Rehabilitating the homeless: Hopeless or helpful?

by FRANCES MOODY

Editor’s note: The following is an essay in response to “Million-dollar Murray,” an article by Malcom Gladwell in the Feb. 13, 2006 issue of The New Yorker

The sight of a drunken homeless man weaving in and out of oncoming traffic isn’t uncommon for a city dweller to witness.  To the average person, such sightings are viewed as blemishes covering the complexion of an otherwise beautiful place.  However, to some, those drunkards are icons that bring character and action to dull metropolitan life. In Reno, Nev., Murray Barr, known on the streets as “Smokey,” was that iconic personality. He loved alcohol and after his daily routine of blacking out, Murray fell to his bed, the sidewalk. One police officer, Steve Johns said, “I picked up Murray my whole career. Literally.” Over the years, Murray had run up a hospital bill of close $1 million, an amount that could have been put to better use.  In his article, “Million-Dollar Murray,” for the (Feb. 13, 2006) New Yorker Magazine, Malcolm Gladwell documents Murray’s story and proposes causes for and solutions to the epidemic of homelessness. Solutions in the article range from extremist law enforcement to long-term rehabilitation strategies.

Though Gladwell offers many resolutions, he ultimately displays society’s conflicting views on the subject matter. Due to legal obligations, political viewpoints and personal opinions, society will never agree on a definite answer to end homelessness.

One such problem associated with the homeless is panhandling. Homeless panhandlers roam the sidewalks of cities. Most panhandle to support drinking habits. The panhandling was for liquor, and the liquor was anything but harmless,” Gladwell writes. Gladwell suggests that begging for money is at an all-time low, but even worse, the products bought with that money present a bigger problem. When inebriated Murray passed out, police and paramedics were called to the scene. At just one of the three local hospitals in Reno, Murray ran a bill of $100 thousand. A logical answer to this problem would be to put a stop to panhandling. The Police Department of Reno held the same viewpoint and commenced an initiative to limit panhandling. Most Reno police took the program seriously, possibly to the extreme. They produced a high amount of criticism. “The crackdown on panhandling amounted to harassment, the critics said,” Gladwell writes. Harassment insinuates unfair treatment of human beings. While homeless men and women, like Murray, choose not to follow the standards of mainstream culture, they still have the same human/ constitutional rights. Homeless panhandling is not a pretty sight, but neither is harassment.

Stopping panhandling in Reno was an easy answer to a multi-layered issue. In an attempt to find an answer, Gladwell analyzes the mathematical distribution of homeless people. Through research provided by Boston College Graduate, Dennis Culhane, Gladwell discovered that the majority of homeless people are homeless for about a day. Such people are not nuisances like Murray, who pass out on the streets day after day. Culhane referred to people like Murray as “chronically homeless.” Only 10 percent of the homeless are associated with this definition. Gladwell recognizes this disproportionate distribution and surely, with close attention, that 10 percent can be rehabilitated.

Murray went through “detox” numerous times. His hospital bills amounted to big numbers and he never seemed to get better. Like most of the chronically homeless, Murray needed help. “They need time and attention and lots of money. But enormous sums of money are already being spent on the chronically homeless,” Gladwell writes. In one year, a group of 119 chronically homeless people in New York visited the emergency room 11,834 times. Each visit cost a thousand dollars. Why not use that money for long-term rehabilitation (in legal terms, known as the power-law homeless policy)? Long-term rehabilitation includes housing and therapy.  The city of Denver decided to use long-term rehabilitation as a solution to homelessness. Enrollees are given apartments, but must follow the program guidelines. Guidelines include: weekly appointments with case workers, doctor visitations, and psychiatric treatment.  “The cost of services comes to about $10 thousand per homeless client per year,” Gladwell writes. Millions of dollars are spent on the chronically homeless. That amount could be reduced to thousands of dollars.

It is convenient to rationalize that long-term rehabilitation is the best way to solve homelessness, especially from an economic perspective. On the other hand, as a moral question, the Power-law homeless policy can be viewed as unfair. “Thousands of people in Denver no doubt, live day to day, work two or three jobs, and are eminently deserving of a helping hand—and no one offers them the keys to a new apartment. Yet that’s what the guy screaming obscenities and swigging Dr. Tich [mouthwash] gets,” Gladwell writes. Shouldn’t the more deserving have access to government funds that offer free housing? This proposes a political issue. Conservatives view the idea of power-laws as unfair to more-deserving members of society, while liberals tend to oppose the idea of civilization turning into a mathematical structure with no human component.  Power-law homeless policy would prove to be non-existent in the two-party system of the United States.

Even if U.S. citizens agreed on long-term rehabilitation to solve chronic homelessness, other problems would persist. For example, a chronically homeless person may plainly disagree that he should change his way of life.  “The idea that the very sickest and most troubled can be stabilized and eventually employed is only a hope,” writes Gladwell. Gladwell gives the example of a man (name unknown) with cirrhosis of the liver. He was 27-years-old. This man participated in Denver’s long-term rehabilitation plan. The policy did not repair him. He trashed two apartments and went straight back to street life, comfortable with his condition. The plague of homelessness and how to solve it has many components. It not only surfaces on legal and political levels, but also on an individual level.