Homelessness Exit Strategies

Today I’m part of a strange “Freakonomics Quorum” on what you’d do if you suddenly found yourself penniless and on the streets. This sounds like an interesting hypothetical. But, as I discovered as I tried to honestly imagine what I would do, it was a struggle to keep it interesting. Here’s the official scenario:

Imagine you just lost all your possessions and money, and you were suddenly living in the streets.

1. What’s the first move you would make?

2. What’s the first organization you would turn to?

3. What would your extended plan look like?

Here’s my answer to the first question:

1. What’s the first move you would make?

I’m going to assume I’ve got amnesia or am doggedly prideful so that this isn’t too easy, or too boring. So “call my friends and family” is out.

But even if my entire social network — my entire fund of “social capital” — is wiped out by some freak virus, it’s still too easy. I can lose a wallet, but I can’t lose the balance of my good fortune. I’m a Midwestern white guy with good manners and an excess of education. That is, I’m rich in human and cultural capital, and that gives me a safety net too few people have. Even if my one set of clothes was funky and filthy, it would be easy enough for a guy like me to approach strangers and get them to trust me. So that’s what I’d do; I’d politely ask sympathetic-looking strangers for some help, and I’d get it. That’s privilege.

The rest of my answers are here, along with the answers of Nick MillsJosh PivenAdam Shepard, and Ann Wroe. Wroe, the obit editor at The Economist, offers an answer that is… pretty amazing. Here’s how she starts:

Assuming I hadn’t lost my wits (a big assumption), my first move would be to walk away from those streets, towards the sea or towards the woods. It’s easier to be empty there. The leaves or the waves would soothe me, as they always do, and I would try to reconcile myself to being stripped down to the essentials. The death-in-life could become rebirth, if I was strong enough. 

The libertarian policy analyst talks about various forms of capital. The obit editor talks about the woods and the sea and “death-in-life.” Makes sense!