What happens when we offer help without strings attached?

From nonprofit websites to political speeches, phrases like solving root causes, addressing systemic challenges, and identifying meaningful solutions are everywhere today. They represent noble ideals and good intentions. But how do we actually achieve them when it comes to a real problem such as homelessness?

Perhaps we need to begin by putting aside the nice words. To be blunt, one of the biggest challenges Project Community Connections (PCCI) confronts is the belief that poor people make bad decisions, therefore insinuating that homelessness is an avoidable outcome.

In reality, most of the reasons why people experience homelessness are outside of their control. Being laid off from a job or a change in work schedule that makes it impossible to find care for children or aging parents, being pushed out of an affordable residence, a medical emergency, becoming the victim of a crime–all reasons why people end up without a permanent, safe place to live at a moment in time. For the majority of people who are experiencing homelessness —about 80% nationwide– the situation is temporary.

That’s why PCCI launched a pilot in 2021 funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation to give direct cash transfers to young people experiencing homelessness. And when we were awarded funding from the Bezos Day 1 Families Fund in 2021, we decided to use a significant portion of the support to broaden direct cash transfers to more people and to deepen the investments. We applied lessons learned from the pilot to construct a meaningful program.

What do you think people are spending the money on?

In our pilot program with youth, we observed that people were using the infusion of cash to meet immediate needs; most of the money was spent on food.

That trend bears out in other similar programs around the country and world and is continuing in our expanded program. People are using the funds to pay for housing, food and utilities–essential goods and services. But after just a few months of this expanded approach, we are seeing some charges that represent something bigger.

  • Some recipients are paying for childcare, giving them the time to work and the peace of mind that the young people in their care are safe.
  • One recipient saved funds over a period of time to repair their vehicle and continue to get to work.
  • And we recently saw payments for college expenses and certificate programs.

To us, those are clear indicators that unrestricted support for a predictable time period gives people the ability to plan ahead, to invest in themselves and their families, and to chart their own path out of hard times. Knowing they have the resources to afford housing for the foreseeable future allows recipients to create relationships and build community. If their child is sick, they can call on a neighbor or friend to help instead of missing work, losing their job, and potentially ending up without shelter.

Make no mistake: existing social programs are critical. Yet, they generally come with limitations. For example, SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) funds cannot be used to pay for gas or public transit to get to work. That’s why direct transfer payments should be a part of our nation’s efforts to end homelessness. Every person or family faces different obstacles and has unique needs.

We recently wrote about the importance of unrestricted giving and how unfettered funding such as those provided by the Bezos Day1 Families Fund is a game-changer for organizations responding to the needs of people in crisis. Similarly, if we as individuals or a society profess to believe in helping others, we must let go of the idea that “we” know what “they” need. By supporting people to prioritize their spending and make their own decisions, we help set them up for long-term success and stability.

PCCI is proud to be a part of a national community of practice. Our direct transfer payment program here in Atlanta is based on examples and learnings from similar programs across the country and beyond. We are also adding to the understanding of how this kind of approach can be successful, because our program includes some unique aspects:

  • We are providing funds to people who are also receiving housing and wraparound support—which isn’t common in other direct fund transfer programs.
  • We investing in a rigorous program evaluation to understand the nuances of this kind of effort. Leah Hamilton, PhD an associate professor in the Department of Social Work at Appalachian State University, and Stephen Roll, PhD, a research assistant professor with the Social Policy Institute at Washington University in St. Louis are leading the research alongside PCCI.

To turn platitudes into action, we have to try new things: Track interventions so we can understand if and how circumstances change. Challenge our assumptions. And, we need to push for understanding that homelessness is largely an episodic experience for people. The key to solving homelessness will require more organizations and individuals to recognize that targeted interventions grounded in respect can not only provide people with immediate help, but also put them on a trajectory for a future of prosperity.