The Crime of Breathing While Homeless

No PanhandlingIn the United States over the past three decades, we have seen the invention of many new crimes (Driving While Hispanic, Voting While Black, Flying While Muslim, etc.) that are not officially on the books. But they are all too real for the people caught up in them. One of the new crimes is, apparently, Breathing While Homeless.

Check out this Executive Summary from the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH). Its full title is “A Dream Denied: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities.” The numbers it utilized are a few years old, but if anyone imagines that things have improved since then, we have a nice bridge to sell them. (The bridge comes ready-equipped with a used tarpaulin, several sheets of prime cardboard, and… well, that’s all, actually.)

Depending on location, the statistics on people experiencing homelessness, and on available shelter space, may fluctuate. But the tendency to make homelessness a law enforcement problem continues to change for the worse. The authors of this report studied laws and practices in 224 cities and concluded,

This trend includes measures that target homeless persons by making it illegal to perform life-sustaining activities in public.

It mentions activities we have discussed on this blog, such as sitting, sleeping, camping, cooking, eating, or begging in public places. Of course, most cities figure out quickly that a two-pronged approach works best. Go after the people experiencing homelessness, AND go after the people who try to help, such as organizations that provide food. Here are some of the measures that have been taken by municipalities in the Orwellian name of “Quality of Life,” according to the NCH report:

* Legislation that makes it illegal to sleep, sit, or store personal belongings in public spaces in cities where people are forced to live in public spaces;
* Selective enforcement of more neutral laws, such as loitering or open container laws, against homeless persons;
* Sweeps of city areas where homeless persons are living to drive them out of the area, frequently resulting in the destruction of those persons’ personal property, including important personal documents and medication; and
* Laws that punish people for begging or panhandling to move poor or homeless persons out of a city or downtown area.

There are of course numerous civil rights issues. Laws against vagrancy and loitering have always been constitutionally shaky, especially when the exact same behavior is accepted if the miscreant has a home where the police can tell them to go. (At Venice Beach, California, there used to be a street guy with a great line. If some tourist or local resident offended him, he would yell like a scolding parent, “Go to your room!”)

When a homeless person’s belongings are searched, or seized and arbitrarily destroyed, that’s Fourth Amendment territory. Begging for spare change just might be protected under the First Amendment. Then you’ve got the Eight Amendment, the one concerning cruel and unusual punishment, which applies when a person is accused of the heinous crime of sleeping.

So, what is accomplished by anti-homeless laws? They move people away from the centers, usually located in the inner city, where services such as food and job counseling are available. They make getting to these places even more difficult for people who must depend on buses (if they are lucky) or their own power of walking, to get around. Restrictive ordinances award thousands of homeless people with criminal records, as if they needed any more strikes against them in their efforts to emerge from the bottom layer of society. And the price of incarceration — don’t get us started. Jail is two or three times as expensive as supportive housing.

And then, there’s the little matter of international law. Our nation has signed on to global human rights agreements, prescribing humane treatment of people experiencing homelessness, which is fine for other countries but which we ourselves apparently don’t feel compelled to honor.

The report also offers some rays of light in a section called “Constructive Alternatives to Criminalization,” which is full of good ideas that have been either tried or contemplated by various localities. It offers helpful recommendations for the benefit of city governments, business groups, and the legal system, in dealing with these issues. Answers are proposed for both the chronic homeless, and the working poor or “economic homeless,” those who are unable to afford basic housing even though they have jobs.

However, House the Homeless has one big idea that would pretty much cover everything, and take away the need for each city to figure it out for themselves. It’s called the Universal Living Wage, and it will end homelessness for over 1,000,000 minimum-wage workers, and prevent economic homelessness for all 10.1 million minimum wage workers. You can also find out all about it in Richard R. Troxell’s book, Looking Up at the Bottom Line.


Source: “A Dream Denied: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities,” NationalHomeless.org
Image by quinn.anya (Quinn Dombrowski), used under its Creative Commons license.


Lose – Lose – Lose – Lose: Tanya McDowell’s Homeless Plight

Lonely BoyHow important is it to end homelessness in America? Please see the information from House the Homeless on how the Universal Living Wage can save millions of Americans like Tanya McDowell and her young son.

John Nickerson reports on the situation in Norwalk, Connecticut, where McDowell faces a huge bill for reparations, and a 20-year jail term. The charges are grand larceny and conspiracy to commit first-degree larceny. The thing that was stolen, allegedly, was education for McDowell’s son, who was enrolled in the “wrong” elementary school for less than six months. They actually say that the attendance of A.J. Paches for that period of time amounted to more than $15,000 worth of educational services, which is astonishing. There are still colleges you can get into for less. The reporter tells us,

McDowell said she divides her time between an apartment on Priscilla Circle in Bridgeport, where she is not allowed to stay when the lease holder is away, the Norwalk Emergency Shelter and her minivan.

The address McDowell used to enroll her boy in Norwalk belonged to a friend in a public housing complex, who was subsequently evicted as punishment for her part in the alleged deception. (See our helpful article, “How to Become Homeless,” for more tips.) Emotions run high and hot on both sides of this controversy, and citizens have added many comments to the online coverage. If only people would become as excited about ending homelessness, as they are about a little boy going to school.

Part of the tragedy is that A.J. really loved going to school, and any parent knows how rare and precious that is. The Connecticut Parents Union has started a bottle-and-can drive to raise money to help McDowell pay the fine. The reporter talked to the group’s founder, Gwen Samuel, who said:

You would figure that a school district such as Norwalk would put the child first. Saying we had the child this long with no fixed address and you would think they would do anything to ensure that this baby is safe and stable. Instead they arrest the baby’s mother, knowing she has no fixed address. The system has failed this child because of what they did to his mother.

An even stronger reaction comes from Dr. Boyce Watkins, a Syracuse University professor who founded the Your Black World Coalition, and who sees not only homeless-bashing but racism in the Connecticut story. Dr. Watkins is still angry over a similar case in Ohio. Dr. Watkins characterizes McDowell’s crisis as sad and sickening, and says,

Simple logic implies that whatever resources were saved from him not being enrolled in his home district (whatever that might be) could be applied to the secondary district. So putting parents in jail for sending their kids to schools outside their district is simply a legalized way of fencing out those that the community deems to be undesirable… Beating up on a homeless woman who is doing all she can to get her child into school is a shameful microcosm of the kind of greed and selfishness our country has chosen to embrace. There was once a time when slaves were arrested for trying to learn how to read, and now poor mothers are being arrested for trying to send their children to the school of their choice.

Apparently, this is the first case of this kind in Connecticut that has actually been turned over to the police. (And let’s hope it’s the last.) The strange coincidence that McDowell and her son happen to be homeless, inspires some people to say “selective enforcement.” A homeless woman and child are easy victims.

But for the state to win is a Pyrrhic victory. It’s doubtful whether a woman with no address or job will pony up that $15,000. Say the going price for soda cans is 30 cents per pound. That seems to be about 37,000 pounds of redeemed metal. Or 300,000 cans at 5 cents each. Plus, how much will it cost the state to keep Ms. McDowell in jail for 20 years? Plus, a family is broken up. Plus, a kid who loved school will probably form a different opinion about that subject. Sounds like lose-lose-lose-lose, all the way around.


Source: “Homeless woman’s arrest for sending son to Norwalk school stirs debate,” Stamford Advocate, 04/21/11
Source: “Another Mom Jailed for Sending Child to Wrong School District,” DrBoyceWatkins.com, 04/19/11
Image by Nisha A, used under its Creative Commons license.


Austin Fire Creates Homelessness

fireIn Austin, Texas, Michael Weathers has been charged with arson (another report says felony reckless endangerment) for a fire that burned up 100 acres, causing severe damage to 10 houses and minor damage to six more. Dwellings have been destroyed, and people have been rendered… homeless.

This is a tragedy. Fire is one of the cruelest things that can happen in a person’s life, and its repercussions can last for years, forever. Weathers turned himself in, which is more than a lot of white-collar criminals have ever had the guts to do. How many homeless families are created by one corrupt mortgage company? How many bankers go to prison?

Weathers left the hot coals of a dying campfire unattended and went to buy beer. In a story already causing a great outcry, that’s the perfect detail to tip public sentiment over into virulence. Now it seems as if the reaction to one man’s dreadful mistake threatens to develop into something like a pogrom. That’s a strong word, but it does imply the organized persecution of a group of people, and in that sense it fits. As Andrea Ball, a philanthropy blogger for the Austin American-Statesman, expresses it,

The debate about Austin’s homeless is about to get very ugly.

Yes, the fire was intentionally set, and that is an element of the crime of arson, despite the fact that there was no intention to destroy anything. Yes, the man who did it should be held accountable. But when you’ve got local citizens who think it’s appropriate to talk about using the homeless “for target practice,” as one online commentator recommended, you’ve got a problem. The reporter says,

Austin’s homeless population already causes plenty of outrage amongst neighbors frustrated with the noise, garbage and disruptive behavior stemming from homeless camps in the greenbelt and other wooded areas. Advocates say the problem stems from a lack of affordable housing and other services to help the homeless.

Well, duh! Homelessness results from a lack of housing, that seems pretty obvious. Also, from expecting people who don’t even have facilities to wash themselves or their clothes, to get out there and function like high-powered yuppies. And from about a hundred other factors, none of which are helped by generating an atmosphere of fear and rejection. But even so, the issue has more sides than a pomegranate has seeds. This point was brought up by Statesman reader Mary Ellen King:

Even if affordable housing is an option as suggested in the article, many of them suffer from mental illness and will rarely sleep in shelters when afforded the opportunity.

So housing isn’t the only answer. To go along with walls and roofs, what we need is a society that cares for its members. For the mentally ill, there has to be some happy medium between the old way (incarceration in grim state institutions) and the new way (life on the streets.) Isn’t there a country somewhere on earth where this situation is handled? And if so, why aren’t we learning from that country and following its example?

Ball passed along one report of a large bonfire being irresponsibly built in the recent past, and she has learned that hundreds of people camp in the county’s wooded areas. Maybe a small percentage prefer the al fresco life. Probably, most would prefer not to be there. But what else can they to do? The Salvation Army shelter has space for 259 bodies. At the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, there are only 100 beds. These have to be won by nightly lottery. The rest of the “beds” are 3 inch thick mats that one has to vie for in a second lottery.

ARCH is said to turn away as many as 50 people on a bad night. Lottery losers are turned out into the cold where they face “Quality of Life” ordinances such as no sitting, no sleeping and no camping. And now, because of the drought, the authorities have understandably announced a zero-tolerance policy toward open flames. Violation of the burn ban carries a $500 fine, and good luck on collecting it from a homeless person.

Police officers have begun visiting local homeless camps, urging them not to have campfires or open flames of any kind. In the department’s south district, officers were talking to people in the 35 to 40 known homeless camps and those panhandling at busy intersections.

As President of House the Homeless, Richard R. Troxell sent an email to colleagues that said,

Perhaps it was carelessness or perhaps it was a gust of wind that blew up from a dead still as it did in my presence just 5 minutes ago. The state of Texas is in a high fire condition. One and one half million acres have burned this year already… We all need to help one another and everyone is innocent until proven guilty either of arson or even carelessness.

Debbie Russell contributed this to the discussion:

So far I’ve not seen our community leaders lash out; but plenty of haters are doing so on online forums. I hope our leaders resist catering to the call for homeless-blood. One person is accused here; not a whole community. This is an isolated accident, not indicative of a practice of a group… To embark on a large-scale “sweep” campaign (as we have done already, in different areas of town like Waller Creek and on the camps) in an attempt to “solve” the “problem” would be wholly irresponsible of us… I’m REALLY hoping we can contain the knee-jerk urge to vilify all homeless people because of the act of one careless individual… Attacking the homeless is not the way to solve public safety issues. EVER.

Mellower Austinites suggest that this is a good opportunity to increase general awareness of homelessness, because it would be helpful to understand how people get in this position. Well, one of the ways they become homeless is when their house burns down because a fire was started in a nearby homeless camp. In other words, homelessness is a societal force that tends to grow exponentially. It’s like a snowball rollin’ down the side of a snow-covered hill.

One person’s story is that she let a homeless relative move in, which was against the terms of her government-sponsored housing lease, so she got evicted, and now she too is homeless. A young person’s story is that his homeless uncle moved into the family’s garage, and kept cornering him with sinister intent when nobody else was around. So he hit the road, and now there’s one more teenage runaway with an alley for a rec room. Homelessness begets homelessness.

So, yeah, understanding is good. Doing something is better. Now more than ever, Richard R. Troxell and House the Homeless urge the adoption of the Universal Living Wage. Richard says,

If we work together and house the homeless, then we dissolve the scenario. If local businesses paid fair living wages then 1/2 of the folks experiencing homelessness can work themselves off our streets and out of our woods. It’s not just up to the taxpayers to solve homelessness. We all share in the outcome. We’re all members of this community.


Source: “Oak Hill fire, arson and the homeless,” Charity Chat (Austin American-Statesman), 04/18/11
Source: “Police spread word of outdoor fire ban to homeless,” Austin American-Statesman, 04/18/11
Image by Jelle S. (Jelle), used under its Creative Commons license.


Brianna Karp — One Woman’s Homeless Story

Homeless ShelterA lot of people have been writing about homelessness lately, and they fall into categories. In one group are the people who are chronically or temporarily homeless, telling their own stories from first-hand experience. We have talked about Becky Blanton, who spoke at the prestigious TEDGlobal conference in 2009 on the topic, “The year I was homeless.”

Because people experiencing homelessness form friendships and relationships just like anybody else, the writer might also tell stories of street comrades. For instance, Ace Backwords has been for many years the chronicler of the lives of Berkeley’s legendary street characters, like Blue, Talon, and Hate Man, “your typical, dress-wearing, former New York Times-reporting, hatred-spewing, homeless freak,” who is actually one of the nicest people you’d ever want to know.

Then, there are the objective reportorial types, journalists, bloggers, and allies who gather and then disseminate the stories of others. We have mentioned B. N. Duncan, longtime recorder of homeless lives in both words and photographs. Then there are the subjective reporters, who are not actually homeless themselves but who enter that world in order to bring back stories and publicize them, in hopes of raising public awareness. We’ll have more to say about them another time.

Today’s spotlight focuses on Brianna Karp, a native Southern Californian who started working at age ten, apparently because nobody else in her family was able to. All she ever wanted was to grow up to be a solid citizen, employed and home-owning. But it didn’t turn out the way she had planned — at least, not for long..

Karp had what anybody would call a good job, not that it mattered once she had been laid off. Only executives get those multi-million-dollar golden parachutes. The average employed person is just “let go” like a like an enemy spy shoved out of a helicopter over the ocean — bound, blindfolded, and with no parachute of any hue. Karp was luckier than many, and acknowledges it:

The company that I worked for was enormously kind and fair to each and every one of us, and compensated us well with a severance package, so I was OK for a while.

Thanks to that lucky break, and by scrambling for every possible opportunity to make a few bucks, Karp remarkably managed to delay her transition from housed to homeless for an entire half-year. But, inevitably, harsh exigency caught up. Because of another tragedy — the suicide of its owner — a travel trailer came into her possession and she set up a tenuous base from which to try and rebuild her life. Introducing her book, The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness, Karp says,

I am an educated woman with stable employment and residence history. I have never done drugs. I am not mentally ill. I am a career executive assistant –- coherent, opinionated, poised, and capable. If you saw me walking down the street, you wouldn’t have assumed that I lived in a parking lot. In short, I was just like you — except without the convenience of a permanent address.

Reviewed in Publisher’s Weekly and featured by TV shows, The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness was also written about by prominent author Augusten Burroughs in these words,

Brianna Karp is the perfect example of how a person can triumph not in spite of adversity but as a direct result of it. This smart, pragmatic young woman takes us inside the new face of homelessness in America and her dramatic memoir guides us through our assumptions, fears and judgment into a place of understanding, compassion and respect. Truly essential reading.

Once reestablished in the world of the housed and employed, Karp has not forgotten her desperate days, but wishes to help others cope, and to extend hope to people experiencing homelessness.

Here’s an idea that could change the landscape: the Universal Living Wage, which can end homelessness for over 1,000,000 minimum-wage workers, and prevent economic homelessness for all 10.1 million minimum wage workers. Please learn more about the Universal Living Wage and how to make it a reality.


Source: The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness by Brianna Karp
Source: “Where It All Began,” GirlsGuidetoHomelessness.com
Source: “Reviews,” GirlsGuidetoHomelessness.com
Image by PJFurlong06 (Patrick Furlong), used under its Creative Commons license.


Everybody’s Gotta Be Someplace

Homeless ShelterIt’s hard to tell when this National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) page was last updated. But it’s safe to assume that the overall situation has not improved, since whenever. The NCH page, entitled “The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities,” says,

An unfortunate trend in cities around the country over the past 25 years has been to turn to the criminal justice system to respond to people living in public spaces. This trend includes measures that target homeless persons by making it illegal to perform life-sustaining activities in public. These measures prohibit activities such as sleeping/camping, eating, sitting, and begging in public spaces, usually including criminal penalties for violation of these laws.

Last week in Boulder, Colorado, a homeless man who was ticketed last April for sleeping in a parking garage, attempted to use an Eighth Amendment defense against the charge. That’s the one about cruel and unusual punishment. Once convicted, Michael Fitzgerald was supposed to either pay a $100 fine or do 12 hours of community service. Instead… well, let Heath Urie, staff writer for the Boulder Daily Camera, tell the story:

Fitzgerald appealed the case to the Boulder County District Court on the grounds that the city’s law against camping in public places essentially punished him for being homeless and having an involuntary need for warmth and shelter as he sleeps at night.

Yes, it looks like the rule he broke is not only cruel and unusual, but discriminatory. However, unfair as it is from the viewpoint of a person experiencing homelessness, so-called respectable society disagrees. Urie reports how Judge Lael Montgomery expressed a strangely familiar sentiment, saying,

The camping without consent ordinance applies to all persons who wish to camp in Boulder, regardless of whether they are homeless, shoestring travelers trying to avoid the cost of accommodations, or persons who merely enjoy the great outdoors.

Nobel Prize-winning author Anatole France said it decades ago:

The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to beg in the streets, steal bread, or sleep under a bridge.

Attorney David Harrison, no doubt familiar with the classical allusion, echoed it in his argument about the city’s ordinance:

It’s certainly saying people with homes and people without homes can’t sleep under bridges… While certainly as a conceptual matter that’s true, as a practical matter (the law) targets the homeless population.

The journalist tell us that Fitzgerald is one of several local people experiencing homelessness who have challenged the tickets they’re received, on constitutional grounds. Boulder is like that. He also provides a helpful sidebar on the page, detailing the No Camping Ordinance, which has been in effect since 1980.

Recently, we talked about how in Austin, Texas, House the Homeless kept track of how many people were busted for sitting or lying down on public sidewalks in the downtown business area during 2009. Over the whole year, there were 708 convictions and 70 dismissals. The highest month was September, when 518 citations were issued. (The month-by-month count for the entire year adds up to way more than 778, so presumably, some legal processes were still going on when this survey was made.)

Anyhow, out of those mere 70 dismissals, only a paltry 52 were dismissed for mental health or medical disabilities. Statistically, what that means is, a lot of people were unfairly treated. Here’s why: In the health survey, 501 people were asked whether they needed to sit and rest now and then. The large majority answered yes. Even people who aren’t officially disabled need to sit down, occasionally. Think about it. Homes are filled with chairs. If people didn’t need them, they wouldn’t be there. People experiencing homelessness don’t have chairs. But they too need a place to sit.

(To be continued…)


Source: “A Dream Denied,” National Coalition for the Homeless
Source: “Boulder judge rejects homeless man’s appeal, upholds city’s anti-camping law,” Daily Camera, 04/08/11
Source: “Richard Troxell’s Health Survey Testimony,” House the Homeless, 07/20/10
Image by tobyotter (Toby Alter), used under its Creative Commons license.


The No Sit/No Lie Ordinance and the Americans with Disabilities Act

Homeless VetFirst tangent: Really, at this moment, the thing to pay attention to is the upcoming Tax Day Action. So, hop over to that page to find out what part you can play in making the Universal Living Wage a reality. Then come on back here, okay?

Second tangent: Did you ever accidentally run across some little tidbit of news or information that just makes your day? Sometimes it even does more than that — sometimes it lifts the heart and gives hope for the future. For instance, Nicole Pariser, having completed a combined honors degree in Global Studies and Anthropology at Wilfrid Laurier University, is now at York University, in Toronto. These words are from her Graduate Student Profile:

In broad terms, my research focuses on migration and mobility; who is allowed to move and who is not, and how these choices are justified, particularly by nation states to their citizenry… My research has primarily focused on human trafficking, however following experiences in Vancouver’s downtown eastside, as well as San Francisco, specifically relating to homelessness and the passage of ‘no-sit-no-lie’ policies, my research interests have expanded to include the ways in which migration and mobility come to be constrained not only across national borders, but within them as well… I believe… in the transformative power of engaged anthropology and activism to expose, contest and change that which is unjust.

Now back to our regularly scheduled post. We’ve talked about Austin’s No Sit/No Lie Ordinance before, but not in as much detail as the subject deserves. Here is the background. In 1989, Richard R. Troxell created House the Homeless (HtH) and began challenging the No Camping ordinance that criminalized the homeless for their economic circumstances by fining them $500 for sleeping outdoors. He is still fighting for change in the rules of that excellent Texas city.

Being especially appalled by the treatment of people experiencing homelessness who are also disabled, HtH strives to banish ignorance by collecting facts. As Richard testified to the Health & Human Services Committee of the City Council in July 2010, the HtH surveys found that nearly half of the homeless have medical (including psychological) conditions that make them need to sit down from time to time. Sometimes it’s the effect of their medication that makes them need to sit down, but they’re on medication because they have medical problems, so it amounts to the same thing. But there were no exceptions for this group of people, not even if they were on crutches or wearing a leg brace. Sitting around in public was good for a fine or a jail sentence.

HtH took the position that Austin was out of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), one of the federal laws that states really are supposed to observe. Also, the ADA is not the Americans with Physical Disabilities Act.

HtH garnered support from other organizations such as Mobile Loaves and Fishes; St. David’s Episcopal Church; Legal Aid for the Homeless; Advocacy, Inc.; and the National Coalition for the Homeless. They were asking for 20 exceptions to the harsh law, but the city would not consider any of them. Among those expected to stay on their feet at all times were people newly released from hospital treatment; people officially recognized as unable to work by the fact that they receive disability checks; patients waiting in line at health clinics; and disabled veterans. Particularly, the city seemed to target people with mental disabilities, who can be persecuted and prosecuted without very much complaint from the voting public. As Richard says,

…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.

A mentally ill, disabled person experiencing homelessness is particularly vulnerable to being punished for her or his condition. How does a person like this go to court and prove that they were, on a certain day, at a certain time, suffering from pain, weakness, nausea, faintness or dizziness? But the city insisted that the accused must “create an affirmative defense.” Richard met with various authorities, including the chief of police, but reports, “The Chief said that he simply did not want disabled homeless people sitting and lying down all over the city.”

So there you have it. You’d think the city was being invaded by commies or rabid biker gangs or Black Panthers or terroristic Islamists or interplanetary aliens. But no, it’s worse. It’s a bunch of people who are in the midst of being pretty badly beat up by life. And they have the gall to sit on the ground, or, worse yet, lie on the ground. That is the threat from which the police are happy to defend us.


Source: “Anthropology Graduate Student Profiles,” York University
Source: “Austin City Council Discriminates Against the Disabled,” housethehomeless.org, 01/19/11
Image by Kevin Wong (Marlith), used under its Creative Commons license.


Homes Needed to End Homelessness

Seven Deadly SinsFollowing the success of our guide on “How to Become Homeless,” here are a few more suggestions. We spoke of earthquake, fire, foreclosure, and domestic disharmony as popular methods of achieving homelessness. Another strong force has been the change in entire societal institutions. In Looking Up at the Bottom Line: The Struggle For the Living Wage, Richard R. Troxell describes some of the ways in which large demographic segments have been rendered homeless, especially young men and single older men. He writes,

Adding to the complexity of homelessness was the loss of several million SROs (single room occupancy units) when motels and cheap apartments were torn down and replaced with condominiums or made into parking lots. Another dynamic affecting our nation’s poor was the decision by the YMCA, the Young Men’s Christian Association, to leave the SRO field of housing.

Back in the day, and we mean way back, even a family of lower economic status could conceivably be living in a large, rambling house. Almost any house could be made into a boarding house. Rooms could be rented to traveling salesmen, or teachers (who were not allowed to be married), or even actors.

More recently, the trend in houses became smaller, yet more open. It’s much more difficult to carve out a space for an extra person or family. Now, cities and neighborhoods and housing developments all have rules about how many unrelated people can cohabit, how many cars per household, how many toilets, and so on. Nobody’s home is their castle, not if they want to rent out a room. This is bad both for homeowners who need some extra cash, and for people who need cheap temporary digs.

If rental housing is available, the prospective renter is faced with numerous hoops through which to jump. High move-in costs, don’t get us started. First, they charge you to even look at the place. Yes, there is a fee to even apply. And if the manager is crooked, you may expect more special fees to be extracted, down the line. To move in requires a lump sum of first and last month’s rent plus security deposit, with of course more deposits for special circumstances like pets.

Not to say this is necessarily wrong. It costs a lot to refurbish a trashed apartment, and people can be pigs. The self-justification is, “So what? It’s the landlord’s money.” Maybe so, but he’s gonna get it back from all the other tenants. For that kind of vindictiveness, everybody pays. It may be necessary, out of fairness to landlords, to pay the equivalent of three months’ rent up front. But it’s not easy. Here’s the situation, as described in Looking Up at the Bottom Line:

More than the minimum wage is required in every state to be able to afford a one bedroom apartment at Fair Market Rent, as set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

This is why America is seeing a lot of economic homelessness, which is what happens when even those who are working full-time can’t afford a place to live. You are invited to learn more about the Universal Living Wage, which is expected to end homelessness for over 1,000,000 minimum-wage workers and prevent economic homelessness for all 10.1 million minimum-wage workers.

We have talked about Jimmy McMillan, who got a lot of attention in last year’s New York State gubernatorial race. His platform, “The Rent Is Too Damn High,” inspired AnnaMaria Andriotis to explore the question in The Wall Street Journal.

She relates how, in the midst of a phone conversation with another reporter, McMillan stopped a passerby on the street to ask if his rent was too high. And one of the examples she gives of impossible rent comes from Austin, Texas, coincidentally the city where Richard R. Troxell lives and works with House the Homeless. Andriotis writes,

In Austin, Texas, a new two-bedroom two-bath condo runs around $1,800, but cost $1,200 before the downturn, says Jack McCabe, CEO of McCabe Research & Consulting, which tracks the housing industry. In Austin, income fell 4.9% to $35,522, making that 35% of income threshold a meager $1,036 rent payment.

Andriotis also mentions the mysterious formula that addresses the question, “How much rent should a renter pay, if a renter could pay rent?” She writes,

Many personal finance experts say you should spend no more than 35% of your take-home gross income on rent (not including renter’s insurance) whether you live in a high- or low-cost area.

Wait a minute! Just a little while ago, the experts were telling us not to spend more than 30% of our income on rent. Now it’s more. As responsible citizens today, we are supposed to feel as wise and mature about paying 35% as we felt a few years ago when the experts advised us to put a lid on at 30%. And it’s not as if we have a choice about it. Even 30% and 35% are not the worst. Apparently, some people spend more than 40% of their income on rent. That is one of the criteria for eligibility when Habitat for Humanity helps a family build a house.

You know what? It used to be 25%. That’s what the financial advisors used to say. Within living memory, it was taught in home economics class. You were a prudent money manager and a good citizen if you followed the rule of not paying out more than a quarter of your income for rent. It’s insidious percentage creep, meant to fool us into thinking we are doing the grown-up thing by handing over such a large proportion of our income for rent. They keep raising the bar, and pretending that nothing is amiss. They’re messing with our heads, and it’s positively Orwellian.


Source: Looking Up at the Bottom Line: The Struggle For the Living Wage by Richard R. Troxell
Source: “Is Your Rent Too Damn High?,” The Wall Street Journal, 10/19/10
Image by Rex Dingler/dingler1109, used under its Creative Commons license.


Rulers and Vassals and Pay Differentials

GreedIf you only have time to look at one post today, please go straight to Richard R. Troxell’s piece on the 2011 Universal Living Wage Tax Day Event, because that’s coming up, and you might want to plan. Richard begins by quoting Deuteronomy 24:14-15, which instructs people not to abuse a needy and destitute laborer, because that person’s life depends on being paid. It’s a pretty sure bet that every spiritual tradition calls for similar behavior.

Once you start thinking about the whole subject of work and pay, whether in a religious context or in any number of purely materialistic ways; whether in the framework of homelessness or from the perspective of the millions of families hanging on by their fingernails, many questions come to mind. For instance, how much is a boss’s time worth, stacked up against the time of a low-level worker? This is the question answered by Douglas McIntyre for Daily Finance in a piece published several months ago, so please feel free to assume that the situation has not improved much. McIntyre says,

Even though the gap between executive and entry-level worker pay has shrunk ever so slightly in the past couple of years, it’s still not unusual for the CEO of a large public company to earn more per day than some of his employees earn over the course of an entire year.

Excuse me? What can a human being possibly do that makes one day of his labor worth more than someone else’s entire year? Sure, once in a while an astonishing genius comes along. A case could be made that the work of Thomas Edison was worth many, many times the work of certain other humans. But is the CEO of McDonald’s a reincarnation of Thomas Edison? No offense to whomever she or he may be, but probably not.

McIntyre looked at more than a dozen megacorporations and, working with the total compensation reports from proxy statements, came up with some mind-blowing numbers. The big boss at CVS Caremark Corporation makes the same amount of money as 1,461 entry-level workers. Doesn’t that just make steam come out of your ears? This is the outfit behind Long’s Drugs, #18 in the most recent Fortune 500.

What does it say about Americans that this retailer of pharmaceuticals is gigantically rich? When are we going to stop doing the things we do to make ourselves sick, and stop putting money in the pockets of rapacious health “care” providers? And here’s a heartbreaker. The Walt Disney Company is not all sweetness and light, nor is it all song, dance, and fun. The head honcho pulls down as much as 1,115 lowly employees.

Don’t forget to do business with a couple of companies whose pay scales are a bit closer to fair. At FedEx Corporation, for example, the biggest boss is worth the monetary equivalent of 251 entry-level employees, and at Costco Wholesale Corporation, the CEO’s pay envelope only holds an amount comparable to what 115 serfs are paid.

Mark Karlin wrote for Buzzflash about the amazing resurgence of monstrous bonuses for CEOs. The Wall Street Journal article that attracted Karlin’s attention is certainly provocative. Apparently, the newspaper commissioned a consultant to scrutinize pay disclosures made by corporate heads. Here is an example of the findings:

CEO bonuses at 50 major corporations jumped a median of 30.5%, the biggest gain in at least three years…

No doubt about it, something is wrong with this picture.


Source: “How Many Workers Can You Hire for the Price of One CEO?,” Daily Finance, 07/07/10
Source: “A Tale of Two Americas: One America Lives on Greed; The Other America Barely Survives to Live,” Buzzflash, 03/18/11
Source: “Executive Bonuses Bounce Back,” The Wall Street Journal, 03/18/11
Image by Beau B, used under its Creative Commons license.