Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
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:
“If you toted up all his hospital bills for the ten years that he had been on the streets – as well as substance-abuse-treatment costs, doctors’ fees, and other expenses – Murray Barr probably ran up a medical bill as large as anyone in the state of Nevada. “It cost us one million dollars not to do something about Murray,” [Reno police office Patrick] O’Bryan said.” (Gladwell, What the Dog Saw, 180-181)
If Murray cost the state one million dollars – and the revolving door of the shelters wasn’t helping him – a natural question arises: is there a more effective way to address homelessness?
Being Fair by Being Unfair
Homelessness, like many other problems, obeys what’s known as a “power law,” where most of the activity is not in the middle, but at one extreme. It’s similar to the “80/20” law. Think of fund-raising, where about 80% of the money comes from about 20% of the donors. What’s the most effective way to raise money? Not by spending all your time going after everyone, but rather, by picking the few target people who are most able and most likely to make big donations, and going after them.
What would the equivalent be for homelessness? Well, from a practical point of view, it wouldn’t be “helping every homeless person.” Most homeless people are not homeless for long – “in Philadelphia, the most common length of time that someone is homeless is one day. And the second most common length is two days.” (Gladwell, 183) Instead, the most effective way to solve homelessness would be to identify the people who cost the state the most money, and help get them off the streets.
In fact, that was tried in Denver. The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless tried to identify the homeless people who were most costly to the state and gave them a free apartment. And it’s been working – the cost of homelessness has gone down dramatically. It hasn’t gotten everyone off the streets, but it’s been a significantly smaller part of the annual budget.
Yet there’s something a bit unsettling about that. We help the worst offenders, and ignore the people who are really trying their hardest? As Gladwell says:
“Social benefits are supposed to have some kind of moral justification. We give them to widows and disabled veterans and poor mothers with small children. Giving the homeless guy passed out on the sidewalk has a different rationale. It’s simply about efficiency…
[We think that] “being fair”…means providing shelters and soup kitchens, [but] shelters and soup kitchens don’t solve the problem of homelessness…[We are faced] with an unpleasant choice. We can be true to our principles or we can fix the problem. We cannot do both.” (Gladwell, 191-192, italics mine)
Jewish Views on Justice
What would Judaism say about addressing homelessness in this way? I certainly don’t feel qualified enough to make policy recommendations, so instead, let me present a few texts, and ask – how do these texts frame the question of “Million-Dollar Murray”?
1. “The world stands on three things: on truth, on justice and on peace.” (Simon the Righteous, Avot 1:18)
Justice, truth and peace are intertwined, but problems arise when feel like we have to concede one in order to fulfill another. The world stands on peace, but sometimes justice commands that we go to war. The world stands on truth, but sometimes brutal honesty can destroy peace.
If the truth ends up being that free housing for certain challenging homeless people helps address the monetary concern, does it subvert justice to ignore the homeless people who have been trying for months to find homes? If giving free housing for certain challenging homeless people helps create a more peaceful and safer neighborhood, is that subverting justice? What do we do when our values collide?
2. “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” (Deuteronomy 16:20) Why is the word “justice” repeated here? A common interpretation is that “justice” isn’t just what we do, justice is also how we do it. “Justice” is not just about the ends, it’s also about the means.
Sometimes, even the different ways we view one value, like justice, may conflict. Even if it works, is giving free housing only to certain homeless people (and often the most challenging cases) a fair procedure? It may be a good result, but is it a just process?
3. “In light of God’s image embedded in each of us, we must determine the recipients of aid, the donors, the methods of collection and distribution, the programs of prevention, and all other related factors in this area by asking: What is the most practical and efficient way of caring for the poor while preserving the dignity and economic viability of all concerned?” (Rabbi Elliot Dorff, To Do the Right and the Good, 155)
That question seems to be the crux of it for me. The question in Jewish tradition isn’t whether we should help the homeless – it’s how. And that’s where the challenge lies. It’s very easy to say, “Judaism demands that we help others.” It’s a lot harder to make the tough decisions.
And since a decision comes as a result of a process, we have to examine both. Most often, we start with a process and see how it ends up. But sometimes we find a surprising result, and have to work backward to examine the process. We know that homeless shelters and soup kitchens create a fair process, but they aren’t creating the results that the program in Denver had. Sometimes, we may have to start with a result and work backwards – “this is a fair result – let’s now make sure it’s a fair process.”
But the most crucial thing we have to be sure of it that we are not sacrificing one at the expense of the other. To truly create a just society, we need to look at both the society we want to create, and the way we are creating it.