Friday, September 05, 2014

"Three billion dollars per year, and homelessness continues to soar?"

Except homelessness doesn't "continue to soar".

The quote is from an article on, "Is the US Government Wasting Money on Homelessness".

Their conclusion by the by is "Yes, but we should do more anyway".

.. and I agree with them, we should do more. Not SPEND more... actually DO more. In fact, we should probably spend less... we should just do it more effectively and efficiently.

Homelessness isn't "continuing to soar"

... which, by the by, the linked article actually does admit, though not in direct language. The tag line is meant as an attention grabber.

There IS a problem, and it should be addressed, in the most effective way we can.

That's where things get complicated.

By most measures long term homelessness is stable or declining, and short term homelessness is declining again, as it has been since the early 90s (excepting several year to year spikes and dips from 2006 through 2012).

The first thing, is that homelessness has actually never been near what the "homeless advocates" said, because they were inflating the numbers in a desperate attempt to get people to pay attention, and to get at least somewhere near enough funding for the real problem they actually had.

They multiplied way beyond worst case numbers, by other way beyond worst case numbers, added a fudge factor for "things we can't measure and people we're missing"; then multiplied that number based on the cities with the worst problems, by every city in America, as if they all had similar demographics.

Were they deliberately lying? No... at least they never thought of it as that. They simply assumed that the problem was worse than they could prove, and that they'd better inflate the actual provable numbers just to make sure. It's a common issue with do-gooder-ism.

Basically, it's all the worst problems of unrepresentative sampling, combined in one issue.

If the problem ever had been near that bad, it would have meant a dozen homeless men on every corner in every city in America.

But that's what they needed to do, just to see the few dollars at the pointy end that they eventually got; because that's how political funding works in this country.

This is not to say there are no homeless in America, or that both short and long term homelessness are not issues we should address.

There are without doubt massive shortfalls in funding to prevent, and aid in the recovery and return to normalcy of the short term homeless. They have spiked over the last few years since 2006, because of the housing and financial collapses and their aftermath, and the stagnant economy. That has been normalizing since 2010, or at least 2012 even by the worst numbers (though some urban areas are exceptions, and are getting worse for various reasons. Tucson, Las Vegas, some cities in Florida, San Francisco). We still don't have enough money at the pointy end to help those who need help.

The long term homeless population is down from where it was in the 80s and 90s (long term homelessness in the united states is believed to have peaked around 1987 to 1989 - some say as late as 1992 - and began trending significantly downward between 1992 and 1995), though it's still a problem.

Unfortunately, this isn't really because our efforts to improve the situation have been effective. It's more because the large populations of mentally ill that we turned out on the streets from 1978 to 1988 as we "reformed" and defunded our state mental health systems, have largely died; and because the spike of serious drug addiction in this country from 1974 to 1994, peaking from 1986 to 1991 with the "crack epidemic" has largely subsided to its pre 1970 levels (those addicts have also largely died).

The real problem with long term homelessness in this country is a problem with our mental health system, and how we treat substance abuse and addiction. The vast majority of the long term homeless are seriously mentally ill, long term substance abusers, or both.

The other major problem, is that no matter how much funding we allocate at the state or federal level, it gets swallowed up in the bureaucracies, and the inefficiency of the system. Most of the benefit never reaches the street.

That isn't to say the people at the pointy end aren't trying to do their best, they are... it's just that the system prevents it.

The piece linked states that the federal government spends approximately $3 billion to "help the homeless" every year. The states and municipalities combined spend something like 4 times times that (based on the commonly bandied number that about 20% of the dollars for the homeless come from the feds). That's about 15 billion.

There's about 1 million homeless in the country according to the article (best numbers I've seen say 800,000, but that's close enough to 1 million that I'll give it to them).

15 billion, divided by 1 million is $15,000.

If we were EFFICIENTLY and EFFECTIVELY spending $15,000 per homeless person in this country, there wouldn't BE any measurable homeless population.

Everyone who was homeless, would have a roof, a bed, enough food, and basic medical care.

The problem is that, if we're lucky, $0.20 of each of those dollars actually ends up having any direct benefit to the homeless. The rest gets eaten up in the layers and layers of bureaucracy, and "oversight", and planning, and all the other myriad ways that government spending ends up being consumed.

You know who does most of the feeding, clothing, and housing of the homeless in this country?

Two organizations: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons), and the Catholic Church.

Oh and of course all the many local churches and charitable organizations (most of them religious in nature) that run homeless shelters, food banks, soup kitchens, free clinics, and outreach programs.

How much do they spend on the problem?

No-one knows for sure and estimates vary widely. The St. Vincent DePaul society, the largest society of the Catholic church providing direct aid to the poor, spends about $700 million annually overall in The U.S. on direct aid. About 1/3 of that is explicitly in aid to the homeless, so something like $200 or $250 million. The LDS church spends something similar, and all other churches in the U.S. combined, also spend about that much (this just on the homeless, not in all aid to the poor. That number is four or five times as much).

Let's round up and call it about a billion total. That's actual money hitting the street directly by the by, not total donations for the homeless, or total funds allocated by the leadership.

So... that's what a billion, used efficiently and effectively, can do, for a million people.

Wonder what they could do with $15 billion more?