The Problem of Homelessness
When we think of societal problems, we often think in the abstract. Take the question of “homelessness.” Hopefully, there is some part of us that wants to fight homelessness, create affordable homes, and get people off the streets. And yet if you live in a city (I live in Manhattan), “homelessness” isn’t an abstract problem – it’s the guy lying in Central Park, or sleeping on the sidewalk, or holding a sign in the subway saying, “Please help.”
I certainly experience a variety of feelings when I see homeless people. Part of me wants to help everyone I see. Part of me doesn’t want to give because that money may be helping feed an addiction. Part of me wants to support organizations that address homelessness more effectively than a direct donation would. Part of me doesn’t want to give too much because I have limited resources, and want to support many different causes. Part of me wants to at least make eye contact with a homeless person to acknowledge that he or she is a human being. Part of me is nervous about making eye contact because I just don’t know about that person’s emotional stability.
What makes homelessness even more complicated is that no one really understands the root causes. How and why do people end up on the street? That leads to an even bigger question – do we want to understand homelessness, or do we want to solve it?
How Much Does Homelessness Cost?
In Malcolm Gladwell’s essay “Million-Dollar Murray,” we meet Murray Barr, an ex-marine who often ended up homeless in Reno, Nevada. In 2003, the Reno police department started cracking down on panhandling, because panhandling was used to get liquor, and liquor led to problems – most especially hospital visits due to intoxication. The police officers found that most of the hospital visits were from three people, who in three months, cost the state over $200,000 in hospital bills. Murray himself cost $100,000. Gladwell notes: