How Innovation Can Defeat Homelessness
“I see no advantage in these new clocks. They run no faster than the ones made 100 years ago.”
― Henry Ford
Henry Ford is credited with making cars better than those who came before him, but he also found a way to make them cheaper. So perhaps you can appreciate how maddening it must have been for Ford to look at the rising cost of goods that didn’t perform any better than their predecessors.
Same is true for social policy. While Ford revolutionized the production lines for cars, America’s homeless policy could benefit from a big dose of innovation. But where do we find the intellectual muscle?
The new book entitled “A Safety Net That Works” brings together some big thinkers on upward mobility, antipoverty programs, and government assistance. Among them is Kevin Corinth, a research fellow in economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, who argues that innovation, on both a small and a large scale, is a key component needed to fix the homelessness crisis facing too many Americans.
Homelessness in America remains a real and daunting problem despite reports of a decline in the number of homeless. While the number of homeless counted since 2007 has fallen, Corinth explains that the changing methodologies used to count the number of homeless may better explain the drop than an actual reduction in the number of people needing shelter. Meanwhile, Corinth reports, “A number of major cities have reportedly seen recent spikes in the numbers sleeping on the street, leading several to declare a homelessness state of emergency.”
Rather than double down on plans to end homelessness with old solutions, we should invest in innovative ideas that push progress forward, while ensuring that resources are prioritized to the people who need them most.”
That seems a simple ask … and a logical start. Knowing who needs help and then tailoring assistance programs to their needs seems like a much less complicated task if we know the population we’re dealing with and the variables in their situations. Without that, current housing assistance programs are throwing possible solutions at the wall to see what sticks.
To start, Corinth divides the homeless population into single adults versus families. He notes that “while 43 percent of homeless single adults are found on the street, only 10 percent of homeless families are found in unsheltered locations.” Disability, mental illness and addiction also play a critical role in identifying homeless individuals.
Better homelessness policy starts with making a fundamental distinction — homeless families are different than homeless single adults, and they require wholly different policy responses. Homeless families generally live in private rooms in shelters. They most often need temporary housing assistance to get back on their feet. Homeless single adults generally sleep on the street or in congregate shelters, and they often suffer from severe mental illness or substance abuse problems. They are more likely to require longer-term, service-rich interventions.”
After identifying who needs help and how we improve upon their current sheltering is just one step. Creating new ways to help people through better prioritization of resources, improved outreach, and increased quality of services, comes next.
How? One way would be to incentivize service providers – program managers who serve the homeless – by holding them responsible for achieving specific goals.
Service providers should be offered substantial flexibility in their service models, but they should be held accountable for their performance in helping their clients achieve desired outcomes.”
One way to do this could be to innovate new ways of tracking people, including where they sleep from night to night, if they are gaining and maintaining employment, and how their physical and mental health is affecting these variables.
Data mining, Corinth says, is critical to this kind of tracking, and as easy as using something as commonplace as smartphones:
Homelessness policy could be reoriented around smartphones and big data. Homeless individuals could be given free smartphones and full service plans in return for providing daily information on their sleeping locations, health status, and other outcomes. Research could be revolutionized with access to detailed, longitudinal data on an otherwise hidden population.”
He certainly does think outside the box. And why not? With more than $4 billion a year spent on programs, greater accountability would certainly help measure success.
Instead of continuing to spend, spend, spend on programs that aren’t meeting goals, we need big thinkers like Corinth to be backed by leaders who control purse strings. We need them to collaborate, to innovate, to invent, and to implement new ways to tackle old problems.
There is no one-size-fits-all to helping those who are homeless. It’s an extremely challenging and complex issue. And while it’s easy to point a finger at the failures to help keep individuals and families safely sheltered, we can look once again to America’s great innovator, Henry Ford, to remind us that it’s not enough to see the problem.
“Don’t find fault, find a remedy.”