Brain Dropping #55
The Homeless. Woody Guthrie sang it: “I ain’t got no home. I just ramble round / looking for work I go from town to town. / Sheriff says get outa town vagrancy’s against the law, / and I ain’t got no home in this world anymore! / I’ve mined your mines I’ve gathered in your corn. / I’ve been working mister since the day that I was born. / Now I worry all the time like I never been before. / And I ain’t got no home in this world any more! / Six children I have raised they’ve all travelled on / and my darling wife to heaven she has gone. / She died of a fever lying on the cabin floor / and I ain’t got no home in this world any more! / I just ramble round to see what I can see. / This wide and wicked world is a worrying place to be. / The gambling man is rich, the working man is poor / and I ain’t got no home in this world any more!”
An ongoing debate in Vermont and nationally is what to do about the growing problem of homelessness in the supposedly richest country on earth. We attempt to deny our deep and abiding shame by demonizing the poor and homeless as drunks, freeloaders, shiftless, lazy, unwilling to work, and on and on – in contrast to the pillars of our society, the bankers, wheeler dealers and the Wall Street kleptomaniacs who are admired for their entrepreneurial zeal. Almost every misinformed taxpayer has a putative story about generations of welfare cheats who live next door boozing it up, while he has to go work at two jobs to make ends meet. Good people buy into the fairy tale of the chronic dependency of the poor and homeless who don’t have the gumption to fend for themselves, instead of sucking on the government teat, but deal with the dependency of Wall Street, sucking on the same teat, with equanimity.
Vermont, like many other states, is concerned about the cost of keeping human beings from freezing in our streets. We pay for motel rooms at sixty or eighty dollars or more a night, adding up to millions per year. On the other hand, the state of Utah has surprisingly shown not only innovation but political courage in implementing a “New Deal” for the homeless – free homes without making the needy to jump through the usual demeaning hoops. The program is called “Housing First.” “A study has shown that the average homeless person costs the state forty three thousand dollars a year, while housing that person would cost just seventeen thousand dollars.” (of course this would vary from state to state.) Utah’s “Housing First” isn’t just cost-effective. It’s more effective,period. The old model assumed that before you put people in permanent homes you had to deal with their underlying issues – get them to stop drinking, take their medication and so on. But it’s ridiculously hard to get people to make such changes while they’re living in a shelter or on the street. If you move people into permanent supportive housing first, and then give them help, it works better.”
Since the beginning of the “Housing First” program the number of Utah’s chronically homeless has fallen by an estimated seventy-four percent. “It may seem surprising that a solidly conservative state like Utah has embraced an apparently bleeding-heart approach like giving homeless people homes.” But even conservatives like saving a buck. Are you listening Montpelier?
This Bird Dropping is based on an article by James Surowieki in the Sept. 22 issue of The New Yorker magazine – page 42 – entitled “Home Free.”