4Sight Insight: Homelessness

Homelessness is in fact a behavior problem
But nothing like what you think...

When people tell you about a problem, there's a very useful phrase to help you understand what they want. That phrase is "do you want change or do you want comfort?". If the latter, they are looking for you to give them space. Mostly that means you'll let them bitch and moan for a bit while offering nothing other than support and kind words. It's okay to do that for a conversation, perhaps a few, but you shouldn't do it indefinitely. That's because, at some point, anything that's chronic must be our own fault. The old definition of insanity being "doing the same thing and expecting a different result". So, at some point in the future, you'll want to tell them that the problem is them. That doesn't make anyone feel good, of course, and therein lies the issue.

And so I ask - Portland specifically and the US in general - do you want change or do you want comfort? Because, if the latter, I'm not your person. But, if the former, well, I'm ready, willing and able if you are. Let me explain.

I'm a software developer by trade. Started building web sites in '94 before most anyone knew what the Internet was. The field was lucrative as well as fun to work in. And by the end of the decade, a really interesting thing had dawned on me. I was really good at what I did. However, I realized that had little to do with my technical acumen. I mean, I knew my stuff, but that wasn't why I was successful. The reason for that was, as it turned out, my project management (PM) skills. Or, to put it in more abstract terms, it was my understanding of people. Behavior specifically. And my being able to apply that knowledge to projects was invaluable. That is the case here.

In order for any project to be successful you need to know two things. Your business requirements, i.e. your mission, and, more importantly, your baseline. In other words, what are you starting with. This is often an overlooked area and is often responsible for why projects fail. That's because, in order for a project to succeed, you need to know that the premise is correct. For the homelessness situation that means a straightforward yet incredibly difficult question. Do we require adults to be independent?

For me, the resouding answer is yes, of course we should. And while we can enter into a long moral, ethical and philosophical discussion around that, those are all essentially overruled by one logical fact: scalability. One of the most important things when architecting a software solution is whether or not it can be used for the long-term. If not, you run into some really big problems. In effect, you can run into a wall where you need to throw the entire system out. And that never goes well. Here's how that applies here.

If adults aren't required to be independent then one of two situations can result. Those that are independent either take care of them or are impacted by them. Those are the only two scenarios. Granted, you can take those who are dependent upon others and hide them somewhere and, to some extent, that's kind of what we are doing today. The so-called afforable housing solution, although I honestly don't believe there's any such thing. I refer to it as subsidized, but I digress.

Eventually, though, if you take the dependent folk and put them somewhere together - especially if it's an undesirable situation like many housing projects are - they may gather, rise up and do something about it. That's what got monarchies in trouble and that's also what's kind of happening today. A sort of "we're mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore" attitude. And even if we don't rise up, there are certainly other indirect issues that will arise, such as crime and drugs. In the end, we're just aggregating the problem. From #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter, to the immigrant crisis and income inequality, we're not addressing the issues and they're piling up. That's because we're not only segregating the improverished, we're disempowering the abused. And that is a very dangerous situation.

Still, even if we take this route - those that "have" take care of those that don't - at some point there's not enough "have's" to take care of the have not's. So let's start with the assumption that adults are required to take care of themselves which includes food, clothing, shelter and, dare I say it, healthcare. We'll leave that last one alone for now, but definitely include the shelter aspect. The question then becomes, what do we do about that?

Now that we have the baseline established, we can work on the requirements. And those, unfortunately, are something we never talk about. However, they MUST be in place for a solution to work. In my estimation, it is up to the government to ensure that people can take care of themselves. And while that is to some extent what we have in place, we really need to both agree on that goal and get it out there. After all, you need an understanding in place to coordinate everything else from services to managing public sentiment. That being said, we'll shelve the role of government-as-safety-net debate for the moment. That's because knowing the reasons for homelessness will help facilitate that discussion.

From Home to Homeless
In order to understand the homelessness conumdrum, we need to start with the causes. To do that, we're going to breakdown the sources into three groups; short-term, mid-term and long-term behavior issues. While surveys vary some from city to city, surprisingly, they each roughly explain one-third of the problem.

When I say short term I mean a problem that comes up quickly and can potentially be solved quickly. The latter is only partially true but let's go with that persumption for the sake of argument. That's because I'm talking about the issues of escaping abuse, families breaking up and eviction. For the latter I'm not referring to non-payment, but rather when either the landlord or the tenant misbehaves and is, in the former case, capricious in their handling of a disagreement or, in the latter case, causing too much trouble to be allowed to stay. Escaping abuse and family break-ups are more short term events deriving from a longer-term problem. Nonetheless, arguments shouldn't escalate into the need for quick egress and divorces should be civil enough so that all parties can, if need be and/or desire, transition into a new arrangement without the upheaval of losing a place to stay. To group them, all problems related to relationship behavior .

Similarly, there are issues that will exist for more than days or weeks, but likely only months. That's the case when someone loses their job or otherwise finds themselves unemployed as when they're fired, a business closes or they are laid-off as with reduction-in-forces or skills deprecation. The behavior I'm referencing here is career and fiscal responsibility. We shouldn't live month-to-month. We also shouldn't breakeven with our salary where we can't save some money per month. But this becomes part of a larger situation. Should we buy a new car and max out our credit. Should we have enough reserves to offset a potential gap in income. Should we live further out where it's cheaper, move to another city where the opportunities are better, or maybe get more education and change careers to something that both pays better and has a better long-term outlook. All reasonable questions that an adult who wishses to be independent should ask and plan for.

To some extent these question cover the affordable housing problem people like - or should I say want - to think can be solved with "cheaper" housing. It can't. And there are two reasons for that. First of all, there no such thing as cheaper housing. You can't afford anything when you don't have any money. There is smaller housing and there is subsidized housing. Building less expensive homes isn't avoided because it's not profitable. It's simply not possible. The amount of materials and labor needed to build a certain square footage is fixed. Yes, potentially you can give the land away for free, but utilities need to be accessed, housing codes need to be met and services - like garbage and sewage - need to be kept up. If you don't, then the community has inherited a problem. So with either the "pay up front" or "pay up later" concepts, you can't avoid the cost of housing.

In this final category are things like incarceration, addiction and mental illness. How they overlap and whether or not the first two are a subset or even proof of the latter is another discussion. For the purposes here we need to recognize that the events leading up to the problem don't happen quickly nor will the effort needed to turn the situation around be of short duration. Remediation for life's most basic skills takes time. If you look at recidivism from jails and inpatient facilities, you have to wonder if either effectively rehabilitate at all. And when they do work you have to wonder if it's serendipity rather than the prison or therapy being of any help. This group also includes those with intellectual/developmental disabilities (IDD) which may be preventable, as well as those who are physically disabled, a group where's there's probably little we can do to prevent but a lot that can be done to get them more integrated and less marginalized.

Other term
Finally, there's one other sticky area we have to talk about, and that inevitably includes you. If you're not familiar with the social work field you might feel that it's ineffective and there is some validity to that. It's certainly underpaid. As a result, captains of industry are not running into the field. In fact, they all but avoid it. So the people you have left are those that really care about the welfare of others - and believe me, we really need those folks - and are willing to work longer hours for less pay to do that.

The field, however, generally suffers from a metrics issue. After all, how do you measure someone's behavior change? We don't do that, and that's the problem that ties all of this together. We don't have a universal checklist of traits adults should have although we really need one. Accordingly, it is impossible to make sure adults meet some basic requirements if we don't know what that baseline is. So if that's not in place for adults in general, how can we expect all of those in remediation - from therapists to social workers - to truly know if they are making progress with what they are doing. And that leads me to the last group: you.

What is expected of you? To what extent are you supposed to go beyond just helping yourself and contribute to the group? Should you even be required to do that? In the current its-all-about-me self-involved world, that's all but lost. Gone are the days where citizens are asking "what can I do for the country?" although it's high-time we return to that. After all, being a social creature is in our biology as it gives us emotions. And while focusing on our own emotions can lead us to avoiding or dismissing others, we need to learn how to get that under control so we can consider others as well as help them when we reasonably can.

The inherent problem in our society today is that we don't support the community. In fact, whenever possible, we make it harder for the "under-class" or shun them altogether. All the while, there are more billionaires each year. If you ask me that's pretty disturbing, and I don't even believe in god. So if my moral and ethical compass says we're a pretty mean and self-inolved society, what are those in their churches and temples thinking? Has charity died altogether? Perhaps it has. And perhaps we're getting ready to change that. #YouToo?

A Solution

To be honest, no one can say they have a solution, at least not in the United States. I don't know what's going on elsewhere. What I do know is that pretty much any city of size with conducive geography and climate has a problem. That fact lends credence to the notion that all parties involved are not helping. Government - federal, state and local - the mental health field, relevant institutions such as law enforcement and even communities. The problem is pervasive. After all, behavior doesn't happen in a bubble. It literally takes years of lower infractions at the family, primary education, personal relationship and workplace level to enable homelessness.

New Approach
What I can't offer is a solution as there is none. What I can offer is the way to get there. As with iterative (agile) development when you create a software system, you involve all stakeholders, try things, and build on a series of small successes. Who then are the stakeholders? The primary person, of course, is the one experiencing homelessness. And while we cannot and do not want to blame them per se, they are the conduit through which we must start. In some cases, we'll need the ability to ensure that they do the work needed. That means making people accountabile via conservatorship. A potentially bold move - and one that should be coordinated with groups like the ACLU and NAACP - but, in the end, it's the only way the solution can even begin. Here's why.

Behavioral change starts by making a person responsibile for everything they say and do as well as what they don't say and do. This needs to be done at the parental level where some type of "emotional wellness" checklist is done at various ages. As for what we check from the 4Sight perspective it's pretty simple. We measure a person's self-esteem and self-confidence processes and the accuracy with which they do both. Congnitive distortions are challenged and logic is used to replace the fallacies. If we do this alone, we'll dramatically reduce all the various maladaptive behaviors that we have as adults that are causing this problem.

As for adults, the checklist is the same. Adequate self-esteem yields happiness and sufficient self-confidence yields independence. For the former, it rear it's ugly head in abuse starting with verbal, emotional, mental, psychological and financial. Of course the better known aggressive forms of abuse are understood, physical and sexual. However, as with all behavior, the aggressive forms are first recognized in the language and other oppositional patterns.

Happiness is something that we can measure. The simplest metrics involve a person who is committing crimes or using drugs or both. However, I'm generally looking to shelve that discussion for now and focus on the most prominent aspect; independence and homelessness. We can and really need to require that people who aren't able to find housing each night are put into a conservatorship. Then, we can ensure that they follow a to-be-determined program that is not capricious but, rather, rehabilitative.

Transparency via Publicity
Make all of this going on known to the public, combatting the shame and guilt associated with that knowledge. Look at a citizen's inability to take care of themselves as our problem, not theirs.

Integration via Community
We need to learn how to repair the broken families and correct the dysfunctional situations. Everyone needs to be involved. We need to come up with ideas that work and help others implement those processes. The mental health care field needs to be revamped for sure. And, as above, we need to recognize that it's in all our best interest to see their problem as society's failing, not theirs.

Coordination via Policy
Finally, there needs to be a new role that government takes on. It's the intermediary between what we want people to do - the legislative branch that creates the laws - and what happens when they don't - the judicial branch that enforces the law. It will be under the executive branch. It must include metrics - ways to measure where people are and where they need to go - and it has to be done with the fundamental goal of improving a person's quality of life and their being self-sufficient. We must neither take care of them nor tell them how to operate their life. We must tell them what we require of them and then we must help them learn how to do that when they are unable to. Punishing someone is simply not going to effect change when a person is clearly unable to do that. No one wants to be homeless. Or a drug addict. Or a criminal. Or even abusive. These are all things we do when we have nowhere else to go.

There is much more to write. Feedback welcome.

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