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October 24, 2023

Direct cash transfers: A tool to battle youth homelessness

“In the richest country in the world and the wealthiest time in human history, there is no actual reason why any young person should be forced to live with anything less than what they have a fundamental right to — shelter, food, clothing, health care, education, loving adults, connection to community, dignity, meaning and purpose,” said Minnesota State Sen. Scott Dibble in his keynote address at the ABA Commission on Homelessness and Poverty Justice for Youth Summit: Model Statutes for Youth and Young Adult Homelessness in Washington, D.C.

Minnesota State Sen. Scott Dibble delivers the keynote at the ABA Commission on Homelessness and Poverty Justice for Youth Summit in Washington, D.C.

Minnesota State Sen. Scott Dibble delivers the keynote at the ABA Commission on Homelessness and Poverty Justice for Youth Summit in Washington, D.C.

The Oct. 11 summit, supported by the law firm of Baker McKenzie, the Raikes Foundation and Microsoft, marked the publication of “Model State Statutes: Youth and Young Adult Homelessness,” an updated, free and comprehensive resource that guides state and local level advocacy efforts on topics such as access to education, employment, vital documents, health and housing.

Before passing the Homeless Youth Act (HYA) in 2006, Minnesota had 4,500 youth that were unhoused “or living in untenable … inappropriate circumstances” each night, said Dibble, who added that as a young person he briefly lived out of his car.

Today, he said, youth homelessness in the state is rarer and lasts for a shorter time.

“HYA identifies a continuum of needs and supportive service elements that need to be present to respond effectively to youth homelessness. It is framed around street outreach and drop-in centers, emergency, transitional and long-term housing,” Dibble said. “And our work is never done.”

Although passing the act was not easy, he said “it was a textbook long-term campaign of social change and progress” that brought together “values and evidence.”

The issues were well-defined, goals were articulated and success was identified. Lawmakers brought together a coalition of supporters and showed how youth homelessness was different from adult homelessness. Unhoused youth are typically unseen, and adult services often don’t reach this population.

Dibble advocates for lawmakers to get out of their offices to “meet and hear directly from these young people and go visit those community service sites.”

Those opposed to the bill either thought the youth were bad kids running away from home or that it would glorify youth homelessness.

“But nothing wipes away those perceptions more quickly than meeting these amazing young people and hearing their stories of struggle [and] pain” while also seeing their humanity, Dibble said.

Stressing the importance of relationship building, power building and coalition building, he said, “state innovation helps shift the center of gravity, helps launch and change important conversations, even at the national level.” He cited the recent success of the minimum wage increase that started as a state and local effort.

“You’re doing heroic work,” Dibble told the attendees. “I believe in us.”

One pilot program funded in the latest version of the HYA was the topic of the first panel.

In “Economic Justice and Direct Cash Transfer,” Sarah Berger Gonzalez, policy fellow at Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, said that direct cash transfer (which gives cash to people who need it, no strings attached) is both a complete reimagining of the public benefits system and just one tool in the toolbox that is not meant to solve everything.

“Cash is fungible and flexible,” she said, and allows individuals to invest in their own lives and values. The growing use of this benefit is leading to places like the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development rethinking restrictions on interpretations of direct cash transfer or DCT.

Kenyon Farrow, a policy expert and political strategist at Point Source Youth, said the onerousness of signing up for public benefits can be “demeaning, degrading and humiliating” and that DCT solves those problems and “should point us to where people fall through the cracks.”

But in order for DCT programs to be successful, waivers are needed for the benefits not to count for the cap on benefits, “which is counterproductive.”

To ensure that DCT programs are sustainable, Sofie Fashana, youth consultant for Point Source Youth on the direct cash transfer program in Oregon, said “we give autonomy to young adults” and “put youth at center of the conversation.”

“Autonomy is so important,” agreed Stacy Shamburger, director of Lifelines in Wilmington, Delaware. Her state doesn’t have DCT, but it does have a program called Assist, which serves youth who have aged out of foster care and includes a stipend of $250-$1,200 a month. There are many rules in place to access the money, she said, as well as barriers, including having a bank account and identification.

“We’re really talking about cash-plus models,” noted Gonzalez. The two big barriers for youth to get housed, she said, are financial (they can’t afford to leave shelter) and non-financial (learning budgeting, navigating conversations with landlords, the lack of trauma-informed care, etc.).

Farrow cited the obstacle of the notion of “the welfare queen” to moving forward with DCT, thinking that those on public assistance are “living on caviar, steaks and fur coats.”

“This is an ever-changing crisis,” said Fashana, who added that advocates need to be flexible, adaptive and ignore the naysayers.

DCT pilots like Minnesota’s are needed to “ensure the processes are the right ones before going to scale,” Gonzalez said, adding the COVID response “loosened … a lot of conditionalities on a lot of programs,” which allowed people to see how poverty declined as a result.

Katie Scott, youth homelessness director at the National Homelessness Law Center, moderated the panel.