Giving money to unhoused people is good, actually

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      By Heather Hay, Amber Dyce, and Jiaying Zhao

      A common theme for many who are unhoused is being told what to do and how to behave. There is a widespread assumption that people living in homelessness are less able to decide what is best for themselves than the rest of us, and that they will squander the gift of welfare support on things like drugs and alcohol.

      The reality is, homelessness occurs because of the inability to pay rent. The rising housing costs drive homelessness more than problematic substance use or mental illness.

      But the stereotypes of those who experience homelessness persist. We often speak as though homelessness renders people useless, and somehow erodes their ability to decide what is best for themselves.

      The current welfare services enable us to wash our hands of the responsibility, feeling better that someone is doing something, and feeling superior—a kind of one-upmanship to the disadvantaged. The situation stagnates, and the paternalistic approach persists. Growing levels of mistrust and mischaracterization prevail.

      Foundations for Social Change and UBC teamed up to offer a one-time unconditional cash transfer of $7,500 to people experiencing homelessness in Vancouver. The study, which was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that over one year, this cash transfer reduced homelessness by 99 days and saved the government and taxpayers $8,277 per person per year. The cash recipients spent money on rent, food, transit, and durable goods, with no increased spending on alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes.

      The cash transfer is a good first step in creating a new future for all, where we internalize a new understanding that unfortunate things can happen to people—and that homelessness is simply a lack of cash.

      Marie (whose last name has been withheld to protect her privacy) was a property manager for an exclusive apartment complex in Vancouver. She had a happy life until a drunk driver mowed her down, sparking chronic debilitating pain and a broken back.

      Unable to work, she was forced to leave her job and was evicted from her apartment. She is a single mom, with no extended family support here in BC.

      Left with limited options, Marie packed up her daughter and their pets and moved into a shelter. Internalizing the stereotype of being homeless, people like Marie frequently do not access support services due to the shame and stigma surrounding their situation.

      Marie feels that she’s increasingly losing control over her situation, as well as experiencing a growing sense of isolation, suffering from relationship poverty, and lacking the power and agency to change her predicament. She lives with debilitating pain while simultaneously caring for her daughter. She feels strong emotional pain when standing outside the welfare office. She often feels disrespected by the people at the office and by people who see her in the lineup. She reminds us of how much time is spent in lineups to search for housing, to access computers, and now more frequently, to wait for food for her and her daughter.

      But Marie is smart and knowledgeable. That’s why when she received an unconditional cash transfer of $7,500, she knew exactly what to do with it. She paid off her debt and moved into housing. She bought a new bed and mattress for her daughter. She bought healthier food and put a little away for a safety net.

      Marie’s story debunks the myths we hold about people who are experiencing homelessness. It reminds us that it is not bad decisions that land people in this situation. Marie wants to create change. She sees a life that could be unencumbered by system rules designed to keep people in the poverty cycle.

      Our world should be free from debilitating and disempowering stereotypes. We need to replace a paternalistic approach to homelessness with strategies that enable dignity and agency, dismantling our own internalized stereotypes of who is most deserving.

      Heather Hay is the director of community projects at Foundations for Social Change. Amber Dyce is the CEO at Foundations for Social Change. Jiaying Zhao is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology and the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at UBC.