Austin’s Great Opportunity

Austin Morning on Ladybird LakePartly because it is in a state of creative revival, Austin, TX, is in a special, perhaps a unique, position to show the world how a city can end homelessness. We referred to the plan created by Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless. Now his latest published work is in the March issue of The Progressive Populist, and it’s called “Restore opportunity with a Living Wage.”

What makes Austin so wonderful? A place can be remarkable for a while, then become ordinary. Despite many changes over the years, Austin somehow still retains the cachet of cool. When a writer of Michael Ventura’s caliber makes a place home, you know it’s got something going for it. There are countless excellent visual artists and all kinds of other creative people in and around Austin, and, of course, the legendary music scene.

The music history of Austin is nothing short of awesome, in the original, non-cliche sense of the word. From the long-gone Armadillo World Headquarters to the amazing SXSW festival, those factors and a thousand more have made it the music capital of the Southwest, and a world-class music town.

There is another Richard, whose last name is Florida. His book, The Rise of the Creative Class, chose only two places as examples of the top-level creative city, one across the Atlantic (Dublin, Ireland) and one in the USA, namely, Austin. Florida goes into great detail about how Austin exerted itself to “build the kind of habitat required to compete and win in the Creative Age.” In his view, the three legs on which Austin’s superiority rest are the cultural scene, the high-tech industrial (nerd) sector, and the music scene. He writes:

Austin includes traditional nerdistan developments to the north, lifestyle centers for cycling and outdoor activities, and a revitalizing university/downtown community centered on vibrant Sixth Street, the warehouse district, and the music scene.

In researching his book, Florida spoke with several people for whom relocating to or staying in Austin was the most important factor when they made a job decision. One informant said:

I can have a life in Austin.

Back in the autumn of 2009, journalist Marc Savlov interviewed people experiencing homelessness, who are as likely as housed people to be the victims of street crime. If predators are among the homeless, other street people are the easiest prey to catch. Some interviewees expressed regret that hardcore boozers and addicts give everybody a bad name. An informant known as J. D. said:

One thing that would really help decrease the numbers of homeless in Austin is if the city could try to raise public awareness of the fact that there’s a difference between ‘crackheads and alcoholics’ and ‘homeless people.’

Austin struggles with the same issues as any other city, because the homeless are everywhere. Sometimes the reactions are illogical. Savlov says:

Tackling the homelessness issue while trying to find a way to improve quality of life for everybody — housed and houseless alike — is tantamount, as virtually everyone interviewed for this article can attest, to saddling a Hydra.

The journalist explored some of the issues that plague the city, and talked about the Great Streets Program, described as:

… an urban redevelopment effort that would include widening of sidewalks for cafe-style dining, abundant shade-producing trees lining the streets, and a higher concentration of mixed-use retail space alongside existing bars and music venues… While not specifically an anti-crime measure, Great Streets brings in more people at leisure — and a higher number of people is a natural deterrent to crimes of opportunity.

With all due respect, something is left out here. The implication is that crime is only prevented when “people at leisure,” i.e., housed people who are relaxing from their jobs, are out and about. But the homeless occupy urban spaces too. Having them around, as some of the ears and eyes making up that “natural deterrent to crimes,” can’t be such a bad thing.

Cities are shared with the homeless, whether the housed people like the situation or not. In the profound words of a bumper sticker, “It is what it is.” And starting from there, it can change if we change some of our ways of thinking about it.

Ace Backwords points out, in Surviving on the Streets, that street people perform the valuable service of utilizing some of the material goods that would otherwise go to the landfill. By recycling some of the detritus of a wasteful society, the homeless help to reduce our collective guilt over squandering the earth’s resources. Backwords makes another point:

The nocturnal life… can be seen as a public service that we perform to help alleviate the crowdedness of city life. We’ve volunteered to go on the night shift…

Another thing Richard Florida said is, members of the Creative Class choose Austin because:

What they look for in communities are abundant high-quality amenities and experiences, an openness to diversity of all kinds, and above all else the opportunity to validate their identities as creative people.

So, let’s think about high-quality amenities, not just for the folks lucky enough to be employed in high-tech jobs, but for everybody. Openness to diversity means just that, and some of the diverse kinds of people to be found in this city, like any other, are people experiencing homelessness.

Now, here’s the biggie. All the creative people of Austin have a splendid opportunity to validate their creative identities by figuring out this homeless situation in such a way that it will set a shining example to the rest of the world, as the city has already done in so many other ways. If any place is up to the challenge, Austin is.


Source: “How to end homelessness in Austin: A plan,” CultureMap Austin, 02/08/12
Source: “Restore Opportunity with a Living Wage,” Populist.com, 03/01/12
Source: “Overview,” CreativeClass.com, 2004
Source: “Faces of Homelessness,” The Austin Chronicle, 10/09/09
Image by StuSeeger (Stuart Seeger), used under its Creative Commons license.


Test Case — Austin

Looking North on Waller Creek from Sixth StreetAustin, Texas, is seen as one of the finest cities in the country, one of America’s urban gems. For a long time, its reputation has been that of a liberal, progressive, enlightened city in the midst of a state that is not so much any of those things. Thanks to the “City of Austin Tax Increment Financing Reinvestment Zone No. 17,” aka the “Waller Creek Tunnel Project Final Project Plan,” which helpfully gathered the list, we see that Austin has bragging rights to a long and growing list of “bests” (link is PDF), including but not limited to:

1st place — “Best Large City for Relocating Families” in 2004
1st place — “Top 10 Cities for Hispanics to Live in” in 2005
2nd place — Top Creative Class Cities in 2002
2nd place — “Ten Greenest Cities” list in 2005
3rd place — “Best Places” for business and careers in 2005
6th place — Nation’s top tech hubs in 2005
11th place — “The 25 Best Running Cities in America”in 2005
One of the top 10 cities to be a dog in 2005.

Relevant to the last item, in 2011 it was announced:

Austin achieves 90 percent live animal outcome; reaches no-kill status… by achieving a 90 percent live-animal outcome for all animals that enter the Town Lake Animal Center.

Now, that’s admirable, and no animal should ever suffer, but here’s the thing. Hopefully, it won’t get to where the kill rate for stray creatures is more favorable than the kill rate for homeless people. Austin may be a great place for a dog, but it’s not so wonderful for a lot of folks. This could change. Hopefully, now more than ever, Austin is capable of looking through reasonable eyes at people experiencing homelessness and seeing more than just a nuisance to be gotten rid of.

Sure, some down-and-outers are never gonna make it. But — and this is a very important but — like any other metropolis, Austin has not just a social and fiscal liability on its hands, but, at least partially, a talent pool of potentially useful and contributing citizens.

Last week, we talked a little about the article recently published by Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless. Titled “How to end homelessness in Austin: A plan,” it is part of CultureMap’s Imagine Austin’s Future series. Richard believes that the Universal Living Wage will end homelessness for about half of Austin’s homeless population. Nationwide, the number is projected as 1,000,000. That would add up to a lot less stress for government agencies and helping organizations.

House the Homeless has devoted a lot of time and energy to assessing the health status of Austin’s homeless population, and arrived at some troubling conclusions. One is that a lot of homeless people are just plain incapable of holding down a job, because of disabilities and other health issues. Of the homeless who are capable of working, most would love to be employed.

And, big surprise, a lot of people experiencing homelessness are employed now, possibly even at more than one job. And still can’t make ends meet. They are what Richard calls the economic homeless. He writes:

… [A]s it stands now, a person can work a full time job and still not be able to afford basic rental housing either in Austin or any city in the U.S…. [F]or those who can work, we need to fix the Federal Minimum Wage (FMW, currently $7.25 per hour)… By simply indexing the FMW to the local cost of housing using HUD Fair Market Rents, we ensure that anyone working 40 hours in a week will be able to afford basic rental housing.

For people who can’t work, the solution, he believes, is to increase Supplemental Security Income, which presently only adds up to half of what a minimum-wage earner makes. If even some jobholders are unable to find housing, imagine how much more difficult it is for people who only make half that much.

Yes, it might cost the taxpayers more. On the other hand, it might not, if the taxpayers would ever take more of an interest in how much money is wasted by government (or disappears into places it’s not supposed to be). Maybe there are places where the money could be found without having a tax impact. Surely, somebody can figure out this stuff. Molly Ivins, where are you now, when we need you so much?

Just to put things into perspective, here is Richard’s capsule description of another lengthy, uphill local effort:

About 12 years ago, advocates organized to create and pass housing bonds. After about ten years, the bonds were passed and money for 350 units of housing was set aside for people experiencing homelessness. Only about a third of this housing has been created. Do the math. How many decades to house 4,000 people at that rate?

He closes with:

In overview, we can see that with clear vision, new perspective and collectively involving the city, the citizens of Austin, federal and state governments and the business community in a fair, equitable, balanced and profitable fashion, we can end homelessness as it exists today.

Austin has a splendid opportunity to set an example of how to do the most beneficial thing for the biggest number of people. Austin is a test case whose success could revolutionize the homeless scene and influence policy, for the better, in other cities. It’s the chance of a lifetime to make a whole lot more “best” lists.


Source: “Tax Increment Financing Reinvestment Zone No. 17 (Waller Creek Tunnel Project)” (PDF), ci.austin.tx.us March 2008
Source: “City and County Notes—March 2011,” ImpactNews.com, 03/25/11
Source: “How to end homelessness in Austin: A plan,” CultureMap.com, 02/08/12
Image by William Beutler, used under its Creative Commons license.


Even the Best Band-Aid Is No Cure

DormitorioLast week, Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless accepted the invitation from Austin’s CultureMap to contribute to a special editorial series called “Imagine Austin’s Future.” The best thing to do is just read “How to end homelessness in Austin: A plan” in Richard’s own words. His theme is:

My vision for Austin is a community without homelessness.

There are about 4,000 people experiencing homelessness in Austin now, and that includes plenty of women and kids. Also, there are just over 600 emergency shelter beds. As a wise man once said, “You do the math.”

At a rough estimate, it sounds like there’s a place for only one out of six: 1/6th, more or less, give or take. Yes, the emergency shelter beds that exist are very excellent, but here’s the bottom line. Society has to come up with either (a) a way to create more beds or (b), shocking as the idea may seem, a way to bring the homelessness statistics way, way down — by creating conditions where there are not so many people experiencing homelessness. Maybe not even any.

Until then, House the Homeless continues to set aside a month every Autumn to raise money for thermal underwear, which is better than no shelter at all. Austin’s Thermal Underwear Drive happens in November, right after the annual memorial service for those who have died on the streets, both recently and in all the preceding years.

Of course, Austin isn’t the only city ever to hold a collection drive for winter gear. But it may be the most dedicated. This year, $20,000 in donations bought 3,500 items of clothing to keep people warm. Well, warm-ish. Warmer than they would have been without these welcome additions to their wardrobes.

Now, think about this. Suppose you’re a person experiencing homelessness, and you receive a set of thermal long-johns. You need to strip down to your skivvies in order to put on the new stuff. And it would be extra nice to have a wash in the process. Where can a homeless person do that? In surprisingly few places.

Okay, suppose you’re lucky enough to have a shelter bed for the night, and even the opportunity to catch a shower. So you sleep in your thermal underwear and get up the next day and go outside, and guess what? It’s a little bit too hot to be wearing a layer of insulation all day, outdoors. But, say, the shelter is closed during the day. Where can you go to take off your clothes, remove the thermal underwear, stow it in your pack, and get dressed again? Probably nowhere. Even in a seemingly remote place, there’s always the danger of an observer or a camera, and then you get arrested for indecent exposure.

When the afternoon turns really hot, suppose you can find a place to remove the underlayer. A few hours later, you have to find somewhere to strip down again and get into the warm clothes. This means taking off your shoes and removing the outer layers; preferably in a secluded and not-too-cold place. You have to set down the pack and other belongings, and, of course, a state of undress always puts a person at a disadvantage. In other words, just to prepare for the cold night, you would have to put yourself in an extremely vulnerable situation.

But cheer up, there is an alternative. You can resign yourself to just wearing the thermal underwear all the time, even throughout a warm winter day. It’s extremely uncomfortable to roast in too many clothes, especially if your day includes a long walk to some office to fill out some papers. Of course, you will perspire, and suffer the consequences of offending the noses of the housed citizens who have access to toilets and showers any time they wish.

The message here is, YES, it is a great and important thing to help by providing winter underwear! We will all keep on doing it! But it helps to bear this in mind: Thermal underwear is not a solution. It’s a band-aid for a gaping wound in the body of society. There’s still a bunch of people out there in the cold! Nobody who is reading this needs to be reminded — it’s not enough to give to the Thermal Underwear Drive, and then forget about the homeless until next November.

Remember the part about creating a city and a world where few or no people would experience homelessness? If you haven’t done so already, please see Richard’s solution. His article is titled “How to end homelessness in Austin” for a reason.


Source: “How to end homelessness in Austin: A plan,” CultureMap.com, 02/08/12
Image by Daquella manera (Daniel Lobo), used under its Creative Commons license.


From Head to Toe

Brian Gets ShornHere are a few excerpts from Doing It Homeless, the website created by Kendoll, an actor/Web designer who lives in his car in Los Angeles. His advice to other homeless men is, invest in electric clippers which, although a big-budget item to a pauper, save lots of money in the long run. Learning to cut your own hair, even the back, is not so hard, he says. He also discusses body hair (we won’t) and beards.

This is Kendoll:

Ok, this one’s tricky, if you’re finna rock facial hair, just keep it trimmed and LINED UP! Don’t do the scraggly thing, it’s not crackin’… if you want to keep growing, just line it up under your jawline and below your cheekbones… Shaving cream is expensive… use Dove soap, it’s cheap, it’s thick (work to lather) and it protects from nicks and cuts. With no money, like me, your whole shaving kit shouldn’t exceed 10 dolla to make ya holla. Keep it clean!

Kendoll quotes football star Deion Sanders, who said:

If you feel good, you play good. If you play good, you get paid good.

Of course, a guy probably needs a few practice runs before accomplishing a home-grown haircut fit for a job interview. Thanks to various wonderful volunteers, there are places around America where people experiencing homelessness can get enough of a makeover to make a good appearance at an important appointment.

In Kansas City, MO, there’s Madalyn Wetzel, formerly an Army nurse and now a hair stylist. Long ago, she, her husband, and their baby boy were homeless. Times were bad, and she even pawned her wedding ring. A great deal of generous help was extended to the little family, and they eventually got on their feet, and Wetzel feels a need to give back.

Her good deeds are organized by a nonprofit group called Neighbor2Neighbor, which is housed in a church basement where meals and other services are provided. They arranged for Wetzel to use a corner of a thrift store as a barber shop, and she takes care of the guys with job interviews first. Reporter James Hart tells us that on her very first day, Wetzel gave 17 haircuts. By the time Hart approached her for an interview, she had been serving the homeless in this way for about a year.

In Annapolis, MD, the homeless women’s shelter called Willow House is one of the sites covered by Rob’s Barbershop Community Foundation (RBCF), another nonprofit. Interestingly, its goal is phrased in terms of a service rendered to the people who give, not the ones who receive. Psychologically, this is probably very useful when the organization seeks funding. The organization’s webpage says:

Our mission is to provide comprehensive management to donors whose desire is to support projects that improve the grooming, hygiene and well-being of individuals who cannot afford regular personal care products and services… These products and services are directed to projects at residential, transitional, emergency housing facilities and Title One Public Schools. These projects ensure that those who are homeless, in treatment or wards of the State attend job interviews, work and/or school with a neat and clean appearance.

RBCF also operates a full-service barber shop at a site in Baltimore where 410 males are temporarily housed while taking part in drug treatment. There is also the new Lighthouse Shelter in Anne Arundel County, and participation in the annual Homeless Resource Day, where several hundred of the local people experiencing homelessness are given grooming services at no charge.

Another source says of founder Rob Cradle:

He started the foundation about 10 years ago and grew it to include six sites, but that number has been cut in half due to the poor economy and difficulty to raise money. The three salons cost roughly $130,000 a year to operate. Last year, the foundation provided over 6,000 free grooming services to homeless people.

Cradle says he spends about 4/5ths of each day raising money. He was named a People magazine hero a few years back, and been named as a “Give Back Day Hero” as well as receiving other well-deserved honors.

And now for something completely different — feet! Allan Appel wrote about an unusual and much-needed event for the New Haven Independent. Many Christian denominations practice foot-washing, especially on the Thursday before Easter, and a Connecticut church has taken an ancient ritual to the next level.

This new tradition was started two years ago by Trinity Episcopal Church and its homeless outreach program, “Chapel on the Green,” and even the bishop shows up to help. It’s not just a symbolic gesture, but a podiatry clinic. The parishioners not only wash the feet of 40 homeless visitors, but inspect for and treat medical problems. This includes a brief interview about the person’s general health, a wash, a foot massage, and a coat of lotion. Then, the person gets a new pair of socks and a $40 shoe store voucher:

According to Rev. Alex Dyer of St. Paul and St. James in Wooster Square, the average homeless person walks 8.5 miles a day. John Nelson… said 8.5 is nothing. ‘My feet is my money,’ he said, adding that he often covers 18 to 20 miles a day collecting cans and doing odd jobs. He sleeps in the city’s overflow shelter…

A nurse from the local health center’s homeless outreach program decides who has problems that need attention, like toes in danger of being lost to diabetes, and arranges to follow up with further care.

Thanks to selfless volunteers in communities across the nation, people experiencing homelessness get needed help and, even more important, the knowledge that society has not forgotten them.


Source: “Essential Male Grooming…for the income impaired,” Doing It Homeless, 12/09/10
Source: “Missouri woman offers free haircuts to the homeless,” KMOV.com, 10/07/11
Source: “Rob’s Barbershop Community Foundation,” RBCF.info
Source: “Grooming Services Help Homeless Move Toward Better Future,” Historic Annapolis, MD Patch, 02/13/11
Source: “Homeless Feet Washed,” New Haven Independent, 04/23/11
Image by Kevin Lawver, used under its Creative Commons license.