Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

An end to homelessness

Every once in while you read something that challenges assumptions so strongly that you sense anything is possible. I was fascinated by Malcolm Gladwell's article in The New Yorker that proposed that homelessness is a solvable problem. And not through some grand rationale about human nature, or a sweeping new reform, or a call for a lot more time and money . . . but rather through (gasp!) looking at the numbers.

Gladwell makes a compelling case, through both statistics and first-hand accounts from cops, nurses, and mayors, that homelessness is not broad, intractable problem afflicting millions, but rather a chronic problem affecting a few thousand very hard cases. And for those hard cases, the classical solutions to managing homelessness -- shelters, soup kitchens, and episodic medical treatment -- only enable the homeless to remain homeless and perpetuate the problem. When you tally up the costs of emergency room visits for these street drunks, they can cost upwards of a million dollars over their (relatively short) lives. With that kind of cost, you're better off pulling them off the street, putting them in an apartment and having them closely managed by case workers. Which is exactly what some cities have started to do.

The problem (of course) is really political: neither the left nor the right has much stomach for this kind of solution. The conservatives don't want to help people who don't deserve it: why should we reward someone for being a bum? And the left doesn't like it because it isn't egalitarian: it concentrates resources on the high-cost problems instead of treating everyone equally.

What gives me hope in all this is that somebody used science and common sense to address a problem that everyone else assumed couldn't be solved.

One facet of the solution that Gladwell didn't focus on much was the fact that it essentially required limiting the freedoms of those who abuse their freedoms. How many times does someone have to land in the emergency room, and not pay their bill, before we say: ok, we're cutting you off. You obviously can't handle the freedom afforded most people; time to put you under house arrest. I think even conservatives could handle the costs of such programs if they also came with stiff restrictions on behavior that no one (especially the drunks) would willingly take on.


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