Thursday, April 15, 2010

My Community: Thoughts About Carrots and Sticks

This is Arnott:  He's an Author and Homeless i...Image by cobalt123 via Flickr

I read an email yesterday evening from the City Councilman that represents our area. He explained his stance on a controversial plan intended to both help the homeless and reduce the number of homeless sleeping in cars and motor homes parked on residential streets at night. In his email, he literally used the words "carrot and stick" to describe the two pronged approach of no parking between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. for non-residents, restrictions on RV parking in residential areas and offering the homeless living in their vehicles safe parking areas where they can legally park as long as they agree to social services that help get them off the street and into housing.

Of course the only part of this plan currently in play is the "stick", i.e. no parking between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. for non-residents and restrictions on RV parking in residential areas.

But really, the thing that struck me the most was his use, or rather misuse, of the term "carrot and stick." Doesn't the saying go something like "carrot on a stick" and isn't it a metaphor for getting someone to do something they don't necessary want to do by luring them with a tempting incentive? You know, like getting a stubborn donkey to walk by dangling a carrot in front of it, just out of reach of its mouth. Instead he twists the meaning, implying that society need to both punish and reward certain behaviors in order to get the homeless to stop being a parking nuisance and start getting themselves back into housing and their cars into garages.

It just seems odd and wrong to talk about the homeless using carrots and sticks. Although, I guess I should be honest and admit that this whole, weird way to talk about a problem truly does reflect the somewhat schizophrenic way our society approaches social problems. On the one hand, we believe that people should just get their act together and straighten themselves out on their own. On the other hand, those down and out are sometimes seen as victims that need our help. In many ways, our approach does resemble luring people with carrots and then hitting them across the knuckles with a stick and vice versa.

I believe the problem of homelessness is complex and multifaceted. I also believe that offering or forcing people to participate in services designed to help, i.e. get them off the street, may or may not solve the problem. I think that the previously housed homeless who sleep in their cars because they lost their jobs and their homes are more likely to get back on their feet with some assistance. The chronically homeless who have now discovered the benefits of sleeping in a vehicles will probably be more reluctant to give up this way of life. The Councilman's plan is to get all these (and more) homeless groups back into housing. It's an honorable goal, but one not easily obtained.

While some people will only change to avoid negative consequences and other people will only change if coaxed and rewarded to do so, I think most of us fall somewhere between these two extremes. Acknowledging this fact makes me think that talking about public policy using the words "carrot and stick" grossly oversimplifies both the problem and the solution. Or perhaps it just goes to show that a "housed" politician truly can not relate to his "homeless" constituents.

What do you think?
Are you more of a carrot or stick kind of person? Do you have a better idea about how to help the homeless and address the concerns of the housed? Leave me a comment and share your thoughts.
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