The Cost of Doing Nothing – More Million Dollar Murrays Every Day!

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The High Cost of Doing Nothing

by Danny Fenster August 28, 2010 11:40 AM (PT)

A Savannah, Georgia paper ran a story this week about a chronic public inebriate and the burden his lifestyle puts on taxpayers in the area. The article talked about the repeated medical issues, the emergency room visits, the shelter stays and the arrests; “at $55 per day, jail administrators say, their efforts have cost taxpayers about $73,480.” Of course, that is the cost of incarceration alone; in a similar story that ran in The New Yorker in 2006, one person stuck in a similar cycle had racked up hospital bills of $100,000 in only six months.

The Savannah story did a good job of pointing out the cyclical nature of how chronic homelessness is so often managed rather than solved. So many chronically homeless become “entangled in a high-priced cycle that takes them from the street to jail, from jail to the … mental health care facility and back to the street. It is a multimillion dollar Band-Aid for a hemorrhaging problem,” writes the reporter, before pointing to the success of the Chatham-Savannah Mental Health Court. That court targets people caught in “the pricey jail-to-(hospital) cycle” and diverts them to monitored care and regular housing.

It seems obvious enough: get chronically homeless people into housing and targeted services. After all, says an employee of the Mental Health Court, “what’s being spent to keep them in jail would cover the cost of what we do to get them on track twice over.”

If only it were so easy. The New Yorker article is in my mind a landmark bit of work on the issue, both because the publication’s broad circulation had a chance at bringing the dialogue to a national level, and because it was the crystalline writing of Malcolm Gladwell. The article, “Million Dollar Murray” tells the story of Murray Barr, “a bear of a man, an ex-marine, six feet tall and heavyset.” Barr used to get arrested multiple times in a single day for public drunkenness, be too drunk for the jail’s drunk tank and taken to the hospital to sober up before going back to jail. Barr was sent to a treatment program at one point and “under the equivalent of house arrest” he thrived, writes Gladwell, keeping a stable job and saving up $6,000. When the program ended, “they said congratulations, and put him back on the street. He spent that six thousand in a week or so.” The point is that these sort of people need rigid, managed structure to succeed, and by providing it we are rewarded multifariously.

The problem, as Gladwell points out, is the moral apprehensions (or lack of empathy, I might say) people have in doting on and giving free rent to someone who has continually made bad decisions. As one commenter on the Savannah story, clearly missing the point and possessing magical numbers, posted: “These ‘Homeless’ ‘Poor’ people make on average more money than the majority of Savannah residents, and you people feel sorry for them … When they are on the street corners begging, they average between $60-80 an hour. I don’t know about you, but that’s 3-4X as much as i do … Ask ’em where it goes, every bit of it goes to booze and drugs. These people are homeless because they’re good at it. End of story.”

All we know of Barr is that he was an ex-marine, and of Samuel Wayne Anderson — the alcoholic from the Savannah story — that he is a veteran with a kid serving in Iraq. There’s plenty in those scant details that might make an ordinary man take to the bottle. My first day on the job my boss, speaking of the chronically homeless that were “drunks” or “didn’t want help,” said that 99 percent of the time there is a reason, “good” or “bad,” why they “chose” to sleep on concrete every night and wake up and immediately seek a drink every morning. Ask D (who I am happy to report has been sober for twelve days and wants to start working again).

That is, however, beside the point. The chronically homeless can be housed and cared for, says Gladwell, for “at most fifteen thousand dollars, or about a third of what he or she would cost on the street.” A large part of the article centers on the fact that the chronically homeless — the visibly homeless “drunks and crazies” we see on the street — are actually a very small percentage of the homeless, but are the ones using a very large percentage of expensive and taxing resources. On a graph of service usage they would cluster at one end — a “power-law distribution,” in statistics-speak. Housing and servicing this population would cut down on costs more than just about anything. “It cost us one million dollars not to do something about Murray,” one of the police officers in Murray’s hometown of Denver tells Gladwell.

Gladwell, in that inimitable style of his, sums up the basic predicament as well as anyone might. So well, in fact, that I’ll leave you with it:

“That is what is so perplexing about power-law homeless policy. From an economic perspective the approach makes perfect sense. But from a moral perspective it doesn’t seem fair. Thousands of people in the Denver area no doubt live day to day, work two or three jobs, and are eminently deserving of a helping hand — and no one offers them the key to a new apartment. Yet that’s just what the guy screaming obscenities and swigging Dr. Tich gets. When the welfare mom’s time on public assistance runs out, we cut her off. Yet when the homeless man trashes his apartment we give him another. Social benefits are supposed to have some kind of moral justification. We give them to widows and disabled veterans and poor mothers with small children. Giving the homeless guy passed out on the sidewalk an apartment has a different rationale. It’s simply about efficiency.”

Photo credit: Darin Barry

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