A Scientific Approach to Helping the Homeless New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell tells Scott Simon the homeless problem could be solved -- with a net savings of public funds -- if assistance were provided to a small number of permanently homeless people.
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A Scientific Approach to Helping the Homeless

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A Scientific Approach to Helping the Homeless

A Scientific Approach to Helping the Homeless

A Scientific Approach to Helping the Homeless

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New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell tells Scott Simon the homeless problem could be solved — with a net savings of public funds — if assistance were provided to a small number of permanently homeless people.

SIMON: But first, the writer Malcolm Gladwell seems to make a specialty of looking at old persisting issues in a new way. In the current issue of the New Yorker Mr. Gladwell suggests the problem of homelessness may be easier to solve than we often believe, and at a lower price. But there are other costs, and questions. His piece is called Million Dollar Murray. Malcolm Gladwell joins us from our studios in New York. Mr. Gladwell, thanks so much for being with us.

MALCOLM GLADWELL: I'm glad to be here, Scott.

SIMON: And we begin with the fact that you define what I'll refer to as chronic profound homelessness as being less widespread than people may believe.

GLADWELL: But the majority of people who are homeless are very different. They may only be homeless for a short period of time. Their problems are much smaller by comparison, which suggests that any kind of program aimed at the broad middle is kind of missing the issue, and that we can design programs aimed just at this very small hardcore, are not going to have a much bigger effect.

SIMON: Help us revisualize this, as you did in the article, because you suggested instead of viewing it as a bell curve, it ought to be viewed as a hockey stick.

GLADWELL: And that's all true of homelessness. The problem is concentrated in a very small number of people who are profoundly troubled. And if you think that way about homelessness, it changes the way you attack the problem.

SIMON: So how does that change the approach?

GLADWELL: If these guys cost that much money just by living on the streets, it's cheaper to take them off the street, give them an apartment and assign a full time caseworker to make sure they get back on their medication, back on their feet, help them get a job.

SIMON: Do we know from hard case experience that that would work?

GLADWELL: They're getting jobs. They're paying their own rent. It's possible, if you provide the right kind of context and give people some attention, we can save them.

SIMON: You certainly know, Mr. Gladwell, that the objection to this that some people have is political and even moral. Do you wind up concentrating a fantastic amount of resources on people who are chronic drug abusers or chronically drunk and ignoring the mother of three who is simply down on her luck?

GLADWELL: If you don't do anything, they'll cost you a hundred grand a year. If you do something, give them an apartment and a caseworker, they'll cost you $25,000 year. We're doing this not out of the kindness of our hearts necessarily. This is such a kind of bizarre social thing, but we're doing this because we think we can save the City of New York and the City of Washington D.C. and the City of San Francisco millions of dollars a year, which we can use on other things. That's why we're doing it. That's our first impulse. It's cheaper.

SIMON: Let me get back though to the mother of three who's down on her luck. Should we not feel morally uncomfortable about not coming up with a solution for her?

GLADWELL: Yes. I think you're absolutely right. The thing that's driving this strategy towards homelessness is the notion that we have a very limited amount of money, a very limited amount of political will. And what are we going to do with that? Well, we're going to concentrate it on the worst part of the problem in the place where we can save the most money in the short term. That does not mean that we should ignore everybody else. But that's a separate argument, really. I mean what we're trying to show here is, can we, in a relatively short period of time, strike at the core of the problem? And if we can show that we can do that, then I would hope, I would hope that we would then take a step back and say, okay, let's start dealing with people who are also troubled but just not in the same immediate dire straits. I hope we don't stop at this.

SIMON: Malcolm Gladwell, staff writer for the New Yorker, thank you.

GLADWELL: Thank you so much.

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