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Occupy Occupied — by People Experiencing Homelessness

Homeless SantaThe homeless community and the Occupy movement agree on many points:

— The yawning chasm of wealth disparity is not to be tolerated.
— People need jobs.
— Corporate greed is at fault. (Maybe not all corporations. Greedy ones, definitely.)
— Also guilty is the whole mess with the banks and the foreclosures.
— There needs to be a separation of money from politics, and vice versa.

Still, some cosmically absurd things have been going on. A bunch of protesters take over a private or public space, to bring attention to their oppressed status. They are supported by some and vilified by others, who are even willing to use force to make them leave. The protesters’ cause is just, and all right-thinking people ought to agree with them.

Then… a bunch of people experiencing homelessness comes into that occupied space, and their claim is a legitimate one, of even more oppressed status. They are supported by some, but others would prefer that they stay out. The homeless people’s cause is just, and, to their way of thinking, all good people ought to support it. What a situation!

What happens when Occupy gets occupied? Sometimes, the homeless are treated as intruders and hazardous nuisances. They are said to jeopardize the legitimacy of the Occupy movement. From that standpoint, it’s a public relations nightmare. But the news is not all bad.

From Boston, MA, John Zaremba reports that the city will not act to prevent Occupiers from spending the winter on Dewey Square, as long as rules for public safety are observed, including a ban on open fires and kerosene heaters. The reporter interviewed a logistics and supplies person from the Occupy Boston camp, Kristopher Eric Martin, who said of the homeless members:

These guys are experts at staying warm and staying dry. All these guys are used to living on the streets and sleeping with one eye open.

Among the helpful hints offered by the people experiencing homelessness: Extra protection from the cold can be obtained by stuffing hay or straw between layers of clothing. First off, where do urban street people get hay and straw? Good grief, what story will we see on TV on Christmas Eve? News of a homeless person arrested for taking the straw out of a church’s nativity scene to insulate their clothing?

Remember Otzi the Ice Man, the 5,300-year-old frozen corpse found in the Alps? He wore a cloak of woven grass, and his shoes were stuffed with grass and moss for warmth.

So, here we are in America in 2011, with some citizens teaching other citizens the survival skills of a Neolithic hunter. Now, that’s progress.

From Seattle, WA, Paula Wissel wrote about the ongoing struggle concerning Westlake Park, where protesters continued to stay despite being officially forbidden. The mayor has been ambivalent. He sympathizes with the protesters, but there are local residents and businesses to consider. Apparently, the movement has sparked some hope among the city’s urban indigent people. The reporter sought an opinion from a citizen named Delmar Bryant:

He says he’s lived on streets all over the Northwest. He believes Occupy Seattle is the start of something special.

The situation in Atlanta, GA, seems to be kind of strange. Early last month, Gwynedd Stuart titled a post, “Occupy Atlanta uniquely OK with homeless ‘interlopers.'”

Well first of all, Atlanta is not so unique in being okay, as we have seen. But here’s the unusual slant. Stuart speaks of:

… Occupy Atlanta’s acceptance of the homeless — which is probably best demonstrated by the decision to actually move into a homeless shelter…

Apparently, when demonstrators were ejected from Woodruff Park, about 100 of them moved into the top floors of the Peachtree-Pine homeless shelter, where around 600 homeless people already lived. In other words, Occupy Atlanta occupied the homeless shelter.

The controversial shelter’s future was already precarious. Later in the month, Bob Cramer, who was chairman of Atlanta’s Task Force for the Homeless for 14 years, wrote:

With the loss of so much public housing, low-income Atlantans have few choices and little hope. With the possible loss of the Peachtree-Pine shelter, homeless people may once again need to use Woodruff Park as a refuge, perhaps standing shoulder to shoulder with Occupy Atlanta, perhaps to die once more on our streets.

Eugene, OR, is on the cusp of major change, with an upcoming vote on whether to allow continuing life to a large encampment of people experiencing homelessness. Edward Russo reports:

The council is to vote on whether to let Occupy Eugene continue its camp of mainly homeless people in Washington-Jefferson Park… The protest group wants to remain in the park and work with city officials to find a place to build a permanent camp for the homeless.

The settlement is said to consist of between 150 and 200 people, some protesters and the rest representing a very small fraction of the city’s estimated 4,000 homeless people. The occupiers want to help collect donated materials and build kitchens, showers, and necessities. But opinions differ of the advisability of this. City Councilor Chris Pryor, who works for United Way, told the reporter:

I am part of the human services world that doesn’t think living in a tent is a step to solving homelessness. The long-term solution is to get people into jobs and housing.

On the other hand, St. Vincent de Paul Director Terry McDonald told Russo:

Occupy Eugene has engaged homeless youth. The group’s gatherings and workshops in the campsite are giving the youths something to do other than simply try to survive on the streets… bringing them from a more feral society to one that is more civil…

House the Homeless has communicated with dozens of Occupy groups throughout the nation, encouraging them to get behind the Universal Living Wage. Richard R. Troxell says:

According to the last several U.S. Conference of Mayors reports, no one working at a full-time minimum wage job can afford to get into and keep a one-bedroom apartment anywhere in the country. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, this will result in 3.5 million homeless minimum-wage workers this year alone.

The situation is summed up by a comment from “Kiddo”:

Homeless Americans most directly represent the impact of our exploited brokedown financial system. Their very living situation IS part of the protest. That they lack regular shelter and means, and are (unfortunately) available to protest via occupation is to all our benefit…. We all have a place in this movement.

Reactions?

Source: “Occupiers turn to homeless for tips,” Boston Herald, 10/19/11
Source: “Homeless find home at Occupy Seattle, so is it still a protest?,” KPLU.com, 10/10/11
Source: “Occupy Atlanta uniquely OK with homeless ‘interlopers,’” clatl.com, 11/01/11
Source: “25 years of poverty vs. power,” ajc.com, 11/25/11
Source: “Homeless find ally in Occupy,” RegisterGuard.com, 12/11/11
Image by Kalinago English (Karenne Sylvester), used under its Creative Commons license.

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Occupy Homelessness

Invisible HomelessBarbara Ehrenreich published a very significant book called Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. More recently, she pointed out the similarities between the Occupy political protesters and people experiencing homelessness, who both engage in urban camping:

Homeless people confront the same issues every day: how to scrape together meals, keep warm at night by covering themselves with cardboard or tarps, and relieve themselves without committing a crime.

Whoever defined the three basic needs of humans as food, clothing, and shelter, could have been more accurate. For starters, clothing and shelter are both subsets of the same class, coverings to protect the body from the elements. Clothing and shelter have more similarities than differences. There are places where people get along pretty much without clothing, and even places where they can survive without shelter. There are situations where either clothing or shelter will do. So, neither of them can be called an absolute necessity at all times and places.

But nobody survives without going to the bathroom (or the vacant lot or alleyway, if necessary.) It would be much more in alignment with reality to define the three basic needs as food, body covering, and elimination.

Ehrenreich goes on to say:

As the Occupy Wall Streeters are beginning to discover, and homeless people have known all along, many ordinary and biologically necessary activities are illegal when performed in American streets — not just urinating but sitting, lying down and sleeping.

This is what Richard R. Troxell says when inviting members of the various Occupy groups nationwide to consider the Homeless Protected Class Resolution and the Universal Living Wage as issues to coalesce around. Excerpts follow:

We certainly know the pain of homelessness here in Austin. As hard as we are working to end homelessness by getting people mental health care and safe, decent, affordable housing, there are still thousands of folks right here in the Austin area that are sleeping in their cars and living on our streets and in our woods.

While they are experiencing the trauma of losing their homes and being separated from their loved ones, they are getting ticketed, abused, their cars and belongings stolen and arrested… We fixed the No Sit No Lie ordinance… We can fix this as well.

Ehrenreich, in fact, specifically mentions Austin as exemplary, before summing up:

In Portland, Austin and Philadelphia, the Occupy Wall Street movement is taking up the cause of the homeless as its own, which of course it is. Homelessness is not a side issue unconnected to plutocracy and greed. It’s where we all could be headed — the 99%, or at least the 70%, of us, every debt-laden college grad, out-of-work schoolteacher and impoverished senior — unless this revolution succeeds.

There is, in some quarters, debate over whether the homeless qualify as bona fide Occupy protesters. The answer seems obvious: they are certainly not members of the elite, all-possessing 1%. An anonymous commentator asks readers to think deeply about the difference between the homeless and the Occupy protesters, reasoning that what’s good for one is good for the other:

I have entrepreneurial spirit and I’ve decided to start a homeless camp along the river in Harrisburg… I’m going to buy some $99 tents, then charge the homeless, say, ten bucks a night… When the police show up to displace the homeless, I as their spokesperson, will insist that this is merely a protest. And we have the right to occupy as long as we want, just like our bothers and sisters down the street… I do not understand how any city can roust homeless folks when the occupy crew get to do whatever they want. And heaven forbid we should trample on their rights.

This person meant to be sarcastic, but you know what? Heaven forbid we, as a society, should trample on the rights of either the protesters or the people experiencing homelessness.

Reactions?

Source: “Tomgram: Barbara Ehrenreich, Homeless in America,” TomDispatch.com, 10/23/11
Source: “Treating the Homeless the Same As Protesters,” whptv.com, 1/18/11
Image of Invisible Homeless used under Fair Use: Reporting.

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Minimum Wage and the Rental Market

homeless hole

Big cities usually have apartment shortages. This is nothing new. But, nowadays, the prospective tenants come from a different demographic. Many of them are former (attempted) home buyers who couldn’t hold on. Some are people who, in a better economy, would be perfectly capable of buying a home, if they found work in the field they were trained for instead of washing cars or collecting unemployment. (And some have listened to Rich Dad, Poor Dad author Robert Kiyosaki, who says, “Your home is not an asset.”)

Ben Markus of Colorado Public Radio discusses recent events in Denver, and starts by talking about his visit with a couple renting a two-bedroom apartment for more than $900 per month. Before getting into that, here is some background. The page called “Living Wage Calculation for Denver County, Colorado,” explains that:

The living wage shown is the hourly rate that an individual must earn to support their family, if they are the sole provider and are working full-time (2080 hours per year).

They figure a typical two-adult household spends $692 a month on housing. But, in order to do that, each one of them has to be making at least $8.64 per hour. The minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. This means that a pair of minimum-wage workers would be hard-pressed to afford a $692 apartment, which probably has only one bedroom anyway, and certainly would not be able to afford the two-bedroom that goes for $900.

A family with two adults and two children needs $27.00 per hour coming in. But even if both adults are working, if they’re working for a minimum wage, there is less than $15 per hour coming in. That’s a pretty big discrepancy.

A fiscally prudent person doesn’t budget more than a quarter of their income for housing — that’s what they used to teach in home economics classes. Then somebody sneakily raised the bar. Now we are told, it’s wise not to spend more than one-third of the income on housing. And we’re supposed to feel just as prudent. (But one-third is more than one-fourth.)

Getting back to Markus, he next speaks with David Zucker, a land developer who is putting up a building different from the building originally planned for the spot, near Denver’s downtown. Markus says:

This project was originally planned as condos. But when the housing market collapsed, Zucker went back to the drawing board. Eventually, his financers looked at all the renters entering the market, and they liked his new idea of retooling the project from 60 condos to more than 200 apartments… Now, more than a dozen apartment buildings are going up in the Denver metro area, and dozens more are planned.

Then, he quotes economist Patrick Newport, who says:

We’re going to see more renting, less homeownership. And the recovery that we see in the housing market is going to be one that’s characterized more by more apartment construction, and less by single-family construction.

Markus also quotes investment broker Greg Benjamin, who says that financing is available for these projects now because demand exceeds supply, “allowing landlords to charge higher rents.” Well, of course, builders are getting into this apartment trend because they anticipate charging high rents. What they don’t seem to take into account is that there may not be many tenants who can pay high rents. But they don’t seem interested in creating low-rent housing.

Still, it’s possible that many existing renters will upgrade their lifestyles, leaving behind, and available, the older, less desirable apartments. Such units might even be affordable to the working poor. At any rate, although the increased number of apartments is good news, it’s only half the equation, the half that comes from the top. We also need the other half of the equation, the one that comes from the bottom. What we need is the Universal Living Wage (ULW), to put well-deserved adequate pay into the hands of people who want to rent those properties.

About the effect of a minimum wage hike, blogger Kasey Steinbrinck says:

Studies show that people at the lower end of earning tend to put the money right back into the economy. They get their car fixed, pay for needed home repairs, buy new clothes and spend money at many local businesses.

And spend it on apartment rent, if they get half a chance. A lot of people would like to move out of their vans, or off their mother’s couches, and find places of their own.

Steinbrinck also says this about minimum-wage workers:

When adjusted for inflation, the real value of their compensation actually fell by 5% since the federal minimum wage was last raised in 2009 to $7.25 an hour. If the minimum wage had kept pace with inflation over the past 40 years it would be almost $10.40 an hour… The Economic Policy Institute estimates that that raising the minimum wage to $9.50 would result in more than $60 billion in consumer spending. Now that’s a pretty nice economic stimulus!

But, of course, we have all traveled and know that the cost of living (the cost of housing) is not the same in Cleveland, Ohio, as it is in Santa Cruz, California, or in Washington, D.C., etc. In fact, we are a nation of 1,000 economies, each with its own cost of living. That is what the Universal Living Wage will address. It will ensure that a person working 40 hours in a week will be able to afford the basics: food, clothing, shelter (utilities included), wherever that work is done throughout the United States.

And the other wonderful aspect of the ULW is that it will stimulate the housing construction industry all across America and create jobs as we put the difference between the Federal Minimum Wage and the Universal Living Wage into the pockets of millions of working poor who all need the same thing: truly affordable housing. Finally, this will happen over a 10-year period in order to accommodate the business community. In this fashion, we can end homelessness for over 1,000,000 minimum-wage workers. Wow!

Reactions?

Source: “Demand For Denver Apartments Outstrips Supply,” NPR.org, 11/29/11
Source: “Living Wage Calculation for Denver County, Colorado,” Living Wage Calculator
Source: “Boosting Minimum Wage to Boost the Economy,” The Check Advantage Blog, 07/25/11
Homeless hole
Photo credit: Aydun via VisualHunt.com / CC BY

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Business, the Government, and Homelessness

Burning Man 2007 Semi TrucksThe relationship between homelessness and business is multi-faceted. Traditionally, the union and the factory owner in a company town had a certain kind of relationship, and the relationship between an apprentice and his boss, the craftsman, was something else.

In the past, employment often guaranteed a place to live, even if it meant sleeping on a floor. Today, when business and society cause homelessness, one of the results is even more underpayment. Any employer who can offer living quarters can get away with paying peanuts because the fear of homelessness is so pervasive.

Then, when the government gets into it, there is a whole new set of relationships, causes, and effects. Things are complicated because small businesses are different from big businesses. Today, giant corporations can influence the amount of homelessness in any city or state. Then, there are contract workers, independent professionals, and other kinds of workers.

The relationship between homelessness, business, and government shows up in different ways, both obvious and subtle. Obviously, underpaid or unemployed workers are at greater risk for losing their places to live. Some are the “economic homeless,” working full-time or even more, and still unable to afford housing.

The situation in the Antelope Valley is very interesting because it’s a microcosm that displays so many of the things that are wrong nationwide. Wrong how? Wrong in promoting homelessness. Across America, everybody is running around scratching for limited dollars to try and alleviate the ugly consequences of homelessness. This section of California is like a laboratory demonstration of the rapacious and coercive tactics that create homelessness.

Mars Melnicoff blew the lid off the situation in the LA Weekly with a piece called “L.A. County’s Private Property War,” with coverage so comprehensive, there is a major aspect of it we didn’t even mention yet. The thing is, an awful lot of truckers live in the area, independent operators who own their vehicles. Consulting DMV figures, Melnicoff estimates that in this small area, over a thousand people are directly supported by the 266 Class A drivers among its residents.

She interviewed Joe Rajkovacz of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association and learned that 96% of the trucking industry is made up of small business owners, with 20 or fewer trucks. One-truck owners account for about half of all the registered motor carriers in the country.

The journalist quotes Rajkovacz:

A person owning one truck is not going to own a terminal … They live in the high desert… There’s a reason they live in rural, downtrodden areas — because that’s all they can afford.

Exactly. And they are mightily angered by the ignorance of the Nuisance Abatement enforcers, who don’t have clue about the trucking industry or the slightest understanding of why the huge, expensive vehicles need to be closely protected from vandalism and theft. Because of ridiculous codes, truckers are forbidden from parking in many places on the land they own out in the middle of nowhere. LA County labels their spare parts, tools, machinery, and construction materials as trash, junk, and debris, and uses that as an excuse to kick them off their own land.

Representatives of the government show up with guns and treat taxpayers like criminals, with no respect for their needs as small business owners or even for their rights as Americans. And every dollar the truckers lose in defending themselves against these incursions is a dollar they can’t spend on something else, so the domino effect rolls on to hit other local businesses.

Seems like the bureaucrats would think twice before messing around with truckers who, in this commercial nation, are responsible for bringing all the products from where they are made or grown to where they are sold. But no. A local resident told Melnicoff that the county government is “almost immune to common sense,” which is readily believable when some of their actions are pondered.

A typical story is of a trucker who has spent his off-season with his sister for years, parking his rig on her land in the midst of the desert nothingness. Which is fine with the sister, but not at all okay with the Nuisance Abatement Teams. The harassment and legal actions appear likely to continue until all the truckers, who are the backbone of everything America holds dear, are forced to abandon their properties and go elsewhere — or maybe nowhere permanent, winding up as just more drifters experiencing homelessness.

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Source: “L.A. County’s Private Property War,” LA Weekly, 06/23/11
Image by Jesse Wagstaff, used under its Creative Commons license.