In the nineteen-eighties, when homelessness first surfaced as a national issue, the assumption was that the problem fit a normal distribution: that the vast majority of the homeless were in the same state of semi-permanent distress. It was an assumption that bred despair: if there were so many homeless, with so many problems, what could be done to help them? Then, fifteen years ago, a young Boston College graduate student named Dennis Culhane lived in a shelter in Philadelphia for seven weeks as part of the research for his dissertation. A few months later he went back, and was surprised to discover that he couldn’t find any of the people he had recently spent so much time with. “It made me realize that most of these people were getting on with their own lives,” he said.It turned out that, by targeting the hard-core few, social services could be delivered cheaper, and, more importantly, better.
Culhane then put together a database—the first of its kind—to track who was coming in and out of the shelter system. What he discovered profoundly changed the way homelessness is understood. Homelessness doesn’t have a normal distribution, it turned out. It has a power-law distribution. “We found that eighty per cent of the homeless were in and out really quickly,” he said. “In Philadelphia, the most common length of time that someone is homeless is one day. And the second most common length is two days. And they never come back. Anyone who ever has to stay in a shelter involuntarily knows that all you think about is how to make sure you never come back.”
The next ten per cent were what Culhane calls episodic users. They would come for three weeks at a time, and return periodically, particularly in the winter. They were quite young, and they were often heavy drug users. It was the last ten per cent—the group at the farthest edge of the curve—that interested Culhane the most. They were the chronically homeless, who lived in the shelters, sometimes for years at a time. They were older. Many were mentally ill or physically disabled, and when we think about homelessness as a social problem—the people sleeping on the sidewalk, aggressively panhandling, lying drunk in doorways, huddled on subway grates and under bridges—it’s this group that we have in mind. In the early nineteen-nineties, Culhane’s database suggested that New York City had a quarter of a million people who were homeless at some point in the previous half decade —which was a surprisingly high number. But only about twenty-five hundred were chronically homeless.
It turns out, furthermore, that this group costs the health-care and social-services systems far more than anyone had ever anticipated. Culhane estimates that in New York at least sixty-two million dollars was being spent annually to shelter just those twenty-five hundred hard-core homeless.
What does this have to do with education? The ones that cause the majority of referrals, disciplinary actions, and poor scores on high-stakes tests, may be just those hard-core few. And they are being poorly served by current educational fixes. Many of them have poor reading and writing skills; some are virtually innumerate. Yet, in a typical high school, such students generally do not get the assistance they need. They aren't "special ed", they just haven't picked up the skills they need to manage to learn. They find classes a tedious and incomprehensible nuisance - as a result, they often disrupt, just to engineer an escape from the torture.
Such students might better be served in a "high school preparatory" program, that addresses their educational shortcomings. It should probably be housed in a separate facility, far from temptation to cut class and wander the hallways. No student should be in the program except the academically underpowered. It shouldn't be a dumping ground for the unruly. The goal would be to turn the students around in the shortest time possible, and might include a longer day, or even Saturday school or an extended school year.