Homeless Head Home

Give bums what they want


In London social workers are trying a novel approach to help people who are chronically homeless: asking them what they need to get off the streets, then giving it to them.

In the more familiar system, a rotating cast of government workers shows up where homeless people congregate and urges them to participate in programs, such as shelters and counseling, with strict rules or other intrusions into the clients' lives. In this welfare-reform experiment, by contrast, a single caseworker empowered with a fully discretionary budget offered participants a chance to meet where and when they desired and to ask for whatever they thought they needed to make a better life for themselves.

The pilot program, which involved people who had been homeless for four to 45 years, has demonstrated astonishing, if limited, success. Of 13 hardcore homeless participants—people who had previously resisted all inducements to move into shelters or assisted living—seven had moved into accommodations of some kind 13 months into the study, and two more had plans to do so.

According to the study, each homeless person in the U.K. costs the government more than $41,000 a year in health and law enforcement expenditures. The Economist reports that participants asked for a variety of items, including a pair of sneakers, a television, and a camper van. The average cost per person in the pilot program was $1,277 (not including staff salaries), a figure far short of the $4,700 allocated. "Throughout the interviews," note Juliette Hough and Becky Rice in an October report on the program from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, "many people used the phrases 'I chose' or 'I made the decision' when discussing their accommodation and the use of their personalized budget, emphasizing their sense of choice and control."