What do the homeless need? Ask them.

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Most every day, I struggle with the same question many city-dwellers do: If someone on the street asks you for money, do you give it to them or just pass by?

A study out of the United Kingdom is telling us something pretty surprising. Giving can work, but not just the spare change you have in your pocket. For giving to work, it shows, it has to be large, specific and continual. The results of the small study show that if the gift is right, it could just get that person from a street corner back into regular life.

Intrigued? Read on.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation did something pretty unusual. Instead of creating a one-size-fits-all program for homeless people to fit into, they cut the cloth to fit the individual. They literally asked people on the streets: What do you need?

The answers varied: sneakers, a prepaid cell phone, a comfy chair, a camper van. They were given the money to do exactly what they asked for with one condition: They had to choose a person who would check on their progress and help them stick to a budget.

They began with 15 homeless people who had been identified as hard to reach by social workers. One had been on the streets for 45 years. Of those 15, 11 are now off the streets. They've made the kind of progress that many thought was impossible--getting into drug treatment programs, paying bills, getting education, reconnecting with their families. Here's a written testimony from one of the formerly homeless people helped by the Rowntree foundation:

The option of going to homeless organizations [for support] didn't
enter my mind. I know I'm an entirely different creature from most
homeless people.

I didn't just go for the most expensive, I
did it as if it was my money. I'm getting into thinking more [about how
the money is spent].

I've got to be honest here, it
wasn't just the individual budget, it was the fact there was
[co-ordinator] there as well... We was meeting [regularly] to discuss
it, and I'd actually gone from the stage of wanting nothing to do with
these people, to actually looking forward to seeing them.

What struck me about this program was how original it was. Instead of creating a program for people to fit into, it focused its resources around the people who were being helped. Instead of giving for a night or for a meal, they had a large amount of resources over a length of time. It also sounds like people in the program were cared for on an individual basis by someone they connected with.

But what strikes me as most significant? Read what the reporter from Good magazine had to say:

Broadway's outreach workers, some of whom confessed that they were
initially afraid that the homeless people would "milk" the system or
spend the money on drugs, testified to the power of treating each person
as an individual, respecting their autonomy, and helping them to build a
relationship of trust and accountability with an "establishment"
figure.

How often are we distrustful of the homeless, thinking that they'll only spend our money on drugs? But with the right amount of money, coupled with a goal and support, can people be trusted to do what's best for themselves? Soon, they'll be conducting a larger study to see if they can have similar results with a larger group of people. Will it work? We'll have to wait and see.

Photo credit: Michelle Sandberg

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  • This reminds me of Million Dollar Murray: http://www.gladwell.com/2006/2006_02_13_a_murray.html

    But, it bears saying, this is totally different than deciding whether to give change to a homeless person! It's consistent, strategic funding with progress checks and evaluations. Even though I support programs that give lots of so-called "handouts" to the homeless, I still don't give out change...for one, I work downtown, where I'm asked about 8 times per lunch trip. Secondly, I don't make enough money to not be strategic about my giving. Thirdly, I don't carry change in my pocket and I'm not too keen on whipping out my wallet on a busy street. I would totally support a program like this, though.

  • While I could really support the Rowntree Foundation program, I very seldom give money to the people on the street. In fact, I give even less now that I've starting holding conversations with a few "regulars." One guy was selling a "free" newspaper to tourists! We struck up a conversation and, when I asked how he could sell this free paper, his response was "Yes, it's free, but they're buying it from me because of the convenience of not having to get it themselves." Right! Another guy, who I speak to on an almost daily basis, often brags about his taking in about $100 a day and living with a relative, and he works this particular corner only until noon each day. Before I go to lunch, he's already banked his hundred and gone home! I've started asking him to buy me a cup of coffee!

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