People Experiencing Homelessness = Lab Rats

New York, New York

Studying up on homelessness in America, a person is constantly astonished by both the magnanimity of some of our fellow citizens and the cluelessness of others. Today’s excursion into the realm of the media turns up a story titled “To Test Housing Program, Some Are Denied Aid.” When it appeared on the front page of the print version of The New York Times, it was called “New York Study on Who May End Up Homeless Called Cruel.”

Put them together, and they sum up the gist of a rather bizarre story reported by Cara Buckley, who has written hundreds and hundreds of pieces for this most venerated newspaper. Buckley starts with a brief reminder for those of us who might have been sleeping in class one day:

It has long been the standard practice in medical testing: Give drug treatment to one group while another, the control group, goes without.

That method is infinitely adaptable and used in all the sciences, but anybody can do it. If you play classical music to half of your plants and no music to the other half, and then measure all the plants’ heights and compare the results, you have just done an experiment according to the scientific method of empirical testing.

Now, apparently, a New York bureaucracy known as the Department of Homeless Services is messing around with people’s lives and touting their actions as useful science. The first impression is that somebody is playing God in a particularly nasty way, with questionable ethics, treating desperate families like guinea pigs or lab rats. So let’s hit the high points of Buckley’s story and see if it gets any better.

The program is Homebase, which is supposedly preventative. Among other things, it supports people who are about to be evicted, so maybe they won’t end up joining the homeless population of the city, which is already quite substantial. The officials put on their “research” hats and implemented the experiment. Buckley writes,

Half of the test subjects… are being denied assistance from the program for two years, with researchers tracking them to see if they end up homeless.

The first thing that comes to mind is that the intolerable delays are already an integral feature of social welfare programs. We hear constantly about the waiting periods, roadblocks, the uncertainty of funding, and myriad other factors that make help so slow in coming for so many of the people who need it most. There is never enough help available, so it seems like there would be plenty of unserved people to study, in the natural course of events, without purposely creating a situation where available help is denied to some for capricious reasons.

Where this particular program was concerned, there did not seem to be any need for such evaluation because it had already been judged efficacious. As Buckley notes,

Advocates for the homeless said they were puzzled about why the trial was necessary, since the city proclaimed the Homebase program as ‘highly successful’ in the September 2010 Mayor’s Management Report, saying that over 90 percent of families that received help from Homebase did not end up in homeless shelters.

As the old saying goes, “If it works, don’t fix it.” And especially, don’t use it to hurt people who could be helped when there is so much other useful work that could be done instead. Plus, the study itself is costing nearly $600,000, for which a better use could have been found. Like paying rent for potential evictees.

Buckley quotes a University of Pennsylvania professor Dennis P. Culhane whose field is social welfare policy. He says there is widespread doubt over the effectiveness of eviction-prevention programs, and there is no evidence that people helped by the Homebase program would be homeless otherwise. Say what? I may be missing something here, but I suspect that a large proportion of the New York City’s homeless population just might be living in temporary shelters or on the streets because people couldn’t pay rent and got evicted.

The Coalition for the Homeless website states,

Surveys of homeless families have identified the following major immediate causes of episodes of homelessness: eviction; doubled-up or severely overcrowded housing; domestic violence; and hazardous housing conditions.

What part of “Immediate cause of homelessness = eviction” does the New York City bureaucracy not understand?

The Coalition for the Homeless also notes that in October 2010, 38,000 people were sleeping in New York City’s municipal shelter system each night. There are probably more by now. And how many are there on the streets? No way to know how many thousands, but the Coalition says that the official numbers are consistently underestimated. And the overall situation can only get worse with the lack of affordable housing even for those who are supposedly making a living wage, which becomes more of a joke every day.

As we suspected, the first impression doesn’t get any better. It gets worse. Buckley says,

New York City is among a number of governments, philanthropies and research groups turning to so-called randomized controlled trials to evaluate social welfare programs.


Source: “To Test Housing Program, Some Are Denied Aid,” NYTimes.com, 12/08/10
Source: “Basic Facts About Homelessness: New York City,” CoalitionfortheHomeless.org
Image by Dr. Savage, used under its Creative Commons license.