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Some Heroes Who Help the Homeless

Are you reaching the lost?

Bobby and Amanda Herring, along with a number of volunteers, used to feed some of the people experiencing homelessness in downtown Houston, Texas. For about a year, they dispensed between 60 and 120 meals a day, made from food donated by individuals and businesses. Then, reporter Bradley Olson tells us,

On Nov. 8, they were approached by Houston police officers and asked to provide food at another location under an overpass at Commerce and Travis streets adjacent to Buffalo Bayou, he recalled. They were happy to move to the new location and continued to provide food there until Dec. 30, when a park ranger and two police officers told them they would have to stop until they could obtain a permit.

Actually, they would need two permits, one from the parks department and one from the health department. The place they were moved to is on city park land, and it’s not clear why they can’t move back to the old location, except now this health permit thing has also come up.

Here’s a piece of official reasoning worthy of George Orwell. You know, the slogans from his dystopia of Nineteen Eighty-Four: “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength.” Now, we got “Starvation is Health.” The following statement was made by Kathy Barton of the Health and Human Services Department. The regulations are all the more essential in the case of the homeless, Barton said, because “poor people are the most vulnerable to foodborne illness and also are the least likely to have access to health care.”

Connie Boyd of the Coalition for the Homeless offered hope that by connecting with another group, perhaps a local church that already has a certified kitchen and certified food manager, the Herrings could continue their mission.

Ryan S. Riddell is pastor of the Shelter Community Church of the Nazarene in Dayton, Ohio, where there are about 4,000 people experiencing homelessness that he wants to help. Riddell is also in the real estate business and the roofing business. He has been making a video diary of his 30 days of voluntary homelessness. Not wanting to take up a shelter bed that an actual homeless person could use, he sleeps in a van. Meredith Moss of the Dayton Daily News says,

The clergyman is hoping to bring awareness to the issue of homelessness this month by sleeping and living in his van on the streets of Dayton instead of in his comfortable Miamisburg home.

It’s not a total simulation of homelessness. Riddell has been visiting home twice a week to see his wife and kids, and he has a credit card ready for when someone needs help. His website offers video documentation of such events as a visit to a homeless man who lives in a hut in the woods, and reports such surreal experiences as running into a woman he had sold a house to, who didn’t recognize him.

The goal of Riddell’s month-long excursion into homelessness is to raise awareness, and it’s working. Along with the website, he has a Facebook page and a Twitter account, and the larger media have obliged by covering the story in newspapers and on television.

From Denver, Electa Draper describes the St. Francis Center, a co-ed daytime shelter open from 6:30 in the morning till 6 in the evening on weekdays and weekends. This mission of the Episcopal church has been in existence for nearly 30 years. On an average day, over 600 people experiencing homelessness will drop in to take a shower, pick up mail, make phone calls, or do laundry. No alchohol or other substances are allowed, nor is anyone admitted in an intoxicated condition. Best of all, a staff of 37 helps with job counseling and housing placement. The outreach program finds lost people on the street and brings them in. Draper says,

For the newly and first-time homeless — which the center is seeing more and more all the time — St. Francis is a great orientation in how to navigate a complex system of human services scattered throughout the Denver area.

Don’t forget to learn from Looking Up at the Bottom Line, how the Universal Living Wage could help millions of Americans be self-sufficient, taking a great many burdens from the shoulders of volunteers and taxpayers, and, of course, from the very overburdened shoulders of the working poor.

Reactions?

Source: “City puts a stop to homeless outreach,” Houston Chronicle, 01/13/11
Source: “Ohio pastor living in van aims to aid the homeless,” Dayton Daily News, 01/22/11
Source: “St. Francis Center works tirelessly to find homes, jobs for the homeless,” Denver Post, 01/12/11
Image by kelsey_lovefusionphoto, used under its Creative Commons license.

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I Am My Brothers’ Keeper… but for Everyone?

Minimum-wage workerAgain this year, 3.5 million people will experience homelessness in America. In the land of milk and honey, this is unconscionable.

Let’s examine the word homelessness for a moment. Who are the homeless? Well, clearly they come from all walks of life: homeless veterans, single women, women with children, people with mental health disorders, people with substance abuse problems, and the list goes on.

In January 2009, House the Homeless conducted a Health Survey of 501 people experiencing homelessness in Austin, Texas. Our survey showed that 48% of the people experiencing homelessness were so disabled that they could not work at a full-time job.

And in December 2007, another House the Homeless survey of 526 people experiencing homelessness showed that 37% of those surveyed were working at some point during the week, with 97% expressing a desire to work. In fact, we have come to understand that homelessness, for all its components, can be viewed in two major categories: those who can work and those who cannot work.

Reports from the last several U.S. Conferences of Mayors show that a person working full time, in a forty-hour-a-week, minimum-wage job, is unable to afford a basic, one-bedroom apartment, and remains homeless.

Who Are the Working Homeless?

They are the someone in our schools serving green beans and corn to our children in the cafeteria lines. They are the people in local dry cleaner operations pressing our suits and dresses. They are our janitorial staff cleaning our office buildings and urinals after we’ve gone to bed. They are the motel/hotel workers who change the sheets and clean up the trashed out rooms that we have left. They are the cashiers who cheerfully ask how they can help us.

They are our restaurant workers who work at below minimum wage ($2.13) and rely on us to (hopefully) boost their base pay with tips. They are poultry processors who work in our nation’s processing plants nationwide. They are farm workers who, even today, stoop behind the field machinery and continue to pick thorny cotton by hand.

They take our tickets in movie theaters, so we can see the next exciting 3-D movie. They are the healthcare aides in nursing homes who constantly turn over our loved ones to prevent bed sores. They do all the “dirty jobs” that you see on TV, and they flip our burgers at all the fast-food restaurants, and fold and refold the linen at every Wal-Mart.

And yet, the federal government continues to tell businesses nationwide that they only need to pay a minimum wage — not a living wage. A living wage would afford them basic food, clothing, and shelter. But as it is, nowhere in this country can receptionists, daycare aides, garage attendants, car washers, manicurists, grocery baggers, landscape workers, data entry workers, and elderly care aides afford the basics without a second job or relying on some outside support. That’s just wrong.

Who Should Pay?

Who should pay a wage sufficient to afford life’s most minimal necessities? Who profits from their labor if not business? Clearly it is businesses who benefit from their labor. So why are taxpayers footing the bill for food stamps when someone is working? Why do able-bodied individuals qualify for general assistance or the Earned Income Tax Credit, which is just another tax-sponsored program that would be unnecessary if businesses acted as responsible/ethical community partners?

If half these people who are homeless can work, why should you or I as taxpayers have to support them? I don’t want to. In fact, as a society, I’m not at all convinced that we could afford to support these millions of people indefinitely anyway. If a person is not disabled, then their homeless situation is really just an unmet economic need. This should be dealt with at the source: “A fair wage for a fair day’s work.”

When I was growing up, the saying was, “If you don’t work, you don’t eat.” I still believe in that postulate; however, that begs the question, if you work 40 hours in a week, shouldn’t you be able to afford the basics? If you work a full 40 hour week, shouldn’t you be able to afford a roof over your head (other than a bridge)?

I work in a homeless shelter. Every day I arrive to see hundreds and hundreds of people, half of whom are able-bodied. What they lack is opportunity.

There needs to be a spot on that shelter floor that I can point to and encourage people to get up off their chairs and go to that spot. It should be a spot that provides the big “O”: Opportunity. A spot where if they tuck their head down, lean into the wheel with their shoulder, apply themselves, they’ll know that, ultimately, they will be able to work themselves off the streets of America.

In other words, we simply need living-wage jobs. Then, as a compassionate taxpayer, I can get down to the work of helping people with disabilities. Perhaps in time, many of them will also be able to stand on that spot.

Take Action!

Tell President Obama that as he provides incentives for businesses to help in our economic recovery, he also needs to balance the equation by instituting the Universal Living Wage. Call the White House: 202-224-3121/1-800-459-1887, or email the President using the form at the White House website, http://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/.

Richard R. Troxell
House the Homeless, Inc.
National Chairman, Universal Living Wage Campaign

Source: “Mayors National Housing Forum Fact Sheet” (PDF), U.S. Conference of Mayors.
Image by schmuela (Karen Green), used under its Creative Commons license.

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Economic Homelessness, Rent, and Deadened Memories

Jimmy McMillan

Economic homelessness is an important concept in the overall picture examined in Looking Up At the Bottom Line. The economic homeless are the working poor who have some kind of a job, but nothing close to a living wage that would provide, for instance, rent. They inhabit cars, shelters, squats, friends’ couches, and other temporary and very marginal quarters. Or no quarters at all.

An interesting thing happened when New York State was electing itself a new governor last fall. Jimmy McMillan, representing a political party called The Rent Is Too Damn High, participated in the televised debate, and his remarks are worth listening to. This video clip gives the gist, in under two minutes. The candidate did not succeed in the gubernatorial election, but that’s okay, because it frees him up to concentrate on his 2012 presidential campaign.

Suzanne Rozdeba conducted an interview with McMillan for the East Village local edition of The New York Times. At one point, the candidate underwent a spell of homelessness himself. The entire interview is highly recommended, and Rozdeba must be profusely thanked for capturing a number of excellent quotations from Jimmy McMillan. Here are just a few:

*Market value is a bunch of crap. It’s a plan to run out the poor.
*You’ve got to stop paying people in the government a football player salary.
*I would have no problem getting any bill passed before the House and the Senate.
*I guarantee you, if I’m sworn in in January, jobs will pop up in February.
*Whatever party I run under, I want them to know I’m not satisfied with anything coming from any elected official.
*We have bird-brained economic leaders. People need money to spend. And it boils down to one thing: the rent is too damn high.

Is McMillan just a freakshow? Maybe not. He was written up in the Wall Street Journal. For a very different establishment, the Center for a Stateless Society, Kevin Carson considered the ideas held by the very entertaining politician, and compared them with the ideas of Franz Oppenheimer. Here, roughly, is the argument, and it has a lot to do with homelessness. Economic exploitation, of course, goes way back. Carson says,

In sparsely populated areas of the New World, the state preempted ownership of vacant land, barred access to ordinary homesteaders, and then granted title to favored land barons and speculators. The result is that we see enormous tracts of vacant and unimproved land held out of use by state-privileged landlords, so that land is made artificially scarce and expensive for those who desire an opportunity to support themselves.

This artificial scarcity exists because the state wrongfully enforces artificial property rights. Of course, the first thing you want to ask is, what’s the difference between an artificial property right and a genuine property right? Capitalism creates artificial private property rights by coercion, backing up the right of a privileged few who control access to natural opportunities. Genuine, legitimate private property, by contrast, is about the right to possess the fruits of one’s own labor, for instance by growing a crop on land that nobody is using. Carson says,

[… T]he privileged classes of landlords, usurers and other extortionists seek to close off opportunities for self-employment because such opportunities make it too hard to get people to work for them on profitable terms. [… T]he artificial dearth of natural opportunities to produce creates a buyer’s market for labor in which workers compete for jobs instead of jobs competing for workers.

When everything is owned by the government plus a lucky few people at the top, the vast majority of the people can’t be self-sufficient, because they have no resources to work with. Which makes them sitting ducks, ripe for economic exploitation. For instance, they wind up paying a grotesque percentage of their income just on rent — or are totally unable to afford even the lowest available rent.

Which brings us back to Jimmy McMillan, a voice of sanity crying out in the wilderness. It puts him in the same realm as Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless. We very much recommend the excellent radio interview (with host Wayne Hurlbert), during which Richard talks how the Universal Living Wage is good for business, and how it can get a million minimum-wage workers off the streets, while preventing economic homelessness for 10 million minimum-wage Americans.

In many cases, those with mental illness or substance abuse problems, or both, fall into the chronically homeless category. A lot of the “chronically homeless” are just plain unfit for the work force. But mental illness can be treated with conscientious medication, followup, and luck. Substance abuse can be treated with 12-step programs and other modalities. People experiencing either condition, or both, can find their way back to being productive members of the work force if there are jobs for them. They can escape the homeless condition, if there are places for them to live within the means provided by those jobs.

Those are two very big “ifs,” as Richard discovered in the late 1990s. He was working with people experiencing homelessness who had two major things going on — mental illness and substance abuse. With great struggle, he secured funding to put 20 people through a “continuum of care” program including detox, substance abuse counseling, housing, job training, and job placement. Despite the reported 100% trainee placement rate, they all ended up homeless within two years, unable to make rent with their minimum-wage paychecks.

“Substance abuse” is an interesting shorthand term. Richard expresses the same idea in different words, as “self-medicating with some memory deadening substance.” There is a valuable clue here, to the whole skid-row, lowest-common-denominator drug culture. There is a question that needs to be asked: What is it about life in contemporary America that makes so many people want to deaden their memories? When we confront that question, we will be ready to make some progress.

Reactions?

Source: “Looking Up at the Bottom Line,” Amazon.com
Source: “The Rent Is Too Damn High Party’s Jimmy McMillan at the NY Governor Debate,” YouTube.com
Source: “Interview | Jimmy McMillan,” The Local East Village NYT, 01/18/11
Source: “Yes — The Rent Really Is Too Damn High!,” c4ss.org,10/26/10
Screen capture of Jimmy McMillan is used under Fair Use: Reporting.

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Harass the Homeless

PanhandlingIs there a website called Harass the Homeless? A complete instruction manual for creating extra misery in the lives of the least fortunate and least capable people in a society? There might as well be, because in many nations that consider themselves quite civilized, self-righteous housed people are brilliant at thinking up ways to screw around with people experiencing homelessness. If there were an actual “How to Harass the Homeless” guidebook, it would read something like this:

Stop volunteers from feeding them, as in Houston, Texas. A married couple who have been providing as many as 160 meals per day to people experiencing homelessness, have been forbidden to continue. The post, at From the Left, is attributed to Christopher di Spirito, who says,

Anyone serving food for public consumption, whether for the homeless or for sale, must have a permit, said Kathy Barton, a moron for the Health and Human Services Department. To get that permit, the food must be prepared in a certified kitchen with a certified food manager… The alternative for the Houston homeless — who Kathy Barton is allegedly so worried about protecting, is forcing them to eat garbage out of dumpsters.

Turn them away from an event held to benefit them, as in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. A citizen activist (and a housed person) organized a peaceful demonstration, during which he and other citizen activists (and housed people) slept outside on the grounds of a college building. Throughout the night, they collected blankets, jackets and sleeping bags for distribution to the city’s needy. However, when dozens of actual people experiencing homelessness turned up, wishing to show solidarity by joining the caring citizens, they were directed by authorities to get back to their shelter.

Involve them in dubious political hanky-panky, as in Omaha, Nebraska. The blogger known as Street Sweeper covers the “homeless-pay-for-play scandal,” a complex yet mundane story that involves a mayor, a bus, a weather-dependent election strategy, and a number of people experiencing homelessness. Critics accuse Mayor Jim Suttle of “taking advantage of people down on their luck,” and of being a cheapskate besides.

The elected official apparently put the icing on the cake by telling the homeless people from the Siena-Francis house not to talk to any reporters about whatever it was he was doing with them. This was after being refused twice by another nonprofit agency, which plainly told the mayor’s minions that their request was out of line. A tale of such abysmal pettiness, it must be read to be believed.

Forbid them to hold signs, as in Salt Lake City, Utah. Actually, this just changed. The law itself didn’t change, but the municipality agreed to stop handing out citations to people experiencing homelessness who display hand-lettered requests for work, food, or whatever. This was accomplished by an attorney and some homeless plaintiffs, who made a federal case out of it. As Roxana Orellana tells us,

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court last summer by one man and two women who were cited for panhandling by Salt Lake City police. The lawsuit challenged the constitutionality of the state law used to cite them.

For more than two years, SLC has debated the revision of its panhandling ordinance. A very tough group wants to outlaw any requests for handouts made within 10 feet of places like sidewalk cafés. No question about it, to be pestered by beggars is very disturbing for diners and espresso sippers. The article doesn’t mention whether beggars can be arrested for removing leftover food from the tables after the diners have finished.

Reactions?

Source: “Houston FAIL: Puts a Stop to Homeless Food Program,” From the Left, 01/16/11
Source: “Homeless turned away from event to benefit them,” Associated Press via KHQ, 11/29/10
Source: “Mayor Shuttle strategy,” LeavenworthStreet.com, 01/14/11
Source: “SLC agrees not to ticket homeless bearing signs,” The Salt Lake Tribune, 01/13/11
Image by The Accent (Hanlly Sam), used under its Creative Commons license.

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Austin City Council Discriminates Against the Disabled

Stairs and crutchesOn Thursday, January 27, the Austin City Council is preparing to change the No Sit/No Lie Ordinance. This ordinance allows for fines up to $500 for people who (even momentarily) sit or lie down in public places.

On January 1, 2011, House the Homeless, Inc., a grassroots organization fighting for the civil rights of all persons, conducted a health survey. The survey showed that 48% of people experiencing homelessness in Austin suffer disabling conditions that are so severe they are unable to work. Nonetheless, the No Sit/No Lie ordinance makes no exceptions for this group of people and continues to fine and jail them for the act of momentarily sitting and resting.

The City of Austin, at the encouragement of House the Homeless, recognizing that it is presently in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), has set out to bring the ordinance in compliance with the federal law. To gain compliance, the City Council Health and Human Services Committee was preparing to present the full Council language that would exclude anyone with a disability from fines under the ordinance. Great! However, at the last minute, the committee has mistakenly inserted the work “physical” into the statement. Now, the language would basically read, “Anyone with a physical disability would be excluded from fines under the ordinance.” The effect of this one-word change is both dramatic and devastating.

It would mean that anyone with a mental health disability would be subject to fines and forced to enter the criminal justice system to defend themselves. Imagine the least capable among us, people with mental health disabilities, being steered into our court system and clogging it up just because they had a momentary respite. It is well documented in the journals of American Medical Association that people suffering with mental health disorders are routinely treated with very powerful drugs that often cause them to become woozy and dizzy. They often have sunlight and heat sensitivity that depletes them of their energy and causes them to need to temporarily sit and rest.

The promoters of this one-word change attempt to justify their targeting people with mental disabilities by saying that they would be protected under the language “physical disabilities” because they would be having a “physical” reaction to taking medication that causes them to need to temporarily sit down. Really? This sounds more like slippery lawyer talk and a thinly-disguised rationale created to persecute and prosecute people with mental health problems.

Hey — it’s not the Americans with “Physical” Disabilities Act. It’s the Americans with Disabilities Act, period. The basis of which is not physical problems or mental problems but rather medical problems.

In essence, the Austin City Council is also contending that it is absolutely, 100% impossible for a uniformed City of Austin police officer to identify someone who has a mental health concern. Really? Is it really so hard to read the label on a medication vial that says Haldol, Thorazine, Risperadol, or Zyprexa, and also see that someone needs to sit momentarily? Or to look at an individual presenting a letter from a local mental health facility and make a good judgment as to the legitimacy of the situation?

Furthermore, adding insult to injury, as proposed, the police officer will have no latitude whatsoever but to ticket this mentally ill person and send him or her on to the courts. What are the odds of that person showing up? And if that person stands before a judge (unrepresented or at taxpayer expense) showing that judge the same medical vial or document from MHMR, what then? The way the law will be written, the judge will also have no latitude and be forced to fine the individual hundreds of dollars that he or she will have no chance of paying.

What then? A warrant for their arrest for failure to pay the fine? Once arrested, will we then clog our jail system with people experiencing mental illness needing special medication treatment?

What then? Well, House the Homeless and others will have no choice but sue the city for repeated, flagrant violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act — all at taxpayer expense!

What’s the alternative? Well, we could simply use the original agreed-upon language that excludes all people with medical disabilities from fines and allow police officers to use their good sense and street smarts to determine who can sit and rest momentarily. And Austin can move to become the “world class” city that it purports to be simply by providing enough benches citywide so that anyone, such as moms toting kids and packages, can just sit for a moment and rest briefly before they move on.

Don’t give Austin a Black Eye. The whole world is watching… on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and the House the Homeless website with well over 1,000,000 followers.

Photo by Daniel Lobo (Daquella manera), used under its Creative Commons license.

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The Homeless, the Government, and the Genuine Free Enterprise

2010 Uptown Super SundayWayne Hurlbert of Blog Business World is interested in such concepts as how cooperation is the most effective technique for everyone in a society or a world. In his capacity as radio host, Hurlbert had the author of Looking Up at the Bottom Line on his show recently. Yes, of course we mentioned this in a previous House the Homeless post, but the dialogue is so rich with material, it’s worth expounding and expanding. The whole interview is available as a free podcast download from Blog Business Success Radio.

The federal government has been the biggest cause of homelessness, Richard R. Troxell says, particularly under the Reagan administration, when large areas of inner cities were demolished without any substitute housing taking their place. But the destruction goes back as far as the Marshall Plan after World War II, when the U.S. provided so much aid to other countries to rebuild their industries, that American industry wasn’t able to be competitive and ended up closing factories and laying off workers. And then, more recently, the overseas outsourcing of jobs caught on. That’s a big factor in the current mess, but by no means the only factor.

Another very large and harmful factor is that having a job is not enough, these days, to keep a person out of the “economic homeless” class, which is where you are when you work full-time and still can’t make rent. Richard recounts how, when the mayors of American cities get together for their annual conference, they consistently agree that an average person working a 40-hour week cannot afford basic rental housing in their cities.

Richard’s solution is the Universal Living Wage, which is not so different from the minimum wage we have now, except it would be indexed to the single most expensive item in the budget of every American:housing …on a local basis.  This concept is similar in spirit to the bio-regionalism that environmentalists talk about, which is also based on the concept that America is just too big and diverse for one-size-fits-all rules that are handed down from the federal level.

Different places have different conditions, and the people in them have different needs. A full-time worker in a small Midwestern city might be able survive on the current minimum wage. In New York or Los Angeles, not a chance. Looking Up at the Bottom Line tells how to fix this.

A mellow person might say, “You can’t expect the government to do everything.” But the mood of many Americans today is far from mellow, and they are more likely to say, “You can’t expect the government to do anything except screw up.” Kevin Carson is against corporatism, and feels that the free market concept is blamed for current evils that are not its fault at all. Almost nobody in America really understands what free enterprise is, because for so long we have been presented with an imposter going by that name. Carson says,

But we haven’t had anything even remotely resembling a free market for over 150 years… Since the mid-19th century, what we’ve had is massive collusion between big government and big business… What we have is not a free enterprise system, but an interlocking directorate of giant, centralized government and corporate bureaucracies… We’re not talking about socialism for the rich and a Dickensian work house for everyone else. When we say we believe in free enterprise, we mean it.

That is what the “free market left” is all about. In another piece, Carson explains further the disastrous effects wrought by the federal government, to which the crisis of homelessness can be traced.

Wouldn’t it be great if every household with children could have one parent at home, instead of both of them out scrambling for the bucks? Wouldn’t it be great if people could retire at an age young enough to still get some enjoyment from life, rather than having to stay in the labor market, wearing a silly hat and serving tacos at age 60? Wouldn’t it be great if people could make enough when employed, to have some slack, so they could survive comfortably until a job suitable to their training and education turned up? And wouldn’t it be great if the property-owning class could be prevented from soaking up every available dollar? Carson has ideas about how to make all these dreams come true.

For instance, there are far too many zoning laws, health and safety codes, and other laws that prevent an ordinary person from running a small business from home. He would like to see neighborhoods bursting with thriving “microenterprises” — bakers, brewers, daycare providers, hairdressers, clothing makers, and one-person taxicab services, to name just a few. A lot more people could be self-supporting if the government would just get out of their way.

And the same goes for the creation of housing. Too many “safety codes” are created for the purpose of cutting anyone but high-priced contractors out of the market. When only massively capitalized companies with high overhead are allowed to remodel bathrooms or install porch railings, an artificial monopoly is created that harms the ordinary citizen. Big businesses are protected from the possibility that anyone can be self-sufficient, because of the laws that require their services to be retained. Carson says,

I frequently argue that, far from the result of the ‘free market,’ the recent speculative bubble was the result of over a century’s worth of government intervention. The bubble resulted from vast disparities of wealth — disparities created by the state and its enforcement of privilege — with a growing share of income going to classes looking to use it for investment rather than consumption.

Carson would like to see a big increase in the “share of total consumption needs that could be met through low-overhead production in the home, or by trading with others engaged in such production, and to reduce the total amount of wage labor required to meet one’s needs.” In other words, people become more prosperous not only by making more money, but by spending less money.

Reactions?

Source: “Richard Troxell Looking Up at the Bottom Line,” BlogTalkRadio.com, 12/07/10
Source: “Back in the USSA,” C4SS.org, 12/22/10
Source: “The Rent’s Still Too Damn High — Here’s How to Lower It,” C4SS.org, 01/13/11
Image by Infrogmation of New Orleans, used under its Creative Commons license.

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Martin Luther King Jr. and the Living Wage

Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2010

HTH at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Parade in Austin, Texas

There are many who believe that The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King was killed because he advocated for peace.

There are others who believe that it was not until he became involved in the sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis, Tennessee, that he was shot.

It was from the jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, that he wrote, “There is nothing but short sightedness to prevent a living wage for every American family.”

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Predictions on Homelessness and More

Frank Bramley: A Hopeless DawnOf course, all kinds of predictions became available around the new year. “New Year’s Prediction (II): The US Economy in 2011” is one of them, and its author’s capsule bio is presented here:

Robert Reich is Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. He has written thirteen books, including The Work of Nations, Locked in the Cabinet, Supercapitalism, and his most recent book, Aftershock. His ‘Marketplace’ commentaries can be found on publicradio.com and iTunes.

Like many other observers of the economy, Reich has noticed the phenomenon described by the first line of A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

Reich feels that the coming year will be maybe not the best of times, but pretty good for the stock market and anybody connected with Wall Street. Giant corporations will make giant profits. What he calls the Big Money economy will do just fine.

The rest of us, not so much. What Reich calls the Average Working Family economy is doomed to more of the same. American workers will continue to be lucky to be working at all, but no matter how fervently grateful they are to be employed, their pay isn’t going to go up. The working poor will stay poor, though not necessarily working. The number of people who wish they had jobs will keep growing. Americans will sink deeper into debt, if they can even get loans or credit at all.

Small businesses will flounder and fail. The housing situation won’t get any better for either owners or renters. Reich does not specifically mention the population of Americans experiencing homelessness, but it’s easy enough to extrapolate from the foregoing, and understand that “dismal” is not too strong a word. Here’s part of the problem as Reich diagnoses it:

America’s big businesses are depending less and less on U.S. sales and U.S. workers. Their big profits are coming from two sources: (1) growing sales in China, India, and other fast-growing countries, and (2) slimmed-down US payrolls….

In short, profits aren’t coming from American consumers — and profits won’t be coming from American consumers in 2011.

Reich mentions that General Motors makes more cars in China than in the United States. Gee, I hope they do a better job with cars than with audiocassette players. I just threw away an American-brand, made-in-China, personal cassette player because batteries could not be inserted into its body. To make a compartment that holds a couple of AA batteries — how complicated an engineering feat is that?

And the other General, General Electric, plans to invest $2 billion in China very soon. Wal-Mart’s customers are mainly outside America and its workers will soon be too, if not already. Reich says,

Most Republicans and too many Democrats are dependent on corporate America and Wall Street. Their version of tax reform is to cut taxes on the wealthy and on big corporations, and either raise them on everyone else (sale and property taxes are already on the rise) or cut spending on programs working families depend on.

He sees a new progressive movement forming up, composed of (not surprisingly) progressives, Independents, minorities, organized labor, and the young. He also includes the “enlightened Tea Partiers,” which is an important distinction to make. There is too much stereotyping and labeling going on, and not enough serious consideration of views.

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What else can help to change the dire outcomes predicted by many prognosticators? How about the Universal Living Wage? We really urge every American to get familiar with the idea, as described in Looking Up at the Bottom Line. Here is the essence:

The benefit of the ULW is that it will end homelessness for over 1,000,000 minimum-wage workers, and prevent economic homelessness for all 10.1 million minimum wage workers.

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Source: “Robert Reich,” RobertReich.org
Source: “New Year’s Prediction (II): The US Economy in 2011,” Truth-Out.org, 12/29/10
Image by freeparking, used under its Creative Commons license.

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Brad Pitt and the Homeless of New Orleans

Brad Pitt's Little Pink HousesCelebrities get involved in good causes, that’s nothing new, but when Brad Pitt gets involved, things happen in a big, big way. The actor was making a movie in Canada when Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flooding hit New Orleans. Watching the TV news coverage, he thought about all the residents who had been made homeless. He also recalled his first impressions from making a film there in 1994, when he became convinced it was the most interesting city in America, a world-class urban environment with everything going for it. Pitt said,

It’s like Venice or Rome; an essential world city.

These words were spoken on the fifth anniversary of the flood, when Pitt sat down with historian and old friend Douglas Brinkley for a long interview that was published in the New Orleans daily Times-Picayune. He talked about visiting again a couple of years after the disaster, when the city was still a zone of devastation. He said,

It was obliterationville… You know, these weren’t just houses. These were people’s lives shattered. Families in pain, memories washed away, just obliterated… I met Katrina victims who had been given FEMA trailers and had nothing to hook them up to… We were telling people to come home and yet when they got back to New Orleans they were treated in a substandard way. I just thought it was atrocious.

Pitt also voiced some unkind thoughts about the cause of the destruction, namely, shoddy work on the levees by the Army Corps of Engineers, coupled with negligence when it came to maintenance of the flood protection. He felt that if the work had been done right in the first place, fixing it would not have cost billions. There would have been fewer casualties from the storm, fewer homeless, displaced people afterwards, and a grave injustice would have been avoided.

In the Lower Ninth Ward, more than 4,000 homes had been destroyed. Pitt adopted the neighborhood as his project, and took decisive action to bring the scattered residents back. After buying a place in the French Quarter to have a base of operations, he consulted with architects, established the nonprofit Make It Right Foundation, and began making plans for the reconstruction.

The first step was taken with style and flair, in December of 2007, when the ravaged Lower Ninth was brightened up with a Christo-like art installation. The vacant, bulldozer-scraped lots suddenly sprouted a crop of glowing pink rectangular tents with fabric skins, stand-ins for the eventual real homes that would be built there.

A self-described architecture junkie, Pitt knew the right people to approach, starting with William McDonough + Partners, whose website says,

WM+P developed criteria to frame Make It Right’s environmental mission, using Cradle to Cradle thinking to outline design and systems performance requirements for each home, achieving the goal of LEED Platinum certification for all of the houses.

Translated from architect-speak, that means “state of the art.” A dozen other firms were brought into the project too. As Pitt says, “The holy grail of architecture is finding ways to design sustainable urban communities,” and these were the experts to do it. Now the local New Orleans contractors and builders are up to speed on green building principles and techniques. The goal is to wind up with 150 new homes in the Lower Ninth, and then perhaps to expand the project into St. Bernard Parish.

This wouldn’t apply to “green” homes everywhere, but for the particular area, the structures are elevated enough to endure flooding. Solar panels provide energy for homes that are so high-performance, they produce more energy than they consume, without polluting. According to the Green Building Council, the Lower Ninth Ward is now the most high-performing clean neighborhood that exists anywhere. The next step, Pitt says, is to bring the price down, which will do a lot toward encouraging other communities to follow the template.

Make It Right‘s own website goes into more detail about how the organization is committed to making a difference. Along with houses surrounded by native landscaping, the foundation is creating new streets, rain gardens, and micro-farms, and working with schools and community centers, adding up to…

[…] a unique laboratory for testing and implementing new construction techniques, technologies and materials that will make green, storm resistant homes affordable and broadly available to working families in communities across America.

Through the generosity of architects from around the world, and the donations of many individuals, the homeless residents are able to return, and the neighborhood is becoming a model of innovative and sustainable design.

The website includes an amazing map, where a little circle pops up on the page to mark every house that has been rebuilt. If you’re into architecture, design, urban planning, or green living in general, the slide shows of each home in its various stages of construction are fascinating.

There is a book about the progress that has been made so far, sharing information about the practical building designs, how to maximize value in the economic, ecological, and social realms all at once, and technological solutions that can be adapted in different parts of the world where sustainable housing is sorely needed. Like the formerly homeless New Orleans residents, others can take hope from the advances that have been made here.

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Source: “Brad Pitt talks about Hurricane Katrina, his Make it Right work and his love for New Orleans,” NOLA.com, 08/25/10
Source: “Make It Right,” McDououghPartners.com
Source: “Our Work and Progress,” MakeItRightNOLA.org
Source: “Architecture in Times of Need – Make It Right Rebuilding New Orleans‚ Lower Ninth Ward,” MakeItRightNOLA.org
Image by Howie Luvzus, used under its Creative Commons license.

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Business, Fairness, and the Universal Living Wage

Homeless person, cat, and a painting

We mentioned the interview that Wayne Hurlbert conducted with the House the Homeless founder Richard R. Troxell. It is worth mentioning again, because Hurlbert, the host of Blog Business Success Radio, also published a very comprehensive review of Looking Up at the Bottom Line. He writes like a person who has thought long and hard about the economic issues surrounding homelessness.

Like many other readers, Hurlbert paid particular attention to the part where Richard talks about fairness in the workplace. Think about it. When is the last time you heard anybody talk about fairness? Anybody over the age of seven, that is. Kids are learning about the world’s unfairness before they even discover the truth about Santa Claus. Fairness has become as rare as the unicorn. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

For starters, we can each take charge of making sure that fairness exists in whatever little corner of the world we hold sway over. In our daily interactions, we can be fair. Parents can do it, teachers can do it, and yes, even business people can do it. We have all known managers, supervisors, landlords, and business owners who have brought fairness into equation.

Life may be unfair, but people can choose to be fair, and every time we choose fairness, “life” gets a little bit less unfair. In fact, that’s all the more reason why we should try extra hard to be fair, to counterbalance the general tendency of life to be unfair. Seeing this, other people catch on to the fairness concept. This is how the world gets changed, and it’s as true in the struggle to end homelessness as anywhere else.

Many laws and regulations work against the potential success of people experiencing homelessness, and this must be as true in Hurlbert’s town as in Austin (and innumerable other places), because it is one of the aspects of the book he mentions in his review. He also notes, and this must also be true in a lot of places, how government agencies, while necessary and helpful, can sometimes go astray. There is such a thing as too much help, or rather, help applied in way that negates its usefulness. It can create unhealthy dependency, rather than building self-reliance, which should be the true goal. The reviewer says of Richard’s book,

The author shares stories of people without homes, attempting to change their lives through hard work, but unable to escape the homeless trap… The author shares a personal memoir, stories of real homeless people, and provides an alternative to social programs that reaffirms the dignity of people, helps the economy, and saves money for the taxpayer.

This is the aspect that a lot of people want to read it for — to find out exactly how the Universal Living Wage can help businesses, boost the economy in general, and especially, take less from the taxpayer’s pocket. And while doing all this, it will also end economic homelessness for over a million people and prevent economic homelessness for all 10.1 million minimum-wage workers. What’s not to like? Here is the message as Wayne Hurlbert rephrases it:

The Universal Living Wage adds money to the economy, increases spending and consumption, assists landlords in filling their rental units, and lowers the amount of taxpayer funds needed to sustain the formerly homeless person. The principle transforms people from needing social services to becoming taxpayers and supporters and full members of the local economy.

Just to drive the point home, this review, which highly recommends Looking Up at the Bottom Line, appears on a website called Blog Business World, and was written by a man who knows something about business, and who sees the Universal Living Wage as a win-win proposition. “The concept works for everyone,” Hurlbert says.

So please become a force for a better future by informing yourself about the Universal Living Wage by reading the book, or by listening to the excellent interview, or better yet, by doing both.

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Source: “Looking Up At The Bottom Line by Richard R. Troxell – Book review,” Blog Business World, 12/05/10
Image by rduta, used under its Creative Commons license.

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