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Affording to Live

cost of rent

To rent a two-bedroom apartment in Hawaii, you need either a job that pays $31.68 per hour, or four minimum-wage jobs. Closer to 4.5, actually. In California, you need either a job that pays $26.02 per hour, or more than three minimum-wage jobs. And so on.

This is a much-simplified sample of the kind of information available from the report called “Out of Reach 2012,” compiled by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. You can download the entire report on its website, or various charts and graphs such as the one at the top left of the page, which is much easier to read in full size.

It would be interesting to have overlay maps, to see where all the empty foreclosed properties are, and the areas where the most people are away in jail, and where the largest concentrations of homeless people are, and several other variables, compared to these rent figures.

We learn from Aaron Sankin in The Huffington Post that the very most expensive place to live isn’t a state at all, but a metropolitan area which includes the District of Columbia and parts of Virginia and Maryland. By strange coincidence, this is the very area where the people who make the laws live, and also the ones who influence and reward the lawmakers on behalf of corporations. By another strange coincidence, Washington, D.C., our nation’s capital, contains an enormous number of people experiencing homelessness.

Across the nation, the rate of home ownership is the lowest since 1998, so, naturally, more people are looking for places to rent. Good luck with that, prospective renters! Reviewing the Out of Reach information, Sankin says:

The report notes that the number of low-cost rental properties around the country have shrunk as a growing fraction are converted into significantly more expensive units or left to fall into disrepair and taken off the market entirely. Between 2007 and 2010, the number of properties priced at under $500 per month dropped by one million, while those going for over $1,205 increased by two million.

Economic homelessness is the concept introduced by Richard R. Troxell in Looking Up At the Bottom Line. The economic homeless are the working poor who have some kind of a job, but don’t make nearly enough to rent even the most rudimentary and utilitarian kind of apartment.

If you want to get your heart broken, read about Project Fresh Start. At one point, Troxell obtained funding for a program in which 20 adults went through a “continuum of care” program, and found work and housing. Within two years, all were homeless again, not through personal failings or lack of trying, but because people just can’t live on what they make. Richard writes:

We had gotten downtrodden people engaged, brushed off, detoxified, job trained, placed in jobs, and into housing only to realize that they were destined to fail as the wage, set by the federal government, would not sustain them. This was a powerful epiphany.

Like any epiphany worthy of the name, this one led to action: the proposal for the Universal Living Wage. The idea is to fix the Federal Minimum Wage by indexing it to the local cost of housing throughout the United States. The military already does this. In many places, not all military personnel live within the borders of the installations. When the government calculates their off-base housing and separate rations allotments, it goes according to the geography and the local cost of living. It’s not rocket science.

At least 40% of people experiencing homelessness, are working at some point during the week. Clearly, the work ethic is there, but the wage to afford basic housing is not. Richard points out that minimum-wage gigs used to be “starter” jobs, just a dip of the toe into the water, to learn what the world of work is all about, before a person would move on to a career or a real job and a union membership, something more solid. But now, an American is more likely to be trying to support an entire family on a minimum-wage job, that is, if a job can be obtained at all.

But why tell the whole story here? Please accept this invitation to the Universal Living Wage website, where there is so much more. It opens up a new world of possibility.

Reactions?

Source: “Out of Reach 2012,” NLIHC.org, 2012
Source: “San Francisco Rents The Highest Of Any City In Country,” The Huffington Post, 03/14/12
Source: “Looking Up at the Bottom Line,” Amazon.com
Image of “Out of Reach 2012” map (left) is used under Fair Use: Reporting.
Chart of the right is by Pat Hartman.

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Homeless Hotspots at SXSW Cause Uproar

ClarenceThis year, the biggest news to come out of the SXSW festival had nothing to do with music or film. Even the technology angle was not the focus. No, it was the wording on the T-shirts of the 15 homeless people hired by BBH Labs to sell Internet access to visitors. (Some of their bios are available at the advertising company’s website.)

The problem is, each shirt proclaimed, for instance, “I’m Mark, a 4G Hotspot,” implying that Mark is a thing rather than a person. So the big complaint came from grammar wonks like TV personality Jon Stewart. Not from the people experiencing homelessness, who were delighted with the opportunity to be ambulatory “wifi hotspot managers,” even if it was only for a couple of days. They liked both the income and the chance to interact with the public in an unaccustomed way.

The “homeless hotspot” phenomenon was called shocking, disgraceful, shameful, dehumanizing, outrageous, undignified, demeaning, problematic, gimmicky, dystopian, and awful. BBH was accused of perpetrating a publicity stunt that used the homeless as a commodity or as vending machines.

Homeless advocate Mark Horvath came out in favor. Homeless advocate Maria Foscarini came out against. Newspapers as far away as Australia and Turkey picked up the story. The amount of media coverage is beyond belief. If Americans had paid a fraction of this attention to the multi-trillion-dollar bank bailouts, the entire political landscape might have been different.

First, reports from knowledgeable people on the ground, so to speak, in Austin itself. Mitchell Gibbs is on staff at Front Steps, the organization through which the participants were recruited. According to the Associated Press:

He was initially skeptical after being approached by BBH, but was won over by previous work they’ve done with the homeless. He put the offer to participants in the shelter’s Case Management Program, a step-by-step program to move people out of shelters and off the streets.

Melissa Gaskill, who writes about the city’s unique culture, points out that no one was forced to take these jobs, and no one appeared to be hurt by the experience. Her editor classified it as a “creative labor idea.”

Gaskill interviewed Alan Graham of Mobile Loaves and Fishes, who has worked with the homeless for years, and who characterized the whole thing as “brilliant.” He dismissed the charge of exploitation, because the workers were paid a fair wage, and besides, every commercial interaction in the world can be interpreted as exploitative.

The journalist recorded some very quotable words from Graham:

I thought it was a great way to call attention to the company and to people who really want to work. Every one of those guys doing it were having a great time, and none of them felt exploited… What people are really complaining about is that they don’t want to be faced with the homeless issue: not here, at an event that’s cool, hip, and fun and maybe a little elitist and materialistic.

Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless saw mostly positive reactions, and noted that there was also an inadvertent side benefit for other people experiencing homelessness in Austin, who might have gotten a little WiFi for their own electronic devices. This was a small-scale, short-term experiment, whose effectiveness may have been impossibly skewed by the firestorm of publicity.

Richard reminds us that for him and the people he represents, any plan to employ the homeless should first be about dignity and fairness. Hiring the homeless is a good deal if the employer pays a living wage — sufficient to afford basic food, clothing, and shelter (including utilities). Using their homeless status to promote the product or issue, not so good.

For Technorati writer Lorraine Esposito, the old saying was applicable — “No good deed goes unpunished.” Here is her summation:

The Good Deeds:

— Provide the needed Internet access to thousands of SXSW convention goers. Responding to the calls for service, BBH New York found a solution with a heart.
— Offer homeless people the prospect of earning money, connecting with people, and feeling self-respect and hope again. BHH invested equipment, mentorship, training, and created the infrastructure of support and publicity to enable homeless people to profit in this opportunity.

The Punishment:

— Criticism levied upon BBH for duping the homeless with a “demoralizing” exploitation of their need to earn money.
— Deny the privilege of employment. Media pressure forced BBH to cancel the project three days early.
— Humiliation and victimization of the homeless at the hands of the media, not BBH.

Besides, she asked one of the participants, Hurricane Katrina victim Clarence Jones, who said:

Everyone thinks I’m getting the rough end of the stick, but I don’t feel that. I love talking to people and it’s a job. An honest day of work and pay.

BBH denies that the experiment was terminated early. If it was, it’s a pity for the people who were hired. Plus, the public reaction might have spoiled things for the homeless of New York, too, because the ad agency had planned to put the program into effect there, and now that plan is on hold.

In The Daily Beast, Lee Stringer, who has personally been homeless, offered a spirited rebuttal to critics:

This was an initiative of a for-profit corporate entity. No-one’s jaw need drop open when they do this, even if non-domiciled persons are involved… I took in an average of $40 a day digging refundable cans and bottles out of the trash. There were others on the street who panhandled for cash. Given a choice, I’d take toting a WiFi modem around over both, as far as dignity is concerned. Plus, five minutes at it, me being me, and my customers would know who I am and what I am about.

The Huffington Post writer Tanene Allison — who has also experienced homelessness — made some acerbic remarks:

I’ve never heard so many thought leaders talk about homelessness before! Definitely not as many people expressed such outrage over the newly proposed policy in NYC, which would make it incredibly hard for homeless individuals to have access to even basic shelter… If all the thought and technology leaders gathered in Austin want to pause to talk about homelessness — imagine the great potential of good if they put their smarts, their abilities and their passions into creating new solutions.

Perhaps the most cogent suggestion of all was made by Austin’s Craig Blaha, who totally nailed it when he wrote for Technorati:

If Homeless Hotspots really pisses you off, protest by donating directly to Front Steps Shelter, the National Coalition for the Homeless, or your local homeless organization. Put your money where your mouth is and leave a note in the comments section telling us just how much you donated, and to which organization.

Reactions?

Source: “’Homeless Hotspot’ stunt stirs debate at SXSW,” KHOU.com, 03/13/12
Source: “Homeless hotspots at SXSW: Opportunity or just exploitation?,” CultureMap Austin, 03/15/12
Source: “Punishing the Homeless,” Technorati, 03/15/12
Source: “Don’t Be So Quick to Condemn the Homeless Hot Spots Idea, Writes Lee Stringer,” The Daily Beast, 03/14/12
Source: “What Happens When SXSW Meets Austin’s Homeless,” The Huffington Post, 03/14/12
Source: “Austin Homeless Hotspots,” Technorati, 03/15/12
Image by Jorge Rivas of Colorlines, used under Fair Use: Reporting.

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Homeless Children in America

Come see usIn a BBC documentary aired last month, the TV journalists visit a free health clinic where a nightmarishly endless hallway is lined on both sides with hopeful patients. It shows us Detroit, where there are plenty of empty houses, but people live in tent cities. Why does America have thousands upon thousands of empty buildings from sea to shining sea, while people live under tarps in the woods? What’s up with that?

In the documentary, an expert is interviewed, who says, if you ask poor families, “Did your children have enough to eat?,” the overwhelming bulk of them will say “Yes.” Hey, Mr. Expert, maybe they’re afraid that if they answer “No,” the child protection authorities will take their kids away and assign them to foster homes. The astonishing statement is made that a million and a half children are homeless in America.

The Campaign to End Child Homelessness says, “approximately 1.6 million American children go to sleep without a home of their own each year,” and a casual Googling finds the one-and-a-half-million number often repeated. But then the National Alliance to End Homelessness says:

On a given night, just over 636,000 people are homeless in the United States.

And only a fraction of the total is made up of children, so that comes out to way less than a million and a half. The problem here is, they’re talking about two different methods of counting. Not every child who becomes homeless stays that way forever. A lot of their families find accommodations, sooner or later.

Another set of information comes from The State of Homelessness in America 2012, a PDF report that can be downloaded from the linked page. Strangely, this report does not offer a count of children, per se, but includes them in the category “families with children.” It says:

The number of people in families with children makes up 37 percent of the overall population, a total of 236,181 people in 77,186 family households.

To count as a family household, there has to be at least one child, so at a very bare minimum, there are at least 77,000 homeless children at any given time. This report also talks about kids who “age out” of foster care, “throwaway children,” and unaccompanied homeless youth. Runaways count as homeless during their escapades, but most go home within a week.

So, at some point during any year, more than a million and a half children experience homelessness, even if only for a very short time. And, on any specific day or night, tens of thousands of children are unquestionably homeless.

Even if the numbers are not as large as we were led to believe, that is unfortunately no consolation. For each one of those unformed humans, every disruption, every move, every loss, every new set of people to get used to, every school switch, and every change of environment takes its toll.

House the Homeless mentioned the report from Child Trends, “When the Bough Breaks: The Effects of Homelessness on Young Children.” This is also a downloadable PDF file that tells us:

Lack of regular, stable housing, and the resulting transitions, can negatively affect children’s development, including their physical, social-emotional, and cognitive development. Children who are homeless may suffer from hunger, poor physical and emotional health, and missed educational opportunities.

We’re talking about three times the emotional and behavioral problems that housed kids have. We’re talking about hyperactivity, attention deficit, withdrawal, aggression, poor impulse control, anxiety, depression, sleep problems, learning disabilities, below-grade-level academic performance, and lower IQ scores. As a risk factor, being poor and homeless is much worse than being just plain poor. Just think, all these thousands of messed up kids are the future of America, and the future is not looking good.

A very recent Huffington Post story mentions research from Harvard’s Center on the developing child which warns of the bad consequences when the developing brain circuits of young children are interfered with. And what causes that interference? The stress of being homeless, or even housed and poor:

Over the past two decades, researchers have accumulated a mass of information about the effects of stress on young children. What they’ve found is that extreme and persistent stress can mold the architecture of the developing brain in lasting ways… kids who grow up poor are often exposed to circumstances that produce high levels of stress hormones, a condition known as toxic stress.

One of the issues discussed in the BBC documentary is the controversy over a politician suggesting that kids might be employed at assistant janitor jobs. He is accused of advocating child labor, perhaps unfairly — maybe he had teenage “kids” in mind. But what really upset some critics was the particular job he suggested, which involves mopping floors and cleaning bathrooms.

Guess what? There is nothing degrading in custodial work. The attitude that nobody should have to do cleaning work is absurd, because the environments we inhabit obviously need to be cleaned. In a hospital, where so many patients pick up infections, a conscientious janitor might save more lives in a day than a doctor does. The notion that something is wrong if a youth works as a cleaner is an insult to every person who ever held a maintenance job, the present writer included.

So forget that pointless nonsense. What about paying the grownups who hold those jobs sufficiently so their kids don’t have to even think about working, and can stay in school long enough to get a diploma? What about paying the adult janitors enough so their kids can sleep under a roof instead of in a car? Seems like that would be a much more productive topic for discussion. Please consider this your invitation to learn about possibilities offered by the Universal Living Wage.

Reactions?

Source: “Poor America – Panorama BBC,” YouTube.com, 02/13/12
Source: “Obama Budget: Congress Weighs Homeless Children’s ‘Toxic Stress’,” The Huffington Post, 02/16/12
Image by
Valerie Everett, used under its Creative Commons license.

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Children Experiencing Homelessness

Families WelcomeFor several decades, American children learned to read from primers that starred Dick and Jane, along with baby Sally, and Mother and Father, of course, and Spot the dog, and Puff the cat, and Tim the stuffed bear. They lived in a house with a wooden fence around it.

In the 1960s, consciousness arose that not all children are white, and textbooks changed. As social conventions evolved, fewer kids grew up in homes equipped with two parents. Assumptions about family situations could no longer be made. In class discussions and activities, teachers learned to tread carefully.

Now, we are in an era when it cannot even be taken for granted that a child sleeps beneath a roof. In the best-case scenario, home might be a church shelter, or a van. We are looking at a brand-new report (PDF format) from Child Trends, authored by Marci McCoy-Roth, Bonnie B. Mackintosh and David Murphey, and titled “When the Bough Breaks: The Effects of Homelessness on Young Children.”

It is worth pausing for a moment to remember the words of this traditional bedtime nursery song:

Rockabye baby, in the tree top.
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock.
When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall,
And down will come baby, cradle, and all.

The lyrics are strange indeed, considering that the purpose of a lullaby is to comfort a child into sleep. For too many children, the words are prophetic. The report says:

The National Center on Family Homelessness reports that more than 1.6 million children — or one in 45 children — were homeless annually in America between 2006 and 2010. It is estimated that 40 percent of homeless children, or roughly 640,000 over that timeframe, were under the age of six… Some homeless families are not using shelter programs. The HUD report found that approximately 21 percent were living in places not intended for housing (e.g., in public spaces, cars, etc.).

Unlike Dick and Jane of yore, a homeless child is likely to have only one parent, and that one is almost certainly the mother. According to the report:

… [F]amilies currently represent a much larger percentage of the shelter population than ever before. Similar to other families living in poverty, the typical homeless family is headed by a young, single woman in her 20s, with limited education (often less than a high school degree), with two children (one or both under the age of 6 years old).

Forget about Spot; a homeless child’s acquaintance with the animal kingdom is more likely to include bedbugs and rats. If she or he owns a teddy bear, it came from the annual fire department holiday toy drive or from a dumpster out back of a strip mall.

And the lack of pets and playthings is the least of their worries. The child experiencing homelessness is more likely to suffer from hunger than the housed counterpart. Homeless kids have more health problems and less access to doctors. It’s difficult for the youngest to get into preschool, and even if they can, the parents lack transportation to take them there.

Moving is traumatic in and of itself. Changing schools is traumatic in and of itself. A homeless child is likely to do both, several times, within the course of a year. This is known, in the social sciences trade, as “turbulence” and it’s not good. Turbulence leads to emotional and behavioral problems, and sometimes those problems are exacerbated by separation from parents and siblings, or even cause such separations to take place.

The report mentions foster care as a possibility. The times, they are a-changin’, and nobody keeps up with them better than Eric Sheptock, known as the Homeless Homeless Advocate.

After President Obama’s visit to Washington, D.C.’s biggest shelter, whose kitchen feeds 5,000 people every day, Sheptock not only reviewed the event, but listed some ways in which the President has both helped and failed the homeless. Perhaps Sheptock is unduly pessimistic, but based on recent occurrences, he foresees the danger of legislation that would mandate the removal of children from the custody of homeless adults:

Any parent who is homeless with a child will have the child taken away and put up for adoption. One might think that the government would take the money that it spends on adoption and put that toward housing the biological parent and their child(ren). But they’d much rather break-up families. Sad.

House the Homeless has said basically the same thing:

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?

Well, it’s one way to bring down the statistics. Children in foster care are not technically considered homeless, so it looks better on paper. Who cares if they are removed from families for no better reason than economic distress that could be relieved in better ways? The Child Trends report also notes that at least a quarter of homeless children have witnessed violence, and adds:

According to reports by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, more than 80 percent of mothers with children experiencing homelessness have previously experienced domestic violence, and their children are more likely to have emotional and behavioral problems.

Richard R. Troxell points to an important source of information on the critical connection between violence and economics, a government study titled “When Violence Hits Home: How Economics and Neighborhood Play a Role.” Created under the auspices of John Ashcroft, it says:

Women living in households with high incomes experienced less violence at the hands of their intimate partners than did women whose households were less financially secure. The results showed a very consistent pattern: As the ratio of household income to needs goes up, the likelihood of violence goes down.

In other words, although domestic violence is found at every economic stratum and in every kind of home, it tends to show up more often when money is tight. It’s stressful when the bills are overdue. Sometimes the stress leads to drinking, which means even more expenditure and, often, to violence.

Sometimes there is a complicated family dynamic in which, even if the woman is capable of bringing some income, the traditionally minded man refuses to allow it and tension springs from that. Sometimes the woman works and makes a higher salary, and the man has to reclaim superiority, in his own mind, by knocking her around.

Often, there just plain isn’t enough of anything, and tempers get short. Frustration grows, and to a man in a financial mess, it can seem like someone must be to blame, and that someone has to pay the price. One of the common variations of domestic violence as practiced by males is to refrain from hitting the kids, but the wife comes in for even more abuse, sacrificing herself to protect the kids. Even children who were never directly hurt suffer from long-term emotional scarring, as we are told by child development professionals. Witnessing violence of one parent against the other can be as traumatic as direct victimization.

The Ashcroft study is found at a government site of the National Institute of Justice, and can also be located via the Universal Living Wage page,  by clicking on the “What’s New” button and scrolling to November 22, 2007. This method is more useful, because a person can also become acquainted with the history of the thought and the public events behind the development of the Universal Living Wage.

Reactions?

Source: “When the Bough Breaks: The Effects of Homelessness on Young Children,” ChildTrends.org, Feb. 2012
Source: “Obama Fails To Address Homeless Crisis While at Kitchen,” Tick Tock Sheptock, 09/15/11
Image (modified) by Valerie Everett, used under its Creative Commons license.