Like healthcare, homelessness is one of the intractable problems facing our society and it keeps growing. Local governments have the desire to solve the problem and, to some degree, they have the finances. What they don’t have is the trust of the client population, people who have lost faith in our society.
In my final year of public life, I worked hard to get one particular man off the streets. I was terrified he wouldn’t survive the winter. Despite the freezing temperatures, he resisted my efforts and the law was on his side. In the end, I could do nothing. The last time I saw him, he was lying in a stairwell outside an apartment building, under a dusting of snow. I asked the police to keep an eye on him, but that was mostly so I could feel better about myself . Without a court order, they could do nothing, either. I continued to wring my hands. Then, one day, he disappeared.
Some people become homeless because they’ve lost their jobs or are broken by medical expenses. Youngsters get thrown out of their parent’s home or leave of their own accord. Many homeless, however, suffer from mental illness, drug addiction or both. These are hardcore street people, suspicious of help, like my man who lived in a stairwell. Many of them, the men in particular, look so disheveled, people shun them as a threat.
Even so, I’m glad to say civic attitudes are shifting. Many of these homeless men and women are veterans, after all, and people want to help. San Francisco is one example. It has a large indigent population and, thanks to a thriving tech economy, it also has resources. The local government has a plan to find homes for 2,000 indigent in 90 days. (“An App Tries to Find Beds for The Homeless,” by Adam Popscu, Bloomberg Businesweek, February 11, 2019, pgs. 27-27.) They hope to accomplish their goal with the help of tech giants in the area. Together, they will create a data base that tracks the homeless as neatly as if they were books filed by the Dewey Decimal system. Once the data is in place, officials will match people’s needs with appropriate resources.
On paper, the plan looks great. Getting the homeless to cooperate is the challenge. This population, so suspicious of government, will need to cooperate with the very authorities they dread. They must provide personal information which includes not only medical data and drug habits but criminal records, as well. Once their data is the computer system, their movements are tracked, like migrating animals, so that, when housing becomes available, they will be notified.
Finally, and least appealingly, the homeless must provide their real names and carry ID cards. I say, good luck with that. People with drug habits and criminal records don’t welcome having information stored in a data base, which — despite assurances to the contrary — they fear the police can access.
I hope the new program fares well, but I suspect the people designing it have an uphill battle. This is the population least likely to allow itself to be regulated. Maybe I’m wrong. Let’s hope I am.