Wicked problems are, well, wicked. Solving them is a long, and sometimes painful process. They require time. They require resources. Most importantly, they require the careful hand of thoughtful people who are passionate about solving them. Without the combination of time, resources, and thoughtful guidance, wicked problems do not and can not get solved.

On Time

We’re truly constrained by few things, as humans. The one we’re incapable changing or affecting is the clock. It keeps on ticking, forward, no matter how much we want to change that. Time marches on. The passage of it is, in fact, the most intractable thing to consider. The longer the problem exists in it’s current form, the more damage is done.

And still, we must confront it. In the United States, there is one death by suicide every 13 minutes. Every year, 49 people are struck by lightning. We can do absolutely nothing to change the units of time. All we can do is hope to change the number. And that’s where resources and guidance can make a difference.

On Resources

The City of Los Angeles recently announced a $100 million dollar initiative to address homelessness. Within the City, it is estimated there are more than 26,000 homeless people. More than 2,500 of whom are veterans. More broadly, it’s estimated that there are more than 44,000 homeless people in LA County. If it were as simple as throwing money at a problem, it might seem like this “problem” should have no issue being solved.

So let’s do some math with respect to the initiative in Los Angeles: $100 million dollars, divided between 26,000 homeless people. That’s almost $4,000 per homeless person. Is that enough? Is it worth the cost? While there are many factors at play in the dynamic of homelessness in any city, looking to successes for an analogue is still appropriate.

Take, for example, Utah. In 2003, Utah “solved” chronic homelessness. What did it take? New thinking. A new, drastically different approach. They called it “Housing First”, and the thrust was simple: give the chronically homeless a home. Prior to launching the initiative, Utah spent $20,000 per homeless person per year, on average. Since it launched, the state has seen that number drop to $12,000.

By working on the most difficult demographic first, Utah showed what can be done. Not only did the cost to the state drop, but the recidivism rate also dropped to 20%. The chronically homeless stopped being chronic, by and large. If you could show similar rate changes with initiatives for heroin, there’s no doubt we’d be spending as much as we could to save the thousands of lives that will otherwise be lost.

In 2009, the United Way of Los Angeles estimated a person on the street generates over $90,000 per year in costs for public services. While this may be a more holistic figure than the one from Utah, it’s clear that the resources - law enforcement, jails, health services, abuse counseling - could be used to solve some other “wicked” problems. This helps put into perspective the potential for Los Angeles’ new investment: In 2013, LAHSA (the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority) estimated the percentage of chronically homeless to be 25%.

Directing resources, as Utah did, toward those chronic cases, should provide similar results in Los Angeles. More than that, it seems fair to assume that as chronic homelessness decreases, other forms of homelessness decrease with some proportionality. If that’s true, Los Angeles can expect a drastic decrease to the cost per person, a slashing of homeless recidivism, and a more efficient use of myriad resources.

On Approach

Sometimes problems must get worse, before they can be addressed. Hopefully, by confronting homelessness thoughtfully, and in a collaborative way, Los Angeles can avoid making things worse. This means looking at the services ecosystem surrounding homelessness as it exists today, and looking for opportunities.

Some of these opportunities will be personal - affecting specific members of the homeless community. Otherwise will affect geographic regions. Redeploying existing resources, not in an effort to manage homelessness, but purely to eliminate it, should be the driving ethic behind this initiative. We’ve seen bold changes work in Utah, and they can work in Los Angeles, too.

Collaboration will require a lot of different thinking, too. It will require putting aside both personal and agency ego: it will require putting the end-user of the services first. The customer: the homeless person who needs a home, must always take precedence, even if it means discomfort for the agency assisting them. Even if it means changing a County-wide policy.

Los Angeles can succeed. The City isn’t going to lead the way - Utah has done that - nor should it try to. Success for Los Angeles isn’t the national accolades that will follow the elimination of chronic homelessness in the City. It’s in the well-being of the citizens who will benefit.  Not just those currently on the street: the men and women huddling in tents, the kids wondering where their next meal will come from, the person turned away because the shelter has no space.

The success for Los Angeles is in knowing that our home is a place that puts it’s people first, now and always. Even when their way of “living” in the City differs drastically from our own.

. . .

In case you missed it, Hack for LA recently held a panel on homelessness in Los Angeles atImpactHubLA. You can listen to the panel, which included representatives from the Downtown Women’s Center, the United Way of Los Angeles, the Veteran’s Administration, and Jovenes. You can listen to the audio from the panel here.


Ethan Bagley is a service designer, facilitator, philosopher, and many other things. He lives in the greater Los Angeles area with his wife and dog, and travels the world solving problems as a part of EB Advising. When he’s not creating solutions, he’s volunteering with Hack for LAAtheists United, and other mission-driven organizations.