Everyday Tragedies

EconTalk Extra
by Amy Willis
Erica Sandberg on Homelessness... Rana Foroohar on the Financial...

A special thank you to Alice Temnick for creating this week's Extra.

giving homeless.jpg Do you drop coins in a cup or hand a dollars to homeless people? Does this help that person or perpetuate the "problem"? Does it make you feel better because you are doing something? Have you wondered, as Erica Sandberg and Russ Roberts do, if there is a better way to address this uncomfortable political and social issue?

Podcaster and writer Erica Sandberg talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about homelessness in San Francisco. Sandberg talks about what the city can do about homelessness and her experience with Downtown Streets Team, which gives homeless people in the Bay Area the chance to work in exchange for gift cards that let them buy food and other basics.

Share your thoughts with us about this model or any other private organizations you are aware of that are addressing issues of homelessness. We love to hear from you!

1. A common misconception or description of homelessness is the number of women and children "on the streets". But Sandberg argues that this is not what we are seeing, that the face of homelessness predominantly one of a single male often representing behaviors of substance abuse and/or mental illness. Is this consistent with your first hand observations or second hand information of the problem?

2. Russ and Erica debate the multi-faceted argument for "giving" to the homeless. How do we know what the money will be used for? Is it enough to make any difference? Does it perpetuate the problems of substance and alcohol abuse? Does giving model a "right behavior" for our children? Do we justify giving as a means to feel better about ourselves?

3. Human dignity and the state of homelessness is addressed in the conversation. How might one's sense of dignity be affected by a) government "solutions" such as entering shelters or treatment programs if they are even available b) Russ's choice to give his money unconditionally, enabling individual choice in spending? c) the mentioned libertarian view of minding one's own business and ignoring someone's unfortunate circumstance?

4. What aspects of the DownTown Streets Team make this a successful working model?
What is concerning? Is it sustainable? Russ explores a need for follow up data and success stories, yet also considers the point of the starfish story. What might encourage more people to volunteer or fund efforts like this one?

5. Sandberg shares that she received much hate-mail in response to her claim of wanting to do the opposite of helping the homeless. What does she mean when by "wanting them to help us" and further, "to see them help the world?" How would recent EconTalk guest Paul Bloom respond to Sandberg's desire?

Comments and Sharing

TWITTER: Follow Russ Roberts @EconTalker

COMMENTS (11 to date)
Julia writes:

I used to give cash to the homeless, but stopped after I developed more relationships with people who had actually struggled with addiction, or whose relatives/friends had struggled with addiction. The last thing a friend/relative of an addict wants is for someone to enable them to get high again.

What I do (when I feel reasonably safe) is look the person in the eye, smile, and offer to take them to purchase what they need. 9 out of 10 times they refuse (sometimes they are angry I won't give money, sometimes they say thanks anyway). But occasionally they take me up on it. About a month ago, a woman let me take her to CVS and buy diapers and laundry detergent, which I was more than happy to do. Another time I was with one of my daughters and a woman who initially asked for money allowed us to take her to a fast food restaurant and purchase a meal for her. We stayed and talked as long as we could and hugged her goodbye. I was grateful for the opportunity to do that with my (17 year old) daughter for the reasons Russ mentioned in the podcast.

I actually think what the Downtown Streets Team is doing is incredibly important, even if it couldn't be scaled up quickly. (I'm not saying it couldn't, I'm just saying even if) It is SO vital that there be some sort of path to real work for the extremely low-skilled, a path the minimum wage has taken away. This creative use of gift cards (and genuine human-scale help and encouragement) is essential, even if it can't help every single person. It makes no sense not to solve the problem for one person until we can solve the problem for everyone. Homelessness is a condition with a variety of causes, not a category with only one kind of person in it. The least we can do is help people who want to work do so.

Luke Juarez writes:

Re: Q4

Is it better to have ten organizations each assisting a hundred homeless persons or one organization capable of assisting thousands?

Seems like the larger good organizations become, the more negative attention they'll attract. The nature of rewards vs. wages (paying via gift cards) sounds like a lightning rod for some self-righteous politician.

cmcrawford2 writes:

I don't know what kind of "Libertarian" you're talking about, but ignoring the needs of fellow human beings is not part of my philosophy. I'm a Libertarian and I volunteer at my church to help transform the classrooms into four bedrooms for homeless families for a week 3-4 times a year, buy food, wash linens, etc. About 20 other churches in our area form a consortium and fund a day center while providing room and board for a week at a time. The day center is always the same. All the kids are picked up at the day center and taken to the school districts they had been going to before they became homeless, and parents receive guidance for finding work, building up a security deposit and finding a permanent home at their own pace. They don't have to be moved out after six months the way the government mandates because it's a fully private operation.
We also provide dinner for about 100 people together with the other two churches in town once a month at the Salvation Army.

Will writes:


I just moved from DC to Seattle, and was shocked by the homelessness problem in Seattle vs. what I had seen in DC. I was curious about the dynamics and makeup of the homeless community our here, but could find very little data. I'd be interested in a show that looks into people or groups who are working to quantify the causes of homelessness and the issues affecting the homeless. Without data I don't know how we begin to tackle this problem. I know there has been some great work done to tackle veteran homelessness, DC supposedly had a solid program, but what about the rest of the homeless community?


Paul Henry writes:

I didn't feel that there was a good resolution to the question about giving money. Both Russ and Erica made good points.

I wonder if giving money might reduce crime if it is inevitable that an addict will find the means to get their fix.

P.J. Hill writes:

So--there are numerous homeless people in San Francisco who are willing to work and would like the dignity of a job--and there are numerous tasks to be done. Why does it take a non-profit organization staffed by volunteers to make such useful social interactions happen? Why doesn't the San Francisco Department of Public works --or whatever its official name is -- simply post a meeting place where they will provide brooms, scrub bushes and buckets where the homeless can show up, do a day's work, and get cash at the end of the day?

The answer, of course, is obvious. The labor market is highly regulated. Minimum wages would have to be paid. A substantial bureaucracy would have to make sure income taxes are withheld, and FICA deductions would have to be made. Assuming San Francisco public employees are unionized, more labor regulations would have to be followed. OSHA rules about workplace safety would have to be met.

I applaud Downtown Streets Team for providing mutually advantageous transactions, but its efforts tell us that some of the marginalized people in society struggle precisely because regulations prevent exchanges. One hundred years ago a down-on-their-luck person could show up at a farm or small business, offer to work for a day, be paid, and both parties would view themselves as being better off. Not so today.


Ken P writes:


The homeless are more mobile than you may realize. Seattle has much warmer winters even if it rains a lot. There are other factors that can cause them to choose a certain location. I would be cautious about assuming that homeless people come from the area that they end up.

Alvin writes:

Question to Julia (anyone else can chime in). Based on your position of not giving cash to people struggling with addictions, you would not give money to your, say, teenage kids if they were drug/alcohol addicts? And what happens when they turn to crime to get the money to buy the drugs?

Rod Miller writes:

The Downtown Streets Team work is to be applauded. Homelessness is not a new problem. In California the closing of the mental health institutions in the 60's was the beginning of the modern version. At least this is my understanding. The state of the art programs provide housing and mental health care. The dignity of work will not cure addiction or mental illness. Please read the work of Dr. Gabor Mate. https://drgabormate.com/book/in-the-realm-of-hungry-ghosts/ Have him as a guest. Data is available from the Cities that have provided housing and mental health care. These are superior programs. I don't care if the nanny state provides nanny services if it solves the human suffering of people living on the streets. Until you get to deeper issues of mental health these people will not be healed.

Dennis writes:

Thanks for covering this topic. Apparently one of the big contributors to addiction is lack of meaningful relationships. Perhaps this factor is as important as the others such as money and pride in workmanship. Programs like this can help people help themselves when they feel or are trapped (don't understand the choices, have obstacles, etc). The impact would probably be much less if they were paid, given meaningful work, but worked in isolation. I do sidewalk repairs, and it is heartwarming when pedestrians stop for a short chat and express appreciation for the work you are doing which they must also experience. Kudos to these people for taking action.

William writes:

Once in SF about 20 years ago, I spoke with a man panhandling about his activities and his life. He was 60+ y.o., single, received food stamps, general assistance and paid $40/mo for a subsidized, one-bedroom apartment in the Tenderloin. He made about $120/wk panhandling in downtown SF. As I calculated at the time, he had more disposable income than my family with one child and two employed adults. Granted, I considered my life better materially and spititually but he was not destitute by any means.

Grace Cathedral in SF sponsored a field trip about the same time to the St. Anthony's food kitchen in the Tenderloin and, in the sum-up at the end of the visit, I asked if they talked to their clients about the Christian messages about personal responsibility, prudence, fortitude, temperance, etc and how these messages could elevate them out of their situation (as it has historically for many). I also asked if they screened their clients for drug abuse or alcoholism and either counseled them or restricted their access to their services. They did neither.

The Supreme court in their infinite lack of wisdom has declared panhandling as free speech and prevented communities from controlling such behavior. The homeless advocates are subsidizing homelessness by providing food, housing and other services without restrictions to people who, in some cases, could and, if necessary, would provide for themselves.

Ms. Sandberg's thoughts centered around the "dignity" that was provided through subsidized voluntary make work, although she provided no evidence that the participants elevated their dignity or even their material well-being. One client got a job with the city government doing what he had been doing in the program, although such a job in the city government is, in many cases, welfare with benefits! The participants know exactly what's going on; there getting free stuff for little effort. It's not like they have anything else to do! Toward the end of the conversation I was struck by how she spoke enthusiastically to the clients about their participation; she sounded like she was cheering an early elementary school child about learning to tie their shoes. She, unconsciously, I'm sure, regards these adults as children.

As a conservatarian I believe adults should be treated as adults and, as adults, should held responsible for their choices. Treating adults as children will keep them as children and require constant subsidies throughout their lives, not to mention subsidizing homeless advocates who are no less greedy than capitalists. The solution to homelessness is less money for homelessness. Those who refuse to accept personal responsibility for their lives should not be subsidized.

Comments for this podcast episode have been closed
Return to top