The Homeless Ex-Offender, Part 1

Alone Under the ElRegistered sex offenders have a very rough time, since they’re forbidden to live near anything except a toxic waste dump. Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration. And some might say, why remind the audience of their least favorite variety of people experiencing homelessness? Unhoused people do come in many shapes, sizes, colors, occupations, and states of physical and mental health; and some of them, it’s true, have been convicted of sex crimes, and they have served time for it.

There are three things to remember. One, not every accused and convicted person is guilty. Two, the term “sex offender” covers not only the pedophile with a long history of molesting kids, but the youth convicted for having sex with his underage girlfriend, and the guy who has downloaded kiddie porn to his computer.

In terms of public menace, there’s a difference. Nobody here is condoning any kind of sex crimes. But if you’ve ever had a family member or a friend who ran afoul of the law in this way, you know what a slim chance they have of living a normal life again.

Now, here comes the really big theme: If the problem of homeless sex offenders can be solved, it will go a long way toward improving the general public opinion toward people experiencing homelessness, and possibly prevent some hate crimes. What stands in the way, in more than 30 states, are the restrictions on where an ex-offender may live.

Iowa was the first state to create tough residency restrictions. Consequently, the number of “whereabouts unknown” sex offenders doubled. When Kansas enacted its law, a constitutional challenge was slapped down, encouraging other states to “get tough” too. When residency requirement laws were enacted in various states, they not only forced some ex-offenders out of homes they rented or even owned, and cost them their jobs, but had made it nearly impossible for those newly released from prison to find anywhere to live at all. Some would even have families to return to, if not for rules about distance from places frequented by children.

The year 2006 saw the enactment of Jessica’s Law in California, named after the victim in an especially heinous case. In the following years, other horrendous crimes have taken place in the state regardless, and there were other unintended consequences. Within two years, the number of transient sex crime parolees rose by 800%. As of last month, the ban had led to what one reporter called “a dangerous 24-fold increase in the number of homeless sex offenders.” [The link is ours.] Isn’t that, like, a 2,400% increase? Sounds awful, when you put it that way.

With residency restrictions, ex-offenders tend to move to rural areas, where it’s easier to live far from a school or park, but this is difficult for the settled country residents. In the city, any landlord willing to rent to these unwanted people will probably be overwhelmed with applications. Washington Post reporter Karl Vick pointed out that in Long Beach, 19 ex-offenders ended up living in the same small apartment complex, and Carson had 30 pariahs in one hotel.

This kind of thing is alarming, so the neighbors become irate and active, and do whatever they can to eject the frightening newcomers… who are soon homeless once more, adding another spiral to the vicious circle. In Orange County, over a third of registered sex offenders are homeless, and a lot of them live in an encampment in the industrial part of Anaheim, the same town where Disneyland is located, which is kind of weird.

Understanding how unreasonable residency restrictions are, judges had been granting exemptions to parolees on an individual basis, but what a waste of court time and public money it is. Then, the state Superior Court recently found some parts of Jessica’s Law unconstitutional. A recent Los Angeles Times editorial said,

Before parents shudder at the thought of sex offenders now being allowed to live within 2,000 feet of schools and parks, they should remember the utter lack of evidence that the restriction ever kept a child from being molested.

Jessica’s Law could not change the ugly fact that most child victims (93%, according to the Justice Department) are molested by someone they know, family members or friends of the family, who live in the same house or have unquestioned access to their victims, and no prior convictions to provide a clue. Neighborhoods refuse to recognize that, preferring to obsess about strangers, and enjoying a false sense of security if the strangers can be kept at bay.

Of course, with limited funding and resources, it’s easy to think, “Wait a minute, why should we find housing for ex-convicts, when there are so many deserving young families out in the cold?” The prioritizing of who should be helped first is too big a question to go into right now.

The bottom line is, as many are beginning to discover, it’s better to be “smart on crime” than “tough on crime.” Even Georgia, not a notoriously liberal state, has loosened up, abandoning residency restrictions for those who have committed offenses before 2003. The state officials might even decide to exempt the elderly and disabled ex-offenders.

Coming Up: The Homeless Ex-Offender, Part 2.


Source: “The flaw in Jessica’s Law,” Los Angeles Times, 11/06/10
Source: “Laws to Track Sex Offenders Encouraging Homelessness,” The Washington Post, 12/27/08
Image by Tony the Misfit, used under its Creative Commons license.


The New NIMBY: Now In My Backyard

Venice BeachVenice, California, has been a city of Beats, hippies, and progressives of many stripes, and thanks to the beachfront culture and the ghetto-ish Oakwood area, it has always been a very “street” kind of place. Also, there are neighborhoods where people have lived for many years. St. Joseph Center has existed in its midst, in the local’s “backyard” so to speak, for more than three decades.

There is a café called Bread and Roses that serves people experiencing homelessness. Clients can send and receive mail, make phone calls, wash their clothes, or wash themselves. There is a thrift store. The staff members and volunteers (around 400) do a lot of things, like find emergency shelter and medical help for clients, and that includes people who might be mentally ill or substance abusers, or both. The Center offers various kinds of aid and advocacy in applying for benefits.

St. Joseph Center’s website states,

Homeless individuals who are ready to make long-term change may enroll in case management. Service plans developed jointly by the individual and the case manager assess each person’s strengths and needs and lay out a pathway to long-term stability and increased self-sufficiency by addressing issues such as permanent housing, job training, employment and ongoing treatment.

The part about the long-term change enrollment seems unknown to some of the neighbors, who don’t understand the levels of participation possible at the Center, and believe that all the clients must be fully enrolled in order to take advantage of the services.

I used to live within blocks of the Center, which was founded by nuns in 1976, so it was almost brand-new in my day. In 2006, the new main service center (family service and administration) was built on Hampton Drive, as described in this piece by Suzanne Thompson, in the Free Venice Beachhead (PDF),

Despite being so venerable, the institution has been embattled for years. I don’t live there anymore, but have followed the controversy through the neighborhood newsletters and other publications from Venice. Many of the neighbors equate the clients with criminals. Some are, some are not, and the same is true at any facility of this kind. A lot of people have records. A lot of people have been locked up at some point in their lives. (If you know a hundred people, one of them is in jail.) If they did their time, they’re even. Theoretically, here in America, a person with a criminal record has the same right to a free bowl of soup as anybody else.

There are always complaints about human excrement in the area. Why is that? It seems like, after the first year or so, the Center and/or the city would have figured out the restroom problem. The neighbors hate graffiti, and having their car windows smashed with bottles (or possibly from the impact of somebody’s skull). Some neighboring homeowners and renters live in constant fear. Others summon up their spiritual ideals or their old-school 60’s spirit, and try to exercise tolerance while they cope.

Some neighbors feel general compassion, but are exasperated by individual cases. They bring up the “homeless by choice” argument. It is true that throughout the history of the world there have been people who prefer to be vagabonds, and some prefer it now. But not nearly as many as the housed neighbors want to believe. Some call the center an “enabler,” and believe that any such facility that offers services to people experiencing homelessness will only encourage the lifestyle. Others disagree, such as Lars Eighner, who was quoted on this subject by House the Homeless a few days ago.

Almost a year ago, Va Lecia Adams, executive director of the homeless center, told Tidings Online:

We’ve always served families but, proportionally, we are seeing more families now. Certainly housing has been a very serious issue for our families. And I think so many families are just on the brink. When a member loses his or her job, it all can just crumble — especially in Santa Monica and Venice, where people are fighting to keep their housing.

At that time, the Center was serving 150 hot meals a day, and giving out thousands of bags of groceries. Donations were down, the staff was cut. Things have only gotten worse since then. There was a bright spot in September, when the Venicestock Festival with its seven bands raised money and awareness for the Center to continue its work. St. Joseph Center is currently, by the way, looking for a Manager of Venice Chronic Homeless Intervention Projects.


Source: “Homeless Services,” St. Joseph Center
Source: “Our History,” St. Joseph Center
Source: “St. Joseph Center struggles to serve Westside’s needy,” The Tidings Online, 01/29/10
Image by Steven W. Belcher, used under its Creative Commons license.


More Stuff About Stuff

Pulling CartDuring this materialistic holiday season, there is more to say about belongings. Coats, for instance. Viking Moving and Storage in New York has a long-standing tradition that helps people experiencing homelessness. It sponsors an annual Coat Drive, and this is one of the interesting facts the company shares with the public:

90% of homeless adults need a new, warm coat each winter because they have no place to keep one over the summer months.

Where do all the old coats go? Are they all so worn and soiled that they can’t be refurbished? Doesn’t anybody sort them out and dry-clean the salvageable ones and save them till next year? What a waste, if they are all just thrown away.

And what about the “Element S(urvival)” coat that converts into a sleeping bag? Whether this remains a handcrafted item made by the inhabitants of homeless shelters, or somehow goes into mass production, the intention is to distribute these coats as widely as possible to people experiencing homelessness. What happens at the end of winter? Will they all just be thrown away? Do we want all that Tyvek insulation in the landfill? Are these coats recyclable? Or will there be a place for each person to store the coat until next winter?

Slight digression on the subject of clothing: In Austin, Texas, the Thermal Underwear Drive is still in progress. Please consider donating to it, or an equivalent program in your area.

A solid citizen who needs four pieces of luggage for a weekend vacation will get all upset about a person experiencing homelessness, whose total possessions fit into a jumbo-sized trash bag. Whether stuff is worth having is not for somebody else to judge. People should be able to have the stuff they need, or think they need. (Within certain limits. No dead animals, for instance. But housed people are not supposed to have those either.)

What happens when you suddenly (or slowly and painfully) become a family experiencing homelessness? What happens to all your special things? The knickknacks that relatives gave you, the beautiful objects from friends and lovers, family photo albums, the kids’ school projects. With any luck, you can talk a friend or relative into keeping a few boxes in their garage, where your stuff may or may not be stolen or watersoaked, or eaten by rats.

If a family loses its housing in warm weather, the cold will eventually come again. You really need to keep the kids’ winter clothes. Surely some day you will have a kitchen again, and need your pots and pans. If you’re lucky enough to have a computer or a decent stereo system, trying to hang onto those should not be an unreasonable desire. Of course, many people facing homelessness sell everything. If they don’t, critical people think they should. Even if it means settling for 10 cents on the dollar, for things that will be an expensive hassle to replace.

To maintain any kind of hygiene, social acceptability, and personal pride, there is a certain irreducible amount of possessions a person needs. To maintain any kind of civilized existence, you just plain need stuff, and a place to keep it, either short-term, long-term, or both. Families need stuff, single people need stuff, and even if you can’t use it right now, someday you might once more have a living space to use it in. How can you let that stuff go? You can’t carry it around. Sometimes, if there is any money at all coming in, you can rent storage. Do you buy storage or food? There are a million Sophie’s Choices to make, a million stories out there. The homeless are not an amorphous mass.

There used to be lockers in bus stations and train stations, but no more. Another casualty of the drug war, no doubt. Horrified by the idea that somebody might keep a stash in a locker, the people in charge would naturally want to remove any opportunity for anyone to leave anything, no matter how innocent, in a locker. Between that and the 9/11 paranoia, lockers are disappearing from the public scene, if they haven’t already.

A few days ago we talked about former basketball star Ray Williams, who now has a job and an apartment after a long spell of homelessness. One of his misfortunes was that a storage facility auctioned off his furniture and other belongings — though it apparently gave him a nine-month grace period to pay back rent, which is unprecedented generosity.

Back in July, it was reported that, aside from the found wreck that Williams slept in, he actually owned a roadworthy Chevy Tahoe. Unfortunately, his working vehicle was being held by a repair shop that needed its $550 bill paid. In October, when Williams was about to leave Florida for Mt. Vernon, Tim Povtak published a followup story. By the time this story appeared, the repair shop bill had escalated to $2,900. That’s how it is to be destitute. Even when you don’t buy anything, stuff costs you money. Even when you don’t have access to your stuff, it costs money to hold onto it.

This comes (with permission to share) from Sam Crespi of Women Who Dare, a note about when she lived in Los Angeles:

There was a young man who’d worked for the Peace Corps. He rented an abandoned gas station downtown, across the street from the homeless theater… I can’t quite remember what he called it, but I think it was Planet Earth. He realized that there were homeless men who could pick up jobs unloading trucks in the neighborhood, and that what kept them from doing it was they’d likely lose their belongings, which they’d to try to hide somewhere, usually unsuccessfully.

So he found a bunch of school type lockers on the cheap and installed them around the station and that solved that problem. Someone gave him some furniture (chairs and some sofas, small tables), someone else game boards (chess, checkers, etc). We brought an old oil drum so they could have a fire at night. Sometimes we brought hot food. A small boy from Salvador with his mother, both of whom were living in a cardboard box, came by sometimes. By then there was a TV, and I started renting films for him.

What I remember is how much it meant for these people to be respected — talked with as they were more than someone without a face. They felt nourished by that theater, by the games, the conversation. It gave them a chance for a short time to leave behind all the rest.


Source: “About Us – Newsroom,” A1FirstClass.com, 01/10
Source: “The Nomadic Life of Former Knicks Captain Ray Williams,” Fanhouse.com, 10/11/10
Image by moriza (Mo Riza), used under its Creative Commons license.


Michael Moore, Filmmaker and Activist

Rust Belt TourThe repercussions of the whole WikiLeaks affair will not end any time soon, and it seems like every day a new person or organization shows up in the headlines with some kind of WikiLeaks connection. One of these is filmmaker Michael Moore, who has put up a portion of Julian Assange’s bail and thereby has angered a lot of people. Moore recently appeared on Rachel Maddow’s political talk show, as we are reminded by Free Press staff writer B. J. Hammerstein.

Assange is charged with rape and molestation, two things of which Moore in no way approves. (The specific charges, even if true, would show Assange as more of a typical jerk than a savage beast.)

So, on the one hand, nobody approves of non-consensual sex. On the other hand, everybody is entitled to a defense, and on the third hand, there is a kind of selective-enforcement thing going on here that points to a political motivation. Ask yourself this: If Assange were not the founder of WikiLeaks, would these charges have ever been made?

Before that, Michael Moore was in the news for being on the hit list of the insurance industry’s public relations outfit, which strongly resents the things he said about it in another film. As he describes it,

When someone talks about pushing you off a cliff, it’s just human nature to be curious about them. Who are these people, you wonder, and why would they want to do such a thing? That’s what I was thinking when corporate whistleblower Wendell Potter revealed that, when ‘Sicko’ was being released in 2007, the health insurance industry’s PR firm, APCO Worldwide, discussed their Plan B: ‘Pushing Michael Moore off a cliff.’

Last year, many unemployed workers and people experiencing homelessness were invited to free screenings of Moore’s film, Capitalism, A Love Story. From the Venice Film Festival, Mike Collett-White of Reuters said,

The film follows… a group of citizens [who occupy] a home that has been repossessed and boarded up by the lending company, forcing the police who come to evict them to back down… And he interviews an employee of a firm which buys up re-possessed, or ‘distressed’ properties at a fraction of their original value and which is called Condo Vultures.

Then, I remembered, there is something about Moore in Looking Up at the Bottom Line. Richard is talking about the aftermath of the 1973 Energy Crisis in Flint, Michigan, when 28,000 people became homeless:

Michael Moore documented this time and events in the movie Roger and Me. The movie depicts the closing of entire auto factories… as businesses abandoned entire worker communities and closed their doors overnight.

In the book, the run-up to that is a great story about poverty-stricken Philadelphia, where Max Weiner decided to get consumer justice for one woman, and organized a demonstration to embarrass a retail store that was cheating people. Garland Dempsey showed up to address the crowd. A wide-ranging scam was uncovered, the victims got full refunds and, as Richard says, “It was victory of the poorest of the poor.” Plus, it led to the founding of the Consumers Education and Protective Association (CEPA) by Weiner and Dempsey. Richard says,

Max always spoke of ‘people power.’ He would always say that ‘we already had the power; we just needed to realize it and then learn how to use it.’

The CEPA strategy was one still followed today by activist groups: First, investigate. Then, negotiate and, if necessary, demonstrate. Within that simple framework, the organization used a lot of skills to get things done, which we learn about in detail. Renters, of course, are the ultimate consumers, in terms of needing a product they cannot do without. Learn how rent and the Universal Living Wage are related. Fixing the rent situation by, for instance, bringing it to the level where people can afford it, would go a long way toward alleviating the plague of homelessness.


Source: “Filmmaker Michael Moore defends WikiLeaks work,” Freep.com, 12/23/10
Source: “How Corporate America Is Pushing Us All Off a Cliff,” MichaelMoore.com, 11/19/10
Source: “Capitalism is evil,’ says new Michael Moore film,” Reuters.com, 09/06/09
Source: “Looking Up at the Bottom Line,” Amazon.com
Image by joguldi (Jo Guldi), used under its Creative Commons license.


Best Holiday Wishes from House the Homeless!

Soup Kitchen Scrollwork

Merry Christmas, or holiday of your choice, and please don’t forget the ongoing Thermal Underwear Drive in Austin, Texas, or similar program in your area to help people experiencing homelessness. Cheers!

Image by gruntzooki (Cory Doctorow), used under its Creative Commons license.


Christmas, Homelessness, and Stuff

My life in a 10 x 10 storage unitSure, it’s a religious holiday and a secular celebration, and a time to remember Peace on Earth. However, mainly, Christmas is a time to get stuff. People become very preoccupied over what they’re going to give and what they’re going to get. Often, it’s stuff.

It’s a good time of the year to remember that some people experiencing homelessness have “too much” stuff — not in the sense of whether they need it, because they do need it just as much as housed people need their stuff. It’s too much stuff because there is nowhere to leave it, and it’s a real hassle to carry around with you everything you own. Too often, that is what homelessness is all about.

For USA Today, Marisa Kendall interviews Phillip Black, a person experiencing homelessness, whose belongings were thrown away by the police when he temporarily had to leave them unattended. A resident of Washington, D.C., Black currently keeps his stuff in two different shopping carts, one stowed behind a church and another in a parking lot. Kendall writes,

Finding a place to safely leave possessions is one of many challenges homeless people face each day, homeless advocates say. Some cities, including Portland, Ore., St. Petersburg, Fla., New York, San Francisco and Chicago are trying to help people in Black’s situation by offering free storage space to the homeless.

The District of Columbia, where Washington is located, once had a free storage program, back in the ’80s and ’90s. Kendall spoke with the deputy director of the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, Cornell Chappelle, who said that one of the problems with free storage is that people would just leave their belongings there forever. It’s a major issue for the people who run such a facility. (It’s probably a major issue for the people whose belongings were abandoned, too, because they are likely to be in jail or dead.)

Kendall says that in New York City, a person experiencing homelessness can use any commercial storage facility, and the city will pay the bill. That sounds almost too good to be true, so there must be a mile of red tape connected with it. The program in Arlington, Virginia, sounds wonderful. In St. Petersburg, Florida, old reliable St. Vincent de Paul, which has been in the helping business for decades, operates a storage center with 260 large bins, and most of them are generally in use.

The Portland, Oregon, center, with 50 cubicles big enough to hold a shopping cart, opened very recently. The city paid $30,000, and the Portland Business Alliance kicked in another $8,000. It’s only temporary, however, because a Resource Access Center that is scheduled to open next summer will fill the storage need and provide many other services.

In Vancouver, British Columbia, a storage facility located in a church and financed for a limited time by the city, was used by over 200 people experiencing homelessness. When the startup grant expired, things looked grim. But the company won a $25,000 prize in a “great ideas” contest sponsored by Pepsi, and received funding from three local foundations and a lot of donations from the public, so it looks like it will be able to stay open for another year.

But somebody always has to make the hard decisions on when to get rid of stuff. It can’t just keep piling up forever. There must be many more dilemmas associated with operating a storage place like this, and the people who figure out how to make it work smoothly are to be congratulated and applauded.


Source: “More cities offer homeless free storage,” USA Today, 11/18/10
Source: “Vancouver homeless get aid from Pepsi,” Edmonton Journal, 11/13/10
Image by Phillip Stewart, used under its Creative Commons license.


A Homelessness Success Story for the Holidays

Basketball HoopWhat better way to celebrate the holidays than to hear a success story? There is a good one in the San Francisco Chronicle and, no surprise, it’s about a person experiencing homelessness. The reporter is Tim Povtak, who writes for pro basketball annual magazines and has won many awards from the Associated Press Sports Editors. The story originates in Mt. Vernon, New York, a smallish city of 60,000 inhabitants, bordering on the Bronx.

Mt. Vernon is renowned for the number of excellent basketball players it has produced and supplied to college and professional teams. Their jerseys hang on the wall of the gym at the local high school. One of the athletes thus memorialized is Ray Williams, who was always remembered by his home town, even though no one had seen him for many years.

Once upon a time Williams, now 56, was a local hero and an inspiration to the young players coming up after him. From 1977 to 1987, he played for 10 seasons in the National Basketball Association (NBA). His professional career started with four seasons for the New York Knicks, including a year as team captain. Then he joined the New Jersey Nets, the Kansas City Kings, went back to the Knicks, and has also played for the Boston Celtics and the San Antonio Spurs.

Like many athletes, Williams didn’t manage money too well, either before or after retiring from the sport. He filed for bankruptcy in 1994, and consequently parted with his home and family. He received his NBA pension in a lump sum and then lost it speculating on real estate in Florida, where he than entered a span of 13 years as a member of the working poor, surviving on part-time, low-level jobs. As writer Povtak describes,

When his playing career ended, he started a gradual, downward slide, spiraling through a series of bad choices, bad investments, bad advice. Life after basketball was like quicksand. He kept sinking.

For many months, Williams lived a “dock of the bay” existence, fishing for his supper and sleeping in a found wreck of a vehicle. Then, in the summer of 2010, the Boston Globe published a story about him, written by Bob Hohler and titled “Desperate Times“.

Williams told the reporter that the NBA ought to make better arrangements for the players who apparently don’t understand that their careers won’t last forever. (I hate to be a negative voice here, but the NBA could protect retirees by refusing to hand out a pension as a lump sum. If it were paid out gradually, that would prevent the very situation that Williams found himself in. Of course, the players wouldn’t like it a bit, and neither would their lawyers.) Actually, two NBA-related groups had helped the retiree with “grants,” but he just couldn’t get a foothold on life. Hohler wrote,

Williams, 55 and diabetic, wants the titans of today’s NBA to help take care of him and other retirees who have plenty of time to watch games but no televisions to do so. He needs food, shelter, cash for car repairs, and a job, and he believes the multibillion-dollar league and its players should treat him as if he were a teammate in distress… One thing Williams especially wants them to know: Unlike many troubled ex-players, he has never fallen prey to drugs, alcohol, or gambling.

All of this came to the attention of His Honor Clinton Young, the mayor of Mt. Vernon, who set things in motion to get Ray Williams back home and living a productive life. Having returned to the land of ice and snow, Williams now holds the job title Recreation Specialist, but the expectation is that he will do so much more. Williams has already given a talk at the Boys & Girls Club, and addressed the Mt. Vernon High School boys’ basketball team. Ric Wright, the school’s football coach, calls him an icon.

Mayor Young envisions the revitalization of Mt. Vernon through its recreation and sports facilities. He is counting on the Williams’ charisma factor, presenting the former star as a kind of ambassador for the city who will relate to contractors and developers, and bring about a hoped-for alliance. Meanwhile, Williams has been reunited with his elderly mother, brother, and other family members who still live in Mt. Vernon for their first Christmas together in a long time.

Bonus Holiday Video!

Life Can Be Lonely This Holiday Season Lil Bob & the Lollipops.


Source: “Ray Williams Goes From Homeless to Home With a Job for Holidays,” San Francisco Chronicle, 12/17/10
Source: “Desperate Times,” Boston.com, 02/07/10
Image by LabyrinthX (Nicholas Bufford), used under its Creative Commons license.


Minimum Wage and the Universal Living Wage

Black square sunFull Disclosure: Richard R. Troxell is President of House the Homeless, in whose online presence you are at this very moment. Richard is the guy in the picture, holding up Homey Too, the official thermal underwear model of the Thermal Underwear Drive in Austin, Texas, which is in progress even as we speak. In my capacity as newsblogger, I feel moved to read with interest, then capsulize and remark upon, his essay, “Reasons for raising the minimum wage,” the same as any other piece of journalism. So here goes.

The Universal Living Wage idea has three basic tenets. One of them is,

Spend no more than 30% of one’s income on housing.

See? I knew this would be interesting, and I’ll tell you why in a minute. Troxell explains that the 30% figure was established by the banks, as the cutoff beyond which a person presumably could not afford to make mortgage payments. The assumption is, a person needs 70% of his or her income for other things, such as food, transportation, medicine, etc. And if the mortgage bill is more than 30%, this person will continue to spend the 70% on those other things anyway, and the bank will get the short end of the stick.

Also, 30% is the standard guideline used by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, aka HUD. If a family is paying more than 30% of its income for housing, it needs help. So, the business community and the government agree that, theoretically, shelter should not eat up more than 30%, or approximately one-third of what a person or family has coming in.

This is the part that blows me away. When I was growing up and taking classes like Home Economics in school, we learned that the magic number was 25%. The received wisdom was that a person or family oughtn’t pay more than one-fourth of its income for housing. See, someone has sneakily raised the bar. In the old days, it was, “If you pay more than one dollar out of four, you are a bad household manager and a fiscal profligate.” Then, somehow, our expectations were re-engineered. Now, it’s, “If you pay more than one dollar out of three, you are a careless and irresponsible.”

We were once taught that one-fourth of what we had was the reasonable amount to spend for housing. We’ve been re-programmed to accept the idea that instead, now a larger proportion, one-third of what we have, is the reasonable amount to spend for housing.

And, of course, the whole thing is a crazy dream anyway. People are willing to pay half of their income just to get under a roof and avoid being homeless. They are willing to scrimp and do without other things to make their budget viable. But even if tenants are willing to get along without much else in order to be housed, landlords have their rules, too. They go by the same standards that the banks do. When you fill out a rental application, those numbers had better look good to them.

Another of the Universal Living Wage’s three prongs is the proposition that the minimum wage would vary by region, being indexed to the cost of housing locally. This would mean changing the way the federal government determines poverty guidelines. Rather than being based on food costs, it would be based on the cost of housing, which is less volatile. Troxell explains how the HUD voucher rental program currently works and how it determines Fair Market Rent.

The formula that would be used to determine the ULW is explained in great detail on the Universal Living Wage website. (Choose “ULW formula” from the menu on the left.) Also available there is the opportunity to endorse the ULW:

In just the first three years of our five year campaign, we have the following international, national, business, celebrity, enlightened markets, regional, religious and union endorsements for the Universal Living Wage Campaign. Would your group like to stand up and be counted on the subject of a Universal Living Wage? Sign our Resolution and send it to us! We’ll add you to our roster.

We also recommend the “Facts and Myths” section of the site, which contains an exhaustive list of facts and information about why the myths are wrong. The ULW idea is based on the assumption that a person is putting in a 40-hour workweek, either at one job or perhaps a combination of two part-time jobs. The idea is simple: Anybody who works a 40-hour week ought to be able to afford basic rental housing. And if they can’t, something is wrong with the system.


Source: “Reasons for raising the minimum wage,” Helium.com
Source: “Endorsements,” UniversalLivingWage.org
Image by quapan, used under its Creative Commons license.


Animal Companions of People Experiencing Homelessness

His Entire WorldHow often do you see a great review of a great movie? Joanne Laurier has written extensively about film, bringing to the task more intelligence and wisdom than most of her fellow critics.

For the World Socialist Web Site, she wrote about “an honest picture of American life,” the indie film titled Wendy and Lucy. It’s about a young woman experiencing homelessness with only her dog for company, and it will break your heart.

Wendy and Lucy was directed by Kelly Reichardt, who wrote it with Jonathan Raymond. It reflects today’s reality even more than the situation in 2008, the year of its release. We don’t learn a whole lot of Wendy’s backstory. Apparently, she was staying with her sister and brother-in-law before she hit the road, heading for Alaska, to try for a fish-cannery job. But then her car dies in Oregon.

While shoplifting some food for Lucy — and you can tell it’s not something she enjoys at all — Wendy gets caught and is taken away to be fingerprinted, and so on. When she gets back, Lucy is gone.

It turns out that the car would just plain cost too much to fix. Now Wendy is no longer even a rubber tramp, just a close-to-the-bottom-rung homeless person, carrying all her stuff around. And guess what — no booze, no dope, no psychosis. This woman wants to be a productive citizen and make a living wage. She was willing to drive all the way to Alaska to do that. Wendy is just a regular person who can’t catch a break.

The film set out to portray the growing chasm between the upper and lower classes in America. Laurier repeats and discusses some of the things that were said by writer-director Kelly Reichardt in an interview with the Providence Phoenix:

Reichardt notes that the film was intended to test out the notion that all one needs to succeed in America is ‘gumption.’ She continues, ‘Is that all you need, if you don’t have the benefit of an education or a social net or a financial net or health insurance or anything? I think that that’s implied all the time, and I think that’s a farce.’

Wendy often hums, as if there is a soundtrack of celestial music always playing in her head, and sometimes it leaks out. She searches in vain for Lucy. Without shelter and terribly vulnerable, Wendy is victimized. But that’s not the worst thing. The worst thing is, her companion is still gone.

Finally, Wendy locates the dog fenced into a backyard, and recognizes that it’s a good home. Knowing she will be hopping freights or worse, Wendy does not bust Lucy out. Like so many fathers, mothers, and lovers confronting the brutal imperatives of economics have done, Wendy makes the hard decision. She leaves Lucy there, promising, “When I make some money, I’ll come back.”

Separating from a pet is a terrible decision to be faced with. A while back, we talked about Becky Blanton, who had experienced homelessness. When she inadvertently ended up living in her van, she couldn’t afford to rent an apartment that demanded security deposits for her cat and dog, and wouldn’t give them up, so she remained in the van.

The good folks who run Pets of the Homeless tell us that about 10% of the homeless have pets, which generally makes their situation more problematic:

Most people who experience homelessness are homeless for a short period of time, and need help finding housing or a rent subsidy. Unfortunately for those with pets it becomes more difficult.

The nonprofit organization, which extends across the U.S. and Canada, helps with food and vet bills. They would love to teach you how to start a pet food pantry in your town!


Source: “Wendy and Lucy: A picture of American life,” WSWS.org, 02/20/09
Source: “What We Do,” PetsoftheHomeless.org
Image by Beverly & Pack, used under its Creative Commons license.


Hate Crimes Against People Experiencing Homelessness

HomelessHere’s an interesting fact of modern life. If you set up a Google Alert for the words “assault + homeless,” you can amass quite a collection of incidents in a very short time. Let’s review the recent past :

November 7, 2010: In Youngstown, Ohio, John W. Goodwin interviewed a witness to the beating of a homeless man by a bunch of preteen and early teen boys, two days before. This young mother came outside to watch for her son to get off the school bus, and witnessed the apparently reasonless attack on a man who hung around the neighborhood and sometime slept in an empty house where his mother used to live.

November 24, 2010: In New Hampshire, Maddie Hanna reported on how a formerly homeless man was sentenced for his part (with two others) in assaulting a homeless teenager and throwing him in the river to die, last year. The other two attackers were also residents of an impromptu camp, and they say it was just revenge, because the teenager had stolen a pair of boots from yet another homeless man.

This is an example of the kind of news that causes some people to say, “Fine, as long as the bums stick to killing each other, the more, the merrier.” It is also an example of what society doesn’t need. Society needs people under roofs and within walls, and for them to be able to afford to stay there because they have a Universal Living Wage for being productive citizens.

December 1, 2010: From Eloy, Arizona, Lindsey Collom reported on how a 71-year-old man living in his car was attacked and severely beaten by as many as eight men.

December 7, 2010: Dana Treen and David Hunt reported on the stabbing of a 28-year-old homeless man, Jason Jerome, by a “dapper” 17-year-old boy acting out who knows what kind of sick fantasy. The kid was wearing a suit and tie, for heaven’s sake. We know this because he was videotaped by the security camera of a nearby business, which it appears the victim was savvy enough to lead his attacker within range of, before things got serious.

Jerome ended up with knife wounds in the neck, chest, stomach, hip, and hand, with a finger nearly severed. The sheriff wasn’t sure whether the stabbing was a hate crime, because it might have resulted from some kind of dispute. Treen and Hunt say,

At Shands Jacksonville where he was refusing surgery, Jerome told police he was asleep and woke to someone standing over him with a knife. He said he didn’t know the attacker who he described only as having long hair and glasses.

December 15, 2010: In Australia, like many other places, there is a public perception that people experiencing homelessness somehow “ask for” any violence that comes their way. They deserve to get beaten up or set on fire, and it’s their own fault for having such a risky lifestyle. Several institutions got together on a project to try and do something about the widespread misunderstanding of the voluntary nature of homelessness, among other things.

Dr. Catherine Robinson of Sydney’s University of Technology has completed a report titled “Rough Living: Surviving Violence and Homelessness.” The sections on “Violence during Homelessness” and “Violence in Institutional Care” have some harrowing stories. The dispatch says,

New research into trauma and homelessness uses ‘biographies of violence’ to understand how homeless people manage and survive repeated episodes of violence throughout their lives.

In-depth interviews with a dozen people experiencing homelessness revealed histories of physical and sexual abuse in childhood, parents with multiple problems including housing instability, and parents practicing domestic violence on each other. The study included six men and six women. A PDF file of the entire 70-page report is available online.

There are plenty more examples to choose from, and violence against people experiencing homelessness is no new phenomenon. In Looking Up at the Bottom Line, Richard R. Troxell talks about a man who was shot for asking for a cigarette, and a man set on fire, and taser attacks, and all kinds of senseless savagery against people who don’t have a place to live. Here is one of Richard’s narratives:

I remember clearly how I felt that morning when I heard that two of our guys had been beaten with two-by-four boards… In the middle of the night, two college-age boys driving an old Chevy raced to a stop, jumped from the car, clutching two-by-fours. They then proceeded to whale on the guys. They broke one arm of each of two men who lay sleeping. One man suffered a fractured hand and a skull fracture. The other had three broken fingers. The assailants then jumped back into the car and were gone. The event really had no beginning, only an end. It was a senseless beating. No one knew why it had occurred. We only knew that if our guys had not been sleeping on the street it probably would not have happened.


Source: “Witness: Kids who assaulted homeless man are ‘menace,’” Vindy.com, 11/07/10
Source: “Man pleads to homeless beating,” ConcordMonitor.com, 11/24/10
Source: “Up to 8 sought in attack on homeless man, 71, in Eloy,” AZCentral.com, 12/01/10
Source: “Stabbing of homeless man in Jacksonville could be a hate crime,” Jacksonville.com, 12/07/10
Source: “Violence Faced by Australia’s Homeless,” ProBonoAustralia.com
Source: “Looking Up at the Bottom Line,” Amazon.com
Image by Vincent Bernier, used under its Creative Commons license.

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