Bay Area nonprofit gives free cash to homeless people, with surprising results

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

He launched his six-month “basic income” experiment to help unhoused participants pay for things like food and unexpected bills. But for 64-year-old Elizabeth Softky, it did much more. The no-strings-attached payments allowed her to qualify for an apartment in a new affordable housing complex for seniors in Redwood City, after 11 months in a shelter and an unexpected cancer diagnosis.

“I’ve taken all my stuff out of storage,” she said. “It’s like rediscovering the life I used to have. My books, my china, my pots and pans … just things that tell me I’m me.”

Adler’s “Miracle Money” pilot launched in February to give $500 a month to 12 unhoused people throughout the Bay Area, and two people who were renting low-income single rooms. The program — one of the first in the U.S. to target homeless people for a guaranteed income, according to Adler — has improved the lives of several participants. Six, including Softky, have secured stable housing. Nine reported feeling less stressed about money.

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

Enthusiasm for basic or “guaranteed income” programs, which provide regular payments to low-income groups, is gaining speed in California. Oakland kicked off its basic income pilot earlier this month, handing out the first $500 monthly payments to 300 low-income families of color, and promising to add an additional 300 families soon. State lawmakers recently green-lighted a $35 million guaranteed income program for pregnant mothers and former foster youth. Last month, Los Angeles County approved giving $1,200 a month to 150 young adults for three years. Marin County, San Francisco and Santa Clara County also have launched small pilots.

But basic income has yet to be embraced as a widespread solution to the homelessness crisis acutely visible on streets across the Bay Area. Critics sometimes view these programs with skepticism, Adler said, because they assume an unhoused person can’t be trusted to spend cash payments wisely. But that’s a wrongheaded approach, Adler said.

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

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

As that program grew — more than 100 unhoused people are participating — and the volunteers got to know their homeless friends, they began to realize how a small amount of money could make a big difference in their lives. They wanted to offer more than just a sympathetic ear.

Adler and his team decided to try and make that happen. On “Giving Tuesday” in December, they put out a call for help and ended up raising more than $40,000 from private donors — far surpassing their $15,000 goal. They raised another $10,000 two months later.

The nonprofit then asked volunteers in the Miracle Friends program to nominate unhoused people who might benefit from a basic income.

The nonprofit selected who would participate — making sure they chose a diverse group of people who were not struggling with substance abuse, had goals for how they wanted to spend the money and were willing to share monthly updates on their spending. Then Miracle Money began transferring cash directly into the recipients’ bank accounts. Participants also were paired with a financial coach to help them with tasks such as budgeting and opening a bank account to receive their payments, if they didn’t have one.

The nonprofit asked program participants not to spend the money on drugs, alcohol or cigarettes, and the vast majority appear to have complied, Adler said. One person seems to have misused some of the funds, he said, and the nonprofit is working with him to hold onto the rest of the money until he finds stable housing.

For Softky, the money has been a lifeline.

She was working in the nonprofit world, designing literacy programming for kids throughout the Bay Area, when she was hit with a surprise diagnosis of advanced colon cancer. Unable to work, she was evicted from her Redwood City home in 2019. She finished 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 state COVID funds to buy a Redwood Shores hotel and turn it into long-term housing. Residents would pay just 30% of their incomes — but the catch was, they had to have an income to qualify. Miracle Money is what got Softky through the door.

“Otherwise I could not have gotten in here,” she said. “So that was the silver lining.”

REDWOOD CITY, CALIFORNIA – August 06: Elizabeth Softky, 64, recently moved into this affordable apartment complex in Redwood City thanks to a basic income program that gave unhoused people $500 a month, no strings attached, for six months. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)

The basic income payments are set to end this month, and Softky, whose cancer is in remission, is looking for another job working with children on literacy.

Adler hopes to repeat the program, potentially expanding the number of participants. He already has some new funding lined up.

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

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

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