Denver’s homeless allowed to buy drugs and alcohol with new $12,000 cash payment from the government

By Matt Connelly
man in black and gray jacket sitting on sidewalk during daytime

A new universal basic income plan for the homeless approved last week by Denver City Council will send $12,000 a year in direct payments to 140 homeless people in Denver and is financed by $2 million in taxpayer funds from federal COVID-19 relief funds. 

According to the founder of the nonprofit group administering the program, taxpayers may also be financing the purchase of drugs and alcohol by the homeless recipients of the $12,000 payments. 

In a conversation with Campfire Colorado last week, Denver Basic Income Project founder Mark Donovan said, “of course, it’s possible” that homeless recipients could use their $12,000 universal basic income payments to purchase drugs and alcohol. 

“Of course, it’s possible, it’s unconditional cash so people can spend the money on whatever they would like to,” Donovan told Campfire Colorado. “The whole point of it is to make a statement of trust in individuals and their agency to know what they need in their lives rather than try to tell them what they need. People know better what they need, and so that’s one of the fundamental principles of the project is to respect the agency of individuals.”

According to Donovan, he is not aware of any situation up to this point where someone has overdosed on drugs while part of the program. 

Colorado Republican gubernatorial candidate Heidi Ganahl reacted to the news that taxpayer money could be spent on drugs and alcohol for homeless people in Denver by saying in a statement to Campfire Colorado, “The answer to our most troubling problems is not always more money, especially if you do not spend it wisely. Perhaps they could spend two million dollars on reading tutors for minority kids, since 95 percent of African American and Hispanic kids cannot read at grade level in Denver Public Schools.”

The program has also largely been sold to the public as a test of the universal basic income model for the homeless that will be studied closely by the University of Denver’s Center on Housing and Homeless Research. 

A recent report by the Denver Post described the study:

“Using $2 million in federal COVID-19 relief money, the city will partner with program-runner Impact Charitable to provide 140 homeless individuals and households with payments over a 12-month period. Participants will be split into study groups. One group will receive $6,500 upfront and $500 a month for 11 months after that. Another group will receive $1,000 per month for a year, according to a presentation delivered by the city’s housing department last month.”

Except, according to Donovan, homeless recipients of the cash must opt-in to the study voluntarily for any data to be gathered regarding the effectiveness of the program. 

“…I would also like to point out that it’s an opt-in situation on the research,” Donovan told Campfire Colorado. “People don’t have to do that, so if they choose to do it, they can be part of the research, but they don’t have to. But we think most will because they hope that they can contribute to showing how powerful and successful this can be so that we can make the case to expand and deliver it to more people.”

In response to the lack of clear accountability standards in the program, Colorado Republican Party Chairwoman Kristi Burton Brown told Campfire Colorado, “All Coloradans know we’ve reached crisis level on homelessness. But a crisis requires compassionate solutions that are also accountable. Unfortunately, it’s clear that the Denver City Council is using taxpayer money to fund a program that’s a typical, liberal, no strings attached policy that fails to actually give people a sustainable path out of homelessness or addiction.”

When asked if the Denver Basic Income Project would make data available to the public that shows how taxpayer money was spent by the homeless people in the program who opted into the study, Donovan said, “We’re going to make our results as accessible as possible publicly while protecting privacy, so we’re hoping to share as broadly and as freely as we can while still protecting the privacy of individuals in the program.”

Donovan later went on to say in the interview that, “…we will definitely publish our results. We have an independent research group; the University of Denver Center for Housing and Homelessness Research is running the research independently and it will be published for certain.”

On the topic of how the homeless recipients of the taxpayer funds will actually receive the cash payments, Donovan said, “there’s two options: if somebody’s banked then we’ll do a transfer to their bank account. If they’re unbanked, which many of the individuals in our unhoused community are unbanked for various reasons, then we we’ll give them a rechargeable debit card that they can use.” 

Finally, Donovan addressed the City of Denver’s decision to limit the participants in the program to women, families, and gender nonconforming or nonbinary people. Donovan noted that while men may not be specifically listed in the portion of the project funded by the City of Denver, they would be captured under the overall program run by the Denver Basic Income Project. 

“Well, if you just look at the overall project, men are included and then the Denver funding is city funding. It’s just a portion of it, so the Denver Basic Income Project is fully inclusive. Anybody that meets our criteria that’s listed on the website is welcome to apply and the city funds are just being directed to that segment of the population that was going to be included in the project anyway.” 

Donovan didn’t volunteer whether he agreed with the City of Denver’s decision to put limits on who can receive the money, he simply responded to our question on the topic with, “we’re not putting limits on.”

One topic that has received attention in the last few days has been how the City of Denver would determine who was gender non-conforming or non-binary as part of the process to determine who is eligible for the money. Donovan told us that “it’s a self-reporting application process.”

When further questioned on whether someone could just say they were gender non-conforming or non-binary simply to get the money, he responded, “Anybody is welcome to apply to the program. However they identify, we acknowledge that people self-identify in the way that they identify, so we’re not telling people how to identify themselves and anybody is welcome to apply.”

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About the Author:

Matt Connelly is the founder of Campfire Colorado. Follow him on Twitter @MattConnelly.