Homelessness in America – A Thought Paper

Homelessness in America is steadily increasing just as the funding to solve this problem. The funding has been continuously rising at a higher pace than the problem itself. So why is this problem not getting solved? Based on the HUD and Census data, we have approx. 600,000 homeless people in America today, about 40% of those are unsheltered, meaning living on the streets and the highest number of those are concentrated in 4 states, and DC being the host to the most. There are so many government programs and charitable organizations including religious institutions that are constantly working on helping homeless people. Yet, the problem doesn’t go away.

According to a few people in the non-profit business, nobody wants to solve the problem. Politicians cannot come to an agreement on how to solve the problem, some just want to throw money at it and some just want to cut it all. A non-profit is a business that prospers with the existence of the problem, not by solving the problem. Don’t get me wrong, millions of people are working hard to solve these social problems, but they are at the bottom of the totem pole. Some large non-profit organizations’ motivation is to stay in the business because it gives employment to so many.

But that’s not the focus of this paper. I intend to look at the issue of homelessness from a different angle and see if there is a possible solution, enough to at least make a dent in this problem. I was listening to a book called “Think Like a Freak” written by the same people who wrote Freakanomics. From their writing, I learned that people say they get motivated by lots of things but only take action by two things, money or herd (group) mentality. When people see a financial benefit, they will take action, or when they see a group of people doing something they join to be part of the movement. If a few people in the social circle buy an SUV, the herd will buy an SUV, if more people seem to be buying an electric car, the herd will buy an electric car. I know so many people whose beliefs and philosophies changed when they were thrown into a group and their actions worked totally opposite to their beliefs. And the last that I personally believe drives people to action is fear which can be called survival instinct. People act when they have the fear of losing something that can challenge their survival, at least in their minds. In the end, every person looks at a solution with just one factor – what is in it for me. If they don’t see anything that personally affects them, they will not act or participate.

So based on these phenomena, I thought of using these three motivators to craft a multi-prong homelessness problem-solving strategy. I have tried to utilize the 3 motivators and a what-is-in-it-for-me approach to come up with a possible workable solution. 

Of course, no solution is perfect but we have to look at it from the point of gains vs losses. If the gains outnumber the losses, we have to try it and continuously improve it to the point of optimum return.

This is only a thought paper, not a magic pill. And I admit, I have no experience from any angle except for being a spectator for far too long. I know people who have dedicated their lives to this cause and have not much to show except how they touched people and possibly prolonged their lives and homelessness. Yes, sometimes in the process of doing good, we become enablers of bad habits, practices, and beliefs. My intention behind this solution is to create a win-win proposal for every stakeholder and not to look at it from one single point of view.

So here we go –

Let us identify the groups that are actively associated with the homelessness problem-

  1. Non-profit Organizations
  2. Philanthropists / Social Donors
  3. Homeless population
  4. Government Agencies

Motivating factors to move these groups to work towards a common cause –

  1. Financial gains
  2. “Everybody like me” is doing it
  3. Fear of losing something precious like a job, place to stay, benefits, etc.
  4. Social Recognition
  5. Vote Bank
  6. Tax Break outlet

These are the salient points of the plan –

  1. Organize communities of homeless people, just like shelters.
  2. Build residential communities with a basic place to stay, and community places to share and improve day-to-day quality of life.
  3. Make homeless people equity partners in the plan based on their contribution.
  4. Collective outlet and mission of all non-profits engaged in this business in each community.
  5. Non-profits provide Skills and Staff to manage the logistics.
  6. Government agencies to do:
    1. financial oversight
    2. enforce laws to regulate unruly/illegal behaviors
    3. Provide social welfare money to the individuals part of these communities instead of individuals not joining these communities.
  7. Philanthropists’ long-term commitment is required to maintain sustainability.
  8. Social Donors are to commit to one year of donations so that we don’t have to raise funds for 12 months of the year.
  9. A self-governance and ownership management training program for community members.
  10. An exit strategy for the members who have graduated from the community program.

To start with the concept of a Homeless People Community in a densely populated area of homeless people, e.g, Washington DC.

Bring together all non-profit and government organizations serving that community. Create working groups made up of these organizations.

Seek help from individuals and non-profits who directly work with homeless people. Publish paper pamphlets and organize meetings in the area where homeless people live or at one place in their general neighborhood.

The purpose of the meeting and communication is to identify their leaders, but more importantly tell them about the concept of building their community from the grounds up, where they will build and operate everything as a community. And they will be the equity partners in whatever they build. Cajole and motivate the leaders among them to build a consensus in adopting this concept.

The concept is that external agencies and non-profits will provide the technical know-how and help with building a community residence for a given number of families/individuals/units.

Work with the state and federal government agencies to identify unusable land in the county, city, and state that the government can repurpose for building housing.

The equity in this partnership will be assigned to the homeless community based on the unit of work each community member performs. The concept is like a frequent flier mileage account, the more you fly, the more you get in rewards. For example, the organizers may decide that each basic unit with one Bedroom, Kitchen, and bathroom is equivalent to 1000 hours of community-building work. When a community member has put in at least 1000 hours of community-building work, they get assigned a basic unit to their name that they will own. Now, they can also extend their work to say 1500 hours of work then they may get a 2-bedroom unit, etc. The formula of this reward program has to be hashed out to make it enticing for the homeless community for the reward they can earn.

The idea is to have homeless people gainfully employed and learn new skills and be employable, the value of the community, and homeownership. They can continue to work on these projects to earn more rewards like household items, utility bills, etc. If they buy into this, they will be committed to this concept, and a herd acceptance of this idea may become popular among the homeless.  This project will fail if the community members don’t put in their sweat equity.

Raise funds using the current resources i.e. philanthropists, and local social donors. Once these people see some success stories, they will flock to donate money. Everyone likes to see underdogs winning. To them, this is a story to talk about at a charity gala and social events.

The last thing society will have to change is the culture of emotional blackmail. Government agencies will have to work aggressively to stop homeless people from settling on the streets and public spaces. If there are common laws that any law-abiding citizen has to follow, then the same laws should be enforced upon homeless people as well. Once these projects are underway or completed, the enforcement of no public encroachment should be the most crucial step in the success of this plan. Once there is enough capacity, homeless people should be punished the same way a common man will be punished for unruly behavior like loitering, drinking, urinating in a public space, and occupying public spaces. Every person should be required to pitch into building the community in any which way they can. Their benefits and freedom all should be tied to their contribution to their community.

Once settled then many other initiatives can be taken to help people in the community better their lives themselves, such as gardens and parks, fitness equipment, retail stores in the community etc.

The frequent community service program can continue within each community for the betterment of the community’s upkeep and help others.

What is in it for each group –

  • The homeless people will earn their accommodation and other benefits. A sense of ownership and a better quality of life without losing anything. The fear of losing benefits will also keep them motivated to stay engaged. If nothing else, it will attract those who really want to get out of this life and are willing to go the extra mile.
  • Government agencies will eventually not have to deal with that many homeless individuals and manage their benefits etc.  The political leaders can claim the success of these communities at election time.
  • Non-profits can continue to work with these communities and do more skilled and meaningful jobs instead of just managing individual cases and struggling to raise more money every year.

Philanthropists and Donors will see the benefits of their financial stake in the improved lives of many as well as in the promotional material of these communities. Community centers’ name rights can be given to the highest bidders or auction on a rotational basis. A list of donors above certain levels can be published for public consumption in public forums and social media.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: