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January 13, 2010

addressing homelessness

Today I was with 75 formerly homeless young women, mostly mothers, who analyzed the causes of homelessness and developed action plans to address it. (I was one of several facilitators of their discussions.) They were struck by the fact that the state of Massachusetts spends $47,000 per year for each family in a shelter, for a total shelter budget of $113 million last year. But the average housing voucher that allows the recipients to stay in their own home costs the state just $7,200 per year. It would seem that by paying for permanent housing, the state could spread $113 million around a lot more poor people and improve their welfare. (Staying in shelters is linked to educational, health, and mental-health problems.) Recognizing this situation, the federal stimulus bill provides money for "Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing" as an alternative to shelter.

The women I worked with were very well-informed and smart about analyzing this issue. They saw various aspects and problems--and they asked tough questions about who benefits from the existing system, which they find indefensible. But I have my own theory about why the current system exists and will be hard to change.

Entering a shelter is something people try very hard to avoid. That puts a lid on how many people seek shelter--only the very desperate. On the other hand, many people would like--and, in my opinion, deserve--$7,200 in subsidies. If people could get subsidies by demonstrating need and a risk of homelessness, lots of people would qualify, and the state would have high costs. Instead, we are willing to spend $47,000 for each family that ends up in shelter, knowing that it is such an unpleasant experience that people will do anything they can to avoid it.

It's exactly like the old workhouses of Victorian England--you have a right to food and shelter, but you have to suffer and be degraded to get it.

January 13, 2010 6:29 PM | category: none



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