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What Else Is Salt Lake City Doing for the Homeless?

Salt Lake

Last time, House the Homeless looked at how things are working out in Salt Lake City, Utah. Getting every military veteran off the street is a big priority there, as both the city and the state want to continue to lead the way toward the Veterans Administration’s goal of eliminating veteran homelessness by next year.

Freedom Landing is owned and administered by the municipal Housing Authority. The 110-unit transitional housing facility provides not only a roof but several case managers to help individuals focus on stability and re-entry into both the job market and society in general. At any given time, close to half the residents are already employed and preparing to launch out on their own.

The veterans who live in the repurposed hotel contribute to their rent, and the VA pays part of it. It appears that meals are catered in, but up until a year ago, the only way for a resident to prepare food was to keep an electric skillet or rice-cooker in his or her room. Last March, an underutilized TV room was remodeled into the Freedom Diner and stocked with food donated by the Mormon Church.

Two stoves were installed, one of them wheelchair-accessible, as are some of the tables and counters. People who like to cook are welcome to, not only for themselves but for sharing as well. The idea is to reduce isolation, provide a hangout for morning coffee drinking, and generally foster a sense of camaraderie.

Dentistry

Just two months ago, the Fourth Street Clinic announced its expansion plans, including a dental care center for the homeless, which hopefully will be fully functional by the end of 2015. The Salt Lake Tribune reported:

Dental care has been a major service gap for uninsured Utahns, as decayed or missing teeth erode self-confidence, contribute to unemployment and perpetuate homelessness…. Oral health care will be fully integrated into Fourth Street Clinic’s primary care services and delivered by a combination of paid staff, students, and volunteers. Fourth Street Clinic is currently engaged in a broad-based community fundraising campaign to raise the $450,000 needed to annually operate the dental clinic.

LGBT Youth

Salt Lake Tribune reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack wrote earlier this week about the Family Acceptance Project, designed to alleviate the isolation and despair experienced by teens and young adults who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. 

Research led by Caitlin Ryan of San Francisco State University has shown that in any given year more than 5,000 young people experience homelessness in Utah. About 40% of them are LGBT, mostly from homes characterized as socially and religiously conservative. The Mormon Church is collaborating with other churches and organizations to prevent homelessness among young people by educating families and urging them not to react judgmentally to the news that a teenager is gay, bisexual, or transgender.

‘Support Salt Lake Street News Vendors, Not Panhandlers’

The slogan quoted above refers to the Salt Lake City Mission’s newspaper vending program which was launched last fall to help hundreds of people experiencing homelessness to make honest money as independent marketing agents of the Street Newspaper. The available information is confusing. Reader comments to the Salt Lake Tribune story about the program included this one: “I thought I’d get writing and news from the local homeless population but instead I read nationally syndicated opinions.”

Apparently this was not a true launch but a revival of an earlier version of the publication. The Mission’s website includes issues dated from May/June 2010 up until February 2012, with no indication of what happened between then and last October. But back in the early days, there was plenty of local material. Volume 1 Number 1 contained such stories as “Life of a Katrina Evacuee” and “Dying Boy’s Last Wish is to Help Homeless,” and the rest of the pages were all pretty much about street life. Sadly, less than two years later, almost every page included a “your ad could be here” type of space filler. May the newest incarnation of the Street Newspaper prove more successful for all involved.

Reactions?

Source: “New ‘diner’ will help Utah’s homeless veterans share a meal,” SLTrib.com, 03/04/13
Source: “Clinic opening to fill dental-care gaps for homeless,” SLTrib.com, 01/18/14
Source: “New program aims to prevent suicide, homelessness in LGBT Mormon youth,” SLTrib.com, 03/14/14
Source: “Homeless sell “Street Newspaper” rather than panhandling,” SLTrib.com, 10/02/13
Source: “Salt Lake Street News,” SaltLakeCityMission.org
Image by Garrett

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Dollars and Sense in Salt Lake City

Where We Sleep

Salt Lake City, Utah, has boarded the Housing First train in a very promising way. To calculate how economical the solution is, the founders contrasted the cost of housing people in apartments with the cost of incarcerating them and the cost of emergency room treatment for all the various illnesses and injuries that can befall a person who lives on the streets. Cory Doctorow writes:

The “Housing First” program’s goal was to end chronic homelessness in Utah within 10 years. Through 2012, it had helped reduce the 2,000 people in that category when it began by 74 percent. Lloyd Pendleton, director of Utah’s Homeless Task Force, said the state is on track to meet its goal by 2015, and become the first state in the nation to do so.

2015! That’s next year! Salt Lake’s commitment to the Housing First ideal began to flower back in 2005, when research showed that the state spent $16,670 a year on jailing and/or providing emergency medical services for each chronically homeless individual. These were people who had experienced homelessness for an average of 25 years.

On the other hand, it would cost the taxpayers only $11,000 per capita and per annum to provide not only an apartment but the attention of a caseworker. We couldn’t find a suitable graphic for Salt Lake City, but the chart on this page illustrates the same type of comparison for Los Angeles in a 2008 study. The revolutionary part of the Housing First plan is to attach no strings. People are offered the resources and encouragement to make positive changes, but the deal is unconditional.

Mayor Ralph Becker announced in January that Salt Lake City had “ended veterans’ homelessness” except for eight individuals who did not want homes but who were still being contacted by social workers in hopes that they would change their minds.

There may be some confusion, however. Not all homeless vets are in the “chronic homeless” category, which is defined as experiencing homelessness for at least a year or four times within three years while coping with a disability. Indeed, some online comments reacting to an MSNBC story indicate that either miscommunication or misunderstanding is in effect.

One commenter’s veteran son ended up living in a truck because he did not receive the help he was entitled to, a situation the commenter blamed on caseworker incompetence. A cab driver wrote in to offer a specialized tour of the city to “anyone who wants to see the real situation.” Another commenter served up a description that by no means resembles “no strings attached”:

Salt Lake & Phoenix have thousands of homeless veterans on the streets; and the veterans they are calling ‘HOUSED’ are in prison-like & all-controlling insane asylum complexes, where the veterans are baby-sat 24/7 & threatened with being thrown to the streets if they have ONE BEER while watching a football game!

Still, there is no doubt that many, many people experiencing homelessness have been helped. But despite all the good news, conditions are not idyllic in Utah’s capital city.

Only a few weeks before the mayor’s speech, Marjorie Cortez, writing for Deseret News, reported that in the previous year only five new units of permanent supportive housing had been added, and no transitional housing units. She interviewed Matt Minkevitch, who serves as executive director of private nonprofit social service agency The Road Home, about food insecurity and learned that during that year emergency food requests had increased by 15%.

In December, the city bureaucracy flexed its muscles and reminded distributors of food to the homeless of the necessity for papers, including a “free expression” permit, a waste management permit, and a food-safety temporary event permit from the Health Department, which must be in hand at least a couple weeks before the event. On the surface, they seem easy enough to get and not outlandishly expensive. Yet this has created big problems for The Road Home. After interviewing the organization’s community relations director, Celeste Eggert, journalist Amy McDonald reported:

A bill that passed the House and awaits final action in the Senate would exempt volunteers from the requirement to have a food handler’s permit to dish out meals to the homeless…. When the homeless shelter and aid organization learned of the health rules and informed volunteer groups, it lost 39 volunteer groups. As a result, the organization missed out on an estimated 5,850 donated meals…. Eggert says the organization’s winter-overflow shelter in Midvale received no donated meals in January and February.

The ironic thing is, 30 years of volunteer food preparation have not resulted in one instance of food poisoning or the finding of foreign objects in any meals.

Reactions?

Source: “Fighting homelessness by giving homeless people houses,” BoingBoing.net, 01/22/14
Source: “Second American City Ends Chronic Homelessness Among Veterans,” ThinkProgress.org, 01/06/14
Source: “Salt Lake City joins Phoenix in ending veteran homelessness,” MSNBC.com, 01/06/14
Source: “Report: Salt Lake City’s homelessness efforts making gains but food needs still unmet,” DeseretNews.com, 12/12/13
Source: “SLC city officials: Must have a permit to hand out food to the homeless,” 4Utah.com, 12/24/2013
Source: “Food safety rules block thousands of meals to homeless in SLC,” SLTrib.com, 03/11/14
Image by Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority

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The Cost of Outlawing Homelessness

Police action

House the Homeless has looked at the costs involved in putting homeless people through the court system and warehousing them in jails, hospitals, and shelters. When pointing out the logic and fiscal responsibility that characterize the Housing First philosophy, those institutional expenses are the easiest to tally up.

It also costs money to run the ambulances and fire department vehicles that so often respond to emergencies involving people experiencing homelessness. Many more seldom-mentioned expenses pull tax money away from places in our society where it is desperately needed. For instance, how much does the federal government pay the contractor in charge of counting the homeless? How much money would it save if there were no homeless to count? How much is it costing society to disqualify so many people from future employment possibilities because of petty charges connected with homelessness? Journalist Barbara Ehrenreich puts the criminalization of the homeless in perspective:

Once you have been deemed a criminal, you can pretty much kiss your remaining assets goodbye. Not only will you face the aforementioned court costs, but you’ll have a hard time ever finding a job again once you’ve acquired a criminal record. And then of course, the poorer you become, the more likely you are to get in fresh trouble with the law, making this less like a “cycle” and more like the waterslide to hell.

There is a whole constellation of crimes that we, with dark humor, call “breathing while homeless.” Here are a few headlines illustrating the often-overlooked ways in which cities and counties hemorrhage money while prosecuting those crimes and waging a de facto war on the poor.

‘City to pay homeless man $200,000 in police beating’

Michael Allen Mallicoat suffered broken ribs and a punctured lung after being handcuffed and beaten by three police officers. Three cops pleaded guilty to felony official misconduct and resigned. Four other cops were suspended, and three supervisors reprimanded. The $200,000 is a settlement, in return for which the victim agreed not to sue Knoxville, Tenn., for a much larger amount.

‘LA ordered to pay $700K to lawyers for homeless in lawsuit’

A U.S. appeals court ordered Los Angeles to pay $700,000 to lawyers for homeless people in a lawsuit resulting in overturning a ban on sleeping in the streets…. A 2006 court ruling held clearing people from streets without providing beds is cruel and unusual punishment.

‘Innocent Homeless Family’s Wooden Shack Raided By Police’

In the fall of 2010, two L.A. County sheriff’s deputies, unequipped with a warrant and without identifying themselves as police — indeed, with no verbal exchange or warning at all — broke into a wooden shack where Angel and Jennifer Mendez slept. Apparently police opened fire before even seeing the BB gun rifle which was all Angel Mendez had to protect his pregnant wife from ill-intentioned intruders. The deputies fired 15 times, hitting the husband 10 times and the wife once.

Mendez ended up losing a leg. The sheriff’s department conducted an internal review which found, of course, that the shooting was justified. But a federal judge decided that the cops had violated the couple’s Fourth Amendment rights, and awarded the husband $3.8 million and the wife $222,000. Writer Bobby Caselnova asked, quite reasonably:

Why is it that if an ordinary citizen had broken into a home and started firing at the occupants, they would be thrown in prison, but when law enforcement officers do the same thing — and are found by a judge to be wrong — only the taxpayers are punished, not the officers themselves?

‘Homeless food case costs Albuquerque $120,000’

In Albuquerque, N.M., three people were arrested and charged with “inciting a riot, refusing to obey an officer, resisting arrest and failure to have a required permit.” What on earth were they doing? Giving food to people experiencing homelessness. A lengthy legal battle ensued, and eventually the charges were dismissed. But the three men filed civil rights lawsuits against the city, claiming that their First and Fourth Amendment rights had been violated. The settlement they were awarded cost the city more than $120,000.

‘City must pay $134K for targeting the homeless’

Ninety-nine criminal citations were dismissed thanks to the intervention of the San Luis Obispo Homeless Alliance. Dozens of people in the California city had been accused of the crime of sleeping in their cars, but a judge found the city’s law against vehicular sleeping to be unconstitutional, and awarded a payout of $134,000, which all went to the lawyers.

Sgt. Theresa Skinner, a senior lead officer in the Venice, Calif., police force, said in a recent interview that about 75% of the complaints she deals with concern transients, which is a rather rude term for people experiencing homelessness. Sgt. Skinner is quoted as saying, “Sometimes I wish I had crime that was more police-related. We’ll never make enough arrests or write enough tickets to get rid of homelessness.”

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The bronze sculpture “Home Coming” is closer to becoming reality. See the three short videos about its creation.
Home Coming
I Used to Be Your Neighbor
What’s the Buzz?

Reactions?

Source: “Tomgram: Barbara Ehrenreich, Looting the Lives of the Poor,” TomDispatch.com, 05/17/12
Source: “City to pay homeless man $200,000 in police beating,” KnoxNews.com, 01/22/14
Source: “LA ordered to pay $700K to lawyers for homeless in lawsuit,” UPI.com, 01/31/14
Source: “Innocent Homeless Family’s Wooden Shack Raided By Police,” PoliceStateUSA.com, 08/20/13
Source: “Homeless food case costs Albuquerque $120,000,” ABQJournal.com. 08/12/13
Source: “City must pay $134K for targeting homeless,” MercuryNews.com, 01/18/13
Source: “Venice’s famed tolerance is being tested by the homeless,” LATimes.com, 02/03/14
Image by Steve Lyon

 

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A Viewpoint of Austin

A viewpoint of Austin

These posts often focus on Austin for two reasons, the more obvious of which is that House the Homeless is located there. The other is that Austin’s display of leadership is always worth watching. Now it’s time to catch up again, because a lot has happened in the capital city of Texas, including the distribution of a white paper titled “Prevent Homelessness at Its Core: 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness, Restore Human Dignity and Save Business and Taxpayers $ Millions!”

This document was sent to 1,424 mayors of American cities, along with a Resolution they are urged to sign and send to the U.S. Congress. According to the trim tab metaphor, the application of just a little bit of leverage can have an enormous effect. For those who like their information in e-book form, please follow the link to Livable Incomes: Real Solutions That Stimulate the Economy.  The plan just might be the trim tab that nudges the rudder that turns the whole ship onto a new course. It calls for changes to the Federal Minimum Wage and the Supplemental Security Income stipend.

Two things

One adjustment would affect the lowest level of employees, potentially preventing millions of people from falling into homelessness, and allowing millions more to escape the homeless condition. For Americans who can work, businesses need to take responsibility for paying them enough that a person working a 40-hour week can afford a place to live (i.e., an efficiency apartment), utilities, food, and the other necessities of life. What a lot of people don’t realize is that many homeless people do work. How can you hold a well-paying job when there’s no place to iron a shirt or get a good night’s sleep? Housed people are much more effective workers.

For those who can’t work due to disability, the rest of us need to continue to help them with shelter, food, clothing, etc. The issue has nothing to do with political party affiliation — Democrat-vs.-Republican doesn’t enter into it. This is about getting America back on its feet, dusted off, and back in the role of the greatest country in the world.

The local scene

In January, Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless presented Hill Country Middle School with the Curtis Ray Wilson Compassion Award. The school raised just over $6,000 to donate to the Thermal Underwear Drive and New Year’s Day lunch, warming and feeding a lot of people experiencing homelessness.

The Austin American-Statesman is incredibly fortunate to have Andrea Ball on staff, a reporter who has written knowledgeably about homeless issues for years. Recently she reported on the homeless count, which officially has decreased for the fourth consecutive year. Starting from 2011, the numbers show a 16% decrease, and House the Homeless has already extensively discussed the problems with obtaining accuracy in these counts. Ball writes:

Regardless of whether the count captures the true number of people living on the streets, most can agree that the city has made strides in increasing the number of housing units for homeless and low-income people funded with federal, city and private money….

Over the past six years, the city’s supply of permanent supported housing units — low-rent homes that include support services such as job training or mental health care — has jumped from 374 in 2008 to 1,035 in 2013…. The city is likely to have more than 1,300 permanent supportive housing units by the end of the year.

Texas is particularly fond of its veterans, and in Austin federally funded housing vouchers currently make housed life possible for 355 veterans. Ball also mentions Walter Moreau, executive director of Foundation Communities, which has been responsible for developing 3,400 low-income housing units over the past half-decade or so. (Richard calls Moreau a “great guy.”) Austin, keep on being a dynamic, fair-minded, sane and compassionate place, a great example, and a beacon of hope.

Reactions?

Source: “House the Homeless Nonprofit Releases 10-Year Plan to End and Prevent Economic Homelessness,” Yahoo.com, 01/30/14
Source: “The Power of Trim Tabs – How Small Changes Create Big Results,” ThoughtMedicine.com, July 2010
Source: “Subject: Hill Country raises over $6,000 for homeless,” Statesman.com, 01/22/14
Source: “Austin’s homeless population is down 16 percent since 2011,” Foundcom.org, 02/16/14
Image by Matthew Rutledge