Effortless cash assistance goes to hundreds of Denver residents

For a few hundred members of Denver’s homeless population, the Denver Basic Income Project has provided an opportunity for stability they have been unable to secure on their own.

Mark Donovan, Founder of Denver Basic Income Projectsaid the project intends to explore the impact direct cash assistance can have in encouraging “a healthier society centered around human flourishing.”

“We believe that providing an income floor with these remittances creates the foundation for people to move on to whatever the next step is for them in their lives,” Donovan said.


In November, DBIP started its full-scale operation, providing untied funding to 820 people across three cohorts. DBIP raised over $8.3 million to support its efforts, including funding from the City of Denver, the State of Colorado, grants and other donors. University of Denver’s Center for Housing and Homelessness Research is also running a randomized controlled trial in conjunction with the project to get data on how well it works.

The three cohorts were randomly assigned as part of the research: 260 participants receive $1,000 per month for 12 months, another 260 received $6,500 upfront and then $500 per month for the remaining 11 months, and the final group of 300 people is the control group. , receives $50 a month to conduct a survey, so the project has a solid baseline for comparison. Participants also receive a mobile phone with service paid for during the 12 months they are in the program.

The project has gone through some phases, including a soft launch in August 2021 with 11 participants and another in July 2022 with 28 participants. Donovan said the soft launches were meant to help the DBIP team understand what would be needed to run the program at scale.

While alcohol and drug abuse is more common among the homeless population than the general population, Donovan said a similar basic income project in Toronto showed a 39% reduction in spending on items like alcohol, drugs and cigarettes among program participants. He said there are many circumstances that can lead to homelessness and that “we need to drastically scale up the programs that have proven successful in supporting our most vulnerable neighbors.”

Feels stable

Chantel Palmer participated in the first soft launch and received $1,000 per month for 12 months from August 2021 to July 2022. As a single mother of two who has found herself in transitional housing for several years, the direct cash assistance allowed her to save . for an apartment and a car, and work towards his college degree.

Palmer lives in a temporary housing center in Denver designed for families, and before DBIP, her only income was $400 a month from the government’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program while she attended classes full-time. She said she was barely getting by before DBIP started.

“For the first time in a long time, I felt stable, like I could fully support myself and my kids and not worry about having enough food or being able to put gas in the car or pay our bills or whatever,” Palmer said. “I knew this money was coming, I knew I could count on it, and it was a huge stress reliever for me as a single parent.”

Palmer also said it was the first time she was ever able to put some money aside for her and her children. While she said she has a little more anxiety now that the payments have stopped, she was able to save enough to tide herself over until she finds an apartment.

For the first time in a long time, I felt stable, like I could fully support myself and my kids and not worry about having enough food or being able to put gas in the car or pay our bills or whatever.

Donovan said the project intentionally did not require those involved to participate in the research as “a statement of respect and trust,” but 95% of participants voluntarily chose to participate in the research. He said the results of the research will be valuable as there is not much data to support the basic income concept.

“We have to do this together to show that this works and people want to make this something that we can expand and deliver to more people, and so it’s really exciting to build that kind of community and trust, Donovan said.

Donovan said the research will analyze 11 different factors, including housing stability, physical and mental health and financial well-being, and assess how the direct cash payments affect those factors. When deciding who would participate in the project, Donovan said a key goal was to make sure their sample is representative of the homeless population rather than the general population.

“We made a commitment to be inclusive and representative in that way, and our numbers have lined up really well, and that was intentional with the way we chose partners to work with,” Donovan said.

At first, Palmer was nervous about how the new income would affect her Medicaid and other government benefits, since they are essential to her survival while she remains on a low income. She said her food assistance and TANF funding were not affected, but her Medicaid benefits went from a $0 copay to a $3 copay. Palmer also said that while she appreciates the program’s no-obligation concept, she would like to see a little more education and oversight for participants when it comes to budgeting and learning how to save and spend wisely.

Community cooperation

DBIP is made possible thanks to the many community-based organizations that support the program’s work on the ground, including the Delores Project, Rocky Mountain Human Services, the Salvation Army, and the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. These organizations assist those interested in DBIP with applications, enrollment and continued support throughout their time with the program.

Aubrey Wilde is the advocacy program director at Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, often works on special projects that the coalition undertakes, such as voter registration, census and DBIP. She said the coalition didn’t begin working with DBIP until early 2021, sharing background information about Denver’s homeless landscape to help shape the program.

With barriers like the high cost of living and low wages in Denver, the coalition sees people struggling to find a path to stability, and the DBIP is a “thoughtful and strategic way” to get some people experiencing homelessness the extra support they need , Wilde said.

“This is a really important project because direct cash assistance is a powerful, immediate way to reduce wealth inequality and start building a healthier society based on social justice,” Wilde said. “It’s a different way of helping people that recognizes that people typically know what’s best for themselves and how to support themselves and their families.”

The coalition takes a housing-first approach to its work, Wilde said, and most of the participants she’s spoken to said their top priority for the money is saving up for an apartment. Wilde said the collaboration between the many different community-based organizations is what has made the project a success so far, and she hopes to see it inform additional basic income projects at the state or federal level.

When customers have to navigate the way the systems are set up, it can be very undignified and can be very disheartening to have to jump through so many hoops to get some kind of service or benefit.

Maria Sierra is a community liaison with DBIP who has worked to serve homeless families in Denver for nearly 30 years, mostly in transitional housing. When the project was just beginning, Sierra helped project managers understand the service provider’s perspective based on her experience.

For Sierra, DBIP is worthy because it trusts that participants know what is best for themselves. She said it has been exciting to see the participants use the money they receive for exactly what DBIP hoped they would use it for.

“When customers have to navigate the way the systems are set up, it can be very disrespectful and can be very disheartening to have to jump through so many hoops to get some kind of service or benefit,” Sierra said.

Sierra used to work at the transitional housing center where Palmer lives, which is how Palmer was originally connected to the program. Palmer said she is grateful that the funding she received from the program also improved her bond with her children and family.

“We were finally, for the first time in a long time, able to spend a little extra money and go to the movies together or go out to eat or things that we normally can’t do because it’s not in our budget,” Palmer said . “But then also, just knowing that my bills are paid and I don’t have to struggle every month to figure out what I can pay this month, what I can’t pay this month. I even paid my rent out until the end of the year last year because I could.”

Many of the participants Sierra has worked with said they feel like they’ve won the lottery by being accepted into the program. She was also pleasantly surprised to see how many people chose to participate in the research because they want to see this make a difference and expand.

“I want people to not have to navigate systems and just be in survival mode,” Sierra said. “I hope people thrive and I feel like we’re starting to see that.”

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