Bay Area nonprofit gives free money to homeless people

Kevin Adler never thought that $ 500 a month would be enough to get someone out of roaming in the notoriously expensive Bay Area.

He launched his six-month “basic income” experiment to help homeless participants pay for things like food and unexpected bills. But for 64-year-old Elizabeth Softky, it has done so much more. The unconditional payments allowed her to qualify for an apartment in a new affordable senior housing complex in Redwood City, after 11 months in a shelter and an unexpected cancer diagnosis.

“I took all my things out of storage,” she said. “It’s like rediscovering the life I had. My books, my china, my pots and pans… just things that tell me that I am me.

Adler’s “Miracle Money” pilot project was launched in February to give $ 500 per month to 12 homeless people across the Bay Area and two people who rented single rooms on low incomes. The program – one of the first in the United States to target homeless people for a guaranteed income, according to Adler – has improved the lives of several participants. Six, including Softky, obtained stable housing. Nine said they felt less stressful about money.

It was a success “beyond our wildest expectations,” said Adler, CEO of the nonprofit Miracle Messages, which raised the money to fund the program.

The craze for basic or “guaranteed income” programs, which provide regular payments to low-income groups, is accelerating in California. Oakland kicked off its Basic Income pilot earlier this month, distributing the first monthly payments of $ 500 to 300 low-income families of color and promising to add 300 more families soon. State lawmakers recently gave the green light to a $ 35 million guaranteed income program for expectant mothers and former foster youth. Last month, Los Angeles County approved the donation of $ 1,200 per month to 150 young adults for three years. Marin County, San Francisco, and Santa Clara County have also launched small pilots.

But Basic Income has yet to be embraced as a widespread solution to the homeless crisis highly visible on the streets of the Bay Area. Critics sometimes view these programs with skepticism, Adler said, because they assume that a homeless person cannot be trusted to spend cash payments wisely. But that’s the wrong approach, Adler said.

“I think it’s incredibly presumptuous and very paternalistic to assume that I, not walking in your shoes, not knowing your situation, know what is best for you,” he said.

The nonprofit Adler was launched six years ago to help homeless people reconnect with their families. When the COVID-19 pandemic began and Bay Area counties began moving people from the streets to hotels, association staff saw how many people were alone and isolated, sheltering in place in their rooms. They started Miracle Friends, pairing homeless people in the Bay Area with volunteers who call or text them once a week to check in and chat.

As this program grew – more than 100 homeless people participate – and volunteers got to know their homeless friends, they began to realize how much a small amount of money can do. a big difference in their life. They wanted to offer more than just a listening ear.

Adler and his team decided to try to achieve this. On Giving Tuesday in December, they appealed for help and ended up raising over $ 40,000 from private donors, far exceeding their goal of $ 15,000. They raised an additional $ 10,000 two months later.

The association then asked the volunteers of the Miracle Friends program to nominate homeless people who could benefit from a basic income.

The nonprofit selected the people who would participate – making sure they chose a diverse group of people who did not suffer from addictions, had goals for how they wanted to spend the money and were ready. to share monthly updates on their spending. Then Miracle Money began to transfer money directly to the recipients’ bank accounts. Participants were also matched with a financial coach to help them with tasks such as budgeting and opening a bank account to receive their payments, if they did not have any.

The nonprofit has asked program participants not to spend their money on drugs, alcohol or cigarettes, and the vast majority appear to have complied, Adler said. A person appears to have abused some of the fund it said, and the association works with him to keep the rest of the money until he finds stable housing.

For Softky, money was a lifeline.

She was working in the nonprofit world, designing literacy programs for Bay Area children, when she was struck by a surprise diagnosis of advanced colon cancer. Unable to work, she was evicted from her Redwood City home in 2019. She completed her chemotherapy treatments while living in a homeless shelter. When COVID hit, she moved into a temporary hotel room in Pacifica.

Then San Mateo County used the state’s COVID funds to buy a hotel in Redwood Shores and turn it into long-term housing. Residents would only pay 30% of their incomes – but the catch is, they had to have an income to qualify. Miracle Money is what got Softky through the door.

“Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to come in here,” she said. “So that was the silver lining.”

REDWOOD CITY, CALIFORNIA – August 6: Elizabeth Softky, 64, recently moved into this affordable apartment complex in Redwood City through a Basic Income program that gave homeless people $ 500 a month, with no strings attached, during six months. (Dai Sugano / Bay Area News Group)

Basic income payments are expected to end this month and Softky, whose cancer is in remission, is looking for another job in children’s literacy.

Adler hopes to repeat the program, potentially increasing the number of participants. He already has new funding in sight.

But some of those funds, Adler said, will be set aside to help Softky and other former participants if they run into financial trouble.

“We are not going to let her or anyone else’s fail,” he said.

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