Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were walking down the street when they came to a homeless person. Trump gave the homeless person his business card and told him to come to his office for a job. He then took $20 out of his pocket and gave it to the homeless person.

Hillary was very impressed, so when they came to another homeless person, she decided to help. She walked over to the homeless person and gave him directions to the welfare office. She then reached into Trump’s pocket and got out $20. She kept $15 for her administrative fees and gave the homeless person $5.00.

Joke” on the internets

Chronic homelessness is a complex problem. In 2006 Malcom Gladwell told the story of “Million Dollar Murray.” Murray was a gentleman who lived in Reno, Nevada, and had a major substance abuse problem. A veteran who learned to cook while in the service, Murray had two personalities. When drinking, he drank a lot. He was arrested a lot. He ended up in the emergency room a lot and, in fact, someone did the math and it was calculated that during one binge he cost over $1,000,000 in services. When supervised, sober and in housing supplied by an agency, he cooked well. He made money. He would be released on good behavior and go back to drinking. A lot.

Malcolm Gladwell points out that most people who are ever homeless are homeless for 1 day. The second most popular number for “days homeless” is 2 days. Murray’s case, though not typical for homelessness, was typical for expensive homelessness.

It’s a matter of a few hard cases, and that’s good news, because when a problem is that concentrated you can wrap your arms around it and think about solving it. The bad news is that those few hard cases are hard. They are falling-down drunks with liver disease and complex infections and mental illness. They need time and attention and lots of money. But enormous sums of money are already being spent on the chronically homeless, and Culhane saw that the kind of money it would take to solve the homeless problem could well be less than the kind of money it took to ignore it. Murray Barr used more health-care dollars, after all, than almost anyone in the state of Nevada. It would probably have been cheaper to give him a full-time nurse and his own apartment.

As told in this article, the George W. Bush administration looked into the chronic housing problem with the lens described by Malcom Gladwell. They found that $10,000 targeted towards these hard cases through housing subsidies could save the government several hundred thousand dollars. This money did not go to making them less dependent on substances. It did not go to giving them employment skills. It went to housing…and it worked:

In terms of impact, the number of chronically homeless people living in the nation’s streets and shelters had dropped by about 30% – to 123,833 from 175,914 – between 2005 and 2007, which policy makers attributed in part to the effectiveness of Housing First

Today that number is a little more than 100,000 with the number of homeless vets (not necessarily chronically homeless) being 40,000.

Why are we not celebrating this success?

From the right side of the aisle, it was seen as a “give away.” It reflected a paradigm shift in housing, the movement away from emphasizing “housing readiness” to offering low demand permanent housing solutions. Though it fixed the problem, it fixed it by giving housing to those who could not control themselves, thus exacerbating the feelings of unfairness amongst those who “play by the rules.”  From the left, Housing First has been criticized on its failure to address broader service outcomes, particularly substance abuse issues. It was seen as a market based solution (these folks cost us less money now) which didn’t address broader issues of equity and values.
John Maynard Keynes said “there is nothing a politician likes so little as to be well informed; it makes decision-making so complex and difficult.” The appeal of many of the current politicians is their willingness to ignore evidence as they pursue policies which have broad, superficial appeal. Homelessness rises to the level of public awareness when the tourists feel bullied or otherwise threatened (see comments following this article). One can only hope that our core values will come through as we work through this election cycle.