Monday, October 17, 2016

Should All Ideas be Explored, or Just Those that Work?

In the discussions around homelessness in the last few months, we have heard the statement, “All ideas need to be explored,” more than once. Is it true?

I believe that in his satirical essay, New Proposal for Taking Care of Homeless Problem: a Catapult, Jim Schutze, in true Swiftian fashion, highlighted the fact that actually we all agree that some ideas do not merit exploration, or in other words, not all ideas need to be explored. Now, I could go down the Schutzian road, and say that the catapult would not work, because of its, ahem, impracticalities, but we all realize that it is really the immorality of the solution that precludes us from putting it into practice.

Cindy J. Crain, MDHA President and CEO, with a friend at Tent City, earlier this year
(Courtesy of WBAP)
So, now that we have established that not all ideas need to be explored, the question is, beyond the outright immoral solutions, how do we know which ideas are worth exploring, and which are not?

Here, unfortunately, morality will not help in decisively deciding this issue. There are those that say, that the homeless must prove themselves worthy of the help they are offered, and once they do, and only if they continue to prove themselves so worthy, should they be helped. Others contend that in a developed country, all have the right to a home, and that if, as a byproduct of our economic systems, some find themselves without a home, society is obligated to provide such a home. Both of these sides have a moral argument on their side. You, the reader, probably agree with one side and disagree with the other, and that is OK.

So, what we need to turn to in this case is not morality and philosophy, but social science. Through social science, we can analyze and decide what ideas work and what ideas do not. Social scientists can study these issues, reach conclusions, and tell us exactly what ideas work and what ideas do not. Then, in the words of our good friend, Randy Mayuex, we can do what works, rather than what we think might work, or what we wish might work.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, the modern homelessness crisis has been with us long enough, that social scientists have amassed a significant amount of evidence regarding what works and what does not. As Randy explained, though the word science makes some people (me included) sweat, the idea of following the science is really quite simple, according to Thomas Kuhn. With any new idea, the first step is to try it, the second step is to measure it, and the third step, if the measuring shows it actually works, is to replicate it. Though many outside the field of empirical peer-reviewed homelessness research may not be familiar with the research on what works and what does not, we are at that third stage. We know what works, because we have been measuring it, and we also know what does not work, because we have been measuring it. 

We know (not think) that the newer Housing First  model, housing the chronically homeless, on the condition that they abide by the terms of their lease and meet with a case manager, combined with wrap around services made available (not obligatory) to them, works for 85% of clients, on average. We know (not think) that the older Housing Readiness, housing the chronically homeless, only once they have hit certain treatment benchmarks, and conditioning their housing on their continuing to hit certain treatment benchmarks, works for 30% of clients, on average. 

Now and then we hear, that that is all fine and good, but that so and so, from her familiarity with homelessness knows that Housing First does not work. Not so. Once again, the evidence proves this person is wrong.

Now and then we hear, that that is all fine and good, but so and so simply cannot remain housed, and that proves that Housing First does not work. Not so. There is a small minority of people for whom Housing First does not work. However, often “does not work” just means that it did not work that time for that person, in that setting, with that array of services. So, we assess and try again to find an alternative setting, or a different array of services, that will help that person achieve permanent housing stability. This, by no means, proves that Housing First does not work. That is not how social science (i.e. reality) works.  

Now and then we hear that that is all fine and good, but Housing First will not work in Dallas. Now, if Housing First had not been tried in Dallas, that would still be wrong, because the numbers are consistent, everywhere it has been tried. However, Housing First has been the policy for permanent housing programs funded by the Federal Government, for a number of years, so we actually can answer that question. In Dallas, these programs, over the course of the last 12 months, have shown a 96% success rate! This is why, our good friend and board member, Ikenna Mogbo, said a few months ago, on KERA’s Think, that arguing about Housing First, is like arguing if the world is round or flat. What we need to do is stop arguing and just continue implementing.

One final criticism we hear is that Housing First might work in the long term, but we need some short term solutions too, today, tomorrow, or if possible yesterday. This criticism misses the mark too. The idea of Housing First is that the homeless can and should be housed from the street, if need be. In How Dallas is starting to solve its homeless problem MDHA President and CEO, Cindy J. Crain, shared with the readers of the Dallas Morning News, results of how we have been housing the unsheltered in the encampments in Dallas, in accordance with the precepts of Housing First, from mid-February through today. As we speak, we continue to do so, right now. These results further elucidate what can, should and will continue to be implemented in our community, in the short, medium and long term, as we follow the evidence of what works.

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