Blog | March 23, 2018

How Can The Pharma Industry Help The Homeless?

Source: Life Science Leader
Rob Wright author page

By Rob Wright, Chief Editor, Life Science Leader
Follow Me On Twitter @RfwrightLSL

How Can The Pharma Industry Help The Homeless?

In January I published, “Can JPM And BTS Make A Bigger Difference?” This was part one of a four-part blog series on my experience of attending this year’s J.P. Morgan Healthcare (JPM) and Biotech Showcase (BTS) conferences in San Francisco. In this particular blog, I wrote about the dichotomy observed between “the haves” (i.e., conference attendees and presenters) and “the have nothings” (i.e., San Francisco’s homeless population). For the past 30+ years, the haves annually flock to San Francisco in January to provide updates on a wide variety of medical miracles being worked on at their companies. The have nothings are the homeless we all pass while walking on the streets to and from JPM, BTS, and the dozens of other events taking place simultaneously. A suggestion was made that perhaps the organizers of these events could do a coordinated collection toward helping the local community with tackling its burgeoning problem.

For two readers, the notion seemed to strike a chord, and they commented below the blog. For example, John Mangold wrote, “This [is] such a superlative article, and on point. Let's do something.” Don Sellers suggested, “A token collection, if properly distributed, would temporarily ameliorate the condition you well described. However, it would be better to harness a coordinated donation of the time and talent (not treasure) of "the top 1 to 5 percent" to actually work on a real solution to the problem.” I pondered Mangold’s words (i.e., let us do something), and wondered what “do something” would entail. I considered Sellers’ suggestion of tapping biopharma talent versus treasure, and thought, “Why not do both?” The feedback made me realize that properly executing something that would truly make a difference for the homeless would require overcoming a variety of challenges. For starters, do enough life sciences people who attend JPM annually actually care enough to make a difference for the homeless? Would the various annual events want to take part? If so, how would these be coordinated? Who should be contacted, and by whom? Proper execution requires more than an idea, but probably demands a name, formalized vision and mission statements, and a board of high-level participants that likely includes J.P. Morgan’s Jamie Dimon, GSK’s Emma Walmsley, or Merck’s Ken Frazier (just to throw out a few thought starters). Real success would likely require engaging stakeholders beyond just members of PhRMA, BIO, AdvaMed, and AHIP, but also other members of the media such as John Carroll, Adam Feuerstein, Matthew Herper, Luke Timmerman, and Meg Tirrell. While pondering the conundrum of having more questions than answers as to what “doing something” for the homeless might actually entail, I received an email from Chris Conley.

Can Biopharma Drive A Cure For Homelessness?

A self-described “fan” of Life Science Leader who has worked for MRI, DNA Consulting, and Heritage Partners Intl., the Portland, OR, resident ranted a bit about her experiences with the homeless in her community. My local community met with our elected officials to discuss options, as we had an illegal homeless camp in our backyards that led to a fire that nearly burned down our homes!” she wrote. “Their solution was to send out a social worker to give us sensitivity training.” But Conley’s communication also had some suggestions, so I asked if we could publish an edited version of her email. Because before deciding to do anything, it seems we first need to determine if enough people actually care to be involved in doing something.

Since you’ve had others comment on the [JPM] homeless issue on your website, maybe you should survey your audience and ask for their thoughts, as this is not a localized issue. I live in Portland, OR, and have witnessed the rise in the homeless problem in my own backyard (literally), which can be traced back to the government’s decision to stop funding mental health programs. But government officials have made plenty of other poor decisions, such as taking away power of local law enforcement to enforce vagrancy laws, and have even eliminated some vagrancy laws altogether. In Portland this has resulted in the homeless becoming increasingly aggressive. They pretty much know that nothing is going to happen to them when they break in, steal, set fires, set up illegal camps, or create messes they have no intention of cleaning up. In the past I always gave to causes that helped the homeless, including volunteering at local shelters. But increased violence makes me feel it is no longer safe to do so.”

“Another non-solution involves city governments purchasing one-way bus tickets to ship their homeless out. But such initiatives only result in reciprocity by other cities, at tax payer expense mind you, and don’t get to the root of the problem. When cannabis was legalized in Oregon, 15 percent of taxes on sales were to be directed toward mental health initiatives, with another 15 percent to go to law enforcement. But we need other solutions beyond just money. We need housing, rehabilitation, mental health support, and ways for the homeless to make money (beyond panhandling) to support themselves. While there is a small subpopulation of homeless for which no program will likely be helpful, we can’t turn our backs on the entirety of the problem, for it isn’t going away. Handouts don’t seem to work, and in my opinion, only provide an easy means for some homeless people to support their addiction of choice. The result is a vicious cycle of more dealers, more addicts, which lead to more violence and more crime.”

“Big pharma, which has been trying to clean up its reputation, VCs, and the investment community have access to a great amount of wealth. We have all seen what [Priscilla] Chan, [Mark] Zuckerberg, [Bill] Gates, and [Jeff] Bezos are doing as leaders to make a difference in our world. And while it would be great to enlist their help in tackling the homeless problem, maybe leaders in biopharma need to take some initiative? We need more creative solutions, such as what Ft. Worth, TX, is doing to employ its homeless (i.e., jobs to pick up trash). Every city/state has building space that is underutilized, making me wonder if there is an opportunity for biopharma, and companies like Alexandria Real Estate Equities, to come up with some creative solutions for how unutilized space could be deployed. My overall point is this. I am not sure what the solution is for helping the homeless or dealing with homelessness as a societal problem. But I believe if we as an industry put our minds together, we can likely cure homelessness!”

If you believe a JPM program geared toward helping the homeless to be worthwhile, feel free to comment on this blog, or better yet, send me email with your thoughts and suggestions —