In this election year, discussion has rightly focused on the plight of millions of homeless, displaced Americans. As the Republicans and Democrats go into convention this summer, this national tragedy and its possible solutions will receive even more attention. But an election-year debate about the "homeless problem" will be little more than rhetoric until the focus shifts from individual pieces of the puzzle to the larger picture that they form--the need for a new strategy and a revamped social-services industry to carry it out.
Until now our difficulty has been compounded by the very term homeless. If we define the problem as a lack of homes, then on its face the solution appears to be the construction of more affordable living units. This misdirects the search for answers while grossly understating the real needs of the urban poor. Among their growing ranks are 4 million unemployed, underemployed, sick and mentally ill American citizens. The fact that they are without adequate housing, important as that is, is just one piece in the homeless puzzle; it is impossible to think that we could create, overnight, all the affordable housing that ostensibly would put roofs over their heads.
The sight of people sleeping on the streets, with its powerful tug on emotions, tends to blind us to what brought them there and what keeps them there. Yet we must understand these factors if we are also to see the opportunities for treating this problem's geometric growth.
People who are homeless are the unfortunate symptoms of fundamental economic changes that have sorely rent the fabric of the American middle and lower classes. The number of Americans living in poverty climbed from 11% of the population in 1973 to 14% in 1985, and is projected to increase to 17% by 1995. Rising rents, lower-paying jobs and the loss of affordable and federally subsidized housing have all contributed to this woeful situation. The economic trends pushing these people below the poverty line, and in many instances into the street, were years in coming. Unfortunately, there will be no quick fix, regardless of which party occupies the White House in 1989.
To begin to devise a solution it is important to understand the three different segments of this population: the have-nots, the can-nots and the will-nots.
The "have-nots" are working Americans temporarily derailed by economic downturn or family crisis who need relatively little support to provide for themselves and their families. The strategy with this group is to give them an immediate remedy to keep them from becoming so emotionally or economically disabled that they fall into the "can-nots" category.
The "can-nots" are those disabled by mental illness, drug or alcohol addiction, poor health, inadequate education or illiteracy. With short-term strategies to link them to existing benefits and programs, they can lead relatively self-sufficient lives, in available housing, with minimal supervision. The goal is to prevent them from becoming completely dysfunctional.
The "will-nots" are those most visible to us. They are so distraught and incapacitated from years of mental illness and/or living on the streets that they are amenable to only limited assistance. While we should not turn our backs on this group, our time and resources should first be invested in services for the two segments of the homeless population that still have the ability and desire to help themselves.
Taken together, these three groups sadly represent the client base of a new growth industry. Its clients' needs can be met if the service providers follow the lessons of successful customer-driven service businesses like the one pioneered by Ray Kroc and his McDonald's restaurants.
Kroc did not invent the hamburger; rather, he organized a new delivery system that ensured consistent quality, value and convenience. These same principles have produced success for such varied businesses as the Nordstrom's department stores and Scandinavian Airlines. The common factor in their favorable results is that these companies arrange their services to meet the needs of customers, not to meet internal institutional agendas.
The experience of McDonald's and others offers a critical lesson for the human-services industry, specifically, in a new homeless management model: Delivery of services is managed by the private sector (or entrepreneurially driven nonprofit organizations). In Los Angeles a corporation already operating on such a paradigm has had a 62% success rate. By setting self-sufficiency, not temporary shelter, as its goal, it has kept thousands from becoming permanently homeless. Herein is value--for the taxpayer and the client.