Ronin of the Spirit

Because reality is beautiful.

The Homeless

So I want to talk about the homeless.

First thing you have to understand is that all statistics on the homeless are meaningless if you try and use them to create specific data rather than analyze the over all trends. This is for a simple reason: there is no legal definition of homelessness. In fact, there’s not even a consensus of peers as to the word’s meaning. This explains a lot of the disparity between different studies.

Sometimes, however, homelessness is a hot item for certain administrations at certain times. Often during those times, numbers begin to get thrown around that make the most generous studies seem coldly conservative. CNN and the Baltimore Sun have both said 3 million. The Clinton administration published a study in 1994 that said 7 million. When you hear a number it is often good to think about it a bit. This country has a population of about 300 million people.
7/300 = .0233. Thats 2 and 1/3 percent. One out of every 47 people is homeless.

That number is patently absurd. I live in a town of 30,000 people. 30,000/47 = 638 homeless people. We don’t even have a homeless shelter. If there are 638 homeless people, here I would really like to know where they are. I mean, seriously, you can’t hide 638 people vary easily. Not in a town with 5 main roads. I used to live in Kansas City. Now, KCMO has a lot of homeless people. But it doesn’t have 42,000 of them. 42,000 people? Thats an entire suburb. So how did they get this number.

Well, since there is no legal definition every study gets to make up its own definition. The Clinton study defined homeless as: any person who has to dwell in a way that that is either illegal or not intended to be permanent. Most city codes set 2 people per bedroom as an occupancy limit. If you have a family of three in a single bedroom, one of them is homeless.

If you are an adult living with a friend, you are homeless. If you are living in a hotel for more than 30 days, you are homeless. If you are living in an RV, and you are not a tourist in an approved RV area, then you’re homeless. If you are dwelling a space not zoned for dwelling (ie, a basement of attic apartment that does not have its own mailbox because the property owner doesn’t want to go through the zoning requirements) then you are homeless. If you live in a car, you are homeless. If you live in a shelter you are homeless. If you live on the street you are homeless.

Pretty much if you don’t have a an apartment or house below maximum occupancy, then you’re homeless. Thats pretty stupid. But so is this: There are less than 250,000 homeless people in the US. How did they get that number? They counted the people who go to free clinics and don’t have a address to contact them at. So the only homeless are people who go to free clinics but don’t have mailing addresses. Thats pretty sloppy statistics too.

In fact the homeless are, by definition, impossible to count accurately. A census is only as accurate as its verification. How do you verify the existence of person who has no dwelling and no documentation? You can’t. You could count the same person 3 times or not at all.

Another often quoted stat about homeless people is that they are all mentally ill. Thats very tricky. Doctors say that about 20% of the population will be mentally ill at some point during the year. If that seems high to you, it is. What that means is that 20% of the population will at some point in the year feel very differently than they usually do in similar circumstances. (I’m not joking thats really the definition.) HOWEVER, again, what most people think when they say mentally ill is not feeling little bit blue, but some one who wears tin foil in their head and their underpants on the outside and hears voices and should be kept away from children. The NAMHC calls that kind of crazy (versus run-of-the-mill-crazy) SPMI: severe, persistent mental illness. Those people make up about 2.5% of the population.

So, how many homeless people are SPMI? If you go by the popular concept of homeless (gutter bums) then a minimum of 33%. If you go by a more Clintonite definition as low 10%. So the trend is that homeless people are between 4 and 13 times (400-1300%) more likely to suffer from SPMI than the average person you meet.

What about job skill? Again, its tricky to get good statistics. At any given time about 1/2 of homeless people will not be homeless within 2 weeks. That doesn’t mean that there are always new homeless people, though. Near as we can figure the other half is the same people over, and over, and over again.

What about gender. Remember the statements that women and children are the fastest growing group of homeless people? Well sort of. Again, a lot of this represents a change from counting homeless people as people who live in urine soaked blankets on the street to anybody having a hard time finding a permanent place to stay. Even if you go with the highest stats available, single men without children are still more than 60% of all homeless people.

What about education? Well, again, near as we can figure the average homeless person has the education of a 5th grader. It is suspected, however, that the classically homeless have their average thrown off by the upwardly mobile homeless, the people I mentioned earlier that are back on their feet within about 2 weeks. Those upwardly mobile homeless are situationally homeless: apartment burned down, on the run from abusive spouse, etc. They have job skills and education.

So its entirely possible that the average homeless person has the education of a 1st grader, or less, and the really skilled homeless people have college and vocational training that throws off the average. Also the ability to read is pretty useless if one never uses it. Unrelated statistics tell us the average high school graduate who doesn’t obtain further education is functionally illiterate. He knows how to read, but chooses not to. It would seem likely that if self sufficient high school grads are functionally illiterate, that the average homeless person is probably not much of a reader.

Another stereotype is that homeless people are very poor. Well, again sort of. The Clintonite homeless are very poor. They fit all the specifications of the very poor:
1.They are uneducated
2.They are often unintelligent
3.They often work many hours for little pay
4.They don’t have the money to get money. (ie, they might be able to get better jobs if they had car, but they don’t make enough to buy a car)
The skid row bums are in a different spot. Since they have no expenses, their purchasing power can actually be totally disproportional to their income. They have no rent, no car payment, and pay no income tax. A good panhandler really can make around $100 a day. Most don’t however. When they have enough money for whatever they need at the moment (usually crack or alcohol, sometimes food, they spend it.) BTW, thats not just me being mean. That Louise Stark from her study on panhandling and panhandlers. They can make $100 dollars a day, but usually they aren’t trying for income, they are trying to get snookered.

Lets go over the facts

1.There is 2 kind of homeless: short term and long term.
2.Short term homelessness is situational
3.Long term homelessness is a sub-culture withing the larger scene.
4.The most LTH meet some of the following conditions, and some meet them all

So, if you have the idea that homelessness is caused by expensive housing, you are somewhat right, and somewhat wrong. The situationally homeless often have situations brought on in part by the cost of housing. HOWEVER, if you think that just giving people cheap housing will cure homelessness, you are mistaking correlation for caus
The fact that homeless people don’t have homes does not mean that their homelessness is caused by the lack of a home. It could well be caused by the fact that they suffer from fearful emotional problems whose symptoms include mental illness and addiction.

Many cities have undertaken plans to get people out of long term residence in hotels and into homes. Guess what happened? Over and over again the vast portion of the residents destroyed their homes through neglect in short order. It turns out that while it is circumstance that required them to move into hotels in the first place, that when they have chance to live somewhere else they recreate the original circumstance in short order.

A deep study of homelessness will, in fact, reveal that homelessness is nothing more than the face of deep poverty. That’s it. Nothing complicated. A lot of correlation is substituted for cause on these issues. More poor people are mentally ill than rich people. Its hard to get a good job if you hear voices that tell you not to go to work. More poor people are stupid than rich people are. Its not that being poor makes you stupid, its that being stupid makes you poor.
And the cycle continues. Children born to homeless mothers don’t get prenatal care. So they have higher fetal abnormalities and its harder for them to learn in school when they get older. They then have a hard time getting job which makes it more likely for them to be homeless.
I say again homelessness is nothing more than symptom of being very, very poor.

That said, some of the policies and papers that are presented reveal some interesting truths, even if much conclusions made are false. You can learn much more about the homeless by studying the very poor than you can for studying the homeless. Here’s some highlights.

1. Welfare is biased against the family. It totally is. If a man marries a woman and has 3 kids with her, she qualifies for less than 1/2 of what she can get if he divorces her. If she claims all 3 kids are from different fathers, she qualifies for even more money.
2. Welfare is biased against men. It totally is. If a man and woman have IDENTICAL situations of pay at work and number of dependents at home the woman qualifies for more aid
3. Zoning laws hurt who they were enacting to protect. Zoning sets minimum standards, which benefit the least poor, because they have choice to be homeless for less money or chose housing for more. The very poor, since they don’t have the option of poor housing, have the option of no housing at all.
4. Minimum wage laws hurt the very poor for the reason above.
5. Homelessness is not per say caused by mental illness. However, it can cause it. Think it’s hard to be pregnant and 15? Try it living in a car with your 30 year old boyfriend. The conditions of homelessness exacerbate themselves.

So what the solution to homelessness? Since homelessness is simply the face of poverty, whats the solution to poverty? Two thoughts:

One, there is no solution. The cost of living is based on the cost of the things you have to buy. The cost of everything that is sold is set on the middle of a bell curve. If the seller charged more they could make more per unit, but less people would buy at that price. If the seller sold it for less he could sell more but at less per unit. Thus, everything is targeted at the middle of the bell curve. Wages are a bell curve too. 80% of the population is in the middle of the bell curve, 10% are the poorest. 10% are the richest. Thats the way bell curves work.

The cost of living is decided by the the amount that the middle income people can afford to spend, not what the bottom 10% can afford to spend. No matter how rich a country becomes, there will always be a certain fraction of the poorest 10% that cannot afford the cost of living. Always. Can’t be avoided. Its not a capitalist problem. You can’t fix it with socialism, or communism, or capitalism, or education. The bottom 10% will always be just that.
Further, the largest single expense for any person is housing. Obviously, if you are in crushing poverty the fastest way to get some extra cash is to stop paying for housing.

This leads me to my second thought. As I said, a fraction of poor will always be to poor to pay for housing AND any other expense. We could subsidize their housing, the problem is that simply moves the fraction up. The new fraction that can’t afford housing won’t be ultra poor. It will be the poor who make $1 a paycheck more than the ultra poor, and thus don’t qualify for housing assistance. Those people used to be able to afford housing, but now that people who make even less have guaranteed income to pay the rent, the cost of living has gone up and priced the lower middle poor out housing. The result will be a constantly expanding group of people who need housing subsidy.

A far more American solution is this: Shrink the fraction that can’t afford housing. Remove laws that arbitrary prevent people from living inexpensively. Lower minimum square foot requirements, lower property tax. Allow apartments to be built with (horrors!) community bathrooms. Don’t penalize home owners who rent their properties with complicated rules.
Don’t tax rent income as unearned income and more properties will be rented, increasing the supply and lowering the price. Streamline the building code. Allow (No, not that!) trailers.
Eliminate minimum wage so that truly stupid people can get some kind of employment (because some is better than none) Simplify the tax code so more people can afford to hire.
Return to case law so that employers can spend less on lawyers, and either give more to employees or expand and hire more employees.

Its pretty simple: The capitalist, free market system’s greatest strength is its ability to lower cost. But it can only do that when arbitrary laws do not prevent it from doing so. Applied to the issue of poverty, allow the free market system to work, and the poorest fraction, though never eliminated will grow smaller.


December 14, 2007 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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