The Impact of Direct Giving on People Experiencing Homelessness
Research findings from project partners at the University of British Columbia and non-profit Foundations for Social Change suggest that unconditional cash transfers can be an effective solution to reduce homelessness.
Homelessness is a growing social, economic, and health crisis. Various programs have been implemented in many countries to address homelessness, include those focused on the provision of emergency and healthcare services, and the development of permanent supportive housing. While some of these strategies have proven to be effective in reducing the consequences of homelessness, they do not address its core cause, which is the lack of money that makes it impossible for a person to pay rent.
Acknowledging the importance of overcoming this core cause, a research team based in Vancouver, Canada, is tackling this challenge through the New Leaf project, a HIBAR research project investigating whether unconditional cash transfers can empower people to move beyond homelessness. The project is a collaboration between the University of British Columbia and Foundations for Social Change, a nonprofit that creates evidence-based solutions to advance social change. Their innovative intervention has the potential to reduce homelessness by taking an agentic approach that goes beyond the common approach of offering the provision of emergency services like shelters and meal programs.
The New Leaf research team conducted the world’s first randomized controlled trial examining the impact of unconditional cash transfers on individuals experiencing homelessness. In this trial, they distributed a one-time unconditional cash transfer of $7,500 to each of 50 homeless individuals in Vancouver, with another group of 65 as controls. The results of the trial demonstrate that the cash transfers led to significant improvements in housing stability, saving and spending, food security, savings, employment, and cognitive function, with no increases in spending on temptation goods. The research findings suggest that unconditional cash transfers can be an effective solution to reduce homelessness. Preparations for an expanded trial in Vancouver and Toronto, Canada, are underway.
The New Leaf Project was initiated in 2015 by Claire Williams and Frans Tjallingii at Foundations for Social Change, having been inspired by Ruther Bregman’s Ted Talk on basic income, and a successful initial project conducted in London, UK, that gave unconditional cash transfers to a group of chronically homeless men. They established a research partnership with Dr. Jiaying Zhao at the University of British Columbia, who had similar ambitions to launch a direct giving program with people experiencing homelessness. Together they co-led the project, making shared decisions about its design and implementation, and this co-leadership approach ensured that each team member brought their different perspectives and ideas to the table, enabling an effective trial that could be rigorously and credibly evaluated. The team applied advances in behavioural sciences, cognitive psychology, and behavioral economics to demonstrate that direct giving is an effective tool to quickly reintroduce stability into people’s lives.
The New Leaf project embodies HIBAR research characteristics, as it deeply integrates both the discovery-oriented goal of developing a deeper understanding of a core cause of homelessness with the societal impact goal of reducing the social consequences of homelessness. Cross-sectoral co-leadership was an essential component, with experts from outside the academic system who understood working in partnership with experts in relevant academic disciplines and experimental methodologies. In addition to generating important experimental evidence that suggests that unconditional cash transfers can be an effective solution to reduce homelessness, this project demonstrated how good project design can make it possible for academic rigor and practicality to coexist in a project.