Study provides hope on how we can help the homeless

Cape Town-160714-Homeless people living in the CBD. Picture Jeffrey Abrahams

Cape Town-160714-Homeless people living in the CBD. Picture Jeffrey Abrahams

Published Sep 9, 2023


There is a stark contrast between public perception and the reality of how people experiencing homelessness spend money.

I was sent the final research report conducted by one of the presenters at the International Journal on Homelessness (IJOH) conference, where I also presented earlier this year.

She and her team gave 50 people experiencing homelessness in British Columbia, Canada, $7 500 (about R142 000) each to do with as they wished. They were also offered accommodation at a transitional home, where they were expected to pay towards the rent and food.

Instead of blowing the windfall on “temptation goods”, such as alcohol, drugs or cigarettes, they spent it on rent, clothing and food, the study led by the University of British Columbia (UBC) found.

The handout even generated a net saving of almost $800 per recipient, taking into account the costs that would have been involved in providing shelter accommodation.

“I think this study provides very strong evidence in favour of a basic-income policy.”

She and her team tracked the spending of the recipients for a year after they received the cash. They also followed a control group of 65 homeless people who did not receive the handout.

The study, which was recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that recipients spent 99 fewer days homeless, and spent 55 more days in stable housing. They also retained $1 160 more in savings.

Jiaying Zhao, an associate professor of psychology at UBC, said the researchers found that spending on “temptation goods” was no different between the recipients and the control group.

However, the study did not include people with severe substance or alcohol use or mental health symptoms. Other criteria required participants to have been homeless for less than two years.

The study said that by reducing time in shelters, the cash transfer was cost-effective. The researchers also conducted an online survey of about 1 100 US residents to understand public perceptions of homeless people’s spending.

Survey respondents predicted that recipients of an unconditional $7 500 cash transfer would spend 81% more on goods such as alcohol, drugs and tobacco.

Zhao said most also predicted that homeless people would spend $300 on such goods per month, while the study found that those individuals only spent about $100 per month on such goods.

“That’s an unfortunate, pervasive belief held by many people, so we wanted to actually examine or look at this bias,” she said.

If we look at the South African scenario outside of the biased and incorrect perception that has been created, which sees all those living on our streets being defined as “the homeless” with all the preconceived myths attached to this perception and a one-size-fits-all approach to services, this study provides us with a great deal of hope in terms of being able to assist those who have landed up on the streets due to a loss of income, those who have escaped abusive relationships, those young individuals released from orphanages, as well as the elderly and the disabled, and LGBTQIA+ youth.

We have, in South Africa, to begin to understand that homelessness can no longer be viewed from the perspective that those experiencing it have themselves to blame for the situation they find themselves in, and that temporary emergency shelters do nothing but further entrench these individuals in homelessness.

If we don’t start seeing the different groups of individuals for what they are and start providing different types of services based on their individual needs, we will not only see no reduction in the number of people living on our streets, we will in fact continue adding to that number, as is currently the case.

And the longer these individuals experience homelessness, the more challenges we are adding to the eventual intervention that will be required to reintegrate them back into society.

* Carlos Mesquita.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

Cape Argus

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