Meanest Streets, Part 3

IMG_3618In 2005, the National Coalition for the Homeless listed the 20 American cities where people experiencing homelessness seemed to be most unwelcome. We are looking at the top five, then and now. Las Vegas, Nevada, and Atlanta, Georgia, have already been considered, and so has Little Rock, Arkansas.

Back in 2005, this was named the second-worst urban area in which to experience homelessness:

#2 Lawrence, Kansas [THEN]
After a group of downtown Lawrence business leaders urged the city to cut social services and pass ordinances to target homeless persons, the city passed three ‘civility’ ordinances, including an aggressive panhandling law, a law prohibiting trespass on rooftops, and a law limiting sleeping or sitting on city sidewalks.

In 2006, Jesse Zerger Nathan reported that activists were working to create a Housing Needs Conference, encompassing people in danger of becoming homeless, and people trying to buy houses, as well as landlords, developers, service providers, and bureaucrats, for reasons which Nathan clarifies:

If, as these activists suggest, a city can tackle affordable housing it will, in turn, be addressing a range of issues from homelessness to neighborhood and community development.

The conference, held in June of that year, was written up by Ron Knox, who has noted that the attendees asked three questions of themselves and each other:

What are the greatest unmet housing needs, and how can city leaders meet them?

What housing problems should be solved first?

How can the city provide the best possible support to existing programs?

Lawrence’s Housing Needs Task Force had been formed in 2004 in reaction to a report originating from Kansas University. Forty percent of renters in the city were found to be spending over 35% of their total income for housing. This is called a “housing cost hardship,” and we have talked about it before:

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%.

Flash forward to July of 2010, less than a year ago. At a meeting of the Coalition for Homeless Concerns, one of the people who expressed his thoughts was Richard Price, a resident at Lawrence Community Shelter. The shelter was always full, he said, and there was literally nowhere else to go. And people turned away from the shelter were issued tickets for “camping.” Brad Cook, the coalition’s co-chair, added that homeless people can’t pay the fines, and ended up in jail, costing the city’s taxpayers a lot of money.

A lot of interesting things have happened since then in Lawrence. Earlier this year, plans were afoot to move the Lawrence Community Shelter to an industrial park. Not a neighborhood, not a block on which there were several schools and day-care centers. Not a downtown area full of nervous boutique owners. A vacant warehouse in an industrial park, which is said to be near the jail. But even that location would not satisfy.

Chad Lawhorn reported,

The business park’s board of trustees have argued the covenants allow only business, industrial and governmental uses to locate in the park. They contend, among other issues, that the shelter is prohibited because it is a residential use… The shelter’s special use permit that allows it to operate downtown is set to expire this spring.

In March, the City Commission voted to let the shelter stay one more year. And then, something amazing happened. Despite the shelter’s tenuous hold on existence, members of the Mustard Seed Church stepped up to refurbish it anyway, inside and out, and if you hit the link you’ll see a splendid set of before-and-after pictures. There is also a full account of the project from church member Tatyana, who says,

The results were not just about new paint, refinished floors, cleaner windows or brighter surroundings… Shelter staff described the atmosphere among the residents the next day as ‘calmer and more peaceful.’

And which American metropolis was, in 2005, deemed to be the #1 meanest city?

#1 Sarasota, Florida [THEN]
After two successive Sarasota anti-lodging laws were overturned as unconstitutional by state courts, Sarasota passed a third law banning lodging outdoors. This latest version appears to be explicitly aimed at homeless persons. One of the elements necessary for arrest under the law is that the person ‘has no other place to live.’

Surprisingly, because this is, after all, Florida, there appears to be some progress. A substantial piece by Carrie Wells in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune spoke of a “transformative shift.” Being singled out as the most heartless place on the map probably started the change in consciousness and conscience for the people of Sarasota. But things didn’t really start to happen until January of this year, when The Economist magazine published a rather unflattering article that gave Sarasota a “black eye.”

Almost immediately, 200 people showed up for the first workshop about a 10-year plan, and further workshops were spoken of, in many areas of civic life that have an impact on homelessness. Even so, the negative attention was not powerful enough to motivate the housed citizens to repeal repressive laws.

Wells wrote,

The thousands of people living in the woods, on friends’ couches and on the streets have long taken issue with policies that made it illegal to be homeless, implemented five years ago. Those policies will likely still remain, with the 10-year plan instead focusing on securing funding for housing assistance and homelessness prevention programs.

There are an estimated 7,500 people experiencing homelessness in Sarasota and Manatee counties, and fewer than 900 emergency shelter beds, so it’s obvious how much needs to be done. But no matter how well-intentioned the citizens might be, nothing can be done without money, and money is what nobody has these days.


Source: “A Dream Denied: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities,” NationalHomeless.org, 2005
Source: “National Coalition Pegs Lawrence KS as 2nd Meanest City Toward Homeless,” BeyondChron.org, 06/01/06
Source: “Conference seeks housing solutions,” LJWorld.com, 06/18/06
Source: “Costly Camping for Lawrence Homeless,” Change of Hearts KS, 07/14/10
Source: “Judge rules against Lawrence homeless shelter; move away from downtown up in the air,” LJWorld.com, 02/14/11
Source: “Lawrence Community Shelter Update,” MustardSeedChurch.com, 05/12/11
Source: “New goal: A roof over everyone’s head by 2021,” Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 02/14/11
Image by Mr D Logan (Miles Smith), used under its Creative Commons license.


The Swap-A-Hat Program

Richard wearing his House the Homeless hat!

$4000 = 500 Hats

$600 = 75 Hats

Due to the extreme heat in Austin this spring and summer, House the Homeless is again conducting the Swap-A-Hat program.

People experiencing homelessness will be given the opportunity to either swap their existing hat of any kind for a new summer hat (with a tail) or donate a $1.00 and receive a hat. All proceeds will go to the newly homeless citizens in Nebraska, Missouri, Oklahoma, etc. Similarly, we will be making UV-rated sunglasses available for a $1.00 donation.

Again, 100% of all proceeds will go to serve people who are newly experiencing homelessness.

We are asking supporters of House the Homeless to donate $8.00 to support the cost of providing these items. You can donate online here:

Or, please send a check payable to House the Homeless, Inc to:

House the Homeless
P.O. Box 2312
Austin, TX 78768

Thank you for your never ending support for the folks living on our streets.

Together we can end homelessness.

Richard Troxell


Meanest Streets, Part 2

In Dubious BattleLast time, following up an a 2005 report by the National Coalition for the Homeless, we looked at the #5 (Las Vegas, Nevada) and #4 (Atlanta, Georgia) cities most inimical to people experiencing homelessness at the time of the report, and also at more recent developments in those places.

Other sets of mean streets were found down south. As an example, the report said:

#3 Little Rock, Arkansas [THEN]
Two homeless men reported that officers of the Little Rock Police Department, in separate incidents, had kicked them out of the Little Rock Bus Station, even after showing the police their tickets. In other instances, homeless persons have been told that they could not wait at the bus station ‘because you are homeless.’

In 2008, in an effort to stifle panhandling, the city slapped some paint on what used to be traffic-ticket pay boxes and changed them into homeless collection boxes. The idea was that townspeople could make donations and feel confident that their financial help would go for food and not substances of abuse.

Two years later, TV newsperson Ebone’ Mone’t revealed that most people had no idea what the orange boxes were for. As of July 2010, only about $1,000 had been collected to feed the homeless.

By December of that year, with increased publicity efforts, the amount reached $3,000, which was distributed among five agencies, and the city got busy promoting new ordinances against aggressive panhandling, among other things.

More recently, Change.org columnist Josie Raymond wrote a piece called “Little Rock Wants to Ban Anything Remotely Homeless.” She writes,

Another day, another criminalization measure… I just don’t get aggressive panhandling ordinances, like the ones considered by Salt Lake City and St. Petersburg. If people are harassing or threatening others, arrest them on that charge whether they’re panhandling or not. Creating a new charge sounds a lot like an excuse to ban panhandling entirely and to let police officers arbitrarily decide who’s obeying the law and who’s not.

The city also hoped to forbid liquor stores to sell single servings of beer and to charge a $25 permit fee to any group that wanted to feed the homeless. Get this: such a permit could only be issued to any group twice a year, at most. Raymond went on to say,

Even in times of stretched resources, if officials want to solve the situation rather than put a Band-Aid on it, the discussion should revolve around who’s drinking and why, and why homeless people are congregating and what they need in order to stop doing that. I’m guessing the usual: jobs, affordable housing, substance abuse treatment, medical care, etc. Not more chances to go to jail.

Last December, the Little Rock police department partnered with the Target retail chain to create a holiday event called Shop with a Cop. Journalist Faith Abubey reported on the $100 gift cards distributed to 30 of the city’s neediest children, all of whom lived in a shelter.

Earlier this month, discussion was underway about a proposed day center for the homeless. Three locations were proposed, all downtown, which of course is not agreeable to everyone, especially the merchants. Kelly Connelly reported on it for KUAR News, interviewing Homeless Services Coordinator Jimmy Pritchett:

Pritchett says the day center will provide a ‘one-stop shop’ of services. It will offer access to dental and mental facilities as well as things as simple as an address and contact number for job applications. A temporary day center currently operates at River City Ministries in North Little Rock.

Meanwhile, in the inner city, the Little Rock Compassion Center has been carrying on its good work for years. Last year, 142,000 meals were served. The facility, a member of the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions, sleeps 200 men and 40 women every night.

Digressing back to Part 1 of “Meanest Streets,” Rodger Jacobs evoked the spirit of novelist John Steinbeck, whom he called “perhaps the greatest literary defender of America’s downtrodden.” By coincidence, I had just been reading Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle, published in 1936. Though that book appeared 75 years ago, many of the scenes could take place in a homeless encampment right now.

In the early part of the 20th century, the Americans who joined the Communist Party were the idealists. They wanted their lives to mean something, and wanted to make a positive difference, and to benefit others, not just themselves. They cared about fairness and social justice. For people with that mindset, the political scene was not offering any alternatives. Throughout a long spell of American history, if you gave a damn about humankind, the Party was the only game in town.

Back in the day, Steinbeck’s book attracted attention because it pointed out the reasons why Americans at the bottom of the economic barrel were motivated to join up with the communists. So, in a way, it’s kind of too bad that nobody is worried about communism anymore.


Source: “A Dream Denied: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities,” nationalhomeless.org, 2005
Source: “Little Rock’s Change for the Better tackles panhandling,” todaysthv.com, 07/18/10
Source: “Little Rock Wants to Ban Anything Remotely Homeless,” Change.org, 09/03/10
Source: “Little Rock police help homeless children shop for holidays,” todaysthv.com, 12/12/10
Source: “Little Rock Proposes Three Possible Sites For Homeless Day Center,” KUAR.org, 06/15/11
Source: “Welcome to the Little Rock Compassion Center,” lrcompassioncenter.org
Image of In Dubious Battle book cover, used under Fair Use: Reporting.


Meanest Streets, Part 1

Bridge Action Day 2010 AtlantaA 2005 report by the National Coalition for the Homeless listed what were, at the time, the 20 meanest cities, the ones with the worst records in terms of anti-homeless laws, selectivity of enforcement, severity of penalties, and their general political climate including whatever anti-homeless legislation was currently being pushed.

Let’s look at what were then deemed the five worst cities and catch up on subsequent events.

#5 Las Vegas, NV. [THEN] Even as the city shelters are overcrowded and the city’s Crisis Intervention Center recently closed due to lack of funding, the city continues to target homeless persons living outside. The police conduct habitual sweeps of encampments which lead to extended jail time for repeat misdemeanor offenders.

The more recent situation in Las Vegas is outlined by Rodger Jacobs in a three-part series published late last year. The introductory editor’s note mentions a downtown tent city, which the author and his girlfriend fortunately were able to avoid. Jacobs gives 13,000 as the number of homeless residents in the county, and relates details of his problems in obtaining the documents required to apply for services.

Like any endangered renter with good sense, Jacobs was aware of the landlord-tenant law. As he and his girlfriend struggled to pack, he reflected on what would happen if they couldn’t get their belongings out of there by the deadline. The building owner could put their stuff in any rental storage unit, charging any fee. Thanks to the publicity from the news article, a donor paid the moving and storage costs. The next place where the couple landed inspired Jacobs to write that…

… life in a residential hotel is far from ideal, and it has offered me a ground’s-eye view of the full effect of the Great Recession, from entire families crammed into small rooms and a school bus that drops off dozens of children in front of the hotel on weekday afternoons.

In the second installment, Jacobs names and thanks people who came forward with help, but that humanitarian glow is spoiled by the Las Vegas newspaper readers who responded to Part 1 with hostility. Jacobs says,

The day the Sun published my essay… I spent many of my waking hours defending myself against allegations of sloth… hypochondria, arrogance… weak moral and ethical judgment, prevarication, alcoholism, drug abuse, liberalism, solipsism, atheism… ripping off ‘the system,’ a defeatist attitude, poor money management…

In the third installment of his story, Jacobs was still shocked by the outpouring of malice. He writes,

More than the tale of my plight itself, the vicious online response to the New Homeless series… became the story for the press beyond Nevada’s borders… Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak summed it up best when he said, ‘Societies are judged by how they respond to those in need.’ Indeed, the citizens of Las Vegas have been judged by the shrill voices of a very vocal minority… my story has also gained a lot of traction in foreign media.

Well, thanks, unfeeling people of Las Vegas, for once again making America look bad in the eyes of the world. On the other hand, the city apparently is tolerant of the hundreds of tunnel dwellers and does not go out of its way to disturb them.

#4 Atlanta, GA. [THEN]
In the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Atlanta stood firm in its resolve to criminalize panhandlers… In addition, during the first week in December, the Atlanta Zoning Review Board approved a ban on supportive housing inside the city limits.

As we have mentioned, the reputation of Atlanta, Georgia, was dismal due to the massive displacement of the urban homeless in preparation for the 1988 Democratic Convention, and then again for the 1996 Olympic games. The city has some good things going for it more recently, including the Georgia Law Center for the Homeless.

In late 2007, House the Homeless did a survey to find out how many of the people experiencing homelessness in Austin, Texas, were actually working; were, in other words, the “working poor” who can’t even scrape together a living wage. Richard says,

Upon releasing the survey results… we were notified that in Atlanta, Georgia, 45% of their homeless population were working at some point during the week… Apparently, the work ethic is there but the wage is not.

The House the Homeless website features a report on Bridge Action Day 2010 in Atlanta, more formally known as “Bridge the Economic Gap” Day. Its purpose is to focus attention on the gap between an average worker’s paycheck and the possibility of actually living on that amount.

More recently, Lori Chapman reported for CNN about an unusual art studio opened by Anita Beaty, who is executive director of the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless. Chapman says,

The art studio sits in the group’s headquarters, a 1920s-era building on Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta. Beaty says the homeless can find a secure place to paint and a creative community environment there… To get their own free studio space, those interested must show some artistic ability and follow certain rules, including staying drug-free.

There is a coffee bar in the storefront space, to entice passers-by and potential art patrons. Anything the artists sell, the Task Force gets a very reasonable 20% commission. Whether homeless or housed, painters tend to sink their profits back into buying more art supplies. This news story profiles a couple of artists who, between part-time service industry jobs and their art sales, managed to earn enough to rent an apartment. Also important is the chance to mingle with other artists who are not experiencing homelessness, who are also welcome at location.


Source: “A Dream Denied,” National Coalition for the Homeless
Source: “I am frightened,” Las Vegas Sun, 08/29/10
Source: “Hostile toward homelessness,” Las Vegas Sun, 09/26/10
Source: “Homelessness and the indignity of hurtful speech,” Las Vegas Sun, 12/05/10
Source: “Vancouver Olympics Aftermath Studied,” House The Homeless blog, 02/17/11
Source: “What’s New at the Universal Living Wage Campaign,” Universal Living Wage
Source: “At this shelter, art studio helps the homeless paint a brighter future,” CNN.com, 04/01/11
Image of Bridge Action Day 2010 Atlanta by House the Homeless.


Chronicling Homelessness: Mark Horvath

Mark Horvath - Gnomedex 2009There are three kinds of “first-person” accounts of homelessness, the first being, of course, narratives that originate with the authentic homeless. They tell their own stories and the stories of other street people their lives have intersected with, which is almost the same thing. It’s a kind of autobiography-by-proxy, and, a lot of times, it’s the first, last, and the only time these stories have been told, because we are speakers for the dead.

An example of this type of writer is Ace Backwords. Another, not surprisingly, is Richard R. Troxell. His Looking Up At the Bottom Line is not just an explanation of the Universal Living Wage, and not just a manual on how to change the world nonviolently and with style. Interspersed among the campaigns and triumphs are many stories of individual people who are experiencing homelessness.

The second category, which we see a lot of, is objective reportage from both professional and citizen journalists, and other allies who work on behalf of the homeless to tell their stories.

Then, there are journalists and allies who experience homelessness themselves, in a voluntary and temporary way. Why? As an exercise in empathy, a personal learning experience, or an instrument of spiritual growth. These quests usually originate from sincere intention, to raise awareness, to raise funds, or just to be writing about something significant rather than trivial. In any case, for such adventurers, the project is not complete until they report back to their housed peers, sharing anecdotes and insights.

Impersonation has always been a powerful tool in the writer’s arsenal. In the early 1960s, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and many others had written firsthand accounts of the African-American experience. But attention really fastened on the subject after the publication of Black Like Me. The author was John Howard Griffin, a white man who had disguised himself and passed as a member of the group then called Negro. It may not be fair or reasonable, but when a Caucasian related his “first-person” account of being black, other Caucasians paid attention.

There are different opinions about simulated homelessness. To make a project out of visiting that world is kind of like boarding a pirate ship at a theme park. It might be very realistic, but it’s not real. People who seriously have no choice about homelessness can be forgiven for encouraging these “tourists” to go and find another hobby. But no matter how anybody feels about it, experimental homelessness does garner press attention, whether the participants are church youth groups or individuals with a literary purpose in mind.

Mark Horvath has covered every possible category or genre of writing about homelessness, and shows no sign of stopping any time soon. Let us quote from Adam Polaski’s very thorough profile of Horvath:

He’s the founder of a website called InvisiblePeople.tv, where he publishes unedited videos of homeless people talking about their lives. He’s also the founder of a website called We Are Visible, a community and tutorial resource that empowers homeless people to set up their own free social media accounts to tell their own story.

As a public speaker, Horvath is both versatile and energizing. Polaski describes him as a cause-marketing expert, who started out wanting to be a professional musician, somehow wound up as a television executive instead, and then lost it all when addiction became the driving force of his life. Anybody could have seen that coming — just another Hollywood Boulevard junkie.

Sixteen years ago, Horvath attained sobriety. In a recent and fascinating article, the man himself describes the turnaround:

I am one of the lucky ones. I got out of street homelessness rather quickly. But it took eight years of living in a church program before I had a normal life and was no longer homeless.

He saved up, got an apartment and better jobs, and eventually left Los Angeles and climbed back up as far as the middle class, with a three-bedroom house in Missouri. But a few years ago, work dried up, as it has for so many of us. Horvath was living off credit cards when a job offer came, a really good one, so he went back to LA. Three months later, the company underwent massive downsizing and Horvath was once again unemployed, only now with even more bills than ever. The house back in Missouri didn’t sell, even though he was willing to take a tremendous loss just to be disencumbered of it.

Horvath speaks of the…

… wonderful people who helped me get through that dark time. Several helped pay my rent. New Hope, a church lead by Charles Lee, gave me food cards. And many of you took me out to eat. It is nothing short of a miracle that I didn’t end up back on the streets during that time.

And that was the crisis to which he responded by starting InvisiblePeople.tv. Polaski describes Horvath’s primary mission as “to make a name for the homeless and heighten awareness about the conditions of homeless people in the United States.” Polaski says,

So far, people perceive InvisiblePeople.tv and We Are Visible as positive online movements to raise awareness about complicated social issues. Horvath has become such a well-known advocate that his voice can make some serious waves… He’s driven around the country three times visiting homeless communities, filming footage and amassing insane amounts of knowledge about the housing crisis in the United States.

Now, here is the most recent plot twist. Mark Horvath will soon be technically homeless again, this time voluntarily. With another extensive (and generously supported) InvisiblePeople.tv road trip coming up, it doesn’t make sense to keep an apartment. The furniture is going to newly-housed families, and the homeless advocate is hitting the road until November, and leaving things open-ended after that. It’s a courageous way to proceed.


Source: “Mark Horvath: Shattering the ‘Self-Made Man’ Myth,” GoodMenProject, 05/06/11
Source: “Facing My Biggest Fear: Homeless In 30 Days!,” HardlyNormal.com, 05/29/11
Image by Randy Stewart, used under its Creative Commons license.


How Change Happens

August 17, 2010: Richard R. Troxell and House the Homeless at the Austin City Council meeting

August 17, 2010: Richard R. Troxell and House the Homeless at the Austin City Council meeting.

When the words “City Council meeting” are mentioned, many people, for one reason or another, tend to zone out. But stick around, and you will hear an amazing thing. Last August, the philosophical position of House the Homeless was made clear by Richard R. Troxell and published by Mobile Loaves & Fishes, which also supplied a description of the circumstances, as follows:

Today as this blog posts the Health and Human Services Committee of the City of Austin is debating whether to amend the no sit/no lying down ordinance to exclude people with verifiable known disabilities… there is a lot of opposition…

The purpose of the session was for Richard to state the case, and for the Council to discuss it and mull it over. So, here is the amazing thing. Look at the signs. They say “Thank You.” The House the Homeless folks arrived with signs saying “Thank You,” as if the City Council had already decided to do the right thing. That is So. Extremely. Cool. Any young person interested in changing the world would be well advised to become an apprentice or intern for this organization. There couldn’t be a better education.

House the Homeless takes part in such meetings frequently, and Richard often speaks. Take a look at his health survey testimony from July 2010. Or his testimony earlier this year on the No Sit/No Lie Ordinance (which is also paradoxically known as the Sit/Lie Ordinance). House the Homeless went so far as to obtain a Memorandum of Law from TRLA (Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, Inc.), which emphasized the difficulties faced by the targets of the ordinance, and opined that, if reasonable accommodation were not provided for the disabled homeless, the city would be in violation of the Americans with Disabilities act. That is another interesting group, by the way. Its homepage, http://www.trla.org/, proudly quotes a frustrated bureaucrat:

I think that [TRLA] is the problem because they’re supplying these people with the information and they’re telling them all about the federal laws and everything.

Just when it seemed that progress might be made, someone changed the wording in Austin’s proposed Sit/Lie Ordinance, applying it only to physical disabilities. The Texas Civil Rights Project, a nonprofit group that fights for economic and racial justice for the poor, weighed in with a letter which Richard has also contributed to. Addressed to the Mayor and the Council, it emphasized that an ordinance which only protected people with physical disabilities would be discriminating against those with mental disabilities. It said,

We are of the opinion that all persons with disabilities should be exempt from fines and penalties under the ‘No Sit/No Lie’ ordinance, including those who are temporarily sitting down because of the effects of their disability.

James C. Harrington ended the letter with a reminder that the Texas Civil Rights Project would be happy to litigate the issue, but hoped it wouldn’t be necessary. Meanwhile, HtH suggested amending the ordinance with clearly stated exceptions, and the training of police officers to recognize those exceptions, and offered to provide officers with plastic cards listing the acceptable disabilities.

Eventually, after three “stakeholder” meetings and many televised City Council committee meetings, Richard decided,

I will take 50 guys and ask City council to Not give Austin a Black Eye. We will all have one black eye.

You would be astonished at the total number of hours and the amount of sheer tenacity required to win even a partial victory on this one issue alone. To learn how it came out, please see “Austin’s Revised Sit/Lie Ordinance,” in which we mentioned an article by the Austin journalist Andrea Ball, titled “New rules allow homeless people with disabilities to sit on sidewalks.” Imagine what Lenny Bruce would have done with material like that.

When “New rules allow homeless people with disabilities to sit on sidewalks” is a piece of good news, something has gone desperately awry. To get even this far, the city had to be reminded of human priorities and, perhaps more relevantly, of the possibility of a lawsuit. Imagine how many months and meetings it could take to convince the city to put more benches out there.

As Richard says,

The City also has the resources to mitigate the situation by merely providing benches for all citizens. The City Council chooses not to provide this alternative because the downtown business operators are afraid that people will use them. They probably wouldn’t mind… but it might not be ‘their’ people. So we end up with both selective enforcement and the withholding of resources (tax payer dollars) because we can’t selectively ensure that the recipients will be the ‘deserving folks.’

Meanwhile, nationally, why not just cut to the chase, and do something to end homelessness for over 1,000,000 minimum-wage workers, and prevent economic homelessness for all 10.1 million minimum-wage workers? That would be the Universal Living Wage, and more information about it is available on this page.


Source: “Austin,” Mobile Loaves & Fishes, 08/17/10
Image by House the Homeless.


The Unavoidable Problem of Human Waste

Public ToiletWe have talked about the inordinate amount of time, energy, and financial resources that are spent on preventing benches from being slept on, or even sat on by people experiencing homelessness. The same brand of madness goes on over public bathrooms. The object is to make the homeless disappear by not providing any public toilets. Now, nobody can find a place to take a leak, and don’t even think about the other thing.

Someone with money can spend a few bucks in a store or restaurant, thus earning the right to perform natural functions in their facilities. Someone without money can hold it till they get home. Someone without a home can pee in an alley. What a brilliant solution — not! This is a lose-lose-lose outcome for everybody except business owners, who pick up some extra revenue by capitalizing on an unavoidable human need.

There is a terrific organization called STREATS — that stands for “Homeless Individuals Striving To Reach Educate And Transform Society’s Views on Homelessness.” Its media division has produced a video called “Gotta Go.” About half-an-hour long, it contains lively commentary with some humor from some very articulate people on the subject of going to the bathroom.

We have talked about the ongoing conflict between housed residents and “rubber tramps” in Venice, California. Last fall, for instance, two people were arrested for dumping human waste from a camper toilet into the street. The prosecution wanted to put them in jail for 90 days, but the judge has ordered a 36-months probation, to pay restitution, and to get the heck out of Venice.

There is reportedly a legal RV waste disposal facility 7.7 miles away from the area where the Venetian vehicle dwellers tend to cluster, and it costs $10, which sounds reasonable. But there might be many reasons why people living in a parked RV could not or would not vacate the space they had claimed. It’s a tough problem.

In a newsletter, a local citizen gloated over the fate of another pair of miscreants, a couple with a nine-year-old child. They too were charged with dumping waste in the street, and their RV was seized as evidence and towed to an impound yard many miles away in the San Fernando Valley to await a release from the police. The citizen says, “Beautiful evening for a walk to the SFV.”

This is from Dana Goodyear’s “Street Scene” column in The New Yorker, a while back, reporting on the Skid Row area of Los Angeles:

Plastic outhouses were removed because people were using them for sex and drugs and deals, and now there are several self-cleaning, European-style public toilets whose doors automatically open after an interval.

This controversy carried quite a history, as shown by a piece written by Penelope McMillan 20 years earlier, about a particular settlement known as the “Love Camp,” with a distinctly different reputation than those of other Skid Row encampments of the time. The journalist wrote,

Its residents, numbering around 50, rotate cooking, cleaning and security duties and share the $70-a-month rental cost of the portable toilets.

What portable toilets? The ones that were a symbol to the camp’s inhabitants that they would not sink beyond a certain level, and would indeed rise again to take their places in society. The portable toilets that were snatched, one day at dawn, by a city work crew. On the same day, the camp’s leadership kept an appointment with city officials to supposedly arrange a “model cleanup,” to be used as a prototype for future sweeps meant to clear out the homeless population. Strange that the city’s idea of a “cleanup” should begin with stealing the toilets.

Just last week, Kathleen Edgecomb reported from New London, Connecticut, about the shutting off of a new fountain on a downtown plaza because people experiencing homelessness used it to clean themselves. Actually, the last straw was when a passing cop discovered an intoxicated man washing solid matter out of his pants. The homeless were accused of using the whole area as an outdoor toilet. The reporter quotes Cathy Zall, director of a 50-bed shelter, who reminds us that being homeless is not a crime, and that the majority of the problems are caused by a very small minority.

In Eugene, Oregon, there are a few areas where a tiny fraction of the people who live in vehicles can safely park, and the city provides portable toilets and garbage collection. Apparently, some cities did get a clue, to some extent. It’s not rocket science. In fact, humankind has figured out how astronauts can go to the bathroom in zero gravity, for Pete’s sake. Surely we can think of ways for people to go to the bathroom in a modern city.

In Austin, Texas, an online commentator complains that the hundred or so people who are turned away from the ARCH shelter every night tend to hang around the neighborhood and relieve themselves in streets and alleys, and that Waller Creek is called a “giant alky toilet.”

It’s a strange situation. The city apparently paid a design firm a million and a half dollars to create a plan for renovating the creek and the downtown area surrounding it. Then it ditched the plan and is currently looking for another.

Here’s a thought. Whatever money there is for the new plan, take half of that and hire a student instead. (That’s what homeless people do to get their teeth fixed — let students practice on them.) Then take the other half and build some freakin’ restrooms. There you go — problem solved.


Source: “Venice RV Dumpers Sentenced,” 100kissfm.com, 10/13/10
Source: “Street Scene ,” The New Yorker, 05/05/08
Source: “Skid Row Camp’s Portable Toilets Swept Away,” LA Times, 03/11/87
Source: “Fountain incident puts spotlight on homeless issue,” The Day, 06/08/11
Source: “Will the Waller Creek Development be the death of Red River music scene?,” Yelp, 10/24/09
Source: “Private conservancy outlines plan to rescue, revive Waller Creek,” Statesman.com, 04/27/11
Screen capture of Public Toilet in Skid Row, Los Angeles, California, used under Fair Use: Reporting.


HomeAid Live – a Social Media Event


HomeAid is scheduled for November 11 and 12, during the National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. It is a virtual happening, very Earth-friendly. (And besides, everybody is too broke to travel. If any spare change is lurking between the couch cushions, better to donate it to the cause than spend it on gas.) David Mathison, CEO and co-host of Be The Media, says:

This will be a truly green event. Since everything is online, there is no place to fly or drive, no trees to cut down for posters or tickets, and minimal waste: there’s almost no damage to the environment.

Parts of it will come, courtesy of YouTube live streaming video, from the Apollo Theater in New York and also from Nashville, Tennessee, and many other places. The event’s publicity literature says,

Celebrities, artists, and performers from across the country are contributing exclusive video content that will be streamed on the HomeAid.net website… Many artists plan to hold live ‘house parties’ right from their homes, streamed via webcam… Fans will have many ways to participate, from uploading their own videos to spreading the word on social media sites, and even downloading mobile applications for the iPhone or Android.

And house parties! The whole point here is to share the experience with friends. Participation guarantees a global audience for the performers and the video artists. Regular people can participate just as much by helping spread the word and encourage others to join in. And have a party! In terms of sheer unprecedented numbers, HomeAid will probably become known as the Woodstock of the Internet.

HomeAid is also a national nonprofit organization that has, over the last 20 years, helped 100,000 people get back on their feet. What they do is, build and maintain shelters where homeless families and individuals can regain their dignity and reconstruct their lives. Currently, there are 20 chapters in 14 states.

The most recent addition to the crew is Ken Kragen, who put together the immensely successful We Are the World, as well as Net Aid and Hands Across America. The CEO of HomeAid is Jeffrey Slavin, who is understandably jazzed about the prospect of this event, which is still in the planning stages, and still looking for sponsors and for suggestions on more ways to be even more spectacular. Slavin says,

Because the event takes place online, anyone can watch it from anywhere in the world, and anyone can donate to the cause.

Never has an event been so easy to get involved with, for either an organization or an individual. That’s why the graphic on this page is the first image from their Sponsor Deck, which is pretty much what you’d see if you were in a conference room for a presentation. If you would like a Sponsor Deck of your very own, please go to the Sponsor Page and fill out the form. After receiving the Sponsor Deck, you will be equipped with an immense amount of detail about every aspect of the project and exactly how to become involved.

Here are four more online ways to connect with HomeAid:

The Website

Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless has been (again) a guest on BlogTalkRadio, interviewed by Zane Safrit. He is the host of a long-running show on small-business success, business innovation, and the economy. Richard and Zane first met in February to discuss Richard’s new book, Looking Up at the Bottom Line: The Struggle for the Living Wage. Zane was so surprised at finding common ground with someone advocating a major increase in the entry-level wages that he has invited Richard back to further discuss the economics of the living wage.

After a brief update on House the Homeless‘ campaign against Austin’s “No Sit/No Lie” ordinance, Richard and Zane talk about the working homeless in the United States: those who hold minimum-wage jobs but can’t afford minimum housing. What would happen if these millions of workers got a raise? A massive economic boom, as the least among us are able to buy the products generated by a consumer society.

For information on how to prevent homelessness before it even happens, please learn more about the Universal Living Wage, the plan that can end homelessness for over 1,000,000 minimum-wage workers and prevent economic homelessness for all of 10.1 million minimum-wage workers.


Source: “HomeAid: A Virtual Event to Benefit America’s Homeless,” HomeAid.net, 01/11/11
Source: “Richard Troxell: Author Looking Up at the Bottomline, Part 2,” BlogTalkRadio.com, 05/04/11
Image from HomeAid, used under Fair Use: Reporting.


Kick ‘Em When They’re Down, Part 2

Little PeoplePeople have some strange mental pictures of “the homeless.” Want to see a homeless person? Take a look in the mirror. Tomorrow, you could be the homeless person.

Very few of us are guaranteed immunity from the disasters of life. For example, that financier, the alleged rapist of the vulnerable minority-group women. Bet he didn’t think he’d ever see the inside of a jail cell. Life is full of surprises. Just about any of us could be a soup kitchen client within 30 days. And as for “the homeless” in general, and our attitude toward them, nobody is qualified to judge unless they have been tested by the same situation.

Of course, there are homeless people who are violent, dishonest, and just plain not very nice. Why? Because every group has its share of violent, dishonest, and just plain not very nice people. Realizing this is a hallmark of maturity and a sign of being in touch with reality.

There are homeless people who are alcoholics or some other kind of addicts. It’s just amazing how a movie star who is “bravely battling addiction” receives support and encouragement and sympathy. But there’s a certain point of view that says, “What excuse have they got for being an addict?” If a rich, talented, and photogenic person is also messed up enough to fall into addiction, how in hell is a person who has lost everything supposed to stay straight? Bottom line, street addicts are equally as deserving of compassion and help as movie stars.

Speaking of movies, the American psyche is afflicted by a strange example of cognitive dissonance. In a movie, the character we love most is the drifter, the loner, the guy who’s always a stranger, just passing through town. In fiction, we love a hero who spits in the face of authority. But when it comes to street people, who may lack such conventional attachments as addresses and jobs, and who constantly live on the edge of the law — all of a sudden, the American public is not so enamored of those maverick traits. Don’t know what it means, but it sure is interesting.

So, we were looking at some examples of harassment and persecution that people experiencing homelessness may also experience as a side effect. It’s not only the shambling wrecks with bottles in paper bags who are having a hard time. A very large segment of the homeless population is made up of single mothers and their children.

Here’s a charming story from our nation’s capitol, entitled “D.C. Social Worker Offers Brutal Choice To Homeless Mother.” Jason Cherkis explains how Washington now has a strict new residency requirement for people who need shelter. When you stop and think about is, that’s kind of surreal. The whole point about being homeless is that you don’t have a residence. Anyway, the brutal choice was,

… the District’s Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) told a homeless mother that she either had to leave town or have her kids put in foster care… [The attorney] recalls the social worker explaining: ‘Because she is not being placed in a shelter, therefore she is unable to provide a safe place for her children to stay. If she does not agree to accept the arrangement that has been made for her [the bus out of town], we will be forced to take her children away from her.’

How insane can it get? When kids are taken away and put into foster care, somebody has to be paid for taking care of them. As long as the sum is going to be paid out anyway, wouldn’t it make sense to just pay that mother the same amount to take care of her own kids?

Apparently, there are two major injustices going on here. First, this woman is accused of being a neglectful mother because of not providing a home for her kids. Well, duh! Of course her kids don’t have a home. That’s why she spends every waking hour in the offices of the bureaucracy, begging for a place in a family shelter. Second, they refused her because of not being a D.C. resident, when all along she had as much documentation as anyone needs, proving her as much a D.C. resident as anybody is required to be.

In case you missed it, and if your disgust-with-the-system quota for the day hasn’t been filled yet, read about the mother in Connecticut who ran afoul of the law by enrolling her son in the “wrong” school. We also recommend finding out about the Universal Living Wage that can end homelessness for over 1,000,000 minimum-wage workers, and prevent economic homelessness for all 10.1 million minimum-wage workers.


Source: “D.C. Social Worker Offers Brutal Choice To Homeless Mother,” Washington City Paper, 02/19/11
Image by ElizalO, used under its Creative Commons license.


Kick ‘Em When They’re Down

Homeless ManNo matter what a homeless person might do, whether it’s to return some lost money, or to be found dead in a dumpster, their identity is “homeless.” It’s as if the individual’s status as a non-owner and non-renter of real estate is the most important thing about her or him. Where property is worshipped as a god, not to own property is a sin. And when a person compounds that sin by not even contributing to help someone else own property (by paying rent), that’s even worse.

Basically, it’s open season on non-property-owners. A person could get the impression that the motto of America, in regard to people experiencing homelessness, is “Kick ’em when they’re down.” And there are so many ways to do it. The stories range from pathetic to lurid. In Georgia, the declaration that gays deserve to be homeless is made by a clergyperson who is unclear on the concept of Christian charity.

In Missouri, a homeless man loses his public library privileges because a news article tipped off the staff that he lived in a car. The deprivation this represents is described by Tony Pugh in a TruthOut article about libraries struggling with budget cuts. He writes,

They’re the lone source of free computer and internet access in most communities, allowing the unemployed to search for jobs, learn computer skills and spruce up their resumes. Millions use them to stay in touch with relatives, apply for government services or to seek health information. But public libraries’ critical role as neighborhood information hubs hasn’t shielded the nearly 17,000 of them across the country from budget scalpels.

This next one is too perfect. It’s one of those headlines you see and automatically think it’s from the renowned satire publication, The Onion:

Portland One-Legged Homeless Man Discharged From Jail Without Wheelchair

But no, it’s not from The Onion, or Mad Magazine, nothing like that. Mary Plummer reported this story for ABC News. Here is the relevant excerpt:

The security officers apparently watched as Scott Hamilton, 37, used his hands to scoot out of the jail on his butt and head out into the dark street about 1 a.m. Hamilton then made his way to a convenience store about three blocks away where girlfriend Eve Browne picked him up… Hamilton has rheumatoid arthritis, and his hands were swollen and purple after making the trek, Browne said.

A little over a month ago, Chris Sadeghi of KXAN News in Austin reported on the story of a homeless woman who was severely beaten and locked in a storage unit where she wasn’t found for two days. He says,

Richard Troxell with House the Homeless said that many times homeless people who are unable to get into shelter’s have to resort to alternative means such as storage units. ‘We are talking about the need to have safe decent affordable housing and it is not available at the wage people are being paid,’ said Troxell. ‘So people are looking for alternatives and sometimes they are not the best alternatives.’

Sadeghi also noted that House the Homeless prints and distributes cards with information about shelters and services. The organization also provides information about the somewhat improved sit/lie ordinance, to help keep people out of trouble. Some kinds of trouble, anyway.

A while back, we talked about “bum fights,” a disgusting cultural trend. This genre of so-called entertainment hasn’t gone away. In April, The Miami Herald reported that homeless men were being paid by a website specializing in violent pornography, which videotaped them being assaulted by women.

Journalist Emily Nipps says,

Local homeless advocate G.W. Rolle said for months he noticed men walking around Williams Park with black eyes, split lips and limps before he finally got someone to tell him about the ‘beatdowns,’ as they have come to be known among the homeless… The site offers custom videos, made for the buyer’s specifications, starting at $600… The men say they were offered $25 to be whipped and $50 to be beaten by the women. They were not allowed to fight back, they say, and did not get paid if they quit before the 12 minutes expired.

In his book Hollywood Unlisted, phone technician Kim Fahey relates his interactions with everyone from movie stars to street people. This excerpt concerns a conversation Fahey had with a homeless woman he knew, called Sunshine:

I asked her if guys still hassled her for sex. She had a coughing fit at that question. I had to wait for her to get her composure before I could get a straight answer out of her. ‘Sex? These guys don’t give a rolling (bleep) about sex. They just want to stay warm. It gets (bleep)ing cold sometimes. (Bleep)ing road workers will point those big sprinklers on us in the middle of the night in the camp and soak all our stuff. Man are they some real (bleep)ing (bleep)s!’


Source: “Book Bind: Public Libraries Feel Strain of Budget Cuts,” TruthOut.org, 04/20/11
Source: “Portland One-Legged Homeless Man Discharged From Jail Without Wheelchair,” ABC News, 05/25/11
Source: “Woman beaten, locked in storage unit,” KXAN.com, 04/29/11
Source: “Lawsuit: Women beat homeless men for sex fetish videos,” The Miami Herald, 04/12/11
Source: “Hollywood Unlisted,” Amazon.com
Image by Letheravensoar (Tyler M.), used under its Creative Commons license.