A question on the homeless worth reading December 8, 2008 10:17 AM   Subscribe

This AskMe thread on helping the homeless really hit me hard.

It's been talked about before, and personally, I'm still trying to figure out the best course of action. But a good question, and good answers. And allkindsoftime's response was beautiful. Favorited and favorited. I say: sidebar worthy.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan to MetaFilter-Related at 10:17 AM (25 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

Agreed. Theres a lot of wisdom in that thread on an issue that most of us have struggled with.

+1 props to allkindsoftime
posted by jpdoane at 11:32 AM on December 8, 2008

It's a really hard question, but a really important one. There are a lot of people out there who need help, and it often isn't obvious how to help them.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:44 AM on December 8, 2008

Agreed. Saw the question + answer the first time 'round, but it's still as good on second read.
posted by Phire at 11:56 AM on December 8, 2008

There are a lot of people out there who need help, and it often isn't obvious how to help them.

It's become far clearer over time and through a lot of hard work how to help most homeless people. However, I think a lot of people struggle with the idea that the vast majority of chronically homeless individuals have actually already received a lot of help even in the sorry condition you see them in on the street; multiple psych stays, hospital stays, cycled through drug treatment and mental health programs, had contact with numerous doctors, social workers, nurses and counselors. It's a tough population to serve, with deeply intractable physical, emotional and mental problems.

I hate putting this out there because certain people with certain agendas latch on to only this piece of information when you share it but all of those people who had all those various intervention opportunities over the years made a decision not to engage in or maintain the treatment offered to them. And in America we don't forcibly medicate people, nor make them see shrinks, nor stop drinking or using. Adults make those choices for themselves. This is not to say that every single homeless individual in every major metropolis has been adequately served, or given the chance to engage in services. However, most chronically homeless people have encountered good doctors, nurses and social workers who tried to help them, but they walked off. This is not a judgement of their character. This is not a personal failure nor a crime of any sort. It's simply a truth that evidences how incredibly powerful a force denial is in both addiction and psychotic mental health disorders. Most of those people at the time of their interaction with the system likely reported that they didn't have a problem, nor did they need anyone's help.

When I was working in homeless services these known difficulties with this particular population set a certain expectation of failure for new clients; the agency had a realistic estimation of likely progress based on their extensive experience serving the chronically homeless. Most new clients aren't going to stop using right away. They aren't going to start being med compliant right away. They aren't going to instantly become super awesome people whose stories of radical success make you weep. Many of them remain psychotic, assaultive, recalcitrant, uncooperative. Most need to go get themselves locked up a few more times, involuntarily committed a few more times, land in detox a few more times, get beat up a few more times before becoming willing to work within the demands of an ongoing mental health program. When they changed their minds, the agency was there to start really working with them, and at this point you could really engage a client and start getting stuff done. But you don't prevent clients from suffering the consequences of their own behaviors. If you do that, they never learn anything and come to expect the agency to get them out of every jam they get into. If a client wants to go AWOL and go back to living under the bridge by the Schuylkill River (actual example), you let him do that.

Look at Pathways to Housing, the program in NYC that has become the industry model for serving the chronically homeless through a combination of assertive community mental health treatment bundled with housing resources, They publish that their success rate is 80%. Awesome, right? Makes it sound easy to get someone off the streets. What they normally don't tell you is that they have five housing voucher allotments for every client. That means that before "failing" and being unsuccessfully discharged from the program the client has to be evicted from five separate apartments. Many clients don't succeed until that fifth apartment. In the meantime, they are still getting committed, locked up, getting high, getting evicted. During this early phase you try to do what you can; keep tabs so you know where your client is if he needs help, try to get them connected to any services they might be willing to engage. But honestly, you spend a lot of time being careful, because a lot of the time that you're working with your client he's totally psychotic or fucked up on crack and you're probably not meeting with him in the best neighborhood. So you see if there's anything you while trying not to get yourself hurt.

That's the reality of getting somebody off the street. I can up the warm and fuzzy quotient a little by saying that there are thousands of success stories nationwide. One of my best memories ever is the agency holiday party we had for clients last year where we had this huge Thanksgiving feast cooked up for the entire client base of the homeless services division I worked in. That's like four hundred people who used to be on the streets. In line for food they were breaking out into spirituals, swapping stories about how they used to shower in the sinks at City Hall, talking about how long they've been clean, etc. It was pretty awesome.
posted by The Straightener at 1:17 PM on December 8, 2008 [29 favorites]

Also: big props (again!) to The Straightener, who is always right there with insightful first-hand accounts. Everyday heroes indeed.
posted by triggerfinger at 1:25 PM on December 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

The Straightener: I appreciate your comments (in the original thread and here too) - they provide me with deeper systemic insight to the condition that a rather casual volunteer like myself doesn't really get at his more platonic levels of service. I guess that speaks to Astro Zombie's point - a lot of your insight isn't visible to the greater public.
posted by allkindsoftime at 1:38 PM on December 8, 2008

also, thanks for the call-out, very kind of you guys. orthogonality's answer was great for those who might have missed it.
posted by allkindsoftime at 1:45 PM on December 8, 2008

I hope I don't sound like a broken record, I know I always post like 6000 words every time the homelessness topic comes up, I've just found this website to be a great outlet for advocacy and educating, since a surprising number of people on here seem to be very interested about the subject. So I know I repeat myself a lot, I apologize if that bothers anyone.
posted by The Straightener at 1:47 PM on December 8, 2008

The thing that I appreciate about orthogonality's answer is that it acknowledges the grim reality of the situation, yet still recommends compassion. I think its helpful the keep in mind that theres not always a black/white answer, and that often its better to err on the side of mercy. If I'm uncertain, I'd rather be too naive than too cold hearted.
posted by jpdoane at 1:50 PM on December 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Living and shopping in the suburbs, the members of a women's group I belong to rarely see panhandlers. We had a speaker who runs a day center for homeless women in downtown Portland. Those women lack basics. So we had a Panty Party and donated new bras and panties, lightly worn shoes, purses, coats, socks, etc. The volunteers at the center were overwhelmed and extremely grateful for the leaf bags and baskets full of basics that resulted. We may do it again.
posted by Cranberry at 2:11 PM on December 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

often its better to err on the side of mercy

I think that's a good way to put it.

I was reading over the thread again... I think what puzzles me most is that so many people seem to frame their answer in terms of solving the person's homelessness for good, or homelessness in general. Those are separate issues in my mind than giving them money or food in the immediate short term. (Though they're certainly important issues.) It seems sort of like saying, "We shouldn't donate teddy bears to sick kids because that won't ultimately cure their cancer." Of course it won't, but it's still helpful in different ways.

If a homeless person asks me for food, I can almost always give them some. It doesn't happen to me enough that it would bankrupt me to err on the side of mercy, and giving them the leftovers I'm carrying is better than my eating them later, especially since I tend to forget I have them.

I was thinking about that thread when my husband and I took an impromptu trip to San Antonio yesterday evening. We ate at a restaurant on the Riverwalk and didn't get the leftovers because they wouldn't last on the trip back to Austin. I was thinking it was too bad I didn't know where the homeless people in San Antonio were, because the ones in Austin are always thrilled to get the leftovers. We stopped and got ice-cream and began walking back to the car.

Sure enough, on the walk back a homeless guy asked my husband if he had "a sandwich or anything like that" that he could have. I guess I must have better luck than most people, because homeless people often ask me for food instead of money. I kicked myself for not taking the leftovers just in case. Then I looked down, realized I certainly wasn't hungry, and asked the guy if he wanted my ice-cream. He sort of laughed and said, "Well, I don't wanna like, take your ice-cream," but I told him I wouldn't be able to finish it anyway. He grinned and said thank you, he would definitely eat it if I didn't want it.

That sort of thing doesn't seem like a big deal to me, I guess. I don't stop and think, oh, he's still gonna be homeless later, or I should donate to a shelter instead. I was just holding the ice-cream and he was right there, so why not? Doing those things doesn't preclude me from participating in the long-term solutions, too. I can understand why people are cautious about giving money, but food seems easy to me. But maybe I'm just constantly carrying food, haha.
posted by Nattie at 2:34 PM on December 8, 2008

I think what puzzles me most is that so many people seem to frame their answer in terms of solving the person's homelessness for good, or homelessness in general.

Nattie, I do that because discussions on homelessness in AskMe present a great opportunity to educate some people on the larger issue and inform the community here on how the sort of more vital help homeless people receive (not to knock your sandwich) like mental health services and access to housing are provided at an institutional level. A lot of Mefites are on the wonky side and like reading about that stuff even if they really don't have any professional connection to social services.

When I first worked in homeless services I used to do street outreach, hitting the known locations in Center City Philly where the homeless congregated to inform them about the services my agency had. I used to take groups of volunteers with me; sometimes college students, sometimes local church groups, shit I was even leading around a group of visiting Japanese business men who were doing a semester at Wharton at one point. Many of my volunteers hit a point where they felt volunteering wasn't good enough anymore. They would say things like, "These people are dying out here, I'm sick of just handing out flyers to them, what else can I do, I want to do more?" At that point the person is faced with a decision; do they feel that they need to become a part of the larger social justice movement, and if they do, what will their role in it be?

I'm not exactly trying to make social workers out of everyone on Metafilter, but I think the kind of emotionally charged atmosphere these AskMe questions take on presents me with the right opportunity to educate. I think the people who feel personally moved by those threads are a lot more likely to start clicking through links to and seriously reading articles about housing first or community mental health and other aspects of homeless services than they would be if I mentioned what I do off hand in another context.

And, btw, I usually don't give homeless people anything on the streets. I don't make much money doing what I do and finding people housing is still a large part of my current job so I take a "gave at the office" type attitude towards that.
posted by The Straightener at 4:20 PM on December 8, 2008

So I know I repeat myself a lot, I apologize if that bothers anyone.

All I know is that ever since you showed up I've had to type a lot fewer 6,000 word heartfelt screeds.
posted by loquacious at 6:55 PM on December 8, 2008

I wasn't talking about your answer, actually.
posted by Nattie at 9:02 PM on December 8, 2008

I hope I don't sound like a broken record, I know I always post like 6000 words every time the homelessness topic comes up

I was thinking the same thing about myself yesterday morning in the shower (why do I do most of my best thinking there?). I hope I don't sound like a broken record about humanitarian causes and giving and the oppressed in our world. I just think its important enough to repeat often. So, my apologies as well.
posted by allkindsoftime at 6:27 AM on December 9, 2008

I think what puzzles me most is that so many people seem to frame their answer in terms of solving the person's homelessness for good, or homelessness in general.... It seems sort of like saying, "We shouldn't donate teddy bears to sick kids because that won't ultimately cure their cancer."

Your comparison doesn't address a really important aspect of people's concern about giving the homeless money, which is that by helping the homeless with handouts we may be enabling them to remain homeless, or in some cases to continue substance abuse. If a homeless person can't get any handouts whatsoever, life on the streets becomes untenable. That person will have to use the social programs intended to get the homeless off the streets permanently if he or she wants to survive.

Though I know this kind of absolute scenario will never happen. Individuals will never completely stop helping individual homeless people; those who are struggling with addiction or mental illness will not always choose to use social programs over death. A few years back in Toronto a homeless man froze to death one cold winter night because he was sleeping outside in a bus shelter. Everyone was horrified, and it was indeed tragic that such a thing happened, but the important thing to remember is that there were a number of empty beds in Toronto shelters that night. And this man knew where those shelters were. There had been other nights that he had used them, and one other cold night a social worker had found him outside and drove him to a few shelters until she found one with space for him. He could have found shelter; he either chose not to do so or was in some physical and emotional state that made rational choice impossible, and so died by default.
posted by orange swan at 6:30 AM on December 9, 2008

I wasn't talking about your answer, actually.

When I read this today it sounded dismissive, and that's not how I meant it. What I mean to say is I expect that sort of answer from The Straightener, and I completely understand his reasons for wanting to provide information about something he has a background in. That's a good thing and one of the reasons I like MetaFilter so much. Maybe other people have similar reasons for providing more far-reaching answers to the question. I also understand not giving homeless people anything if your job already entails helping them.

The couple things that gives me pause are this: first, everyone I've ever personally known who has justified not giving things to homeless people on the grounds that it won't solve their homelessness haven't been educated about any of it, and they do nothing to help them in any other way. Yes, I'm sure of both of those, based on conversations. In other words, for at least some people, that they can't solve their homelessness by giving them some food is more about making the person feel better for not wanting to help at all. Some of these people look down on the homeless in a particularly nasty way, and that argument becomes their justification so they don't have to say anything that makes them sound like a jerk.

I realize that the argument's being co-opted by people who don't actually understand it doesn't have any bearing on whether or not it's true. I do think that for most people, which is perhaps not most MeFites, that if a homeless guy asks you for food and you have food you can spare, there doesn't need to be a whole mental production and moral assessment. It's just food, and most people can get more, even if you have very little money like I do. I've never valued a bit of food more than another person, even if that person is a stranger. I don't understand that mindset at all and frankly I think I'd be miserable if I were so attached to things.

Now, I'm not saying that's the mindset of most MeFites. I think most people here, if they don't give food to a homeless person, are along the mindset of orange swan's comment: if they give the homeless person food, they're somehow making them stay homeless longer. In other words, giving them food somehow makes the problem worse.

That's the second thing that gives me pause. I'm just not sure I buy that, and there's a few reasons why.

First, I feel like the rational thing to do, if I were to become homeless, is to go to a shelter and all that. If someone has chosen not to, that either means they must really not want to despite that it would save them some trouble, in which case I don't think denying them food is going to change their mind (more on that in a second), or they're not mentally stable enough to make good decisions for themselves, in which case it comes down to my giving them food or else they may eventually die. I guess there's a third option, that they don't know where one is, but nothing is stopping anyone from providing that information in lieu of food. That's definitely a good thing to do.

Second, if someone really wants to stay away from shelters and people aren't giving them food, they can get it in other ways. Out of the garbage, off the top of my head, and I've certainly seen people do this. If they choose to do that instead of go to a shelter, it tells me they'd do pretty much anything before they'd go to a shelter, and my giving them food isn't changing that one way or the other. If someone can convince me I'm wrong about this, I'm willing to listen, though.

Third, couldn't you argue that the existence of homeless shelters prolongs homelessness for the same reason? They have an easy place to get food and a place to stay. To me, that seems to be a much bigger variable than some random people giving them food on the streets. Am I misunderstanding the argument? Is it not that I'm prolonging their homelessness, but that I'm prolonging their not going to a shelter?

For some people it then comes down to something like, "Well, this person could have gone to a shelter and didn't, so for them to ask other people to support them isn't fair and I'm not going to do it." But I don't quite buy that either. For one, it ignores any reasons someone might have for not wanting to go to a shelter. But let's assume someone has gone through those reasons and decided that when it comes down to it, there's really no excuse, which would be understandable. Alright. How do you know that person is in a mental state where they can make the right decisions? Even if a person doesn't say anything obviously crazy in a few lines of conversation, it doesn't mean they're sane.

So a homeless guy asks me for food, and I happen to have food on me. I know he's actually going to eat it, and I know I don't need it as much as he does. I can't know why he isn't at a shelter but I'm not going to assume the worst about him because it's just food. He's not asking for rent or my first born or even much of my time. It really doesn't seem to me that I'd be making anything worse. (Again, maybe I could be convinced.) When all that's hanging in the balance is some food I don't particularly need, it seems I'd be losing track of my priorities to not hand it over. It hardly costs me anything to "err on the side of mercy."

I mean, I think back to the other day, and try to imagine not giving the guy my ice-cream. If I had decided my ice-cream was that important to me, when I wasn't even hungry, I mean... I dunno if I could be happy with myself. This is a particular area for me in part because my brother-in-law was once homeless, and because I feel like society in general dehumanizes homeless people. If I can even make their life a little bit brighter by showing them some personal kindness -- which is something that impersonal donations don't seem to provide -- it seems worth it to me. (Don't get me wrong; we're going to finally have money next year and I plan to make donations and see where we can volunteer once we move. For now, though, giving a homeless person my restaurant leftovers -- which obviously I cannot donate anywhere -- is something that takes nothing of my time, no additional money, and shows them personal kindness.)

I'm not saying that to make anyone feel guilty or defensive if they don't do that. I think most people would like to end homelessness if they could and I don't think anyone here is a bad person or anything. I just really don't understand. My hope in writing this all out is that either maybe some people will realize they've been overthinking some food too much, or else someone will convince me that I'm truly making things worse for these people by feeding them (which is bothering me a lot now)... either way things should be a little better for homeless people in the future.
posted by Nattie at 8:32 AM on December 9, 2008

Third, couldn't you argue that the existence of homeless shelters prolongs homelessness for the same reason?

No, because homeless shelters are meant to be a stepping stone to better living arrangements. The people who use them are off the streets temporarily and also can speak to the shelter staff about access other services.
posted by orange swan at 11:14 AM on December 9, 2008

The shelter I stayed at was, at most, a two month program (although they extended it for another month for me, because I was working and saving up for an apartment, and they felt the extra time would help me.) Once you were out of the shelter, you could not go back for, I don't know, six months or something. There was one other shelter for teen in the Hollywood area, and their policy was similar. And, in general, there are fewer slots available at shelters than there are people to use them.

Shelters are, by design, temporary stopgap solutions. They cannot prolong homelessness.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:46 AM on December 9, 2008

No hard feelings, Nattie, I wasn't calling you out or anything, just trying to clarify why it seems like I post the same stuff over and over.
posted by The Straightener at 1:00 PM on December 9, 2008

I should clarify what I mean by that. You can't go to shelters indefinitely, but it's still a place to get food and a place to stay. They cannot force you to quit being homeless, right? And they cannot forcibly solve whatever problems are keeping you homeless, right? For example, if you're too disabled, either mentally or physically, to get a job, you can run out the clock there and go back to the street.... right? Am I missing something? Also, can you even know if the person asking you for food hasn't done just that?

To put it another way... Astro Zombie says, for example, "shelters are, by design, temporary stopgap solutions." In the sense that I mean, you could say the same thing of personally giving people food on the street: if the argument is that giving them food makes being homeless more tenable and thus prolongs it, then certainly being able to go a shelter, even if for limited amounts of time, also makes it more tenable and prolongs it in the same way, if not moreso since they get more out of it. My point in putting it that way is not to say that homeless shelters prolong homelessness, but the opposite: if it's absurd to say homeless shelters make being homeless more tenable and thus prolong homelessness, then isn't it even more absurd to say that giving a homeless person food in person makes being homeless more tenable and thus prolongs it? Couldn't you say the existence of dumpsters with food in them makes homelessness more tenable and prolongs it? Doesn't anything someone does to make their lives a little better fall under the same argument, that the less horrible things are for them the less incentive they have to get off the streets?

I don't understand how giving them food makes their homelessness any worse. I feel like if I could understand that, I would definitely understand why people wouldn't give them anything. I certainly understand that giving them food is only a drop in the bucket and won't solve anything long-term, but given that it's so easy to do and, as far as I can tell, makes things marginally and temporarily better, I don't see why not (yet?).
posted by Nattie at 2:18 PM on December 9, 2008

The only thing that would make homelessness more tenable and thus prolong it would be if homelessness were instantly fatal.

I personally don't have anything against giving someone who is homeless food. If you're talking about panhanders, then that's not really what they are after, in most cases, as I said in the thread, and there is a real possibility that they will just throw the food away. (And, I have to say, I don't really blame them; if a stranger handed me food in the street, I'm not sure I would trust it.)

But I see what you're arguing, and I agree. Arguments against giving to the homeless shouldn't be rooted in "if we can make homelessness super-difficult, maybe people will realize how hard it is and stop being homeless." That's a silly argument. The chronically homeless are not that way because they love being homeless. They're that way because homelessness is a side-effect of a lot of other stuff they are dealing with, and it's not stuff that is easily fixable, as the straightener pointed out. Trust me, they don't have it easy out there.
posted by Astro Zombie at 2:39 PM on December 9, 2008

Would NOT make it so, rather.
posted by Astro Zombie at 2:39 PM on December 9, 2008

I can't speak to the shelter systems of other cities but it's totally possible to fall through the cracks and spends literally years floating around the general population of Philly's Ridge Center, which is the central shelter for men. I had multiple clients who stayed there for years including one guy with a movie script quality life story. Dude was hit in the head with a baseball bat during a drug transaction gone bad. The injury left him with major cognitive impairments, basically he came out of it with the mind of a four year old. The guys who assaulted him took all his ID off him so the hospital listed him as John Doe, treated him, and released him to the shelter system figuring he was homeless. He proceeded to live in the Ridge Center for the next ten years. His family put out a missing persons report but nobody at Ridge ever properly processed him so the entire time nobody knew he was there and the police department eventually closed his case. Finally somebody at the shelter referred him to the agency I was working for and our clinical director met him and was like...does anyone even know who this guy is? Does anyone know how long he's been here? Has anyone ever tried to do anything for this guy?

They were able to figure out who he was and were able to reunite him with his family. By the time he wound up on my caseload he had moved back home with his older sister who was something a spinster; middle aged, no kids, lived alone. She was totally thrilled to have her brother back, becoming his primary care giver gave her a new sense of purpose so in the end it kind of worked out great for everyone involved.

But, yeah, you can totally disappear into Philly's shelter system and never return if you want to. Nobody in the shelter system's going to try to stop you, which is one of the many problems with the shelter system.
posted by The Straightener at 5:39 PM on December 9, 2008

This is where I rant, but don't.
posted by zengargoyle at 12:12 AM on December 10, 2008

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