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The Biennial Homeless Tally

Homeless Person - Sunny UmbrellaThe Department of Housing and Urban Development requires a biennial census of people experiencing homelessness. How is it carried out? Last time around, Popular Mechanics magazine offered this explanation:

In the third week of January every other year, thousands of volunteers across the country fan out for one night to count the homeless on the streets. These snapshots, called Point in Time (PIT) counts, are the only nationwide metric available to gauge the country’s homeless people living outside of shelters. Homeless aid groups, called Continuums of Care (CoC) in federal lingo, are responsible for these counts.

The object is to tally up, within a 24-hour period, both the sheltered and the rough sleepers. The unsheltered condition also includes living in an abandoned building, tent or car. Volunteers come from churches, agencies, organizations, temporary shelters, bad-weather shelters and other aid groups. The volunteers are out there slogging around in below-zero weather, concentrating on areas where the homeless are known to congregate. Ironically, these gathering places are called “hot spots.”

But it seems that on a winter night, any homeless person with access to a shed, culvert, stairwell, or any other possible hidey-hole would be there, and pretty much undetectable. This counting method has been questioned for other reasons, too. A family of six might be crammed into a relative’s unheated garage, which is certainly not a home, but the count would miss them. It would also miss a teenager sleeping on some adult’s fold-out sofa.

Training

In Stroudsburg, Penn., churches have been facilitating “first experiences” where volunteers are urged to mingle with the homeless people who are there to eat. It’s a warm-up exercise to help volunteers get over the awkwardness of meeting people they might be nervous about. In practice sessions, volunteers ask one another survey questions; in theory, each survey takes about five minutes.

Out on the actual streets, nobody has to answer any questions. But it’s important for more than one reason. The information can help to procure funds, and it can also influence how society perceives the unhoused. For instance, the last count of Monroe County’s homeless indicated that “[m]ore than half were disabled, one in three were U.S. military veterans and less than one out of 10 had ever been incarcerated.”

So, with at least half of those individuals, there is no point in hissing “just get a job.” They probably can’t — they’re disabled. Of course, some disabled people are capable of doing some jobs with total competence. But with so many able-bodied workers unable to find jobs, what chance do the disabled have?

At any rate, the various jurisdictions can’t apply for HUD funds unless they turn in the numbers. The problem is, what with one thing and another, counting is far from an exact science. In 2013, HUD said homelessness was down by 3.7%, while the Conference of Mayors said it had risen 4% — a nearly 8% difference, amounting to a significant margin of error. We hear that homelessness has decreased in the nation or in a state, but reports keep coming in from various cities that show worrisome local increases.

Many municipalities also count the homeless in the off-years that are not federally required, and many encounter unpleasant surprises. To pick a random example, the area encompassed by Escambia and Santa Rosa counties in northwest Florida found that its 2013 school year ended with more than 3,000 students homeless. In the same territory, 168 homeless military veterans were counted.

And this is where things get interesting. More next time.

Reactions?

Source: “How Does Washington D.C. Count America’s Homeless Vets?” PopularMechanics.com, 01/19/12
Source: “Homeless count of unsheltered sets fed. funding,” PoconoRecord.com, 01/22/14
Source: “2014 Point-In-Time Homeless Survey Underway,” WUWF.org, 01/22/14
Image by Colin Davis

 

 

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Money Talks — About Homelessness

Hopeless“Money talks, and bull**** walks.” Everybody knows that old saying. Hard cash can get you anything; a mouthful of hot air, not so much. If you believe in something, place your bet — otherwise, hit the road, Jack.

The maxim has another, more subtle layer of meaning. Sometimes the numbers add up to irrefutable fiscal facts, to the point where any sane person or society will see that money obviously must be spent on things like Housing First programs. Sometimes the arguments against spending it in such a way are a mixture of outdated, unsubstantiated ideas and emotional objections. In other words, BS.

As things stand, a lot of money is spent in counterproductive ways, which means wasted. Look at Orlando, Fla., where the Healthcare Center for the Homeless started keeping track of how many people are brought up on charges that might as well read “Breathing While Homeless.” Six months’ research by outreach specialist Brad Sefter found at least 465 such arrests. Then a local television station made inquiries:

WFTV found out Orlando police and the Orange County Jail don’t track the number of arrests for sleeping outside, so there’s no way to tell how much it’s costing taxpayers.

Wait, what? Shouldn’t the reasons for all arrests be part of the public record? Is it now acceptable in America to jail large numbers of people and not even note the reason for posterity? The reporter sought out an individual case:

Ronald Hines, a homeless man living in Orlando, said his crime of sleeping in the wrong place sent him on a downward spiral. “I got arrested for sleeping on the streets,” he said. “I went to jail, they gave me a court cost. A court cost I could not pay because I wasn’t working.” Hines was arrested again a short time later for the unpaid fine.

Eventually, it took a county judge’s access and willingness to do a records search, to find that “homeless arrests are costing that county millions.” This is typical of many cities throughout the land, and an example of how money talks — and it’s saying, This is stupid. There has to be a better way.

This doesn’t even touch on the disturbing subject of people who break the law on purpose, in order to have a place to stay, even if that place has steel bars. What does money say? Find another way. Because this way doesn’t only hurt the individual and mess up his chance to ever pull it together. It harms Mr. and Mrs. Taxpayer. Aren’t there better uses for public funds? Schools? Recreational facilities to prevent childhood obesity? Libraries?

Speaking of which, House the Homeless has focused before on the impact of homelessness absorbed by public libraries. Here is an update from the current issue of The Atlantic, specifically an excerpt from American Psychosis: How the Federal Government Destroyed the Mental Illness Treatment System, by E. Fuller Torrey, MD:

Many libraries have become day centers for mentally ill people who are homeless or living in board-and-care homes. A 2009 survey of 124 public libraries, randomly selected from all parts of the United States, asked about “patrons who appear to have serious psychiatric disorders.” The librarians reported that such individuals had “disturbed or otherwise affected the use of the library” in 92 percent of the libraries and “assaulted library staff members” in 28 percent. Eighty-five percent of the libraries had had to call the police because of the behavior of such patrons.

All that law enforcement costs a bundle of cash. The vicious cycle of jail-street-jail may be an effective employment program for cops, guards and court clerks, but it is the worst solution yet. It becomes more clear every day that communities can save an enormous amount by facing homelessness head-on and creating places for people to live. There is no room for feelings about the people who need to be housed, or judgment about why they need to be housed, or any of that noise. All that stuff is BS that needs to take a walk. When it becomes apparent that a pervasive problem can be handled better, with fewer tax dollars spent, money is talking at the top of its lungs, and money is the voice that needs to be heard.

Reactions?

Source: “Arresting homeless people for sleeping outside costs taxpayers,” WFTV.com, 12/25/13
Source: “Libraries Are the New Homeless Shelters,” TheAtlantic.com, 12/22/13
Image by Just Add Light

 

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Let’s Talk Dollars

Sydney LightsIf Taxpayer is your middle name, and if your city or state contains any people experiencing homelessness, you might want to know about some interesting strategies that have been tried over the past couple of years. The stories originate in different places, but they have two things in common: saving tax dollars and improving the lives of the homeless.

The beauty of it is, the steps these cities have taken and the gains they have reaped are outcomes that anyone can get on board with. No matter where a taxpayer resides on the political spectrum, or what opinions might be privately held about the ultimate causes and cures of homelessness, every dues-paying citizen in her or his right mind wants to reduce municipal expenses and save tax dollars.

Let’s pause for a brief disclaimer. The taxpayer addressed here is the homeowner, the apartment tenant, the business owner — anyone whose life is stable and who feels proprietary about the area’s future. It’s a convenient label for the purposes of this discussion.

But we don’t mean to imply that homeless people don’t pay taxes. No, no, no. Everyone pays sales tax for items they buy. More significantly, an astonishing number of homeless people are actually employed and still can’t afford a place to live. Imagine that! It’s called economic homelessness. Yet taxes are withheld from their paychecks, just like anybody else’s.

O Canada

In 2012, Benjamin Gillies published an online piece about a Canadian Homelessness Research Network report. The story was titled “Giving the homeless a place to live costs less than providing shelters and emergency services.” The title could not have been more explicit, and the bottom line is this:

There is now hard data to show funding emergency services, shelters, and day programs is just not as cost-effective as providing homeless citizens with a place to live and the social supports to help them stay there.

Gillies goes on to give a streamlined version of the report:

What author Stephen Gaetz makes clear is that calculating the cost of homelessness must not only account for shelters or soup kitchens, but also peripheral services, such as health care and the justice system, that homeless people come into contact with more frequently than society at large. As they are often poorly nourished, unable to engage in adequate sanitation practices, and live in settings where exposure to communicable disease is high…

In addition, 40 per cent of this population suffers from mental health issues. As a result, they are hospitalized five times more often than the general public during any given year, usually for longer periods.

In Toronto, how much did a month in a hospital cost? Almost $11,000. How much did a month in a shelter bed cost? Almost $2,000. Now, brace yourself for the knockout punch:

Putting a roof over that same person’s head, either with rent supplements or social housing, would require just $701 or $199.92, respectively. In fact, a similar study conducted in British Columbia discovered that province’s homeless population currently costs the public system $55,000 per person per year, but if every homeless person were instead provided with adequate housing and supports, they would require just $37,000 — saving the province $211 million annually.

What American state would not like to save a couple hundred million a year? Plus, being housed has the semi-magical power of keeping people pretty much out of the hands of the criminal justice system. At the very least, they’re not being arrested for public sleeping!

The southern hemisphere

From Australia, news came of the Michael Project, “a three-year initiative to provide homeless men with quick access to a range of support, including dental and mental health services, personal grooming and hygiene, education and personal fitness.”

In hard-cash terms, even after the Michael Project costs were paid, this initiative saved the public purse $3,600 a year for each homeless person it helped. The project actually aided several thousand men during that time, but in the city of Sydney, 106 individuals were carefully tracked and followed up on, to see how their lives worked out. The findings?

Over the course of the year the money spent by governments on services such as ambulances, emergency department care, court and police costs dropped by an average of $8446 for each person…. [O]ver that period they were far less likely to go to hospital for emergency help, relied less on government-funded emergency accommodation, were more likely to find work and were much more likely to find long-term housing.

Reactions?

Source: “Giving the homeless a place to live costs less than providing shelters and emergency services,” TheStar.com, 10/15/12
Source: “Helping homeless ‘saves $3600 per person’ ,”HeraldSun.com, 04/17/12
Image by Flying Cloud

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The Thing About Heroes

my ex wife had a better lawyerHere’s the thing about heroes in the struggle to end homelessness. They are everywhere. It seems as if more and more people are stepping up to do a little something. And as for long-term committers, people who have devoted their entire lives to helping the homeless, it seems like they are more generously recognized than ever before, thanks to a vigilant press.

The paradox is that for many people who are oriented toward humanitarian service, recognition is at the very bottom of their personal priority list. Here are brief descriptions of just a few of the people who are changing America, one generous deed at a time.

Phoenix, Ariz. — “Formerly homeless salon owner gives back with sleeping bag drive” — the headline says it all. Now in its seventh year, the sleeping bag drive is run by Tad Caldwell on behalf of Central Arizona Shelter Services, which each year serves 10,000 people experiencing homelessness.

Pasco, Fla. — 5th-grader Caileigh Sheldon won a singing contest and a $1000 prize. She and her mom bought duffel bags and survival items to put inside them. Reporter Daylina Miller captured this quotation from Caileigh:

‘There’s a lady always by herself, and she pushes this stroller around all day and is always getting sunburned, so I felt really bad for her. There’s a son and his mom, and the mom has no legs, and the son pushes two wheelchairs around, one full of stuff and the one with his mom in it. I feel really bad for them because they don’t have much, and I feel like I do have stuff — so why not give to others?’

San Bernardino, Calif. — Ana Perez is known as the “Green-Eyed Angel.” She picks up donated items for people experiencing homelessness and drops them off where needed. Once a week, Perez and her friend Christine Vasquez make breakfast burritos to distribute, and they’ve been doing this for five years. She recently won an award that will allow her to set up a mobile shower truck, because this is something her street friends really, really want.

Hoover, Ala. — More than 20 years ago, Ronald Sellers lived in a Birmingham mission. He later became a successful businessman and with his wife (now deceased) started a Christmas giveaway about 10 years ago. In his garage, a volunteer team helps prepare gifts of hats, socks and even toys. Sellers himself makes the rounds, only instead going down chimneys, he goes under bridges to where the recipients are. One of his sayings is, “If we could just change one person’s life, it makes all the difference in the world.”

Palo Alto, Calif. — Recently, House the Homeless honored some of the helpers who died in the past year, but that post didn’t include Gloria Bush, another selfless giver. During her productive years, Bush was a Head Start teacher, hospice volunteer and home-health nursing aide who worked tirelessly on behalf of the mentally ill and developmentally disabled.

Tragically, in her 50s, Bush was struck by a mental illness whose nature caused her to shun her daughter and avoid others who wanted to help. Unable to work, she became a resident of the streets. Food Closet volunteer Martha Shirk relates a small but telling detail of her daily life:

We tried repeatedly to interest her in a variety of shoes that would have provided more protection than the flip flops she wore year-round. A couple of weeks ago, one of her flip flops broke, and she walked around on one bare foot for awhile until some of us brought in new flip flops for her.

The story is well worth close study. The authorities no longer capture people with mental illness and force treatment upon them, and the lack of facilities and resources wouldn’t allow for so much institutionalization anyway. But when people are not competent, their untrammeled freedom poses a threat to themselves and to society in general.

At any rate, Gloria Bush died at age 72, of exposure to cold, in a public park in the extremely wealthy part of the country known as Silicon Valley. One online commenter noted that the area’s well-known philanthropists have been pretty good about doing things for “the young and able, smart and chic” and asked if they could find a way to extend a helping hand to the mentally ill destitute. Another commenter wrote angrily:

What actually killed Ms Bush, aside from California’s choice to cut taxes by closing the state hospital system that sheltered unfortunates like her, is the no-nap bar… Our city government has been installing these on public benches for the past decade to prevent homeless from sleeping lying down on our precious outdoor benches. This bar forced Ms Bush to sleep on the ground, which pulled the warmth from her body far more efficiently than the layer of air under that bench could have.

Dallas — Willie Baronet teaches creative advertising at Southern Methodist University and buys signs from people experiencing homelessness. Kelly Gilliland reported for the campus newspaper:

While driving, if Baronet sees a homeless person on the side of the road, he will offer to buy his or her sign, letting them name their price. In return, he will also replenish them with a blank cardboard slate and a marker to create a new advertisement…. Baronet has videotaped and saved recordings of 70-75 of these interactions…. [T]he more he’s interacted with people and the more signs he’s collected, he has had so many interesting conversations with these people, and heard so many great stories.

Most interesting is the part about Baronet’s own personal reasons for initiating this highly individualistic form of activism.

Reactions?

Source: “Formerly homeless salon owner gives back with sleeping bag drive,” AZFamily.com, 12/06/13
Source: “Pasco 11-year-old spends prize money on homeless ,” TBO.com, 06/15/13
Source: “Ana Perez – Story #24,” 5hourenergy.com, 12/18/13
Source: “Once homeless, now donating and volunteering,” ABC3340.com, 12/23/13
Source: “Deceased homeless woman devoted herself to others’ care,” PaloAltoOnline.com, 12/24/13
Source: “SMU professor turns homeless sign collection into creative project,” SMUDailyCampus, 03/23/13
Image by Kulfoto.com