Monday, March 3, 2014

Hoarding and Housing

A couple of Sundays ago I saw a piece on CBS about hoarding, how it’s been declared a mental illness affecting about 5% of the population.  Earlier that week I saw an article about a solution to homelessness being tested in Utah.  Critical thinking includes the ability to compare and contrast.  What do these things have in common or not?

“In 2005, Utah figured out that the annual cost of E.R. visits and jail stays for homeless people was about $16,670 per person, compared to $11,000 to provide each homeless person with an apartment and a social worker. So, the state began giving away apartments, with no strings attached.”  The only requirements were that they be good stewards of their living space and that they get along with their neighbors.  The program has been successful in getting people off the streets.

The story on hoarding showed pictures of houses filled with stuff:  old newspapers and magazines, clothing, knick-knacks, used containers, and more.  Attics, basements and living areas were full, with little room left to live.  Companies can be hired to assist in sorting and hauling the junk away, but the story emphasized the need for counseling.  Unless they change behavior, they just fall back into the same patterns.  The hoarders must own the responsibility to fix the problem.

That was the big difference.  The approach to hoarding was to change the behavior, not just work on the symptoms.  A hoarder in an empty house still has the characteristics and habits of a hoarder.  A homeless person who is given a house still has the characteristics and habits of a homeless person, but the Utah program seemed to give this less attention.  Victory over homelessness is not people off the streets.  That is only a symptom.  Who holds the ownership?

See how this reasoning extends to other social programs.  Providing free pre-kindergarten may give children the skills to compete with other, more fortunate 5-year-olds, but it doesn’t solve the core problem of parents unable or unwilling to get their children ready for kindergarten.  Raising the minimum wage may allow people to live a little more comfortably, but it doesn’t solve the problem that these people have only minimum wage skills and, perhaps more importantly, that some of them apparently feel no obligation to be able to support a family before starting one.  Free breakfast and lunch programs in school likewise gloss over underlying issues.

The contrast between the hoarder story and the homeless story shows the importance of dealing not only with the symptoms but also with the underlying behaviors and responsibility issues, the core problems.  Just because you can’t see a problem today doesn’t mean that it’s been fixed or won’t recur later.

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