Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Homelessness: required reading

OK, for you it's optional, but I'd like to make this New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell required reading for the steering committee of our Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness. Thanks to Anton for the pointer.

Gladwell's point sneaks up on you. He starts out with one of those "faces of homelessness" cliches: Murray Barr of Reno, Nev., is a homeless person, and guess what, he's a real person just like you. But it turns out that Murray Barr is part of a statistical argument. He is one of the "chronically homeless," and from his story, Gladwell turns to tell us about the Ph.D. student who wrote the dissertation that determined that while only 10 percent of the homeless are chronically homeless, they cost the rest of us an awful lot of money. Between substance abuse treatments and ER visits, Murray Barr "probably ran up a medical bill as large as anyone in the state of Nevada."

So the point is bound up with the objectives and strategies of the national initiative to end chronic homelessness: it makes economic sense to put people like Barr directly into housing. It's cheaper than the alternative. But what's valuable about Gladwell's article is the way he shows us that what makes economic sense does not intuitively make moral sense. What about the transitionally homeless? where is the immediate help for them? What about the people at risk of homelessness? where is their housing subsidy? Why does an alcoholic bum deserve a place to live anyway? Isn't this a "special treatment" plan, plain and simple? Such solutions, Gladwell writes, "have little appeal to the right, because they involve special treatment for people who do not deserve special treatment; and they have little appeal to the left, because their emphasis on efficiency over fairness suggests the cold number-crunching of Chicago-school cost-benefit analysis." Still, he concludes, "helping a few people a lot" can have a significant impact.

In Orange County, before we get too far down the road on crafting our 10-year plan, we are going to have to make some policy decisions about how to allocate limited resources. Which problem are we trying to solve? Only the problem of the chronically homeless (as the federal goverenment would hope)? Or is our work broader than that? What kind of plan will have the best chance of helping the most people?

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