One of my favorite contemporary writers, Malcolm Gladwell, wrote in a 2006 New Yorker piece about a man he calls “Million Dollar Murray.”  Murray Barr typified the plight of the chronically homeless individual who dots city streets all over America.

Over the ten years Barr remained on the streets in Reno, Nevada, officials there totaled up all his hospital bills, substance-abuse-treatment costs, doctors’ fees, and other expenses.  According to Patrick O’Bryan, the Reno police officer who helped Barr off the streets time and time again, “it cost us one million dollars not to do something about Murray.”

Photo courtesy of The Salvation Army New Frontier

Photo courtesy of The Salvation Army New Frontier

In the 90s, a research database created by a Boston College graduate student graphed the problem of homelessness in the city of Philadelphia. What he found surprised the experts: homelessness doesn’t have a normal bell-curve distribution.  Instead, the pattern follows the shape of a hockey stick.  The term for that is “power-law” distribution.  In other words, the problem of homelessness is most serious for a relatively small number of people on the far end of the distribution pattern.  These folks are the chronically homeless individuals – like Murray Barr – who end up costing local governments the most for their care and maintenance.

Based on this discovery, a novel idea was developed by Philip Mangano, then director of the US Interagency Council on Homelessness.  Mangano has long been an advocate of solving the problem of chronic homelessness by stabilizing those in the worst shape with government-provided housing and supportive services.  Under the watchful eye of a trained case-worker, chronically homeless people can become sober, receive counseling, get medical attention, find and keep a job, and have a place to live.

The city of Denver was an early convert to Mangano’s way of seeing things.  In its early days, the program – called Denver’s Road Home – cost approximately $10,000 per person each year, or roughly a third of what it would cost the government to maintain that same person on the street.  Now, the city has seen a 36% decrease in the number of chronically homeless people and an 11% drop in homelessness overall.

And, a recent change at The Salvation Army’s Crossroads Center Shelter in Denver will help the city reduce those numbers even further. This month the shelter will begin focusing all its efforts on transitional housing for men.  Our own Captain Ron McKinney says about the change, “one of the best ways to help people escape homelessness is through effective counseling and case management.  We believe that this is the right time to direct our resources where they can do the most good for these homeless men.”

I pray that Captain McKinney is right.  Let’s do more to stop the endless spiral into homelessness that so many people face by giving them tools and by walking along side them while they learn and grow.

Click here if you’d like to read more about the Crossroads Center.

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