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Homelessness in Non-Corporate Media

Destiny's Bridge 1

The cost of homelessness has been a topic before, here at House the Homeless. When we’re talking about cost, it’s not just the enormous waste incurred among the people experiencing homelessness — of life, of time and talent, and productivity, and potential contributions that they might make to the world if they were not so busy trying to survive and avoid arrest. That huge loss of human potential is sad enough and bad enough. But compared to the enormous societal expense, it’s a drop in the bucket.

How much longer can this go on? The most cursory glance at history will show what happens when too much wealth is concentrated in too few hands, and when the majority of the people struggle just to get through each day. It’s almost as if some hidden specter sits back chuckling, taking bets on how soon a cataclysm will occur, and speculating on its own selfish gains if that dire day ever arrives.

This week, House the Homeless looks at some current media offerings. Cardboard Stories is a viral video, meaning lots of people have seen it and passed it around to others. A story about it is subtitled, “Viral Video Reveals Who the Homeless Are — and It Might Surprise You.” Those words contain a grim and ironic joke. Far too many Americans have found out who the homeless are the hard way — by waking up to find themselves out in the cold (or heat).

Yes, learning the identity of “the homeless” does come as a big surprise to many people. One day you’re a solid citizen, regarding those haunters of the street as a tribe that preferably should just disappear — maybe even a different species. Next day you’re one of them. Such a rude awakening has become the reality for far too many Americans. Xander Landen for PBS says:

Since 2001, the U.S. has lost nearly 13 percent of its low-income housing according to a report by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty that surveyed 187 cities. The advocacy group’s report found that laws placing restrictions on loitering, begging, sitting and lying down in public have increased nationwide since 2009. Eighteen percent of cities now ban sleeping in public and 42 percent of cities ban sleeping in vehicles.

Understand what they are saying — It’s illegal to pee! It’s illegal to have a bowel movement! And to help the homeless avoid the temptation to perform those functions, it’s illegal to feed them! It’s illegal to sit down, even if you’re old and sick and suffering from hyperthermia or dehydration or anything else. Cities would rather spend their money to build and fill jails than to provide public restrooms or even benches. PBS also sponsors a Twitter chat that touches on many aspects of the problem.

18 days remain

Speaking of problems, there is a sizable one connected with talking about Destiny’s Bridge, a film by Jack Ballo. The film is crowd-funded through Indiegogo (the drive closes August 15), and because every paragraph is loaded with astonishing revelations and galvanizing ideas, the problem lies in choosing which section of its proposal to quote here. Should it be these words?

We see their gifts and talents at work as they set off to create their own homeless shelter called Destiny’s Bridge. The conflict in this documentary is clear — township officials file a lawsuit against homeless residents demanding eviction…. The government chooses to spend millions of dollars paying hotel owners and landlords without understanding the real issues behind homelessness or searching for solutions.

Or should it be these?

People whose lives have been taken over by poverty, addiction, depression and mental illness don’t have the resources to be rehabilitated and to get their lives back together like most people can who have family support, healthcare and financial stability…. Over an 8 year period, there have been between 80-120 people living in Tent City at any given time without any government subsidies, effectively saving tax payers millions of dollars.

Oh, please just go and check out the page for yourself.

Source: “‘Cardboard Stories’ Viral Video Reveals Who the Homeless Are — and It Might Surprise You,” TheBlaze.com, 07/23/14
Source: “More cities across the U.S. consider homelessness a crime,” PBS.org, 07/19/14
Source: “Destiny’s Bridge – A Home for the Homeless,” igg.me, 07/16/14
Image by Jack Ballo

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Unaccompanied Youth Experiencing Homelessness

Riots in Hackney

The Department of Housing and Urban Development gives the number of homeless youth in America as 46,000 on any given night, and in any given year, about 2 million youth experience homelessness for at least one night. The number of shelter beds available for this population is under 4,200. In other words, if you’re a homeless teen, your odds of finding a place to sleep are less than 1 in 10.

To break it down by age group, there are more than 6,000 homeless teenagers under 18, and about 60% of them are unsheltered. In the youth demographic of 18-24, there are more than 40,000, and about half of them are unsheltered. The system deals with two different kinds of kids — those still with parents and those on their own. Even with better funding for school districts to hire homeless liaison personnel, there is no way to know how many youth fly under the radar, uncounted.

What happens?

Most of these kids come from poverty, and they can be wary and hard to reach. Some are on the loose because their parents are in the penal system. Some have had negative experiences with mental health providers whose only tool was medication that worsened rather than helped their conditions. A lot of kids are ejected from their families, and many leave voluntarily to escape flagrant neglect, violence, sexual exploitation, or other untenable situations.

Imagine a family so dysfunctional that a 16-year-old girl asks the authorities to put her in a foster home or institution. That’s what Kathy Long’s twin sister did. Kathy had gone to visit friends for part of a summer, people she used to babysit for who had moved out of state. While she was gone, her parents ran away from home. Returning to an empty house and no forwarding address, she asked a schoolmate’s parents to rent her a room, worked part-time to pay for it, and finished high school. She went on to become a mixed martial arts fighter and five-time world kickboxing champion, and her story is definitely worth hearing. But not every abandoned teenager has Kathy Long’s gumption.

As House the Homeless has discussed, the challenges presented to former foster kids are daunting. Even worse, in a news story about California’s “hidden human disaster,” John Burton and Carol Liu observed that youth who never were in foster care fare much worse on their own. Older teens
who become homeless and have no prior child-welfare-system involvement have a very rough time. But today’s economy is cruel to most homeless teens, who find themselves increasingly pushed out of the job market and unable to reap the basic rewards of work:

Becoming gainfully employed helps homeless youth form their identities, connects them to conventional institutions such as employers and banks, provides income that could lead to self-sufficiency, and reduces their chances of engaging in risky behaviors such as panhandling and exchanging sex for money, shelter or food.

It is very easy to criticize people for not working, especially when, despite scarce resources, agencies exist to offer help in finding employment. What prevents homeless youths from connecting with services like training, tutoring, and placement programs? What circumstances either encourage young people to use available services, or to avoid them?

In facilitating this type of connection, how much influence do friends and acquaintances exert? That is the specific question asked by Anamika Barman-Adhikari and Eric Rice, whose findings will be published in the August issue of the Journal of Evaluation and Program Planning, under the title “Social Networks as the Context for Understanding Employment Services Utilization Among Homeless Youth.”

The researchers surveyed 138 Los Angeles homeless youth between the ages of 15 and 21. Slightly more than half of the subjects were literally homeless; slightly less than half were “couch surfing.” The researchers took a keen interest in how the presence of a support system affects a youth’s motivation toward employment. They differentiated carefully between human sources of support (street peers or other friends/family) and types of support (material or emotional).

The knee-jerk reaction would be to assume that kids who are given some degree of help, even if it is partial and sporadic, are less zealous in their search for employment. What Barman-Adhikari and Rice learned is counterintuitive, intriguing, and too multi-faceted to summarize here, so please see their full report.

Reactions?

Source: “Study: More Resources, Smartly Used, Needed for Youth Who Are Homeless,” PSCHousing.org, 04/15/14
Source: “Eddie Bravo Radio – Episode 39 – Kathy Long (11/24/2013),” YouTube.com
Source: “Opinion: California is failing homeless youths,” MercuryNews.com, 01/24/11
Source: “Primary Sources: How ‘Social Networks’ Affect Homeless Youths,” HHS.gov, 07/16/14
Image by Surian Soosay

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Foster Kids in Washington State

[Homeless Man Sleeping on Bench in Art Museum]Care continuum workers know that early episodes of homelessness increase a child’s risk of continuing to experience homelessness throughout life. The foster care system tries to alleviate some of the damage but carries its own risks. Even in such an enlightened state as Washington, every year nearly 200 children run away from their foster homes.

It’s painful to think of the darker reasons why a child might prefer the streets, but some runaways take off because of a powerful need to find family members from whom they have been separated. In Washington, there is a rule that a runaway foster child should be represented by an attorney, to make sure that the compulsion to connect with a sister or brother does not become a punishable offense.

The four biggies

Writing for the Seattle publication Crosscut, Judy Lightfoot discussed the four main reasons why it’s so difficult for foster kids to achieve and maintain stability in their lives. Health is a big factor, both mental and physical. A child with allergies, asthma, or any one of a hundred other ailments will face extra obstacles. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that when a child is removed from a situation of neglect or even abuse, separation trauma still hurts deeply. It should come as no surprise that a displaced kid might suffer from panic disorder, depression, nightmares, or addiction proneness.

One of the experts Lightfoot consulted was Cacey Hanauer, director of Foster Care Transitions at the YMCA. There she learned:

Another side effect of separation is a natural resistance to agencies. Youngsters raised in a system that wrenched them away from their parents ‘don’t trust anyone agency-based,’ says Hanauer. ‘Just walking in the door is hard for them.’ Even if doing so means accessing services that could help them.

Sadly, the foster care system is underfunded and in many ways dysfunctional. In this setting, it’s particularly hard to train young people to plan for the future. By its very nature, the system trains kids into passivity, because so much waiting is involved in every stage of their journey through it. For a child to try to change anything is dangerous, because complaints can be interpreted as a bad attitude. Attempts to be proactive and take responsibility for oneself can backfire spectacularly and bring down an avalanche of trouble.

Another thing that happens in the system is mobility from one foster home to another, for a variety of reasons either personal or bureaucratic. The placement might not be a good fit for the child or the foster parents, and some kids end up needing to be moved repeatedly. Even under the best conditions, it’s hard for a foster child to build a network of supportive adults and appropriate peers. Every relocation severs bonds and decreases the opportunity for a stable human community.

Extra protection

According to Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services, every year about 550 teens age out of the foster care system, and 35% of them end up on the streets within a year. For nearly a decade, the state legislature has worked at building rules to stem the tide of homeless young people spewed out by the system. Thanks to the Extended Foster Care (EFC) laws, most 18-year-olds are eligible for financial support and other state benefits until they are 21. Presently, about 360 youth are enrolled with EFC.

Care continuum personnel must also be aware of “the two-steps-forward, one-step-back” pattern followed by so many former foster kids. Their progress toward self-sufficiency is rarely linear. It seems that in Washington, at least, the bureaucracy’s consciousness has been raised enough to allow for flexibility and even fallibility.

Reactions?

Source: “How to keep foster youth from becoming homeless youth,” Crosscut.com, 07/07/14
Image by Cambodia4kids.org Beth Kanter

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Two California Projects Alleviate Youth Homelessness

[woman playing guitar on sidewalk]A large part of what we identify as American culture is born in California and, for better or worse, eventually spreads to the rest of the country and even the world. It’s a state worth keeping an eye on. Twenty years ago, a program started there that now runs learning centers in two of the worst areas of Los Angeles and in five other California counties. It’s a nonprofit called School on Wheels whose founder, a retired teacher named Agnes Stevens, made a modest start by tutoring homeless kids in a Santa Monica park.

Helping with homework was only part of her plan; encouraging the kids to participate in school activities was equally important. Of course, a big priority was to discourage dropping out of the education system altogether. Currently, hundreds of volunteers are paired up with kids to work with them one-on-one. The organization also collects donations to buy backpacks and school supplies. It counsels parents about educational goals and can help locate missing school records for families whose lives are in disarray. The “Success Stories” page is very heartening.

Homeless Youth Alliance

San Francisco has an unusual dual personality. As a place to buy or rent dwelling space, it is heinously expensive, but the clement weather allows almost anyone to survive outdoors — especially the young, healthy, and agile. In addition, the Haight-Ashbury district, where the Homeless Youth Alliance is located, bears the burden of history as the molten core of the best and worst of the ’60s.

The HYA clients are mainly unaccompanied youth, teenagers who have no contact with their families or who aged out of the foster care system. Every day the drop-in center greets between 40 and 150 youth in need of the services offered by 13 staff members and 20 volunteer workers. Adding in the contacts made by the outreach initiatives, HYA touches the lives of at least 7,000 young people every year.

At the center, the kids can shower, use the Internet, receive mail, and get help with obtaining identification papers and government benefits including shelter and transitional housing. They can join the beautification crew (earning goodwill from the neighborhood by cleaning up trash) or volunteer as outreach counselors. Here’s how it works:

For a minimum of two hours each day, 2 members of our outreach team walk along Haight Street and into neighboring parks, distributing snacks, safer sex supplies, and hygiene kits. Counselors also distribute educational materials on healthier lifestyle choices and behaviors.

Kids can take part in groups and workshops with both educational and creative aims, and sign up for substance-abuse treatment if needed. HYA meets homeless youth where they are, which means, among other things, a needle exchange program to prevent the spread of communicable disease. Nonjudgmental harm reduction is the name of the game. There is counseling for those who want it, and medical, dental, and mental-health services are available. About the psychotherapeutic possibilities, the website says:

Encounters may be crisis oriented, insight oriented, solution focused, supportive, or based on symptom management or behavioral change. Youth may access a single therapy session on an on-demand basis, or may engage in ongoing psychotherapy over months or even years. A private office is available to ensure confidentiality; but based on individual preference, sessions may take place on the sidewalk, in the park, drop-in center, or at a cafe.

The executive director is Mary Howe, who emancipated herself at a young age, and whose past experiences include homelessness, “chaotic drug use,” and jail time. She put HYA together from two previously existing groups, and as an organizer received wisdom from several mentors but was mostly self-taught. Howe has written a lot of grant proposals, an activity so arduous that only someone truly devoted to a cause would undertake it. A certain amount of interaction with and dependence on the government is unavoidable, but most of the HYA funding comes from foundations and private donors.

As much as possible, staff members come from the ranks of former clients. A collective spirit is the ideal. Kids who are being helped also volunteer to help. They have a say in the rules and in the hiring. If they thrive in the atmosphere and want to stay on as staff members, they have a very good chance of being employed. Howe says:

These youth leave home for valid reasons and it is not for me or anyone else to judge or question…. Homelessness exists because of a structural breakdown of our government, schools and families…. We rebelled, so to speak, against the way most social service programs are set up in this city. We purposely never went after government funding because we don’t need to be told how to work with the kids; we already know how because we are them.

Reactions?

Source: “Our Mission and History,” SchoolOnWheels.org, undated
Source: “Create to Destroy! Homeless Youth Alliance,” MaximumRocknRoll.com, 10/22/13
Source: “Programs,” HomelessYouthAlliance.org, undated
Image by Byron Bignell Busker

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The Universal Living Wage Goes to Washington

20140602-workingfamilies

I recently attended the White House Summit on Working Families at the Shoreham Omni Hotel in Washington, D.C.

The Beatles, Frank Sinatra, and Bill Clinton had all stayed at the Shoreham. With 1,000 people in attendance, it still felt as if it was nowhere near capacity. The excitement and energy level was palpable. The din was almost numbing as we waited in line and slowly worked our way to the security checks. The president of the United States was coming! But the “participants,” as the name badge around our necks stated, were perhaps more excited that Gloria Steinem, Nancy Pelosi, and Michelle Obama were also scheduled speakers. The original title of the conference, White House Economic Summit on Working Families — which is what attracted me — had now been converted to the White House Summit on Working Families…after all, this summit was about families.

Gloria Steinem, celebrated feminist, spoke to the importance of women in the workplace when she shared the European Union’s plan to legislatively ensure that every Board of Directors be comprised of 40% women by 2020. She pointed to studies that show that the presence of women in business settings introduces compromise and increased business productivity.

U.S. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (a hero of mine) continued to set the tone of the summit when she announced that “one in five children in America lives in poverty.”

Business leaders such as Sheila Marcelo, CEO of Care.com, informed us that in three states child care now costs more than state college tuition.

Speaker after speaker echoed themes that called for paid maternity leave, flexible work hours, wage equality, and comprehensive health and child care.

Congresswoman Pelosi declared, “The bottom line is, 21st century families deserve 21st century workplaces, and Congress should pass the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act and increase opportunities for American workers.”

Vice President Joe Biden shared the major sacrifices of his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, who helped him raise children after his first wife was tragically killed in a car accident shortly after Biden’s election to the U.S. Senate. He spoke adamantly about the role of “family” in all of our lives and the need to make major changes designed to support the structure and enhance all of our families.

President Obama also spoke of the many sacrifices of his mother as a single parent. He let it be known that she did whatever she had to do to provide for her family, including accepting food stamps. He went on to talk about the importance of minimum wage workers. He spoke of his proposed increase in the current $7.25/hour minimum wage to $10.10/hour. He said that 28 million people would benefit from his proposed increase to the Federal Minimum Wage.

I learned that, following the general group session, the Breakout Session on Hourly Workers would be held in the Ambassador Room. I located the room and placed my prepared documents about the Universal Living Wage on each of the yet-to-be-filled 450 seats where participants would get their marching orders on the proposed $10.10/hour minimum wage. I returned to hear the last of the morning speakers before people moved to the breakout sessions.

Not one to leave anything to chance, I again left the morning session and checked on the documents that I had left just minutes before on the chairs. They were gone! I had previously befriended a media person who had been setting up equipment. He directed me to the person, Bill Flanagan, who had removed my documents. I confronted him, got his identification and my documents back. He said that they “had not been authorized by the White House.” He worked for the Center for American Progress Action Fund. I took my documents and returned later for the breakout session when I planted myself in front of the audience microphone.

When I finally reached the microphone, I shared with the people that in 2006, Beth Schulman, author of The Betrayal of Work, stated that “people are no longer using minimum wage jobs as stepping stones, but rather they are remaining in those jobs for ten years or longer and being forced to try and raise families on that wage.” I told the audience that:

$10.10 = “Old Thinking!”

We are a nation of over a thousand economies. One size does not fit all! If the goal in raising the Federal Minimum Wage is that we cross the Federal Poverty Guideline and escape poverty, but the raised amount is always less than the amount needed to reach that goal line, then how will we ever escape poverty? We won’t. “Something is better than nothing” is not true if we are forever economic slaves and if that approach also attacks small businesses. Business benefits from labor. They should pay “a fair wage for a fair day’s work” but not suffer for it.

Instead, we must index work to the local cost of housing, so that a person can afford the basics in life, wherever that work is done throughout the U.S. (without ending up living on our streets).

I then told them that I was embracing common sense and that today I had come with a solution that will fix the plight of minimum-wage workers/families across America!

Universal Living Wage

I explained that the Universal Living Wage uses existing government guidelines that ensure that if a person works 40 hours in a week (be it from one job or more), he or she would be able to afford basic food, clothing, shelter (including utilities), public transportation, and access to emergency rooms, wherever that work is done throughout the nation. This will end homelessness for over 1 million people, and prevent economic homelessness for all 20 million minimum-wage workers. It will stimulate the national housing economy, save billions in taxes, and stabilize small businesses across America.

Several speakers behind me then stepped to the microphone and asked, “Why are we were not demanding a Living Wage approach?” The sound of their questions faded in my ears as I stepped out into the hallway and proceeded to hand out information about the Universal Living Wage to the rest of the “participants.”

“You have not converted a man because you have silenced him.”
— John Morley, 1st Viscount of Blackburn

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Bias-Motivated Torture and Execution

[House of Representatives building and the East Portico]

House of Representatives building and the East Portico

Any day of the week, over 600,000 Americans are figuring out where to sleep that night, all of them at risk, all of them vulnerable to ambush, grievous bodily harm, and even death. This is why Richard R. Troxell and House the Homeless urge the adoption of the Protected Homeless Class Resolution. Meanwhile, others are working toward similar ends.

More than a year ago, House Bill H.R. 1136 was introduced and assigned to a congressional committee, where apparently it remains. If passed, one thing this bill will change is how state and federal governments define hate-crime violence. Victims who are obviously chosen for their economic status will be included in the Hate Crime Statistics Act. The National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) has just released a report (available as a 56-page PDF download) titled Vulnerable to Hate: A Survey of Hate Crimes and Violence Committed against the Homeless in 2013.

The cloud of unknowing

Unless they set up a Google alert for the keyword “homeless,” most Americans probably have only a hazy notion about the extent of violence against people experiencing homelessness. Susan Sarandon, the actor and longtime activist, said to a Congressional briefing session, “Even though I worked with the homeless, I wasn’t aware of the level of violence.”

An overview of the NCH report published in the Huffington Post brings it all together and ties it up in a bow. Titled “New Report: Homeless Torture Not Covered by Government Data,” the article was written by Brian Levin, director of California State University’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism.

Since the government doesn’t keep track, we look to NCH data and learn that in the past 15 years there have been 1,400 documented hate crimes of violence against homeless people by attackers who were not homeless. Averaged out, that’s fewer than 100 such incidents per year. Or one every three or four days, nationwide. It seems like we are hearing about such atrocities much more frequently than that.

But taking an average does not tell the whole tale. The numbers fluctuate for many reasons. One thing for sure is that, according to the FBI, far more people are summarily executed by their fellow citizens for being homeless than because of religion, race, or sexual orientation. Levin writes:

National data over the most recent five-year period of 2008-12, where comparative figures are available, showed anti-homeless hate homicides at 139, compared to only 36 for all other hate crime homicides combined.

The victims tend to be on the older end of the age spectrum. It only makes sense. Of the known perpetrators of these brutal attacks, almost half of them are younger than 20. The young are efficient aggressors but often unsatisfactory victims. An agile youth can sleep in a tree. Unsheltered victims hampered by age and disability are less able to find good hiding places and certainly less able to defend themselves from unprovoked attacks. Levin says:

Over recent years the NCH data collection efforts have documented beatings, stabbings, blunt force trauma, setting victims on fire, drownings, shootings, sexual assault, maiming, stoning and spray painting…. The NCH representative sample of nonlethal attacks, considered a vast undercount, rose 30 percent last year, although it is unclear how much of that rise is attributable to enhanced reporting.

There is no way to know how many incidents go unreported. How many bodies are never found? How many serious assaults, and even murder attempts, go undocumented by people who want to steer clear of the authorities, even if it means suffering from untreated injuries? How many such assaults are perpetrated by the authorities themselves, and how many of them go unreported? An entire industry is in charge of crunching numbers and making educated guesses about this sort of thing. The bottom line is, any number is too high.

In the days of the Civil Rights struggle, when Freedom Riders were enrolling voters in the South and determined crowds were marching all over the country, cynics would say “You can’t legislate love.” And activists would answer, “Maybe not, but you can legislate law.”

Reactions?

Source: “Report: Homeless Torture Not Covered By Government Data,” HuffingtonPost.com, 06/27/14
Image by Ron Cogswell