In 2018, a Vancouver-based nonprofit decided to test a new approach to tackling the challenge of homelessness. What if when someone became homeless, they were given thousands of dollars to help get back on their feet?
Like other cash transfer programs, the premise is simple: If someone needs money, the most effective solution might be to just give it to them, no strings attached. A randomized controlled trial of the new program, called the New Leaf Project, found this to be the case. The 50 people in the study who were given cash—$7,500 in Canadian dollars, or roughly $5,800 U.S.—got into stable housing faster than the control group. Their food security increased immediately. And at the end of one year, they still had savings left. The program cost less per person, the study found, than the government would have spent caring for the people, while helping participants get farther ahead.
The cofounders launched the program after watching a 2017 TED talk from Dutch historian Rutger Bregman, who made the case for ending poverty with a universal basic income. As they looked into the idea afterward, they saw the example of a small trial in London that gave cash to 13 homeless men. A year later, 11 of the men had stable housing. “We just got to thinking, Would something like that work here?” says Claire Williams, cofounder and CEO of Foundations for Social Change, the new nonprofit running the New Leaf Project, who had noticed an increasing number of people living on the street in Vancouver.