Human Compassion and the Federal Bureaucracy: Now That’s a Future Story!
I read an interesting article in the New York Times the other day. The headline was “New Campaign Shows Progress for the Homeless” and the sub-headline quote was “Cost -benefit analysis may be the new expression of compassion”. OK, lets read this.
A little known, formally dormant, office in the Federal government called the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness has, in the last few years, launched a major initiative to reduce the number of homeless living on the streets by providing free housing. Evidently, the catalyst of this effort is a man named Philip F. Mangano, a Bush appointee who has spent five years visiting numerous mayors in an effort to coordinate efforts to get those that are homeless off the streets. It was Mangano who spoke the above quote, as he uses ‘cost benefit analysis’ to persuade and financially support urban efforts to provide free homes, saying that it is cheaper to house chronically homeless people than to have them repeatedly visit shelters, soup kitchens, hospitals, drug centers and jails.
This entire approach has been modeled on a 1990s campaign initiated by a New York group called the Pathways to Housing. The process was to get chronically homeless people into ‘supportive-housing’ where they are monitored by social workers and offered psychiatric and other services in the hope of stabilizing their lives. According to the article, in experiments around the country, 80% of such housed people remained in their quarters after a year. Around the country, cities like Philadelphia and San Francisco have initiated 10-year plans to fundamentally move all the homeless into free housing. Evidently, the San Francisco effort is very successful in that it was predicted that by the end of 2006, 2,200 of the estimated 3,000 chronically homeless will be in living in apartments.
Why write about this in a futurist blog? Well, aside from the fact that it is a really positive upbeat story about committed people , people in government no less , making a difference to what has become a chronic social problem, it points to the way we will have to act and think in the future if we, as a species, want to survive.
First a digression. As a young man, in the early 1970’s, I traveled to India. One of the things that made a profound impression upon me was the fact that in every city and town I visited, there were people living outside, on the streets, in the alleys, everywhere. It was part of the culture; vast numbers of the extremely poor and those in the lowest castes lived on the streets as that was their place. Well, as a young man from the richest country in the world, this was a stunning and new experience for me to comprehend and process. The place I put it was that, well, this is a ‘third world country’ and that’s the way it is. I went on to find great beauty, inwardly and outwardly in India, but the image of teeming masses living, cooking and washing on the streets stayed with me. Fast forward to the 1990s when on a trip to San Francisco I was walking around downtown and kept thinking of India. Why, why are these images of India popping up? Then it hit me, it was the homeless; aggressive homeless people asking for spare change several times every block. I stopped in my tracks, literally, and the thought hit me hard: America has become a third world country. This is where I had put the experience of people living on the streets. Of course, the next thought sequence was about how, on spaceship earth, a problem somewhere can easily become a problem somewhere else, and that all is connected.
The futurist angle here is straightforward. We are now in an age where the long honored value of growth is coming up against the fact that we live on a planet with finite resources. We will explore this at length in the future, as it is the key issue that humanity must address if we are to survive beyond this next century. On the assumption that in some way, resources are finite, then allocation of resources is one of the overarching issues for us all.
This wonderful effort to house the homeless, and thus, ultimately not only act with compassion but to lower governmental costs to care for these citizens, takes money. In the past couple of years, the results have been so good that funding has increased from $3 to 4 billion a year. So, we must look at the fact that the Federal Government has finite financial resources as evidenced by the hundreds of billions of annual deficits the Bush administration is running. So, an extra billion to get our homeless citizens off the streets and perhaps on to productive lives, or spend that money for an extra week of the Iraq war or buying several of those pork barrel ‘bridges to nowhere’?
In a world with limits, in a society structurally based on a soon to be depleted source of energy and governments spending excessively beyond their means, we will have to have larger discussions on how to deploy the assets we have.
In closing, I must say that when it comes to compassion, there are few wiser or more eloquent people than the Dalai Lama. In this world of bureaucrats and politicians ,however, Philip Mangano may be on to something. If the outcome of ‘cost-benefit analysis’ means more acts of compassion, then I am for it!