Saturday, February 25, 2006

The problem of homelessness

Malcom Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point and Blink, earlier this month wrote a fascinating article on solving the problem of homelessness.
Says Gladwell:
In the nineteen-eighties, when homelessness first surfaced as a national issue, the assumption was that the problem fit a normal distribution: that the vast majority of the homeless were in the same state of semi-permanent distress. It was an assumption that bred despair: if there were so many homeless, with so many problems, what could be done to help them? Then, fifteen years ago, a young Boston College graduate student named Dennis Culhane lived in a shelter in Philadelphia for seven weeks as part of the research for his dissertation. A few months later he went back, and was surprised to discover that he couldn’t find any of the people he had recently spent so much time with. “It made me realize that most of these people were getting on with their own lives,” he said.

Culhane then put together a database—the first of its kind—to track who was coming in and out of the shelter system. What he discovered profoundly changed the way homelessness is understood. Homelessness doesn’t have a normal distribution, it turned out. It has a power-law distribution. “We found that eighty per cent of the homeless were in and out really quickly,” he said. “In Philadelphia, the most common length of time that someone is homeless is one day. And the second most common length is two days. And they never come back. Anyone who ever has to stay in a shelter involuntarily knows that all you think about is how to make sure you never come back.”

The next ten per cent were what Culhane calls episodic users. They would come for three weeks at a time, and return periodically, particularly in the winter. They were quite young, and they were often heavy drug users. It was the last ten per cent—the group at the farthest edge of the curve—that interested Culhane the most. They were the chronically homeless, who lived in the shelters, sometimes for years at a time. They were older. Many were mentally ill or physically disabled, and when we think about homelessness as a social problem—the people sleeping on the sidewalk, aggressively panhandling, lying drunk in doorways, huddled on subway grates and under bridges—it’s this group that we have in mind.
Wow, fascinating stuff. I had not previously heard these statistics, but it rings true. So the problem, says Gladwell, is what do we do with this last 10%? Gladwell profiles a homeless man named Murray Barr who lived in Reno, Nevada, who episodically became drunk and was forced to be hospitalized. Over the course of ten years, it was estimated that treating him cost the city over a million dollars. Said Reno policeman Patrick O’Bryan,
It cost us one million dollars not to do something about Murray.
Hmm, so what can be done? Gladwell outlines a solution; in the case of Murray Barr,

It would probably have been cheaper to give him a full-time nurse and his own apartment.
He goes on:
Simply running soup kitchens and shelters...allows the chronically homeless to remain chronically homeless.
Philip Mangano, President Bush's executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness suggests the following:
Take some of your money and rent some apartments and go out to those people, and literally go out there with the key and say to them, ‘This is the key to an apartment. If you come with me right now I am going to give it to you, and you are going to have that apartment.’
This has been done in places like St. Louis and Denver with some success. The problem people have with it, of course, is the fairness factor. Says Gladwell,

That is what is so perplexing about power-law homeless policy. From an economic perspective the approach makes perfect sense. But from a moral perspective it doesn’t seem fair. Thousands of people in the Denver area no doubt live day to day, work two or three jobs, and are eminently deserving of a helping hand—and no one offers them the key to a new apartment. Yet that’s just what the guy screaming obscenities and swigging Dr. Tich gets. When the welfare mom’s time on public assistance runs out, we cut her off. Yet when the homeless man trashes his apartment we give him another. Social benefits are supposed to have some kind of moral justification. We give them to widows and disabled veterans and poor mothers with small children. Giving the homeless guy passed out on the sidewalk an apartment has a different rationale. It’s simply about efficiency.
Is this the answer to dealing with homelessness? So say the statistics are correct, 10% of the homeless are chronic and the offenders we have come to identify as homeless. That means the other 90% are doing well. So we have a system that is 90% efficient. And we have a potential economic solution to the other 10% of the problem. Is it a good one, though? What do you think?

My opinion is that it is along the lines of being right. There are other possibilities too, though. If you're saying that some of these folks may never be contributing members of society again without public assistance, why keep them in the city, the setting for their constant failure? Maybe a camp for homeless people out in the country would be a better and cheaper possibility. Send people out to work on a farm where products could be sold, and thus allow them to contribute in that way--bringing some financial return back. They would be away from the presence of drugs and alcohol, and in a community of their peers. Is that an option? Others would simply say we should lock them up in jail for chronic loitering and public drunkenness. Although jail would be more expensive than just renting them an apartment, it would still potentially be cheaper than treating them medically as frequently as is often necessary.

In any case, it's a very interesting article well worth reading and encourage you to check it out. I won't even go into the application of power-law distribution to cleaning up the air of our cities that Gladwell cites.
(for now...)

1 comment:

Chairman said...

If you're willing to herd people up and send them to work camps, then you're on the way to the right solution. If you do the number crunching, and once you're willing to take away a few rights from people, then you're only a lil' ol' slippery slope away...

Because euthanasia would seem to be a tidy, very efficient solution to the problem of the chronically homeless. Or, if you're not as "hands-on," we can just hope that extreme weather in the winter and summer will fix the homelessness problem, as well.

As a side note, I am very amused at the number of Gladwell-haters that there are in academia. They (rightly so) condemn him as simply someone who just does literature reviews and doesn't offer any real insight into the matter. But the truth is, academics are often so concerned with sounding-smart and looking good to their peers that they forget about why research is interesting and needed - to engage the rest of the world in improvement. I happen to like the dude for taking work that others have done, and re-package it to make millions. Wish that I would've done it first.