Miracle Money: How a Guaranteed Income Fund Is Helping San Francisco’s Homeless

Guaranteed-income pilot programs are sweeping the country, but few have addressed the issue of homelessness. Our partners at PBS NewsHour Weekend report on Miracle Money, a new program in San Francisco that has already given 14 unhoused people $500 a month for six months, in an effort to help them find homes.

TRANSCRIPT
  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    We’ve been reporting regularly on guaranteed income programs– efforts that communities are starting to use to provide cash – without strings attached – to needy residents in order to fight poverty.

    Tonight we have a new twist on the story from the San Francisco Bay Area where a private philanthropic organization is focusing on providing funds specifically for people experiencing homelessness.

    NewsHour Weekend’s Zachary Green has the story as part of our ongoing series “Chasing the Dream: Poverty, Opportunity and Justice in America.”

  • Elizabeth Softky:

    I thought I lost these photos. I thought they were gone, but they’re here. So Benjamin, right after he was born. This is my brother, Melvin, a long time ago Yeah. This was my life. Wow

  • Zachary Green:

    It’s unpacking day for Elizabeth Softky. She’s sifting through memories that were tucked away for two years, while she was living in a shelter.

  • Elizabeth Softky:

    In my wildest, ugliest dreams, I never imagined, ever, that I would be in that situation. My life before it fell apart was full of wonderful opportunities and activities.

  • Zachary Green:

    Softky, a mother to three grown children, taught elementary school for ten years, and ran her own educational non-profit in the San Francisco Bay Area. That world abruptly collapsed in 2018, in the wake of an advanced cancer diagnosis.

  • Elizabeth Softky:

    The surgery happened very quickly, and I thought, okay, great I’m done. But, a few weeks in, my oncologist decided she wanted me to go on a super aggressive chemo regimen. I was also not allowed to return to work. My immune system was so compromised and that meant digging into my savings to pay rent. And then when I ran out of money, I was evicted from my home of 14 years. I was looking at the reality of nowhere to go, except for sleeping like at a bus stop.

  • Zachary Green:

    Eventually, Softky moved to one of the many hotels in California offering temporary housing to the homeless during the pandemic. She was safe, but the journey back to her old self seemed impossible, or so she thought.

  • Elizabeth Softky:

    She was a volunteer for Miracle Messages and they had started a new program because of people being housed in hotels and the struggles they were facing of isolation.

  • Joan Scott:

    It became evident that, even though people were now sheltered safely, they were alone.

  • Zachary Green:

    And so, Joan Scott offered Softky a lifeline. As one of the many Miracle Messages’ volunteers, Scott routinely checked in with her and promised to be there for what they hoped was her journey out of homelessness.

  • Elizabeth Softky:

    We hit it off basically right away.

  • Joan Scott:

    She’s brilliant. Elizabeth is a perfect example of breaking that stereotype of what some people think of people who are homeless.

  • Kevin Adler:

    She’s a UCLA graduate, non-profit executive, former journalist. The image of who is homeless in the United States is a mirage.

  • Zachary Green:

    Sociologist, Kevin Adler, has made it his life’s calling to help the unhoused. Seven years ago, he founded Miracle Messages, the non-profit responsible for bringing Softky and Scott together.

  • Kevin Adler:

    Our vision is that no one goes through homelessness alone.

  • Kevin Adler:

    Do you have anyone you’d want to reconnect with or help?

  • Homeless Woman:

    Yeah, I do, but then again, I don’t know where any of them are.

  • Kevin Adler:

    We’ll find them.

  • Homeless Woman:

    Okay. Thank you.

  • Zachary Green:

    Adler gives the unhoused a connection, either with a new friend or by re-uniting them with family.

  • Kevin Adler:

    250 volunteers work making phone calls, writing letters, doing digital searches to locate loved ones, deliver messages, reconnect people with their families.

  • Zachary Green:

    But he wanted to do something more.

  • Kevin Adler:

    And so we launched one of the first basic income pilots for people experiencing homelessness in the country called Miracle Money.

  • Zachary Green:

    The unconditional cash payments known as universal basic income – or UBI – have been tested in many cities, but the homeless have largely been left out of the picture. As a result, last year, Adler launched a Go Fund Me campaign to finance his own UBI.

  • Kevin Adler:

    We set a goal of $15,000. We ended up raising about $40,000 within a day or two on Facebook.

  • Zachary Green:

    He would eventually raise $50,000, and with that money…

  • Kevin Adler:

    We distributed five hundred dollars a month for six months to 14 individuals experiencing homelessness.

  • Elizabeth Softky:

    I was speechless. At the time, I wasn’t working, I was getting my basic needs met, but I didn’t have an income.

  • Zachary Green:

    But just how could an extra $500 a month change things? The median price for a house in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the pilot was launched, is just over a million dollars.

  • Kevin Adler:

    We had zero expectations that anyone was going to get housed. Elizabeth was eligible for senior housing, she just needed to have some income to pay a contribution to the monthly dues.

  • Elizabeth Softky:

    I just wanted to get back into the normal world. Without the Miracle Messages money program, I would not be living in this home right now.

  • Joan Scott:

    And I saw immediately, it just took a huge burden off of her and enabled her to plan for her future, to save money.

  • Zachary Green:

    Softky isn’t the only one the program is helping.

  • Kevin Adler:

    We had two individuals get service dogs that they needed for their PTSD. One individual who bought a blender because he can’t eat solid foods. If it was just us telling people what to do, we wouldn’t have used the money as well as they used the money for themselves and their families. And we were shocked and amazed and inspired by the fact that fifty percent of our unhoused recipients were able to secure housing. There’s Ray, who was able to save enough to be able to find a housemate and contribute to half of the month’s rent. Caridad, who had a $302 dollars a month contribution to a single room occupancy.

  • Zachary Green:

    And then there was Drake Alabanza, who was no longer able to work his job as a nurse after he developed severe sciatica and began living on the streets. Miracle Money helped him afford an SRO unit: single room occupancy.

  • Drake Alabanza:

    It’s hard to describe cause when I think of that, all I can think of is a miracle.

  • Zachary Green:

    Today, Softky is cancer-free, volunteering with kids, and enjoying life at her new home.

  • Joan Scott:

    This is so cool that this is your front yard or backyard. It’s awesome.

  • Elizabeth Softky:

    Being back here is a major part of being restored back to the world. The Miracle Messages family has been a miracle for me.

  • Kevin Adler:

    Based on results for our proof of concept of Miracle Money, we said we have to find a way to keep this going.

  • Joan Scott:

    Plans are now underway to implement a follow-up Miracle Money pilot. This time in both San Francisco and Los Angeles. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have already been donated.