Recently, my 13-year-old son and I spent an afternoon visiting with a gathering of people who are homeless. 

Most with whom we spoke expressed simple needs—a meal, a warm bed, and perhaps a fresh opportunity. Sadly, we also observed multiple drug deals over the course of a few short hours and witnessed several individuals inject their arms with heroin in the broad light of day.

Surprised by this brazen behavior in the presence of two conspicuous outsiders, my heart sank at the challenges that many who are homeless encounter. More often than not, these individuals have faced unfathomable challenges in life. Many have no family support.  Many desperately need help for mental, physical, or substance abuse concerns.  Some have made mistakes in life that inhibit their ability to find quality employment.

Unless we make significant changes to the way we administer services, we will fall short of helping those who most need society’s love and assistance, and homelessness in our largest urban communities will worsen.  The help we currently provide—although motivated by pure intentions—often fails to fully address the core problems that cause homelessness. One reason for this is that in our effort to serve more individuals, we place disproportionate emphasis on measuring activities.  We track the number of short-term beds provided and filled.  We count how many trays of food we serve.  We measure how many individuals receive drug counseling, job coaching, dental care, and haircuts.  While we count the number of people we are serving and the activities completed, we miss the more difficult-to-measure outcomes—the degree to which behaviors and lives are being changed. 

One result of this approach is that we consolidate services in one centralized location to more efficiently and inexpensively complete the measured activities. Unfortunately, by serving all patrons in one concentrated location, we actually exacerbate some of the root challenges we’re trying to solve.

One change that can have a meaningful impact is to construct small, dispersed facilities to serve the needs of unique sub-populations of homeless people.  Decentralization will address three core issues that perpetuate homelessness within the current system: influence, psychology, and safety. 

When the disadvantaged are consolidated in one location, it becomes significantly easier for those with bad intentions to prey on them.  For many, homelessness is merely a symptom of mental illness and/or substance abuse. If they are surrounded by unfettered crime and drug access in their effort to obtain a meal, bed, or career counseling, the environment increases the likelihood that they will relapse—and subsequently remain homeless.  Decentralizing will limit the formation of large, difficult to monitor groups wherein individuals with dangerous propensities mingle without obstruction.

Building dispersed facilities will also mitigate psychological challenges: surrounded by ubiquitous helplessness at such a scale, many homeless individuals, not surprisingly, succumb to the feelings of despair that pervade the population.  Human nature often rises or falls to the level of its surroundings. By decentralizing physical facilities, we will limit homeless individuals’ identification with a broader homeless community as a way of life. Instead, those in need will interact more with the general community and will have increased propensity to emulate norms of employment, self-care, supportive families, and so on.

Finally, decentralizing locations will improve safety for the homeless. At present, people in dangerous situations are often faced with the choice of either remaining with an abuser they know, or placing themselves and their children into a situation where they may encounter potential abusers they don’t know. While my son and I were visiting the center several weeks ago, I watched a school bus pull up to the corner and drop off a throng of children.  After having just witnessed drug use and commerce at that precise corner, I wanted to run over, protectively gather all the children, and find them a safer place.  Simply put, consolidated services put many homeless people in harm’s way.

Smaller, focused facilities dispersed throughout the community need to be built.  Each can be dedicated toward unique sub-populations such as single mothers, vets, and the mentally ill.  Admittedly, it will require investment to build the facilities. It will also cost more for counselors, physicians, and workforce advisors to travel to each location to provide support.  And transporting fresh meals to different locations will require more resources.  But the long-term benefits will far outweigh the costs. 

The solutions to homelessness are not simple, but decentralization is a crucial step. Disseminated, smaller facilities will make it harder for dangerous people to exert influence. In addition, these facilities will better empower currently-homeless people to identify with the community at-large, and will reduce exposure to danger and menace. Ultimately, decentralization will shift the focus away from merely fulfilling easily-measurable activities toward truly changing lives.