2013 HtH Civil Rights Survey Summary


On January 1, 2013, House the Homeless (HTH) held its 13th annual Thermal Underwear Giveaway Party. While there are between 4,000 and 6,000 people experiencing homelessness in the Austin Metropolitan area, there are only 607 emergency shelter beds for every man, woman, and child.  This means that literally thousands of people will find themselves left out in the cold again this winter. 

One of our goals is to reduce the number of names read in November at the House the Homeless Annual Memorial Service (146 names of people who died in poverty were read this year). To that end, HTH outfits all takers with hats, gloves, socks, rain ponchos, scarves, and life-saving thermal underwear. Each year at this event, we invite participants to complete a survey that reflects upon their condition of homelessness.

This year, our focus is on the civil rights of people experiencing homelessness. Volunteers of HTH provided a 17-question survey. The survey team was led by Robbin Polter who interacts on a daily basis with people experiencing homelessness.

House the Homeless is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization made up of homeless and formerly homeless persons and those wishing to end homelessness as it exists today. Established in 1989, we believe that the best way to respond to homelessness is by involving those immediately suffering its condition. Rather than make assumptions about that condition, we strive to hear what people have to say about their situation and involve them in creating and pursing viable options. Below is an excerpt.

Thank you,

Richard R. Troxell


Survey Results:

A little over 630 people attended the event. Of those attendees, 208 completed the survey, or about one-third.

1. Completing the survey, 170 respondents were male and 47 were female. This would indicate that a greater percentage of women than men participated in completing the forms as past surveys place the female population at between 10-15% of the overall homeless population in Austin.

2. The average age of all respondents taking the survey is 45.

3. Responding were 33 veterans and 175 non-veterans (veterans comprised 18% of the total respondents.) A past HTH survey of 600+ people placed homeless veterans at 28% in Austin. Nationally, the percentage, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless, is 33% of the overall homeless population.

4. 74 people, or 36%, said that they had been hurt or abused for being homeless. The nature of what constitutes “abuse” was not specified.

5. Specifically, 28, or 13%, said that they had been sexually assaulted while experiencing homelessness.

6. Only 8%, or 16 people, reported the sexual assault to the authorities.

7. Only half of those reporting the assaults, or 8, said that the actions of the authorities satisfied them.

8. Without asking the respondents’ gender, we learned that 25 people, or an overall 12% of the respondents, took a partner in order to avoid sexual harassment.

9. Without stating the specific nature of denial, 56 people, or 27% of respondents, reported having been turned down for housing due to their condition of being homeless. Circumstances are unknown.

10. Of the 208 total respondents, 95 people, or 46%, said a police officer had given them a ticket for sitting or lying down even though the individual had told the police officer they were disabled or too sick to move.

A previous HTH survey indicated that 48% of the people surveyed then were so disabled that they could not work. This shows consistency across the samplings.

Sadly, this question was posed more than one year after HTH had successfully worked with Austin City Council Members to bring the No Sit/ No Lie Ordinance in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. This response suggests that enactment of the changes has yet to reach its fullest potential.

11. An overwhelming 64% of people reported having been told to “move on” by police without first having been given a reason or an opportunity to comment. This indicates that not all peace officers have fully embraced the tenets of the Americans with Disabilities Act and determined the underlying cause behind the individual sitting or lying down before responding to the situation.

12. Specifically, 18%, or 37 people, said that, as a disabled person, they were denied a 30-minute warning period before they were ticketed for sitting or lying down.

13. While solicited to come to the downtown area to apply for services, 51% (more than half ), reported that they had been turned away from either the ARCH or the downtown Salvation Army due to lack of room.

14. Having been turned away for shelter, and having explained this to the police, 66, or 32% of the survey respondents, still received a ticket for either sleeping or camping. This has been ruled unconstitutional in Miami, Florida, based on the “necessity” defense.

15. 68 people, or 33%, stated that they had their ID taken by a police officer and not returned. Loss of identification can be a costly and time-consuming replacement event. While this may or may not be an intentional act, the frequency of occurrence would seem to be cause for concern.

16. 77 people, or 37% of those surveyed, had their belongings taken or destroyed by police without being given a receipt or contact person to see about retrieving their belongs. Again, such action in the Miami-Dade, Florida, courts has resulted in settlements that favor the injured parties at considerable/needless cost to the municipality.

17. 98, or 47% of the survey respondents, have been given a ticket with a court date only to show up on that date and be told to return sometime in the future either because the accusing officer did not show up and/or because the ticket had not yet been processed in the system.

HTH has been told this is a regularly occurring event with multiple returns per ticket. Note that if at any time, the person experiencing homelessness fails to report on the assigned/reassigned date, the ticket “goes to warrant” and the individual becomes subject to arrest and jail time. A class “C” misdemeanor (e.g., no camping ticket) is a criminal offense and serves to be one a more barrier to housing, employment, and escaping homelessness.

Image by roboppy (Robyn Lee).


Counting the Homeless, Sort Of

Confucius ChristmasBack in 2005, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) activated a plan that would attempt to get a handle on the number of Americans experiencing homelessness. Each community would be responsible for counting and reporting their totals. These “point-in-time” surveys would ultimately determine how much federal money would flow to the community to address the problem. There seems to be a fair amount of latitude in how they go about it.

The enumerators might be volunteers or paid. In some places, they go around on foot, but a lot of the counting is done “drive-by” style. The count is supposed to include people who sleep outside; in substandard housing (no toilet, or washing, or cooking facilities); in HUD’s transitional housing programs; and one-night-at-a-time shelters.

Confusingly, on alternate years there is supposed to be a “full count” that includes couch-surfers squeezed in with family members or friends, people scheduled for release from corrective custody or hospitals, and those in permanent supportive housing, although HUD no longer considers them technically homeless.

The first time Los Angeles County did a homeless census, they scheduled it over three days, and used both temporary employees (at $10 per hour) and volunteers, some driving their own vehicles. The 1,200 personnel went out in pairs, into a territory divided into 500 pieces.

Carla Rivera reported in the LA Times that the overall project also included “an in-depth survey of 3,300 homeless people and a telephone survey of households.” It would be interesting to know more about that. Did they just call a random sample and ask, “Is a homeless person sleeping on your couch?”

Since the weather forecast threatened rain, the expenses included a sum for “hundreds of parkas to hand out” — to the enumerators. (Surely the reporter meant ponchos, not parkas.) The bureaucracy also had to rent a bunch of vans.

At any rate, the whole enterprise cost $350,000 out of the funds available to combat homelessness. Could the actual homeless people have used that money? Most certainly, but they must look on it as in investment in their future.

Another thing about the forecast rain, Rivera says:

… [T]he threat of wet weather probably drove some homeless people into hiding places.

There were further difficulties. A lot of homeless people who wanted to apply for the paying jobs were turned away. Enumerators were told by a police officer that Burbank had no homeless people, and to go away.

In Santa Monica, one team was twice challenged by the police, and anyway, they only found about a dozen people experiencing homelessness. To anyone who has ever visited the area where Santa Monica intersects with the ocean, this is an astonishing claim. Also, there were rumors that the local law enforcers had rousted the people experiencing homelessness just a few days before the “point-in-time” census.

In the Antelope Valley, where the government has been quite active in creating homelessness, a whole census tract:

[…] was scrapped after canvassers found the mountainous road washed out… Early morning was chosen because it is easier to locate homeless encampments in the daylight in the rugged rural terrain… [O]ne large census tract in Pacoima was abandoned because teams didn’t have transportation.

More recently, Mary Flynn shared tales how the 2013 count was conducted, in different parts of California:

In Contra Costa, volunteers counted those visible from their vehicles, while more direct interaction with the homeless population is left to the teams of qualified outreach workers who venture to the known encampments of homeless people.

The 120 volunteers went around during the day, though the director contrasted this with the technique used at a previous posting in San Francisco, where the census was done in the middle of the night. The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness is eager to have more accurate numbers on “transitioning youth” between the ages of 14 and 24, but how accurate can the enumerators be about ages, when their observations are based on drive-by sightings?

Santa Clara county took to heart this emphasis on the young, and rather than in the early morning, sent its teams out in the afternoon, when more kids would be readily apparent. This county used homeless youth as enumerators, on the grounds that they would more readily recognize their compatriots. Apparently, young homeless people are not as easy to identify by sight, because they try to avoid the homeless “look.”

According to HUD regulations, the count has to be made during the last 10 days of January. California is one thing, but in most parts of the country, this is not the time of year when you want to be out on the roads trying to catch sight of people who have burrowed as far as possible into the crannies and crevices of the landscape to escape the cold. In midsummer, the picture would be much different, so this the wintertime census is an excellent way to keep the total minimized, on paper anyway. And California is not alone in its erratic methods — there is much more to be said on this subject.


Source: “Homeless Count or Are Counted,” LA Times, 01/27/05
Source: “In annual homeless census, counting youth is a challenge,” HealthyCal.org, 02/21/13
Image by Wonderlane.


Young and Homeless in New York

Security BlanketsHouse the Homeless has been looking at the ongoing mess in New York City, bad enough before the catastrophic weather events hit, and not getting any better. To suggest that conditions are worse for any particular demographic group is specious, because human misery just can’t be quantified that way. There is plenty of it to go around and dish out a share for everybody. But the the kids are, without a doubt, having a rough time.

They are homeless for a lot of reasons. The little ones are, hopefully, still with their dispossessed parents who, without a roof of their own, are keeping the family together somehow. There are “throwaway” kids, whose parents don’t mind their departure because they are unwanted reminders of previous failed marriages, and runaways who escape physical abuse or other intolerable conditions. There are young people whose sexual orientation is unacceptable to their parents, and others who have “aged out” of the foster care system.

In June of last year, homeless advocacy groups reported 17,000 minors in New York City shelters every night, and Mayor Bloomberg maintained that the city’s shelters offered a “much more pleasurable experience than they ever had before.” A Huffington Post writer gave an example of this idyllic existence as experienced by a 9-year-old child:

The girl and her mother, having been relocated to a shelter in uptown Manhattan, struggled to wake up at 4:45AM every morning to avoid being late for school in Brownsville, Brooklyn. But despite their efforts, Whitnee Layne said her daughter was at the risk of being suspended because no matter how much they tried to arrive on time, the difficult commute was just too much.

In October, the nice round number of 20,000 kids in shelters was reported, and journalists were compelled to make comparisons with the Great Depression. There are towns with total populations smaller than the number of children sleeping in New York City shelters, struggling with overcrowding and broken families and poor nutrition and interrupted schooling and inadequate medical care.

As AlterNet‘s Tana Ganeva had already pointed out the previous year, as many as 65% of the families that apply for shelter space in the city do not get in, so the bureaucracy’s numbers don’t include “homeless kids who are not sleeping in shelters because their families have been turned away.” In that same time frame, New York Magazine‘s Noreen Malone noted that the city’s public schools enrolled nearly 43,000 students without fixed abode. And that was before Hurricane Sandy and massive flooding.

Nationwide, at the present time, about 1 million public school students go “home” to shelters, cars, vans, abandoned buildings, cheap motels, church basements, garages, or odd corners in the homes of relatives or friends. The destabilizing effect of homelessness affects the young in numerous ways, impeding their normal mental and psychological growth and physical well-being.

The National Center on Family Homelessness estimates that homeless kids are four times as likely to have delayed development and twice as likely to experience learning disabilities, and these disabilities are often unrecognized and untreated. More than a third of these kids wind up repeating at least one grade.

A lot of things that housed children take for granted homeless children don’t even know about. They don’t have computers or quiet places to do homework. They probably don’t get enough sleep. Kids whose circumstances force frequent transfers to new schools are only half as likely to even graduate from high school. Kids who don’t graduate are twice as likely to become poverty statistics and join the ranks of second-generation homeless, and the long-range effect of that is a life expectancy of nine years less than average.

In grade school, middle school, and high school (if they make it that far) homeless kids are anxious and depressed, and prone to behavioral problems. They can’t concentrate in class. Inadequate sleep, hunger, and fear of the future, says Carol Smith of Enumclaw, WA, Patch.com, leads to “increased levels of stress hormones such as cortisol, which can wreak havoc on young brains.”

Tana Ganeva says:

Homeless kids get sick more often and with stranger and more serious ailments than poor kids who have homes, suffering respiratory infections and digestive infections at significantly higher rates.

These children tend to withdraw from social interaction and have what are called “attachment disorders.” They might even be shunned or bullied by classmates who look down on them. Any friendships that they manage to create are likely to be broken by frequent relocations.

But while there is plenty of research showing how homelessness affects children, there isn’t much on what schools could be doing to better the situation. For the Christian Science Monitor, Michelle D. Anderson interviewed Joseph Murphy of Vanderbilt University, author of Homelessness Comes to School, whom she quotes on the subject of the Mckinney-Vento Law:

Before the law was passed, only about 25 percent of homeless students were in school. Today, that number is 85 percent… The law requires that schools waive typical requirements, such as proof of residency… It also waives requirements mandating that parents provide medical, immunization, and academic records, and requires schools to offer transportation options.

Sounds good, right? So good, in fact, that caring attorneys were moved to create Project LEARN (Lawyers Education Access Resource Network) to provide legal advocacy to homeless families when school districts are ignorant of, or simply ignore, the law. According to their website:

Across the country, children are being kicked out of school when they become homeless. It’s not something you hear talked about much. Maybe that’s because homelessness in general is ignored in our public discourse. This may even be the first time you’re hearing about it.

But not the last. The whole situation is a ticking time bomb whose eventual results are set to tear the entire fabric of our society to shreds.


Source: “Homeless Children In NYC Shelters Rises To 19000, Near Great Depression Highs,” The Huffington Post, 09/10/12
Source: “How One GOP Plutocrat Helped Make 20000 Kids Homeless,” AlterNet, 11/29/12
Source: “There’s Been a Surge in Homeless New York City Students,” New York Magazine, 9/8/11
Source: “Homeless Children Face Emotional, Developmental Hurdles,” Patch.com, 06/08/11
Source: “Schools facing rise in homeless students,” The Christian Science Monitor, 04012/11
Source: “Homeless children shouldn’t be kicked out of school,” HomelessnessLaw.org, 03/01/12
Image by elizaIO.


New York City Gets Worse

Blanket ManLet’s recap. In New York City, there was a program that helped employed, formerly homeless parents to pay rent, and the city terminated the program. Then, they tried to make a rule requiring single homeless people to document the fact that shelters are their only option. With breathtaking arrogance and cruelty, the administration forged ahead with the forbidding of surplus food donations to shelters, by churches, synagogues, and other institutions.

In June of last year, municipal shelters were serving 43,000 people every night. The city opened more shelters, which cost more than continuing the Advantage program would have done. Each housing unit, holding two or three people, costs the city around $3,300 per month. Since Mayor Bloomberg took office, his policies have succeeded in increasing the number of people experiencing homelessness by 36%, according to the Coalition for the Homeless.

Before Hurricane Sandy in October, at least 46,000 shelter beds were occupied nightly, and of course that doesn’t even begin to count the people with nowhere to sleep at all. The approaching storm made it necessary to close up the subways, so that reliable refuge of the chronically homeless was gone.

Then suddenly, there was a whole additional population of newly homeless people whose usual residences were washed away by the flood, or were under water. Some of them, old and helpless, came from nursing homes. Despite the desperate need everywhere, the city retained its right to be picky about accepting food donations.

A November story by Nina Bernstein for The New York Times tells how when the storm hit:

… [C]ity officials ramped up emergency spaces to shelter thousands more people, mostly in public schools and colleges. Amid complaints of chaotic, unsanitary conditions, it then scattered hundreds of those people to $300 hotel rooms, from Midtown Manhattan to remote parts of Brooklyn and Queens. This week, officials closed all evacuation centers but two on Staten Island. Now they plan to rely solely on hotels, even as they brace for a new wave of people displaced from storm-damaged housing where they are facing winter without heat or hot water.

It was crisis after crisis. In January, The Huffington Post writer Maura Mcdermott told how nearly 1,000 Long Island families were on the verge of being ejected from FEMA’s emergency program that was keeping them in hotels. Their stay had already been extended twice. Mcdermott interviewed individuals and emphasized in her story how hard it was for displaced people to get to work, keep their medical appointments, and do other necessary activities.

When the 3-month storm anniversary date rolled around, there were still at least 3,500 New York and New Jersey families living in hotels. The uncredited author of a piece in Crain’s New York Business also sought out real people to interview, including Ayanna Diego, and wrote:

For storm victims with no other housing options, the anxiety is palpable. Most spend their days on the phone with a never-ending stream of federal agencies, contractors and insurance agents, struggling to sort out the housing mess Sandy left behind… Ms. Diego qualified for the maximum $31,900 lump sum allowed under FEMA’s household assistance program, and the money is supposed to be used for home repairs and short-term rentals. Instead, she is using those dollars to pay for gas and tolls to drive her niece to school in their old neighborhood, pay the mortgage on their wrecked home and buy meals for the family of four.

Earlier this month, the New York Post‘s Michael Gartland complained of homeless people hanging around in Grand Central Terminal, smelling bad and spoiling the appetites of restaurant patrons. But the transit cops only make them leave between 2:00 and 5:00 in the morning, when the station is closed to everyone. This, the writer apparently believes, is an occasion for outrage.

Remember “the public face for bona fide bad guys,” Alan Lapes? Thanks to the storm and the numerous cozy connections between bureaucrats and bad guys, New York City is doing even more business with this Lapes creature and his ilk. According to journalists Joseph Berger and Nate Schweber, Lapes is the:

[…] major private operator of homeless shelters. He is by most measures the city’s largest and owns or leases about 20 of the 231 shelters citywide. Most of the other shelters and residences are run by the city or by nonprofit agencies, but his operation is profit-making, prompting criticism from advocates for the homeless and elected officials.

Mr. Lapes, who lives in a multi-million-dollar house, does not deign to reply to messages left by reporters who request to interview him about how it feels to profit from the misery of others. When the city pays more than $3,000 per month each for rooms, the landlord get about half and the rest is supposed to pay for security and for social services for the sheltered people, many of whom are mentally ill, addicted, unable to work, and/or coping with numerous other problems.

At the Lapes establishments, security guards are present, but don’t seem able to do much about the violence, and nobody does anything about rodents, bugs, busted elevators, lack of hot water and heat, or fire-code violations. Amenities like counseling and job referrals are pretty much non-existent. The reporters quote Patrick Markee of the Coalition for the Homeless, who:

[…] blamed the Bloomberg administration for the continuing use of private landlords to house the homeless, citing a policy not to give the homeless priority for public housing projects and Section 8 vouchers because of long waiting lists. ‘The crisis that’s causing the city to open so many new shelters is mostly of the mayor’s own making,’ he said. ‘Instead of moving families out of shelters and into permanent housing, as previous mayors did, the city is now paying millions to landlords with a checkered past of harassing low-income tenants and failing to address hazardous conditions.’

Poor New Yorkers. And incidentally, from the other side of the country, here is a piece well worth reading, from Lita Kurth, called “Gimme Shelter: (un)affordable housing.”


Source: “How Sandy hits the homeless,” Salon.com, 10/29/12
Source: “Storm Bared a Lack of Options for the Homeless in New York,” The New York Times, 11/20/12
Source: “Sandy Victims In Long Island Face Hotel ‘Checkout’ As FEMA Program Nears End,” The Huffington Post, 01/11/13
Source: “Sandy’s homeless lead lives of anxiety in hotels,” Crain’s New York Business, 01/25/13
Source: “Filth and Fury: Homeless return to debase Grand Central Terminal,” New York Post, 02/02/13
Source: “For Some Landlords, Real Money in the Homeless,” The New York Times, 02/08/13
Image by Andrew Xu.


People Experiencing Homelessness in New York City

Homeless on NY SubwayIn the fall of 2011, New York City’s “Advantage” program was running out of money because the state quit paying, and the city didn’t want to pay, and a judge said okay, the city didn’t have to. It was predicted that the number of homeless families in New York would double, and that the building of at least 70 more shelters would be imperative. Jennifer Peltz wrote for The Huffington Post:

The four-year-old program was designed to move families out of shelters and into permanent housing. It provides rent subsidies for up to two years to homeless people who have secured jobs but can’t pay the rent from their earnings alone.

Let us repeat that, because it might be the most significant phrase on this page. “[…] homeless people who have secured jobs but can’t pay the rent from their earnings alone.”

It is a point that many of the program’s critics ignored, but a very important point nonetheless. That program came into being not for the benefit of the very troubled, messed up, most recalcitrant, and off-putting segment of the homeless population. No. The program was created for people with jobs. In other words, the working poor; fathers and mothers who were employed and doing their best to support their families, and still not making it.

House the Homeless has laid this out already in many of our pages — which a search for the “Universal Living Wage” will reveal. Briefly, as co-founder Richard R. Troxell recently wrote:

… [T]he federal government sets a national federal minimum wage that affects tens of millions of our poorest citizens, both black and white. Remarkably, the last several U.S. Conference of Mayors Reports point out that this standard is so low that even while working 40 hours in a week, at this wage rate, no one can get into and keep basic rental housing anywhere in this country.

In other words, it is theoretically impossible for just about anyone to live inside of walls beneath a roof. How people manage to do it is a heartbreaking story in itself, of multiple jobs and overcrowding, and a constant shortage of everything.

In February of 2012, the homeless advocates who took it to court lost their case, and the city prepared to cut off rent assistance to around 9,000 of the formerly homeless families who were in the two-year program. Most had known the assistance would end by summertime anyway. That had been a ticking time-bomb all along, something they had to be ready to face. But the early termination would leave everyone even less prepared.

The Associated Press quoted Mary Brosnahan of the Coalition for the Homeless, who mentioned that it would cost the city less to keep the Advantage program going than to finance the existence of the same people in shelters. Of course, nobody listened.

Then, on another front, New York City tackled the problem of single homeless people looking for shelter beds. A policy was suggested whereby the supplicants would have to prove they had no other options. This idea has two outlandish aspects. First, isn’t there something in classical logic about the impossibility of proving a negative? Second, the authorities are making the ridiculous and unbelievable assumption that anyone would choose to stay in a homeless shelter if they had any other option.

Anyway, a judge put a stop to it, but only on procedural grounds, not because the requirement itself would be illegal.

Only a month later, the city’s controversial mayor Michael Bloomberg decided that homeless shelters could no longer accept food that had not been nutritionally assessed. Since New York contains some of the world’s wealthiest people, a lot of what the distribution centers received was rich folks’ food, dropped off by synagogues and churches with long-standing arrangements to donate their surplus leftovers after social events.

But Mayor Bloomberg was concerned that the balance of vitamins and minerals eaten by people experiencing homelessness might not be optimal, and the proportion of fiber in their diets might not be correct, and they might be taking in too much trans fat or too much salt. Therefore, he reasoned, it would be better for them to eat nothing at all. Even Investors.com called the ban “ludicrous” and said:

He would rather see the five boroughs’ downtrodden starve than consume excess cholesterol.

(To be continued…)


Source: “Judge: NYC OK To End Rent Subsidy For Ex-homeless,” The Huffington Post, 09/03/11
Source: “8k formerly homeless NY families to lose rent help,” The Wall Street Journal, 02/03/12
Source: “Court: NYC can’t implement new homeless policy for singles,” USA TODAY, 02/21/12
Source: “New York’s Bloomberg Says Let The Homeless Eat Nothing,” Investors.com, 03/26/12
Image by edkohler.