What’s Our Obligation to the Homeless?

There is no solution—and our actions make little difference

A homeless man on Eighth Avenue in New York City. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

One needs only to step outside to encounter the ever-deepening homelessness problem in New York City. The crisis, like the crime epidemic in the early 1990s, feels out of control. But, unlike crime, homelessness is not a problem the government can solve.

There are 7.5 billion humans in the world, each with a unique combination of DNA. Even if 90 percent of the population somehow adheres to the mean, that still means 750 million people—more than twice the size of the entire United States—are going to have a mental composition that, in some way, makes conforming to societal norms a challenge. Add to that substance abuse. To be human means feeling pain, guilt, sadness and conflict. Drugs and alcohol provide a temporary respite, and while most of us can either limit our intake or abstain altogether, others cannot. For some, once addiction takes over homelessness isn’t far behind.

The odds of government being able to account for 7.5 billion different combinations of DNA and solve for all variations of human nature and the human condition are exceptionally low (if there’s one thing I learned in my years in government, it’s that good intentions, smart planning, and a lot of money still can’t fix every problem and every person). But as you walk down the street in Manhattan and come across homeless people on virtually every block, you can’t help but ask yourself, “What should I do? Give them money? Steer around them? Walk them to the nearest drug treatment center? Call 9-1-1?”

There are no good answers. But, to me, witnessing this problem firsthand all day, every day—this is what government should be doing and how we, as individuals, may want to think about the problem and our individual response to it.

Government

  • First things first. People who are emotionally disturbed and pose a danger to themselves and others should be taken off the streets. Laws protecting their right to stay on the streets at the risk of innocent people should be overturned.
  • No homeless children. We should use taxpayer resources to help those who didn’t put themselves in this position: children. We have enough resources to make sure children and families on the street have someplace to stay (and to help them stay there or remove the children if their parents can’t stay sober). After that, it’s fine to try to help everyone else, but there’s no amount of money to keep everyone sober, housed, functional, emotionally healthy and off the streets. Trying to do so, at any cost, is a waste of resources that could go to schools, police, trash removal or even just back into taxpayer pockets.
  • Legalization of drugs would help. While it may seem counterintuitive, making drugs recreationally available would reduce their impact. At this moment, we have the worst of all worlds: anyone who wants drugs can get them, but their illegality empowers and enriches dealers, encourages crime and violence, clogs our jails, destroys innocent lives, and makes users even more unemployable. While alcoholism is certainly a major problem, it has far fewer negative societal externalities than narcotics (especially as urbanization and ride sharing have materially reduced drunk driving) because one is a legal, taxed, heavily regulated marketplace and the other is illegal and unregulated.

Us

  • Whatever you decide to do is about you—not them. Whether or not you give the homeless a few dollars isn’t going to solve their addiction or their mental illness. Whatever you decide to do should make you feel better. For some, that’s giving money. For others, it’s crossing the street. You didn’t cause their problems, and you can’t solve them. If doing something tangible makes you feel better, that’s great. If not, there’s no need to do anything.
  • Someone eats. Since the odds of any cash you give being used for drugs or alcohol are pretty high, about two years ago, I started carrying $5 Dunkin’ Donuts gift cards in my wallet. When I feel so moved, I give them to a homeless person. Sometimes I do it twice a day and sometimes it doesn’t happen for two weeks. It’s hard to develop an intellectual framework for when to give and when not to, so I just let my feelings on the spot decide. And while it’s possible that the recipient later trades the gift card for money or drugs, whomever ends up with it can only use it for food or coffee—so eventually it helps someone. (I also enjoy the look of mild horror on the cashier’s face when they ask me, after ringing up 100 gift cards, what I do with them and I reply, “I give them to homeless people!”)
  • Avoidance is also fine. There are parks and streets that tend to attract clusters of homeless people. While you can take a “this is my park and no one drives me out” attitude, it’s also fine to decide that you want to choose another route. You’re no less of a New Yorker if you decide to skirt around the homeless rather than stare them down or step over them.

At the end of the day, there are no easy solutions. As long as people have mental and emotional problems, some will be too dysfunctional to remain in homes, no matter what you do. And, no matter how good it sounds in a speech, we do not have a moral obligation to get each and every person off the streets—because we don’t have the ability to solve every person’s mental and emotional problems. There’s no form of government effective enough to do that.

As individuals, we bear no responsibility to the homeless other than doing whatever makes us feel safe, comfortable and human. For some, that means giving money or volunteering at a soup kitchen or supporting organizations that help the homeless. For others, that means avoidance, anger and frustration. For most of us, it’s a combination.

That’s fine. You didn’t cause their schizophrenia. You didn’t get them hooked on K2 or heroin or meth. You just live here. You do the best you can every day. By paying taxes and upholding the law, you’re doing your part. That’s all anyone can ask—and it’s all you need to ask of yourself, too.

Bradley Tusk is the founder and CEO of Tusk Holdings, the parent company of Tusk Strategies, Tusk Ventures, Kronos Archives, the Ivory Gaming Group and Tusk Montgomery Philanthropies. In 2009 he served as Mike Bloomberg’s campaign manager, guiding Mayor Bloomberg to a third term.