Homelessness: A Very Wicked Problem

IMG_4766Wicked problem: a term coined by two UC Berkeley professors of urban planning, Horst W.J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber, to describe difficult social policy issues such as poverty, crime, and homelessness. This is included in their still surprisingly relevant journal article “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning” Policy Sciences (4), 1973, pp. 155-169. Rittel and Webber write, “As distinguished from problems in the natural sciences, which are definable and separable and may have solutions that are findable, the problems of governmental planning–and especially those of social or policy planning–are ill-defined; and they rely upon elusive political judgment for resolution. (Not ‘solution.’ Social problems are never solved. At best they are only re-solved–over and over again.)” (p. 160)

That last parenthetical comment is worth repeating until it sinks in. Homelessness as a prime example of a wicked problem will never be solved. The most we can hope for is that it will be re-solved. Our U.S. healthcare system is another example of a wicked problem. Therefore, unless my basic math fails me, health care for the homeless is a wicked problem squared. That does not equate with a reason to give up and not even try to address the wicked problems of homelessness and health care. It means that all of us are called upon to have the resolve to figure this out together.

Having a seemingly never-ending assortment of expert panels and reviews of evidence-based practice aimed at finding solutions for the crisis of homelessness may be necessary, but it will never be sufficient. Having a place-based, grass-roots approach and one that is supportive of critical reflection has greater potential for being more broadly effective. And this isn’t mere consumer or community-member token representation on policy committees as is so often practiced.

“Place oriented inquiry and practice emphasizes bottom-up strategies for the adaptive,
sustainable governance of complex dynamic landscapes. Adopting a spatial or place-based perspective helps with recognition that most knowledge is, to a significant degree, local or context-dependent, as all knowledge-holders occupy—by virtue of their biography, training, and geographic experiences—some particular, delimited position from which to observe the world. Wicked-problem conditions, the argument goes, require the cultivation, transmission, and application of existing bottom-up knowledge held by embedded actors in the landscape.” pp. 18-19.

Source: Weber, P. & Lach, Denise & Steel, S.. New Strategies for Wicked Problems: Science and Solutions in the 21st Century. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2017.