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Denver nonprofit finds benefits in giving cash to people experiencing homelessness

Recipients call it a “lifeline that brought them daily feelings of financial security.”
Denver homelessness
Posted at 10:00 PM, Jul 20, 2023
and last updated 2023-07-21 00:47:21-04

DENVER — A “no strings attached” cash program for people experiencing homelessness in Denver shows early promise, according to a report by the nonprofit Denver Basic Income Project.

The year-long basic income program is the first of its kind in Denver and one of the largest in the country. In an early study released this week, the project found “significant benefits to providing unconditional cash payments to unhoused individuals and families.”

The project has distributed at least $5 million in Denver so far. Almost 850 participants, who are experiencing homelessness either with or without shelter, have received monthly cash deposits of varying amounts since November 2022. The project split up recipients into three groups: the first gets $1,000 per month for the year, the second gets $6,500 upfront and $500 per month for the rest of the year, and the third gets $50 per month.

After a few months of receiving cash, participants shared their feelings in surveys and in-depth interviews studied by the Denver Basic Income Project and the University of Denver’s Center for Housing and Homelessness Research.

Maria Sierra, the project's community engagement manager, said their early analysis suggests the approach will be effective.

"We are doing this at scale with the unhoused community in Denver, and it's gonna change lives,” Sierra said.

The project didn’t put any conditions on how to spend the money. But most recipients prioritized basic needs like groceries, transportation and clothes. Many used the cash to catch up on bills or cover expenses like rent, health care and car repair, as well as paying off debt. Some invested in bigger life changes like finding new housing or purchasing a car.

Those who got larger sums of money upfront called it a “lifeline that brought them daily feelings of financial security.” Almost all participants said the reliable income gave them “feelings of relief, decreased stress and increased hopefulness,” the report said.

“I went from being depressed, not having the things that I needed for me and my kids, to now being able to get what I need for my kids,” one participant said when interviewed by project organizers.

For at least some participants, the new influx of cash was a challenge to manage responsibly, so they sought outside help for budgeting and saving.

Many recipients said they felt like they’d won the lottery, which led some to pay it forward. Some said they were “motivated to support other people experiencing homelessness on the street.”

The project selected participants who match the demographics of Denver’s homeless population: 67% are people of color, almost half are women, nonbinary or transgender, and nearly a quarter are families with at least one child.

The Denver Basic Income Project is run with a mix of private and public funding, including $1.5 million from The Colorado Trust and $2 million in federal pandemic relief provided by the Denver City Council last year. Since the project's launch in 2021, they've raised more than $8 million.

"We believe that this works, especially long term. So, we are wanting to raise more money and try to bring it to more people," Sierra said.

The project will continue its partnership with the University of Denver’s Center for Housing and Homelessness Research to follow up in late October with a more detailed analysis of the pilot program’s first year.

“People will be able to see the real concrete numbers of the impact it's made,” Sierra said, including a breakdown of how participants spent the money and how many were able to find housing.

Denver’s program is part of a growing national trend. At least 100 cash-assistance pilot projects are currently operating across the country.

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