When to Kick the Homeless Out of Shelters

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On first glance, you'd think that New York has suddenly been taken over by hard-nosed Republicans. The government has just made it considerably easier to kick homeless families out of shelters.


A budget cutting move by desperate finance officers?  A conservative smack at freeloaders?  Hardly. This is done to help the people running shelters--aka folks who've devoted their lives to helping the homeless.  I was pleasantly surprised to find my old boss from the homeless-helping nonprofit I once worked for quoted in the article:

Several nonprofit shelter providers, who asked not to be identified because they feared retaliation from the administration, said that they did not intend to evict any families from shelters.

But others said they were grateful for the ability to threaten the most difficult families with ejection.

"If you need a big stick now and then, for certain families, so be it," said Richard Motta, the president and chief executive of Volunteers of America of Greater New York, which runs three family shelters.

The lack of such a threat was a problem, Mr. Motta said.

"There's not a caseworker alive that wants to realize that threat, and as an agency, we don't want to move people to the streets," he said. "That's not what we're in business to do. But if you enter the shelter, if you know there's a threat of being put out of the shelter, you'll be more likely to follow the rules."

Though I doubt he remembers me (I was his secretary for something like six months), I can personally attest that Richard is a very, very nice man, who cares deeply about helping the homeless.  So why does he want to kick them out of the shelter?  Because families in crisis are sometimes in crisis because the head of household, or an older child, has a severe behavior problem.  That minority can make life unbearable for the majority.  They can also make life miserable for themselves, and facility managers would like to be able to open slots for new intakes by forcing refractory long term residents to, say, apply for jobs, or move into subsidized housing.

The point is not to ever exercise this threat.  Rather, it's to make sure they don't have to.  If a family knows they can't stay in temporary shelter forever, they'll be more motivated to follow the rules, and help get themselves back on their feet.  Without that, a dysfunctional minority can choke the system.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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