Learning about the homeless – March 27, 2009

For people reading this blog entry that have not read my previous entries on the homeless, I encourage you to read Homeless Project Background. It will give you some background on my project. Briefly, I have made a commitment to give $20 each week to a homeless person and minimally ask their name and where they are from.

This week, I sat down with Ron from Ft. Worth, Texas. Ron has now received $20 from me three times this year. He seems to recognize me, but does not remember specifics about me. He still is in a boot cast for his broken ankle. When I approached him, he had just received $5 from a car pulling out of the Vons parking lot. Ron is pretty unsteady because of his boot cast so we sat down on a ledge to talk.

There is no doubt that Ron was appreciative of the $20 gift. In a normal day, he gets $10 to $12. He also gets food handouts that help him survive. His best day was $58. On this day, he asked me to buy him some vodka. Ron is a self admitted alcoholic. According to Ron, the local Vons, Bev Mo and Dicks Liquor don’t appreciate him buying booze in their establishments. He has been told that the customers complain to management when the homeless buy booze in the stores. So the managers protect their mainstream clientele by prohibiting the homeless from becoming clientele. Again, this is Ron’s story.

I told Ron that I was not comfortable buying him vodka. I told him that buying an alcoholic booze did not sit well with me. Ron was disappointed, but he seemed to understand my point. Never the less, he wanted booze. The money was nice, but the need was booze.

When I was in college in my Economics 1A class, the professor talked about the homeless, the poor and their desires. The professor said that at times their desires are different from what society believes they need. At times their desire is alcohol and drugs and society would generally not agree. The professor stated that if society always gives them food stamps and they want drugs or booze, they will sell the food stamps on the black market for a discount and buy drugs or booze. The professor saw this as an inefficiency in the market. His contention was if we gave them money, then they could buy what they desired at the time without the discount. The professor by no means was advocating buying booze or drugs for the poor and homeless. He was just teaching about inefficiently in markets.

Since that lecture, I have been more inclined to give money to the homeless even though I know they might buy booze. With money, they might buy food or clothes or shelter. I figured this was efficient based on the college lecture. I found it interesting that the money I gave Ron was inefficient since in the moment he truly wanted booze and he might have to pay someone a fee to buy the booze.

For the past week, I have been pondering this. I still am not comfortable buying Ron vodka. He will have to deal with another $20 and the inefficiencies.

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One Response to Learning about the homeless – March 27, 2009

  1. Very interesting series of posts and the project. I admire your courage to approach the homeless and help them. Here are some questions that I have in my mind:

    Is your aim to learn about the homeless or is it to help them individually ? (Though I can imagine the ultimate goal of the first option would be to help them…)

    Are you sure they are not playing with you, now that they know you are doing this for some time ?

    Would you think it is possible to give them a portable voice or video recorder and ask them to record whatever they want to with the condition to give them more money next week ? It would be fascinating to learn if it works!

    I had mentioned the “hole in the wall” experiment that someone ran in New Delhi. (http://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/stories/india/kids.html).

    Also, I would like to mention a book that I have on my to-read list which is written by an economist/researcher who spent many months with NY gangs to learn about them. http://www.sudhirvenkatesh.org/books/gang-leader-for-a-day

    Thanks for sharing your experiences!

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