Tackling Youth Homelessness with Cash During Coronavirus

A young New Yorker stands in front of a moving subway train. Photo: Chapin Hall

Imagine you are 20 years old. You’ve been kicked out of your home and have no other stable place to live. According to research by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, you are among the estimated 4 million young people who experience homelessness every year in America.

You face extraordinary difficulties that most young people don’t and may not ever have to. Chances are, you first fell into homelessness through a path of trauma and family adversity. Now you have to manage the stress of not knowing where you will sleep or where your next meal will come from. You face the very real risk of being abused, exploited or trafficked. You endure repeatedly dehumanizing experiences that undermine your sense of self-worth. These hardships disrupt your ability to thrive during one of life’s most critical developmental windows.

Now, add COVID-19.

The low-wage, part-time restaurant and retail jobs you relied on have vanished. You have no safety net. In the world of social distancing, shelters and drop-in centers are now public health hazards. Many programs are even closing their doors or reducing their hours and services as the COVID-19 crisis deepens. The social workers and volunteers who usually sustain you now minimize their contact. They are working remotely, homeschooling their children, and caring for their extended families. Your school or college has abruptly closed its doors, extinguishing any glimmer of normalcy in your otherwise tumultuous life.

COVID-19 makes abundantly clear the urgency for a national commitment to an equitable social service system, and it reveals opportunities for innovative solutions to prevent and end homelessness. A lopsided reliance on shelters and residential programs simply won’t do. Our young people deserve a better response, one that enriches their lives. We need flexible, quickly deployable interventions that enable young people to craft creative solutions to the fluid challenges they face.

One solution is both simple and well-proven: Give young people money.

Our team at Chapin Hall, in collaboration with nonprofit Point Source Youth, is undertaking the first effort to develop and evaluate a direct cash assistance program for youth experiencing homelessness. Funding will determine what we can accomplish, but we plan to offer young adults biweekly payments, no strings attached. The cash transfers will be sizeable enough to support their housing stability in the local rental market for at least two years. The program, planned to start as a pilot in New York City within the next year, will also offer counseling, housing navigation and connections to services that support young people’s pathways to self-defined success.

Extending cash assistance to young adults isn’t new. Seventy percent of individuals ages 18 to 34 receive financial support from their parents. In fact, the estimated amount spent by American parents on their early adult children is more than $500 billion annually.

Yet these transfers aren’t evenly distributed in the population. Due to the legacies of systemic racism in housing and employment, black and brown families have less disposable income to give to young adult family members to cover their basic needs.

Social distancing serves important public health ends. At the same time, it multiplies the challenges these young people face, like choices between using shelters or programs that involve close physical contact with others and social distancing by sleeping outside or in vehicles. With technology-enabled payments and counseling, however, we can design a cash transfer program that provides direct benefits and need-based supports to youth without them having to congregate in shelters or meet frequently in-person with caseworkers.

More than ever, we need cost-efficient interventions that provide resources directly and quickly to help young people achieve stability and invest in their own goals and aspirations.

Although the United States has been slow to adopt them, cash transfers have been globally used and empirically shown to efficiently improve key well-being outcomes for vulnerable populations. Despite common perceptions that poor or vulnerable people will misuse cash on drugs or alcohol, overwhelming evidence shows that they use the income on their basic needs.

Cash transfers give dignity to youth by putting resources directly in their control to make the best decisions for their lives as they often do. They can also impart what economists call “positive spillover effects.” For example, two young people who share an apartment also share a rent burden. Or their cash transfer contributes to the rent, utility and food bills for the friends or family they live with. When they spend cash on goods and services, they help stimulate their local economy. When they advance their own education and skills, they invest in our nation’s human capital and long-term economic competitiveness.

COVID-19 has re-affirmed what we already knew: ensuring that everyone has a safe, affordable home is one of the best ways we can promote public health and well-being. This crisis also underscores the burning need for better evidence on how we achieve that in flexible, efficient and equitable ways. We need to learn more about interventions that can offer the greatest return through both direct effects on young people and indirect effects on their communities.

Let’s use this crisis as an opportunity to do something different, something youth-informed. Empower our most vulnerable young people with resources, support and trust to weather these volatile times. Support them along their pathways, let them lead, and learn from their experiences.

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Matthew Morton is a Research Fellow at Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago. He can be reached at mmorton@chapinhall.org. Jha’asryel-Akquil Bishop is a member of the National Youth Forum on Homelessness and a youth researcher consultant with Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago. He can be reached at jhaasryel@gmail.com.

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