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Counting the Homeless, Continued

Homeless Shelter, White River JunctionFunding for low-income housing projects is decided in part by the federally mandated annual count of people experiencing homelessness. Looking around at how it is done in different parts of the country, it’s easy to see that not everyone agrees about the way things should be, or even about the way things are.

Only last month, from San Francisco, the director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project voiced discontent, calling the census “hit-or-miss” and its result “an unreal number.” Paul Boden presents a case that the head count is ineffectual in showing an accurate picture of what actually goes on with programs designed to alleviate homelessness.

The accuracy is certainly questionable. An example he gives ends with the suggestion, “You figure it out,” and when a person stops to do that, an amazing conundrum emerges.

In 2011, the Department of Housing and Urban Development said that America contained 636,017 homeless people. (This is the same HUD, by the say, that since 1996 has sold or demolished 210,000 housing units.)

Yet, in the same year, the Department of Education reported the number of homeless school children as 1,065,794. In other words, the number of homeless school kids is much larger than the total number of homeless people — a logical impossibility. And the million-plus figure doesn’t even begin to count those kids’ parents.

Boden seems to imply that the homeless count is not a meaningful activity but an empty pro forma ritual. Actually, it’s more than an implication. He says:

The headcount doesn’t show us anything… Point-in-time counts are a minimum number, always. They undercount hidden homeless populations because homeless persons are doubling up with the housed or cannot be identified by sight as homeless. Families and youth most often are among the undercounted. On cold winter nights, churches often open their doors, and anyone forced to sleep outside will try to escape the raw elements. Children sleeping in vans hardly will be visible.

An uncredited editorial from the Deseret News talks about how numbers somehow showed that Utah’s population of “chronically homeless” has been reduced by 70% in seven years. Yet, somehow, on any given night, there are more homeless people than ever before. This presents a vision of agencies struggling heroically against an overwhelming trend.

According to the author, the count, which is carried out by volunteers:

[…] doesn’t take into account the ‘at-risk’ population that lives just on the verge of homelessness, which some experts suggest also has grown. Furthermore, the surveys have shown an increase in the number of entire families thrust into at least temporary homelessness…

In North Carolina, the Herald Sun asked Minnie Forte-Brown of the Homeless Services Advisory Committee for her take on the census, which was:

One night, the nation counts. No way does that say we’ve counted everybody.

The reporter goes on to say:

It rained the night of the count, which may have driven some to dry shelter. Even in good weather, though, at best this is a representative sample. It can’t take into account the homeless who — for one reason or another – go out of their way to remain unseen, squatting in abandoned buildings, living in cars or camping in the woods.

Pat LaMarche reported for The Huffington Post that the state of Texas has around 95,000 school-age kids. The distribution is very uneven, with one out of 10 American kids in that demographic residing in Texas, and House the Homeless will be taking a closer look at the beautiful city of Austin next week. Meanwhile, critics on the national scale are unhappy with the status quo for many reasons.

Joel John Roberts of Poverty Insights articulates some of them:

If you look at the last few decades, this country has dramatically ignored real solutions to ending homelessness… Political leaders grandstand in front of television cameras, ‘Homelessness should not be tolerated in this country!’ But when the lights turn off, political business continues as usual. Homeless agencies practically beg for resources to help the lines of people wanting help. But the number of homeless persons in this wealthy country continue to be obscene.

Roberts encourages readers to learn about the “100,000 Homes” campaign, which almost 70 American cities have signed on to, and which reports a success number of 38,575 people housed by its efforts.

House the Homeless co-founder Richard R. Troxell knows far too well about the inaccuracy of the homeless count and declares that the current policies of the federal government are the greatest single fabricator of homelessness in this nation. To that end, he is in the process of collaborating on writing the nation’s first White Paper on the subject. It’s entitled “Homelessness Prevention” (at its core). Stay tuned.

Reactions?

Source: “Homeless head counts help no one,” SFGate.com, 02/05/13
Source: “In our opinion: Counting the homeless,” Deseret News, 02/08/13
Source: “Rhetoric won’t solve homeless dilemma,” The Herald-Sun, 02/24/13
Source: “About 1 in 10 Homeless Kids Live in Texas,” The Huffington Post, 02/19/13
Source: “We Cannot Count on Homeless Counts to end Homelessness,” PovertyInsights.org, 02/07/11
Image by John Jewell.

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Cell, Sweet Cell — Part 2

9:43 AMBefore we get started, let’s just mention that Richard R. Troxell, co-founder of House the Homeless, has once again been quoted in the national media, this time CNN.

Last time, we finished up with a mention of a guy in New Jersey who wanted to go to jail so badly he publicly consumed alcohol in front of police officers. But rather than time in a penal institution, they just gave him a ticket. It’s a pathetic story and an illustrative one, but with not much damage done to society in general.

And then you get people whose desperation causes serious consequences to others. Last month, in York City, PA, a man who had only been able to afford one night in a motel set a fire just before check-out time. He surrendered to the authorities, as he had intended to do all along, because he had nowhere else to go, and jail looked pretty good right about then.

The fire turned out to be more than he had bargained for. (The possibility of a defective alarm system is under investigation.) An employee suffered burns, fortunately minor, and the fire did $750,000 worth of damage to the place. Plus, it made several more people homeless.

This isn’t only happening in the U.S. In September, word came from Ireland of a man who was mugged and severely beaten, and who then became an assailant himself, attacking paramedics who tried to come to his aid. Then, Oliver Cleary punched a police officer, and that got him arrested for sure, which turned out to be okay with him.

Deborah McAleese reported for the Belfast Telegraph:

District Judge Bagnall said she would consider suspending a prison term. But standing in the dock Cleary shook his head and the judge asked his lawyer: ‘Is a short custodial sentence more helpful in the longer term?’

After speaking to Cleary, the lawyer said: ‘Bizarrely, he would prefer a short custodial sentence because he has nowhere to go to.’

Ms Bagnall agreed to sentence Cleary to one month behind bars for disorderly behaviour.

And it isn’t only jail that people are trying to get into. Last May, in a small Kentucky town, a 27-year-old woman made a desperate bid for accommodation in a domestic violence shelter. Scott Sutton reported:

[Ashely] Basham claimed she was walking in the parking lot of a Murfreesboro Walmart last Saturday when her ex-girlfriend stabbed her multiple times with a knife. Police investigated and saw injuries to the woman’s stomach, shoulders and legs. The injuries were so severe that she had to get staples in her leg.

Further investigation revealed that it didn’t happen that way, and the wounds were self-inflicted. Basham was arrested for filing a false report, but there doesn’t seem to be any further news on whether she went to jail, the hospital, or the shelter.

Crazy as it seems, things are set up in such a way that imprisonment is the best answer some people are able to find to the overwhelming challenges of life. One such person is commemorated in a song called “Joe,” written by Mike Laureanno of Providence, RI. One verse goes like this:

Every now and then a day in jail is warm
Three hots and a cot
A misdemeanor works like a charm
The sergeant knows his name
Slips him some change

One last thought — a recent House the Homeless survey learned that:

[…] 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.

So, the lesson here is, when living outside gets too miserable and jail seems like the better alternative, a person does not even need to be violent or larcenous. All they have to be is unable to keep up with a Kafka-esque runaround.

Reactions?

Source: “Police: Homeless man said he torched York City motel so he could go to jail,” YorkDispatch.com, 02/04/13
Source: “Homeless man begs to be jailed,” BelfastTelegraph,co.uk, 09/15/12
Source: “Police: Homeless woman stabs self for free room,” WLOX.com, 05/17/12
Source: “2013 HtH Civil Rights Survey Summary,” HouseTheHomeless.org, 02/27/13
Image by ibm4381 (John Benson).

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Perspective: Living Wages

living wage

On March 3, 2013, the Austin American-Statesman banner masthead read, “’Living Wage’ Proviso Targeted.”  (See the article, “Dallas legislator aims to stop wage requirements in incentive deals.”)

Apparently, the Dallas legislature does not want Texas municipalities, Austin-led, to require companies to pay “living wages.” The federal minimum wage is $7.25/hour, but Austin, like the federal government, has now plucked an imaginary number out of the air and dubbed it a “living wage” at only $11.00/hour. For the moment, let’s put aside the issue as to whether or not a municipality should be able to exercise its power position of employer to extract better wages for its employees.

To be clear, $11/hour is not a living wage.

A living wage is an amount that ensures that a person working 40 hours in a week will be able to afford basic: food, clothing, shelter (including utilities), and public transportation. In Austin, it is $13.10/hour. This is calculated by using a 40-hour-a-week job, spending no more than 30% of one’s income on housing ( a national banking standard), and HUD’s Section 8, Fair Market Rent Formula. It is also calculated based on the cost of an efficiency apartment in Austin, which is $681 on average.

To pay a lower wage can result in economic homelessness. At this pay scale, 3.5 million people will again face homelessness in our nation this year.

Image by Ari Moore.

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Cell, Sweet Cell — Part 1

homeless -- POWIn a neglected film called Fast-Walking, James Woods portrays a prison guard whose relationship with a prisoner called Wasco is complex. This Wasco guy delivers one of the finest soliloquies in cinema, a rant about how much he loves it inside those walls. The prison is his world, where he is the uncrowned king.

Fortunately, most people don’t feel that way, and besides, each prison can only have one king. In jail, there is little opportunity for career advancement, and a very good chance of being assaulted or catching tuberculosis.

For these reasons and many others, humans don’t really enjoy being inmates. Why, then, is there a trend of people intentionally trying to get locked up?

Last July, in Missouri, a 25-year-old woman bashed in the rear window of a police patrol car and did it some further damage, then went into the station to confess. She told them she was homeless and wanted to go to jail. The police obligingly arrested her and placed her on 24-hour hold. There doesn’t seem to be any news of what happened after that.

In the same month, in Florida, a 19-year-old man called the police to report a robbery, and a fleeing suspect, armed with a knife, whose description matched his own. When he was apprehended, the youth told the police he had just wanted to be arrested. Didn’t he realize he could have been shot on sight? Apparently, it’s possible for a person to be so desperate, such a detail doesn’t matter. Fortunately, he was only arrested, charged with making false statements to the police, and held with bail set at $1,000. Which, in this case, might as well be $1 million, because the person had no intention of paying, because he wanted to be in jail.

Also last summer, in Washington state, an 18-year-old broke into a house and subsequently told the authorities he had wanted to be arrested because he had nowhere to go. Two months later, however, he ran away from a work crew, but had no luck finding food or transportation, and was re-apprehended a couple of days later. The episode added substantially to his sentence, which may have been exactly what he was aiming for — but of course, with no more outdoor work details. How out-of-options does a person have to be for any of this to seem, even remotely, like a good idea?

In Santa Monica, CA, a 63-year-old man broke into a restaurant, was stopped for questioning nearby, and happily explained to the police what he had done and how. They charged him with burglary, and took him to jail, and a judge named $20,000 as his bail.

On the other coast, in Florida, a homeless man who relieves his condition with periodic spells in jail has perfected a technique. Apparently, he always contacts someone in the same condominium complex, and asks them to call the police. Stephanie Wang writes:

He’s done it about 30 times since 2009, jail records show, as often as twice a month and a couple of times with an added burglary charge. Sometimes, he racks up multiple counts of trespassing in one trip… Early Sunday — not four full days out of Pinellas County jail from his last arrest — Treasure Island police say Santiago remained faithful to his routine. He didn’t seem to be drunk, on drugs or crazy, an affidavit noted. Around 5:30 a.m., 58-year-old Santiago went back to jail.

In December, a person experiencing homelessness in New Jersey conspicuously flaunted an alcoholic drink in front of the police, in hopes of being taken to jail. The officers disappointed him by only throwing away the drink, and writing him a ticket.

(To be continued…)

Reactions?

Source: “Homeless woman shatters patrol car window, happy to be arrested,” ConnectTriStates.com, 07/16/12
Source: “Homeless man made false report to get arrested, police say,” Gainesville.com, 07/30/12
Source: “Homeless Man Changes Mind About Okanogan Jail,” The Wenatchee World, 08/30/12
Source: “Homeless Man, 63, Breaks Into Santa Monica Bistro Then Confesses To Police,” Santa Monica Mirror, 10/01/12
Source: “Police: Homeless man’s path to jail starts at Treasure Island condos,” Tampa Bay Times, 10/07/12
Image by GuerrillaGirls.

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Counting and Sentencing the Homeless

Someone's SpaceLast time, House the Homeless looked at some of the erratic ways in which people experiencing homelessness are counted during the annual attempt to define the extent of this social disaster. A question that might come to mind is, “Who says erratic is bad?” On the contrary, it’s good that communities have latitude to conduct the homeless census in whatever way is compatible with the bioregion, etc.

Who knows? Some municipality might come up with a better idea, one that could be adapted by others to the benefit of all. But ever since the federally mandated program started in 2005, there has been dissent, directed at either the whole concept in general, or some aspect of it.

In 2011, word came from Fremont, Ohio, that:

Despite recent data released by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development showing homelessness is on the decline in the region, one local shelter director said the problem is just as prevalent as ever.

The story quoted the executive director of Fremont’s Liberty Center, Margaret Weisz, who may have spoken for many of her colleagues when she said:

Those numbers are misleading. In reality, homelessness is actually up. We have seen about a 30 percent increase over the last two years.

In Illinois, Susan Frick Carlman listed some of the things wrong with how the DuPage County census was made:

[…] driven in part by programming cuts at local domestic violence shelters, the county saw a 24 percent increase in families turning up at emergency and interim shelter sites during the latest fiscal year.
Also absent from the formal homeless equation are people who resort to friends and relatives when they lose their own homes — a practice advocates call ‘couch surfing.’

In the fiscal year that ended June 30, there were 1,486 people who used emergency shelters and other interim housing. Last year the number was 1,512.

That’s a difference of what, 26 individuals? In a year? The 1,486 remaining homeless people, divided by 26 per year… Extrapolate it out — that’s 57 years to get the rest of them under a roof. Some people have an unusual definition of progress, for sure.

The journalist also mentioned that:

Among other things, the yearly report found that workers must earn more than twice the minimum hourly wage of $8.25 to afford the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the county.

More than twice the minimum hourly wage, did you catch that? Meaning, even if Mama and Papa are both working full-time, it’s not enough.

Ken Korczak is a freelance journalist who covers environmental, energy, poverty, and political issues. Last year, he pointed out that North Dakota had the supposedly best economy in the entire United States, with a “stunningly low” unemployment rate of 3%. Then he asked, if the economy is so vibrant and the unemployment number so tiny, why are the homeless shelters in Grand Forks and Fargo turning away hundreds of applicants every night?

As a possible answer, Korczak recommends a program led by Dr. Jill Stein, the Green Party’s 2012 Presidential nominee, and Cheri Honkala, The Green New Deal, whose literature states its goals as ending unemployment and debt in America. Their point of view is based on a belief that the system is rigged by the two dominant political parties, which might as well be one party, since they are both totally controlled by corporations. They also believe that corporations will not voluntarily pay appropriate wages, and are all too eager to reduce employees and export jobs.

The program could be financed, Stein says, by:

[…] shifting from an economy in which the majority — the majority — of our discretionary budget is spent on war and the occupation of other countries, to an economy that provides the secure, just, peaceful future we all deserve.

They believe this could be done by returning military spending to the level of a decade ago, and by “getting rid of an array of other corporate welfare schemes — such as billions in subsidies to oil and coal companies, banks and others,” says Korczak.

There is more to say about the methods of counting people experiencing homelessness. The counting is useful and necessary, if there is to be a fair appropriation of funds. But aside from sheer numbers, there are other questions it is very useful to ask.

House the Homeless recently released the conclusions of its 2013 Civil Rights Survey. As co-founder Richard R. Troxell says:

We strive to hear what people have to say about their situation and involve them in creating and pursing viable options.

These paragraphs contain some amazing stuff. People are turned down for housing. Reason given: because they are homeless. Without the proper 30-minute warning, they get ticketed for sitting or lying down in public. When they show up for a court date, the journey is wasted because they are told to return another day. (This runaround had happened to about half of the survey’s respondents!)

More than a third of them had been wrongfully deprived of belongings, by the police, and an even one-third had had their identity papers confiscated. It is very difficult for someone experiencing homelessness to obtain a useful ID. To have their ID cards, birth certificates, discharge papers, or whatever, taken away, could be the equivalent of a death sentence.

Reactions?

Source: “Liberty Center director: Recent numbers of homeless are misleading,” TheNews -Messenger.com, 03/14/11
Source: “DuPage homeless numbers defy pigeonholing,” The Naperville Sun, 02/22/11
Source: “Homeless numbers grow rapidly,” Examiner.com, 09/18/12
Source: “2013 HtH Civil Rights Survey Summary,” HouseTheHomeless.org, 02/27/13
Image by mikecogh (Michael Coghlan).