Intro. [Recording date: March 16, 2017.]
Russ Roberts: Our topic for today is a little bit different: it's homelessness, and some creative ways that people in the San Francisco area and surrounding areas are helping homeless people. Let's start, Erica. Tell us about yourself. What's your background?
Erica Sandberg: Hey, Russ. Yeah. My background is in personal finance, consumer finance actually--banking, credit issues, budgeting. And I do have a podcast--it's called "Adventures with Money," and it's all about how you can enjoy life no matter what you own or own or owe--it really doesn't matter. And that's my focus. It really is about how people can use money in a way that makes them really happy--truly fulfilled. And, kind of taking it down to a very basic level with that. And it's something that I love. It's something that I'm very passionate about.
Russ Roberts: So, on the surface that seems a very long way from homelessness. And, you live in the city of San Francisco. I spend my summers in the Palo Alto area, which is about--I don't know, 30 or 45 minutes or so south of the city itself. But in the whole Bay Area--partly for a variety of reasons--partly the weather, partly the nature of the citizenry, there are a lot of people living on the streets in the San Francisco area. And, as a citizen there, as a resident, you have encountered them just going about your life, right?
Erica Sandberg: Absolutely. It's a small city. So, when it comes to actual size, we don't have a lot of room for people to be dispersed when they are homeless. They are here. They are everywhere. And it's really alarming. I know that when people come to the city, they are so eager to enjoy it. And it's gorgeous. I mean, physically, it's one of the most beautiful cities in the United States, in my opinion. But then you see this situation, that's overwhelming, that really does shock people. And again, I think it is, in part, because there's not a lot of places for them to go. We've got about 6500 people technically on the street. And they are concentrated in very particular areas. And you can't get away from it. It's something that you see, feel, smell, touch. It's here.
Russ Roberts: Let's start a little bit with some philosophical issues. I think, certainly in the 1980s when homelessness became a political issue, and a social issue, a lot of people viewed it as a failure of government. They blamed Reagan budget cuts. They blamed it--homelessness--on housing policy. But, since then--and we've done a variety of things as a policy space to try to help people who are homeless, and deal with it--since then there has been some recognition that some of the people are on the street, maybe a significant number, have emotional and mental issues. Not merely a financial problem that they can't make ends meet or pay rent or own a house. And part of it is, when we do have government programs to help folks who are out on the street, some of them, for a whole bunch of reasons, just don't want to be part of that. Are those issues that arise in San Francisco?
Erica Sandberg: They are pervasive. And it's really interesting to me. Because I think many times we are asked to believe something that our eyes are telling us is completely different. We get a a lot of news reports and homeless advocates who say, 'Hey, these are, you know, women and children who are homeless.' And I'm looking around, thinking, 'This is not what I'm saying.' This is--right--and I know that they do exist. I'm not saying they don't. But, overwhelmingly, it is male. People who are clearly on a substance--alcohol, drugs, whatever it is that they are on--they are on something. And/or mentally ill. And--that is what we're seeing. So, is this a Grapes of Wrath-type of migration of people desperately seeking work and, you know, begging on the streets saying, 'We'll do anything!'? It's just not what I'm seeing. It's not what other people see. So--
Russ Roberts: When you talk about women with children, I think, some of them I assume are in homeless shelters. It's hard for us, unless you are working with that community it's hard to assess their, um, how common that is. And this of course is not just a San Francisco problem. We have it here in Washington, D.C. where I live outside the summer. It's certainly the case in NY [NYC?], which is not pleasant, but it's not uncommon, obviously, to see people on the street. We're talking about people who are literally living on the street--sleeping, collecting stuff, often pushing shopping carts with their belongings, or who have created little shelters of cardboard. It's a very tragic situation. And, they are predominantly male. And I don't--of course the substance abuse or use issue is hard to disentangle, because some people are probably are on alcohol and drugs, because they are miserable. And some are alcohol and drug users who became homeless as a result. So causation is running in both directions.
Erica Sandberg: Absolutely. And it really is. To use an old cliché--the chicken or the egg? What came first, here? And in a way it kind of doesn't matter. Because if you want to disentangle all of it, well, good luck with that.
Russ Roberts: Not so relevant if you are trying to help. Although it is--in the big picture it's relevant. I think--but I want to get back to your personal story, because you wrote a really interesting personal column for the San Francisco Chronicle about what you called 'Six Tragedies.' So, talk about that experience--what you wrote about in that article and what kind of reaction you got.
Erica Sandberg: Sure. Like a lot of people, I was just really fed up: you are kind of walking around thinking, 'What is being done?' We're walking by these people who are either dead, dying, in some way, shape or form suffering. And we get so anaesthetized to it: we walk by, we're not seeing it any longer.
Russ Roberts: [?] Right. We do--or we shuttle away. Or we kind of turn our heads and go, 'That's really horrible.' And we just keep walking. And it really hit me, over a long period of time how that is part of the problem. How, that absolutely is--we're not--and this is, I think, very key, and this is why I wrote the piece--is: We don't have the answers. As a person, I'm a consumer-finance person. I don't have the answer to this. But I do know that a lot of money is being generated that goes towards these issues. And we're not seeing any results. We're seeing these terrible things happen, and who is doing anything about it? It drove me nuts. It absolutely did. So, I just decided to kind of take it on and say, 'These are people who need assistance.' Now, let's get the people who are supposed to be doing something to do something. And , this is why I will never go into politics, because people like me, I want to needle them and say, 'Hey, we're on you. We're watching; this is what we're seeing and we really want some action. And it's up to you to figure out what that action may be.'
Russ Roberts: Now, I think you're a mom. Is that correct?
Erica Sandberg: Correct.
Russ Roberts: So, how old are your children, if I may ask?
Erica Sandberg: I have a daughter, and she's 14.
Russ Roberts: Okay. So, I have four kids; we live in the suburbs. We don't come across homeless people. Although, it's interesting--the suburban version of this is, and this has happened over the last 5 years, is people stand on street corners now at intersections with cardboard signs in the suburbs asking for money. They look fairly healthy. They look very different from the people that I see on the streets in the more urban environments. But beyond that, it was rare that I'd have to encounter a homeless person with one of my children. And, as I mentioned in the recent episode with Robert Whaples, I often give money to homeless people. Not a lot, but if they are asking, I often give. And I view that as the right thing to do. A lot of people don't agree with that. But that is something I wanted to model for my children. But, of course, I don't see them every day. And if I were walking by homeless folks every day I think I would probably become something closer--I worry I'd become something closer to anaesthetized, as you mentioned. And certainly with my kids, having to learn about that, I think that would be an interesting part of their childhood. But you have to decide how to talk about it and how to deal with that. Right?
Erica Sandberg: You got it. And I made this commitment when, my husband and I, we decided to stay here in San Francisco, knowing what's going on. Seeing it every day. To approach it in a very specific way. I want to make--I want to be part of something that is going to make an improvement, a long-term improvement. And when you--Russ, when I heard you say, 'Oh, I'll give them some money,' I just hung my head and I said, 'Noooo.' Everybody has got a personal choice. If you want--
Russ Roberts: I'm making a short-term improvement--
Erica Sandberg: Okay. That's right. And a lot of it is a very--you feel like you are doing the right thing. It helps you. And this is what I got to--I threw this out to Facebook today. I said, 'Do you give to people on the street or do you not? And if so, why? What's going on?' And almost everybody replied, 'Yeah, I do.' And because why? 'It makes me feel good. I'm doing the right thing. So, it's, I think it--not that there's anything wrong with personal gratification. You feel good doing something. But it is really doing anything for the person? Meh? No.
Russ Roberts: I feel good about it, not because I think I'm doing the right thing. I feel good about because I think I'm helping them. Now, I could be wrong. I might not actually be helping them. I might be making their situation worse. I might be discouraging them from choosing some other option. Right? I might be discouraging them from going to a more formal system of help. But my view is that the people I'm giving money to, the more tragic-looking ones--they either seem uneasy about having an interaction with, say, a non-profit or a government agency. And their lives are miserable. I feel bad for them. And I'm trying to do a very small amount to make their lives a little more pleasant. You think that's wrong?
Erica Sandberg: I think that's a decent argument. But I'm sorry to say, I don't think that actually stands the--the test of whether or not it's really going to do any good. Because you know, and I know--and we have to be so observant here--is: What is going to be done with that money? It kills me, it kills me to see it go to waste. And I'm going to make a judgment: It goes to waste if it's going to go to alcohol, drugs--you know, something harmful in the long run. And they get--
Russ Roberts: So why do you--
Erica Sandberg: even deeper than that. Ultimately even deeper than that. I think it's--
Russ Roberts: So, why do--go ahead.
Erica Sandberg: I think it's wrong that, when it does go to drugs, it's perpetuating the drug cycle in the United States and globally. I don't want this perpetuated. And so I guess I'll just kind of take that stance, which is, 'Uch, I don't want to be a part of that. I don't want to be a part of that.'
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I understand that. I mean, I'll--let me go the other extreme. I don't think I have a drinking problem. Okay? I could be wrong, of course. Some people find--one of the ways you find out somebody has a drinking problem is they don't think they do. But I have, maybe, oh, might have 2 or 3 scotches a week, shots of scotch. Might be 2. Some weeks it's 1. Probably there are some weeks that it's 4. And an occasional, once in a while I have a scotch. And it gives me a lot of pleasure. I like the taste of it; it makes me feel good. And that's really the limit of my recreational drug habit, other than NyQuil, which I took last night because I've got a cold. So, I'm kind of a--not a very interesting case. But I feel a little bit awkward telling a person on the street that those pleasures--even when they are destructive--are not for you. I'll give you a hamburger, or a sprout or a broccoli tree, but you can't drink on my nickel. And you can't use drugs on my nickel. Now, I understand the reality is, is that some people's lives are ruined by drugs. Some people's lives are ruined by alcohol. And it could be those are the people I'm giving a dollar to. Or sometimes it's a quarter. I understand that a quarter of dollar is not a life-changing event. It's never going to be part of a long-term solution. We're going to get to some of those in a little bit--which I think is really wonderful, the longer-term ones. But for when I'm just walking by--to me--and I understand there's a little bit of illusion here--but to me, I'm treating this person before me with the utmost dignity. Which is something that may be lost. They are sleeping on the street. And I'm saying to them, when I give them my cash, which I give them freely to spend as they see fit, 'I recognize your dignity as a fellow human being. I am not going to let you--I am not going to treat you as a child. I am going to give you the freedom to spend this gift as you see fit.' Even if it's not how I would want that person to spend it. So, that's my position. You push back against it.
Erica Sandberg: Okay. Well, I think it's definitely the kind position. And it's the empathetic position, as well.
Russ Roberts: I know you heard the Paul Bloom episode as well--
Erica Sandberg: I do. I loved it. And it was very impactful. And I have to say, I am not above or below giving money every once in a long while. And you asked about my daughter and about raising a child, in this atmosphere. And I will do it so carefully. If somebody is playing an instrument, or telling a joke--I want to reward behavior. Which sounds so pedantic. Like, you know, I'm the parent and I'm rewarding--it's not that. It's, 'Hey, you are doing something. You are making an effort. I love effort.'
Russ Roberts: Me, too.
Erica Sandberg: So, in those circumstances I'm much more motivated to give. But I'm always--and this is something that you could do without giving and maybe having a potential harm. Which is, like, the downtown streets, you might never going to get to it. But, just say, 'Hi.' It's that--you're human, I'm human, I'm saying 'Hi.' Fabulous. I do it all the time. And it can create kind of a shock. But it's great. It's free. It's never bad. It's always good.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, that's for sure.
Erica Sandberg: And--
Russ Roberts: But it's a little bit scary. You know, it's interesting. There are times I've probably given money and looked away. I try not to. I try to look the person in the eye and say--with--as if that's a great human contact. It's some human contact. It's not very impressive, actually, right? But it's better than, 'I can't look at you. Here's some money to assuage my conscience.'
Erica Sandberg: Definitely. I'm going to tell you a quick story here. In San Francisco, we've got some major tense cities. This is pervasive. [?] Chicago, so many. And, the news went down there most recently to one of them. And the guys were begging. They said, 'Please don't drop off your food any more.' What it's doing is that it's wrecking havoc on these tent cities--on the breadth[?] of them, people who live there. Rats have taken over. Bugs have come into the tent cities. And so--but people will come and they will drop off a case of mangoes, or sandwiches. And they'll sit in the sun. And people are too scared to get out of the car so they'll just kind of drop them off and run away. And this is--it's a do-gooder gone bad. And this is--it's a do-gooder gone bad. It doesn't make any sense. It's not helping. But it helps that person, who thinks [?]. But it is that sort of give and run away, or smile and run away approach, which really doesn't help.
Russ Roberts: I just want to finish up though on this article you wrote. What are some of the issues? You are trying to literally just give people--government officials or offices they could call under certain types of situations that occur on the street. And I just say in passing, some of this problem--to the extent it's a problem, but some of this problem is the fact that the city streets are public. In the literal sense of the word. They are not owned. They are not--you know, if I have an office building and you set up a folding chair in my lobby and decide to use it as your office I can ask you to leave; and if you refuse I can call the police and say you are trespassing, and have you removed. On the street, it's kind of 'Our Street.' It's no one's street. And at the same time, there are certain behaviors that are not allowed. And yet, there are people doing them, and we often just turn an eye to them and we don't look. We try not to look, or we ignore it. So, what kind of things were you worrying about? And how can people with, in that article?
Erica Sandberg: Okay. Yeah. Definitely. The list of behaviors that I described in the piece was unconscious people. You see somebody who is passed out, seemingly asleep--we don't know. You don't know what's going on. Make an effort, definitely--we have a 311-app here. And you could also call, report it. Get somebody down there that will help check on them. It's really important. If you see drug dealing or intoxication, guess what? It's illegal. You can call the police and get somebody out there. Do something. Same goes with the erratic or threatening activity that you see. This is something that's terrifying to kids. As a family, or visitors to this city, they'll see people bashing into buildings or screaming at the top of their lungs--
Russ Roberts: or cursing--
Erica Sandberg: Cursing. Sometimes saying extremely racist--
Russ Roberts: Creepy--
Erica Sandberg: Right. Exactly. And you don't know what to do. Well, that's a threatening behavior that's also police action that you need to take. Aggressive panhandling: You are allowed to ask for money. Nothing wrong with that. You can do it. But, when it comes to being followed or being harangued or, a lot of times they'll kind of block, oftentimes, tourists--and won't let them go before they get something, or they'll push a street sheet in their hand or some other product. You know, again--nudity: for some reason, we have a big problem with nudity here. People just take off their clothes. And that is a drug issue very often. Bathrooming--just relieving themselves on the sidewalk or the street right in front of you--happens all the time.
Russ Roberts: So, I have to say, you know, it's a weird thing. It's kind of my libertarian streak, which can be quite strong, especially my idea of minding my own business. There's something heroic and courageous about the fact--and also tragic, and also crazy--about just ignoring that stuff. I understand it's illegal. A lot of those things are literally illegal, or borderline illegal. And part of me just says, 'This person has a horrible life.' They are cursing or they are relieving themselves in public, which is tragic and unpleasant. And I just sort of think, 'It's not my business' in the sense that I don't want them to fall in the hands of someone. If they want help, I'd like them to get it. But I often feel that we don't help them very well. Now, that may be a bit naive or, I don't know--maybe that's just making me feel comfortable by ignoring the behavior. But it's not obvious to me that--I'll say it a different way. Let me try to say it in a more dramatic way. Until about 1980, we locked all these people up. We said, 'You're not normal.' And a lot of them aren't. And we said, 'You're mentally ill'--which is a phrase that has some clinical meaning, but not always. 'You make people uncomfortable' is what it often meant: 'You're not normal.' And 'We're going to put you in an institution; and we're often going to do stuff to you. Like shock treatments, and drugs and other things that you don't want, because we recognize that you are not normal and we want to make you normal.' And we're not very good at that, it turns out. We're not very good at making people normal. So, a part of me says, this is a human tragedy but we are not very good at helping these folks and in particular the ways we try to help them If you went up to these folks and said, some of the people you are talking about, and said, 'Can I get you help?' they would not want to talk to you. Now, that could be for a lot of reasons, obviously. I don't know. What are your thoughts on that?
Erica Sandberg: I think you are absolutely correct. And I think it would be horrible if we began to institutionalize people just because they are a little off. That's a travesty. We don't want to head in that direction. But it's so interesting, because I keep hearing the word 'help.' 'Help, help, help.' We want to help. And I want, kind of almost the opposite. Which is: I want them to help us. The more you give to somebody--and I know we're going to go into this a little bit--the more you are--if you are constantly in the position where somebody is giving to you and trying to help you, you feel--I firmly believe this--you feel less than human. You feel unnecessary, unneeded, in the way, like a burden; and somebody's taken pity on you. What does that do to you? And you could be as sane as sane can be. Or completely out of it. To me, it's going to have the same effect. Which is: You are not worth anything. What your worth is, you are worth somebody kind of throwing a pittance at you. Or, that you just desperately need help. I love the opposite. How can you help the world? What can you do? What skills do you have? What passions do you have? Um, even somebody who has been curled up in a corner of an alleyway, they've got something. They do. They had to. At some stage in their life, they had something. And I think that's really--that's where the answer, to me, lies: drawing that out--
Russ Roberts: Okay. We're going to turn to that.
Erica Sandberg: It sounds really--yeah. Good. Okay.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, we'll turn to that. I just want to--agree with you. It's interesting how unpopular your view is these days, that dignity--it's difficult to have dignity if you are only taking and not giving. I think there's a lot of--for a variety of reasons I think people don't like that argument any more. I think it was the common argument for about 3000 years or so--maybe 2500--that if you are merely taking then it's hard to be dignified. And that that's not much of a solution. So, I'm going to half-agree with you. I certainly agree that it's the first half, the out-of-date, the ancient part, I agree with you that, even though it's out of fashion I think that people who don't produce or give and who only take have trouble maintaining their dignity. I think that's true. But it's not popular, that view. But the part I disagree with a little bit, maybe, is, I think in that state I'd rather help them a little bit and assuage some of that pain if I could with money. But I certainly accept the fact that it's not a long-run solution. So, let's talk about what is possible, that's actually truly helpful. Which is this organization you've gotten involved with called the Downtown Streets Team. What do they do? What's their approach?
Erica Sandberg: Yeah. The approach is, well, the mission is to get aid through work. And it's sort of this revolutionary/non-revolutionary program--in fact, there are a few programs throughout the United States which have that same model, which is: Offer work. Just offer--and so this particular organization, what they do is they have these Tuesday meetings. Any homeless person can come. You could be in the worst state imaginable. But, just come. Just sit in the meeting; and enroll. All you have to do is put your name down, and you will be given, very quickly, a broom, a brush, some mops--whatever--to work on city beautification programs. And in exchange you get a gift card that has, that you can buy essentials with--food, and toothpaste, and that type of thing. So, it's cut through this bureaucratic junk that you have to go through in order to get a shelter bed or financial assistance or whatever. All you do is you work. You work on these programs, and you go out to the Civic Center, or to Union Square area. And it's a symbiotic relationship. The city gains because the streets are nicer. The people gain because they are actually working and earning something. And they--the response is overwhelming. And the members become almost evangelical in this, in bringing other homeless people to this, to these meetings. And it's remarkable. It's very similar--I feel like I'm in this, um, kind of a religious revival meeting with people who were involved: Homeless people--you've got to come! You've got to start! This is what I'm doing! And the pride--it'll bring tears to your eyes. And that is to me where the magic happens. And so, why this is in any way a bad thing--the people can criticize; I don't get it. And by the way, the article that I wrote: Oh, the hate mail. Oh, my gosh. It was off the charts. So, even an alternative program like this can kind of result in eyes[?]: 'Are you serious? Really? We are going to ask them to work?' 'Hey, it's not me! It's them. They want to!' And it's really effective.
Russ Roberts: Well, it's a voluntary program--
Erica Sandberg: Absolutely. Nobody's shoving it in their hands. They're doing it. And they bring other people involved, to the team. So, it's really--I'm such a huge advocate for it. But there's others throughout the country that do very similar programs. And it really is quite remarkable. It's beautiful.
Russ Roberts: So, what's the--give us some idea what the magnitudes are here, just a couple of different dimensions to talk about. So, on a particular Tuesday, how many people might show up? What's an average or rough idea? Is it 4 people? Is it 40?
Erica Sandberg: It's about, I'd say, anywhere between 50 and 100.
Russ Roberts: And there's different ones all around the Bay area: there's one--right? They're not just in San Francisco. But you are talking about the San Francisco one.
Erica Sandberg: I am. And this started in the South Bay. But, you know, it's a model that could be recreated anywhere. It's so simple. You know: Do you want just streets cleaned? Great. You know, where are we going to get the funding? Very often it's like a business district that will provide the funding. And then, offer it up. You want to do it? Great! You can start. And the people who do get involved, the members, they get a case worker. So they get started. And then I jump in, and I help with their credit problems and their money problems, because guess what? They had a life before this. Almost all of them had something that happened. And so, they do actually have, maybe sometimes some credit issues, or some money questions that they need answering. So, it just becomes a step-up program. Very exciting. And, whatever: whether it's this program or some other program that's doing the same thing, it's not a, 'Ooo, let's help the homeless and kind of pat them on the head and shove them along.' It's, 'This is real.'
Russ Roberts: Let's talk about that. So, how does the organization--there's two issues I want to get a better feel for. One is, if I hand you a broom and say, 'Go sweep somewhere,' you know, is there any supervision? Is there any follow-up to say the person did a good job or not? And then the other question I had is: How much money is on the gift card? Is it--and is it one day of work? Is it that Tuesday? Do they work all week? Do they show up multiple days? Can you give us a feel for that?
Erica Sandberg: Sure. No, they work in teams. There is a supervisor. And the supervisor is usually somebody who has been through the program before. And who is just making sure--are you there on time, what are you--you just going to chit-chat? Are you actually sweeping or removing graffiti? And almost everybody follows through. In fact, there's even a blind guy. He's been blind from Day 1. And he's sweeping. He's working with somebody who is telling him where to sweep. Because it's very--very often the idea is, it's not what they're actually doing, but they're doing it. So, they go through that. And then, after a few weeks of being on time, being committed to the program, then they start to build a resumé, and the case workers can help them get real jobs and real housing.
Russ Roberts: Is the only--let's got back to how much money do they get. And how frequently--you know, my view, this classic story which I--it's easy to make fun of but I actually like it a lot, and I may have told it on the air before; I apologize. But the story is the little girl who is tossing the beach starfish back into the water. And the person comes along and says, 'What are you doing?' 'Well, I'm helping the starfish'--and--versus there's hundreds of thousands of them. And the person says, 'Well, you're never going to make a difference. Look how many there are.' And the person, or whoever picks up the starfish picks it up, puts it back in the water, and says, 'It made a difference to that one.' So, I don't want to undersell anything that makes one person's life better. That would be great. But do you have any feel for whether there's like, once, someone actually moved from this program to normal work? Or is it a few dozen? Do we have--what kind of follow-up is happening? So, tell us about the amounts of money in the gift card, if you know. And then, sort of the kind of success rate this has. And again, I want to emphasize: Someone working and feeling good about themselves, if that's actually what it does, is great. So, to me, success has a lot of different dimensions.
Erica Sandberg: Yeah. Well, it's only a couple hundred dollars on the gift card. And they get paid out once--they get their gift card once a week. So, it's, but it's money they've earned. So, it feels different. And the success rate--well, people do tend to stay with it. It's a relatively new program. But I've seen with my own eyes. I was walking down the street the other day and I saw this guy--his name is Moses--young guy, something was off about him. I can't really tell what his situation was. But he's now working as a city worker. So, he's got a city job. Which, by the way, pays quite well and has very good benefits. And so I said, 'Oh my gosh! What are you doing?' And he goes, 'Well, I've got a full-time job now.' I had just seen him about a month previous to that, where he was doing what he was doing. He was sweeping up the streets, with Downtown Streets Team.
Russ Roberts: Do they recruit folks actively, or do they only rely on word of mouth? One of the interesting--in other words, it would be an interesting model to think about putting, besides giving somebody a dollar, giving them a card that has the contact information or the location on for the Tuesday morning meeting. How do they reach out to the homeless? Or do they just use word of mouth?
Erica Sandberg: At this stage it's just word of mouth, and we've just recently started this idea where we would publish, we would have postcards, we would give to people and say, 'Pleeease you may want to check this out. It's not too far. It's like right in the heart of the bad area of town, anyway. You are going to be there. So, head on over. There's donuts. There's coffee. Go can go do it.' And they get it, gosh it really does, as they say, almost have a religious overtone. Like, 'Just show up at the meeting.'
Russ Roberts: Well, historically--go ahead. Sorry.
Erica Sandberg: Say, it has that tone, almost, but without the--there's zero religious involvement.
Russ Roberts: I was going to say, historically, religious organizations often did a quid pro quo: You come to our meeting and get a dose of our religion and then we'll either feed you or give you some work, whatever it is. But this is a purely secular organization, correct?
Erica Sandberg: Totally secular. Yeah. And it's run by these young, enthusiastic people who just leave me breathless. And they, they do good work. But again, Russ, this is just one program. There's others. There's one in Chicago where they'll pull up and they'll offer people work. In fact, a journalist who I just recently communicated with out of Chicago, from the Sun--you know, he wrote about Safe Haven Foundation where they drive around and they offer panhandlers a chance to work. 'There you go. Do it. If you want to do it, we'll have it for you.' And that's the kind of thing that's so exciting.
Russ Roberts: How do they interact with city government, the organization? So, there's two issues that come to mind. One is, the city has people who sweep the streets, obviously, and people litter, and clean graffiti up. They may not do the best job; they may do a great job. But there's a question of how--obviously, to me--I don't know if everybody would agree with me--but to me, the more real work you can offer a person that's actually changing something, the more dignity you give them in return--as opposed to just pretending that they are doing something and giving them money in return. So, do you know how that works? How they interact with tasks that are somewhat already covered?
Erica Sandberg: Yeah. Here, it's side by side. So, one doesn't interact with the other. They just sort of do their thing. We have, obviously, city workers who are supposed to come and remove graffiti. But you could wait several weeks before that actually happens. Downtown Streets Team, they will be on it. It's right there. So, it's really kind of exciting. Now, is it going to displace city workers? I don't know. Nor do I care.
Russ Roberts: So, there's a case in the article that we were talking about where there was a flower stand that was abandoned--was being used as a place for people to take drugs, hang out and sleep or whatever. And the city can't do anything about it, for reasons that I can't fully understand. Because it's abandoned. But for some reason, it's got some protected status now, like, I don't know. But I'm curious if there are things that--I would think that the Downtown Streets Team folks are kind of operating in a little bit of a gray area, maybe, and do things that maybe a city worker wouldn't do. I don't know. Does that make any sense?
Erica Sandberg: Yes. It does. And it's funny you brought up the flower stand issue. It's something that I took on as a personal challenge. I saw this stand that was--this piece of blight--it was, 'Why is a flower stand at some stage of its life,' and then it had turned into a public toilet, a place to deal drugs. It was right on our historic cable car line. I mean, it was like--
Russ Roberts: --for the tourists--
Erica Sandberg: 'Oh, it's so thoughtfully.' I know. And so, I fought with the city for going on two years. I harangued them. I think every time they went to work and they opened up their email, they'd be, 'God, no. Not Erica again.' And eventually they did tear it up. And I had glory. And it was wonderful. But, yeah. It takes that sometimes. It really takes people jumping up and down screaming and willing to make a fool of themselves to get some action. And, when you have a better organization that's extremely responsive and doesn't just kind of like push you off and say, 'We'll get to it when we get to it,' or, even worse situation where we've got a Board of Supervisors--but this is always brought up in community police meetings, of which I'm always a big part of. And, you know, our Supervisor said, 'Well, you know, we can't do anything. It's an income-inequality problem.' And I'm looking at him like he's just grown a second head. I want to--I to scream. It's just so annoying.
Russ Roberts: Going back to the Team. So, you said a couple hundred dollars--not much money. Well, that's a huge amount of money, obviously, probably, I assume, compared to the average quarters and dollars that they collect from panhandling. At the same time, it's less than the minimum wage--if they earn 40 hours. And I also wonder why it's a gift card: why it's not cash. So, do you have thoughts on that?
Erica Sandberg: I do. It's because it falls under kind of the radar of taxes. This is a gift. It is a gray area. They are not officially working. It's a volunteer program. In exchange, they get a gift card. Yeah.
Russ Roberts: It's clever.
Erica Sandberg: t is. And the end result, the end goal, is always that, 'Hey, you worked hard doing this. You worked hard volunteering at this program. And now we're going to vouch for you so that you can get a real job.' It is--it's kind of a--I always imagine this as jumping up to the next level. You are jumping up and you are continuing to do--and all behind during this process you've got the cheerleaders going, 'You can do it. You're doing great.' And it's not just the program people. It's the members. It's the people who are behind them, holding their hands sometimes and saying, 'I saw you pick up that trash. I saw how many cigarette butts you collected. And that was amazing.' And I've got to say, Russ: Can you imagine somebody who has been sleeping in a corner, alone, very often they've got no interaction with anybody, right? And now, they've got somebody saying, 'Wow. Thank you so much. That was incredible.' It's such a difference. It leaves me speechless. And I'm not often speechless.
Russ Roberts: No, I think it's an incredible thing. I'm wondering how the scope for scale is in an organization like that. Obviously it's hard to make it twice as big. But it can be done. There's no economies of scale. That's a better way to say it. It's not like, 'We have a pileup with 100 people; if we can do 1000'--well, 1000 is about 10 times harder than 100. You need that many more opportunities, that many more case workers, that many more people to help follow up. So, it's a challenge, but it seems like it could have a big impact on people's lives and be interesting to hear in more detail. Obviously you're not with the organization, but it would be interesting to see if they have any measures of just how successful. It's amazing--one is not a bad number. One is great; 100 is better; 1000 is better than that.
Russ Roberts: But you've been involved with some financial advice for folks. Tell us what that's like and what kind of interaction you've had with the folks in the program.
Erica Sandberg: Well, I started out with--a long time ago I first got into financial assistance, consumer credit counseling service. I was helping people in debt: How are you going to get out of it? And, developing a plan. And that actually just came because I'm really good with budgeting. I could make a penny go very far and still have a good time. So, I'd like to think that I bring this to the organization, which is: If you are, if you do receive money, in whatever form, here's how to make it last. Here's how to make it work for you. Here's what you can do. If you've got something on your credit report, 'Oh, I can help you get it off. I can,' you know, in a legal way. It's just a little--it's guidance. It's assistance. And this is so important to me, because you think about it: When you feel stuck, sometimes you don't see the door that's opening. I want to open up that door. That's all I want to do. 'Here's an option. Here's what I can do. Here's how I can help with that.' And so, that's what they do.
Russ Roberts: So, how much cash do these folks have? And just thinking about the practical side of this: You can be homeless and have a Social Security number, but it's hard to be homeless without--you don't have an address, usually, almost by definition. You could have a Post Office Box, but I'm just thinking: First, if I'm getting gift cards, I don't have any cash--unless I sell the gift card. Which I could. That would be hard to do, though. And then my second question would be: If I have some cash, to turn that into some kind of credit situation really requires an address where I can get a credit card bill, and apply for things. Are these folks that you are helping people who have made it past the sleeping-on-the-street stage? Or are they still in a pretty severe situation?
Erica Sandberg: They are in various stages. Some are starting to work, and because of that they want to get their credit report in a good working order, because very often employers will look at a credit report just to see what's been going on. They don't look at scores--that's a myth. But definitely the credit report for that. And the same thing with tenancy. So, certainly a landlord is going to take a look at a credit report--is going to see: Has this person paid their bills or not? So, it's really important to get that in as best shape as possible. And the good news--and this is probably why I started this business in the first place, is: These are doable situations. I love money because there's always something positive you can do. I can't help with your health. But I can help with this. So, there's always something that you can do when it comes to cleaning up your credit history or making a little bit more money and applying it to some debt.
Russ Roberts: But how does that address this issue or work? Let's say, obviously it's useful to someone if they can use it responsibly to have a credit card--for all kinds of reasons. It's pleasant, obviously, to not have to worry about the timing of your income and your purchases. But it's also a door opener. It lets you, as you say--you can accumulate a report which can help you open doors elsewhere. How do you get started if you don't have an address? Or you don't have any cash?
Erica Sandberg: Well, yeah. The good folks over at this program, at Downtown Streets Team, they will help with an address. So, there's a mailing address that people can get their mail. Or do a Post Office Box. They'll help you with that. They'll help the members with that.
Russ Roberts: And so--which raises another question: So, I've got either no credit history or the credit history I have is bad. How can people get access to a credit card? Do they get them?
Erica Sandberg: Yeah. It's really interesting. So, once you get a job and you have some income coming in, just as long as it's steady, banks are typically okay with that; and you can start with a secured credit card, a couple hundred dollars. Which sounds really crazy--like, this homeless person with enough--has enough for a down payment on their credit card. Because that's kind of what it is. Although it's--you can get it back at the end. But it's a start. And that's how anybody can start with credit, whether you are homeless or not. So, it's, to me the best option. Plus, on top of that, you get this great benefit of having money in savings. Because that's what it is. So, it really is a win-win.
Russ Roberts: What do you mean, "money in savings"? Because you've put it on the card?
Erica Sandberg: Well, if it's a secured card, this money goes into a supplementary savings account. It just sits there. So, you know you've a cash, a lump sum of cash right there that you could use any time. If you want to close the card, you get your money back. So, to me it's always this--it definitely gives the bank assurance that if something happens they can get cash out that reduces their risk. But it reduces the risk for the consumer--[?] I hate the word 'consumer'--for the person. Where they know that if they really, really need that money, it's there.
Russ Roberts: Do you do any--so, some of the counseling during this is very basic, like, 'Pay your bills on time.' Do you find yourself giving other types of advice to folks? And what kind of scope is there for that kind of advice? What kind of issues come up that you've been able to help people with?
Erica Sandberg: I guess the only type of advice that I give that's different than just straight credit and money management is, it's not so much advice as it is encouragement. And everybody needs that. It works. 'You're doing great.' You know, 'Hey, you saved this money,' or 'I helped you get rid of this thing on your credit report that looks terrible. You did wonderful.' So, it's just interaction. Being present.
Russ Roberts: I think you're probably pretty good at the inspiration thing.
Erica Sandberg: Thank you so much.
Russ Roberts: You seem like a pretty upbeat person.
Erica Sandberg: Well, I am. And I have been through it. And you and I talked a little about it. So it's not like I don't have a background, personally, in homelessness.
Russ Roberts: Well, what are you referring to?
Erica Sandberg: When I was a kid, my parents went through a long, brutal divorce. And we were doing fine financially. And then we weren't doing fine financially. And it was a descent from upper middle class lifestyle to pretty much the bottom. Thankfully, I was immune to some of it because I was out of the country. I was going to college in London. But my little sisters and my brother--they witnessed and experienced my mother living in her car with them. So, I know. I know how fast it can happen. I know what it can do to a person. I know the devastating effects that it has. And, so, I definitely have a soft spot for it.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. It's a--in our modern world, we've changed so radically from the past. There were so many things in the past that were not so attractive, in how we deal with these things. And we always, in the past, I think we were eager to blame the person rather than their circumstances. And today we've gone in the other direction: We tend to never blame the person; we blame the circumstances. Of course, reality is a complicated mix of all of that. And it's hard to design public policy, and personal policy, for how you cope with that, right? It's not an easy, there's no easy, there's no perfect answer for how we can help people who have had bad luck, or who have made bad decisions. Those are the two extremes, right?
Erica Sandberg: Absolutely. Absolutely. And, you know, I think most people do bounce back and they've got this ability to kind of climb on out of it. But not everybody does. And you talked a little bit about mental health issues. We don't have a lot of psychiatric beds. They don't seem to exist. So--and of course helping somebody get off a substance is just--nightmarish. So, people do need a lot more help than we're giving them in those areas.
Russ Roberts: Going back to the counseling: Are you doing this one-on-one? I think you earlier said sometimes it's a seminar? Or is it a mix of both?
Erica Sandberg: We just switched over. So I'm the on-call credit- and money-management person. They will connect me with a person who needs assistance or guidance. And I volunteer my time doing that.
Russ Roberts: And, how many--how much interaction do you have in a given week? Is it one phone call? Or do you get 10? What kind of level of--
Erica Sandberg: Well, this just started. And we're constantly changing it. So, before, I was giving workshops. But it was hard to get everybody there at the same time. So, we kept struggling with like scheduling this. Like, how are we going to get everybody when they off working, or they are doing other needy things that are going to fulfill their needs? So, then I just recently, just actually [?] week, and I said, 'Why don't you just have me as the on-call person?' She said, 'Fabulous. That's what we want.' So, I love the pivot. This is why I love I love non-government assistance. Because there are many like--okay that didn't work--
Russ Roberts: It's actual. Let's try this--
Erica Sandberg: [?] That didn't work; we're going to try this.
Russ Roberts: No, I love that.
Erica Sandberg: Is it not brilliant? It's sort of this cruise ship which takes forever to turn around. It's like, 'Phfff. We're going to be a race car.'
Russ Roberts: But--but, there is still a puzzle, which you can help me with. Which is: I suspect, I assume most people who need the help don't have cell phones. How do they--or do they? How do you help them, or how will you help them in this new model? When you are on call? What's it going to mean to be on call?
Erica Sandberg: So, first of all, Yes. If you come on--and in fact I think you were just at [?] recently, looked around--
Russ Roberts: I was--
Erica Sandberg: A lot of them do have cell phones. They even have--I've seen people with iPads--where they're getting them from? But yeah, a lot of them are connected. Maybe it's just because boy, we're here in the world of tech. So you see it all the time, with people with cell phones. And I believe there is this program where people can get cell phones for free. And I think that's served that.
Russ Roberts: But when you are going to "be on call"--are they going to call you? Are they going to call an office that's going to collect their issues--
Erica Sandberg: No, they're going to call me directly. So, the people who manage the program, if the member has a question and like or needs some assistance, they give them my number, and they will call me.
Russ Roberts: That will be interesting.
Russ Roberts: Is there a long-term plan for the organization, for Downtown Streets Team? Are they just going to do what they're doing and try to do it better? Do they have dreams or plans for doing something different down the road? Do they have a longer term vision? Again, I think--I salute what they're doing now. Seems fantastic. I'd like to see more of it. But, do they have different visions for down the road? Do you know?
Erica Sandberg: You know, I know that it's expanding. There are, right now, I think there are 6, or 5 or 6 areas in the Bay area that they concentrate on. But any person or government agency or maybe a retail merchant group can contact them and say, 'We want to start something like that here in our community.' And they'll just follow that same model. So, that is the idea. 'Come on over. Get what you need. Now, bring it over to the people who need it.'
Russ Roberts: How bureaucratic is the process? So, let's say, I'm on a sweeping team, or a graffiti-removing team, for x weeks. What's the process by which I might get something more like a job? Is it up to the individuals or does the organization try to look for people, individuallly? Is there any--how is that organized?
Erica Sandberg: When you start--as a homeless person, then you are starting to participate, you become what's called a team member. And you are assigned a case worker. And that case worker--you have communication with. They check in with you. You check in with them. And after a while of success--hopefully success--then they will take you on to the next stage where connecting with jobs, local jobs--they are clued in, keyed in to what's available in the area. And then they can assist with that next step: the interview process. And matching jobs to the skillset. So it really is--you ask about bureaucracy? Almost none. Which makes me, just beam. Because, how can people even--if it's hard enough to get up, brush your teeth, if you have access to a toothbrush--just going through these hoops that you have to in order to get a shelter bed or to do anything. It's daunting. It's 'Forget about it.' It doesn't have that at all. At all.
Russ Roberts: Do the case workers have a particular set of training, by the way? I didn't ask about that.
Erica Sandberg: Yeah. They come from social work backgrounds. And, what their actual training process is--
Russ Roberts: [?] But they are definitely social workers, though?
Erica Sandberg: Hmmm? Yeah.
Russ Roberts: It's amazing. So, I look forward to learning more about it. Maybe my next time in the City, maybe this summer, I could see some of what the program is doing first hand. That would be really interesting to me.
Erica Sandberg: Yes, it would. And I think everybody should experience it. Because it really isn't a--we started off this conversation with, it's like, 'Should I give a dollar?' And then, after this rich conversation, you realize, 'Wow, there's so much more that you can do.' And I've been to plenty of fundraisers now for the organization. Like, 'You want my money? You've got it.' 'You want my time? You've got it.' And, I think it makes people kind of stand up and cheer. And what could be more exciting than that? And, plus, there's nobody who, unfortunately, is speaking on behalf of residents and merchants and even tourists. Where, it's like, 'We don't want this, either. We don't want people on the street. It's depressing, it's sad, it's scary.' And so it helps. It's very symbiotic, as I said.