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.

Homeless outreach brings Volunteers of America’s resources to the streets

Story and audio slideshow by LAURA SCHMITZ

Go on a ride-along with the Homeless Outreach Team.

When Buddy Tymczyszyn and Kimberly Bell go to work each day, they don’t need to put on fancy clothes or stare at a computer screen. They don’t need to worry about office politics. But, during the winter, they definitely can’t leave home without their gloves.

Just west of the hubbub of downtown Salt Lake City rests their quaint work center, housing a program that actively pursues a population with which few are familiar.

Utah’s arm of Volunteers of America facilitates a Homeless Outreach Program that is constantly ready for action, equipped with a van-full of necessities, including food, water, beanies and blankets.

A national, nonprofit organization, VOA has a presence in 44 states and employs a range of paid staff, who work to tackle issues such as homelessness and drug addiction.

Tymczyszyn, 22, and Bell, 24, join forces to make up the outreach team. Together, the two pack up a van with supplies each morning to scan the streets of the west side for homeless people in need.

“We do a lot of driving,” Tymczyszyn said of his 40-hours-per-week job in the field.

“Part of [the program] is to get people socks, jackets and blankets — stuff to keep them warm and safe on the streets,” he said. “But the heart of it underneath is to help them with any kind of deeper, underlying issues that may be keeping them out there.”

Both began their posts with a “heart” for the homeless population.

“None of us really deserve to be where we’re at,” Bell said. “Those of us that have enough money or family support to be able to stay in a warm place and have good food, it’s not because we did anything to deserve it.”

The team documents every shoe, scarf and bag of chips they give out in order to ensure that VOA receives adequate donations and its clients — the homeless people they serve — are given proper financial support.

VOA’s donations come largely from the Utah Food Bank and individual donors. Clients will receive state funding based in part on the amount of services they receive from the organization.

As Tymczyszyn and Bell traverse alleys and fields, searching for potential clients, they will often discover vacant tents, blankets or sleeping bags — evidence of a shelter.

“Some are remarkably easy to find,” Tymczyszyn said. “They follow the same, routine pattern every day.”

If the team reaches a “home” of someone who is not there, they will “water bomb” or “sock bomb” the residence, leaving a water bottle or pair of socks with VOA’s business card attached.

“It helps give us a good name to them, so the next time we see them, they can recognize us or they can just give us a call from that number,” Bell said.

During outreach missions, Bell and Tymczyszyn said clients’ reaction to them depends on their approach.

“A lot of times it takes meeting someone five or 10 times before they trust you enough to talk to you. The next step is learning their name, then the step after that is having them take a pair of socks or a bottle of water from you,” Tymczyszyn said. “Every little step of the way is a success.”

Cliff Thurber, 54, has made the streets of Salt Lake City his home for several years. A regular client of VOA, he is an example of the established trust its staff strive to build, as he candidly spoke with Tymczyszyn and Bell like old friends.

“They’ve given me food and good [conversation] and comforting thoughts, so that’s been helpful,” Thurber said of the two.

Thurber moved from Provo to Salt Lake City, seeking a steadier income. He now sells the Salt Lake Street News, a newspaper put out by the Salt Lake City Mission. The nonprofit publication is specifically geared to help people experiencing poverty and homelessness.

“I earn 50 cents a paper,” Thurber said. “Once I sell them, I can turn more money back in and get more papers to sell. I buy them for 50 cents and sell them for a dollar — sometimes people donate more. It’s really coming along.”

Thurber said he does his best to remain law-abiding in his lifestyle.

“Police have never really hassled me,” Thurber said. “I’ve tried to stay above the law and tried to not do anything [illegal] — not be drunk in public places or anything like that. That’s not good,” he said with a laugh.

Though several clients are experiencing homelessness because of job loss or negative life circumstances, some come to VOA with needs arising from addictions.

One frequent client, Kevin Hansen, openly said he was on the streets because of a history of alcoholism.

“I just love alcohol,” Hansen said, describing what he believes to be the ultimate reason for his homelessness.

His past “hurts sometimes, but sometimes it doesn’t.”

Bell and Tymcyzcyzn both agreed their job can be emotionally taxing as they build relationships with their clients and struggle with them through their situations.

“Sometimes, I want to make people’s decisions for them,” Bell said. “Some of our clients are really intoxicated all the time. They drink a lot constantly, and it’s a way for them to drown their pain, but they’re slowly killing themselves — I just want to make them stop [for their own good].”

One goal of the homeless outreach team is an initiative they call harm-reduction. Tymczyszyn said the goal of harm-reduction is to try to get clients into a better situation immediately, working toward the deeper-rooted problems later.

The team provides needle-cleaning kits and safer methods of using cocaine in order to minimize the adverse consequences of the drugs while coming out of addiction.

“If they’re going to use needle drugs, how can they clean their needle to do it safely? If they’re going to sleep outside on the street that night no matter what, how can we try to help them stay warm in the process?” Tymczyszyn said.

Bell said that though she sometimes feels “helpless” because of the negative habitual cycles some clients fall into, she recognizes that any change is “ultimately their choice.”

Despite challenges that come with the territory, Bell said her job is rewarding.

“I wouldn’t have it any other way, because I don’t want to live too far removed from the tragedy that exists,” she said. “I don’t just want to live in ignorance, because ignorance is bliss, but our world isn’t a blissful place.”

This year marks VOA Utah’s 25th anniversary. According to its website, it boasts about 140 paid, professional staff who serve more than 10,000 people throughout the state each year.

“Substance abuse and homelessness are the main areas of focus in Utah,” said Zach Bale, director of external relations for VOA Utah. “We go where we’re the most needed, and do what needs to be done.”

The homeless outreach team is in the field 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday – Friday.

“It’s the most incredible job in the world — I can’t believe I get paid for it,” Bell said.