- Rob Donnelly
A Burlington-based nonprofit is trying an innovative strategy to help young people who lack housing or face the risk of homelessness: paying them a monthly stipend of $1,500 for 18 months.
Spectrum Youth & Family Services made its first payments last month to 10 participants who are between the ages of 18 and 24. Two more groups of young people will follow, filling out a three-and-a-half-year pilot program. The payments are funded through a mix of private donations and federal money earmarked by Congress.
Direct cash transfers are on the rise as a way to combat youth homelessness, with programs in New York City and a handful of other spots; more are in the works. Advocates say the approach is an effective way to answer the needs of young people, who are often neglected by traditional homelessness programs. It grants them a sense of responsibility and, most importantly, cash to meet their daily needs.
"There's a lot of youth that just feel stuck," said Will Towne, chief operating officer at Spectrum, which works with 1,280 young people a year. "I don't think they necessarily envision themselves having opportunities. And my hope is that this will show them that they can do that and give them the boost that they need to take the next step in their lives — and feel less stuck."
Young people typically access Spectrum's services through its drop-in centers, where they often show up unsure about what help they are seeking, Towne said. Some are sleeping outside and looking for shelter beds, while others are crashing with friends and want help with long-term planning. Many lack work experience to add to a résumé or the established rental history needed to get approved for housing.
Direct cash transfers aim to even the playing field for young adults with little or no support from family by providing them with the means to afford necessities. Without a cellphone and transportation, Towne said, it's difficult for young people to find a consistent job, and without steady work, they struggle to afford stable housing.
In addition to the money, young people are able to continue using other Spectrum services, such as financial literacy classes.
The only requirement is that recipients confirm that they have received a $750 allotment on the first and 15th of each month through an app called Usio, which provides prepaid debit cards and sets up users with bank accounts. In addition to the bimonthly payments, participants also have the ability to withdraw up to $3,000 from their own accounts one time for larger, unforeseen expenses or something such as an apartment security deposit.
Spectrum can monitor the app to see how clients spend the money, though Towne said it would only use that data to help guide budgeting sessions with the youths. The organization can also use the information to counter skeptics, who think the young people will spend the money on drugs and alcohol, according to Towne.
Spectrum declined to make any of its recipients available for an interview out of privacy concerns, suggesting that identifying information could make them vulnerable to exploitation.
Spectrum began discussing cash transfers after Sara Brooks, its intake coordinator, heard about the strategy at a conference on homelessness a few years ago. It eventually hired Point Source Youth, a New York City-based national consulting service that specializes in homelessness intervention and has helped create several direct-payment programs across the country.
Maddox Guerrilla, who was a homeless teen in New York City, suggested a direct cash transfer program at a meeting of a New York task force on youth homelessness in 2018. He works for Point Source Youth as a consultant on the programs.
During three years of homelessness, Guerrilla said, he spent around nine nights in jail for stealing food, jumping subway turnstiles or trespassing in parks late at night — all offenses, he told Seven Days, that could have been avoided if he had cash.
"I know what I faced because of not having money, so I don't want other young people to go through that," he said.
Nearly one in 10 people ages 18 to 25 experience homelessness, according to a 2018 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
In Chittenden County, which is home to eight of the Spectrum program's first 10 recipients, a spot tally this year counted 39 unhoused people between the ages of 18 and 24, a jump from 26 in 2022. But experts say such tallies tend to be too low because youth homelessness is a fluid phenomenon, and many young people couch surf with friends or find other nontraditional arrangements.
Young people, who are at a critical stage in their development, are often left with scarce resources to help them cope with homelessness, according to LJ Woolston, director of direct cash transfers at Point Source Youth.
Only a third of youths who enter local homelessness systems get placed in permanent housing; those who do wait an average of four and a half months, according to the University of Chicago's Chapin Hall, a research center on homelessness. Only 2 percent of households that receive housing vouchers are headed by young adults, who tend to have a difficult time getting them accepted by landlords.
In addition, LGTBQ+ youths, who are over two times more likely than other young people to experience homelessness, often have increased safety concerns, especially when it comes to housing, according to Chapin Hall.
Promoters of the cash transfer strategy say it lends recipients trust and a sense of empowerment in their own lives, which is seen by advocates as essential to success. When people are given autonomy, they feel more able to make important choices, Guerrilla said.
The Trust Youth Initiative, which launched in New York City last year and is the primary model for Spectrum, pays participants $1,150 per month for up to two years. Five months into the program, five young people reported that the cash has helped them to budget, continue their educations and move into apartments of their own, according to a video from Point Source Youth, which helped devise the program.
Spectrum differed from some other programs by giving top priority to marginalized youth. It also considered the special challenges of rural areas, including finding jobs and protecting the privacy of recipients, said Milo Edwards, who sits on the Youth Advisory Council of Point Source Youth and helped advise Spectrum.
Of the 10 young people who have begun receiving the money, seven are people of color, four identify as LGTBQ+, five cope with multiple health challenges, and three are pregnant or parenting, according to Towne.
Because the first payments went out at the end of July, it is too soon to tell if the Spectrum program is working. It may take a few years to judge its effectiveness. And it remains to be seen how recipients fare when the income ends. In New York City, researchers plan to check in for at least six months after the payouts end, a departure from a lot of existing research, which often concludes with the program, according to Anne Farrell, senior research fellow at Chapin Hall.
She said cash payouts are not a "silver bullet for everyone." But, Farrell said, "we do hope and expect ... that the cash and the supports help people to not just procure housing but also to stabilize in other ways that will be maintained across time."