Thursday, April 06, 2006

Million Dollar Murray

I have been participating in the Urban Engagement Book Club. Sponsored by Central Dallas Ministries, we meet for lunch on the first Thursday of each month to review a book addressing some issue(s) affecting life in America today - poverty, education, health care, homelessness, and so on. Today, in addition to this month's book, we discussed a recent article in the New Yorker titled Million Dollar Murray.

Murray was a chronically homeless alcoholic who over a number of years was regularly arrested for intoxication. He was frequently in bad enough shape that he would be taken to the emergency room before he could be taken to jail. The pattern repeated itself over and over. The author estimated that the cost of treating Murray in the emergency room over time added up to more than $1,000,000. The thesis of this article was that it is more expensive to do nothing about the chronic homeless than it would be to provide them with housing.

What I found fascinating about this article were the studies that dispelled the notion that the homeless fit within a bell-shaped curve type of distribution in terms of the amount of time they spend in homelessness. Roughly 10% could be characterized as chronically homeless, while the majority spend some time as homeless and then find permanent shelter. The implications for treating the problem are that adequately addressing the chronic 10% by providing a home and support structure would be far less expensive than doing nothing. Whether motivated by a sense of compassion, altruism, or simple economics the end result would be a far better situation than what currently exists.

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