Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Murray and Homelessness

UCLA tonight is featuring a lecture by Malcolm Gladwell, author of that really cool book The Tipping Point. Gladwell will talk about a specific issue that he wrote about a year ago in the New Yorker: "Million-Dollar Murray: Why problems like homelessness may be easier to solve than to manage."

The basic lesson behind "Murray" is similar to that behind "the law of the few" in The Tipping Point: pay attention to the few people who really make a difference. Why?
In the nineteen-eighties, when homelessness first surfaced as a national issue, the assumption was that the problem fit a normal distribution: that the vast majority of the homeless were in the same state of semi-permanent distress. It was an assumption that bred despair: if there were so many homeless, with so many problems, what could be done to help them?
Then, Dennis Culhane discovered something that "profoundly changed the way homelessness is understood":
Homelessness doesn't have a normal distribution, it turned out. It has a power-law distribution. "We found that eighty per cent of the homeless were in and out really quickly," he said. "In Philadelphia, the most common length of time that someone is homeless is one day. And the second most common length is two days. And they never come back... The next ten per cent were what Culhane calls episodic users. They would come for three weeks at a time, and return periodically, particularly in the winter... It was the last ten per cent—the group at the farthest edge of the curve—that interested Culhane the most. They were the chronically homeless, who lived in the shelters, sometimes for years at a time. They were older. Many were mentally ill or physically disabled, and when we think about homelessness as a social problem—the people sleeping on the sidewalk, aggressively panhandling, lying drunk in doorways, huddled on subway grates and under bridges—it's this group that we have in mind.
This last ten per cent includes Murray Barr, a chronic homeless from Reno, Nevada, who - although a nice person - had severe drinking problem that that costed the state one million dollars in "all his hospital bills for the ten years that he had been on the streets—as well as substance-abuse-treatment costs, doctors' fees, and other expenses..."

Gladwell suggested that we (meaning Americans) should just solve the homelessness problem, rather than keep trying to manage it.
because when a problem is that concentrated you can wrap your arms around it and think about solving it.
A small portion of society is bound to need help/support from others, anyway. If we could just identify who they are, and not just lump them all together in our self-made categories, we may actually be able to solve the most important part of the problem (if not the whole problem).

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  2. Dan from originally wrote the first comment as a message for me, the blog owner. I now have a dedicated page for contacting muli. Thanks.