Many of the ways in which we might relieve or prevent homelessness more effectively have not been tested here in the United Kingdom.
The research base for much of what happens within the homelessness system is weak. More importantly, research and evaluation of how we might do things differently simply has not happened on a scale significant enough to have impact.
This is why we are pleased to be taking part in a ground-breaking programme which will test out an intervention to support people impacted by or at risk of homelessness.
We want to see if giving money directly to individuals with experience of street homelessness will enable them to move on from homelessness permanently. Not through a charity or a Local Authority but directly into their own bank account. Not by making them apply for a grant and asking them to say in advance how they would spend it. Just by giving them money as a one-off personal grant. They will be free to spend it as they wish.
Why are we doing this? Giving money to people experiencing hardship, known as a direct cash transfer, has a strong evidence base from evaluations across the world as an effective route out of poverty. It gives people flexibility to make their own choices about how best to improve their lives, studies have shown.
People on low incomes are often stereotyped: there are widely held assumptions that they would waste a sum of cash by spending it on alcohol, drugs, cigarettes or other ‘temptation’ goods. But the evidence suggests otherwise. In particular, it suggests that a larger lump sum of money has a greater transformative effect and long term impact than a series of small cash payments.
For example, profits from a casino built on land held by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in the 1990s were shared with the community. Around 16,000 people received payments twice a year. Researchers who evaluated the impact found children did better at school, physical and mental health improved and rates of crime and domestic violence fell.
Not many programmes have tested the impact of giving personal grants to people experiencing homelessness.
But a research trial in Vancouver, Canada in 2018 gave payments to people who had been homeless for an average of six months and compared their progress over a year to others in similar circumstances who were not given money.
The 50 individuals who received personal grants moved into stable housing faster, spent more money on food, clothes and rent, spent fewer days homeless, and many kept some of the money as savings.
We want to see if similar results can be achieved here. So we have joined with a group of like-minded organisations and individuals to take part in the UK’s first programme of cash transfers to relieve homelessness.
We will ask 180 people with a recent history of street homelessness to take part in three cities: Manchester, Glasgow and Swansea. Half of them, chosen by a lottery, will be given a personal grant as a single lump sum. The others will continue to receive the support they have previously but will not get a grant. This groundbreaking randomised controlled trial will ensure we understand the difference that money makes, or whether it does not.
Of course, we will have safeguards. For their own safety, we will not involve people with very poor mental health or that are currently struggling with an addiction that is not at least partly under control. Participants will have to have a bank account and a smartphone. Beyond these, however, there will not be a long list of exceptions.
We hope that a personal grant of this type will give individuals dignity, self confidence, a sense of wellbeing and an opportunity to have greater control over their lives. But without trying this out and studying what happens, we won’t know.
We will ask them, in regular surveys, to tell us about their circumstances over the following year and so be able to evaluate what impact, if any, the personal grants have had. We will share the findings, whatever they are.
The trial is being led by the Centre for Homelessness Impact and evaluated by academics at King’s College London, whose ethics council approved its design after considering measures to safeguard the dignity, rights, health, safety and privacy of participants.
The partner organisations we have brought together for this programme are The Wallich, Simon Community Scotland, Greater Manchester Combined Authority and Greater Manchester Mayor’s Charity and St Martin-in-the-Fields Charity. We expect to give participants their personal grant early in 2022 and will provide updates on the trial’s progress, taking care not to do so in a way that might invalidate the research findings.
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