Tuesday, February 21, 2006


While I'm by no means anywhere personally acquainted with the problem of homelessness, I've long felt the institutionalizing of the homeless problem would never be a solution. I'm sure it's not an original thought.

I spent a lot of time reporting on dire poverty issues. particularly housing, both in Bridgeport, Conn. and in Cleveland during the 1960s. I also worked in the war on poverty program on housing issues in Akron for a time in the late 1960s. Homelessness simply wasn't a poverty issue during any of that time.

No doubt, however, that it has become a scandalous and seemingly insoluable problem today.

Understanding that it is a problem, I've wondered whether the treatments being offered weren't deterring a solution.

When I came to Cleveland in 1965 before my family joined me, I took a room in a single room occupancy apartment near the Plain Dealer where now Cleveland State University either parks cars or enjoys a soccer playing field. I paid for a week but only lasted one or two nights. It was that depressing. However, it served a population that needed cheap shelter from the elements. Now people very close by that location sleep on the street.

So much of that SRO housing has been destroyed. Destroyed without the market - or shall we say community - providing a substitution. Condo, yes; affordable housing, well...

Instead, we have developed an entire system of treating the need for housing as if it were a disease.

It seemed to me that shelters, food and other programs for people out on the street with no where to go and no ability to even feed themselves certainly met the immediate problems of people in need. However, if you did it tonight, you'd have to do it again tomorrow night, and on and on forever. No real solution has materialized since this problem blossomed in the mid-1980s.

A recent piece in the New Yorker magzine by Malcolm Gladwell(
http://www.newyorker.com/fact/content/articles/060213fa_fact) entitled "Million-Dollar Murrray - Why problems like homelessness may be easier to solve than to manage" offers some interesting insights into homelessness, the homeless and possible solutions at least for some - maybe those damaged most by the lack of simple shelter.

Gladwell begins his piece thus:

"Murray Barr was a bear of a man, an ex-marine, six feet tall and heavyset, and when he fell down - which he did nearly every day - it could take two or three grown men to pick him up. He had straight black hair and olive skin. On the street, they called him Smokey. He was missing most of his teeth. He had a wonderful smile. People loved Murray."

Barr becomes an essential part of the article because, it says, "Murray Bass probably ran up a medical bill as large as anyone in the state of Nevada." Says one, "It cost us one million dollars not to do something about Murray (who dies in the bargain)." So the cost of homelessness weighs heavily on the community in more ways that as a moral issue.

Therein lies the problem. Are we solving the problem or only treating it and perpetuating the situation?

The article cites a data base produced by "a young Boston College grad student" interested in the problem. He produced a data base that shows what's called a "power law" distribution. It's what statisticians describe as a situation where all the activity involved "is not in the middle but at one extreme." In regards to homelessness that means that, as the grad student found, 80 percent of the homeless are "in and out real quickly." The really acute problem lies in the smaller 20 percent.

The data base, for example, "suggested that New York City had a quarter of a million people who were homeless at some point in the previous decade - which was a surprisingly high number. But only about twenty-five hundred were chronically homeless."

The implied answer would be to concentrate attention to those chronically homeless.

As cited above, Murray Barr used more health care dollars as one of these chronically ill homeless people than anyone in the state. "It would probably have been cheaper to give him a full-time nurse and his own apartment."

That seems to be the thurst. The article cites Philip Mangano, President George Bush's director of the U. S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. He doesn't seem the typical Bush appointee. The article says that he is a history buff and "sometimes falls asleep listing to old Malcolm X speeches and who peppers his remarks with references to the civil rights movement...."

I wouldn't totally dismiss him just because he's a Bush appointee. Bush can make mistakes, as we know.

What's being proposed is to give apartments to these hardcore homeless. Yes, simply give them an apartment and other needed help. And, if he or she destroys the apartment, give another. And if it happens again, you repeat the "solution" with another apartment.

This doesn't seem a program that Repulicans (or even liberal Democrats) could swallow, however, it's being peddle to some cities by this Republican administration.

Mangano is quoted, "Our intent is to take homeless policy from the old idea of funding programs that serve homeless people endlessly and invest in results that actually end homelessness."

There's plenty more to the article, including studies that show the "power law" concept also could work with problems with police. It's been found that a relatively few police officers account for most of the violence against civilians, for example. Get rid of them and you have a more responsive and fair police force.

I think that the article and the concept deserves more attention. I guess that's because there has been a nagging question in my mind about the continued institutionalizing of homelessness and the bureaucracy that has built up around the problem.

It seems the solution to poverty is the give people more income; the problem with homelessness is to give the homeless housing. Sounds simple. I know it isn't.

I asked Brian David, director of a coalition on homelessness here http://www.neoch.org/ to read the New Yorker article. He responded.

"I liked the New Yorker article but have some disagreements with it.

"I agree with the premise but believe that we must spend all new money in this supportive housing effort. We have now neglected affordable housing and homelessness for 20 years and it is impossible to divide up the pie anymore with new experiments.

"It takes every ounce of energy that our organization can muster to keep people from dying in the streets, wrote Davis.

"We are one of the few cities left in the U. S. that still offers shelter to whomever comes to the door," he continued. "I cannot support a new fad from Washington that is supposed 'to change the face of homelessness' unless it comes with a whole bunch of new money."

Davis also worries about a program accepted by the Bush administration. I do too.

However, I believe a new effort is necessary but share the desire for the financing to be adequate.

I'll be trying to get other response to what I believe is an acute poverty problems that, as Davis says and the article makes clear, results in death.

- By Roldo Bartimole


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