One of the most powerful, high-impact advancements in the modern world is surprisingly unfamiliar to those who have not studied engineering. It is called the feedback loop. Feedback loops are a critical element in all control systems and have revolutionized many aspects of modern living. Salt Lake County Mayor McAdams and a group of highly motivated government officials in the region are trying to apply this powerful concept to one of the most perplexing problems facing the city — homelessness.
Feedback loops enable everything from the thermostat in your house to the cruise control in your car. Two of the crowning marvels of modern technology — driverless cars and drones — would be completely inoperable without recent advancements in control systems. Much of the innovation that has occurred across a broad spectrum of technology is a direct result of implementing control systems. However control systems have rarely been successfully applied to social and political problems.
Its not hard to understand why. Social and political problems often involve issues where it is very difficult to achieve agreement on the desired outcomes. And even if agreement is achieved, it is almost impossible to persuade politicians to fund the feedback mechanisms required to accurately measure and adjust the outcomes. Where these two obstacles are overcome, there is great promise of producing successful, cost-effective government programs that serve the public's interest well.
This is why what the leaders of Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County are attempting to do with homelessness is so encouraging. For over a year these two organizations have been engaged in an intensive effort to increase understanding of homelessness in the region. In the process, they have identified nine subgroups within the “homeless” category that each need a different combination of support services in order for the individuals in these subgroups to live stable and healthy lives.
While this is excellent progress, the real breakthrough is that there is a common vision of the outcomes that are required in order to achieve success with each of these subgroups. The major remaining challenge is to convince the city, county and state officials to fund the feedback mechanisms needed to achieve the desired outcomes.
We applaud the efforts of city and county leaders and staff in addressing a problem that has perplexed major cities around the world. Homelessness consumes nearly $100 million per year in direct and indirect service costs in the city and county. Additional funding could unleash a powerful and promising approach to dealing cost-effectively with homelessness in the area. The city, county and state officials should fully fund the current ongoing efforts to deal with homelessness. By so doing, this region can continue its internationally recognized leadership in dealing with the humanitarian, social and political challenges of homelessness.