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Ending Homelessness Violates the Law

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NRR headquarters sits in the center of a vast pool of compassion. In fact, compassion is stated government policy. “The City of Minneapolis and Hennepin County have passed a plan to end homelessness in our community by the year 2016. This 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness, is also known as Heading Home Hennepin.”

The bleeding hearts in charge, I think, reflect the bleeding hearts of the electorate. Unfortunately for everyone, compassion is bound by socio-economic laws in the same way that gravity binds us to the earth. Wishing, and even jumping really hard, will not make people fly.

The New Yorker reported some statiscally-significant research:

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. In the early nineteen-nineties, Culhane's database suggested that New York City had a quarter of a million people who were homeless at some point in the previous half decade —which was a surprisingly high number. But only about twenty-five hundred were chronically homeless.

Megan McArdle summarizes some salient points revealed by the data:

The chronically homeless are not, as fable would have it, people who have had some hard luck. They are people who have repeatedly made bad decisions—mentally ill people who stop taking their medicine, drug addicts and drunks. Those who have merely had a spell of bad luck get in and out of the shelter system pretty quickly. The people on the street are people who can't stay in the shelter system because their behavior is so extreme.

I agree with my local Civic Overlords that homelessness is a problem. And with my compassionate neighbors that homeless people are humans worthy of dignity. But we cannot force dignity upon them.

At some point, some human animals fail to give their own humanity enough nourishment. The humanness inside them dies. The chronically homeless are failed human beings.

Pretending otherwise, trying to assign all and ultimate responsibility outside the individual, encourages futile action. The issue is not “ending homelessness” but finding the best balance between cost and compassion in caring for those who cannot be helped.

I do not have a solution. This may be a problem for which no satisfactory solution exists. I only ask that we see the facts as they are. With fact over feeling we can make the best available choice. A choice honoring the humanity of both the suffering and those who offer aid, no matter how cruel nature’s laws may seem.