Unintended Consequences: Helping the Homeless

I read this morning in today’s Washington Examiner that the city is considering efforts to help homeless youth, LGBT homeless youth specifically.

The District would conduct a census of its homeless lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth every five years, under a plan the D.C. Council will consider Monday.

Now I am not exactly what you would call a gay rights crusader, but I feel equally bad for anyone who is homeless, regardless of their sexual orientation or identity. I also recognize that the complicated issue of homelessness can be made even more difficult by having a lifestyle that might not be accepted by people on the street.

Homeless youth all have different stories and circumstances why they are where they are. In the eyes of the law, though, all should be equal. Sounds like a no-brainer, right?

I continued reading:

Along with the population study, the measure would also intensify the District’s efforts to serve LGBT youth by expanding the number of beds and units that are devoted to them in the city’s homeless shelters.

This makes me uneasy. Should the District of Columbia earmark beds and units for homeless people based on criteria dictated by the knuckleheads on city council? I don’t think so.

Here’s where some unintended consequences come in. Let’s say Mary Cheh gets her way, and earmarks a lot of beds for LGBT youth. What’s to stop straight youth from lying to get a bed? If one were homeless and it was freezing cold and they had to say they were gay or identified with another gender to get a good night’s sleep and a better shot at a spot in a shelter, you’d bet most people would do that.

I doubt the District is going to recreate the scene from “In the Army Now” where Pauly Shore is forced to kiss Andy Dick to prove he is gay to avoid being deployed to the middle east under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. It probably is more like checking a box.

Further, if a fixed percentage of beds and units are devoted to LGBT youth, does that mean if an insufficient number of people who self-identify as LGBT are there, the beds are held until somebody does — thus leaving empty beds and displacing other homeless people? If not, and the beds are used by non-LGBT folks, when one comes in and self-identifies, does a person who is not lose their bed?

As I understand it, this just goes for the city-run shelters, not private ones. Will the city eventually start imposing these edicts on private shelters?

Just some questions.

I understand the sentiment behind wanting to help LGBT youth, but trying to do so specifically comes with trade-offs and unintended consequences.

A better policy would be to help all homeless folks equally, regardless of sexual orientation or identity. That’s just my opinion.

UPDATE: A reader shares this story with me.  And this one. Seems like this sort of thing is growing in DC.

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3 Thoughts on “Unintended Consequences: Helping the Homeless

  1. rbaron321 on November 19, 2012 at 6:50 pm said:

    You kinda phoned this one in. The article in question mentions:
    1. 40% of homeless youth nationwide are LGBT;
    2. the district doesn’t know how many LGBT homeless it has; and
    3. the number is probably crazy high b/c the area is urban and current services are over whelmed.

    Your post implied that straight youth will be left out in the cold b/c of this policy without any facts to back it up.

    Would you have written a similar post if the DC government had announced a policy to study the size of the vet homeless population and respond with budget adjustments if the number was higher than expected?

    You end with a note that all homeless people should be treated equally…but you give no specific reason why this should be so. I can think of several homeless groups (Addicts, mentally ill and abused women) who might require and be better served with specific services rather than throwing them all into a big shelter. I don’t understand why LGBT youth would be any different.

    • Jim Swift on November 19, 2012 at 6:59 pm said:

      RBaron321,

      Thanks for the comment.

      I get your point that not all homeless are the same. Some have different needs and some have risks in behavior. Veterans are such an example. (If the money comes from taxpayers, I don’t support preferential treatment based on arbitrary criteria — veteran’s status included.) However, I am not opposed to gender-specific housing, as to avoid such problems like rape and violence.

      I do not think I was implying that the policy was so give short shrift to homeless straights or other folks, but I did ask questions about the current policies.

      I.E., if the department is dedicating new resources to help LGBT homeless, does that mean non-LGBT homeless will be denied those beds? If they go unfilled by LGBT homeless, will non-LGBT homeless not be able to use them?

      If they are able to use them, is it one-in-one-out when a self-identified person comes in?

      These are just questions, not assumptions. I just think it’s ill advised to assume that pursuing such a policy doesn’t come with trade-offs and unintended consequences.

      What are they? We don’t know because the author doesn’t even consider it.

      That’s my point.

  2. rbaron321 on November 19, 2012 at 9:23 pm said:

    There are questions and there are “questions”. Your post falls more into the Henry Reid tradition of “When was the last time John McCain was checked for Alzheimer’s”.

    You do actually imply that other homeless will be disadvantaged in this paragraph:

    “Further, if a fixed percentage of beds and units are devoted to LGBT youth, does that mean if an insufficient number of people who self-identify as LGBT are there, the beds are held until somebody does — thus leaving empty beds and displacing other homeless people? If not, and the beds are used by non-LGBT folks, when one comes in and self-identifies, does a person who is not lose their bed?”

    While you didn’t highlight this:

    The District has a single transitional-living facility for gay youth, but it has only eight beds, little turnover and, according to Ameen, “a perpetual waiting list.”

    Your paragraph sets up a zero-sum game in the minds of the reader. Yes, city resources often are a zero-sum game. However the article indicates that, in this case, resources are being used inefficiently in pursuit of the goal to help the widest # of homeless youth. It appears the study and the possible adjustments that would result would a case of better resource allocation rather than a kind of political machine handout.

    I am also curious what you mean by “arbitrary criteria”? Presumably the criteria of veteran or LGBT, etc. comes from people with experience studying the homeless issue. If you support specific policies for specific homeless sub-populations, why does this particular policy strike you as suspicious?

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