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Celebrities and Homelessness

Susan SarandonSomewhere over 630,000 Americans are living on the streets or in shelters, says the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Ordinary people are helping in a lot of ways. They donate to Project Night Night, which distributes blankets, stuffed animals, and bedtime story books. They help out with food and vet bills for the pets of people experiencing homelessness. Starting right here on this page, they sign petitions and donate thermal underwear.

Another thing that people with talent resources do is they help tell the stories. Video blogger Mark Horvath of Invisible People is only one example. A lot of people join organizations like U.S. Vets, which has helped thousands of veterans find housing and jobs.

And what do celebrities do? Some prominent people also adopt homeless veterans as their cause. A rap musician known as T.I. (Clifford Joseph Harris, Jr.) has launched a global campaign called “Give Like a King.” Ruth Manuel-Logan reported that, in conjunction with the Veterans Empowerment Organization, the goal is to provide more in the way of housing, health care, food, counseling, and job training. Their strategy is a media campaign that will encompass print, the Internet, radio, television, and “even billboards.”

Actor and comedian Russell Brand reportedly spends more than $2,000 a month supplying food and clothing to people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles. A believer in individual autonomy, he also directly gives out cash. Sports star David Beckham has made news by visiting the Philippines and touring facilities for homeless children in Manila. Articulating his concern, Beckham said:

All these children have been failed by adults in the crucial early years of their lives. I would not be where I am today without the love and support of my parents — every child deserves that, every child deserves a second chance.

Another sports figure, Kobe Bryant, works with his wife to support their nonprofit organization whose main goal is to end youth homelessness. They think the problem is solvable, and work with such institutions as the already established My Friend’s Place. TV personality Kelly Osbourne is also a supporter of My Friend’s Place, having donated clothes from her own wardrobe. Another Los Angeles institution is the True Colors Residence, started by singer Cyndi Lauper for homeless youth.

Also in LA, the perpetually troubled Lindsay Lohan was at one point ordered to do community service at the Good Shepherd Center for Homeless Women, but they wouldn’t have her. Reassigning her to help at the morgue instead, the judge said of the Center:

They refused to take you because they said you’re a bad example for the women who are trying to get their lives in order.

On the other coast of America, Susan Sarandon has served meals at the New York City Rescue Mission where they also distribute gift bags to mothers and children. ABC News captured this wonderful quotation from the actor:

When you can recognize groups that are helping people through a bad time, it helps you to feel like maybe things aren’t so out of control to give a little. So it’s really very self-serving, you meet fabulous people.

Of course America isn’t the only place where the rich and famous inhabitants of the entertainment world contribute to alleviating homelessness. In her native country of Australia, Cate Blanchett is patron of the Homeless Short Film Competition which, with hefty prize money, encourages secondary school students to engage in citizen journalism and create awareness of homeless issues. In short, anyone, anywhere, can find something useful to do in the holiday season, or any time at all.

Reactions?

Source: “Rapper T.I. To Help Homeless Vets In ‘Give Like a King Campaign,’NewsOne, 12/14/12
Source: “David Beckham Visits Homeless Children: ‘They Risk Horrific Abuse’,” Entertainmentwise, 12/02/11
Source: “Lakers: Kobe, Vanessa help homeless,” OC Register, 06/08/11
Source: “ Susan Sarandon helps homeless mothers,” 7Online.com, 05/07/11
Source: “Cate Blanchett Launches Oasis: Homeless Short Film Competition,Just Jared, 04/06/11
Image by Incase.

1

Wal-Mart’s Untrammeled Greed

Walmart WorldCongressman Alan Grayson stirred things up a bit by making some audacious statements that inspired Katie Sanders of PolitiFact to check his sources. Grayson declared to the world, via The Huffington Post, that:

In state after state, the largest group of Medicaid recipients is Walmart employees. I’m sure that the same thing is true of food stamp recipients. Each Walmart ‘associate’ costs the taxpayers an average of more than $1,000 in public assistance.”

He also appeared on a TV show called “The Young Turks” and asserted that Walmart employees are the largest group of food-stamp recipients. These allegations didn’t fall out of a clear blue sky. Apparently, a lot of eyeballs scrutinize the figures, and they don’t like what they see. Sanders says:

Democrats and labor unions have long been critical of the non-union retailer and have recently been emphasizing that its low wages end up costing government because workers seek food stamps and other aid… Newspapers, lawmakers and liberal policy groups for years have analyzed which companies have large numbers of employees that seek public health insurance assistance.

Doesn’t everybody love Wal-Mart? Well, no. (Sanders explains that Wal-Mart is the corporation and Walmart is a store, but they seem to be used interchangeably.) Anyway, for being the biggest private employer in the country, the corporation pays relatively low wages.

Apparently, there is only data from less than half the states (24), and not all of those states keep track of the Medicaid numbers. But the Good Jobs First organization did look at state-run programs for people in nowhere-land, who neither earn enough to buy insurance, nor earn little enough to qualify for Medicaid.

Sanders takes the reader through examples of what goes on in the various states, with help from Phil Mattera of Good Jobs First. The trouble is, most of the information is eight years old. Apparently, more recent numbers are not available. But even if by some miracle all these numbers have been halved since then, it’s still too much.

Of all the companies in Florida, Wal-Mart has the most employees and their dependents eligible for Medicaid. Pennsylvania is in dire straits. Wal-Mart has 48,000 workers there, and one out of every six is signed up with Medicaid. The state (the taxpayer) kicks in around $15 million per year.

In Missouri, the corporation is the second biggest employer, and has the most people enrolled in the state’s Medicaid plan. Ironically, Missouri’s biggest employer is the state government, many of whose employees are occupied with counting the social costs incurred by the low wages paid by the second-largest employer.

On the question of food stamps, there are more recent statistics but fewer of them. It is known, for instance, that other Florida taxpayers subsidize $2.6 million per year worth of food assistance needed by Wal-Mart’s workforce. But going by what they had, PolitiFact rated Grayson’s claim “Mostly true.”

Trina Clemente is the author of a petition found at Change.org, which commits its signers to boycotting Walmart. She mentions that six members of the Walton family, who of course make their money from the corporation, have more of it than the combined wealth of the lowest 30% of American workers. The taxpayers are chipping in, paying for the employees’ food stamps and medical needs, so that a few Waltons can be richer than any human needs to be. Clemente writes:

Walmart workers are some of our country’s most vulnerable workers. Many of them are literally just a paycheck or two away from homelessness. Most already qualify for food assistance and Medicaid. With over 2 million employees and a large percentage of them having to rely on public assistance despite working, Walmart has managed to become the recipient of a huge transfer of public wealth (tax dollars) into private hands.

How many of the company’s employees actually are homeless is anybody’s guess. Chances are, they do their best to hide it. Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless, and National Chairman of the Universal Living Wage Campaign, makes this suggestion:

How about we make a deal with business? They can can pay for the homeless workers and we as taxpayers just pay for the disabled homeless. Now that seems fair.

Reactions?

Source: “Walmart: Listen to your workers and your customers,” Change.org, 2012
Source: “Alan Grayson says more Walmart employees on Medicaid, food stamps than other companies,” PolitiFact, 12/06/12
Image by Patrick Hoesly.

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Major Reversal: Economists Agree Minimum Wage Works!

Model T Ford

For many decades, economists have sounded nearly unanimous in their condemnation of the minimum wage. The consensus view among economists was that minimum-wage rules resulted in lower employment, and that the most uneducated and unskilled workers were those most likely to lose their jobs due to a mandatory minimum wage.

Well, the research is in, and the majority of economists were wrong! Surprise! Minimum-wage laws actually don’t reduce employment. In fact, they increase the welfare of minimum-wage workers and their employers.

Who says so? None other than The Economist, the house organ of the economics profession, the gold standard of consensus among economists. In a recent “Free Exchange” column, The Economist dishes the numbers on minimum-wage laws and begrudgingly concludes, “Whatever their flaws, minimum wage laws are here to stay.”

Why? Because “whatever their flaws,” they work. The Economist cites a slew of data about the effectiveness of minimum-wage laws that has become available recently — data which refutes the long-held belief that minimum-wage laws increase unemployment.

Much of this data comes from Great Britain, which introduced a national minimum-wage law in 1999. The British government requires a minimum wage equal to about 46% of median earnings — compared with a less generous 40% in the United States. When Great Britain instituted the national minimum wage “worries about potential damage to employment were widespread,” says The Economist, itself a major worrier. “Yet today the consensus is that Britain’s minimum wage has done little or no harm.”

In case you’re having trouble with the British accent, “little or no harm” means the law did quite a bit of good — by every measurable standard:

Not only has it pushed up pay for the bottom 5% of workers, but it also seems to have boosted earnings further up the income scale — and thus reduced wage inequality. Wage gaps in the bottom half of Britain’s pay scale have shrunk sharply since the late 1990s. A new study by a trio of British labour-market economists (including one at the Low Pay Commission) attributes much of that contraction to the minimum wage. Wage inequality fell more for women (a higher proportion of whom are on the minimum wage) than for men and the effect was most pronounced in low-wage parts of Britain.

Again, let me translate from the British: The minimum-wage law boosted wages at the very bottom of the earnings scale — and all the way up the scale! As Richard R. Troxell, head of the campaign for a Universal Living Wage has eloquently argued, greater income at the bottom leads to greater spending at the bottom, boosting the entire economy. It also leads to lower government spending, lower taxes, and lower budget deficits, as those at the bottom rely less on government subsidies.

How is that possible — for increasing wages to increase profits? The Economist thinks much more work needs to be done to understand the relationship between employment and the minimum wage. The magazine goes part way by explaining that increased wages at the bottom lead to less turnover which saves more money for businesses than the wage increase costs them.

This lesson was not lost on Henry Ford. He paid workers more and thereby reduced the costs of building a car while increasing his profits. All of this is laid out in Richard R. Troxell’s book, Looking Up at the Bottom Line: The Struggle for the Living Wage. While it’s gratifying to see The Economist finally reverse its kneejerk objections to a guaranteed living wage, they have a long way to go to make up for the delays caused by their previous incorrect statements about the mythical damage caused by a minimum wage.

Source: “The Argument in the Floor,” The Economist, 11/24/12
Image by bsabarnowl (Bill McChesney).

2

Some Things About Housing

Conestoga hutNews comes from Oregon that Erik de Buhr has designed a “Conestoga hut” that would provide shelter for people who don’t have any. That is, of course, if the city of Eugene decides to allot any piece of ground to contain them. The city council has been studying this issue for months, and apparently has not even progressed as far as checking to see how Conestoga huts fit in with the state’s building code.

Governments everywhere invoke the magic word “safety” when refusing to allow new housing solutions. They hold onto a quaint belief that it is more salubrious for people to sleep under bushes than in tents, shacks, shipping containers, or whatever. Any architecture student knows there are a hundred ways to create cheap shelters, using recycled materials and engineered to include at least some level of civilized existence. Inventing mini-shelters is not the problem. The problem is no place for them to be.

It seems a bit strange that effort is being put into building a better hut, at a time when there are empty buildings all over the landscape. Some groups are trying to make squatting acceptable, but that movement is losing traction even in Great Britain where it has long been an entrenched way of life.

Yes, it’s all very complicated, and the first question that occurs is, if anybody were to live in a foreclosed house, why not the people who were trying to buy it in the first place instead of some other homeless people? It’s all very complicated, but the bottom line is, thousands of people are homeless and thousands of buildings are empty. If America is as smart as it thinks it is, it needs to figure out a way to fix that.

In Austin, TX, the last elections included a $78 million housing bond which was defeated by a close 49-51% vote, despite the efforts of a very competent team. However, Prop. 17 passed, which will expand the available space in temporary shelters for women and children. Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless says:

We had realized that this was a responsible group of free thinkers who were likely to vote once informed, and vote they did.

The difference might lie in the way the women’s shelter issue was framed. In the public mind, it was associated with an actual person, Valerie Godoy, who was murdered while sleeping out in the open. The idea of permanent affordable housing might need the same kind of public relations. Maybe at this very moment there is an activist in Austin wondering what to do next. Maybe this is the project — to find a way of personalizing the need for housing, by concentrating on individuals. Humanize the story, one human at a time, for as long as it takes. For examples, see Invisible People, Underheard in New York, and numerous others.

Permanent housing — wouldn’t it create jobs? Couldn’t it even create a few jobs for people experiencing homelessness? Sure, there are a lot of homeless people who have some kind of paid work, but still can’t afford to live anyplace. And others are just plain unemployed. There is a reputable university in Austin. Couldn’t it think up a spectacularly innovative way to bring back a housing initiative that would do something good for the homeless, the housed, the business owners, the tourists — in short, everybody? And earn more renown for itself of course, for creating a win-win-win-win-win situation.

For many reasons, Austin has a unique opportunity to show every other American city how it ought to be done. In many ways, Austin has already charted the course. For example, Richard mentions this year’s Foundation Communities’ Annual Fund Raiser, which put a human face on the organization’s work, and not just one but many faces:

They showed videos of beautiful and affordable housing that Walter Moreau and his wonderful team have already brought to Austin. They brought out men, women and children whom they had helped. The individuals told their stories and told how getting their home had changed their lives.

Moreau’s accomplishments are further detailed on the Foundation Communities page, headed by its motto, “Creating housing where families succeed in Austin and North Texas.” When the organization won an award for Best Affordable Housing Intervention last year, this is the reason given by the “Best of Austin Critics”:

Foundation Communities creates housing for low-income folks through a holistic philosophy that includes literacy training, financial coaching, afterschool care, and counseling. This whole supportive web of services helps families stabilize, survive, and kiss the bad times goodbye.

Reactions?

Source: “Huts for homeless,” The Register-Guard, 12/08/12
Image of Conestoga Hut by The Register-Guard.

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Thermal Underwear Drive Starting Now

Starting today Austin residents and others are encouraged to donate winter clothing items and participate in House the Homeless’ Thermal Underwear Drive. The Thermal Underwear Drive is an annual event which has successfully raised money and clothing for people suffering from homelessness.

Today House the Homeless Founder Richard R. Troxell — and sidekick “Homie” — spoke with Austin’s Fox 7.

 

 

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High-Profile Homeless Activism

Lebowski Fest 2011Mega-successful novelist Danielle Steel was recently exposed by Catherine Bigelow as a secret giver, in a profile that is both fascinating and inspiring, especially the part about the teddy bears. Steel, who in her childhood wanted to become a nun, has gone through some rough experiences and developed a lot of empathy. One of her children died, and because he had always been good to people experiencing homelessness, she became a quiet activist.

The novelist not only started the Yo! Angel! Foundation, but went out and did hands-on work herself — not once, and not once a year, but for several hours every month. It was only when other life circumstances led her to quit doing street work, that any of this became known. Bigelow writes:

Almost no one, except for the crew she worked with, her children and two close friends, had any idea that for 11 years, beginning in 1998, Danielle Steel would slip away from her Pacific Heights home under midnight shadows into a van filled with supplies to assist homeless people she sought out in the dark, dingy corners of San Francisco.

She quotes Steel as saying:

This work is totally addictive: Just one more time, just one more trip, just one more bag for one more person. You can never empty that ocean of homelessness. What I found on the street is there’s such a generosity of spirit and heart. It brought out the best in our team. The homeless were so kind to us, and we felt grateful to them. They gave us something every time.

A website called Look to the Stars covers “the world of celebrity giving” and keeps the public informed on the favorite causes that actors and other show business pros donate to, and help raise funds for. A page devoted to the Los Angeles Mission, for instance, lists 27 of that organization’s year-round supporters, as well as those who come out to help serve Thanksgiving dinner to the homeless. From amongst the 3,019 public-spirited entertainment professionals, the site sorts out the “top celebrities” according to their activism — including Angelina Jolie, George Clooney, Annie Lennox, and Bono.

Despite all this, Nadia Gomos, who has herself experienced homelessness, examined Look to the Stars with a critical eye, and wrote for The Huffington Post:

People by and large have no desire or interest in helping the homeless. They do not want to help people who are mentally ill, drug and alcohol addicts and the poor… People want a cause or campaign they can relate to, something that makes them feel good about themselves. That is why the most popular causes are animals and poor children; they are helpless. Because of the stigma associated with homelessness, they are not considered helpless but are considered lazy and irresponsible.

To most of the world homelessness is a problem that needs to be contained and not solved.

Gomos concludes that homelessness is a relatively unpopular cause, and regrets that no celebrity has adopted the cause to the exclusion of all others. There is another side to the story, however. Any celebrity who said, “No, thank you, I only do homelessness,” would be very unpopular among fellow celebrities, who would then be unwilling to help with their events or publicity. It’s only natural that any celeb who helps at all will help in multiple ways.

Jon Bon Jovi’s Soul Kitchen project has registered 20,000 “likes” on Facebook. Located in New Jersey, the restaurant has no set prices, but asks for donation, or people can pay for their meals by working. The singer’s Soul Foundation is also involved in another project, reports Dr. Robin Wulffson, in cooperation with the departments of Veterans Affairs, Health and Human Services, and Housing and Urban Development. It’s a competition called the Project REACH Developer Challenge:

The contest challenges the community to create a free, easy-to-use Web and smartphone app that provides current, real-time information regarding housing, health clinics, and food banks to homeless veterans.

Actors and pop culture heroes offer things for auction via the new “eBay Celebrity” platform, and whatever the highest bidder pays goes straight to a designated charity. One of the early adapters was Brad Pitt’s Make it Right Foundation, which builds houses for people left homeless by the New Orleans disasters.

Jeff Bridges, “The Dude” from The Big Lebowski (shown on this page), is an actor who inspires instinctive trust. A couple of months ago, he made news by manning a donation point outside a supermarket in Santa Barbara, CA. Reportedly, the effort filled up two vans with food and hygiene products for people experiencing homelessness. But that’s not all. Bridges then made a tour of salons asking for, and getting, donations from women who were having their nails done.

Even the First Lady has gotten into the picture. Michelle Obama’s gardening book, American Grown, includes a section on donating garden bounty to those in need. The White House has donated about a third of the crops from Mrs. Obama’s garden to Miriam’s Kitchen, a Washington, D.C., social services agency that provides meals for the homeless.

Reactions?

Source: “Danielle Steel’s secret forays to aid homeless,” SFGate, 11/19/12
Source: “Celebrity Charity News, Events, Organizations & Causes,” LookToTheStars.org
Source: “Homelessness Is Not a Popular Cause,” The Huffington Post, 07/31/12
Source: “Bon Jovi sparks project to help homeless veterans,” Examiner.com, 06/06/12
Source: “Introducing eBay Celebrity,” eBay Stories, 11/12/11
Source: “Jeff Bridges: Kind to The Homeless,” Showbiz Spy, 09/27/12
Image by vidmon (Joe Polletta).