In 2020, Mark Donovan, an entrepreneur who'd made his fortune overseas, decided that it was time to spread some of his wealth directly to people who were struggling. That June, Donovan started doling out personal grants of $1,000 a month to twelve individuals; the payments continued through the end of the year.
"I was struck profoundly by what a difference it made for them and how simple and immediate it was for them," Donovan recalls.
He decided to formalize the concept, founding the Denver Basic Income Project in order to provide direct cash payments to many more people living without homes; he went public with the program in June 2021.
"The idea is that a basic income floor creates stability that can create an accelerated path to [long-term] stability and to thriving. It’s been proven in program after program throughout the world as an effective and efficient method to providing support for people who have been traditionally oppressed, discriminated against and who are not thriving," says Donovan.
In a soft launch that started last August, the Denver Basic Income Project began providing cash to eleven individuals for twelve months. A second soft launch, serving 28 people, began on July 15. But there are much bigger things ahead.
"This funding will provide more than 140 women and families currently in shelters with $1,000 a month for a year in direct-cash assistance. This will help them move into stable housing and provide support so they can stay housed, while opening space in our shelters to serve more people," Hancock said.
So far, the project has raised over $7 million, including the $2 million proposed by Hancock. But it still needs around $2 million to support the full first round, which is designed to serve up to 820 people.
Under the plan, 260 individuals will receive $6,500 each up front and then $500 a month for the next eleven months. A second group of 260 individuals will each receive $1,000 a month for twelve months. And 300 individuals in a third group will receive $50 a month for twelve months in a comparison group.
While the Denver Basic Income Project will be open to all people who are eligible, the Hancock administration and the Denver Department of Housing Stability asked to earmark the city's contributions for women and families because of ARPA funding protocols.
"These funds are required to be focused on the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the onset of the pandemic, HOST has seen a tripling of women in our shelter system and dramatic increases in need for family shelter. In the city’s family motel vouchering program, we served 70 percent more people in March 2022 compared to March 2020, and families we’re serving are staying more than twice as long," says Derek Woodbury, a spokesperson for HOST.
To be eligible for the program, participants must be experiencing homelessness, whether sheltered or unsheltered, and already connected with a service provider organization. They cannot have "severe and unaddressed mental health or substance use needs," and must also be eighteen or older.
Applications are not yet being accepted, but ultimately the project will choose participants through a randomized selection process of those who pass the eligibility requirements.
The early days of the Denver Basic Income Project weren't entirely smooth. The project originally partnered with Denver Homeless Out Loud, but the advocacy group took issue with the fact that the Denver Basic Income Project didn't have a homeless individual on its board. DHOL also complained that the project initially had a withdrawal limit on the funds it was providing individuals. Ultimately, DHOL withdrew from its partnership with the project.
"The participants that joined the soft launch, we provided the cash to them throughout the soft launch and they continued to participate in the program, so I'd say that that’s my response to that," Donovan says regarding DHOL's complaint. "Banks always set withdrawal limits. However, when needed, these can be adjusted to meet an individual's needs."
The Denver Basic Income Project also now has someone who with homelessness experience on its Structure and Governance Task Group. "We continue to listen, and hope to continue to receive feedback," Donovan says.
The idea of giving cash directly to people struggling financially is not new, but it's become more popular in recent years. Andrew Yang, a 2020 presidential candidate, made establishing a universal basic income level part of his campaign. And the Mayors for a Guaranteed Income group comprises dozens of mayors around the country, including Mayor Michael Hancock.
In Vancouver, the New Leaf Project doled out $7,500 each to people experiencing homelessness in 2018, leading to "measurable improvements" for participants, according to the New Leaf Project website.
"Cash recipients moved into stable housing faster than non-cash participants and, overall, spent fewer days homeless," New Leaf reports. "For those who received the cash, food security increased in the first month and remained steady over time." The project followed 115 total participants across the cash-recipient and non-recipient categories.
There are no hard stats for the first iterations of Denver's project. "We’re not doing any formal research on soft launch one or soft launch two yet. The learnings are anecdotal," Donovan notes. "In terms of the learnings, I don’t feel really comfortable speaking to that directly, since it’s anecdotal. The purpose of the soft launch has been to make sure that we were organizationally prepared, capacity prepared. Our target is to serve hundreds in the hard launch."
The Denver Basic Income Project has partnered with the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work Center on Housing and Homelessness Research. Those receiving money through the program will not be required to participate in the DU research, but 27 out of the 28 people who are part of the second soft launch opted into the research, Donovan says. Westword had scheduled an interview with one of the DU researchers, but the researcher canceled, saying that the project had decided that only Donovan will speak with the press.
And the "program is moving forward beautifully," Donovan notes. "The people who are receiving cash, we’re seeing that it’s supporting our hypothesis so far, so we’re feeling quite optimistic."