West?”
How unique is this project? Were you modeling it on any others?
[Yes.] An organization called GiveDirectly, most of whose work is in developing countries [allows donors to transfer cash to struggling individuals]. In London, [the Rough Sleepers Project] … allocated a budget of 3,000 pounds ($4,000) to men who were chronically homeless. They had money to spend on items that they had chosen. … I think it’s time for more agency in the hands of the people we’re trying to help. We criminalize people for living in poverty, and think they can’t be trusted to make wise decisions to move their lives forward. We wanted to put the power of choice in people’s hands. Trust and compassion-based approaches that provide dignity and advance social change.
What are typical strategies to address homelessness, and how does this differ?
In Canada, [we have] shelter systems, meal drop-offs. We’ve created a one-size solution to something that’s not a blanket problem. People have unique needs and challenges. We thought it was time to introduce a new way of supporting people that could complement the existing suite of tools, relieving pressure on existing systems of care. In Canada, our shelters are at capacity and turning people away. We thought, “What if the solution is to give people cash?” It’s not a silver bullet and not going to work for everyone. For those that need more care and wrap around services, let’s free up the shelter space.
What do you think these findings say about how to address homelessness?
I think our findings are incredibly encouraging. We saw that people move into stable housing faster. People spend 4,396 less days homeless [with cash transfers] than the control group. That’s 12 years of less homelessness. People saved $1,000 at the end of the year. We see increased spending on food, clothing, rent. People are achieving food security, making wise financial choices, and spending 39% less on drugs, tobacco and alcohol. [This] challenges stereotypes about homeless people partying, drinking money away.
We infantilize marginalized populations. We as decision makers, people in power and privilege – we think we know better. That’s absolutely not true. We asked our participants what they would want to do with their life, and everybody knew what they wanted to do with the money. We have to lessen the burden of proof, bring more agency into these conversations.
Was it hard to obtain funding?
There is very little innovation in this space. There’s a lot of constraints in the charitable sector. We aren’t encouraged to take risks in any meaningful way in charity and we are often penalized for it (i.e. funding rescinded if we experiment with a new program that doesn’t work). The risk-taking was enabled by the trust people placed in our team, as well as the money… but the courage to take the risks is indicative of the team we’ve put together. When we first put together the project, I consulted with about 30 different organizations. They said, “Our hands are tied because of our mandate.” We saw there was a need for a new approach.
How much of a possibility do you see for this kind of experiment being replicated in the U.S., or elsewhere? Do you think Canadians, or people in specific countries, are especially apt to try this out?
The potential here is huge. Beyond the individual impact, there’s [a] cash saving[s] to giving people money upfront. In the U.S., there was this great article written by Malcolm Gladwell about this homeless man (“Million Dollar Murray“) who cost taxpayers $1 million during his time in homelessness. There’s this common misconception that the status quo is free and not helping people is free. We as Canadian taxpayers pay for our health care system. There are long-term savings for our health care system. We met with some people from the U.S. who are interested in replicating this. Cash transfers are a really simple and elegant solution. As for whether Canadians are more open, I don’t think so. I think there’s a growing number of people seeing the efficacy of cash.