The Shirky Principle And Homelessness

The Shirky Principle:

Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.

I have been saying this for a lot of years. It's part of why I avoided homeless services as much as I could while homeless. They are often really terrible.

When we were first in downtown San Diego, we went and got a free meal one night at the Salvation Army. They required you to leave your big bags somewhere and not have them at the table where you were eating. They provided space, but it wasn't monitored or anything. Anyone could just pick up your bags and walk off with them. No one would be the wiser and it did happen at times.

That exact scenario happened to a woman that sat next to me at dinner who was newly out of the hospital. She was older than me and had a heart condition. It was rainy and cold that night and all her stuff disappeared while we were eating.

Even though they were giving away clothes and bedding after dinner, no one walked her to the front of the line and said "Hey, her stuff disappeared. Let's make sure she at least has enough warm clothes and bedding to make it through the night." To my mind, this said an awful lot about just how much they really cared. Ugh.

When they were giving sermons while you ate, they would mention how stuff only disappeared occasionally and act like it was no big deal. But if it is all you own in this world and now you don't have enough to keep warm for the night and no means to replace it, that's a huge problem.

We stopped eating there. I wasn't going to leave my bags up front. We had two tablets on us worth about $2000. I got them for $800 plus a two year contract with Verizon, but I absolutely couldn't afford to replace them. This was how I was making money online and trying to sort our problems out. I could not afford to lose our computers.

A lot of homeless services were incredibly bad about treating the homeless terribly in a way that kept their problems alive and created barriers to solving their problems. This is part of why I am not interested in doing "homeless services." Instead, I want to create resources that help people problem solve and that don't hinge on the definition of homelessness per se.

Programs to "help the homeless" require there to be ongoing homelessness to justify their existence. I am much more interested in programs that reduce the incidence of homelessness in the world. Such programs work best by not making them homeless services per se.

Programs that actually help reduce the incidence of homelessness include:
  • Programs that foster the development of an adequate supply of housing, especially such that a vehicle is genuinely optional for some people.
  • Jobs and education.
  • Accessible healthcare.
Updated December 3, 2021.