A Capitalist Look At Helping Homeless

I truly believe that you don’t have to be a non profit organization to have an impact on your community, and I’ve spent a good portion of my adult life trying to figure out ways to make a profit while at the same time making sure that I improve the life of my local community. Homelessness is a huge issue in the United States, with over 600,000 people homeless as we speak. I’ve thought a long time about the issues with trying to fix homelessness.

What Are The Issues

There are a few specific issues with the homeless problem that we really can’t fix. The first being the most difficult to fix. You cannot make someone change. I know, this goes against everything we’ve been told, and everything we think we know, but it’s true. You can beg, you can cry, you can hog tie them, throw them in the trunk, and lock them up for years, but it doesn’t change the fact that you cannot force someone to change. They will change when they want, and how they want.

The second issue is an easier issue to deal with. Homeless are stereotyped as drug addled and drunks. They’re assumed to be lazy. We can fix this, though. It requires a change in public perception which won’t be easy, I admit, but it is possible. And isn’t that the most important thing? Possibility?

The third issue is a combination of two issues, actually. Infrastructure, and assumption. We assume that the only way to solve this problem is by putting these people into a bed, and giving them a bath, and then telling them “get a job.” But as soon as they do that, we deem them not homeless, and cut ties with them. This ends with the same people ending up right back on the street where they started. I think this is probably the most important aspect to tackle, because it helps stem the tide of homelessness.

But How?

I believe it’s important to tackle two things when it comes to this issue. The first is the cost of helping the homeless. Helping the homeless isn’t easy, and it isn’t cheap. If we go back to our figure of just 600,000 — a very low number compared to the actual figure — and estimate that it would cost us about $40,000 per year to help a single homeless person. You can do the math.

600,000 \times \$ 40,000 = \$ 24,000,000,000

That’s 24 billion dollars per year. Obviously the more homeless we help, and keep off the streets, the less this costs. You cannot solve this problem on donations alone, and I think if we really think about that, we understand that. But, a for profit business has the unique opportunity here to build a lasting relationship with a grateful clientele, by getting their hands dirty and taking charge here.

But, how? Well, before we get into that, let’s touch on the second thing we need to tackle. The people. I’ve been homeless. It’s not fun. I never landed on the street, but for 2 years I was without a permanent residence. The only thing that saved me from landing on the streets was my extensive network of family and friends–who I had nearly used up when I finally got myself into a job, met my wife, and pooled our resources to get out on our own.

The thing that should be clear about my struggle is that I didn’t do it on my own, by any means. In fact, if I had been forced to do it on my own, like so many homeless are, I’d most likely have ended up on the streets, and would either be dead, or in jail right now. That’s where my life was heading. And, I’m not stupid by any means, nor am I a drug addict, or a drunk. I hit some hard times, got behind on my expenses, the bills became too much and I couldn’t get out from under it. I’m still covering costs from back then, 7 years later. But we expect people to be able to take care of that themselves? Especially those people that are alcoholics or drug addicts. The amount of stress involved in taking care of your past debts is just insane.

So what do I propose?

I picture a building in every major homeless hub, a shelter of sorts, but more than that, a business. Actual apartments, actual tenants. Instead of being told to get a job, you have the option to learn a trade. I picture carpenters, computer programmers, chefs, and all sorts of other specialized teachers teaching their trade to the tenants at these resorts. But, how to pay for it? By charging rent. Not a lot, and only if they can afford it. When they come in, they are required to undergo counseling and drug testing, every week. At the start, everything is free.

But, then they get a job. When they get a job, the tenant submits paperwork to their employer to have the money deposited into a trust. This trust is under the control of the hub. The tenant will begin paying rent, small at first, based on their income, and they will then begin a personal finance course. They will be given an allowance from their trust, while their money will also be used to invest. This is where the money for the business will grow, by investing in the name of our tenants, and taking a percentage of the profits, as well as taking rent.

Once the tenant graduates the personal finance course they will be given a larger allowance. The entire goal of this process is to integrate them back into society in a gradual manner.  Doing it too fast can become overwhelming, and stressful. Doing this slowly allows them to tackle a single problem at a time, all while maintaining that relationship with the staff. During the process they will begin gathering up necessities in today’s world. Clean clothing, a regular living schedule, a working vehicle, a job, an apartment, access to medication and counseling. Once they have a wardrobe, a schedule, a vehicle and a regular job, they can be upgraded to an off-site apartment. Once they prove that they can handle this, they’re given their trust. Once this happens, they’ll have free access to the counseling services for a year.

This entire process I envision taking place over the course of 2 to 5 years. It’s a long time, but this isn’t a simple problem. The “solution” to homelessness is not finding them a home, contrary to popular belief. The solution is stopping them from returning to the streets.

If you’ve been homeless, or feel this could not work as a profitable business, please leave me a comment, I’d love to discuss ideas. If you’re sympathetic to the plight of the homeless, I’d like to suggest looking at Invisible People (http://invisiblepeople.tv/blog/) and donating if at all possible. Just because I think it will take a for-profit business to tackle this problem, doesn’t mean these guys aren’t doing great things.

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