Sidestepping the Shirky Principle

Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution
The above quote is known as The Shirky Principle (and the concept has been discussed on Hacker News). The Shirky Principle is one of the biggest stumbling blocks for anyone trying to "do good" in the world.

One of the things I write about is homelessness and The Shirky Principle is an insidious problem in this space. A lot of people who want to help the homeless want to do so to get some really big feel-good experience.

So they want to help as directly as possible in a manner that gets the most emotional bang for the buck for them, the person doing the giving. For example they may want to go feed someone who is very obviously highly homeless whom they think will just squee at them with gratitude for their kindness.

This helps keep homelessness alive by not providing quieter solutions with less emotional pay-off that helps prevent people from ending up street homeless -- which is not the only kind of homelessness. There are, for example, people who couch surf but have no permanant address and people who live out of their vehicle.

If you want to avoid creating an organization that helps keep the problem alive, you need to come at the problem less directly. You need to think about how people end up in this situation to begin with, backtrack a bit on the process that gets people there and try to provide solutions that are upstream from the problem in hopes of preventing homelessness, reducing the incidence of homelessness and making it easier for people who are at risk to mitigate their problems so that even if they become homeless, it is more likely to be brief.

Humans are fairly bad at counting the catastrophes that didn't happen but should have. We tend to feel like "You don't KNOW that they WOULD have ended up homeless."

Preventing homelessness usually does not involve playing hero. People who want pats on the head and to be celebrated for being wonderful want to do things that involve rescuing folks after their lives have gone to hell in a hand basket. They don't want to identify ways to make life work better for everyone so that fewer people are in crisis.

But reducing the incidence of homelessness is the humane thing to do. It's the focus of someone who actually cares about the welfare of other people and actually cares about the health of their community more than they care about being in the spotlight for "playing hero."

In the book The Truth About Addiction and Recovery, there is a story about a small program that set a goal of helping alcoholics and addicts get jobs. It was supposedly one of the most successful addiction treatment programs in the US and it succeeded because it actively worked at avoiding being classified as an addiction treatment program.

They said "We don't treat addiction. We just help addicts get jobs and that's it." and this helped them sidestep being categorized in a manner that would have had state agencies butting into their program and dictating a whole lot of requirements that would have actively interfered with what they were doing.

If you want to sidestep the Shirky Principle you actively want to back off from big-feels moves. You want to intentionally avoid "playing hero."

You want to disengage from the emotional drama and set strict boundaries about "We don't do X, Y and Z. We do X and only X and that's it."

Being unemployed and feeling helpless and hopeless is one of the reasons people will imbibe various addictive substances. Helping addicts get jobs they have some hope of succeeding with is a good tactic for reducing addiction in the community.

You help them get a job and you take the position that showing up on time and staying sober enough to succeed and so forth is not your business. They need to decide how to handle that stuff and you aren't dealing with that stuff. You ONLY help addicts find jobs. Period.

Other people who are at risk of homelessness include people with serious health issues, disabled people and the LBGTQ crowd. Anything you can do to provide general support for people in those categories can help reduce the incidence of homelessness in your community.

Among other things, remote work and gig work can be helpful for some people who are disabled or LGBTQ.

Here are some of the things I do to try to provide resources: When you are doing community development work, you sidestep the Shirky Principle by providing reasonably-priced housing in walkable neighborhoods rather than trying to provide "homes for the homeless." You sidestep it by providing healthcare for people generally, not just heroic measures for people in serious crisis. You focus on prevention and on shoring up general health, welfare and productivity, not on playing hero.

You meet basic human needs for food, shelter and clothing, earned income, social connections and so forth. These are things people need even when life works well and they aren't in crisis.

You want to follow a stewardship model, a la Friends of the Library or the local downtown association. All communities need some crisis management but I think we do way too much of that these days and too little basic community development work.

Think of it this way: The local fire department tries to also educate people about fire prevention. They aren't a for profit business, so they don't want to actively encourage a situation where there are more fires so they make more money.

Good community development work should be more about crisis prevention than about rescue operations. It should be about building a healthy, resilient community that provides good quality of life for all locals as much as possible, not something that soothes the guilty conscience of the rich robber barrons after they have gotten rich by making everyone else poor.

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