Monday, March 13, 2006

People and Problems

I don't have time to cover this in the depth it deserves right now.

This was the kernal that started an entire string of thought, added to fifteen years of dealing with criminals, the violent and the insane.

The 'Normal Distribution', commonly called the bell curve, is one of those statistical fundamentals that are everywhere. In a given group of people, some are very short, some very tall, and the majority make up the middle. Same with intelligence. Same with most things. The mistake we make is that the bell curve is so common that we assume it is universal until proven otherwise. Many of our solutions to big problems are based on this assumption even when the assumption is wrong.

Homelessness was one of these issues. Society as a whole has assumed that homelessness is a fairly long term situation that follows a normal distribution: a very small number are homeless for only a few days, a very small number are permanently homeless and the majority are somewhere in the middle, homeless for a few months to a few years.

That's completely wrong. According to the research done by Dennis Culhane, it turns out the most common length of time for a person to be homeless is one day. The second most common is two days. These short time, one-time homeless account for eighty percent of the homeless. People are people and they are adaptable. If they find themselves homeless and don't like it they will overcome and get on with their lives.

There were about 10% who come in periodically for a couple of weeks, usually in winter. The last 10% were the chronic homeless. It was this group that make up the people that most of us think of as homeless, whether you think of them as pitiful and severely disabled or alcoholics and grifters.

This means many things. First and foremost, it means the problem is small enough to solve, not just treat.

Philip Mangano, mentioned in the article, has a solution to the problem of chronic homelessness: it would actually save money to give them a nice apartment and provide for all their needs with a dedicated staff of social workers. It would be cheaper than it is to pick up their bills for Emergency Room visits and jail time.

I had a solution, too, but society isn't ready to let people die. I firmly believe that when a safety net begins to enable, it must be removed from that individual. If the person still continues to behave in a self-destructive way society should have no guilt when they suffer the consequences. But that's me- I'm aware that I don't exactly have a standard outlook on problems.

Side thought (and there were many side thoughts from this article) my instinct, when given a problem, is to solve the people (shut down the threat, train the rookie, counsel the errant) to change them in a crisis or help them change themselves... others, including Mangano, solve the environment.

More side thoughts- criminals also follow this distribution. Violent crime is committed by a relatively small percentage of criminals, and they do far more than we ever get them for. Solve the problem or solve the person?

The article applies this to police misconduct- the vast majority of officers do an excellent professional job, a small percentage are asses. The whole idea of the standard response to negative media attention (more sensitivity training) is based on the bell curve assumption. Mass training always is trying to shift the curve a little bit to the 'saint' side. The trouble is that when you have a distribution that runs closer to 30% saint; 25% hero; 20% good guy; 15% civil servant; 7% lazy bastard; and 3% asshole the training insults 75% of your people and the 10% you're trying to reach either don't care or won't act. Again, when the real problem is this small, you can solve it. I prefer firing, but our agency has a tendancy to put the worst officers in positions away from the public, which sometimes involves a promotion. Solving the environment instead of the person.

Not enough time to draw out all the things this article made me think of. Read it.

Did you get a visceral reaction to the idea of giving the worst of the worst everything: housing, medical care, special help? According to the article, if you got that reaction because it's wrong to reward people for being bad, you're a right winger. If the reaction was based on the belief that no one should get it unless everyone does, you're a left winger. I suppose if you're reaction was "Wouldn't it be cheaper to just let them die?" you'd probably get the cold-hearted bastard label.

One more: There is a difference between a policing problem and a policy problem. I don't necessarily want to tie this directly to the two statistical curves without more thought. However, given a problem, sometimes it can be solved by writing guidelines and sometimes it can be solved by enforcing the guidelines already in place. Writing more gun laws is a policy approach to a percieved problem: if we throw more words at it, define more actions as wrong or criminal, fewer people will die. In truth, almost evry bad thing you can do with a firearm is already illegal. The laws just need to be enforced. It is a policing problem.


The Moody Minstrel said...

Fascinating read. Thanks for passing that on.

I recall the time when, in my sociology class at OSU, the teacher brought in five actual homeless people from Portland for us to interview. One of them was a teen who had fled his abusive, alcoholic father. He said he had no intention of remaining homeless and intended to get his own flat and a job as soon as he was able. Two were hobos, i.e. they traveled around constantly and were homeless by choice for the sake of the adventure. One was a bag lady who was homeless because she said she liked life better that way. ("There's a lot less to have to worry about," she said.) The last one was, in his own words, a "wino". He was homeless because, as far as he was concerned, his life had fallen apart and he saw no point in trying to put it back together.

I think that demonstrated a lot of what you were saying. Only two of the five could be called "victims", and only one of those was in a situation that wasn't easily remedied. (Frankly, the "wino" said he didn't care what happened to him and didn't need or want any help from anyone else, so it seems difficult to justify giving him "aid". If he can be trained and put to work, excellent, but if he's just going to whine and wine again, well...what can we do?)

Anonymous said...

I say put 'em all on treadmills hooked up to the power grid. They earn points for so many 'mets' they generate, points that they can trade for drugs, booze, clothes, food, etc. They get a job, exercise that makes them healthier and more focused and negative reinforcement through daily beatings. (These would be free).

Molly said...

I have a similar problem with the chronic pain syndromes I treat. Someone is given a diagnosis like "Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy," they spend hours researching the internet and come back either terrified or resigned, not realizing that it is the small percentage that become crippled by pain and permanently disabled that get the most scientific and sympathetic attention. Many people with these syndromes live full, fulfilling lives.