Pilot program would provide basic income to aid San Francisco’s transgender community

The movement to use guaranteed income as a tool to fight poverty gained more ground in San Francisco this month,...

The movement to use guaranteed income as a tool to fight poverty gained more ground in San Francisco this month, where The City is poised to roll out a new pilot program to put cash directly in the hands of low-income, transgender residents.

These kinds of pilot programs, which provide no-strings-attached benefits to help with living expenses, are generally known as universal basic income. Similar efforts, targeting artists and pregnant women who are Black and Pacific Islander, have rolled out since last fall.

San Francisco is now exploring a permanent option at a larger scale.

Mayor London Breed included in her budget proposal $2 million to fund the program specific to transgender people over the next two years. If approved by the Board of Supervisors, up to 150 trans residents will receive monthly payments up to $1,000 starting this fall.

“Our transgender community suffered disproportionately during the pandemic, but we know that the inequities faced by trans people existed long before that,” Breed said in a statement. “We heard from the community that this program was something that could offer real, needed support, and it’s one of a number of significant investments that we’re making in this budget to ensure that our trans community has the resources and the targeted programs that will help them thrive in San Francisco.”

Early into the pandemic, nonprofit organizations like El/La Para TransLatinas and the Transgender District found that direct financial relief was needed for those in the community who lost their jobs overnight.

The nonprofit focused on transgender Latinas gave out direct cash assistance in the form of monthly $100 Visa gift cards while the Transgender District, a cultural district in the Tenderloin, borrowed money to send out cash payments to 600 trans folks nationwide. Nicole Santamaria, executive director of El/La Para TransLatinas, acknowledged it was not enough and views a model like universal basic income “as necessary to the survival of trans communities in the long run.”

The pilot program may make those mutual aid efforts permanent.

“The Trans Latinx community has been left in the margins from different financial aid assistance in the past from different factors like immigration status among other reasons,” Santamaria said in an email. “We are hopeful that this year, with this proposal, [the] Trans Latina community will have access to apply and receive funds as individuals, but also as a nonprofit…who has been doing the work with very limited resources for years in a constant crisis.”

Santamaria added that she was glad to hear of “well intentions” and hoped to work closely on the effort to guarantee equity.

The news also came as a surprise to Aria Sa’id, executive director of the Transgender District, which has advocated for monthly guaranteed income for trans people. The pilot is intended to prioritize Black and Latinx trans residents but Sa’id feels the work of those communities wasn’t acknowledged or incorporated into the city effort.

“I’m excited that this is happening and I do think that this work should continue to be led by Black trans people and people most informed by the nuances of experience,” Sa’id said. “I hope that the Office of Trans Initiatives and Mayor Breed bring more Black trans voices into the process because they traditionally have not. It’s work that we’ve been very visibly talking about.”

If it were up to the District, Sa’id said they would do a series of focus groups to field the best methods to disburse funds — and urgently, so people aren’t waiting on bureaucracy for this lifeline.

“My dream is to take a fire truck with millions of dollars of cash and have a wind blower and say, ‘Have at it,’” Sa’id added.

The program reached Breed’s desk after the Transgender Advisory Committee — led by Clair Farley, executive director of the Office of Transgender Initiatives and advisor to Breed on LGBT issues — recommended it this year. She said she is grateful for the Transgender District’s work and hopes they will get involved.

Once approved, the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development will select a nonprofit to identify and recruit applicants with a focus on Black and Latina trans women, Farley said. Unlike the existing guaranteed income pilots, the Treasurer’s Office will dole out the payments on top of offering financial coaching and other services.

“Part of the challenge is so many communities, especially communities of color, haven’t been plugged into these safety nets,” Farley said. “These very tailored specific programs that are going to be reaching out to the trans community will build that trust. It’s just another example of a pilot that really does work toward guaranteed income that we’re seeing pop up around the country.”

Supervisor Matt Haney, who represents South of Market and the Tenderloin, said he strongly supported the initiative and predicts the rest of the Board will feel the same.

“Direct cash assistance can be a very effective program especially for vulnerable groups,” Haney said. “It can be a critical tool in helping us end poverty in San Francisco and closing the massive economic inequities that many of our residents experience. But we have to learn from it and do it the right way and make it sustainable.”

The Guaranteed Income Advisory Group is already taking note.

Amanda Kahn Fried, spokesperson for Treasurer’s Office who staffs the group, said the existing pilots are helping to see how the model is put into action. By the end of the year, the group will issue a report to the Board of Supervisors.

“Our hope is that through this process, we’re going to be able to provide a playbook for The City,” Kahn Fried said. “The amount that this universe has shifted in just the past year is mind-blowing. There are also huge shifts at the federal level. All of these things are building momentum.”


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