Celebrities and Homeless Activism

HOPEFESTLooking back over several months, we find quite a few instances where the famous and prominent in many fields have used their positions, and the fact that people pay attention to them, in order to raise both awareness and money for the homeless. Janet Jackson, for instance, recently told a TV interviewer that she and her brother used to buy food at a certain Los Angeles restaurant and drive around distributing it to homeless people, Michael at the wheel and Janet handing out the dinners through the window.

This winter, the popular British band Coldplay did two benefits for a homeless charity called Crisis, and both shows were opened by the Choir With No Name, which is made up of homeless and fringe people. Sean Michaels reported that Coldplay, which has sold more than 50 million albums, held these events at surprise venues, which their spokesperson said was intended to give the audience…

… a small taste of the uncertainty faced by the thousands of homeless people who do not know where they will spend the night.

In early December, the nonprofit StandUp For Kids benefited from a Santa Monica concert headlined by the Oscar-winning musician Ryan Bingham, who was joined by The Americans and Timmy Curran. StandUp For Kids has taken on the task of helping at-risk street kids throughout America. Being on the road with his band has opened Bingham’s eyes to the conditions that many young people endure. He told reporter Alex Cohen,

You’re constantly encountering people from all different walks of life at all hours of the day — so you’re not always looking at the glossy side of everything — but also seeing the less fortunate side of our cities and communities and towns. I feel a lot of people still often overlook that these days…

At Christmas time, Pope Benedict hosted a Vatican luncheon for 250 homeless Romans, a glimpse of which can be seen on YouTube.

Musician and actor Tom Waits, who will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame next month, has published Seeds on Hard Ground, a book of poems inspired by photographer Michael O’Brien’s portraits of people experiencing homelessness. A special chapbook edition raised $90,000 for the food bank, homeless referral services, and family support center in Sonoma County, California.

Also in California, in Nevada County, a new musical ensemble has been born. It was organized by Chad Conner Crow, who has been a Hospitality House staff member for years, and made up of people who spend part of their time at the homeless center and part of their time in the woods. Crow was originally inspired in his career many years ago by Utah Phillips, the musician known for his songs about and concern for people experiencing homelessness. The band is called Home Free. Reporter Tom Kellar says,

Current band members include Crow and Woody on vocals; Vadi, a classically trained guitarist from the Ukraine; Gene on keyboards, Dennis on drums and Chris on congas.

Crow’s newest ambition is to establish a nonprofit record label for underprivileged musicians. And don’t forget, Home Free is looking for donated instruments and equipment, so if you have any of those, please get in touch with Crow at chadconnercrow@gmail.com.

In Britain, Ross Lydall reports on the release of a three-song EP album, the music by Tres B (Tresor Kiambu), who was brought to England as an orphaned child from the Congo, and has since spent many years as a street person. Prince William heard one of his songs while working at the Centrepoint homeless hostel, and encouraged the youth. Lydall says Kiambu admires Bob Marley and Michael Jackson, and describes his sound as a “swirling mix of central African folk, hip-hop and soul.”


Source: “Coldplay plan Christmas charity shows,” Guardian.co.uk, 11/10/10
Source: “Oscar-winner Ryan Bingham to perform benefit concert for homeless youth,” SPCR.org, 12/02/10
Source: “Home Free: Homeless shelter guests create house band,” The Union, 01/09/11
Source: “Homeless singer releases first EP after meeting Prince William at hostel,” London Evening Standard, 02/22/11
Image by gingerbydesign, used under its Creative Commons license.


The Very Sane “Housing First” Approach

Homeless hotelJoseph Krauss is one of the journalists who have written about the Housing First concept as practiced in a particular place. In Washington, D.C., the nonprofit organization Open Arms Housing administers a building with 16 single-occupancy apartments, three of them wheelchair-accessible. Each efficiency apartment has a full kitchen and bathroom. On each floor there is also a community room with phones, TV, computer, and space for residents to gather.

Krauss interviewed a resident who remarked on a little-noticed aspect of the housing process, namely, how it can take many months simply to mentally adjust to the fact that one is no longer homeless. Moving from the street into a safe, secure environment is of course a huge positive step, but it is also a culture shock. It can be just as disorienting as the original change from housed to homeless was, and a person needs to become acclimated. The women of OAH are doing well, and some are even employed.

Open Arms Housing was established in 1997 to serve the most vulnerable women, who are least likely to benefit from other programs because of their serious problems. Apparently, it took 12 years to get to the point of being able to actually house people, which began in the fall of 2009. To monitor and assist the residents, there are staff members; live-in volunteers; and volunteers and interns who come and go. OAH is interested in developing methods that can be replicated anywhere. Its “Philosophy” section on the website states,

Our model rests on the premise that stable, safe housing is necessary to promote the physical and emotional well-being of all people. We operate under a Housing First approach which holds that all individuals are entitled to safe and decent housing and that access to this housing is not contingent upon participation in services. Those services can come later, but HOUSING IS FIRST.

Krauss also discusses says the 100,000 Homes Campaign, saying,

Under traditional federal housing programs, applicants had to spend years on waiting lists and were barred from housing by drug or other convictions, a process that offered little hope for the most vulnerable. The Housing First approach, by contrast, sees permanent housing and supporting services as prerequisites for curing the other ills that plague the homeless.

The strategy of “housing first” is to identify those who are at most risk of dying on the streets, namely, addicts, the mentally ill, and those with chronic physical ailments, and move them into permanent supportive housing. In any given community, there will be people who disagree, and the protests are generally based on moral grounds. The dissenting voices usually say something like, “Why should we first take care of addicts, alcoholics, and burn-out cases, when there is so much need among deserving young families, young adults, and others who actually have some potential?”

To save the chronic, apparently hopeless cases first is a counter-intuitive solution for anyone whose subconscious attitudes were formed from the battlefield model for medical triage. In a combat situation, the most seriously injured soldiers will probably die no matter what, so they are left to their fate. The person for whom immediate care can make a difference will get the attention, rather than the grievously wounded. Precious limited resources are used for the curably injured. (In fact, a clever assailant takes advantage of this by deliberately designing weapons that will injure rather than kill, to tie up as much of the enemy’s transportation and manpower resources as possible.)

But, fortunately for all of us, this battlefield model does not apply in the area of homelessness. The Housing First model, if it works out the way it should, ought to free up even more resources for those with a chance to be “saved,” as defined by the usable opportunity to become productive citizens. Life does not often present us with such a clear-cut instance of how doing the right thing can also be the economically efficient thing.

The reason for this is obvious, once the potential costs of emergency medical care and law enforcement are factored in. Arresting people who are experiencing homelessness is a no-win situation for society. They can’t pay fines, so they go to jail, to be housed, clothed, guarded and fed at a net loss to the public wallet. A comment on this article, from a citizen named Paul Seldon, notes,

The cost of leaving someone to survive on the street is enormous: $40,000 to $50,000 a year… The cost of moving them into supportive housing may be close to the same during the first year, but decreases every year after.

Another objection brought up by community members to the “housing first” model is the fear that it will be implemented in the wrong way, namely, by de-funding other programs, as Krauss says happened our nation’s capital:

When Washington’s then-mayor Adrian Fenty embraced the Housing First approach in 2008 he also closed a major shelter downtown that had provided 400 beds, pushing dozens of homeless people into an adjacent park.

In other words, it’s a big mistake to pull resources from emergency shelters, food programs, and other services, right away. It’s necessary to wait until the city’s budget begins to reflect the savings from housing the chronically homeless.

In an earlier post, we quoted an official who noted that although the chronically homeless constitute only one-fourth of the total, a disproportionate amount of public funds are spent on hospital emergency treatment, emergency shelters, and the dealings of this group with the legal system. Supportive housing, including treatment and counseling, has been found to result in a 40% saving.

We also looked at the At Home/Chez Soi program in Canada, where the savings are apparently much greater. The numbers mentioned there were $100,000 per year to keep a chronically homeless person on the street, versus $18,000 per year to provide supportive housing. One of the longest-running “housing first” initiatives in the U.S. is the Lamp Community in Los Angeles, where the motto is “No strings. No barriers. No intermediate steps.” The Lamp Community was founded by a former nun in 1985, and has been caring for the addicted and the mentally ill ever since.

By the way, House the Homeless was the first organization to call for Housing First, even to the point of putting it into our name when we formed in 1989.


Source: “New approach brings US homeless in from the cold,” NewsYahoo.com, 02/06/11
Source: “Our Services,” OpenArmsHousing.org
Source: “Our History and Mission,” OpenArmsHousing.org
Source: “The Model,” 100Khomes.org
Image by quinet (Thomas Quine), used under its Creative Commons license.


2011 Health Sleep Study

Survey Results, Observations & Recommendations

Date: January 1, 2011
Investigators: Richard R. Troxell & Hugh Simonich

House the Homeless 2011 Health Sleep StudyAccording to health authorities, people’s need for sleep varies from 5-10 hours per night. The key to the amount of sleep people need is based on two basic factors: quality of sleep and the requirements of the individual.

Neuroscientists believe that quality, uninterrupted sleep is not only critical for basic survival and brain development, but also in converting the day’s experiences into usable permanent memory. According to Dr. Michael J. Breus, a clinical psychologist and both a Diplomat of the American Board of Sleep Medicine and Fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, “Reducing your nighttime sleep by as little as one and a half hours for just one night can result in reduction of alertness by as much as 32%.”

Insomnia, a sleep disorder, can be caused by conditions such as painful arthritis, or by endocrine disturbances that include the introduction of certain drugs or the withdrawal of others such as alcohol. Other causes include psychological problems including anxiety or depression.

According to Professor Mack Mahowald at the University of Minnesota Medical School, “One complete night of sleep deprivation is as impairing in simulated driving tests as a legally intoxicating blood-alcohol level.” Furthermore, according to Dr. Eve Van Cauter with the University of Chicago School of Medicine, people who do not get enough sleep become “less sensitive to insulin.” Obviously, this increases their risk of diabetes and high blood pressure.

Dr. Cauter’s research indicates that, “Chronic sleep loss may not only hasten the onset but also increase the severity of age-related ailments such as diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and memory loss. Also, it is believed that people, especially men, who fail to get good quality sleep, often are more likely to experience depression.”

Additionally, the increased possibility of stroke has been shown to be related to snoring, sleep duration, and daytime drowsiness. Disordered breathing and disrupted sleep associated with snoring can lead to attention deficits and hyperactivity, as well as asthma, allergies, and aggression.

Finally, scientists, including F. Javier Nieto, M.D., Ph.D., at Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, in a study of 6,100 subjects found “a clear association between increasing frequency of (apnea) events and hypertension particularly among patients classified as obese.”

The following sleep study was conducted by House the Homeless, Inc. in Austin, Texas, on January 1, 2011, at the 10th Annual House the Homeless Thermal Underwear Drive. Of the several hundred participants, only those having experienced shelter stays were asked to participate in the survey. There were 204 respondents. Finally, only non-case-managed individuals were invited to answer the final question.

The question investigates the amount of time required to get through the mat/bed acquisition process. Anyone in case management was excluded from the survey as their bed is assured and their process time is truncated.

Survey Results

Shelter Sleepers ONLY
Respondents: 204

1. About how many hours of good, solid sleep do you get each night on average?

5.1 hours — the average for all 204 respondents.
93.1% responded they need more sleep.

2. About how many minutes does it usually take you to fall asleep?

25% responded that it takes them one or more hours.
50% responded that it takes one half hour or longer.

3. If you are awakened, how long does it take you to get back to sleep on average?

Over 30% responded that it takes them one or more hours.
Approximately 2.5% responded that they do not return to sleep at all.

4. What wakes you up?

64.0% Snoring
64.0% Loud talking
39.0% Doors slamming
27.5% Telephones
25.0% Alarm clocks
24.5% Traffic noise
21.6% Leg pain or twitching
18.1% Trash removal
11.3% Gasping for breath
08.0% Computer activity
10.3% Other.

5. Do people tell you that you snore?

Over 40% responded yes.

6. Where do you usually sleep?

Over 82% sleep at the ARCH — 40% on the first floor; 24% on the second floor; over 18% on the third floor.
Over 32% sleep at the Salvation Army.

7. What keeps you from sleeping?

Over 51% responded that their mind keeps racing.
Over 27% responded that they fear being hurt.
10% responded that they hear voices in their heads.

8. Do you dream?

Of the over 77% who responded yes — over 39% have violent dreams; 72% have dreams that wake them up.

9. When you wake in the morning, do you feel rested?

Over 68% responded no;
Over 71% say they are so tired, they cannot function normally during the day.
Over 50% say this feeling of fatigue lasts three or more days.

10. By computing the weight and height of each of the 197 responding individuals, and using the Body Mass Index, or BMI, we calculated that:

66% are overweight;
Over 50% of those are considered to be obese.

11. Demographics:

88% of respondents were male; 12% were female.

12. Medications taken for following conditions:

21.0% Depression
13.0% High Blood Pressure
16.0% Sleep
06.0% Diabetes.

13. Have you been diagnosed with:

Please check or circle all that apply:

51 High Blood Pressure
23 Memory Problems
20 Anger Issues
19 Diabetes
14 Restless Leg Syndrome
13 Schizophrenia
12 Sleep Apnea
08 Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
06 Chronic Snorer
06 Seizures
05 The Shakes (feelings of instability)
03 Bi-Polar Disorder
02 Schizoaffective Disorder

123 Depression:
43 Mild
51 Moderate
29 Severe

34 Eat way too much
61 Eat way too little
13 Sleep way too much
103 Sleep way too little
58 None.

14. Non-Case Management people ONLY:

On average, how many hours a day does it take you to get approved or denied for a mat or bed?

11 1 hour
15 1.5 hours
35 2 hours
19 2.5 hours
47 3 hours

85 On case management or non-responsive.

Findings and Observations

1) With people receiving only 5.06 hours of good solid sleep on average, this is at the very low end of minimally satisfactory sleep requirements. This leaves the vast majority (190 out of 204) stating that the amount of sleep they need is less than the amount they receive.

2) Only about 1/3 of the shelter consumers, upon waking in the morning, felt rested.

3) 143 out of 204 shelter users OR 70% reported that they occasionally felt so tired that they could not function normally during the day.

4) 103 or half of the shelter consumers interviewed (204) woke feeling that they could not function normally during the day and this feeling lasted three days or more.

5) 180 people surveyed (88%) take 15 minutes or longer (beyond an hour) to fall asleep.

6) 158 people (77%) required 15 minutes or longer to return to sleep once awakened.

7) 130 people (64%) said that loud talking alone was a significant factor involved in waking them up. Other controllable noise factors included ringing telephones (56), alarm clocks (51), doors slamming (79), computer activity (16), traffic noise (16), and trash removal (37).

8) 82 people in the study have been told by others that they snore, but only six people reported to have been diagnosed as being a “chronic snorer.”

9) Only about half (27) of the people diagnosed with high blood pressure (51) are being treated for that condition.

10) 47 out of 127 people not on case management said that it took them three hours or more to get approval or denial for a mat or bed. At the same time, 35 out of 127 said the same process took them two hours or more.


1) Further study is required to explore the relationship between sleep deprivation and the health condition of people sleeping at city shelters.

2) Individual sleep study research should be conducted on site at shelters.

3) Specific steps should immediately be taken to reduce or eliminate controllable noise factors:

a) Ringing telephones should be replaced with flashing light telephones.
b) All alarms should be silenced.
c) Slamming doors should be muted.
d) Isolate or end all computer activity.
e) Install sound deadening materials in the ceiling and walls.
f) Delay trash removal until waking hours.
g) Stop all unnecessary loud talking.

4) Encourage all smokers to enter a smokers cessation program in an effort to help address snoring.

5) Coordinate with the Community Care Health Clinic to ensure that people with unmet health needs begin to be addressed.

6) Expedite the application process for securing a mat or bed so that it does not exceed one hour in length for non-case-managed applicants.

7) Coordinate dietitians and shelter food providers to create healthful, nutritional, and balanced meals incorporating the findings of this report.

8) Involve people experiencing homelessness in designing and running non-contact exercise/sports programs.

9) Explore the possibility of shelter-wide “White-Noise” remediation application to mask ambient shelter sounds.

Additional House the Homeless Research & Commentary

The following documents [MS Word format] can be downloaded by clicking the links below:

HtH Health Questionnaire Austin 2010
Connecting the Dots, Austin
Health Survey: No Sitting Ordinance Responses
Health Survey Testimony
Health Survey: Request for Sitting Permits
Confidential Health Survey Questionnaire
Health & Work Surveys


Vancouver Olympics Aftermath Studied

Homeless in VancouverIn Parliament of Whores, P. J. O’Rourke wrote about the homeless cleanup in Atlanta, Georgia, preparatory to the 1988 Democratic Convention. The police started hassling and arresting street people three or four days before the convention. Drifters were kicked out of the bus station and were not even allowed to reclaim their belongings from the storage lockers. In a park where scores of people experiencing homelessness usually slept, the sprinkler system was turned on at three in the morning.

The “Olympic effect” is notoriously destructive. In any city preparing to host a major event, old neighborhoods are obliterated and people are displaced. Less than 10 years after the Democratic Convention, the poor of Atlanta were hit again as the city geared up for the 1996 games. About 30,000 residents were displaced by construction work. In an Olympics-ready city, what isn’t torn down increases in value, as landlords evict longtime tenants to make room for wealthy visitors. And, of course, the people who were already homeless before all this started have to be dealt with.

In Atlanta, for instance, Mary Beadnell reported that in the eight months leading up to the Games, 9,000 people were arrested for begging and loitering, and others were moved more than a hundred miles away from the city. Likewise in Sydney, Australia, preparing for the 2000 Olympics, the police were able to clear the streets by charging people with causing a “social nuisance.” If not in the mood to make arrests, police can, at the very least, order people to “move on.” Beadnell wrote,

In addition, the government is planning to bus homeless people up to 200 kilometres from Sydney to Wollongong, Newcastle and the Blue Mountains, and house them in disused hospitals, government buildings and caravan parks, in an attempt to triple the amount of emergency housing during the Olympics.

In Beijing, China, it was reported that 300,000 dwellings were demolished to make way for the 2008 Olympics, and although the government claimed that only 6,000 residents had their lives disrupted by the bulldozing, the British press said hundreds of thousands were left homeless without compensation, and other estimates went as high as 1.5 million.

In the Canadian province of British Columbia, the city of Vancouver hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics last year. This seriously impacted the people experiencing homelessness, especially the young. Jacqueline Kennelly, a sociological and anthropological researcher, intends to keep following up. Kennelly says the Olympics purge shoved many at-risk youth back into the worst part of the city, an area that some had succeeded in escaping from. She has already made two trips from Carleton University in Ottawa to investigate the lasting effects, and plans to go back:

It is the third round of interviews with more than 100 marginalized youth in Vancouver aimed at tracking their experiences before, during and after the Games… Kennelly’s subjects say an effort was made to push them out despite assurances from organizers it wouldn’t happen.

As always, the comments made by citizens on a news story provide fascinating details. One person recalls that the organizers had promised beforehand that the homeless and the poor would not be “removed from sight.” Another mentions that the housing units of the Olympic Village were supposed to be used afterward for the homeless, but are instead rented cheaply to police, firefighters, EMTs and other municipal employees. One person says he would rather support the homeless than subsidize taxpayer-funded athletes, whom he regards as no better than panhandlers. Some feel that such spectacles as the Olympics only serve to distract people from the underlying social problems.

Apparently, Vancouver is still recovering from the huge expense of being an “Owelympics” host city. Lies were told, promises were broken, taxpayers are angry, and the budget shortfall has affected the already inadequate social services for the homeless. “JosephThePoet” says,

Politicians can always find plenty of taxpayer money to build or rent expensive places for the game’s competitors to live for a short time but can never find a dime to pay for housing our brothers and sisters who cannot afford a place to live.

One person says the police crackdown gained momentum two or three years before the games, as officers aggressively harassed street people, confiscated their belongings, and stepped up the arrests for minor offenses. Private security guards dubbed “Downtown Ambassadors” are criticized even more harshly, and characterized as nasty, pernicious goons that the city should be ashamed of.

Another commentator says the cleanup started as far back as 2004, when people experiencing homelessness were given one-way bus tickets to the city of Victoria or to small towns in the interior:

I live in a small community in Central BC with no support system to aid the homeless. Before the Olympics we had no one sleeping out in minus 25 temperatures. During and now after the Olympics we have 30 homeless and we are scrambling to come up with social housing without any apparent or visible assistance from our Provincial or Federal Government.

Some comments are dismissive, like the one from a person whose nephew is a happy panhandler who actually feels sorry for his employed uncle. Some people urge the government to herd the homeless into boot camps, or at least work camps. They want to see programs similar to what both Canada and the United States set up during the Depression to accomplish public works. Some characterize the homeless as con artists or as rebellions teens who just don’t want to live by anybody’s rules.

Other citizens are much more sympathetic, and warn the hardhearted not to be so smug, because for every five economically stable families in Canada today, eight other families are in financial trouble. Some are very troubled by the judgmental attitude of self-righteous individuals who have no idea what they’re talking about, and who would probably be at a total loss to deal with the situation if they found themselves homeless.

One writer claims that the current government has an “undeniable track record of bullying and abusing the poor and downtrodden.” Another remembers working in downtown Calgary when that city was busy hiding the homeless for the duration of the 1988 Winter Olympics. Having known and been fond of many of these folks, “Gunner1954” writes,

Most were just trying their best with the deck they were dealt with. Most don’t want your sympathy either & couldn’t care less what you post here, but most were good people.

And some are very sensitive to the plight of people experiencing homelessness, especially the young, and speak out passionately:

If you have been beaten, exposed to alcohol/drug abuse, or sexually exploited in your own home regularly then speak up. Otherwise, keep it to yourself as you have ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA what some people go through in their homes… Tough love? Most of these kids have seen and experienced horrors that make the streets feel safer, how much tougher do they need it? Being homeless isn’t a crime but do you really think being beaten and sexually assaulted in prison will make them better able to function in your society?

In 2012, London, England, will host the Summer Olympics, and Jacqueline Kennelly has already gotten a head start on another study there, tracking the effects of the city’s preparations on homeless young people.


Source: “Parliament of Whores,” Google Books
Source: “Sydney’s homeless to be removed for Olympics,” World Socialist Web Site, 02/03/00
Source: “Homeless youth pushed out during Games,” CBC.ca, 02/13/11
Image by tuchodi, used under its Creative Commons license.


The Minimum Wage and the Big Ideas


The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) points out the unsurprising fact that the minimum wage is worth much less than it previously was worth. Its graph illustrated the value of the minimum wage since 1960, adjusted for inflation and translated into 2009 dollars:

When adjusted for inflation, the minimum wage was worth $8.54 per hour in 1968, compared to the current minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Based on a typical, 2,000-hour work year, the 1968 inflation-adjusted minimum wage would equate to an annual salary of $17,080 per year, versus $14,500 for today’s minimum wage.

In other words, the minimum wage decreasingly resembles a living wage. Historically, the peak of minimum wage value was in the 1960s, a long-gone era many people who are working today don’t even remember, because a lot of them weren’t born yet. The EPI also points out that raising the minimum wage stimulates the economy by giving workers more spending power. You’d think this would be obvious, but apparently many politicians overlook this basic fact.

We previously mentioned the very comprehensive interview that Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless did not long ago. It’s worth mentioning again, because when Wayne Hurlbert of Blog Talk Radio conducts an interview, he skillfully leads his subject to lay out the most important principles, as well as explain things in detail.

Painting first with a broad brush, let’s review some of the big ideas. Changing people from tax-takers to taxpayers is one of them. If the working poor were making a fair, adequate living wage, it would reduce the tax burden, because there would be less need for food stamps and other sorts of government assistance. Even if it can’t happen right this minute, people need to know that there is hope, they need to see that pathway stretching out before them. They need to know opportunity exists, and to be inspired to take advantage of opportunity, rather than subside into hopelessness.

Another basic principle of Richard’s is, solutions that come from the grassroots are faster and more effective than those involving the government. Of course, for something big like the Universal Living Wage, the government has to be behind it. But if homeless veterans in your community need socks, an appeal to the local goodhearted people will get them a lot quicker than a request to an official bureaucracy. And we have to show the way, because the old saying is true — “When the people lead, the leaders will follow.”

The biggest idea of all is that homelessness does not have to exist. This situation we have today does not have to be the situation we have tomorrow. We’re in a mess, but it can be undone and fixed. Richard’s proposal for fixing it is implementing the Universal Living Wage. In the interview, Hurlbert asks how the ULW is different from the minimum wage already in effect, and the answer is, it’s not really that different. What we have now needs to be tweaked and perfected, and if it is done over a 10-year period, the shock for anyone need not be too unbearable.

As a background, Richard talks about when the federal minimum wage was instituted in 1938, to make sure every working American could afford basic shelter, food, and clothing. It was a humane, fair, and much needed measure, but it was based on an assumption that it costs pretty much the same to live anyplace in America, so it was not indexed to anything. Still, it worked acceptably until the mid-1980s, when extreme booms and busts in the economy had really messed things up.

Another thing happened too, that would impact the nation very adversely by increasing not only the number of people experiencing homelessness, but the number of such people who were truly incapable of taking care of themselves. By the ’80s, the whole structure of mental health institutions had become so abusive, it seemed better to integrate the mentally ill into society.

The first part of the plan worked fine, dumping thousands of seriously ill and disoriented people on the streets. The second phase didn’t work so well, and rather than getting “mainstreamed,” the people ended up drowning instead, denizens of the streets, free but so impaired that freedom became “just another word for nothing left to lose,” as Kris Kristofferson phrased it.

In the interview, Richard talks about how the minimum wage always falls behind the poverty line, and how it didn’t increase for a whole decade between 1997 and 2007. We ended up with a situation where one of the largest labor organizations, Service Employees International Union, was training people in how to apply for food stamps. At one point, the University of Texas had 200 staff members on food stamps. And because of the unrealistic minimum wage, the federal government had become a creator of homelessness.


Source: “State of Working America preview: The declining value of minimum wage,” EPI.org, 11/17/10
Source: “Richard Troxell: Looking Up at the Bottom Line,” Blog Talk Radio, 12/08/10
Image by EPI, used under its Creative Commons license.


Deadly Violence Among and Against the Homeless

Homeless Under an OverpassIf a person were inclined to really concentrate on the negative, it would be possible to spotlight quite a number of incidents where people experiencing homelessness are randomly slain by bands of townsfolk for apparent sport, or by a citizen with a twisted lone-avenger fantasy. Even worse are the reports of homeless people assaulted or killed by other homeless people. Add to that the incidents that are never reported. Plus, when the topic is police violence against the homeless, there are unfortunately many examples.

Last month in Northern California, guilty pleas were entered by two out of three teenagers accused of the 2009 beating death of a homeless man. They also agreed to testify against the third member of a murderous expedition, the purpose of which was to “kick a bum’s ass.” This they effectively did, using metal bars and a table leg as weapons to kill Timothy Lee Alcorn. Just a couple of weeks ago, a Northern California resident was found guilty of murdering Richard Seeger in order to steal the car in which Seeger had been living.

Fort Walton Beach, Florida, is likely a pleasant enough place, except for when the occasional citizen is set on fire, like Johnnie Roberts was. This happened about a week ago, under a bridge (of course), where the victim was found by a homeless veteran. Meagan O’Halloran reports,

Authorities say they found Johnnie Spencer Roberts tied to a pole by his shoelaces. He was unconscious and intoxicated, but, miraculously, he survived… Now other homeless people say they’re afraid they’ll be targeted next.

Speaking of homeless veterans, that is the category to which Thomas Higginbotham had belonged, before he was killed by police gunfire in Oregon. Maxine Bernstein reported on this January tragedy that took place in an abandoned car wash, where the victim and at least one other homeless man were indoor camping. The victim was 67, alcoholic, armed, and had been persistently threatening a security guard. The scenario, according to the witnesses, sounds like a determined effort to commit suicide-by-cop. If that was what Higginbotham intended, his plan was successful in achieving not only his death, but a stain on the careers of two long-time police officers.

St. Petersburg Times staff reporter Rita Farlow relates how in Florida, a resident of a homeless encampment was convicted of manslaughter last month, another suspect having already pleaded guilty last year. The two beat a fellow homeless man to death back in 2007. Apparently the victim, Michael J. Picciola, had attacked one of them first, and caused other problems, and the two wanted to convince him to leave the small colony. Instead, the troublemaker ended up dead.

Last year was also when three teenagers beat Joseph Ruba to death in Lakeland, Florida. Just last month, a homeless man was charged with the burning death of a 26-year-old homeless woman in Largo, Florida. What is going on down there in the lovely state that we are accustomed to thinking of as a retirement haven and amusement park heaven?

David Greisman reported on the deadly autumn season in Laurel, Maryland, where Pamela Myers, who had been living in the woods, died after being set on fire by her “boyfriend.” Then, within weeks, in an unrelated homicide, Flavio Garcia was killed by another homeless man near a local racetrack. Maryland also saw the death of a homeless man named Adeolu Adedgoke Otemolu, shot by a teenager.

The fall of 2010 was also a bad season in Houston, Texas, where several homeless women were murdered and rumors of a serial killer abounded. Then, in December, an elderly homeless man was killed by a fast-food restaurant employee in Detroit, Michigan. December was also an ill-omened month in Connecticut, where a homeless man was beaten to death by his tent-mate, who then asked a third person to help him bury the body.

Violence occurs among the homeless, as people lacking in social skills attempt to self-police their settlements and camps by what amounts to vigilante action. It happens between people experiencing homelessness, who are driven by deprivation and unimaginable stresses to turn against those who were formerly friends or even lovers.

It happens through malicious hate crimes committed by housed people, who seem to think they are doing some kind of societal cleanup, and who refuse to understand that they are not part of any solution at all, but rather part of an increasingly horrifying problem. Long ago, I knew an Air Force captain, a pilot who held the record for flying a certain kind of Southeast Asia mission and living to tell the tale. Home on leave, in a backward part of the American South, he took his Harley out on the remote country roads. Some bigot was cruising around in a pickup truck, with a head full of spiteful visions of Billy and Wyatt, the motorcycle-riding hippies of Easy Rider. He forced the bike off the road, and though the captain recovered from other injuries, one of his arms was made absolutely, totally useless, forever.

The savages who beat a homeless man to death, or set him on fire, have no idea whom they are attacking, but they too need a story to tell themselves. Chances are, they convince themselves they are doing a good deed by ridding society of a nameless degenerate who will be missed by no one.

And violence happens through the disordered thinking of an individual who wants to escape from life and can’t think of a better way to do it than by taunting the police, in hopes of a quick death that will leave behind lingering problems for officers of the law.

One thing is clear: If homelessness were ended, this violence would also end. And how can that be accomplished? One measure that could go a long way toward a solution would be the adoption of the Universal Living Wage, which would end homelessness for more than 1,000,000 minimum-wage workers, and prevent economic homelessness for all 10.1 million minimum-wage workers. Learn more about the Universal Living Wage here, and from Richard R. Troxell’s Looking Up at the Bottom Line.


Source: “Two plead guilty in fatal beating of homeless man,” Redding.com, 01/07/11
Source: “FWB Homeless Man Lit on Fire; Investigators Still Looking for Suspect,” WJHG-TV, 01/31/11
Source: “Grand jury reports: Portland police shot homeless veteran 10 times after he advanced holding a knife,” OregonLive, 01/28/11
Source: “Man found guilty in 2007 death at homeless camp,” Tampabay.com, 01/14/11
Source: “One Homeless Man Accused of Murdering Another Homeless Man in Laurel,” Columbia.Patch.com, 12/04/10
Image by sparr0 (Clarence Risher), used under its Creative Commons license.


San Francisco Sit/Lie Ordinance Documentary

No PanhandlingThe impressive Mission Local website is only part of a grander scheme, which encompasses print and multimedia avenues in two languages. Its aim is to generate quality journalism that fairly and thoroughly covers San Francisco’s Mission District. The staff are from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, San Francisco State, and the community.

Reaching back a couple of months, we’re looking at a piece of video journalism by Patricia Espinosa and Christine Mai-Duc, in which everyday people react to the Sit/Lie ordinance. Not surprisingly, the local law represents yet another misguided attempt to “do something” about the problem of homelessness by sweeping it under the rug. (It’s getting mighty crowded under that ragged shred of national carpet.) The reportage itself is great, but even more interesting are some of the comments the piece inspired.

For instance, “pdquick,” a doctor who treats people experiencing homelessness, points out the absurdity of forbidding people to sit or lie as a way to reduce aggressive panhandling. How aggressive can a panhandler be, after all, who is sitting or lying? That is some pretty laid-back aggression. Good point, pdquick!

“Lee” is impatient with housed people who convince themselves that the homeless are already spoiled and pampered by a plush existence, and is also angry with those who use a certain word:

The notion that the homeless are living a ‘lifestyle’ — which they could choose to stop living at the snap of their fingers — is truly ludicrous… You’d rather have the garbageman sweep up the unsightly blights on your block so you can walk down the street without having to think about all the bad stuff happening in your country. That’s why you have to convince yourself that homelessness is a ‘choice,’ a ‘lifestyle,’ a ‘decision,’ easily reversed, and that the homeless already have a vast and generous infrastructure of support.

“Lynae” makes a very good point about the sit/lie ordinance. How stupid is it, on the one hand, to encourage people to become employed, productive citizens, and at the same time hit them with criminal charges that will stick to their records, and make job hunting even more impossible? Plus, agencies providing basic services have more barriers against those with criminal records. This commentator reminds us of an even more basic truth:

It’s not illegal to be homeless. People have a right to NOT have housing. With that in mind, making laws that make it virtually impossible to be homeless without constantly being ticketed/arrested is just as wrong as making tons of laws that infringe on someone’s right to be black/Jewish/handicapped/what-have-you.

Many critics of the ordinance have also mentioned its redundancy, and this is true not only in San Francisco but just about every place where such ordinances are passed. There are already laws in place forbidding aggressive panhandling, loitering, public alcohol drinking, and so on. Additional rules are not really needed, and only serve to make the overall situation worse for people experiencing homelessness.

A society is only as good as the treatment it extends to its most vulnerable members, and America could be scoring a lot higher in this performance area. The thinking seems to be, if society can cut off the homeless from enough amenities, such as food and the right to sit on a park bench, all the drifters and transients and refugees will come to their senses and say, “Well, duh! This homeless thing just isn’t working out!,” and go get themselves a place to live, like decent people. And that’s not the worst of it. For some, the thinking is, take away enough amenities from people experiencing homelessness, and they will come to their senses and kill themselves, saving everybody else the trouble of dealing with them.

Paradox alert: We said that some hard-hearted Americans wish the people in the “homeless” category would just simply cease to exist. And we soft-hearted Americans also wish the category of “homeless” would cease to exist — only, we want to see this happen by finding everybody a place to live. We talked about the insanity of trying to legislate homelessness out of existence by forbidding homeless people to do just about anything.

Here’s a question. Name one social problem that has ever successfully been legislated out of existence. If you can’t think of one in five seconds, the point is made. Racism? Domestic violence? Murder? Addiction? We have plenty of laws, and still have plenty of all of the above. It’s unlikely that homelessness can be made to disappear by persecuting its victims.


Source: “About,” MissionLocal.org
Source: “Homeless React to Sit/Lie,” MissionLocal.org, 11/11/10
Image by TheTruthAbout, used under its Creative Commons license.


Homelessness, Wishful Thinking, and Insanity

Anti-Homeless Device

Not long ago, Denise Wong reported from Reno, Nevada, on a special day set aside to strictly enforce a city ordinance that forbids “camping,” i.e. existing. People experiencing homelessness had already been discouraged from hanging around in certain areas, and those areas were expanded. This quotation from the piece is reminiscent of a comedy rule learned in screenwriting class: “A punch line is a punch word, and it belongs at the end.” Get this:

And police are allowed to arrest anyone camping on sidewalks outside the Record Street Homeless Services Center.

In the December sweep, Wong reports that no one was cited or arrested, but official warnings were issued. Rumor has it that many homeless people were forced to abandon their bedrolls and other possessions. Others say the street people had three days’ notice of the impending action and plenty of opportunity to move their stuff. Either way, three days’ notice doesn’t help when there is nowhere to go. Apparently, the other local possibilities are the railroad tracks or the riverbank. The same generous choices are available in many American cities. And then, if the homeless congregate in those places, the housed people still complain.

In January, Steve Chawkins of the Los Angeles Times wrote about the situation in Santa Barbara, California. It seems that in a fashionable area of town, benches are aligned parallel with the sidewalks, making it easy for beggars to sit around all day displaying to the shoppers and tourists their pitches written on cardboard. As one indignant business owner put it,

It’s just like they’ve made the street their living room. They just sit there — all day, every day. One of them even has a portable TV. It’s totally inappropriate.

Inappropriate? Anyway, the dignitaries in charge figure, they will hit those indigent homeless people where it hurts — in their overstuffed wallets. Here’s the plan: They’re going to rotate the benches 90 degrees, to be perpendicular to the flow of foot traffic. Thus, according to a re-development official Chawkin interviewed, the panhandlers’ backs will be facing half the people on the sidewalk, cutting their solicitation opportunities by 50%. Ta-dah!

But wait, there’s more. Benches along the “city’s most vibrant commercial thoroughfare” will also have their backs removed, so nobody can get too comfortable. The reporter spoke with a dismayed social worker who characterized the entire project as “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.” Chawkin says,

Benches have been an issue elsewhere. Some cities install armrests in the middle of benches to keep people from lying down. In La Jolla two years ago, one community activist tried recruiting residents to sit three-hour shifts to keep homeless people off public benches.

By the way, to turn 14 benches to a perpendicular angle is going to cost — guess how much? $50,000. Now, that’s inappropriate. In Looking Up at the Bottom Line, Richard R. Troxell relates how, when House the Homeless was considering ideas for the Homeless Memorial, the city of Austin offered to sell the organization a $5,000 park bench with a divider in the middle to prevent sleeping. No, thanks!

Please see Richard’s report on the current state of things in Austin, where it looks like the city is trying to do the same thing that many other political entities have done so many times in the past, which is to legislate a problem out of existence. The solution, in the minds of many Austin residents, is to change the homeless into non-persons, by using the force of law to deny them the right to sit in public places. (And, of course, there are already plenty of laws everywhere, about what can be done on private property.)

The theory behind such measures is, if the homeless are forbidden to do something, and then another thing, and another thing, eventually the accumulated weight of all these ordinances will somehow magically make the homeless go away.

When I saw these bus stop benches in Shanghai I had to snap a picture. They are clearly designed to stop anyone from sleeping on them, but are also very uncomfortable to sit on at all. Another example of ‘Architecture of Control.’

So says Albert Sun, who took the photo on this page. (Follow the link to Flickr where, in the Comments, there’s an artistic yet very un-sleepable park bench spotted in Los Angeles.)

The following might apply to an individual or a society: The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results. Every time legislation is made to increase the misery of the homeless, it’s based on a belief that a certain category of people should not exist, and that they can be made to go away by illegitimatizing everything about them. This belief is as quaintly erroneous as the belief that blowing out all the birthday cake candles will make your wish come true.

The park bench maneuvers are a perfect of example of a society’s tendency to “cut off its nose to spite its face.” Some cities solve the park-bench dilemma by simply removing them. Take that, homeless people! Try sitting on our park benches now!

The downside, and it’s a big one, is that nobody gets to sit on park benches. Not the young mother, who is taking her kids out for a walk because it’s free, and they need some exercise. Not the retired teacher, who is still recovering from knee replacement surgery, or the young sweethearts, who need a few minutes to talk, away from their parents.

How about this? How about putting more park benches around town, so there are plenty of places for anybody who wants to sit down, without having to spend a day’s pay for the right to sit inside the fenced patio of a sidewalk café?

Quotation of the Day:

It’s from a video by Patricia Espinosa and Christine Mai-Duc of Mission Local, regarding the sit/lie ordinance in San Francisco’s Mission District. One woman says, and this is really worth thinking about:

I do not typically sit or lie on sidewalks, but I think that if I needed to or if I wanted to, I’d like to have the right to.


Source: “Homeless Residents Forced Off Reno Sidewalks,” KOLOTV, 12/06/11
Source: “Santa Barbara seeks to turn the tables on the homeless,” LATimes.com, 01/21/22
Source: “Homeless React to Sit/Lie,” MissionLocal.org, 11/11/10
Image by Albert Sun, used under its Creative Commons license.


Putting Jesus in Jail

Criminalizing homelessness

It was Brother Michael of the Morning Star Monastery who said it, in Austin, Texas, back in 1996. House the Homeless and many others were trying to repeal the then brand-new No Camping Homeless Ordinance. The City Council had passed this atrocity in the belief that it will make homelessness go away by outlawing it. Council members spoke openly of the “Homeless Ban,” and a city official was caught on tape stating that the goal was to “run these people out of town.” Being homeless in Austin was punishable by a fine of up to $500 or time in the Gray Bar Hotel. What Brother Michael said was,

This ordinance would have put Jesus in jail.

How many pastors have said those words, over how many years, in reaction to how many laws that were designed to further restrict the lives of people experiencing homelessness? Not to deny Austin its originality, but the script for the No Camping Homeless Ordinance drama has been passed around from city to city for decades. It’s all too sadly predictable. Here is another generic quotation, issued in this case from the mouth of the District Attorney:

The ordinance does not punish persons for being homeless.

How many law enforcement spokespeople and politicians, in how many cities, have had occasion to use that line? And, of course, it’s nonsense. By the time Austin’s ordinance had been in place for a year, more than 2,000 people had been charged with violating it, and by some strange coincidence, all of them were people experiencing homelessness.

In Looking Up at the Bottom Line, Richard R. Troxell says,

The ‘No Camping’ ordinance is punitive in nature and is being selectively enforced. Students are sleeping outside while waiting to get concert tickets without worry of being arrested. Visitors at Barton Springs and travelers in our airport and bus stations also sleep without fear of being arrested. This is obviously a crime of economic status.

As in so many other cities, the politicians talked about a “safer climate,” and none of them were talking about what was safe for the people experiencing homelessness. Does anybody ever stop to think that maybe homeless people like to be safe, too? Maybe they like to be around ordinary people, in places where there are plenty of witnesses if anything goes wrong, instead of out by the railroad tracks, vulnerable to any kind of predator. A few people, with more sensible heads and better intentions, noted that laws like this only drive people deeper into the woods. How many times has that been said, and hasn’t it been true every time?

Even a city council member who claimed to have once been homeless himself was in favor of the ordinance, and, in fact, cast the deciding vote. This is another cliché found all too often in human life: The person who claws his way up the success ladder and kicks anybody in the face who clings to a lower rung:

We already have laws against public harassment, trespassing and intoxication, the nuisances that the anti-camping measure is intended to counter.

That was another thing pointed out by Richard and other sensible people, and, alas, it too is a totally predictable bit of dialogue. The people who say it are absolutely correct, but no matter how often they repeat it, a lot of other people don’t listen. Every once in a while it occurs to somebody that there are situations in which more legislation might not be the solution. If societal problems could really be solved by passing laws, it seems like some of those problems would have been fixed by now, by the last four million laws that were passed. Along with the predictable sense, there was yet more predictable nonsense:

In the first year alone, close to $200,000 has been spent on processing ‘criminal sleepers.’ Additionally, the pressure and the costs to the court system have also been enormous as these victims continue to seek jury trials. Furthermore, the ban has now cost Austin well over 2000 misspent police hours.

You know what comes next. How many cities have put themselves through the same kind of financial wringer, using up limited resources that could much better be spent in some other way, and had gotten minimal results?

The Austin struggle attracted the attention of few celebrities, including Bruce Springsteen, who was in town to do a show and donated the proceeds from the concessions and t-shirt sales to the cause. Molly Ivins got mixed up in it too, and if you’re not familiar with her writing, you’re missing a lot.

The whole story is in Looking Up at the Bottom Line, which is one reason why professors in many disciplines ought to be assigning this book to their students as required reading. It’s an excruciatingly detailed account of the workings of city politics, and a harsh lesson in what aspiring social workers and activists will find themselves facing in the real world.

The homeless ban is still in force, and now it appears that Austin is trying to make mental illness illegal, or something. An effort to improve the No Camping Homeless Ordinance gave the city a chance to tamper with it in a way that guarantees even worse results. (Please see Richard’s description of the current situation and of the importance of the Universal Living Wage).

And then, to lighten the mood, check out Statesman reporter Andrea Ball’s story about Austin’s famous goose, Homer:

In the 1980s, the Austin fowl grabbed headlines when local homeless activists threatened to eat him unless city leaders agreed to a meeting about homelessness. He survived, met Willie Nelson, went to the 1988 Democratic National Convention and spent several months on a raft in Lady Bird Lake with two human companions protesting homelessness.

The conscientious journalist, not content to let Homer be forgotten, has tracked him down and followed him up, even learning the details of his current diet and his arthritis. Homer, now on his third wife, has been credited with being the catalyst that focused the attention of the Austin community on the problem of homelessness. We think House the Homeless had something to do with it, too.


Source: “Looking Up at the Bottom Line,” Amazon.com
Source: “Homer the Homeless Goose: Where is he now?,” Statesman, 12/30/10
Image by ItzaFineDay, used under its Creative Commons license.