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The White House Summit on Working Families

[Maria Shriver at podium, speaking at Women's Conference]

Maria Shriver on the Women’s Conference stage

Yesterday, the 2014 White House Summit on Working Families was hosted by the Council on Women and Girls, the Department of Labor, and the Center for American Progress. Attendees included economists, business and labor leaders, elected officials, ordinary citizens, legislators and policymakers, the media, and advocates, including Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless.

The Center for American Progress (CAP) is the co-author, with Maria Shriver, of A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink, published earlier this year. One of its subjects is the income gap. The net worth of the average American family is slight. But in the highest 1%, the average family’s net worth is 288 times that much. To put it another way, 288 families could survive on the same amount of money that sustains one family in that lofty 1% bracket.

Not looking good

The book examines the national financial crisis from the viewpoint of American women, and the picture it reveals is dire. Women make up half the workforce. But when primary and co-breadwinners of families are identified, two-thirds of the time, it’s a woman. To put it another way, while occupying half of the jobs, women do considerably more than half of the family-supporting. And of course women, including many mothers of young children, and many who have served our country in the military, are increasingly found among the total number of people experiencing homelessness.

This is by no means Shriver’s first work in the field. In 2009, under CAP auspices, she published “The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything.” As president of House the Homeless, Richard R. Troxell has long appreciated Shriver’s passion and eloquence. Also, he has discussed in detail the need for a better Federal Minimum Wage formula with Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Texas’s 35th District, who was responsible for Richard’s being invited to the summit.

Preparation

In the months leading up to the White House Summit on Working Families, the groups involved reached out to ordinary Americans, asking for their stories and for ideas about what initiatives would be effective in creating a 21st century in which every person working a full-time job can afford rent, utilities, clothing, food, medical insurance, and maybe even send their kid to summer camp. The philosophy is the same simple but powerful idea once articulated by Werner Erhard: “The world doesn’t work unless it works for everyone.”

Working families, American businesses, and the American economy are always linked together throughout the literature describing the summit. To achieve the best possible outcome for all may require some resetting of workplace norms, such as unequal pay for the same work. People need to be able to get jobs, without discrimination or other barriers. They need a living wage and a chance to improve and achieve their full potential.

Several of the issues addressed by the summit are really aspects of one big issue: the fact that workers are complex human beings with loyalties, obligations, and duties outside of the employee role. They are not robots, but people with children to raise and/or elderly parents to care for. Because of those human characteristics, they need workplace flexibility to accommodate unorthodox schedules and emergencies. Sometimes they need paid leave to keep the family or themselves from falling apart. Of course, some conscientious businesses exist, as the CAP website describes:

They know policies that support women and families lead to more productive workers and help business attract and retain their best talent, all while improving their bottom line…. There are concrete steps we can take to give all workers the best chance to succeed at work and at home. These strategies must include making full use of the entire talent pool of workers so that our workplaces are fair, effective, and productive for employers and employees alike.

We can’t wait to see where the inspiration derived from this summit will lead. Meanwhile, please use the “Donate” button over on the right of this page to help defray the $1,051 cost of Richard’s journey to participate in it.

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Source: “The White House Summit on Working Families,” WorkingFamiliesSummit.org, undated
Source: “The Shriver Report Executive Summary,” AmericanProgress.org, 01/12/14
Source: “The White House Summit on Working Families,” WorkingFamiliesSummit.org, undated
Source: “The White House Summit on Working Families,” WorkingFamiliesSummit.org, undated
Image by lifescript

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Another Look at Washington, D.C.

[map showing enrollment of homeless kids in D.C. schools]

Each city has its own particular culture and problems, and it’s instructive to pick one out for a closer look. Part of the uniqueness of the homelessness picture in Washington, D.C., is that it is America’s capital. To some observers this implies that whatever the government does ought to happen there more efficiently, more sanely, and more humanely than anywhere else. Otherwise, how can it claim to be a “capital”? The word comes from Latin, and relates to the head. If the head is sick, how can any other part of the body be well?

Kathryn Baer provides a really stunning breakdown of all the latest numbers, and none of them are good. She mentions the most recent one-night count of people experiencing homelessness in the District of Columbia:

On a night late last January, 1,231 families in the District were in an emergency shelter or transitional housing. This represents a one-year increase of about 25.2% — and a mind-boggling increase of 109.7% over 2008.

At this one point in time, 2,236 children were homeless and with parents or other caretakers.

Washington, D.C., is surrounded by the six of the 10 richest counties in the the nation — for instance, Fairfax County. There, the count found 1,534 homeless individuals, one-third of them children. Young students from Capitol Hill Montessori participated in a program, run by a government agency and the National Geographic Society, designed to “use geographic information systems and local data to bring light to social causes.”  Using data from the education department, they created a map illustrating how many homeless students are enrolled in each D.C.-area school.

At the beginning of this year, Washington recreation centers were repurposed as family shelters, but few parents feel safe in them, and fears over children’s safety have sparked rebellious attitudes. Azmat Khan wrote:

Seventy-nine homeless families are currently suing the city over the makeshift conditions, and on Monday, a D.C. Superior Court Judge ordered the city to immediately provide more private rooms for families as the class-action lawsuit plays out.

After a series of welfare motels and horrible apartments from which they were frequently evicted, 8-year-old Relisha Rudd lived with her mother and brothers in the shelter that used to be D.C.’s General Hospital. Shamika Young allowed her daughter to leave the premises with a trusted family friend, and it was probably a fatal decision. Relisha’s fate is still unknown, but the margin for hope is between slim and nonexistent.

Her disappearance can’t be blamed on the shelter administration. It’s not a prison, and those who suggest that the authorities perform bed checks, or take other intrusive measures, are misguided. Even homeless parents are entitled to some dignity, and the degree of surveillance necessary to prevent a similar occurrence would be unconscionable.

On the other hand

However… there is absolutely no doubt that Relisha hated the shelter, described as a “grim place with bedbugs and no playground.” A Washington Post piece by Theresa Vargas, Emma Brown, Lynh Bui and Peter Hermann paints a sordid picture and gives a definite impression that the repulsiveness of the venue was as much a factor as anything else in Relisha’s disappearance. Relatives said she would pretend to have asthma attacks in order to spend time at their homes. Teachers and staff described her reluctance to leave at the end of the school day.

Why didn’t some family member step up? For one thing, if a family receiving housing assistance wants to take in a relative, they have to negotiate forbidding and complicated Section 8 red tape. And maybe Relisha’s mother would not have agreed anyway. One Post commenter wrote:

I’ve seen first-hand my own parents’ hands tied by “the system” when trying to take care of a family member child whose parent(s) effectively abdicate responsibility via abuse/neglect. There’s virtually nothing you can do until that parent legally releases them to your care or until the children are forcibly removed by the overworked, overburdened, underpaid, understaffed ‘system.’

The article also points to the self-perpetuating nature of such an unstable existence:

Shamika Young … also lived in shelters as a child. She was 6 years old when she entered Virginia’s foster-care system, where she bounced between homes until the age of 18, relatives said. About a year later, she had Relisha.

Critics can’t help asking why an unmarried teen in such a precarious situation would have a baby. There are many answers, including the decreasing availability of abortion. People with more empathy understand that maybe the father promised a home and stability. Maybe the young woman just wanted somebody in her life to love her — and a baby is the one person guaranteed to do that, instinctively and automatically. Personal issues aside, it is crystal clear that allowing so many kids to grow up in shelters and foster homes is beneficial to no one, and certainly not to society as a whole.

Reactions?

Source: “Over 25 Percent Increase in Homeless DC Families, Annual Count Finds,” PovertyAndPolicy.wordpress.com, 05/15/14
Source: “More Than 1500 Reported Homeless in Fairfax County” greateralexandria.patch.com, 05/23/12
Source: “Where do DC homeless students go to school? These tween hackers can show you!” MiddleChildInDC.wordpress.com, 05/04/14
Source: “Are We Doing Enough to Protect Homeless Children?” AlJazeera.com, 03/27/14
Source: “Before Relisha Rudd went missing, the 8-year-old longed to escape DC’s homeless shelter,” WashingtonPost.com, 04/05/14
Image by ArcGIS.com

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Homeless Single Parents and Their Children

empty storage unit

We indured looks of disgust by church tour groups 2 see the homeless people, our belongings were publically riffled through as we signed in. Constantly treated like we were ungrateful & chastized publically, phones unplugged & doors locked preventing one from getting police help if needed….

There was no protection for your belongings that were not allowed in. Those that left anything outside was stolen by morning & only if you were silent and compliant with all rules U get a referal to another shelter when your time at this 1 is up. Each time U R refered 2 another shelter it’s 1-5 towns away. Kids R uprooted from school at least 3 times a year….
I would stay awake @ night watching over my children, sleeping in parks at their school.

There isn’t a lot of documentation for this collection of sentences, excerpted from a letter in the comments section of a 2009 Change.org article about people who shun homeless shelters, an article that isn’t even online any more. We don’t know in what city the experiences of anonymous writer K K occurred, but the best thing to hope is that her description was of a very rare worst-case scenario, and that somehow things have changed enough in the past five years to bring improvement to such dismal shelters.

K K speaks of the difficulty of protecting her children from mentally ill inhabitants, and even from sexual advances. If one child had to use the restroom, the whole family went along for safety. The moldy shower stalls offered no privacy. At meals, adults would shove children aside to get at the food — which had roaches in it anyway.

Like most shelters, this one expelled everyone in the morning and they had to figure out some way to survive out in the open, regardless of rain, snow, or heat. Of course, all possessions had to be packed up and taken along. Even that much is hard to imagine — everything you and your children need, in bags that have to be carried around all day and guarded every minute.

A minimalist existence

With overnight shelters, this is just the way it has to be. Nobody gets to homestead a little corner for themselves. You take whatever space you’re given, if you’re lucky enough to get in. Why does anyone worry about the small percentage of people who refuse shelter when there aren’t enough beds anyway? Even in the best possible circumstances, in the most enlightened city on the continent, living in a shelter with children is traumatic for parents and kids alike.

Aside from shelters, or squeezing in with relatives, kids and their single parents live in cars, garages, tents, and squats. Pat Reavy and Marjorie Cortez reported on an incident in Salt Lake City in which police, fire authorities, and the Health Department converged on a self-storage company and found people living in at least five of the units. Storage cubicles of course have no plumbing and only minimal access to electricity, and it is strictly illegal to live in one.

‘They’re homeless’

A-1 Storage manager Christie Andrews told the journalists that in the previous two weeks she had turned away between 10 and 15 prospective renters of storage units whom she suspected were intending to take up residence inside. For at least six months she had tried to deal with the situation, kicking people out when she became aware that they were actually occupying the spaces. In one storage unit, a mother and father lived with their 3-month-old baby. Andrews said simply, “They’re homeless and they don’t have anywhere to go.”

That was in mid-2012, and as we know, Utah is a state that has made amazing strides in just the past couple of years. Around the same time, another story originated from Midvale, which counts as part of the greater Salt Lake City metro area. LifeStart Village is there, a place that, under the auspices of the Family Support Center, houses 54 single women and their children.

On that occasion, in honor of Mother’s Day, Vidal Sassoon-trained hair stylist Yoshi Shiraki offered free haircuts to all the mothers at LifeStart Village and got so many acceptances that he had to schedule appointments for the Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of that week. LifeStart Village still thrives, providing a reliable and safe environment, with a multi-staged program that leads the residents to self-sufficiency.

Hotel 22

In the affluent Silicon Valley area of California, Mark Emmons wrote a story for Mercury News about a father raising his 10-year-old daughter at “Hotel 22.” This is the colloquial name for the Valley Transportation Authority’s #22 line that runs between Palo Alto and East San Jose, the only bus route open 24 hours a day. The unemployed father, who didn’t give his name, told the reporter that for five months, he and his daughter had spent every night the same way. From early evening until morning, they rode the bus, then got off and waited for the return bus to go the other way. He didn’t expect this way of life to go on forever, because they were on the waiting list for a family shelter.

According to 2012 statistics, this area had the third-highest number of chronically homeless people in America, along with the country’s highest percentage of people experiencing homelessness with no shelter at all. Emmons wrote:

A one-way fare costs $2, but monthly passes can be purchased for $70, and VTA also has a program offering some free, quarterly transit passes to homeless and those in risk of losing their housing…. VTA officials make clear that homeless have just as much right to ride as anyone as long as they obey the rules such as no smoking, eating or drinking.

The complex problem of homelessness is a hot-button issue in Silicon Valley at a time when the high-tech economy continues to fuel the expensive home and rental markets — widening the divide between the haves and have-nots.

Reactions?

Source: “Why I Choose Streets Over Shelter,” Change.org, 06/03/09
Source: “Tenants evicted from South Salt Lake storage units,” DeseretNews.com, 04/27/12
Source: “Homeless single mothers get special style,” ksl.com, 05/12/12
Source: “Homeless turn overnight bus route into Hotel 22,” MercuryNews.com, 10/31/13
Image by Scott Meyers

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Needed: Housing and Jobs

Richard R. Troxell

Richard R. Troxell

House the Homeless has been looking at the plight of homeless families in the United States, and it’s an ever-growing demographic. Tens of thousands of children are being raised by parents who can’t provide even a minimum of safety and security. Changing schools multiple times during their formative years, they are at a big disadvantage educationally. They don’t own computers or even have quiet, clean spaces to do their homework.

This dismal litany of chaos and confusion could go on, but let’s think about what could fix the situation. Affordable housing, for starters. Because House the Homeless is located here, this website often refers to Austin, Texas, but that’s not the only reason. In many ways it represents the typical American city in the second decade of the 2000s. This description by Dylan Baddour paints a sobering picture:

In 2010 the Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities determined that a family of four without employer insurance needed a yearly income of $56,000 to live in Austin – about $27 an hour, 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year. In 2014 the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said a living wage for a single adult with a child in Austin was $19.56, or $8.60 for a single adult alone. The 2009 Comprehensive Housing Market Study determined that 55 percent of Austin households earned under $56,000 a year in 2007.

Austin is certainly atypical in some ways, too. It tries a little harder than some other cities. Check this out:

In 2006 Austin voters approved the city to issue $55 million in debt, a bond, in order to collect investor money for affordable housing, and over 2,500 units available to lower income brackets have since been built across the city.

Please take a look at Baddour’s video report above (under 6 minutes), which features House the Homeless President Richard R. Troxell and several other knowledgeable people outlining the current Austin real estate scene. Richard is also chair of the Universal Living Wage campaign. A living wage is, of course, what people need if they are to pay for housing. Remember when a family could get by with just one working parent? Remember when working-class families used to be able to buy homes? Now a pair of employed adults has no guarantee of being able to put even a rented roof over their children’s heads.

Where are the answers? Inside the pages of Richard’s Livable Incomes: Real Solutions that Stimulate the Economy. The book is also available in an Amazon Kindle edition. Even scanning the table of contents can be an exercise in enlightenment. How many people even think about the difference between combatting homelessness and preventing homelessness? They are two different endeavors, and more attention to the “prevention” part could save enormous expense and anguish.

Many people don’t fully understand the varying roles of the federal government, state government, and local governments in both preventing and combatting homelessness. Almost no one thinks about the huge holes in the social fabric that keep on leaking people into homelessness. The operative word here is “discharge,” which unfortunately has more than one meaning, including a very unpleasant one. Hospitalsprisons, the foster care system, the military — every day, all these institutions release people into homelessness as if flushing waste down a sewer. Read what Richard says about the concept, “Discharge No One into Homelessness.”

Reactions?

Source: “Housing the Working Class in Austin,” multimedianewsroom.us, 05/01/14
Image by Dylan Baddour