New Leaf co-founder aims to help homeless and sees parallels with Basic Income

By Roderick Benns

In 2015 Claire Williams left her career behind in Vancouver to volunteer at an orphanage in India. When she returned to Vancouver six months later, the issue of homelessness in her city preoccupied her. She wanted to make a lasting impact in the lives of others.

With her co-founder, Frans Tjallingii, the New Leaf Project was born. New Leaf is a simple concept. A one time cash grant of $7,500 is awarded to a person who is homeless, with no strings attached.

In Vancouver the pilot project will run in association with UBC and The Lookout Society next Spring. Fifty participants will be selected to receive the one-time cash grants.

It’s the system of direct cash transfers to an individual where Williams sees parallels with the Basic Income movement in Canada.

“Basic income and the New Leaf Project share the common philosophy that everyone should be able to meet their basic needs,” says Williams.

“We live in a wealthy society and more needs to be done to redistribute that wealth to support people in need,” she adds.

Williams notes that being homeless “is a circumstance, not a character defect,” and the same can be said for those living in resource-poor circumstances.

“Current approaches are failing homeless men and women and their families. Inadequate shelter and meagre social assistance payments trap people in poverty and thwart social mobility,” she says.

She says the direct giving model has been proven to empower recipients to find housing, and purchase goods that improve their lives. It also helps restore a sense of dignity and well-being.

Williams, who spent eight years helping governments, indigenous communities and private sector clients achieve sustainability goals, says direct cash transfers provide income security and the dignity of choice not afforded by traditional responses.

“Both models (Basic Income and direct cash transfers) reinforce the emerging international view that handing control to the individual will yield better results,” she adds.

Williams says Canada’s homeless population continues to grow, despite the billions of dollars spent annually. She and her New Leaf partner, Frans, were convinced that they could leverage their skills to design a different way of doing things.

“It’s a more streamlined approach that would create a positive impact on someone’s life at precisely the time they need it most.

The one-time cash grant of $7,500 is awarded to a person who has been homeless for less than one year. Individuals are carefully screened for program eligibility which includes the age of recipients, length of time they have been homeless, functionality, and employability. The intent is to support participants to the highest degree possible, assess their readiness for change, and reduce the risk of harm.

“Direct cash transfers could be an elegant solution to an intractable social problem,” says Williams.

“There is a cost to doing nothing and that was our call to action. Sometimes you just have to go for it.”