Thoughts on Homelessness

I was riding to UCLA on Westwood Blvd, when suddenly a voice pierced through the cloud of my thoughts, “Do you have a moment?” I will admit I was startled. Most people do not talk to bike riders on busy streets. The source of the voice startled me even more than the voice itself: a woman in a wheelchair with two huge shopping carts full of objects.

I will be honest. My first compulsion was to keep going. I could easily feign ignorance, and no one blames a biker for not stopping. But something made me turn around. Part of it was a growing interest in the problem, or the existence of homelessness in the United States. Another part was the clarity of the voice itself.

So I turned around, and braced myself for the typical plea for spare cash. Again, I was surprised. “Can you help me push my cart across the street?” She did not want money.

Her voice was clear, direct, and understanding. She hedged her request by telling me that if I could not do it, she would understand. She also told me that I had to do it carefully. She did not want any of the objects falling off the cart.

I was immediately a little defensive, because I had mentally prepared myself to reject a request for money. I am a big believer in donating to charities rather than people who beg, mainly because I think begging only sustains the problem, and secondly because some beggars can become aggressive.

So I came off with some admittedly harsh questions. “Why do you want to keep all of this? What is it?”

She answered frankly and again, directly. “It is my stuff. I am trying to move it to Santa Monica.”

The cart was full of what most people consider trash, interspersed with a few items that might be useful. I asked her if it was for recycling. She said it was not. All the while I was considering how dauntingly difficult the task she was determined to complete really was. The cart weighed at least 100 pounds. The worn wheels made pushing it almost impossible. Added to that, she had two carts and was sitting in a wheel chair.

I helped her push the cart across the street, and it was extremely difficult. She almost lost the second cart as she pulled it foot by foot across the sloped street. Our journey of 50 feet felt felt like a slog of 50 miles. Those 50 feet were only the tip of a journey she was convinced to complete, that would be at least 5 miles by foot.

All of this perplexed me. Because the lady was perfectly comfortable explaining why she was doing what she was doing, yet to a causal observer what she was doing must have appeared to be the epitome of irrationality.

And that was when the pieces started to fit together. Perhaps first world countries have difficulties fixing problems like homelessness because we assume irrationality and forget that traditional utility changes when people are closer to subsistence. People may act differently, but they still are trying to maximize their own well-being.

This woman could explain herself, and her impossible journey, because to her the clutter was a hedge. A hedge against the uncertainty of the future. Most of it would be useless, but obtaining each object was nearly cost less, and at the right moment some of it could be immensely valuable.  To someone above subsistence, the small probability multiplied by the value in the rare situation where it was useful would never pass any cost benefit analysis. But to someone near subsistence, the negative implications of a situation like this could be so large that the small probability times the large consequence could be sizeable.

These are ideas that are frequently bandied about in development economics, but it is unlikely that most cities employ developmental economists or even consider the lessons that these economists are learning in developing countries. To the average passerby, considering homelessness in conditionally rational terms can yield compassion.

I still do not think an assumption of conditional rationality should compel someone to hand out money to pan handlers. But I think it can inform nonprofits on ways to help homeless people. Perhaps programs that can convince homeless individuals that they are insured against disaster can help them overcome some of the issues that stick with people who were previously homeless.