Helping the homeless

I grew up in the oldest fishing village/seaport in the United States. Like most folks back then, I was a JFK Democrat.  Still am. Socially liberal.  Fiscally conservative.  Strong on Defense and Law and Order.  Strong on patriotism.  

And a believer in, “Ask not what your country can do for you.”

I also believe we need more Problem Solvers and fewer Do-Gooders.

Here’s an example from 1973: I was working as director of the Youth Services Bureau for South Bend Mayor Jerry Miller. One day, his director of Housing/Community Development announced that South Bend was receiving a large federal grant to build a bunch of houses for low-income folks.

I jotted down the size of the grant, its start date, and the number of houses to be built. Being a math guy, I divided the amount of the grant by the number of houses —  $27,000 (based on 50 years of inflation, that’s the equivalent of $187,166.99 in 2023).

I had just bought a house at 2901 Miami Street, on a double corner lot, in a very nice neighborhood. All brick. Four bedrooms, 2,100 square feet.  Slate roof.  Built in 1917 — and still looking magnificent today, if you want to check it out. I bought it for $20,000. 

So, the federal government was going to spend 35 percent more than that to build a bunch of those easy-to-spot, low-income houses, which did not last very long.

I remember thinking that this federal money could have bought dozens of great houses like mine, with $7K left over. With that money we saved, we could have refurbished dozens more run-down houses to help restore urban neighborhoods.  

The federal program was motivated by high ideals, but Do-Gooders should not be put in charge of things involving tax money. Running things should be in the hands of Problem Solvers. 

By contrast, my Youth Service Bureau was able to reel in a couple of really big grants to fund the first Runaway Shelter in this area.

To make us effective, I started bending a whole bunch of the federal government rules. For example, a lady from the YWCA told me she had come across a battered woman, back when that evil was kept in the closet, and she wondered if I knew someone who could take her in and keep her whereabouts a secret. 

I told her I had the perfect place.  The battered woman became the first live-in “volunteer” at my Runaway Shelter.

After we got our first runaways, I got a call from the Welfare Department. They needed a temporary placement for an infant from a single mom who had just been incarcerated. Just for a while, until they could find an acceptable relative or foster family.

No problem. I felt it would be good for our runaways to get some practice being diaper changers and baby-sitters. It worked great. I have many other examples of this type.

When I had tried to follow all the rules, I would get one of two standard answers — NO, or the other form of NO, which is, “Here are the 25 pages of Request for Program Modification forms you need to fill out.  We should have an answer for you in three months or so, after all the Deputy Assistant Under-Secretaries get to review your application.”

At another step along my career, the six-term sheriff of Los Angeles County recruited me to be his chief of staff. In those days, the L.A. Sheriff’s Department was known for being well-managed, clean as a hound’s tooth, and very innovative. 

After my sheriff retired, his replacement picked his own chief of staff and named me his first director of special programs. I was basically the token liberal on the executive level of the LASD.

Forty-one years ago in L.A., things were nothing as bad as today — not even close — but there had been a lot of articles in the local papers about our 50,000 homeless people. The powers that be were forced to create the Los Angeles County Blue Ribbon Commission on the Homeless. 

In addition to the dozen or so usual suspects of Do-Gooders, the brand-new sheriff was appointed. He liked the publicity but had no interest in the topic. Never attended a single meeting.

For the first few of our twice-monthly meetings over two years, I was introduced as his representative. From then on, I was the official member and the only Problem Solver.

The meetings were a glorious waste of time.  Frequently, they would talk about “Fred,” the poor guy who got laid off from the Ford plant and was living in his car with his wife and child. He was back at work now, but they couldn’t afford the standard first and last month’s rent, so he was still living in his car.  

They would also talk about Joe, the Vietnam vet who needed counseling to enable him to deal with PTSD so he wouldn’t keep getting booted out of housing, including the homes of his own family members.  

These were the sob stories constantly bandied about. The entire focus of the meetings was explaining that they needed millions more money for Fred and Joe and others.

Again, being a numbers guy, I asked how many people were in these two groups. Nobody had a clue. I also asked how many other types of homeless there were. Same answer and same hostility to my question.  

I hinted that their final report was going to include my negative comments if they didn’t address these issues. This forced them to do an actual count and create an actual typology of our homeless men and women. 

  My reasoning was simple. If we found there were 100 guys like Fred the Ford Worker, we could line up a foundation or a donor who would fund those rental deposits.  What response did I get to that argument?  Big yawns.

We did the count.  Lots of fun stories about where we found our 12,500 unhoused people. Our typology settled on around ten groups. 

Fred and Joe represented the easiest groups because we would just use some of the ridiculous amounts of money our agencies wasted for no purpose.

One category I vehemently protested that we should not spend a penny on, was called, and I’m not kidding, “The Happy Vagabond.”

Who was that be?  Well educated.  Likes to read.  Does not like what most of us would call a J-O-B.  Very happy to recline on the grass in a nice county park, with his back against a palm tree, probably reading Marx and Engels.

Another category I disagreed with was “the 18-25-year-old kid with long hair who wouldn’t get it cut or get a job so dad tossed him out of the house.” How many taxpayers really want to subsidize these two groups? 

Three other groups were drug addicts, alcohol abusers, and the mentally ill.  Some folks were in all three groups.

How would The Capster solve the crisis of the unhoused?

  First, follow the lead of the South Bend Center for the Homeless, which is the state of the art of such programs, or the Hope Rescue Mission. A place to stay with people there to help you figure things out.

Second, use grant money, donations and government services to take care of the Freds and Joes. Help them get into a rental because that, along with some counseling, will pretty much solve their situation.

Third, for most of the rest, place them on 72-hour involuntary detention so we can get a handle on their particular situations. Many with mental illnesses can be stabilized with certain drugs. Even if they don’t want to take medication, make them. If not, repeat the process.

For those being held back by criminal backgrounds, they can be incarcerated — three hots and a cot, as we used to call it. Over a few months, they can get back to a stabilized situation with some kind of housing and some kind of employment.  Keep at it.  This may also run some of these folks out of town.  Fine with me.

  Others, with no other solution, can be handled quite easily. In every urban area with vagrants on the street, an empty building is not far away. Give the vagrants nice tents, soft and comfortable sleeping bags.  Build them bath and shower rooms.  Provide laundry.  Provide barbers and beauticians.  Provide clothes. Pay for round-the-clock security to make sure that nobody is messing around in the wrong tent or shower.  

Isn’t this preferable to having people vagranting in public? On our sidewalks and in our parks?  And it’s way cheaper than what is spent today.

Why isn’t it done?  Because Do-Gooders come from the same political class as Rules Makers. There are all kinds of government ordinances forbidding the Vacant Building for Vagrant Housing Plan I’m proposing.  You need so many windows and fire extinguishers and exit doors and bathrooms per square footage, and other blah blah blah.  

Geez. But we place zero restrictions on defecating in public and open drug use? As President Biden would say, “Come on, man.”

So, waive those government regs. Where does the money come from? It’s already there in places like San Francisco, which had a $1.1 billion budget for homelessness in 2021-22. 

How many homeless do they have?  They have no clue because they don’t do the Cappy Count.  

How much is L.A. spending?  $3 billion.  A reasonable guess is that both cities are spending on the north side of $50,000 annually per vagrant. An article in the South Bend Tribune reported that the national average is around $40,000.

If I were younger — much younger — I would offer to build a five-unit condo building, somewhere where the local government would pay me that $40,000 or $50,000 per unhoused person. That would easily cover the four unhoused people and also provide free housing and a stipend for a formerly unhoused person or couple, in this brand-spanking-new building.

They would have stable lives, get help and enter the workforce. 

Problem solved.  

I have another plan for jobs for these folks. I will unveil it if asked.