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

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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.

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?