Austin’s Revised Sit-Lie Ordinance

HomelessRecently Andrea Ball, a journalist with The Austin American-Statesman newspaper, wrote about changes made to Austin’s “No Sit/No Lie” ordinance. There had already been a sit-lie ordinance since 2005, one that included exceptions for people camping out to buy concert tickets, or watching a parade. When you look at it from a certain angle, that’s cold and harsh. Sitting on the sidewalk was okay for music lovers (with money to spend) and parade-goers (who cheer as politicians ride past and wave), but not okay for some homeless person who might have just gotten out of the hospital, or gone weeks without a decent night’s sleep. Ball writes,

Under the new rules, people with medical problems — such as diabetes, mental illness, heart problems or cerebral palsy — can sit or lie down for up to 30 minutes. If someone receives a ticket, they must to prove to the court that they have a disability and were experiencing a medical problem that forced them to rest at that moment. People can also sit down if they are in line to receive services…

Actually, anyone who receives a ticket is urged to bring it to Richard R. Troxell at the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH). It says so on the laminated list of guidelines published in English and Spanish, and distributed by House the Homeless. The guide spells out the law, and gives examples of the types of disabilities that might make a person need to sit down once in a while, and enumerates the kinds of documentation that could prevent a legal jam. On the day when they went into effect, Ball told her audience how the new rules came about:

Efforts to revamp the sit-lie ordinance began in the spring of 2010 after homeless people were ticketed for sitting down in line while waiting for service at a downtown health clinic… Homeless advocates claimed the practice was in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act because some of the people being ticketed had disabilities and the city needed to make reasonable accommodations for them.

Despite assurances from civic leaders that Austin does not criminalize homelessness, the sit-lie ordinance was enforced mainly against that population. Very many people who would not otherwise have been involved with the criminal justice system were ticketed and punished under this ordinance, for the crime of not having any other place to be. Ball goes on to relate how Richard and his colleagues counted the 2009 sit-lie tickets, and found that 96% of them had been issued to people experiencing homelessness. (Richard adds, “It is my belief that 100% of the people receiving these tickets were perceived to be homeless at the time of ticket issuance. I was only able to verify that 96% were experiencing homelessness at the time of the ticketing.)

This is a clue to why House the Homeless is such an effective organization. It herds the ducks into a row and presents facts to back up its claims and demands. For examples of the group’s thorough information-gathering methods, and how Richard uses the numbers to make strong cases, please see the “2011 Health Sleep Study” and “No Sit/No Lie: Troxell’s Testimony.”

The title of Andrea Ball’s article, by the way, is “New rules allow homeless people with disabilities to sit on sidewalks.” When we can read a sentence like that and not even blink, it’s indicative of a sad state of affairs. If a dictator were in charge, it would be tempting to sarcastically say, “Wow! People who have nowhere to live, can rest on the ground for half an hour if they’re sick. What a guy! Give that man a Nobel Peace Prize!”

But it wasn’t a dictator, it was a whole city. An entire city needed to be shamed and threatened with a lawsuit so that a disabled homeless person might officially be allowed to sit down. When a special dispensation is needed for that, society is really out of kilter. When the granting of such a permission is hailed as progress, it’s a sign that things have gone terribly wrong. Not to single out Austin — it’s like this in too many cities. As Richard says, “These laws are all over the country, and none of them make allowances for people with disabilities.” Homelessness is the new leprosy.

This point of view is amply reflected in some of the comments added by local readers to Ball’s story. “Filthy… stench… drunk… drugged… insane… junkies… psychotic… human scum…” One commentator would prefer to see Sixth Street napalmed, then bulldozed, all in the name of decency, of course. Others take the opportunity to rag on the sons and daughters of the Lone Star state. “Amazonbob” says,

Texans love to think of themselves as rough-tough cowboys…but somehow nothing seems as frightening to them as a bum. No wonder they need legislation allowing them to carry a glock in each hand and a machine gun in their rear end… there are homeless, emaciated, ragged bums in the world!

“GFWright” adds,

As for homeless people, if all Texans can do is focus their considerable hatred… at the most vulnerable people in society, they deserve their national reputation as cruel, crude, buffoons.

And a level-headed citizen called “Parkhill” says,

My friends, we live in perilous economic times: be careful whom you loathe because no one is immune from hard times.


Source: “New rules allow homeless people with disabilities to sit on sidewalks ,” The Austin American-Statesman, 04/30/11
Image by Ed Yourdon, used under its Creative Commons license.


A Crown Jewel in Austin?

(Note: Rather than use up space here on the background, the writer urges the reader to backtrack over the two previous articles about Austin’s Waller Creek Project.)

Looking South on Waller Creek from Sixth StreetThe Waller Creek Conservancy’s press release of April 28, 2011, says the group is made up of citizens who, as Councilwoman Sheryl Cole expressed it, want to “create a crown jewel amenity for our entire city.” But just the previous day, the editorial board of The Austin Statesman published an opinion piece, part of which goes like this:

Meanwhile, the stretch of Waller Creek that meanders through the eastern edge of downtown discourages visitors. Most Austinites have ceded the area to the transients who camp along the banks.

The authors speak of Waller Creek as “a waterway that suffers the twin indignities of neglect and abuse,” and “an environmental asset going to waste,” which the city ought to be embarrassed about. They say Waller Creek, if given a break, can meet its potential. They say the Conservancy will “give Waller Creek the break it needs to transform into the jewel it can be.”

The article contains lots of sentimental caring for the creek (which there is nothing wrong with, in and of itself), and zero mention of human beings except as undesirable “transients.” One appended comment recommends regular police patrols to “get rid of the campers,” despite the fact that everybody’s gotta be someplace. And check out this comment:

Why don’t we just start by killing the bums? Just a few at a time so nobody notices. Everybody wins!

That these remarks were published in the first place, and have not subsequently been deleted, is simply jaw-dropping. It’s abusive hate speech, and gives no indication of being meant as satire or “sick humor.” In other words, for a nominally reputable newspaper in a major city, The Statesman has an unusual Comments policy. Hate speech is a continuum that starts with talk and ends with death.

The entire article is astonishingly obtuse, breathtakingly smug, and shockingly insensitive. Hey, Austin! There are people on your streets suffering indignities of neglect and abuse. There are human assets going to waste, which should be an embarrassment to the city. There are people who could fulfill their potential, if given a break. There are homeless people who need to be transformed. And how about transforming Austin into the jewel of humanitarian awareness and activism that it could potentially be?

The city’s website has a “Frequently Asked Questions” page, all about the benefits of the Waller Creek Tunnel Project. It very helpfully mentions the construction of new facilities for boat owners, but we notice that not one of the frequently asked questions has to do with the impact on the homeless. The word “homeless” does not appear on the page, nor do the words “indigent” or “urban poor.” There is, however, a question and answer about how the project will help economic development in the city and county:

The Waller Creek Tunnel Project will put hundreds of people to work, including engineers, construction managers, electricians, truck drivers, plumbers, computer specialists, safety inspectors, general laborers, traffic control specialists, and landscapers, to name a few.

This is reminiscent of something — oh, right, the Soros organization’s Neighborhood Stabilization Initiative, which sounds like exactly the type of program that Austin needs. The NSI’s goal is to:

Link neighborhood stabilization to workforce development and broader economic opportunities for residents of the hardest hit communities through the use of transitional employment programs in property rehabilitation and asset management.

One might very well ask what has been done about training and hiring the people experiencing homelessness in Austin. And one might also wonder, like self-described disgruntled libertarian anarchist Charles Heuter, if any of it amounts to a hill of beans. He writes,

… the job-creation claimed in this document is temporary construction stuff, shoveled to well-connected civil engineering contractors. That’s something I don’t see mentioned often enough about these things: these aren’t jobs in the sense of a proper career. Some will last a few weeks, some maybe a fiscal quarter or two. Pulling out every dusty, graft-machine-and-neighborhood-association-approved wish list item doesn’t generate the kind of fundamental economic growth that stimulus proponents assume will happen. It’s a layer of icing over a hollow cupcake.

Then there were the comments on a page that can no longer be found for some mysterious reason. One of them said, “We need to have a city where the wealthy won’t feel nervous and uncomfortable.” This shows a touching concern for the privileged, which seems kind of unfair. The wealthy can always choose to stay home, enjoying every conceivable comfort and adequate security systems. The homeless have nowhere else to go. On that same lost page, a commentator called “loogrr” wrote,

…and the TRANSIENT problem must be dealt with too…how do you ever expect people to be attracted to LIVING downtown and pay 7 figures for high rise condo yet be unable to walk the streets after dark with Grandkids?? get real

On the other hand, a person known as “Old Blowhard” contributed this,

As strongly as I endorse conservative values, I’m just as strongly opposed to turning central Austin into a sanitized playground for the wealthy.

An enlightened society realizes that “our entire city” means the poor, too. An enlightened society realizes that homeless people also want to walk in safety after dark, or maybe sit in safety, and, yes, even sleep in safety. They have to be out there. They don’t have a choice about it. And, strangely enough, some of them have grandkids, too. An Austin acquaintance recently wrote, regarding the homeless, “The way they are treated here is criminal.”

Now, someone might ask, “And who are you to criticize and challenge what goes on in Austin?” That’s a valid question, and the answer is, nobody. Which is precisely why I decided to flap my jaws about it. I don’t have a dog in this race. As an outsider looking in, I’m in an ideal position to cheerlead the good-hearted people of Austin and point out how this beautiful city is in a position to show the world that a metropolis can prosper and help its least privileged citizens flourish at the same time. Austin has an unparalleled opportunity to set an example and be a shining light, and, yes, even create a crown jewel.


Source: “Waller Creek Conservancy, City of Austin Enter Into Historic Public-Private Partnership,” PR Newswire, 04/28/11
Source: “Choreographing Waller Creek’s reclamation,” The Statesman, 04/27/11
Source: “Waller Creek FAQ,” City of Austin
Source: “Austin’s Government Wants $1,032,296,350 of Our Money,” Drizzten.com, 02/04/09
Image by William Beutler, used under its Creative Commons license.


The Waller Creek Challenge in Austin, Texas

Tunnel Conceptual ProfileLast time, we outlined some of the issues surrounding the revitalization project planned for the Waller Creek corridor in downtown Austin, Texas. The first stage, the tunnel that will divert floodwaters, has begun. Businesses logically fear ruination by water damage, so once the threat of flooding is removed, this will encourage the growth of new businesses and, of course, increase the downtown property values and thus the tax base.

You’d think it would be possible to get even that far without objections, but you’d be mistaken. Even though the property owners in the immediate area, comprising Tax Increment Financing Reinvestment Zone No. 17, will be paying for a lot of the upfront costs, the city will be responsible for all the upkeep of the tunnel after 20 years (and, in this context, 20 years tends to slide by quickly). The city and county are paying now, but here’s an interesting footnote, courtesy of Wells Dunbar of The Austin Chronicle:

But the council also agreed to help fund the project via a small ‘drainage’ increase on Austin Water utility bills, an approximate 40-cent increase expected to ultimately collect more than $50 million.

That news prompted Brian Rodgers, co-founder of ChangeAustin.org, to ask the reporter a rhetorical question:

Why should all utility customers be required to subsidize Waller Creek landowners with $55 million from a regressive new drainage rate hike?

The opinion is shared by others, such as an online commentator called “Beano,” who writes,

This is about private gain from public investment. The property owners along this creek bought knowing they were in a flood zone. If they want something nicer and less flood prone, the rest of Austin should not be asked to pay for it.

Another citizen, known as “Big Texan,” adds,

It would be nice if the City Council would put limits on any commitments associated with this ‘project’. The idea of another unfunded and open-ended obligation is reckless.

But what’s done is done. The TIF zone is set up, ground has been broken for the tunnel, and the whole project is underway. Once the tunnel is finished, then the real work begins — the renovation of the above-ground area within the zone: Waller Creek and its surroundings.

The trouble is, from a certain perspective, this whole project looks like one big plot to rid Austin of its people experiencing homelessness — and not by housing them, but by shoving them out of the landscape. Ejecting the homeless is always a hoped-for side benefit when any city undertakes major public works or, for instance, prepares to host the Olympics or a political convention.

Civic leaders and politicians are usually too PR-savvy to come right out and say it, but locals who offer their opinions to the editorial pages and online comment threads can be quite unapologetically frank about the importance of street-people removal on their list of priorities.

Controversy has swirled around the massive and many-faceted Waller Creek master plan since it was conceived, making Austin an ideal case study for what happens when settled, monied interests clash with the needs of the ever-increasing number of the urban homeless. Many different populations will be affected in many different ways.

This is reflected by the composition of the Waller Creek Citizen Advisory Committee. And it is not the only one with an interest in the project. For instance, let’s take the homeless, and ask a question that, one hopes, has been asked by at least somebody on the Citizen Advisory Committee. With a big honkin’ civic project like this going on, what efforts are being made to hire the homeless?

As another Austin Chronicle reporter, Marc Savlov, pointed out, the majority of Austin’s homeless are people who are “struggling to regain a functioning, solid foothold into society-at-large.” Many of them are the working homeless, whom Richard R. Troxell calls the “economic homeless.” Yes, many homeless people do work, and more would work if they could get jobs, and many who are already working would welcome the chance to get better jobs. Savlov says,

For sleeping arrangements, a few pitch their tents as far south as Stassney Lane or West Gate Boulevard, coming into the Downtown area to work at steady employment ranging from roofing companies to construction to maintenance gigs. But none of their day jobs straight-pay enough of a living wage to secure and maintain what you and I would call a home: four walls, a roof, first and last months’ deposit, plus real-world essentials such as utilities and a phone.

Although some of the downtown businesses make some kind of effort to alleviate the symptoms of homelessness, not a lot is being done to solve the underlying problems. The journalist quoted Richard, and we can’t do better here than to quote him again:

Livable incomes breaks down into two factions, those who can work and those who can’t work. For those who can work, we’re promoting the Universal Living Wage, which goes to fix the federal minimum wage, $7.25 an hour, which is currently insufficient to get by on. Our goal is to take it from a federal minimum wage to a universal living wage. Even the U.S. Conference of Mayors, year after year, when asked what the single greatest contributor to homelessness is, says it’s the fact that you can work a full-time, minimum-wage job and not be able to afford basic food, clothing, shelter.

It seems like this should be fairly self-evident, but apparently it’s not quite clear to many solid citizens who have the good fortune to be employed and housed. If people have jobs, they buy stuff. They are magically transformed into customers.

Why can’t merchants and housed citizens learn to see homeless people as potential customers? After all, America did something that would not have been imaginable in the 1960s. We managed the mind-bending feat of learning how to see the Red Chinese as potential customers. (Unfortunately, the noble experiment of normalizing relations with China turned out somewhat differently than envisioned. We buy a bunch of crap from them.) But the point is, compared to that great leap of imagination, picturing homeless Americans as people who might actually go into stores and spend money ought to be easy.

So, Austin, what are you doing about hiring the homeless for this ambitious, multi-staged, multi-million-dollar project? And then, there’s this. Check out the contractor’s name on the Conceptual Profile of the tunnel: Kellogg Brown & Root. Yes, KBR of Iraq war, military-contractor fame. Considering the outrageous pile of money the company has made from that adventure, how about a little reciprocation, on this tunnel project?

I challenge the contractors involved in the Waller Creek Project to use Veterans, Homeless Veterans and Formerly Homeless Veterans to make up 51% of the employed people involved in the construction of this project.
Richard R.Troxell
Viet Nam Veteran- Marines


Source: “Private conservancy outlines plan to rescue, revive Waller Creek,” The Statesman, 04/27/11
Source: “Money Flows to Waller Creek,” The Austin Chronicle, 02/25/11
Source: “DAA Proposes New Anti-Solicitation Ordinance,” The Austin Chronicle, 10/09/09
Image of Conceptual Tunnel Profile, used under Fair Use: Reporting.


The Many Sides of Waller Creek

Upper Waller CreekThese words sound wonderful. Urban greenbelt improvement, smart growth, vibrancy, enhancement, economic viability — what’s not to like? Who could be against any of that? And indeed it does sound pretty good in a lot of ways. This is the Waller Creek District Master Plan we’re talking about, in Austin, Texas.

The creek runs through a long stretch of downtown, and it has been neglected. It’s surrounded by entertainment venues and other businesses that bring in millions in tax revenue, and it’s going to be revamped in a project with several stages, over many years. The idea that Waller Creek will eventually resemble San Antonio’s River Walk is for some Austin residents a dream, and for others a nightmare.

This is not just cosmetic surgery. There is real need for protection against flooding, and that problem is being addressed by the first stage of the project, the Waller Creek tunnel, whose groundbreaking ceremony took place last month (and was described by Jude Galligan in his Downtown Austin Blog.) When the tunnel is complete, 28 acres of previously dicey and unreliable real estate will be available for development and, of course, taxation.

Once the threat of flood damage has been avoided, the creek itself will receive the attention of engineers and landscapers, especially to prop up its banks and put a stop to some serious erosion. So it’s not only good for business, but also good for the environment. And for people who own boats, for whom life will be nicer. (There are even folks who want to remodel the creek to accommodate competitive whitewater rafting.) Downtown property values will rise. All this opulence will attract more citizens to live downtown, which the city devoutly wants, but only if they pay mortgages or rent.

And guess who’s in the way, as usual? Those pesky homeless people, who are even called aggressive, and no doubt some individuals are — just like speculators, merchants, and smug housed people, who can be not only aggressive but hostile and ruthless at times. Some say the creek area is a blighted insult to Austin’s reputation for being “clean, green, and safe.” A local with a poetic streak described it as “sort of a backyard underworld/no man’s land.”

Journalist Wells Dunbar tells us that Waller Creek

[…] never blossomed into the tourist attraction and growth-driver the city hoped for; instead, its overgrown and hidden trails became a watering hole of sorts for Austin’s homeless, surrounded by odious, stagnant waters.

Yes, some creekside areas are inhabited by people experiencing homelessness. And does anyone actually believe that people would really prefer to live in an oversized drainage ditch?

One fear shared by the homeless and their compassionate friends and advocates is that, on some level, this whole project is just a fancy excuse to shove the homeless out of the area. An Austin acquaintance tells us that the wealthy want to keep the homeless away from the University of Texas campus and the nightlife hotspots of Red River. Another informant says “smart growth” seems to mean “bring as many hip young white people into downtown Austin as possible,” and adds,

There isn’t enough money to adequately maintain the parks that we DO have. The city pool closest to my home has been empty for two years now because the city claims there’s no money to fix it. I would imagine the developers in the Waller Creek area would love nothing more than to run off the transient population and continue the ‘gentrification’ of the whole east side downtown area.

Of course, a project of this magnitude has been discussed for a long time. Austin is, and always has been, renowned for its music scene. Several popular venues are within the project’s boundaries, and some of them will be unable to adapt, or so it is predicted. In October of 2009, there was a conversation online among people intensely concerned about the future and fate of that scene, as it will be impacted by the Waller Creek renovation.

Some people want the ARCH to move. That’s the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, which occupies the designated area, along with just about every other social service provider, agency, shelter, and bureaucracy there is. If people experiencing homelessness are to put their lives back together, the tools and assistance they need are downtown, and so is the public transportation to get to them.

Homeless people are downtown not only to sleep and eat, but for medical care, job counseling, legal help, and to get their papers in order. Downtown is where the resources are, and this is not going to change any time soon. Yet there is an arrogant assumption that established services that so many good people fought long and hard to create ought to be displaced so that monied interests can be served instead.

One writer characterizes the shelter as “inexplicably and inappropriately” located in a neighborhood where there are bars. Of course, this same person would probably complain if the facility were in a neighborhood with families. (Some people are never satisfied.) He worries about the “concomitant illegal activity” that accompanies the shelter, as if the tourists and locals who frequent the bars never do anything illegal. And an area resident commented,

I have seen more patrons of these fine establishments peeing outside than homeless.

No one worries that the homeless will actually drink in the pricey downtown bars, which they couldn’t afford anyway. It’s the customers they worry about. An inebriated club patron may be a genial, generous, easy touch to a panhandler, or a tempting victim to a mugger. Either way, the business owners don’t want their clientele hassled.

Another thing that offends housed people, is the sight of homeless people lined up outside the shelter, waiting for nonexistent beds. Every night, according to one critic, as many as a hundred luckless folks don’t get a bed, and then they hang around the area. The presence of the ARCH downtown is equated with the folly of building a nuclear plant on a seismic fault line.

There is a belief that the shelter devalues all the properties in the area, especially the vacant lot across the street, which one commentator is particularly concerned about for some reason. He suggests that selling the land could bring a tidy profit, enough to move somewhere else. Some say the shelter is only downtown because no other neighborhood wanted it. But still, it should be possible to find land outside the city and move the shelter there.

Of course, the voice of common sense replies that relocating the ARCH will not cause the homeless to leave the city, but only make additional trouble and expense for down-and-out people who have enough of those things already. Anyway, nobody seems to be seriously contemplating that move, according to Sheryl Cole, Austin City Council member and Waller Creek Conservancy stakeholder. Cole has also been quoted as saying that homelessness can’t be swept under the rug, and the people of Austin need to be brave enough to address it head on.

And one school of thought holds that anybody who would pay $7 for a beer deserves to be panhandled.


Source: “Waller Creek Groundbreaking Ceremony,” Downtown Austin Blog, 04/08/11
Source: “Money Flows to Waller Creek,” The Austin Chronicle, 02/25/11
Source: “Will the Waller Creek Development be the death of Red River music scene?,” Yelp.com, 10/24/09
Image by MicklPickl, used under its Creative Commons license.


The Neighborhood Stabilization Initiative

Foreclosure SalePrevention is always better than the cure, and homelessness is no exception to that rule. The Neighborhood Stabilization Initiative (NSI) takes a multi-pronged approach to homelessness prevention. It’s all about eliminating barriers that keep people from fully participating in our society, whether politically, economically, or in any other way.

The people behind this initiative see a lot of racial bias underneath the subprime mortgage crisis, and aim to do something about it. They want to see more sustainable credit options for low-income borrowers, especially ethnic minorities. The NSI’s website says,

[…O]pportunities for homeownership are closely linked to wealth creation and financial security, particularly for African American and Latino households. The current subprime and foreclosure crisis threatens to reverse the substantial gains in minority homeownership that the country has witnessed in recent decades.

Rather than just dealing with the tattered victims of the system, the NSI intends to reform the system. Right now, change is needed in order to create sustainable home ownership. Change is needed to prevent repetition of the circumstances that have brought America to such a sorry condition. Plenty of damage control needs to be done now, and a whole lot has to be accomplished in a short time to keep even more damage from needing to be controlled later.

Another page on the NSI website explains one of the big difficulties with the subprime lending and foreclosure crisis: in most jurisdictions, nobody has the resources to handle such a huge and complex catastrophe. Cases are flooding the courts, neighborhoods are abandoned to blight, and people who are just trying to get along and keep their homes often don’t have a clue what to do.

They need legal services programs and foreclosure diversion and mediation programs, plus improvement of the entire foreclosure and bankruptcy processes. And it’s not only homeowners who suffer. Renters are in even worse shape. The most conscientious, on-time-paying tenant in the world doesn’t have a chance when the landlord’s mortgage is foreclosed.

Tenants need protection from having their already precarious existences upset by stuff that isn’t even their fault. They need eviction defense and help in relocating. Tenants are seen as lowly pawns on their chessboard, by landlords and bureaucrats alike, but to a renter family, moving screws up everything. It’s costly and time-consuming; it affects the kids’ education and friendships, the parents’ ability to travel to their jobs, the ties of mutual help among neighbors. Being forced to move is bad enough when a new place is easy to find and is affordable. But many families are denied even that much. Their new place is a shelter or the streets.

And it’s not even a good deal for the lenders. They wind up with “distressed” properties in urban ghost towns that are headed straight down the tubes. What is the point? If property is going to be lost by one party, at the very least let’s find a way to utilize it rather than let it rot. The NSI wants to see foreclosed properties put to use as housing. Either get new owners into them, or let nonprofit organizations take them over and get some affordable rental housing onto the market for people who need it, meanwhile employing people who need work to do the rehabilitation and management of these properties. The organization has even more ambitious goals:

The Neighborhood Stabilization Initiative supports innovative efforts to overcome the servicer bottleneck in loan modifications, including research into the legal and economic structure of the servicing industry, advocacy to encourage greater transparency and accountability in the mortgage industry, and the implementation of timely and effective loss mitigation policies.

The NSI is headed by Solomon Greene, a product of Stanford, Berkeley, and Yale, who holds the title of Senior Program Officer, and is also a professor in the field of urban planning. Before that, he was a New York University Law Fellow. Just a few more highlights from Greene’s CV:

He has published on such diverse topics as comparative welfare reform, the history of juvenile courts, and forced evictions in squatter communities… he served as Senior Editor of the Yale Law Journal… and a human rights fellow at the World Bank Institute, where he developed a set a best practices for legal titling of informal housing in developing countries… Greene held leadership positions within several community development and affordable housing organizations…

The Neighborhood Stabilization initiative is part of the Open Society Institute (OSI), financed by the Institute’s Equality and Opportunity Fund, which in turn is supported by George Soros. The U.S. is only one of more than 60 countries where his foundations work to better the lives of marginalized people such as the Roma (gypsies) of Europe. The OSI makes grants for the study of such efforts as identifying “effective models for helping low-income, low-skilled people become economically self-sufficient.”

In the United States, certain cities have come in for heavy attention from the NSI. In Baltimore, the organization is concerned with drug addiction, criminal and juvenile justice, youth, education, and community development. It was at work in New Orleans even before Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing disasters.

Another offshoot, the Urban Institute, is very active in Chicago, Illinois and Portland, Oregon. There is a Special Fund for Poverty Alleviation, which is interested in, among other things, reforming the system of criminal background checks in employment and recognizing that just because a person made a mistake and paid a debt to society that doesn’t mean he or she should never be allowed to work again. This alone should go a long way toward alleviating homelessness.


Source: “Neighborhood Stabilization,” Soros.org
Source: “About,” Soros.org
Source: “Solomon Greene,” wagner.nyu.edu
Image by Aldon (Aldon Hynes), used under its Creative Commons license.


Homeless is Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose

Homeless HoarderIn Houston, Texas, a pair of documentarians roamed the streets to connect with people experiencing homelessness.
They had one specific purpose in mind: to learn what possessions people hold onto when everything else has to be jettisoned. The writer is John Nova Lomax, the photographer is Daniel Kramer, and their first discovery was old news:

It practically goes without saying, but the homeless are everywhere downtown — they throng San Jacinto Street pretty much from southern Midtown all the way to Buffalo Bayou and beyond, they are all around the vicinity of the downtown library, and many of them line the bayou’s banks at Allen’s Landing, and many others make their homes near the courthouse complex.

It comes as no surprise that photos are the most cherished of portable items, because they are certainly among the most portable of cherished items. One man kept a photo of his daughter in her official high school graduation robe, and he’s proud to relate that she went on to college. Another kept an Army beret to memorialize his veteran father. One depended on his laptop computer.

A very practical fellow named his bedroll as his favorite possession, and his second was a small pocketknife. He told the documentary team, “I ain’t had to cut nobody yet or nothin’ like that…” At the other end of the spectrum, some street people find comfort in a rosary or a New Testament. One person’s treasured item had been a Bible, but it went missing. Another had owned a John 3:16 medal, but it was gone. (The verse is, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”)

One man said his prized possession was his own heart, because it held his love of Jesus. Of course, the interviewees talked about other matters too, such as how they ended up on the streets. When a trained electrician with 18 years experience can’t find work, something is seriously awry with society. By the way, if it’s ever been in your mind to give one small, quick, no-strings-attached present to a homeless person, Lomax has a suggestion. Apparently, a cheap transistor radio with headphones and a lanyard for suspending it around a person’s neck can be bought for about $6. It’s a small thing, but the kind of gift that really does keep on giving.

Small things are really all you can have if you’re homeless. What does a person even do with a jacket on a warm day? Wear it or carry it. Because you’re going to need it at night. But what about high summer, when it’s hot as Hades all night long? You sure don’t want to keep a jacket with you all the time. What about when winter comes? A jacket will sure come in handy then. But what the hell are you supposed to do with it in the meantime?

Maybe you’re lucky enough to own a suitcase or duffel bag or even a nice big camping-style backpack. It’s a place to keep stuff, but then you need a place to keep it. Or lug it around everywhere — to the soup kitchen, to the free clinic. To the job counseling office, and if you’re lucky enough to get some kind of interview, then where do you leave your stuff? Carrying a duffel around says “homeless” to the world, it’s a much a sign of pariah status as the bells that lepers used to wear.

When a city has a No Camping ordinance — what city does not these days? — the law very likely forbids not only fire-making, cooking, setting up a tent, and sleeping, but “storing personal belongings.” That’s right, thou shalt not leave thy stuff anywhere.

At Change.org, SlumJack Homeless discusses his method of dealing with possessions, which is a bicycle with an attached trailer. It’s better than a shopping cart, but still precludes a lot of activities. The problem of material goods is one of the reasons why he prefers the streets to the shelters, because there is no provision for the safety of belongings.

Now, it’s easy to understand why a shelter doesn’t want all these various conglomerations of stuff on the premises. For one thing, bedbugs are a continuing and terrible problem. The more items that are allowed through the door, the more likelihood of infestation, which of course can only be bad for any shelter residents who aren’t yet carrying bedbugs around. SlumJack Homeless says,

This forces people to a ridiculous minimum of belongings… one of the factors that actually contributes to perpetuating a person’s homeless predicament. Also, you DON’T want other people at shelters to see what you DO own and have. There are many thieves that will then know what you’re carrying around with you, many of whom you WILL run across later… at night, alone, etc.

Let’s just short-circuit this problem by bringing into reality 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. Then people can keep their stuff in their own place, and close and lock the door. Sounds like a plan!


Source: “Prized Possessions — Homeless in Houston share their most important objects,” Houston Press, 01/20/11
Source: “Why I Choose Streets Over Shelter,” Change.org, 06/03/09
Image by Richard Masoner, used under its Creative Commons license.


Shozna: One Homeless Person Redeemed, Several Million to Go

Shozna in gown by RaishmaIn Britain, the recent marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton was attended by a formerly homeless young woman who has one of the trademarks of celebrity: a single name, and it is Shozna.

Last fall, an organization called Centrepoint held a fundraiser where Shozna told her story and related how Centrepoint helped her to escape homelessness. Prince William calmed her nervousness before the speech, and blew everyone’s mind by hugging her after it. In the course of planning for the royal wedding, a hundred “Golden Ticket” invitations were extended, with William inviting representatives from all his favorite charities, while Kate invited folks from her parents’ village. Keri Sutherland of the Sunday Mirror reports,

Shozna’s struggle began when, while training in childcare, she had a stroke and needed a heart operation. Shortly afterwards she left home, staying with relatives and friends until her council referred her to homeless charity Centrepoint. Shozna, who asked us to withhold her last name, said: “I moved into Centrepoint housing in July. It was difficult, but luckily I’ve pulled through.”

Shozna was raised in East London, and Fay Schlesinger tells us how the enthusiastic student with career plans suffered a stroke at age 18 and became half-paralyzed. Months of medical treatment, surgery, and rehab followed. The reasons for Shozna’s subsequent break with her family are not told, but we do know she lived in a hostel and then a homeless shelter. Eventually, she moved to a council flat, which is what they call government-subsidized housing in Britain. (For an exercise in broadening the mental horizons, check out the comments of various British subjects at the blog London Muslim.) As far as Shozna’s future, the lingering effects of her heart problem and the stroke have eliminated some possibilities, but she now hopes to get into retail and work her way up to store manager.

For the great event, Shozna was accoutered by Warren Holmes (hair), Armand Beasley (makeup), Irresistible Headdresses (fascinator), Kyles Collection (jewelry), Jimmy Choo (shoes), and of course Raishma of London (dress.) Couturier Raishma describes the excitement from her perspective

I decided to go for a 50s style prom dress in a block colour scheme of papaya orange and red to give the look a modern take for 2011. I designed an embroidered border with delicate silk roses and hand beading to be positioned on her neckline… I then started worrying about the complete look… I styled Shozna from head to toe for the Big Day…

For the ceremony, the young woman’s escort was Centrepoint chief Seyi Obakin. The London Tonight crew filmed not just Shozna at the wedding, but the entire preparation procedure, one of the world’s most thorough and glittering makeovers. Question: At what point did the ITV network enter the picture? Because, surely, the royal couple did not expect Shozna to show up wearing something from the Oxfam charity shop.

On the one hand, thanks to this sequence of events, the word “homeless” has reached the ears of more people, and that’s a beautiful thing. On the other hand, it’s so easy to cheer for a lovely young woman, and to want to turn her into a fairy-tale princess. But one Cinderella is not enough. How nice it would be if we could see that all homeless women need the resources to take care of themselves and present their best faces to the world.

This includes the girls who become sloppy fat from soup-kitchen diets, which tend to be heavy on the starch; and the mothers whose hair has fallen out from anxiety as they experience homelessness with a passel of kids to worry about. It includes the women who have lost teeth through violence, poor nutrition, or lack of the most elementary facilities for self-care. Also, the abused, the tattooed, and yes, even the alcoholic and addicted.

In our own land of America, the Universal Living Wage can end homelessness for over 1,000,000 minimum-wage workers, and prevent economic homelessness for ten million minimum wage workers. Including a heck of a lot of women.


Source: “Royal wedding: Woman who was once homeless tells of joy at personal invite,” Sunday Mirror, 04/17/11
Source: “From homeless shelters to a front row seat,” Daily Mail, 04/17/11
Source: “Shozna the homeless Muslim Royal Wedding girl,” London Muslim, 04/18/11
Source: “Dressing Shozna from Centre Point Charity for the Royal Wedding,” Raishma.co, 05/03/11
Image of Shozna in gown by Raishma used under Fair Use: Reporting.


Homeless Women Especially Vulnerable to Violence

Vancouver November 2005The concept of a hate crime has to do with civil rights, identity politics, and quite a few other sociological factors. The idea is that although it is wrong to hurt or kill a person, it is especially wrong to hurt or kill a person just because of their skin color, sexual or religious orientation, or other defining characteristic, depending on the jurisdiction. When people are at risk of being hurt or killed for the hate motive alone, they can be legally deemed a Protected Class, meaning that if the assailant is caught and tried, the penalty ought to be extra tough.

Why do we need the Protected Homeless Class Resolution? Briefly, because some people just simply have no alternative to living in public places. Their ordinary actions are criminalized by the authorities. Uniformed enforcers show up, and are seen to harass or brutalize the homeless. This example encourages every cowardly hater in the area to conclude that it’s okay to prey upon the homeless. Some of these bozos even talk themselves into believing they are doing the world a favor by eliminating the homeless as if they were vermin. On city streets or in rural homeless encampments, women are more vulnerable than men. Their numbers are fewer, and nature has not equipped them for effective self-defense. Objectified and depersonalized, they make attractive victims.

Last week, a homeless woman who occupied the hallway of a Milwaukee apartment building was beaten to death with a brick. From El Paso, Texas, Daniel Borunda reported on the issuing of an arrest warrant for a murder. In March, the body of Venus Sloan Driscoll was found in a desert lot. Driscoll had lived in a tent, and the fact that she apparently was killed by another person experiencing homelessness does not lessen the horror of this crime. In a properly functioning society, both killer and victim would have been somewhere else, doing something else with their lives.

Mid-April, in New Orleans, Chantell Christopher’s body was found under a highway exit ramp. She was beaten to death, and the crawlspace where her body was found was actually also where she lived. Jarvis DeBerry, editorial writer and columnist for The Times-Picayune, tells us that a grieving crowd attended a memorial service for Christopher in the garden of a church last Thursday afternoon. She was mentally ill, and somewhere, two children survive her. To find out more about homelessness as background for his story, DeBerry interviewed clients of a program called Ciara Community Services and Permanent Housing. One of his informants was, like Christopher and so many other people experiencing homelessness, mentally ill. But he was sufficiently in touch with reality to understand that, even if he contacted family members, they too were probably just hanging on in this terrible economy.

It’s like that for a lot of street people, even if they have others who care. The friends and family members are struggling themselves and can’t really do much, except shoulder the added burden of feeling bad about being unable to help. And some, whether rightly or wrongly, have too much pride to reveal that they are homeless, or to ask for help. Apparently, Christopher had not let her family know the depth of her troubles. The writer says,

Put Chantell’s, Cyril’s and William’s stories together, and you’re struck by their determination to make it without anybody’s help — even though help is necessary for anybody trying to overcome the challenges of mental illness.

From Austin, Texas, Chris Sadeghi relayed the news of a homeless woman found in a storage unit, after spending two days there with head injuries and a broken leg. The space was rented by a man who probably used it as living quarters, and he felt entitled to punish his victim for behavior that didn’t please him. Reportedly, he bashed her head against a concrete surface nearly 20 times. Sadeghi sought out Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless, who explained the unfortunate tendency of people to look for such unorthodox living arrangements:

We are talking about the need to have safe decent affordable housing and it is not available at the wage people are being paid. So people are looking for alternatives and sometimes they are not the best alternatives.

These are exactly the kinds of situations that Richard’s Protected Homeless Class Resolution (PHCR) was created to prevent. It contains these words:

THERFORE, BE IT RESOLVED: That persons without a fixed, permanent, individual place of residence, and those that are earning 100% of Federal Poverty Guidelines or less, are sufficient in number characteristics, and vulnerability to compromise a distinct class of people, and as a result, shall hence forth constitute a Protected Class with all rights and protections under such a designation. Herein after, this Protected Class, will be referred to as the Indigent Homeless Population.

The PHRC would protect the indigent homeless from being treated as second-class citizens or non-citizens. It would protect them from laws against sleeping in public, and add extra to the penalties imposed on predators who take advantage of people who have no choice but to sleep in public. Hopefully, it would go some way toward decreasing the number of hate crimes. The PHRC has been adopted by the National Coalition for the Homeless, but not by any city, state or the federal government… yet.


Source: “Homeless woman beaten to death in Milwaukee,” The Examiner, 04/24/11
Source: “Suspect sought in slaying of homeless woman,” El Paso Times, 04/16/11
Source: “At memorial for New Orleans murder victim, a heavenly hope takes on new meaning,” The Times-Picayune, 05/01/11
Source: “Woman beaten, locked in storage unit,” KXAN.com, 04/29/11
Image by quinet (Thomas Quine), used under its Creative Commons license.


Why the Protected Homeless Class Resolution is Needed

87 BudaPest 2006 035Some societal malcontents will talk all day about what is wrong, a useful skill which has its place. But if someone asks how to fix the mess, they fall strangely silent. Not so with Richard R. Troxell. The one thing a person would never need to ask him is, “Yeah, but what are we supposed to do about it?” The complete plan for fixing this mess is already there between the covers of Looking Up at the Bottom Line. Troxell, the founder of House the Homeless, knows what to do about it, and lays it out in transparent, step-by-step simplicity.

One of the most important documents is the Protected Homeless Class Resolution (PHCR). Because many states and cities are passing and enforcing laws targeting poor and homeless people, House The Homeless feels the need for the adoption of this resolution by City, State and the United States governments. We have talked before about various aspects of the PHCR and the reasons for its creation — the shortage of affordable housing, the insufficient minimum wage, and the huge number of Americans who are involuntarily without permanent addresses. We have also talked about how the PHCR contains the foundations of Richard’s arguments for the urgency of adopting the Universal Living Wage, the solution that will help all Americans either directly or indirectly.

The United States has signed on to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We as a nation have agreed that all people are entitled to a minimum standard of living and dignity. This minimum standard’s components include something to eat, something to wear, someplace to live, and some care when sick. It doesn’t say the country has to give everybody these things, because the political systems of some countries are not built that way. But signing the Declaration is supposed to mean that the specific country agrees to recognize, serve, and protect the efforts of its citizens to obtain these things, under its political system, because it agrees with the concept that people should have them.

And then there’s another United Nations Document the U.S. signed, the Habitat Agenda, which has to do with various human rights including equality for women and the poor, and protection from illegal forced evictions, and not penalizing people experiencing homelessness because of their status.

Sometimes you wouldn’t know it from the way we act. Not long ago, Willy Staley, a Rockefeller Foundation Urban Leaders Fellow, and expert on federal urban policy, reported on the harassment situation in one of America’s most beautiful cities. There used to be a popular song that included the line, “If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.” The reason being, because “you’re gonna meet some gentle people there.” No longer. Staley’s piece is titled “If You’re Going to San Francisco, Be Sure to Never Sit on the Sidewalk.”

Staley reported on how the city’s no sit/no lie ordinance came into being. It seems that the Mayor, Gavin Newsom, took a walk on Haight Street and saw a gutter punk smoking crack. That incident was the impetus behind the wave of public support for an oppressive law. Because a politician happened to witness an offensive bit of bad behavior, all of San Francisco’s other various assorted subgroups of people experiencing homelessness paid the price. To make sitting a police matter was an example of civic overkill. Staley wrote,

Furthermore, SFPD doesn’t need a sit/lie ordinance to harass gutter punks on Haight Street; they’ll go ahead and do it anyway. They probably ought to. But a city-wide law that makes it illegal to sit or lie on the street anywhere in San Francisco strikes me as a real threat to any sort of city life other than that which makes the wheels of commerce turn smoother.

In April, an Associated Press story related how official efforts to sweep the homeless from the beaches and sidewalks of Honolulu only succeeded in making life more difficult and dangerous for the young. When an encampment of some 200 people, including 70 children, was broken up, advocates for the homeless voiced their distress. The article says,

Their concern is greatest for homeless children… going along with their families to areas that are increasingly further away from running water, electricity and transportation lines… The cleanup of a homeless encampment last month at Keaau Beach Park spurred many of the residents to move into shelters but led others to more secluded, undeveloped areas of the Waianae Coast farther away from the highway.

As we have often heard, children are the last resort of scoundrels. Any ridiculous restrictive law that the most retrogressive mind can think of, the ultimate argument they always resort to is, “Think of the children!” Now here we have a problem where “Think of the children!” is a legitimate and very real concern. But… these are only homeless children. So the civic leaders no longer cry, “Think of the children!” It’s just the lonely few advocates for the homeless who are thinking of the children this time.

And there is more to it than the difficulty of getting to stores and schools and free clinics, for these scattered people. Living together in a large encampment, no doubt some parents formed friendships that enabled shared child care and other benefits that come along with neighborliness and trust. When such a settlement is destroyed, even those tenuous bonds are torn, yet another loss for families that have lost everything already.

The Protected Homeless Class Resolution is meant to address the needs of people who have no alternative to living on the streets and who have no choice but to live, breathe, eat, sleep, sit, or stand in public places. One of the things it wants to protect them from is being persecuted and prosecuted as criminals for the crime of merely existing. If people experiencing homelessness are a vulnerable group that needs and deserves protection, children experiencing homelessness are many times more deserving.


Source: “If You’re Going to San Francisco, Be Sure to Never Sit on the Sidewalk,” AmericanCity.org, 03/09/10
Source: “Advocates say sweeps pushing Honolulu homeless to streets, remote areas,” Greenfield Reporter, 04/03/11
Image by Mcaretaker (Matthew Hunt), used under its Creative Commons license.