1

How to Become Homeless: Get Out of Prison

Intersticio urbanoIn The Evil That Men Do, Stephen G. Michaud and Roy Hazelwood list the “[…] traits of the antisocial personality — lying, substance abuse, promiscuity, disdain for social norms, cruelty, use of aliases, lack of a fixed address…”

They define “lack of a fixed address” — in other words, homelessness —  as an antisocial personality trait, in and of itself. So do very many other authority figures and everyday citizens in our society. Is it any wonder that so often homelessness leads to a criminal record, just as a criminal record leads to homelessness?

It is a vicious cycle that, every year, larger numbers of people now find themselves trapped in. We seem to be heading for some nightmarish amalgam of the immense anarchistic societies that used to inhabit acres of slums in London and Paris, and the strange chaotic configurations of the urban cyberpunk future imagined by speculative fiction novelist William Gibson.

Far too many Americans spend their lives moving from correctional facilities to the streets and back again in an endless loop. Some are homeless because they are released from prison and have nowhere else to go. After a sentence of a year or two, it could happen that a person returns to an intact family situation. Finding a job might be almost impossible, but there is some chance that other family members will give a homecomer a place to stay and provide other forms of support, at least for a while. The save is tenuous, but not impossible.

Homecomers need another chance

How about a person who gets out after serving 25 years? How many friends and relatives have died in the meantime? Does anyone still even write? Are there children who have grown up and established their own lives, and would prefer not to associate with an ex-con?

What place is there for someone who has been incarcerated for a quarter of a century; who comprehends almost nothing about the modern world; who has no job skills; who probably could never get hired anyway because of his record; whose only acquaintances on the outside are likely to be former inmates like himself?

Now add to that scenario the very real possibility that the person might have been innocent in the first place. It happens all the time. We see how many people have gotten as far as death row, or even been executed for crimes they didn’t do. How many lesser sentences have resulted from wrongful convictions? It’s worth thinking about.

What if the person was grossly overcharged and/or over-convicted, for political, racial, or personal reasons, or because of a bad law that was later changed, leaving thousands of people serving time for actions that are no longer even crimes? These things happen often enough that to make any assumptions about any particular ex-con could be horribly unfair and only heap more injustice onto what they have already suffered.

True whether you like it or not

And there’s another thing. In his book The Perpetual Prisoner Machine, Joel Dyer says:

Research has found that the vast majority of Americans, over 70 percent of us, have committed at least one imprisonable offense such as illegal drug use, driving while intoxicated, shoplifting, and so forth at some point in our lives.

Deep in his or her heart, every American adult knows “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” It’s an old saying, and nowhere is it more applicable than when a free person compares himself or herself to a prison inmate. In many cases, the only difference between Joe Ex-Con and Mr. Upstanding Citizen is that Mr. Upstanding Citizen never got caught.

How many kiddie porn connoisseurs are running around loose, relative to the number of locked-up pervs? For each luckless nobody who was apprehended stealing a six-pack of beer, how many criminals in suits, responsible for stealing millions of dollars from hardworking Americans, are enjoying their illegal wealth without a care in the world, and looking down their noses at homeless ex-cons?

White Paper

And, leaving crime entirely aside, consider this:

Our nation’s prisons have become the de facto housing facilities for many of our nation’s mentally ill.

Those words are from “Homelessness Prevention: A National Economic Stimulus,” the white paper written by Richard R. Troxell, President of House the Homeless. People too messed up to stay on the safe side of the law, even when they have no intention of antisocial behavior, are likely to be sentenced and incarcerated. What happens when they get out — still mentally incapacitated, plus with a prison record?

And regular people who made an error in judgment, a bad decision, and got swept up into the corrections system — what happens when they are freed? “Parolees,” Richard reminds us, “are not eligible for federal housing or food stamps.” Plus, a homecomer might have picked up a case of TB or some other condition, courtesy of the abysmal health conditions in penal institutions. There is a lot more to this extremely detailed document, whose overall theme is how to ensure that no one is discharged into homelessness — not from prison or from any institution.

And don’t forget — On Labor Day (Monday, Sept 2) take your Universal Living Wage banner to your picnic, and on Tuesday, unfurl it again from a highway overpass (see example on this page) or in front of City Hall. Or join a protest at a local Walmart on Labor Day or the following Monday.

Reactions?

Source: “The Evil That Men Do,” Amazon.com
Source: “The Perpetual Prisoner Machine,” Amazon.com
Image by Daquella manera (Daniel Lobo).

1

How to Become Homeless: Age Out of Foster Care, Part 2

Homeless KidsLast week, House the Homeless mentioned the time when agencies in Massachusetts received a “planning grant” of $120,000 to “identify the causes of transition-age homelessness.” We would have told them for free. The cause of transition-age homelessness is: A lot of kids, when they leave the foster care system, don’t have livable incomes and, as a result, don’t have any place to live. Bada-bing!

John Chafee was a U.S. Senator from Rhode Island who sponsored legislation to help ex-foster kids. What does the John Chafee Foster Care Independence Program do for youth on their journey to self-sufficiency?

The program is intended to serve youth who are likely to remain in foster care until age 18, youth who, after attaining 16 years of age, have left foster care for kinship guardianship or adoption, and young adults ages 18-21 who have ‘aged out’ of the foster care system.

The Chafee Act also allowed for Medicaid coverage to be extended to age 21, at the discretion of each individual state, for youths emancipated from foster care. If the particular state wants to, it can use up to one-third of its funding to pay for room and board for emancipated youths between 18 and 21. The federal government supplies most of the cost and the state kicks in some.

On paper, this program met various needs on the road to independent adulthood — education, employment, housing, financial management, and “assured connections to caring adults for older youth in foster care.” In reality, some states gave the federal money back, rather than bothering to carry out the Chafee Act requirements. (Incidentally, speaking of money, a later adjustment raised from $1,000 to $10,000 the amount of savings a young person is allowed to have, and still receive help. One wonders how many emancipated foster kids struggle with a too-much-savings problem!)

Accountability

The government agencies in charge needed to know whether their efforts were actually doing any good. They wanted to know the outcomes, including “educational attainment, employment, avoidance of dependency, homelessness, non-marital childbirth, high-risk behaviors, and incarceration.” For several years, little was done to advance toward this goal. Apparently, nobody started keeping track, except the occasional oddball grad student or nonprofit foundation, so we don’t know much about the young lives at stake here. Finally in 2008, the states were ordered to start doing followups by October of 2010.

Meanwhile, the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative started to figure things out by paying attention to various studies of the quality of independent living programs and their results. Its April 2010 report made the excellent point that kids with families have a long grace period before they are expected to be full adults. If a young person is settled and independent by age 25, that’s considered good. Former foster kids, with a lot less going for them, are expected to pull themselves together and function as self-sufficient members of society at 18.

And some do, but this report does not find the success rate impressive:

In general, programs have been found to be ineffective in meeting the needs of young people in the areas of education and employment, economic well-being, housing, delinquency, pregnancy, and receipt of needed documentation.

Independent living programs were found to be “primarily checklists and involved classes for youth in foster care.” The paucity of implementation led the Government Accountability Office to take a peek. Its 2004 report wore a frowny face:

The GAO found gaps in the availability of mental health services, mentoring services, and securing safe and suitable housing, particularly in rural areas.

In response to the GAO survey, 49 states reported increased coordination with federal, state and local programs that could provide or supplement independent living services. In follow-up interviews with child welfare administrators, however, the GAO found that most were unaware of these services.

The accountability agency identified the lack of uniformity in the states’ information-gathering that made them unable to coordinate with each other and with the federal government to combine their numbers and make any sense out of things. Academia supplied some of the missing answers, which involved “extremely poor outcomes” and even “dismal outcomes” for large numbers of young people.

A University of Chicago study of kids in three states said:

In comparison with their peers, they are, on average, less likely to have a high school diploma, less likely to be pursuing higher education, less likely to be earning a living wage, more likely to have experienced economic hardships, more likely to have had a child outside of wedlock, and more likely to become involved with the criminal justice system.

Another study found that only about half of ex-foster kids had a high school diploma or equivalent. At age 21, only about a third had any college experience, and less than 2% of them ever finished college. And get this. If we ever needed proof that foster kids are emotionally deprived:

The Midwest Evaluation found that 71% of females aging out of foster care become pregnant before 21 compared to the 34% of the general population of females. Repeat pregnancies were common among females aging out of foster care… Half of the young men […] reported having gotten a female pregnant, compared to 19% in the comparison group…

Here’s a statistic that will knock your socks off: Former foster kids are 10 times as likely to have been arrested, since age 18, than young adults their age who were not foster kids. And, by the very nature of street life, and governmental neglect, and ingrained distrust of the establishment in any form, there is no way to even guess how many young people turned loose from the foster system are currently experiencing homelessness. Here comes an even more dizzying number:

… [A]llowing young people to age out of foster care to live on their own also has a significant fiscal impact on society in terms of educational outcomes, unplanned parenthood, and criminal justice system costs… Cutler Consulting has estimated that the cost of the outcome differences between young people aging out of foster care and the general population is nearly $5.7 billion for each annual cohort of young people leaving care.

Reactions?

Source: “Program Description,” HHS.gov, 06/28/12
Source: “Chafee Plus Ten: A Vision for the Next Decade,” Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, April 2010
Image by Todd Van Hoosear.

1

How to Become Homeless: Age Out of Foster Care

Homeless Youth in Dupont Circle, NYCalifornia is one of the biggest states in the union, and a lot of young people are experiencing homelessness there. Thanks to reporters like Bethania Palma Markus in Whittier, word of their plight occasionally reaches the eyes and ears of the public.

When she included the life story of 20-year-old Steven Navarrette in an article, he had “aged out” of the child welfare system two years earlier. Actually, the official Department of Children and Family Services (DCHS) word for it is “terminated,” which has ominous overtones indeed. It should, because at the time, one out of every five “terminated” kids ended up homeless and two out of five tangled with the legal system, and often ended up in prison.

Those ratios are necessarily only estimates, because there was no requirement for the bureaucracy to follow up on the kids once they were “terminated.” A youth fortunate enough to land one of the few transitional housing spots could be kept track of for a while, but most kids were just in the wind, with no way to make a living and no support system, legal adults for whom the state no longer took responsibility.

Markus quoted Navarrette, who told her:

They used to talk about something called emancipated living and I was always really excited about that because I knew I wouldn’t be able to go live with my mom. It all sounded really nice but when it came down to it none of what they told me ever happened.

Around the same time, California passed a law allowing foster children to stay in their “placements” until age 21, presumably with the state paying their way, although at the same time the governor drastically cut the child welfare funds. Presumably, the foster parents would have some say in the arrangements too, and one has to wonder how many of them welcome the continuing presence of young people older than they are accustomed to dealing with.

Also around the same time, a federal regulation came into existence that would require the pertinent departments in every state to keep a record of what kind of “independent living services” they provided for kids aging out.

Elsewhere

In Ohio, a pastor changed his own living quarters to a van and capitalized on the publicity this brought him by pointing out the need for transitional housing for 18-year-old former foster kids. The Salem Church of God has not yet been able to build any transitional housing, but its SOAR ministry persists in helping in other ways.

In Worcester, MA, many residents were distressed to learn that the local Teen Housing Task Force discovered 142 homeless youths in August of 2009, and counted 201 homeless youths in October of 2010, representing a 48% increase. In other words, one town’s population of homeless kids, some as young as 13, almost doubled in just over a year.

Journalist Lee Hammel continued the tradition by writing up the stories of an 18-year-old girl and a 19-year-old boy, in response to public interest in the question of how many unhoused young people were out there, whether because they had been released from the foster care system or thrown out by their parents, or whatever.

The Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts awarded $120,000 to a coalition of 20 state and local agencies. This was a “planning grant” — not to actually do anything about the situation, but to identify the causes of transition-age homelessness, and to analyze the available resources, with the expectation of receiving more funds once those tasks were done.

Maurie R. Bergeron of The Compass Project told the reporter:

There’s no saying how the money will be used here for homeless youths from 17 to 24 until the planning study is completed.

Since foster children were in the news anyway, a reporter took the opportunity to dish up a tidbit about Minnesota politician Michele Bachmann:

Foster children, who automatically qualify for Medicaid benefits, make up a tremendously disproportionate amount of its spending, especially on mental health services. Bachmann likely understands these difficulties better than anyone: all 23 of her foster children were teenage girls suffering from psychiatric disorders. In addition, her husband’s therapy clinic has taken in over $137,000 in Medicaid funds to help treat low-income patients.

Despite whatever agenda might have fueled the research, the important thing to note here is how foster children “make up a tremendously disproportionate amount of its spending, especially on mental health services.” And still… one out of five homeless, two out of five involved with the corrections system. The California solution of changing the emancipation age from 18 to 21 has no doubt benefited some young people, and hopefully will help many more to get their feet solidly under them before venturing forth into the world.

Unfortunately, this solution doesn’t do a darn thing for the taxpayers. With any individual child, it could go either way. For those who experience homelessness, public funds will be involved one way or another, especially if the youth happens to become involved with the legal system. For those who stay in the foster system for another year or two or three, before the court’s jurisdiction over them is terminated, the costs of routine care and medical care are still billed to the taxpayers.

These young people need training and preparation, and when they are turned loose, they — just like everybody else — need jobs that pay a living wage. Let’s work on that.

Reactions?

Source: “Rampant homelessness in former foster children yet to be addressed,” Whittier Daily News, 11/27/10
Source: “Outreach,” Salem Church of God
Source: “Increase in homeless youth in Worcester raises alarm,” Telegram.com, 02/12/11
Source: “Michele Bachmann’s Foster Care Contradiction,” TPM, 07/06/11
Image by Elvert Barnes.

3

McDonald’s and the Living Wage

McDonald's Imgur

Tony Polombo is a columnist who, like Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless, believes that a living wage is not the same as a minimum wage. They won’t be the same until the minimum wage is such that anybody who puts in a 40-hour workweek can afford food; clothing; safe, decent, basic housing (including utilities); public transportation; and access to the emergency room. A living wage, as its name implies, is one that a family can actually live on, not merely subsist or exist.

Some say that raising the national minimum wage would cause companies to lay off workers, and then unemployment would only increase. To them, Polombo makes this interesting point which is imbued with a dark and terrible humor:

As the many workers who are now doing the work that two or more other workers used to do can tell you — employers in general are already hiring the least number of employees they can get away with.

He brings up arguments of a kind that, due to a shortage of common sense, are not often heard. Check this out:

The US already has de facto living wage laws in the form of government safety net programs such as Food Stamps, the Earned Income Tax Credit and Medicaid… But critics have (rightly, in my view) charged that government programs such as these are little more than corporate welfare…

You would think that the anti-government Tea Party types in Congress would want to eliminate much of the need for these government programs by making corporations pay their full share of a living wage…

Citizens who work for slightly more generous corporations all chip in via their income taxes. Then the government has money to help other workers who labor for the cheapskate corporations, so their employees can afford the necessities that ought to be covered by their paychecks but are not. Voila! Corporate welfare!

You can call it anything you want, but that doesn’t change the fact. Speaking of cheapskate companies, Polombo says:

The award for corporate chutzpah goes to McDonald’s who in a campaign aimed towards its workers, tries to convince them that it is possible to work a minimum wage McJob and still live comfortably — if only they would budget their money properly! They support this by a sample budget that apparently assumes a worker has a second job along with Food Stamps to pay for food and almost no expense for health insurance. Unbelievable!

Polombo is not the only journalist having a good time bashing McDonald’s and wondering, incidentally, what planet those people are from. For ThinkProgress.org, Annie-Rose Strasser gave the sample budget the once-over and called it “laughably inaccurate”:

Not only does the budget leave a spot open for ‘second job,’ it also gives wholly unreasonable estimates for employees’ costs: $20 a month for health care, $0 for heating, and $600 a month for rent. It does not include any budgeted money for food or clothing.

Actually, this would explain why no money is allotted for heating. A person with two jobs is never home to need the heat turned on, and can sleep wrapped in a Mylar space blanket which is available for quite a reasonable price at the surplus store, where they are sold for the convenience of mountain climbers who might get caught in blizzards. Strasser goes on to say:

For an uninsured person to independently buy health care, he or she must shell out on average $215 a month — just for an individual plan… If that person wants to eat, ‘moderate’ spending will run them $32 a week for themselves, and $867 a month to feed a family of four. And if a fast food worker is living in a city? Well, New York City rents just reached an average of $3,000 a month.

And here is a question. Considering that this phantom budget was concocted by McDonald’s with the help of Visa — what about credit card bills? Many Americans pay huge amounts of interest every month to credit card companies, and not always for luxuries and frivolities. And people, yes, even fast-food employees, have student loans to pay back. And where is the item for child care, for which anyone with one or more children and two jobs will at some point have to pay? Even a doting grandma needs a $20 tucked into her apron pocket every now and then.

But there is no point in nitpicking, when the basic assumption of the budget — that everybody should work two jobs — is so blatantly unacceptable. The only upside is that employees can, as comic Stephen Colbert suggests, go to both employers’ Christmas parties and surreptitiously fill their pockets with buffet food. That may get them through the holiday week, but what about the rest of the year? And how many McDonald’s executives work a second job? What planet are these people from, anyway?

Reactions?

Source: “A Living Wage for Americans,” The World According to Tony Polombo, 08/01/13
Source: “McDonalds Tells Workers To Budget By Getting A Second Job And Turning Off Their Heat,” ThinkProgress.org, 07/15/13
Image by Imgur.com.