Podcast: Assisting the Recently Homeless with Claire Elizabeth Williams, Foundations for Social Change

Posted on February 5, 2021

Claire Elizabeth Williams - GovLove

Claire Elizabeth Williams
CEO & Co-Founder
Foundations for Social Change
Twitter | LinkedIn

Consult early and consult often. Claire Elizabeth Williams, CEO & Co-Founder of Foundations for Social Change, joins the podcast to discuss the New Leaf Project. She outlined how the New Leaf Project distributed a direct cash payment of $7,500 (CAD) to 50 recipients who recently became homeless in Vancouver, British Columbia. Claire shared the results of the project as well as lessons learned and how other local governments could implement a similar program.

Host: Toney Thompson


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Learn More

Foundations for Social Change

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Giving people money turns out to be an incredibly effective tool in ending homelessness

A B.C. research project gave homeless people $7,500 each — the results were ‘beautifully surprising’

Researchers gave thousands of dollars to homeless people. The results defied stereotypes

A Canada charity gave $7,500 to homeless people, here’s what happened

Episode Transcription


Toney Thompson  00:00

Before we get into today’s episode, Gov Love is brought to you by Granicus. Short term rentals or STRs are found on sites like Airbnb and VRBO. Their numbers are growing at a staggering rate in 1000s of communities across North America. What does this mean for local government? It’s time to act. STRs can be a tremendous source of revenue for local governments or a real community nuisance. It all depends on adopting the right Compliance and Enforcement strategy. To date over 350 communities have partnered with Granicus on their STR compliance programs for everything from address and host identification to ordinance consulting and permitting tools. Interested in learning more about the STR market and your community and how Granicus can help? Visit granicus.com to schedule a free consultation. That’s granicus.com for more information Coming to you from Durham, North Carolina, this is Gov love ,a podcast about local government. I’m Toney Thompson, your Gov Love co host for today’s episode. On today’s episode, we’ll talk to Claire Elizabeth Williams, co founder and CEO of Foundations for Social Change, a charitable organization dedicated to innovating on behalf of the charitable and philanthropic sector to advance social change. We’ll discuss why Claire founded foundations for social change, and the result of a bold study where they gave direct cash payments to the recently homeless. Claire has directed the organization’s growth and development and both a culture of courage, compassion and impact. She’s recently placed on the 21 founders to watch list prepared by the Future of Good, Canada’s leading digital publication covering the world of social impact. Welcome to Gov Love. Thanks for joining us, Claire.

Claire Elizabeth Williams  01:53

Thanks, Toney. It’s great to be here.

Toney Thompson  01:56

Yeah, so as always, we start with every everyone that we invite onto the podcast with a lightning round just so we can get to know you a little bit better. So the first question that I have for you, Claire is what’s the first app you open on your phone most mornings?

Claire Elizabeth Williams  02:11

Well, my first app is actually my mind. I sit and do meditation, I’m trying to be really disciplined about not going straight to technology, and then it would be my inbox.

Toney Thompson  02:21

Wow, that’s great. That’s a really good habit. I think I should adopt How long have you been doing that for?

Claire Elizabeth Williams  02:25

I’m consistently inconsistent for about eight years and recommitted to my practice since the new year.

Toney Thompson  02:33

That’s great. And do you like feel like a definite difference in like the way you start your day? Since you’ve done that?

Claire Elizabeth Williams  02:38

I absolutely do. I feel I’m not much more present for my team. And I feel like it’s actually having a ripple effect amongst them. So it’s an amazing thing to do.

Toney Thompson  02:46

Alright, great, I think I’ll try to maybe adopt that myself. The second question I have is what are you currently reading?

Claire Elizabeth Williams  02:54

Well, I’m reading two, if not three books right now. But the two main ones are Relational Mindfulness. So again, about bringing that meditation and mindfulness practice into everything we do. As agents of social change, it’s really important to have high levels of self awareness, mindfulness, and to ensure that you don’t burn out that self care piece is super important. And then the second book came from out in the universe, some wonderful humans sent it to me. And it’s called Think Like a Rocket Scientist. And so it talks about using first principles, and just rethinking how we do everything in life.

Toney Thompson  03:29

Oh, wow, that second one sounds really interesting. I need to put that on my reading list for this year. That’s great. And the third question I have for you, Claire, what’s your most controversial, non political opinion?

Claire Elizabeth Williams  03:44

Well, it would appear it would be giving out cash transfers to people experiencing homelessness.

Toney Thompson  03:50

I like that. That’s very good. Great. And yeah, we’ll definitely dive into that this episode to learn more about that the work that y’all did. So Claire, when I was researching, I noticed that you actually have a bit of your career path is taking you through local government, could you you know, tell our listeners kind of your career path how you got to Foundations for Social Change some of the work you’ve done in the past?

Claire Elizabeth Williams  04:13

Yeah, certainly. So it’s definitely been a winding journey in terms of my career, and a lot of it has not necessarily been planned, it’s been organic. But in my previous profession, I worked as a land use planner. So I used to work with local governments here in British Columbia, especially in rural areas, on their land use plan, developing their communities around Smart Growths or around human scale development, as opposed to cars. Then I actually moved into a different level of government, so I was working for the federal government doing national parks planning, there I was also working with indigenous government. And now in my role of CEO of Foundations for Social Change. I engage a lot with our provincial government.

Toney Thompson  04:54

Wow, that’s great. And when you were, you know, a land use planner, what were some of the things that you worked on specifically or some of the cool things that you learned as a as a planner? 

Claire Elizabeth Williams  05:05

Yeah, I’d say my biggest takeaway from being a land use planner is the mantra “consult early and consult often.” Too often we are, yeah, too often we engage with community members or stakeholders further along the process than we should have. And so I’ve really actually taken that mantra into the work at Foundations for Social Change and consultation was one of the first things I did before we even really hit the ground running. I consulted a number of different organizations on whether they thought our idea was legitimate or whether it had legs. So that would be my biggest takeaway.

Toney Thompson  05:42

Yeah, that’s really good advice. I, you know, I think we can definitely be better in local government about making sure that we are doing the proper amount of engagement for our communities. So Claire, I’m kind of interested. So what inspired you to shift your career focus slightly to creating Foundations for Social Change and the work that you’re all doing today?

Claire Elizabeth Williams  06:05

Well, it was a sense of frustration and a misalignment of values. So after the work that I was doing with government on land use planning, which I really enjoyed, I moved into the private sector as a result of layoffs. And so during my time with the private sector, I was doing some really interesting sustainability work. But then I ended up being assigned to an environmental assessment for a massive resource project, that back in my 20s, when I was a militant hippie, I would have been protesting against. And so I just had this kind of come to Jesus moment where I was like, What am I doing like, this is totally out of alignment with who I am and the values that I hold. So I spontaneously quit my job and move to India to manage an orphanage. And then I came back to Vancouver, and just sat with a question of like, how do I continue to make an impact here in my home community? And then, you know, we look on our streets, we see increasing numbers of folks who are visibly homeless, both here in Canada and down in the states, and just got to thinking there’s got to be a different way. And then my co founder friends, and I were inspired by a TED talk. And the rest, as you say, is history.

Toney Thompson  07:13

Wow, that is that is amazing. Wow, yeah, that’s, that’s that yeah, that’s really cool. So Claire, if you don’t mind me asking me asking you, you know, what are what are some of the values that you have that inspired you to make that change?

Claire Elizabeth Williams  07:29

Um, well, I think again, these come from my my meditation practice. So compassion is a really important value for me. You know, often we talk about empathy and empathy is absolutely important. But empathy is really, it’s about feeling what the other person is feeling. But it doesn’t have the action component, whereas compassion is about feeling what that other person is feeling, putting yourself in their shoes, and then actually taking action to make a difference. And so that has been a central theme in my life since my service in India. And it’s central to who we are as an organization. Courage is also really important. So you know, whether I knew it at the time, it was a really courageous decision to walk away from a well paid consulting job to India to then come back and say, oh, gosh, what am I going to do now? And that courage comes through in our work, in that we are the first organization to experiment with direct cash transfers, with people experiencing homelessness. And it really comes through in everything that we do as a small team, we really encourage one another to take risks and to fail forward. And to do that, you have to have courage. 

Toney Thompson  08:39

Yeah, absolutely. Thank you for sharing those values with us. So talking more about, you know, the direct work that you’ve done. I, one of the reasons I want to talk with you is because I’ve noticed here in the states that more and more local governments are experimenting with direct cash payment programs, or pilots. And you know, they’re directly targeting different populations in their municipalities. And so when I came across your work, I was like, Oh, well, you know, here’s an organization that’s already, you know, done a lot of research based, you know, work around this, and I really want to reach out to you. So, can you tell me about, you know, the New Leaf project that your guys or Foundation has been working on, and why you created it?

Claire Elizabeth Williams  09:28

Yeah, of course. So, like I said, we were inspired by a TED talk by a Dutch gentleman called Rutger Bregman. He is a historian and writer in the Netherlands. And he did this TED talk on universal basic income. It’s called free money for everyone. And nested in his presentation. He spoke about something called the London rough sleepers project, where they had given a personalized budget, they didn’t give people cash in hand, but they had a budget to spend. It was for 13 men who are chronically homeless, so some of them Up to 40 years homeless. And at the end of the project, they found that people had moved into stable housing, they were reunited with their family, they were investing in things like courses, training, to move their life forward. And I just thought that was really, really remarkable given the small investment they got about, I think it was 3000 pounds each. So that’s 6000 Canadian dollars. Meanwhile, you look here in North America, and I’ll speak to the Canadian context, it costs on average, 55,000 to 134,000 per person experiencing homelessness per year. So the cost of doing nothing is not cheap, contrary to people’s, you know, common belief that, you know, it’s cheap or free to allow that person to exist in homelessness. It’s actually really expensive. So beyond it being the right thing to do, there is an economic case for giving out direct cash transfers.

Toney Thompson  10:49

Yeah, that’s really interesting. And thank you for highlighting the the cost of inaction. Can you tell us a little bit clearer about the the homeless situation in Canada? What, I mean, how many homeless people are there currently?

Claire Elizabeth Williams  11:04

So I’m sure these numbers have gone up since the pandemic, but on average, there are 235,000 Canadians who experience homelessness on any given year. An average of 35,000 people a night. But I do think that is a gross on estimate or under gross under estimation. And I do think that that those numbers have gone up since COVID.

Toney Thompson  11:29

Yeah, and so you know, what you said about you know, it costing $55,000 per person. I mean, you multiply that dollar figure with the numbers that you just said, I mean, that really adds up to some major costs for, you know, municipalities.

Claire Elizabeth Williams  11:43

Absolutely. I think on average, as a country, it costs us $7 billion a year. That’s how much we spend on homelessness, the provision of services, as well as lost productivity. That’s a lot of cash transfers that you could give and I haven’t done the math, but 7 billion divided by 235,000. Yeah, I think we can do better.

Toney Thompson  12:04

Yeah, absolutely. And one of the things I’m interested in, and maybe you can tell me about this is, you know, how did people feel when they heard that you were going to give direct cash payments to the homeless?

Claire Elizabeth Williams  12:19

Yeah, so I think it depends on the audience. So like I said, at the beginning, one of my mantras is consult early and consult often. So we consulted with a number of existing shelter providers here in the lower mainland of British Columbia. So that’s Vancouver, and then the surrounding municipalities, just to get a sense of like, what do you think of this idea? Do you think it’s a good idea? Do you think we’re crazy? And I would say about 80% of those organizations said, Excuse me, that this is a good idea that their hands are tied, that they’re overwhelmed, there’s so much pressure on the existing shelter system of care, and that they just needed another tool in their toolbox. Another 10%, were a little more hesitant, but cautiously supportive. And then the final 10%, were like, this is the craziest thing we’ve ever heard, you absolutely should not do it. And so I find variation of that response amongst the different groups I talked to whether it be government stakeholders, whether it be donors, partners, etc. But as we see with our project, when we start to build out the evidence base, and demonstrate, both quantitatively and qualitatively, that there is a positive impact to giving out cash. I think you’ll see more and more of these projects happening, and people’s attitudes softening.

Toney Thompson  13:35

Yeah, thank you for mentioning that. I do think it’s, I guess the question I would have is, do you feel that you are able to mitigate some of that potential negative feedback by your mantra of consulting early and consulting often?

Claire Elizabeth Williams  13:49

You know, that’s a great question. And I’ve never really thought about it. I just like to think that I inspired people to think differently about an age old problem.

Toney Thompson  13:59

Yeah, definitely. Definitely inspirational. Thank you. So can you tell our listeners a little bit more about how you set up the structure of this program and what it looked like when you conducted this, this pilot? 

Claire Elizabeth Williams  14:12

Yeah, so because of the bold nature of our work, we knew that it was really important to partner with an organization that would lend us some credibility. And that happened in the form of a partnership with the University of British Columbia. So I work with an amazing Professor up there, Dr. Jiaying Zhao, and she had done a crash cash transfer project in Uganda as well as India. And so she had a bit of experience. And when she found out that I wanted to pilot North America’s first cash transfer project with folks experiencing homelessness, she was like, sign me up. This is my dream project. So once she came on board, that allowed us to run the project is a randomized control trial, which is the gold standard in scientific research. And so it just gives us that extra edge because like you said, there are some people that would feel really challenged by the notion of giving out free money. So we knew that we needed to have that hard evidence, that data to demonstrate that we were having an impact. And while it did cause the project to move slower than I would have liked, it absolutely has paid off in spades.

Toney Thompson  15:17

Yeah, so can you tell me a little bit more about that? So how long did the project take take for y’all doing the the randomized control trial.

Claire Elizabeth Williams  15:26

So we started in March 2018. And then we collected our last data point in September 2020. So we had 50 people who were recently homeless that received a cash transfer. And then we had 65 people who were in the control group. And we followed folks over anywhere from 12 to 24 months, we collected data from them every three months, we asked them questions from scientifically validated questionnaires, to just get a sense of can a cash transfer help people who are experiencing homelessness. And one thing I want to mention is, you know, people experiencing homelessness is not a homogenous group, just like in the general population, people have diverse needs. And so this is, it’s not a silver bullet by any means. And it’s not a one size fits all problem, which is, I think, how we’ve been addressing it here in North America that a homeless person is a homeless person is a homeless person. But that’s actually not true. So we need to start finding more unique and bespoke ways of supporting subpopulations within the population of people who are experiencing homelessness. And we’re seeing that cash transfers work for a subset of this population.

Toney Thompson  16:38

Yeah, that’s, that’s really interesting. When you are giving the direct cash payments, and this is something that I’ve seen some other, you know, local governments who are experimenting with a similar type of project, did you have them, the people who were receiving the direct cash payments, go through any kind of financial assistance or programming or additional support? Or was it purely, you know, here’s, here’s the direct cash payment, and then you’re just going to follow up with periodic surveys. 

Claire Elizabeth Williams  17:11

Yeah, so what we did is, first of all, we had the cash transferred directly into a bank account with a local credit union. So they provided all of our participants with a no fee bank account, which is super important, because when people are living in poverty, that banking fee of eight or $10 a month really adds up. So Ben city is passionate about financial inclusion, we were values aligned, natural partnership, amazing. And then in terms of providing people with money management training, we did not. So we really wanted to take a lean approach where we were just testing the power of cash. But when we surveyed our project alumni, we actually got feedback from some folks that they don’t want to be required to do financial management training, but they would like to opt into something like that. So we’ll be making that kind of service available to our next cohort.

Toney Thompson  18:05

That’s very interesting. And that’s thank you for, for answering that question. Because I know some local governments are thinking about having, you know, mandatory support. And so the fact that your experiment was the first the first iteration was just a direct cash payment, I think the results are gonna be very powerful about what happened without having any additional strings attached.

Claire Elizabeth Williams  18:27

Yeah, I’m sorry, Toney. I think it’s really important that we do take a hands off approach, and allow people to self select into support. So here in North America, we take a very paternalistic approach to poverty reduction, we think us, as decision makers, as government bodies, know better than the people that we’re trying to empower, especially people living in poverty, we infantilize them, and we make them jump through hoops to get the support that they require, we make the burden of proof incredibly high. And I think we need to take a careful look at why we’re doing that, question our built in assumptions, and this is where the mindfulness practice comes in really handy, and think, you know, if I was in that person’s shoes, how would I want to be treated? Would I want to be infantilized and required to do things? Or would I rather just receive the cash and then have the option to choose what supports I want that best fit my life and how I want to move forward?

Toney Thompson  19:27

Okay, would it be okay, if we went over the results of your program over those, you know, seven areas that you surveyed the study participants on?

Claire Elizabeth Williams  19:38

Absolutely, yes.

Toney Thompson  19:40

Okay, great. Oh, but actually, I have one quick question before we do that. So maybe you mentioned this, but so you gave the direct cash payments in a bank account. Was it a lump sum, or did you break it out over the 12 month period?

Claire Elizabeth Williams  19:57

Great question, Toney. So we actually gave it, the cash, In a one time lump sum. And the reason for that is because the research shows that when you give people a larger sum of cash, it triggers long term thinking. And it’s not, it’s kind of a no brainer, right? If you think about if you’re getting $2 a day, can you think about like moving your life forward moving into housing? If you want to go back to school? Absolutely not, you’re gonna think about how am I going to get my next meal? Where am I going to sleep tonight, kind of like, with income assistance or welfare, people can’t plan to move forward with their life, they get such a small amount of money, that only allows them just to survive, definitely not thrive. But when you get a larger sum of cash, you can start thinking about your future, you can move into housing, you’re starting to get a good night’s sleep, you’re eating nourishing food, and then you’ve got time and space and bandwidth to say, you know, what would I like to do with my life? How would I like to move it forward? When I want to take this course and I have a bit of money. And so now achieving your goals feel like they’re in the realm of possibility.

Toney Thompson  20:59

Yeah, I think that is a very, very powerful takeaway. And thank you for providing that answer. Do you think that providing a lump sum would work for other programs that are trying to target different populations? Because, I ask the question, because I do, there’s some, there’s a difference between a direct cash payment program and universal basic income program where you’re getting, you know, a check every month. And so I really want to tease out the the behavioral impact and difference of just getting a lump sum, and then letting people decide versus you’re giving up almost a monthly stipend.

Claire Elizabeth Williams  21:39

Yeah, and I think we need to do more research. I think there is a need for more projects. And there is some really great work going on in the States, which you made a point of highlighting. And so I think we just need to continue building the evidence base here in the West, especially when it comes to direct cash transfers, and then things that are more sustained like a universal basic income. So I don’t think there’s any limit right now in terms of what populations this could work for. I think from where we stand, everything is an open question, and we absolutely want to test it out and investigate.

Toney Thompson  22:17

We’ll be right back to today’s episode. Gov Love is brought to you by granicus. Short term rentals, found on sites like Airbnb and VRBO are more than just party mansions in LA. Their numbers are growing at a staggering rate and that means that it’s time for local governments to act. Short term rentals can be a tremendous source of revenue for local governments or a real community nuisance. It all depends on adopting the right Compliance and Enforcement strategy. To date over 350 communities have partnered with Granicus on their STR compliance programs for everything from address and host identification to ordinance consulting and permitting tools. Interested in learning more about the STR market and your community and how granicus can help? Visit granicus.com to schedule a free consultation. That’s granicus.com for more information. Now, back to the show.  So getting into those those seven preliminary areas of results that you had. The first one was housing, I thought some of these results were very interesting. What did you find in terms of housing between the participants that you gave the direct cash payments to versus the control group?

Claire Elizabeth Williams  23:32

Yeah, so we found that people in the cash group, they moved into housing quite quickly. So they moved into stable housing quite quickly, which resulted in them spending fewer days homeless. It’s pretty remarkable, especially somewhere like the Lower Mainland where it’s, it’s incredibly expensive to live to begin with. And then we have really low vacancy rates. So we were really, really pleased to see that people have quickly moved into housing.

Toney Thompson  23:59

That’s great. And in your surveys, did you learn about, did  people use that, I’m assuming people use the cash directly that you gave them to actually pay for the housing that they moved into?

Claire Elizabeth Williams  24:11

Yes, some of them did. So and the housing took different forms, depending on the individuals so some people moved into a unit of their own. And then some people moved into shared accommodation. At the same time that we launched our project, our local government also deployed some modular housing, so temporary units for people experiencing homelessness. So we know that some of our participants moved into those as well. And the housing piece is really important as those of us have had those of us who are housed know, housing provides us with stability, it reduces the risk of trauma. So when you’re experiencing homelessness, you’re often subject to violence, to threats of violence. We see, when you know we’re sleeping well and that we have a safe place to live, we see improvements in our health. And we saw on average that the cash group spent 4400 fewer nights homeless over the course of 12 months. That’s the equivalent of 12 years. So it is not insignificant.

Toney Thompson  25:13

Wow, that’s amazing. that’s a that’s a huge difference, just for, just for that amount of money that you provided. So the next result was money management. What did you find about money management for the two participant groups?

Claire Elizabeth Williams  25:31

Okay, so the data from this one was so pleasantly surprising. We saw that over the course of 12 months, people who were in the cash group retained to over $1,000. And again, I mentioned that it’s really expensive to live here. So to think that with a mere $7,500, so in US dollars, that’s about $5,700, people still had $1,000 left over at 12 months. It’s remarkable. And it speaks to a couple of things. One, and most importantly, it fundamentally challenges everything we believe, as mainstream society about people living in poverty, and that they can’t be trusted with money, that they’re just going to, quote unquote, waste the money. Our data shows that that’s not the case. And I think people who’ve experienced poverty and, you know, we talked to our participants, they know how to make, how to stretch $1. And this data point very much speaks to that.

Toney Thompson  26:23

So I think that’s really interesting, because I mean, saving $1,000 out of that $7,500, that’s a pretty significant savings rate, even just for I mean, that’s, that’s higher than the savings rate that I have for for my for myself. And so when you were doing the surveys, what did you hear from people who were saying why they why they save that much money on average?

Claire Elizabeth Williams  26:46

I think for a lot of folks, this is the first time they’ve ever been trusted with a larger sum of money. And that really means something to people. And so I think they really felt some, you know, I’m wearing a shirt right now ,wish you could see it, it says believe in someone, but they really felt the power of us believing in them. And that in itself has currency. And I think it encourages people to make better choices, to just think more carefully about how they move their lives forward, because someone has believed in them.

Toney Thompson  27:16

Yeah, that’s great. The next, the next area that you studied, were financial choices, could you tell us a little bit more about financial choices that were made in between the two participant groups?

Claire Elizabeth Williams  27:32

Absolutely. So this is what I call the darling of our data set. So contrary to insidious stereotypes that exist in our culture, not through anybody’s fault, you know, we see them perpetuated in literature, we see them perpetuated in movies. But the people in our cohort did not waste the money on drugs, alcohol and tobacco. And that’s something I did hear when I initially consulted people, they’re like, oh, they’re just gonna waste it, people are just gonna spend it, you know, they’re gonna party it all away. Well, our data shows actually that there was a reduction in spending on goods such as alcohol, drugs, and cigarettes by 39%. And so I just think it’s so important that we stress this point, both to your listeners, and to people as we move forward. Because it fundamentally challenges how we think about poverty, how we think about people living in poverty, and how we’ve actually designed policy within government. Policy in a lot of cases is built on the foundation that people can’t be trusted. Well, our data shows actually people can be trusted, you just got to give them a chance.

Toney Thompson  28:37

Yeah, that’s, that’s really fascinating. It, I guess, or is there any other research out there that you found about the, I guess, a correlation between someone’s level of income and their consumption of tobacco or alcohol?

Claire Elizabeth Williams  28:56

I do not have access to that data. I don’t know of anything. But what I can tell you is that our findings hold consistent with the data that’s come out of cash transfer studies in developing countries. So the World Bank did a consolidated review of 19 cash transfer studies. And same again, they found that there was a zero or no impact on the consumption of drugs, alcohol and tobacco when people were giving cash transfers.

Toney Thompson  29:22

That’s great that there’s that consistency across some more studies. 

Claire Elizabeth Williams  29:25


Toney Thompson  29:27

And the and the fifth area, spending, can you tell me a little bit more about about spending and, and the result that you had?

Claire Elizabeth Williams  29:35

Yeah, so we saw that people increase their spending on food, on clothing, on rent, so people are using that money to help them meet their basic needs. I heard from a number of people that they use that money towards getting their car back on the road. So for a lot of people, especially in trades, if you don’t have a car, you don’t have a job. So this allowed people to get their cars fixed and then it allowed them to return to employment. And then we saw that people also spent the money on one time purchases, such as household items, furniture, computers and bikes.

Toney Thompson  30:10

Wow. So those all sound like, you know, productive things that any person would need to have not only stable housing, but stable employment or to move into that direction.

Claire Elizabeth Williams  30:21


Toney Thompson  30:23

And, and food security, can you tell us a little bit about the six areas that you studied around around that?

Claire Elizabeth Williams  30:29

Yeah, so between the cash and the non cash group, we saw that the cash group very quickly improved their food security. So we saw that within the first month, 60% of the cash, cash participants were food secure. So that means that people had access to three meals a day. And again, that’s really important, especially, you know, we heard from people that they’d been in shelter for some time, and you eat what you are given. And I don’t know about you, Toney, but I do not like to eat what somebody else tells me to eat, I want to choose my food, and you know, I have a discerning palate, there are things I really enjoy. And there are things that I don’t like, but when you’re in a shelter, you don’t have that choice. So we did hear from one of our participants that the first thing they did is they took themselves out to a meal, like their favorite meal, and it just felt like they were in heaven.

Toney Thompson  31:19

Wow. So just, so just to recap for where we are right now, just for providing a one time lump sum payment of $7,500. The participants that receive that were in stable housing faster, they had, you know, $1,000 on average in savings, they were making better financial choices, they were spending more money on food to make sure that they were secure, in that, they were spending less money on alcohol and tobacco, and more money on, you know, things that would help them either stay in secure and stable housing, our you know, help them find or stay in jobs. Just just for that just for that one small payment, that’s the effect that was had. Is that correct?

Claire Elizabeth Williams  32:04

That is correct. Yeah. And like I you know, we’re both kind of acknowledging it’s not a lot of money. When we look at the cost of homelessness, the status quo is incredibly expensive compared to something like a direct cash transfer that gives people dignity, it gives them agency, it gives them choice, and it saves money for government. And I hope that’s something we’re going to talk about next.

Toney Thompson  32:25

Yeah, that was my next question. So you know, from this pilot, like, what what would you estimate is the potential savings that you could have for expanding this, a pilot this, a program like this.

Claire Elizabeth Williams  32:38

So we did a cost benefit analysis where we benchmarked the cost of homelessness against an existing study here in Canada called the At Home Chez Soi study. And so they itemize the cost of all of the services that people experiencing homelessness would either draw upon or interact with. So whether that be the shelter system of care, you know, emergency room visits are quite high when people are experiencing homelessness, as are interactions with the criminal justice system. As you look at the kind of the defund the police movement, a lot of our system, it’s not set up to help people who are living in poverty or experiencing homelessness. And our first response is often the police, which is a complete mismatch of needs and services. So when we looked at the cash group, and how quickly they moved into housing, and then we asked them about what services they were using, or had discontinued to use, we saw that there is actually a cost savings to giving a cash grant. So the cash group saved approximately $8,100 per person, which is a total of roughly $405,000 over the course of the year. So once we factor in the cost of the cash transfer, that’s a net saving of $600 per person, for society, for taxpayers, for government.

Toney Thompson  33:57

That’s amazing. That’s a huge, that’s a huge benefit, huge amount of savings. And Claire, the next question I have and and let me know if you if you’re able to answer this, but I mean, it’s been a while since you’ve ended the program. And so are you still seeing the the these positive outcomes for the people who receive this cash payment all these months later, even though it’s been probably, you know, over 18 months since that first that first and final transfer?

Claire Elizabeth Williams  34:32

That’s a great question, so I can answer it based on the knowledge that I have. So after we finished the project, we created something called the lived experience advisory panel. And there we invited participants from our pilot project to sit on a panel and guide us in our decision making moving forward. You know, as much as we wanted to be agentic and not be paternalistic in our approach, there were some decisions we made that had we asked somebody with lived experience, we probably would have made a different decision. And so all that to say we are in contact with 10 people on a regular basis, who had received the cash, and they are still very much moving forward in their lives. And one of the things we would like to do is once we raise our next round of funding, is to keep following the folks who were in our, our pilot project, to understand if there is a long term impact to a cash transfer.

Toney Thompson  35:27

Yeah, I would really love to see the result of that. And you kind of had a great segue into the next question that I have is, what are, what, what are your next plans for redoing this, this pilot, this project, you talked about you’re looking for long term funding to do another iteration, so could you tell our listeners a little bit more about what you’re planning for in the second, the second iteration?

Claire Elizabeth Williams  35:52

Absolutely. So our pilot project had 50 people in it, 50 cash transfers. And that was the smallest possible number of cash transfers that we could give out, and still have statistically significant findings. So now that we have proof of concept that we are, like you said, you know, kind of trailblazers in this space, we want to do an expansion project here in Vancouver, and quadruple the number of cash transfers. So now now hand out 200 cash transfers, we also want to increase the amount to $8,500, as a reflection of the increase in income assistance rate here in the province of British Columbia. And so the goal with that expansion project is to increase the evidence base. So as you’ve noted, there’s not a lot of people that are doing this yet. And we do need more evidence, we need more evidence just to prove out the value of cash transfers. And I think as we move into a space of more evidence based policymaking at the level of government, we need to create that evidence. So there is a sense of confidence when policymakers and decision makers are making those decisions about how we transform social policy to be more dignified, to be more equitable, to be more inclusive, they can with confidence, say, well, you know, there was a randomized control trial, this data is statistically significant. Therefore, I feel comfortable making this suggested policy change. So that is our plan in the short term. We’ve also had a number of conversations with some amazing folks around the world, particularly in the US of A who want to do similar projects in their home community. So we’re also exploring partnership opportunities there.

Toney Thompson  37:34

Excellent. And again, you’ve you’ve just been, keep giving me the segways that I have into the next question. And so I think this is the thing that’s really fascinating that the work that you’re doing, and these other local governments are doing, you know, you’re really as the the term you use is proof of concept, you’re trying to establish proof of concept to convince local governments, municipalities to adopt this as a as a long term policy that is funded by taxpayers. And so now that you’ve had some success in this pilot, what have you heard from policymakers in the area about their willingness to, you know, seriously, consider this as, as a as a local program that’s funded long term?

Claire Elizabeth Williams  38:17

Yeah, here in Canada, not nearly enough. We are working with our provincial government. But you know, we were about to take our relationship, so to speak to the next level in February of last year, and then the pandemic hits. So our government, as has, you know, governments across the world, they’ve been incredibly busy, and focused on addressing the pandemic. But we have had conversations with governments in America, we presented to the Washington State Government, have had conversations with the LA municipal government about doing a pilot project there, with folks in Denver, also presented to the government of Scotland. So I think that there are people who are really, really interested in piloting projects like this in their home communities, and we’re here to share and help in whatever way that we can.

Toney Thompson  39:13

Excellent. And so what are, for local governments who are thinking about adopting or starting their own pilot project, what would be the main takeaways or lessons learned that you would have for them, as they are trying to do this and be successful as as you were?

Claire Elizabeth Williams  39:33

Yeah. So my first point would be that consult early consult often. So before you get too far, that too far down the line with your idea, ask the people who already hold the knowledge, there’s a wealth of knowledge and expertise in our communities, and so you should absolutely be capitalizing off of that. And in addition to learning some things, you might also find that you’ve got some natural allies and partnerships might develop out of those conversations. I would also encourage folks to work with people with lived experience from the get go, to get their information and feedback to ground true things so that you don’t invest time and energy into something that doesn’t work. And I’m thinking of something specifically in terms of New Leaf project. So we had, we randomly assigned half of our participants to work with life coaches. So we trained 50 life coaches, how to work with marginalized populations, we created bios for everybody, we matched them with participants based on interest, only to find out after the first meeting, there was a precipitous drop off. And that actually the folks that we were working with, they weren’t ready for a life coach. And if you think about it, if you’re just coming out of homelessness, you’re absolutely not ready for a life coach. So well, we, as decision makers, and people in positions of privilege, valued life coaching, the participants, the client population that we’re trying to serve, absolutely didn’t, they would have preferred mentors or peer support. So we invested a ton of time, energy, blood, sweat, tears, into, you know, developing this component of the program only to find out it was a complete fail. And then the one takeaway is we failed forward, we learned actually, okay, we need to consult more often with the client base that we’re serving and want to empower to get feedback on what they actually want, not what we value.

Toney Thompson  41:28

That is an amazing lesson learned. And thank you so much for being willing to share that and Claire, one of the, one of the last questions that I have for you is for people who are interested in the work that we’ve talked about today and the future work that you’re planning on, where can they go to to find out about about the work that you’re doing?

Claire Elizabeth Williams  41:46

Folks can head over to our website, which is https://forsocialchange.org/. So f-o-r-s-o-c-i-a-l-c-h-a-n-g-e.o-r-g and you’ll find more about our pilot study, you’ll find our impact data there. And then you can also get in touch with us through our website.

Toney Thompson  42:08

Excellent. And the very last question that I have for you, Claire is if you could be the Gov Love DJ for today, what song would you pick as our exit music for this episode?

Claire Elizabeth Williams  42:21

Well, I would pick the song Believe in Someone. So we worked with a group of amazing musicians here in Vancouver, some who had lived experience and understood the hardships that people living in poverty have experienced. And they wrote this song called Believe in Someone and it’s about the power of just trusting one another, believing in people and coming together as a collective to create the world that we want to live in. So that is my request. 

Toney Thompson  42:50

All right, I think we can make that happen. I can’t wait to hear that song. Claire, thank you so much for being with us today. That ends our episode for today. Thanks for coming on and talking with me. For our listeners, you can reach us online at ELGL.org/GovLove  or on Twitter at the handle @GovLovePodcast, and we’re on all of your favorite podcast subscription services. Please subscribe to Gov Love through your favorite podcast service and leave us review so more people know that Gov Love is the podcast for local government topics. Thank you so much for, thank you so much Claire and I look forward to speaking with you again.

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