The homeless figures dilemma

I was visiting my parents in Pennsylvania, and I returned to an interesting request. A reporter from the New York Times had found the abstract of my talk on the age of homeless in America. The New York Coalition for the Homeless had received donated time for television advertisements. You can view the modified ads from this page.

Why do I call them modified ads? Well, they used to be different. The 90 second ad and the Facts ad used to include less quotes in the middle, and a different ending. It used to conclude “and by the way, the average age of a homeless person is nine.” As of early July, the original ad still appears on Youtube. I had heard this statement earlier, during the December 2007 Commencement at Bellarmine.

The article appears online at the Times’ City Room blog. Thus, I helped cause a change in the ads.

The full implications of this work startled me. There’s the boost to my professional career. Bellarmine also gets a mention in a big publication, helping the school. Of course, this means I now need to know a lot about the situation. This was originally just a teaching example, but now it’s not. Fortunately, I managed to find an assistant for the research; she and I will have something ready by Mathfest at the end of this month.

There’s a moral issue, as well. The Coalition was hurt by the negative exposure. That’s not a good thing, as homelessness is a large problem. Many people without permanent shelter are children, thousands in New York alone. Even if not half, they could use support. Weakening the groups that provide and advocate for support does not help. On the other hand, I have an academic responsibility to accurate statistics, as much as we can. An average age of 9 does not appear correct. In Catholic thought, even for the right ends, wrong means are inappropriate and sinful. This is a right end. Using a misleading (at best) figure is an inappropriate, potentially sinful way to do that. I should help. But it hurts a little. It’s funny how seemingly simple things, like 15 minute talks, can become moral dilemmas. I wish I had an answer here, or even better words to describe my feelings. Maybe later, I will.

About Adam

My quest is a world where calling someone "virtuous like a fairy tale hero" is routine, not fantastic or ironic. My vocation is the teaching and learning of statistics. My dream is a long happy life with a wonderful wife and kids. Who knows if any will become true? More information is at my homepage on the twelvefruits network: http://adam.twelvefruits.com
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