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How to Become Homeless: Have a Criminal Record

no papersWho has time to read every newsletter? But when one shows up, headlined, “Why does the United States lock up so many people?,” attention must be paid. The answers are to be found in The New Yorker piece, by Adam Gopnik, called “The Caging of America.”

Here are some of Gopnik’s words:

Although academic scholars have been analyzing the social costs of our 30-year punishment binge for some time, the American public has been oddly disinterested in our de-evolution into a full-blown prison nation… Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today — perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850.

The person who pointed out this piece in her newsletter is forensic psychologist Karen Franklin, who can always be counted on for awareness of the most interesting and potentially significant developments in the criminal justice system.

Nowadays, one out of every 99 American adults is behind bars. That’s actually a pretty big segment of a population to be locked up, and it costs a hellacious amount of money that could be better spent elsewhere. More to the point, a lot these imprisoned people will, like so many before them, be released into the condition of people experiencing homelessness.

It’s all too easy to have a knee-jerk reaction like, “If a bunch of former inmates are homeless, so what?” Fortunately, a few moments’ reflection can reveal the reasons why it is a good idea to care about this particular societal problem. Statistically, if you know 400 people, four of them are incarcerated. These days, almost everybody has a family member or a friend in the system. Often, we know this is a basically okay person who messed up in a way that probably won’t happen again. Which is exactly the case with a lot of the anonymous homeless.

Gopnik goes into a great deal of detail about the present state of affairs in the incarceration business, and believes that nonviolent crime should not be dealt with by prison sentences. He gives the example:

… [N]o social good is served by having the embezzler or the Ponzi schemer locked in a cage for the rest of his life, rather than having him bankrupt and doing community service in the South Bronx for the next decade or two.

Dana Goodyear wrote about the wrong way to do things, as demonstrated in Los Angeles in 2006:

Garden-variety addicts were caught up in the drug sweep, and those arrested with, say, a five-dollar rock of crack cocaine were charged with possession for sale, which is a felony, rather than the lesser charge of simple possession… [T]here was a new policy in the DA’s office — not to plea-bargain on Skid Row drug cases… Those convicted of drug sales will, upon release, no longer be eligible for food stamps, and some federal housing programs.

And good luck getting any kind of housing. Why should a landlord rent to someone with a record, if other tenants apply with clean slates? The answer is, because not renting to someone with a record can help perpetuate the vicious cycle that the ever-larger numbers of people find themselves caught up in. A record leads to homelessness, and homelessness leads to a record, especially when a person can run afoul of the law by such a simple act as sitting on a sidewalk.

The stigma goes so deep, homelessness even becomes part of the definition of criminality. In The Evil that Men Do, authors Roy Hazelwood and Stephen G. Michaud enumerate the traits of the antisocial personality:

… [L]ying, substance abuse, promiscuity, disdain for social norms, cruelty, use of aliases, lack of a fixed address…

The Center for Economic and Policy Research issued a report that one of its authors, senior economist John Schmitt, summed up by saying:

We incarcerate an astonishing share of non-violent offenders, particularly for drug-related offenses. We have far better ways to handle these kinds of offenses, but so far common sense has not prevailed. …[W]e have created a situation over the last 30 years where about one in eight men is an ex-offender…

The press release announcing the report says:

Three decades of harsh criminal justice policies have created a large population of ex-offenders that struggle in the labor market long after they have paid their debts to society.

For someone emerging from prison and trying to rebuild a life, it’s incredibly hard to get a job without a place to live, and almost as difficult to find a place to live without a job.

Marin County, CA, has a reputation dating back to the 1960s (and earlier) as a wacky place. Maybe that’s why it comes up with fresh ideas. Doug Sovern reported that the county, with around 5,000 people either homeless or “precariously housed,” only had 70 shelter beds and was desperate for new answers.

Cris Jones of St. Vincent de Paul told the TV journalist:

Our clients have tickets for sleeping outside even though there’s not a shelter. Open containers, small infractions and the tickets end up getting bigger and bigger.

The solution was to establish a community court that refers offenders to mental health and substance abuse services. The hope is that by avoiding handing out punishments for minor crimes, and keeping people’s records clean, they will be better equipped to turn their lives around and escape homelessness. It was meant to be a six-month pilot program, but no report on the outcome seems to have been published yet.

People wind up without a roof over their heads for all kinds of reasons. One of the most useless ways to spend time is arguing about who is worthy of how much help, and what they may or may not have done to deserve being demoted to the pariah status in our society. Everybody has made mistakes, and a lot of people have paid for their mistakes. The point is, right now, a large number of pretty much blameless people are out in the cold, along with the small percentage of folks who have been in trouble.

It’s up to America to quit wasting energy on side issues and get busy on actions that can help lift our whole society out of the cycle it seems to be stuck in. Let’s do something that will help everybody, like adopt the Universal Living Wage (ULW), a change that can make an enormous difference. It is predicted that the ULW will end homelessness for over 1,000,000 minimum-wage workers and prevent economic homelessness for all 10.1 million minimum-wage workers. Please learn about the Universal Living Wage and how it works.

Reactions?

Source: “The Caging of America,” The New Yorker, 01/30/12
Source: “Why does the United States lock up so many people?,” forensicpsychologist.blogspot.com, 01/29/12
Source: “Letter from Los Angeles,” The New Yorker, 05/05/08
Source: “Growth of Ex-Offender Population in United States Is a Dramatic Drag on Economy,” CEPR.net, 11/15/10
Source: “Community Court Gives Fresh Start To Marin County Homeless,” CBS San Francisco, 06/13/11
Image by zappowbang (Justin Henry), used under its Creative Commons license.

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Richer Rich, Poorer Poor, and PSC

Pepper Spray CopHouse the Homeless looked at the Associated Press journalist Hope Yen’s report on the recent Pew survey about attitudes concerning class in the United States. It turned out to be so interesting, there’s more to say about it.

Increasing poverty and “stubbornly high unemployment” are mentioned, societal conditions that are no longer fresh news to anyone. We have seen months of Occupy movement activities, including in many places the welcoming into the ranks of people experiencing homelessness.

The media have been full of photos of peaceful demonstrators being struck, stunned, sprayed, and otherwise brutalized. The impression such pictures give is that the members of America’s police forces are desperate to keep their jobs. The police seem to be so panicked by the thought of unemployment, they are willing to drop the charade of protecting the people, to become the tools of an elite class that does not even have their best interests in mind. Afraid of losing their security, of becoming broke and powerless, they are overtaken by a primal urge to attack the thing they fear becoming.

Oddly, what really struck a public nerve was not an instance of out-of-control violence, but the iconic photo of protesters sitting peacefully on the ground, being pepper-sprayed by a UC Davis cop. His perfectly casual attitude of “business as usual” is far more insulting and frightening than a display of temper. Going about his job with all the composure of a gardener watering flowers, Pepper Spray Cop (PSC) became an Internet meme.

Hundreds of adaptations were generated by creative people with graphics software, and Tumblr has a great collection. The PSC on this page has been separated from its original context and touched up, for the convenience of anyone inspired to do some PSC art.

Hope Yen quoted one of the survey analysts from the Pew Research Center, Richard Morin, who sees “a growing public awareness of underlying shifts in the distribution of wealth in American society.” In 2005, the top 10% of the population held 49% of the wealth. By 2009, the top 10% held 56% of the wealth. Meanwhile, almost half the people in America are in a condition of poverty, and no matter how generous and caring they might be, a great many Americans are simply not in a position to help those who are in the worst condition of all, the actually homeless and out on the streets or packed in shelters.

Yet, incredibly, Reason magazine’s Veronique de Rugy, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center, seems to think everything is okay because “income mobility is actually alive and well in the United States of America.” She interviewed a University of Chicago economist named Steven Kaplan, whose main point seems to be that, whoever the top 1% were in 1990, they were not the same individuals as the top 1% in 2000, and so on. Things get churned around, and there is plenty of “income mobility.”

In other words, some people get rich but don’t stay that way, and some people who were not wealthy become wealthy. It’s as if, because different people take turns in the poverty sector, that somehow makes everything okay.

Yen quotes Scott Winship, from the Brookings Institute, who talks about other measures of economic distribution. He says:

These accounts generally conflate disappointing growth in men’s earnings with growth in household income, which has been impressive. Growth in women’s earnings has also been impressive…

We’ve got scholars claiming that the average household has a higher income than at some point back in history. Big whoop! Even if the average family income is higher, it’s achieved at the cost of both parents working. Two adults have to work, if they can find work, to maintain a household economic standard that, in the past, could have been attained with only one adult working. This is not progress.

Yen asks the rhetorical question: “So why are people still sleeping outside in protest?” A better question is, why are so many people still sleeping outside because they don’t have anyplace else to sleep? If things are so economically rosy, why are thousands of Americans still homeless? Maybe because we don’t yet have the Universal Living Wage, which promises to end homelessness for over 1,000,000 minimum-wage workers, and prevent economic homelessness for all 10.1 million minimum-wage workers.

But what about economic charts and graphs? Glad you asked. Here are some magnificent ones, gathered by various sources and presented by Business Insider. The charts have such titles as:

The gap between the top 1% and everyone else hasn’t been this bad since the Roaring Twenties.

Half of America has 2.5% of the wealth.

The last two decades were great… if you were a CEO or owner. Not if you were anyone else.

Despite the myth of social mobility, poor Americans have a SLIM CHANCE of rising to the upper middle class

In introducing the charts, Gus Lubin says,

The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. Cliché, sure, but it’s also more true than at any time since the Gilded Age… The poor are getting poorer, wages are falling behind inflation, and social mobility is at an all-time low.

Reactions?

Source: “Conflict between rich, poor strongest in 24 years,” Statesman.com, 01/11/12
Source: “For Richer and for Poorer,” Reason.com, 02/12
Source: “15 Mind-Blowing Facts About Wealth And Inequality In America,” Business Insider, 04/09/10
Image by DonkeyHotey, used under its Creative Commons license.

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Perceptions and Poverty

exploredAssociated Press reporter Hope Yen recently wrote about a telephone survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in December of 2011. More than 2,000 adults were questioned about class tensions, which researchers conclude are at their most intense in 25 years.

The article says:

About 3 in 10 Americans polled said there are ‘very strong’ conflicts between the rich and poor…. That is double the share who believed so in July 2009 and the largest proportion reporting that view in the 24 years the question has been asked in surveys.

The thing is, this survey is about perceptions, otherwise known as opinions, concerning the economic divide. It used to be mainly Democrats, African-Americans, and youth who were conscious of an upsetting disparity between the rich and the poor. But now, this survey reveals, even white folks are seeing the huge chasm between the richest and the poorest, and not liking what they see. Why? Because a lot of formerly middle-class Americans see themselves sliding closer and closer to the abyss.

It’s the kind of issue that people get emotional about, and form opinions about, but can we really understand what they think, when the framework of questions is so rigid? Thanks to this study of attitudes, we now know that:

… about 46 percent of Americans hold a disapproving view that rich people are wealthy because they were fortunate enough to be born into money or have the right connections. But almost as many people — 43 percent — say wealthy people are rich ‘mainly because of their own hard work, ambition or education.’

Why are the pollsters asking respondents to choose one or the other? In the real world, both are true. The correct answer is, some people have money because it was given to them, or they were granted unfair opportunities to acquire wealth. And, even worse, some are rolling in dough because they threw their souls overboard to make room for greed. As Balzac and many others have said, “Behind every great fortune there is a great crime.”

The rest of the correct answer is, a lot of people have become wealthy because of their ambition, drive, work ethic, integrity, talent, ingenuity, and a whole lot of other desirable qualities. There is a quite a number of different ways for a person to reach the high-income brackets.

But the more disturbing question is, why is there so much concern about asking Americans their opinion about things, whether it’s the motherhood fitness quotient of Britney Spears, or the qualifications of their fellow citizens to have big bank accounts? What people think doesn’t really count for much. If the majority of people think that the Earth is balanced on the back of a giant turtle, that doesn’t make it so, and no progress is made toward solving the planet’s problems.

There is another difficulty. This kind of either/or thinking encourages Americans to polarize: x% believe that the homeless deserve all the help a society is capable of giving, and y% believe that people experiencing homelessness are lazy specimens who deserve their bad fortune and that they have brought it on themselves.

Well, guess what? In the real world, both are true, and many other things, too. Many of the people experiencing homelessness are disabled, either mentally or physically. There just isn’t any kind of work they can do — especially when unemployment is so high, with hordes of massively overqualified workers available for even the most menial jobs.

And many, of course, are children. Surely, nobody expects them to go out and get jobs. Their lives are difficult enough, just trying to keep up in school. That’s their job. Keep the kids in mind when learning about the Universal Living Wage, which has the potential to end homelessness for over 1,000,000 minimum-wage workers and prevent economic homelessness for all 10.1 million minimum-wage workers. Including the ones with kids.

Reactions?

Source: “Conflict between rich, poor strongest in 24 years,” Statesman.com, 01/11/12
Image by eflon (Alex), used under its Creative Commons license.

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Looking Back at 2011

Providence HomelessAmongst the year’s news research, one of the more interesting comments from the public to be discovered came from “pdquick,” who worked in the streets for years as a paramedic, and later as a doctor in a program for people experiencing homelessness. This person was reacting to a video clip about San Francisco‘s sit-lie ordinance, and to unkind remarks by other commentators:

If people could overcome addictions with a snap of the fingers, they wouldn’t be addictions, they would just be bad habits… You have no idea the barriers to housing — internal and external — that people face. We have a whole set of policies in place, from draconian drug laws, to public housing policies that essentially make evictees permanently homeless, that stand in the way. Then we put people into buildings where drug dealers knock on the doors all night trying to get you to buy drugs. These are collections of people whose mental illnesses often don’t mesh with each other at all. Then when they ‘fail’ in housing, we send them back to the streets with less stability and less chance at housing than they had before.

The organization Faith Advocates for Jobs, in the winter issue of its newsletter, named Looking Up at the Bottom Line as a “Books of Note” recommendation. This is, of course, the book we see over on the right-hand side of the page, written by Richard R. Troxell, and it is the place to find out how the Universal Living Wage can help you, me, and everybody.

For The Libertarian Alliance (a think tank headquartered in Britain), Kevin Carson wrote a lengthy and well-considered piece on Looking Up at the Bottom Line.

In July, when Austin’s city government announced the sale of a dozen subsidized homes, KUT News reporter Nathan Bernier interviewed Richard. The good news is, the construction of these houses was part of an ongoing program which had already put 30 families into houses. The bad news is, despite the city’s administering nearly 2,000 low-income units, and managing the Section 8 voucher program which affects 5,000 units, both programs have waiting lists numbering in the hundreds of applicants. Richard says,

Most of our ‘affordable housing’ programs have nothing to do with homelessness… We’re talking about people who don’t have anything, and don’t qualify for anything.

Instead, he thinks better results could be obtained by creating a living-wage jobs program that would help homeless people work their way off the street. While roughly half of the people experiencing homelessness in Austin (and the nation) are so disabled they cannot work, the other half are capable of working and indeed want to work. Meanwhile, House the Homeless has been kept extremely busy dealing with the citywide restructuring of funding for all social services that caused the Salvation Army, the Children’s Shelter, and Legal Aid to lose city funding.

John Joel Roberts, of PovertyInsights.org, cited Richard’s book in The Huffington Post article, relating its message to his own locale of Los Angeles:

… [T]he average rent for a one-bedroom apartment, as of May 2011, is $1,315 per month. Many housing experts believe that in order for a person to be able to pay for housed-living (such as food, utilities, transportation and clothing), a person should not pay more than one-third of his monthly income toward rent. That means in Los Angeles, the homeless man standing near the freeway needs to earn $22.76 per hour to afford the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment… Minimum wage in Los Angeles, however, is only $8 per hour. A person earning this rate could barely pay his rent, and would have nothing for food, utilities or anything else. In other words, he would be sitting in an empty apartment, darkened because of no electricity, and hungry because of not enough income to buy food.

If it makes sense to you that a person working 40 hours a week should be able to afford a roof over his or her head other than a bridge, then the Universal Living Wage makes sense too. Every member of Congress and every state Governor have been sent a copy of Looking Up at the Bottom Line. So has the President. Why not write or email them? Tell them that Troxell’s idea will stabilize small businesses, stimulate the housing industry and the economy generally, end economic homelessness for over one million minimum-wage workers, and prevent it for all 10.1 minimum-wage workers, including our returning veterans.

Reactions?

Source: “Homeless React to Sit/Lie,” MissionLocal.org, 11/11/10
Source: “Richard R. Troxell. Looking Up at the Bottom Line: The Struggle for the Living Wage,” The Libertarian Alliance: Blog, 04/27/11
Source: “City Selling 12 Subsidized Homes For $110,000 Each,” KUT News, 07/05/11
Source: “Unlivable Wages Mean Unlivable Conditions,” The Huffington Post, 06/09/11
Image by jdn (Jack Newton), used under its Creative Commons license.

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Homeless in the Capitol of America

El ParqueEric Sheptock, the media-savvy “Homeless Homeless Advocate,” has posted a 14-minute video detailing the events of 2011 in Washington, D.C. He gives a little of the back-story of homeless activism in the nation’s capitol, especially the years-long battle for the Franklin School Shelter which was finally closed. (Recently, an attempt was made to re-occupy it, which is a whole separate story.)

Yes, Washington has initiated a permanent housing program, but when the last count was made (January 2011), the capitol city of the greatest country in the world still contained at least 6,546 people experiencing homelessness.

Sheptock makes a conclusion and offers a solution:

In spite of the programs that are being created, we can’t seem to house people more quickly than they become homeless… We need to figure out how people are becoming homeless, and we need to capture them before they enter shelters

The analogy he makes is a leaky water supply in a house. Sure, you mop the floor — but first, you shut off the water. “You stop the flow into homelessness and then you clean up what you already have,” says Sheptock. Hopes were raised when Washington acquired a mayor who came to the position via the Department of Human Services. Unfortunately, the effect of that coincidence was negligible, because in April the mayor’s budget proposal indicated a $20.5 million shortfall for homeless services because of a reduction in federal funding.

Somehow, D.C. shelters had been managing to operate year-round. But the budget cuts would mean that they would scale back to only being open during the five coldest months of the year, which is the bare minimum required by the city’s law. It looked for a while as if all the shelters in Washington were fated to close in April of 2012, not to reopen again until November.

After the mayor’s announcement, 250 activists showed up at City Hall urging the government to find the money somewhere. A sub-group from Coalition of Housing and Homeless Organizations started meeting even more often at the Community for Creative Non-Violence, where Sheptock lives. The upshot, as described in one of his website reports, was:

After we put enough public pressure on them, they found $17 million for shelter (while taking $18.4 million from the fund that creates affordable housing — an asinine move, to say the least). We thought that the shelters were saved (and lamented the loss of funding for affordable housing).

This same blog entry also critiques a couple of other federal institutions, starting with the president, who visited what is probably the country’s largest shelter without saying anything about what he planned to do about ending homelessness:

It only took him 2 years and 8 months of being in office to ride the 1 mile or so from the White House to the shelter which sits right on the edge of Capitol Hill… Still, that’s more than I can say for the U.S. Department of Labor. Their building is right across the road from this ginormous shelter and they’ve yet to walk over and see what they can do to employ its residents.

Of course, there are more problems. Federal funding for Section 8 housing vouchers in Washington was threatened with a 50% cut, and then the cut was changed to a smaller proportion. That’s the kind of thing that passes for good news these days.

As we know, it takes time for the gathering and collation of statistics to catch up with reality. Sheptock gives the figures from the Washington metro area between January 2008 and January 2009, during which time the number of homeless families grew by 25%. He goes on to say:

All over the country, the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population is families… You see, when individuals become homeless, folks tend to blame that individual for their own missteps, whether it was drug addiction, or alcoholism, or not paying the rent, or some other personal vice. But when families become homeless, people tend to blame the economy. They’re more sympathetic to families that become homeless. But that sympathy doesn’t house people.

But hey — at least we’re not in Hungary! Last month, BBC News reported that Hungary has outlawed homelessness. Not only that, but its capitol city beats Washington, because Budapest has about 10,000 people experiencing homelessness. And the government has decided to solve that by making their very existence illegal, punishable by either a fine (money they obviously don’t have) or jail (which just costs the taxpayers even more money). Way to go, Hungary! The fact that America hasn’t quite reached such a point yet is, again, what passes for good news these days.

Reactions?

Source: “2011 State of Homelessness Address inour Nations Capital,” YouTube.com, 12/24/11
Source: “Obama Fails To Address Homeless Crisis While at Kitchen,” streatstv.blogspot.com/, 09/15/11
Source: “Hungary outlaws homeless in move condemned by charities,” bbc.co.uk, 12/01/11
Image by Daquella Manera (Daniel Lobo), used under its Creative Commons license.