A word I like to introduce my students to is “intractable.” This is a fancy, 75-cent college word that means can’t be solved, can only be dealt with—as in, the problems of homelessness are intractable.
Any apparent solution is like pushing the air in a set of connected balloons: It simply forces the air somewhere else. Indeed, a recent article in the Indy newspaper makes this truth clear.
Some 180-plus folks without an address in Indianapolis camp out by White River. A number of good church folks have gotten into the habit of bringing hot meals to the campsites. What can be more praiseworthy and admirable than feeding the hungry and helping the homeless?
It would be but for the rats. It seems the church ladies bring more food than the campers can eat. The excess food has attracted an infestation of rats, big ol’ rats that get in the tents and crawl on the sleeping bags and leave their contaminated feces throughout the camp.
The article referred to “professional homeless advocates” who have all along been discouraging the church folks from feeding the homeless. Apparently, efforts by amateur(?) homeless advocates were deemed counterproductive even before the rats because delivered food made the homeless less likely to enter the programs the well-meaning professionals had designed for them.
One can see the professionals’ point, but one can also ask what these pros want to do that the campers find so objectionable. Whatever the “programs” are, it seems many of the homeless are willing to put up with inclement weather, church lady food and now vermin to avoid them.
Of course, the stark truth is that many of the homeless suffer from mental illness and don’t trust authority figures. Many are addicted to drugs or alcohol and don’t want to enter any program. Some are free spirits who resist institutionalization.
A couple of generations ago, we jailed these people or had them committed to mental institutions. There were injustices, abuses and horrors to that system, so we ended it. But that simply pushed the problem to the banks of the river.
So what do we do? We set out poison to kill the rats—but this is a stopgap solution as the rats will be back and we can’t help but imagine the poison is getting into the environment to our detriment.
So what are we to do? Suppose we forbid the church ladies from engaging in their ministry—this would surely induce some of the homeless to “come in,” but what about those who will not? They would certainly suffer more. And what about those for whom the well-meaning programs don’t work?
The three apparent options—lock ’em up, starve ’em until they come in, or let ’em get cozy with rats—all seem horrid, and in fact they are. There is no good option, just a choice between uncomfortable ones.
There are no villains to this story—not the homeless, not the professionals, not the church folks—but there are lessons for policymakers and legislators.
First, good intentions are not enough. Even the purest of heart must judge the impact of their actions.
Second, despite the fact we may feel bad about a situation, it is not always wise to seek a legislative solution. Doing something, the inevitable goal of political action, may make problems worse.
Finally, intractability should lead to humility—and the admonition: First, do no harm.•
Bohanon is an economics professor at Ball State University. Send comments on this column to firstname.lastname@example.org.