In October, The Center for Housing and Homelessness Research at the University of Denver released an interim report for the Denver Basic Income Project, or DBIP, providing a six-month update on the plan’s success. The pilot program agreed to pay $12,000, funded by the CARES Act, to over 800 participants experiencing homelessness who were negatively impacted by COVID-19.
The research showed that all participants felt relief, decreased stress and increased hopefulness in their daily lives. Research also showed that during the enrollment period, 19-24% said they were sleeping at a friend or family member’s home and 21-26% reported sleeping in a shelter. At the six-month check-in, participants staying in an apartment or home that they rent or own increased across the three groups. There was also a decrease in those who reported sleeping outside in each group. Because of its success, Mayor Mike Johnston has committed $2 million to continue the project for another year.
Chantel Palmer, a 34-year-old single mother with two girls, was living in Joshua’s Station when she came across the DBIP, which provides “unconditional cash transfers to unhoused people living in Denver,” according to the project’s website.
Palmer was a participant during the pilot stages in October 2022. She was working to rebuild her life from scratch after entering addiction recovery, all while being a mother to her two daughters and going to school.
“Having that program kind of gave myself and my family an amazing opportunity to be comfortable and to not have to stress about our basic needs being met,” Palmer said. “More than that, we were able to enjoy things as a family because we had a little more funds to do so, to be able to build out connections and rebuild our relationships.”
“People understood their voice and their impact. They understood that if [they] tell people how this is affecting or helping [them] then it’s going to hopefully create other opportunities,” said Maria Sierra, community engagement manager of DBIP.
The pilot program was founded in 2021 by Denver-based entrepreneur and philanthropist Mark Donovan. According to Sierra, Donovan had invested money in Tesla prior to the pandemic and found his wealth beyond what he had ever imagined. He felt the need to help after he saw people struggling and the rise in homelessness in Denver at the height of the pandemic.
Donovan took the initiative in solving these issues by making personal direct cash contributions to people until he began building relationships in the city and letting people know about his idea of the Denver Basic Income Project.
According to Sierra, people who were eligible to apply to be part of the DBIP had to be connected to one of the 19 partners of the project, 18 years of age or older, with no unaddressed or severe mental health and substance use issues. Those who were eligible also had to be experiencing homelessness. The DBIP uses the McKinney Vento definition that encompasses a greater number of people and includes “individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.”
“We came up with three different payment groups. One is $1000 a month. Then a second group would get a lump sum amount upfront to see what that impact is. So the second group was dropped $6,500 upfront and $500 a month for 11 months. The first two groups get $12,000 for the year,” Sierra said. “Then there was a comparison group that got $50 a month.”
Palmer was in the first payment group that received $1000 a month for one year. She used a portion of the money to pay debts and then to get a driver’s license, a car and insurance. With what was left over, Palmer saved up for housing, bills, school costs and food and clothes for her children.
“There was even enough to be able to take my kids to the movies, things like that, like being able to spend quality time with my loved ones and my family,” Palmer said. “Where before we didn’t have that luxury because we were living [with] basically enough to buy immediate needs and pay bills.”
Palmer also said she was able to do something nice for herself on her sobriety “birthdays,” something that she could never do before.
“There is a lot of practicality around it but then there were also some things like being able to just enjoy life and have fun and spend time with my family in a way I haven’t been able to in a long time,” Palmer said.
Sierra said one beautiful surprise from the DBIP qualitative report was the impact the project had on people and their quality of life.
“People shared that they felt more secure, they didn’t feel like such a bleak future was ahead of them. People shared that they were able to buy a car which sets them up for work,” Sierra said.
Participants were able to treat their kids and families with the money from the DBIP. Treats such as eating out or going out, or the fact that they could say “yes” to their kids and family made a huge impact on participants’ mental health. Not only that, but after paying debts and prioritizing basic needs, many used the additional funds to “make bigger changes” such as getting a house or buying a car. Many participants appreciated the fact the DBIP didn’t set certain limitations on how they should spend the money that they received.
“Having a program like this, I mean just things that might seem trivial to some people or small, but like getting a driver’s license, being able to get a car, that, in itself, changed so many things and increased the opportunities for myself and my family,” Palmer said. “It wasn’t a possibility until Denver Basic Income. So it’s the same for other people who are homeless too, whether they’d be on the streets or in shelters or transitional housing.”
Palmer and Sierra, who met each other when Sierra used to work at Joshua’s Station, both mentioned that the DBIP also offered participants cell phones and free phone service for a year to help them stay connected to their community partners and folks at the project. Palmer said that the phones were valuable in helping people find housing or jobs.
“It’s just things I think people take for granted because most people just have them and don’t usually have to go without them,” Palmer said. “When you’re experiencing homelessness, things like that are not around. People can’t afford cell phone bills and things like that so it makes it a lot harder to get yourself to a better place when you don’t have access to those things. So it’s just a step up that a lot of people experiencing homelessness need to carry themselves further.”
Palmer will celebrate five years of recovery on Feb. 7. She’s currently going to school to get a degree in Human Services with a concentration in addiction. As a certified peer recovery coach, Palmer has been considering joining programs where people with a history of addiction can become certified doulas to help mothers facing addiction during pregnancy and postpartum. In the meantime, Palmer will continue going to school and taking care of her kids.
“This isn’t a handout. This is really an opportunity to show people we believe in them,” Sierra said.
In October, The Center for Housing and