One of the most difficult decisions the leadership of homeless service organizations make—often unconsciously—is choosing between perpetuation or transformation, and, unfortunately, all too many choose perpetuation; the choice marking the concentration of homeless services in the Richards Boulevard/Twelfth Street area where domestic services support the long-term and large-scale illegal homeless camps in the Parkway.
A case study is in the marvelous new book by Stephen Goldsmith, The Power of Social Innovation: How Civic Entrepreneurs Ignite Community Networks for Good.
“Anyone who believes that entrepreneurship cannot occur inside government should meet New York City Deputy Mayor Linda Gibbs….
“In 2002, with more than 33,000 homeless people in New York City shelters in any given month, Mayor Bloomberg appointed Gibbs as commissioner of homeless services…. Gibbs noted that the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) had made shelters its centerpiece, which perversely perpetuated chronic homelessness rather than reducing it. As Gibbs later observed, “We were smart enough to know how to help the client’s underlying needs. But you put them in the shelters and suddenly the shelters become the solution, which is turning the world upside down.” DHS was producing an almost perfect example of what economists call moral hazard—when well-intentioned public policies encourage the very act that the policies are attempting to address. Once homeless, individuals and families jumped to the top of affordable housing lists, allowing them to choose among various types of shelters. In effect, the homeless had more choices than people working to pay rent.
“With Bloomberg’s backing, Gibbs redefined the agency’s goal from serving the homeless to ending homelessness. This step forced the DHS to take preventive actions before things got worse. The agency shifted its focus from supposedly temporary, stop-gap shelter to permanent housing with supports. DHS could now intervene by redirecting resources toward helping people they identified as at-risk of becoming homeless stay on their feet.” (pp. 107-108)