If only volunteers would just stop serving soup to the homeless then maybe, just maybe, the issue of people not having a place to live would cease to exist.
At least that’s what Andy Kessler, a wildly successful former hedge-fund manager, thinks.
In his frank Wall Street Journal op-ed on Monday, Kessler neatly sums up what advocates, philosophers and lawmakers have been struggling to conclude for decades. Shelter workers and volunteers, like his own teenage son, are to blame for perpetuating this country’s homelessness problem.
My 16-year-old son volunteers with an organization that feeds the homeless and fills kits with personal-hygiene supplies for them. It's a worthwhile project, and I tell him so -- but he doesn't like it when our conversation on the way to his minimum-wage job turns to why these homeless folks aren't also working. Perhaps, I suggest, because someone is feeding, clothing and, in effect, bathing them?
But there is a deeper question, rarely asked: Where does the money come from that funds all this Gen-G volunteering and charitable giving? Somewhere, somehow, someone worked productively and created wealth that could be given away (and tax deducted) to help the unfortunate.
So, according to Kessler, the reason why 1.6 million people in America don’t have a place to sleep at night is because spoiled teens determined to get into Brown (with their service-heavy resumes) are giving them enough food to eat to keep them from needing to get jobs.
See, the true solution to finally putting an end to some of world’s most plaguing problems, like homelessness, has much less to do with funding handouts and much more to do with simply generating money, Kessler says.
“Obsessing over carbon footprints and LEED certifications and free-range strawberries and charging for plastic bags will not help the world nearly as much as good old-fashioned economic growth,” Kessler writes.
But for advocates who’ve committed their careers to eliminating homelessness, this kind of thinking couldn’t be more far off.
“The point he’s making, that volunteers are ‘enabling’ homeless people to remain homeless…is really nonsensical psychobabble,” Maria Foscarinis, executive director and founder of National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, told The Huffington Post. “I think that’s just not true and totally misinformed and really unfortunate.”
The part that is perhaps most “misinformed” about Kessler’s theory, according to Foscarinis, is the role shelters, and the volunteers who help, actually play.
Shelters, Foscarinis accedes, are by no means a solution to homelessness, nor were they ever intended to be. A shelter, which provides emergency housing, a hot meal and job training, is the “lifeline” that keeps people without a place to stay alive.
And the volunteers, well, rather than “enabling,” they’re often actually the ones who are keeping such organizations going since most can’t afford to pay every last worker that they need to allow operations to run smoothly.
“I think it’s outrageous that the same conservatives who say it’s not government’s responsibility to deal with poverty are now condemning charitable acts by individuals, too,” Jerry Jones, executive director of the National Coalition for Homelessness, wrote in an email to HuffPost. “Who the hell is Andy Kessler to tell people where and how they should spend their volunteer time?”
And, as for why homeless people keep returning to shelters -- that probably has nothing to do with the free toothbrushes they get upon arrival. According to Foscarinis, many people in shelters actually do have jobs, but just can’t afford housing on a minimum-wage salary. The other pesky issue, which Kessler neglects to mention, is unemployment, which is hitting people with low-skills particularly hard.
“No one goes to a shelter because that’s their preference,” Foscarinis said.
In terms of finding a solution to ending homelessness, simply pumping more money into the economy likely won’t do it. According to experts in the field, it will require advocacy, policy changes and more affordable housing -- of which there is currently just not enough.
However, to Kessler’s credit, some business-minded people do (kind of, sort of) agree with portions of his theory.
When Jason Trigg, for example, graduated from MIT with a degree in computer science, he wanted to change the world, but didn’t think that volunteering in a far-flung impoverished country –- which Kessler utterly opposes –- was the way to go. He decided, instead, to head straight to Wall Street in order to earn as much money as possible. But it wasn’t simply to rev up the economy, the Washington Post reported back in May.
He wants to earn some serious dough so that he can hand it off to people who are struggling.
“A lot of people, they want to make a difference and end up in the Peace Corps and in the developing world without running water,” the 25-year-old told the Post, “and I can donate some of my time in the office and make more of a difference.”
Still, let's be real, donors like Trigg are a minority and can’t possibly lift every homeless person off of the streets.
What has proven to work though, is giving out housing to people who need it most with few conditions.
According to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, the number of the chronically homeless dropped by 30 percent between 2005 and 2007, and continued to drop even after the economic crisis hit -- and it likely had nothing to do with rich people getting richer.
Homelessness declined, even while the economy tanked, predominantly because of President George W. Bush’s controversial approach to homelessness, some advocates say. Bush pushed the concept of “housing first,” which means -- give the neediest cases a place to stay and then ask questions about their drug problems or commitment to finding work after.
The concept works because it eliminates the potential years –- and service dollars -- it might otherwise take to win the homeless person’s trust.
“If in the next days you happen to walk down a city street, take a moment to notice how many men or women are sleeping there. Results will vary from place to place, but on average, there are probably fewer than half as many as a decade ago,” CNN contibutor David Frum wrote in an op-ed about housing first. “The job is not completed yet. But for the first time since the 1970s, the abolition of homelessness has become a real and near possibility.”