A Philosopher's Blog

Homelessness

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 16, 2012
English: A chronically homeless individual inh...

English: A chronically homeless individual inhabiting a bus shelter in Porter Square (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the United States, the number of homeless shelters increased in the 1980s due to a variety of factors. One factor was the recession of that time which resulted in more people being unable to afford housing. A second factor was a shift away from single room housing. Though rather limited in size, this sort of housing was cheaper than the alternatives. Back in the early 1990s, some of my fellow graduate students lived in singles, but these seemed to be (like most graduate student housing) relics from another time. A third factor was the infamous closing of mental institutions and reduction in care for the mentally ill. While proponents of the approach lauded the cost savings, some critics saw it is as simply dumping the ill onto the streets.

In the face of this surge in homelessness religious groups, charitable organizations and governments increased the number of homeless shelters. The intent was to provide people with a place to stay until they could sort out their problems and thus be able to have a permanent home. This approach does make a certain sense and did work in some cases. After all, it seems reasonable to infer that people become homeless because of problems (financial, mental and so on) and that once these problems are fixed, then a person will be ready to have a home. Unfortunately, this approach did not prove very successful and there are about 640,000 homeless Americans with about 110,000 of them being chronically homeless.

Fortunately, an alternative approach seems to be having a more positive impact. This approach reverses the old approach: rather than “fixing” people so that they are ready for permanent homes, this approach involves getting the homeless into more home-like shelters or permanent housing. Those who need treatment are given treatment and the results seem to have been very positive: 85% of those involved in this approach remain in their homes rather than ending up back on the streets.

While this approach seems to have merit, there is the stock concern that the state funded programs are wasting the taxpayers’ money by supporting free-riders. Somewhat ironically, the troubled economic times that increase homelessness also decrease the funding available for such programs and also gives some support to claims that scarce financial resources should be better used, perhaps by allowing more tax breaks for the job creators. As such, there seem to be two main arguments against funding such programs with state money.

The first is a utilitarian argument. Because of the recession, there is less state money available than what was normal before. As such, it is even more important that the money be spent effectively. Putting money into shelters, programs and permanent housing for the homeless would yield less positive results than using the money elsewhere (such as deficit reduction, tax breaks for the job creators or maintaining infrastructure). As such, the money should be spent in these other areas rather than in addressing the problem of homelessness.

This argument can, of course, be countered by showing that the money spent on addressing homelessness would be less than the cost of not addressing the problem. If this is the case, than the cost argument favors spending the money rather than incurring the costs that can be avoided or mitigated by spending.

While homelessness is clearly bad for the people who are homeless, it also is rather costly to society as a whole.

One area of cost is the medical costs of homelessness. On average, homeless people average hospital stays four days longer than comparable non homeless people. This costs about $2,414 per hospitalization. Also, since homeless people tend to not have insurance, the cost is born either by the state (that is, us) or by those with insurance (in the form of increased premiums).

Not surprisingly, people do become homeless because of medical problems and medical problems are also caused by being homeless. Those who are homeless are more likely to become ill than those who have homes and are more likely to suffer from problems of greater severity. As such, homelessness adds a burden to the health care system, especially the emergency rooms. Addressing the problem of homelessness would help reduce these costs.

Another area is crime and prisons. People who are homeless tend to spend more time in prison than the non-homeless. In some cases, they are arrested for “general” criminal activity, but they are often arrested for breaking laws that are aimed specifically at the homeless, such as laws against loitering and begging.

While prisons can be quite profitable for the private companies that run them, it costs an average of $20,000 a year to keep a person in prison. The specific costs vary due vary. For example, a prison stay in California costs $47,000 a year. While those who profit from prisons will not see it this way, reducing homelessness would be a good thing because it would mean fewer people in prison and thus lower the cost to the taxpayers.

A third factor is the cost of emergency shelters—the traditional homeless shelter. These shelters are considerably more expensive than the cost of a permanent residence. As such, permanent housing would provide a savings over temporary shelters.

Naturally, it is reasonable to wonder what impact the permanent home programs might have on the cost to society of homelessness.

One program resulted in a savings of $2,449 per person each month compared to the cost of temporary shelters. A study in my home state of Maine  showed that the permanent housing approach yielded a 57 decrease in the cost of mental health services, mainly due to a 79% reduction in the cost of hospitalization. In Los Angeles, a study showed that putting four people into permanent housing saved over $80,000 per year.

Of course, this savings assumes that the temporary shelters would be funded. For those willing to allow homeless people to live on the streets, this sort of program would not yield the highest savings. After all, the cost of housing the homeless on the street would be nothing. Of course, this would not reduce the other costs associated with homelessness and would almost certainly increase them. After all, people living on the street are more likely to get ill or injured and also more likely to be arrested.

Of course, the medical costs could be addressed by changing the law so that people can be refused even emergency medical care if they cannot pay and ending all state-funded treatment programs for addiction and mental illness. That is, we could entirely abandon the homeless, other than providing them with prison when they are arrested. Of course, there would still remain the question as to whether or not this would result in a cost saving. After all, the abandonment approach might result in a large enough increase in number of homeless people being imprisoned to offset the savings from abandonment. Naturally, this does not take into account the moral cost of abandonment, just the financial cost.

Overall, the evidence does seem to be that providing permanent housing for the homeless would be a cost saver, though perhaps not as big a cost saver as comprehensive abandonment. The second argument is a moral argument or, rather, various moral arguments. One stock argument is based on the idea that we have no moral obligations to others and hence it is not the case that we should provide such support to the homeless. On this view, we could provide such support, but we are not obligated to do so.

A second stock argument is that providing such support is immoral because it creates a culture of dependency. That is, by providing the homeless with permanent homes and treatment for any health problems they might possess they are learning to depend on others and will be unable to carry their own weight. While not supporting them might seem harsh, the argument is that this sort of “tough love” will enable then to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

While this line of reasoning has some appeal, one obvious reply is that this approach seems analogous to addressing a broken leg by refusing to treat it because putting a cast on a broken leg will just make the person dependent on the cast.  As with a broken leg a person whose life is broken needs support until she can stand on her own again.

One reply to this is that while this might hold for those who will be able to stand on their own, it does not address the problem of those who will remain dependent on support forever. These people, it can be argued, are just parasites and should not be supported.

I do, of course, agree that someone who is just free-riding the system should not be supported. However, the number of people who will become homeless and unemployed just so they can free-ride seems to be rather low (but more than nothing). After all, most people want to be self-supporting rather than dependent on others. To deny people who need the support to rebuild just because some small percentage of people would free-ride seems as unreasonable as getting rid of handicapped parking because some people will get decals for those spaces that they are not really entitled to.  It can also be countered that supporting a free-rider in such a program would be cheaper and less damaging than having them free-riding on the alternative system.

Another stock moral argument against providing support for other people is that those being supported are stealing from the taxpayers by having their housing and treatments being paid for by others. As such, the homeless are morally in the wrong and we should not enable their theft by allowing such programs. Alternatively, the homeless people could be cast as being pawns used by the politicians who are stealing money from taxpayers and giving it to the homeless. Or, for extra immorality, the homeless and those who enable such support can be seen as being in wicked (or at least misguided) cahoots.

One obvious reply is that by this sort of reasoning we all spend years as thieves. After all, as children we live off our parents (or whoever is keeping is alive), we steal education from the state (or whoever is paying for it), and until we pay enough in taxes to pay for all the public goods and services we use we are stealing every time we walk down a public sidewalk, drive on a public street or go to free a public park. We also steal from all those who have come before us and who enabled us to live in a modern society with technology, medicine and such. That is, we are all beneficiaries of the labor, money and ideas of others. As such, it would be somewhat hypocritical to regard the homeless as thieves because they are assisted by others.

The obvious reply is that the non-homeless who do pay taxes (and presumably pay off their financial debt to their families) eventually pay back what they stole (or borrowed) from society when they were young thieves. Of course, the same could be said of the homeless—if they are able to return to society and work, they can repay what they owe to others.

This does not, however, address the problem presented by those who will either never be able to return to contributing to society or who will not be able to repay what they cost society, perhaps because of mental illness. The obvious reply to this is that it would seem unreasonable to see such people as thieves. It could, of course, be argued that we should be rid of those who cannot support themselves—but this would be a different moral argument than the one based on thievery.

What, then, about people who could return to society but elect to be free-riders? That is, their situation is entirely a matter of choice and tomorrow they could be at a job earning enough to pay their own way. In this sort of case it would be reasonable to regard these people as thieves. After all, they are taking what they could earn by honest labor and there would be (by the scenario presented) no justification for them receiving support. However, these cases seem to be rather limited in number (but more than none, I am sure). As argued above, the fact that a very few people might exploit something intended to help people in need does not give an adequate reason to treat everyone in such a program as being an exploiter.

In light of the above arguments, providing permanent housing for the homeless seems to be both a cost saver and morally acceptable.

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19 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on July 16, 2012 at 7:56 am

    I assume most of these people qualify (or are already on) disability.

    Also, where are their families?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on July 16, 2012 at 2:00 pm

      Many probably do. However, there seems to be reasonable evidence that getting even these folks into permanent homes saves money.

      The family question is a good one. I’m sure my family would take me in if it came to that. However, some folks do not have families or do not have families with the resources to support them. For example, if someone has severe addiction issues or mental illness, s/he might be beyond the ability of his/her family.

  2. yeltnuh said, on July 16, 2012 at 10:54 am

    Thanks for your insightful consideration. I don’t often write comments, but couldn’t let Mr./Ms. Babson be the only response this time.

    • T. J. Babson said, on July 16, 2012 at 11:56 am

      Actually, in my case Blue Heeler. On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.

      • yeltnuh said, on July 16, 2012 at 8:00 pm

        Hahaha, wish I’d thought of that. Of course, we rescues get confused about a lot of things.

  3. magus71 said, on July 16, 2012 at 12:58 pm

    .
    Mike, one thing I think you’re underestimating is the number of homeless people that are on the street because they have criminal minds or incorrigible bad habits. TJ brings up family. Many of the people in shelters were given the opportunity to live with family and friends but made such a nuisance of themselves they got kicked out. Some very decent and hard working people find themselves without a house–I’ve been there–but usually they can find a friend or family member to help them out until they get back on their feet.

    I’m just saying that there are a large number of incorrigible at homeless shelters–saw them a lot as a cop. Sometimes their behavior was so bad they’d get kicked out of the shelter. I very much saw the sense of entitlement in these people. They would scream at me, demanding some government service, like methadone, a car ride, or housing. I’d also like to point out there are homeless people who don’t want to take part in society at all. With society becoming so complicated, I can almost sympathize.

    • T. J. Babson said, on July 16, 2012 at 1:39 pm

      I’ve always assumed that homelessness was a symptom of deeper underlying problems such as mental illness or drug dependency.

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on July 16, 2012 at 2:05 pm

        Depends on the person. Some folks lose their homes because of financial problems, such as unemployment or medical bills. Some do end up on the streets because of mental illness or addiction. Some because of criminal activity and bad behavior. Some are kids who run away from home. There are, as a documentary narrator might say, many faces of homelessness.

      • T. J. Babson said, on July 16, 2012 at 3:50 pm

        In the 1970s I used to work at a small restaurant in the middle of a medium sized city in Massachusetts. Next door to the restaurant was a strip club, and 2 doors away was a SRO hotel. Most of the residents of the hotel received some sort of disability or VA benefit, paid their rent, and hung out in the city during the day. Their lives were actually pretty stable. According to the article Mike quoted, these SRO hotels have mostly disappeared. My guess is that the “new” idea is basically to bring back the old idea.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on July 16, 2012 at 5:18 pm

          Quite right. Apparently the big surge in homelessness was in the 1980s. It does make sense to look at what kept people off the street then and see if it would work well now.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on July 16, 2012 at 2:03 pm

      I do agree that some people would be homeless because of their own character defects-that is, they are so bad that they have even alienated their families. However, a cost argument can still be made for these folks as well-putting them in permanent housing and addressing their problems can be cheaper than putting them in jail.

  4. FRE said, on July 16, 2012 at 3:08 pm

    The issue of homeless children should also be addressed; there are many of them. Some have been disowned by their families. Others have not actually been disowned, but their families have made life so miserable for them that they left home.

    Before writing any more on this, I want to see how others respond.

    • magus71 said, on July 17, 2012 at 7:51 am

      I ran away from home 4 times. I usually had another home to run to though. Can’t say though that I actually know of any truly homeless kids in America. Frankly, at 14 I would have been fine with no parents. Had I known I was able at the time, I would have filed for a child/parent divorce, worked part time and finished school. My life would have been much better and more stable.

      • T. J. Babson said, on July 17, 2012 at 10:17 am

        Magus, have you checked out Excelsior College?

        http://www.excelsior.edu/

        It is closely associated with the NY State Board of Regents and is great for military personnel.

        • magus71 said, on July 17, 2012 at 2:02 pm

          I’ve heard of it. It looks very good. I’m leaving the Army next year after finishing my tour and will of course have the GI Bill at my disposal. I’m applying for jobs already because many of the fields that I’m qualified in take up to a year or longer to actually get you into the job.

          In any event I plan to continue my education. I have an associate’s degree now and have over 100 credit hours plus a lot of career specific training that most university’s would probably convert to credit hours. Last year I was enrolled at American Military University and taking several classes while pursuing a degree in Intelligence Analysis.

          Any type of higher degree makes it much easier to get a well paying job. I really have no idea how some of these Occupy Wall Street people can’t find jobs. There are jobs in the federal government for instance which a person does many of the things I’ve already done professionally but will not hire a person without a bachelor’s degree.

          • T. J. Babson said, on July 17, 2012 at 2:18 pm

            “There are jobs in the federal government for instance which a person does many of the things I’ve already done professionally but will not hire a person without a bachelor’s degree.”

            Exactly. Just based on your posts here it is easy to tell you know more than 99% of people with bachelor’s degrees. You just need to get the piece of paper as soon as you can, and then your real-world experience will carry the day. Excelsior is really good–fully accredited, etc., and has worked with thousands of service-members. I myself got a BA from Excelsior in 1986 (it was called the Regent’s Board of External Degrees back then) when I was still in the service. I went on to get a Ph.D. in 1992 and things have worked out well for me since then. But Excelsior was the key to opening all the doors.

  5. Anonymous said, on July 16, 2012 at 5:15 pm

    As with so many other subjects here, I tend to agree with the view reflected in Mike’s statement “There are, as a documentary narrator might say, many faces of homelessness.” There’s not much in this world that is either black or white. Pure black and pure white, perhaps.

    However, I agree with TJ about mental illness portion of his statement. During my childhood, if I remember correctly, many people who today are the among the homeless were institutionalized.
    I believe somewhere along the line attitudes toward institutionalization changed. Institutionalization as it existed then became a bad thing. These days, if you walk down the streets of any major city, you probably won’t be surprised to see someone talking to himself, and smacking himself about the head. The inmates are out.

    It is too bad we can’t get responses from the homeless here. They could speak for themselves. But I imagine not many of them have access to computers, and if they do, their chances of happening upon this blog entry are slim.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on July 16, 2012 at 5:27 pm

      Mental illness does seem to be a common path to the street. Many places have a “celebrity” homeless person who everyone has heard of because of their unusual and dramatic behavior. Here in Tallahassee we had the theatrical King Love. His real name was Kamal Youssef and he had emigrated here from Egypt. After working for years as a medical professional (a doctor, I believe), his severe depression eventually broke him. He lost his job and became estranged from his wife and son. He died a while back.

  6. T. J. Babson said, on July 16, 2012 at 5:56 pm

    A homeless entrepreneur!


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