Time Out of Mind

On any given night, about 4,000 people sleep on the streets or in shelters in Portland, Oregon, a city with a population of 625,000 people.

In New York, a city of 8.5 million people, more than 56,000 homeless men, women and children sleep in homeless shelters and at least 3,300 more sleep on the streets and subways in the dead of winter. This means that one in every 143 New Yorkers is currently homeless.

The homeless problem confronts every metropolitan area of this country. In most, solutions have been hard to come by. It was against this background that I watched Time Out of Mind, a film in which Richard Gere portrays George Hammond, a homeless man on the streets, alleys, and in condemned buildings and shelters in New York.

Night after night he looks for a place to sleep, something to eat and, yes, drink. Hammond is an alcoholic and mentally-ill. His sentences are mumbled, incomplete, he has a vague look. cloudy eyes and aimless expression. He has been unable to find a job, has no identification and can’t recall his social security number.

As a result, he doesn’t qualify for the financial assistance offered by City’s social services. He is alone, even when listening to a chatty sort-of-friend, and unsuccessfully tries to connect with his adult daughter, now working in a bar. Hammond is simply down and out, drifting from one day to the next.

I watched this film hoping to find a solution to the homeless problem. None are offered, none are even suggested. What I found was a powerful depiction by Gere of what its like to be homeless on the streets in America today.

The state of Utah has developed a promising approach for homeless individuals. The state had almost 2,000 homeless individuals, many with drug or mental health problems. The approach, called Housing First, starts by giving the homeless a home, a genuine private residence rather than a shelter or halfway house.

In the Utah’s initial pilot program, 17 homeless individuals were placed in homes in Salt Lake City. According to James Surowiecki (New Yorker, 9/22/14) after 22 months, not one of them was back on the streets. Surowiecki reports that, “In the years since, the number of Utah’s chronically homeless has fallen by 74 percent.”

Utah’s program is also more cost effective than the traditional approach of first dealing with drug and mental health issues, as well as maintaining shelters. Such programs generally cost about $20,000 a year for each chronically homeless person. In contrast, placing a homeless individual into permanent house costs the state just $8,000.

Let’s assume George Hammond had a little luck and obtained an identification and social security card. Would his life be any different if he first had a home to call his own? Could he even manage its care and maintenance? Even if he lived in Utah, without a job and some kind of treatment program, I don’t imagine his life would be much different.

The approach to the homeless in Utah offers some kind of hope for what has otherwise been viewed an unfixable problem. Homes first, then a job and treatment, rather than the reverse.

You can watch a preview of the film here