“Homeless” is mental model or representation we use to think about an aspect of the world. By investigating this representation and how well it “fits” to reality, we might be able to frame the problem differently and subsequently get different potential solutions we can either test or think about further.
Many have identified that “Homelessness” is an umbrella term contains too much internal variation for it to be useful. In fact, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has a tripartite model that is used to classify types of homeless people: Situational (individuals who become homeless due to a specific emergency, like a storm), Episodic or Cyclical (individuals who intermittently rely on the social service support networks like shelters), and Chronic (individuals who are homeless for long periods of time) .
Furthermore, researchers have developed some alternative typologies of homelessness, which attempt to break down homelessness into more fine-grained sub-types. (For example, homeless youth are often categorized into one of the four following categories “Situational Runaways, Runaways, Throwaways, and Systems Youth.”)
However, models and representations that help make the world more predictable or allow us to understand how to frame problems aren’t always categorical (just as Newton’s laws aren’t “categories” either).
Applying this thinking to homelessness leads me to submit that in addition to defining homelessness in terms of housing status and frequency of shelter use, (a la the Department of Housing and Urban Development), it should be possible to define homelessness in terms of a psychological dimension or set of attitudes and responses to questions. This psychological dimension may at its most extreme end include something like “the degree to which living outside of the social relief system or being homeless is internalized or a core part of a person’s self-identify.”
You’ll have to forgive me for seeming a bit crude, but the best, widely known parallels I can draw are with three pieces of fiction: the Shawshank Redemption, Catch-22, and Shantaram. (Remember: this is just a metaphor!)
At it’s heart, these fictional stories all explore the difference between being in a prison and being a prisoner, internally speaking. Might there not be a similar difference when thinking about homelessness?
In other words, is being homeless how you currently happen to live or is it part of who you are? Once a person reaches this latter stage, it would be difficult to get them off the streets precisely because they have deemed the premise itself to be invalid.
(At this point, I wish to clarify that there are many contributing factors to chronic homelessness. In addition to drug and alcohol dependencies, Anosognosia, or the inability to recognize that one has a mental illness, is one of them.)
That being said, there are at least two reasons to research and pursue this line of thinking. First, this psychological dimension could be researched and measured with a psychometric (i.e. scientifically designed) survey; such a tool might allow for social relief providers to tailor the services they offer more than they do now. Second, this idea highlights another broad question for all of us: what would be at the opposite end of the “degree of internalized homelessness” spectrum? What’s the opposite of homelessness? And could this opposite be psychometrically determined? If want for our fellow homeless individuals something more than “not being homeless,” what is it? What’s the positive goal?
I submit that at the heart of it, we are implicitly talking about helping individuals graduate up to higher levels of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, or alternative models of development. And in this view, programs like Housing First could be one part of a much larger societal goal of shifting individuals (be they homeless or otherwise) a rung or two up the needs hierarchy; or making transitions between the steps as frictionless as possible.
Aspects of this general principle, of course, are already recognized by non-profits and parts of the social services network — 11 organizations offer job-training through the San Francisco Homeless Employment Collective. To name two related examples, AnnieCannons, an upstart non-profit based in Oakland, gives women rescued from human trafficking computer literacy and coding skills. And Homeboy Industries in LA provides ex-gang members and formerly incarcerated individuals with job training in a professional bakery.
However, it seems to me that the goal of providing tools, services, and training dedicated to moving people up to higher levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is neither fully and explicitly articulated nor recognized. The social services that can provide support in terms of transitioning from one stage of the hierarchy to another are not as interlinked as they could be.
When and how does a homeless individual go from relying on the social relief network to needing a life coach? How often does this happen for situationally homeless individuals who successfully get off the streets? And is Maslow’s hierarchy (or other models of human development derived from longitudinal studies) the most empirically accurate way of thinking? How could it be accurate if it doesn’t take into account the full range of human experience, which includes being homeless?
2 — Social relief providers can and should be research centers
In Europe, agencies, shelters, and charities utilize the Homelessness Outcomes Star, wherein a trained interviewer and a client will talk about how they are fairing in terms of eight different domains of goals and outcomes. The tool generally looks like this:
This is also a representation that is designed to organize one’s thinking around homelessness outcomes. It has been found to have many beneficial uses for tracking outcomes and interviewing users of social care systems.
One interesting aspect of the Homelessness Outcomes Star is that there is some research to indicate that these different outcomes for homeless and other people seeking care are best explained by just two dimensions, instead of eight. The first consists of outcomes related to mental well-being, like “Managing Mental Health,” “Trust and Hope” and “Identity and self-esteem.” The second, somewhat independent dimension of outcomes consists of “Responsibilities,” “Living Skills,” and “Work outcomes.” The degree to which these dimensions are independent was not fully analyzed in the aforementioned research. (I believe the version of the star that was researched was older than the one pictured above.)
This itself points to two conclusions: first, we should research this more, and second, one way to do this is to view shelters and other members of the social relief network as potential data and science hubs. Currently, most psychological research is conducted with college-age populations. While this has been beneficial for the research done so far, I submit that we stand to gain more information about people by working with the parts of society we currently don’t understand and tend ignore. Why exclusively study what we know when we have the opportunity to study what we don’t know?
Getting a better handle on if the dimensions of homelessness outcomes are independent, and if so to what degree, as well as if these are the true number of two dimensions of homelessness outcomes should be a goal of homelessness research.
One way to do achieve this goal is to modify homelessness shelters into science hubs, i.e. places that — along with the social relief they provide — can assist with consistent, voluntary data collection and sharing properly anonymized data with researchers.
Doing so would require a few things: a centralized place to store the data, agreed-upon standards for data collection and data formats, ethical training for data collectors and other staff, as well as repeated ethics, review board approvals. These are the relatively easy parts, though.
Should such a structure be put in place, social service providers could use different psychometric surveys and empirically validated measures to assist in assessing how their clientele is fairing and changing over the years. The following psychological constructs all have relatively robust measures that could be used as a starting point (and possibly adapted for homeless populations): Self-Esteem, Empathy, Psychopathy, Narcissism, Happiness, and Locus of Control.
Locus of Control, for example, refers to the fact that individuals vary in terms of how they perceive why things happen. People with an external locus of control tend to — so the theory goes — see a majority of events as happening to them; while people with an internal locus see a majority of events as being caused by them.
While there is certainly more to the story about how human beings perceive causality, homeless individuals will likely have a very interesting viewpoint on this subject — weaknesses in this conceptualization are likely to be revealed when talking with people who have reasoned through every decision they have made as well have been on the receiving end of unpredictable events, and wind up on the streets. There is more information in studying what we don’t understand than what we do.
Having more scientific aspects of the social relief network could also help address the fact that currently, it is hard to compare and contextualize studies of homelessness between countries, particularly in countries with different social-service support systems. For example, a recent edition of the European Journal of Homelessness included a report of a 2.5-year longitudinal study of homeless individuals in the Netherlands. However, it is hard to know how this compares and generalizes to homelessness in San Francisco. This is because we don’t know how similar the populations are, nor do we have metrics to compare differences in the social-relief networks available in each country.
Lastly, depending on how setting up scientific hubs within the social relief network goes, it also has the potential to solve another problem. Researchers at most universities pay a small honorarium for participating in survey-based research; much of which is facilitated through crowdsourcing websites like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. The ethics of paying people to participate in research are not simple, and more work would have to be done to determine if it would be ethical to pay homeless people and other users of the social relief network to participate in research. However, doing so could solve issues of a restricted sample and little money on account of researchers, issues of not having income on account of the homeless, and the fact that most non-homeless people aren’t paid enough to make ends meet on Amazon Turk alone. (I don’t know about anybody else, but I’m a fan of solving more than one problem at once.) Ultimately, this last aspect might boil down to the following question: to what degree is taking a survey different from picking up a plastic bottle and bringing it to a recycling center?
3 —Dynamic pricing: one step towards preventing homelessness that isn’t basic income
Commonly identified sources of stress and major factors contributing to a person becoming homeless include poverty, lack of affordable housing, and income inequality. Stress is a major factor in inter-partner violence and domestic abuse, which contributes to childhood trauma. All of these co-occur with and often contribute to homelessness.
One consequence of scientific pursuit is more predictability and more explanation of the variation we see in the world. We thus might take a cue and look for a source of unpredictability, not in data or initially inexplicable facts, but in other aspects of the world. Once identified, just like in scientific pursuit, we can try to ameliorate the unpredictability of what we are dealing with.
In this section, I’ll outline a potential solution to ameliorate aspects of finance-induced emotional stress, with the goal of preventing people from becoming homeless in the first place. Fair warning: the idea might strike you as weird, at first, but it seems to be in most people’s self-interest.
Paying for basic things (like food or rent or supplies for your children) is stressful for individuals who can barely afford them. Compare this with the relatively small amount of stress is induced for those who can afford it. Technically, it seems that we have a case of unpredictable variation in the emotional stress of paying for goods across randomly selected individuals.
One way that scientists reduce the unpredictability or variation of the data and facts they work with is to find an abstract enough level of thinking that can make sense of it all. One way to think of something on a more abstract level is to “zoom out” and expand not the scope per say, but the scale of the problem. If we zoom out and subsequently reframe the issue of variation in the emotional stress of paying for goods, we are left with the conclusion that what is at stake in these situations is that the equitable transfer of value between persons is not equitable from a psychological perspective.
If we zoom out again, it becomes apparent that what we are talking about is one population of people (buyers) exchanging one type of value for another from a different population (sellers). At such an abstract level, it becomes apparent that there is a distribution of income and how buyers earn their money. But there is not currently a similar distribution in how people spend money for a single good since the price is fixed across the entire population of buyers.
Theoretically, we thus might ameliorate some of the unpredictable variation involved in what it costs to pay for a good by somehow using something like the distribution of income when determining what people pay. One way to do this is to think about “what people pay” (or pricing) in terms of time, specifically the amount of money a person makes in X minutes, where X is the “price.”
In other words, toilet paper could cost what you make in 20 minutes and CT scans could cost what you make in 20 hours. Before I lose you completely, let me say that I am not advocating any form of communism, I believe in merit-based pay, and that I believe this scheme could result in more money for people selling the goods, too.
Let’s consider the seller’s point of view. Being able to set the cost of goods or services in terms of time has two implications: a) more people could pay for the goods because the price may not be prohibitively high anymore, and b) this scheme would only be feasible where the distribution of prices paid for the good would approximate the national income distribution. If the income distribution of the people paying for a good or service approximated the national income distribution, the “average” price paid has the potential to be higher than the median price paid. In other words, the seller could make more money because they would be recovering area under a curve, instead of just a multiplication of the number items sold times the price. In addition, the fact that not every population of buyers would have an income distribution that would make it worth the seller’s time prevents this type of dynamic pricing from being implemented everywhere.
The limited application of this pricing scheme is also an advantage for the buyer — if everything were priced according to how much you make in an hour, your purchasing power would be strictly limited by the number of hours you worked in a week, no matter how many raises you received. (This, perhaps, is the biggest issue with Ithaca Hours, an attempt to pay people in terms of time in upstate New York. ) Paying people in “time” can limit people’s earning power; because the only way to earn more money is to work more. But if this type of dynamic pricing is implemented in small doses, getting a raise still allows you to buy more and better things.
Thinking about the buyer’s point of view also raises another point: if this only works with enough people who have bought into the system, how will it ever get off the ground? What are you going to do about charging rich people more?
It turns out that this issue is surmountable too, as there are certain areas where it would be in a person’s self-interest to sign-up for such a scheme more or less regardless of how much money they are making.
Consider that people are frequently more broke in their early twenties than later in life. This type of income-proportional pricing might appeal to a twenty-something who agreed to stick with the pricing model for ten years, for instance. A person could sign a multi-year contract with their health-insurance company to pay for health-care using this model. This could even out the stress of paying for emergency-room visits while simultaneously increasing the amount of profit made by the healthcare industry.
One barrier to testing this idea and seeing how well it works is a lack of a payment app related system of incentives. YCombinator’s non-profit research group is already working on testing Basic Income with a population of individuals in Oakland. The very same group could also research and build a technological solution that would allow this idea to be tested.
The fact that homelessness is a persistent problem suggests that it is a symptom of something else we haven’t quite figured out. The scientific method, on the other hand, is largely successful because it generates information and makes the world more predictable.
My attempt to generalize these aspects of the scientific method resulted in three broad considerations: A) what is and should be the opposite of homelessness? B) members of the social relief network should be scientific hubs, and C) selective income proportional pricing has enough theoretical merit to be tested.
While all of the ideas proposed in this essay are currently theoretical, they do point one way to tackle the problem in a distributed fashion.
How many times have you passed by people sitting on the street, with a plastic glass or a small cardboard box asking for spare change? Have you ever noticed the amounts of people who have neither home, nor a job to sustain themselves? Perhaps you think it is their own fault; you might think if they wanted, they would have it all. “Go find yourself a job” is a regular phrase homeless people hear. However, this advice is pointless, because there are objective reasons why people lose homes and jobs, and why they cannot return to normal life.
One of the most frequent causes of homelessness is property-destroying disasters of any kind. It can be an earthquake (like in Japan in 2011), a hurricane (like in New Orleans), a flood or tsunami, and so on. At the same time, it can be a disaster or accident of a smaller scale, but still a significant one. Domestic fires, for example, destroy hundreds of residences annually; usually, if a brigade of firefighters does not manage to arrive on time, people suffer severe material damage. Left without a home, victims of these disasters also often lose their IDs, property documents, credit cards, cash stashes, and so on. It can take months (or even years) to renew them. And friends and relatives are not always willing or capable of helping a victim during the time he or she recuperates (IFR).
Another group of factors leading to homelessness includes unhappy marriages and their outcomes. Divorce and abusive relationships are among the major factors of homelessness (Homeless Resource Network). In particular, divorce can often leave one of the spouses homeless. When divorcing, former family members usually try to divide the property they acquired in marriage; in some cases, one of the spouses can find themselves deprived of any property, including a place to live in. Another possible reason for homelessness is domestic violence. Although it is usually considered that women suffer from domestic violence more than men, it is not true; as a result, a number of people of both genders prefer to live on the streets rather than stay in abusive relationships.
The institutional backgrounds of people can cause them to end up living on the streets (Shelter). In particular, people who served in the armed forces and participated in war conflicts can suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, which can prevent them from fitting into normal life, living with their families, and so on. As a result, they are at risk of not being able to get along with the peaceful environment around them, and end up on the streets. Another group of people who can potentially become homeless are former prisoners. A prisoner does not necessarily remain a villain after getting out of jail; moreover, such people could have committed some minor crimes, or even were unjustly convicted. Still, non-criminal citizens usually do not give them a second chance, so they often become homeless as well.
It is obvious that homelessness is caused not only by a person’s unwillingness to work and sustain themselves; rather often, there exist objective factors causing people to become homeless. Among them, one should mention disasters (both natural and human-caused), divorce, abusive relationships, PTSD, and non-conducive backgrounds like being a former convict.
Doe, John. “What Causes Homelessness?” IFR. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 May 2015.
“Factors Contributing to Homelessness.” Homeless Resource Network. N.p., 03 Aug. 2011. Web. 27 May 2015.
“What Causes Homelessness?” Shelter. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 May 2015.
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