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VA Wastes Miracle Machine

MRI brain scanTraumatic Brain Injury (TBI) is a hot topic these days among civilians. In schools and even in the professional arena, contact sports are being rethought from the ground up. An irrefutable link between head trauma and homelessness has been identified. For example, an April headline from the Icahn School of Medicine stated, “Nearly Half of All Homeless Men Suffered Brain Injury before Losing Homes.” TBI is closely linked to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, from which a lot of homeless people suffer. Modern warfare is very efficient at producing brain trauma, which has even been called the “signature wound” of the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts. Military.com says,

Common causes of TBI include damage caused by explosive devices, falls and vehicle or motorcycle accidents. Most reported TBI among… service members and veterans has been traced back to Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs…

Medical technology has created the magnetic resonance imaging scanner, a machine that can measure brain injury. For research to go forward in a scientifically valid way, doctors would have to take MRI “before” scans of their human subjects, batter their heads, and then take “after” scans for comparison purposes. This would be an unconscionable violation of medical ethics.

Volunteers

But what if researchers had a large pool of newly-recruited soldiers to draw from, with extensive medical histories on record, from blood type, to weight, to recent inoculations? What if they took “before” MRI scans? Eventually, a certain percentage of those individuals would return from the field with brain injuries. “After” pictures could be taken, along with complete information about the circumstances of the injury, immediate treatment, complications, and so on. Researchers would accumulate a rich database for the eventual harvesting of medical breakthroughs, and/or to create improved means of preventing injury in the first place, such as better helmets.

As House the Homeless described last time, Jeremy Schwartz of the Austin American-Statesman has written a disturbing history of the VA’s mobile MRI scanner. This noble device was purchased in 2007 and “unveiled” in 2008, housed in its own semi-truck trailer, the better to commute between the new soldiers at Fort Hood and the injured ones in Waco’s VA hospital. The $3.6 million taxpayer-funded investment was touted as “the most powerful mobile MRI on the planet.” Capturing brain images for the sake of medical progress, it would eventually prevent a lot of human suffering, especially among veterans.

Anticlimax

But then, somehow, nothing happened. No fresh troops were tested before deployment; no service members with traumatic brain injuries were examined afterwards for comparison purposes. In 2010, North Carolina’s Senator Richard Burr, as a member of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, addressed the VA:

This letter seeks clear answers about the shoddy administration of the Brain Injury and Recovery Laboratory in yet another effort to reinforce the need for proper oversight and responsible spending at VA.

Officials from the Center of Excellence assured Congress that the imaging program was on track, fueled by the cumulative resources of five grants which would fund its activities for several years. But then in 2011, research stopped, supposedly because the scanner produced images of poor quality. Schwartz says,

The machine has sat dormant for the past three years, plagued by a series of delays caused by mismanagement, mechanical failures and bureaucratic roadblocks… In a grim internal assessment, the center’s associate research director… wrote in March 2013: “I think there should be serious consideration of returning the MRI from where it came because we do not have the expertise to use it or care for it.”

While the rig is sitting there, a full-time technician has to perform daily maintenance checks. Turning it off and on would consume far too much costly energy, so it just stays on all the time. An administrator claimed that the mobile MRI taught the Veterans Administration valuable “lessons.” Seems like one of those lessons should have been, “To run fancy machines, hire qualified personnel.” If the machine itself is defective, why not get it fixed? Surely the power and majesty of the U.S. Government can compel a manufacturer to deliver a product in good working order. If Uncle Sam can’t do it, who can?

That is where matters stand at present, with not a single published study to justify all the hoopla and expense. Meanwhile, the program has not helped even one veteran of any branch of service, regardless of rank, race, gender, or housing status.

Reactions?

 

Source: “Study: Nearly Half of All Homeless Men Suffered Brain Injury before Losing Homes,” MSSM.edu, 04/26/14
Source: “Traumatic Brain Injury Overview,” Military,com, undated
Source: “Lost opportunity,” Statesman.com, 09/07/14
Source: “Troubled beginnings,” Statesman.com, 09/07/14
Source: “VA claims troubled Waco MRI research program provided ‘lessons’,” ClaroSports.com, 10/03/14
Image by Jon Olav Eikenes

 

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Open Letter to Federal Reserve Chairman Janet Yellen

Janet Yellen - Caricature

Janet Yellen – Caricature

Janet Yellen, the new Chairman of the Federal Reserve, has called income inequality “one of the most disturbing trends facing the nation.”

National income inequality is a problem that is comprised of many components.  House the Homeless views the Federal Minimum Wage as a major component of this problem.  We are a nation of 1,000 plus economies, and yet we set a federal wage standard that embraces the concept of one size fits all.  At present, it is set at $7.25 per hour.  It is so low that a full-time, minimum wage worker cannot get into, and keep, basic rental housing. This is a statement repeated by the U.S. Conference of Mayors in their annual report for the past several years.

We all know that the single most expensive item in the budget of every American (housing) fluctuates across the nation, and it does not cost the same to live in Washington DC as it does to live in Harlington, Texas or Santa Cruz, California, etc. So how appropriate is this one-size-fits-all approach?

Because of the disparity between what our nation’s minimum wage workers are earning (federally set at $7.25 per hour), and the cost of housing locally, 3.5 million minimum wage workers will experience homelessness again this year.  Ms. Yellen, you are correct, “the nation’s identity as a land of opportunity is at stake.”

It is important to realize that these minimum wage workers compromise the base of our socio-economic society.  These workers are daycare workers, ditch diggers, cafeteria line workers, theater ticket takers, dry clean workers, porta-potty vacuumers, window washers, restraint workers (McDonalds), retail sales people (WalMart), data key operators, hotel/motel maids, construction laborers, janitors, bank tellers, farm workers, receptionists, nurse aids, poultry processors, agricultural workers, home care aids, garage attendants, car washers, manicurists, elder care aids, security guards, infant care workers, etc.  And remarkably, they all have one thing in common; none of these jobs can be out sourced!  They are the last bastion of purely home spun, at home American jobs.  A person has to be on site to flip the burger and serve the child from the cafeteria line.

It only makes sense that if the stability of our economic structure at its core, is dependent upon the economic stability of these workers, we should do everything we can to stabilize their financial situations.  Many businesses are operating under the false assumption that because the pool of minimum wage workers, bolstered by immigration, is basically infinite in scope, that they can continue to use people like tissue paper in less than full-time jobs, and then discard them for easy replacements.  This shortsighted approach, as even Henry Ford realized, carried with it a devastating effect that resulted in exorbitant retraining costs of replacement workers.

By indexing the wage of the local cost of housing in areas about the size of counties referred to as Fair Market Rent areas by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Affairs, we ensure that if a person puts in 40 units of work, they will be able to afford basic rental housing (an efficiency apartment) including utilities, wherever that work is done throughout the United States.

In this fashion, we end economic homelessness for all people desirous and able to work and enable them to put a roof over their own heads, other than a bridge.  As a result, we are able to stabilize businesses that employ minimum wage workers while saving them and tax payers tens of billions of dollars each in unused supports like food stamps, EITC, public assistance (see the 2014 Economic Policy Institute Minimum Wage Report) and retraining costs.  See Looking Up at the Bottom Line for greater detail.

We urge you to urge the U.S. Congress to review this novel approach and simply tweak the Federal Minimum Wage established under the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act.  Such a response will solve the minimum wage conundrum once and for all time, prevent economic homelessness and stimulate the national housing industry by creating needed, affordable housing for workers who like Henry Ford’s employees, will then be able to afford the product that they need most.

Image: DonkeyHotey

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Vital VA Project Got Off on the Wrong Foot

Phoenix

Phoenix Rises from the Ashes

If there is one state in the union where military veterans might expect to be rendered top-shelf service every time, that state would be Texas. There are two regional benefits offices (Houston is the other) and the Waco office has not been living up to the Lone Star state’s reputation for honoring vets.

Six years ago, the Waco RO (which serves Bell County and central Texas) was one of the epicenters of a scandal that affected an entire federal bureaucracy. Ultimately the Department of Veterans Affairs sent out the order to suspend all document shredding until they could figure out what was going on. Belinda J. Finn, the VA’s Assistant Inspector General for Auditing, testified before a federal House of Representatives subcommittee:

In September of 2008, we were conducting an audit of claim-related mail processing, in the Detroit Regional Office. At the suggestion of a VBA employee, we looked in the shred bins and found claim-related documents. We continued our work in the Waco, St. Louis, and St. Petersburg Regional Offices, finding a total of 132 documents, about 45 of which could have affected benefits.

Jeremy Schwartz of the Austin American-Statesman tirelessly keeps track of what the VA is up to. A couple of years back, the situation was so bad that the Waco RO had the country’s longest waiting time for claims processing.

And then it improved and got the claim processing time down to only 464 days. (Yes, that is sarcasm, and yes, that is more than a year.)

About a year ago, bureaucrats told the reporter that there was no need to hire a full-time county veterans service officer, and that there had been no complaints. A volunteer liaison officer who mostly referred calls to the Texas Veterans Commission said that he only saw five or six veterans each year. Still, the Bell County commissioners promised to improve their website by adding referral information for vets, and to hire a veterans service officer before 2014.

The latest

More recently, Schwartz has been looking into a promising and costly medical research program that somehow went off the rails and into the woods. A decade ago, the Veterans Administration okayed the spending of $6.3 million for a brain imaging center to study physical changes in the brains of soldiers before and after their tours of duty in the combat zones of Afghanistan and Iraq. Previous wars produced a lot of gunshot wounds, but in these more recent conflicts, traumatic brain injury (TMI) has been the “signature wound” which could with dark humor be called “the gift that keeps on giving.” The result of such injury is often Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which can affect an individual for the remainder of his or her life, or lead to suicide, whichever comes first.

The center originally opened at UT Austin, but didn’t work out at that location. It was re-established at the Center of Excellence in Waco, where subjects would be available from both Fort Hood (before going overseas) and the VA hospitals in Waco and Temple (after returning). In 2007 a director was hired, but Dr. Robert Van Boven’s first move was to declare that already, $2.1 million had been spent on a project unrelated to traumatic brain injury.

His claims of financial misappropriation did not interest the VA, which at first declined to investigate, although later a report from the office of the agency’s inspector general partially confirmed the allegations of mismanagement. At any rate, the director was fired in 2009. He sued because he had been wrongfully terminated and retaliated against for being a whistleblower. In 2010 the case was settled for an unpublicized amount of money. For the new and much-needed project of learning more about brain damage, this was not an auspicious start.

(…more next time…)

Reactions?

Source: “Document Tampering and Mishandling at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs,” gpo.gov, 03/03/09
Source: “Troubled beginnings,” Statesman.com, 09/07/14
Source: “Gaps in research,” Statesman.com, 09/07/14
Image: Prairie Kittin

 

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How to Become Homeless: Be a Single Parent

Riding shotgun

Transportation to and from work, and child care, are major obstacles for many single parents.

Brooke McLay met a mother experiencing homelessness (given the pseudonym of Tori) and treated her to a grocery shopping spree, with the understanding that photos would be taken and an article written. When published, it garnered well over 1,000 online comments. Since they lived in a shelter, Tori had to bring along not only her 4- and 6-year-old daughters, but the wagon containing all their belongings, because Crisis Housing has no provision for locking anything up.

While it would have been more economical to buy a lot of cheap processed food with a long shelf life, Tori also selected fruits and vegetables because neither she nor the girls ever got enough fresh produce. But not too much, because without a refrigerator or stove, how could the perishable items be stored or cooked? There is a lot more to this fascinating piece of journalism. McLay writes,

Today, nearly one in six Americans reports running out of food at least once a year. Government food assistance requests are at an all-time high, and funding for these programs is being cut. The need for food and access to affordable fresh fruits and vegetables is no longer just something affecting the guys holding signs on the street corner. Food insecurity affects millions of suburban families. Working folks. Maybe even your neighbors.

Most single parents are female, though many single fathers face equally daunting challenges. Among other feats, the single parent has to fulfill mutually impossible imperatives and be in two places at the same time. The inability to keep up with a constant barrage of conflicting demands can knock a single parent out of the workforce and into public assistance — not a desirable outcome for anyone, including the taxpayers.

Walk a mile in their shoes

Recently, House the Homeless discussed the havoc caused by arbitrary work schedules set up for the convenience of the company. Imagine this double whammy: you hire someone for childcare, and go to work. The boss sends you home because business is slow. So now, you have to go back and do the same rotten thing to another person, and take away expected income from your child minder. Sure, you can negotiate with the sitter to accept less, because you got bumped — but however it plays out, the person may never work for you again. And as a single mom, you cannot afford to lose even one trustworthy friend.

Sometimes, a single parent is forced to make a devil’s bargain with a relative. Family togetherness and mutual help are the most wonderful things in the world, but often have a toxic side. What if the only relative you can really count on for child care, is the one who lets your already-obese child eat anything and everything? Which imperative do you follow? Answer: the one that keeps you earning a paycheck, so your kid will at least be under a roof.

When you deal in the favor bank, you must expect to put aside a certain amount of time to repay favors – more stress. And let’s face it, relatives have their own problems. Ultimately, family members can only do so much, and it’s not as if a single mom can leave her child with just anybody. Look what happened to Relisha Rudd.

Getting around

For people who don’t own cars, transportation is problematic almost everywhere. An adult with a baby or small child can, in theory, bicycle. Conveyances and modified bikes are made for every age group, but they feel risky, and are not useful in all weathers, and so on. In cities, single moms are likely to be dependent on public transportation. Imagine getting your kid up at 4 AM for a bus trip to day care, then you take another bus, and make yet another transfer, and hopefully arrive on time for your 8 AM shift.

Single mothers are tempting targets for violent criminals and con artists, and live in constant fear that the authorities will take away their kids. They belong to the “one missed paycheck” subculture, with one foot in a grim situation and the other on a banana peel. The domino effect can be brilliantly demonstrated by the biographies of thousands upon thousands of single parents and their children. This is how families become homeless.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “What I Learned After Taking a Homeless Mother Grocery Shopping,” Babble.com, 08/01/14
Image by Comrade Foot

 

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Austin’s Community First Village

Alan Graham

Alan Graham of Community First Village

This post is in essence a continuation of last week’s “Exciting Development in Austin,” so a reader who missed that one might want to catch up.

What will go on there

Disabled, chronically homeless people are at a great disadvantage in many ways. In most places, the local taxpayers are also affected by the medical bills that result from so many people living in insalubrious conditions, with untreated physical maladies. Community First Village will help everyone – the residents, by enabling their improved health; and the larger community, by reducing the hospital bills that result from life in the rough.

Located outside Austin, CFV will be a serene and health-positive environment where a great deal of healing and strengthening will take place. Adequate nutrition, nights of unbroken sleep, and an on-site medical facility will help the residents regain levels of vitality and functionality they have not felt for years. Most will be able to actively take part and contribute to the village’s success. We mentioned many activities last time, and people are already making furniture and growing crops.

A strong recycling program is planned. In the carpentry and welding workshops, skills will be taught and learned. The place will have WiFi, so a motivated person could conceivably sell crafts and other products online. The literature speaks of “micro-business opportunities for employment for residents interested in finding a job with employers assisting within this program,” and also suggests possibilities for occasional work at the nearby Travis Exposition Center.

Vision and hard work

The project’s first phase is expected to be done by the spring of 2015. It was kicked off by a groundbreaking ceremony in late August, with some of the prospective residents turning over symbolic shovelfuls of earth.

On that occasion, House Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin) received heartfelt thanks, because he sponsored a bill that exempts CFV from property taxes. Passing that bill will no doubt turn out to be one of the smartest moves the legislature ever made. As far as other people and entities who deserve thanks, please forgive any omissions, and post a comment at the end to set things straight!


The development firm Bury Inc. is involved with the community’s design and MileStone Community Builders LLC with the actualization. H-E-B is helping to start up the commissary, and the local nonprofit organization Caritas will provide caseworkers. Students from the University of Texas School of Architecture designed many of the structures. At Lake Travis High School, the student council and cheerleaders spearheaded a fund drive called “Bring the Homeless Home” which raised $10,000. And of course thousands of volunteers have pitched in and will be donating even more time and energy going forward.

Paying for their stay

Dealing with a hardcore bureaucracy like Social Security is a daunting task even for a housed person with access to all the needed papers and a fully-operational consciousness. For someone who doesn’t own a file cabinet and suffers from physical limitations, pain, and disorientation, these challenges can seem insurmountable. House the Homeless does an amazing job of helping individuals apply for SSI disability status so they can use their benefits to pay the very reasonable rent.

The main driving force is Alan Graham, whose outreach ministry Mobile Loaves and Fishes has been working toward the project for years. Graham, described by journalist Marty Toohey as “a devout man with a sly sense of humor,” sees Community First Village Community as a “promised land” for people who have experienced some of the worst aspects of life on earth. After a recent tour of the property, Toohey wrote:

Graham was careful to note the place is intended to serve the chronically homeless — the portion of the homeless population that, due to mental illness or substance abuse or other issues, cannot keep a home under typical circumstances. For chronically homeless people, said Graham, who is considered one of the nation’s experts on the subject, halfway houses and other “transitional housing” are ultimately ineffective.

One of the most exciting results so far is how Graham and the rest of the CFV support system have inspired other municipalities to step up. A recent OregonLive.com headline reads,

Tiny houses as affordable housing? Austin beats Portland to punch, Eugene follows suit

Is that impressive, or what? Closer to home, a local blogger known as “The Lone Spanger” wrote,

It seems to me that with the continued support of volunteers, donors, and the city, CFV will surely be a success story in the history of homeless housing developments and provide a progressive model for future housing coordinators to follow. I’m looking forward to watching the program blossom and hope it makes a positive impact on the city’s morale towards encouraging more communities like this.

Please visit the Community First Village website to see how you can help!

Reactions?

Source: “Westbanker inspires homeless village,” Statesman.com, 09/03/14
Source: “LTHS students work together to help homeless,” Statesman.com, 09/24/14
Source: “Austin project takes new approach in aiding homeless by avoiding ‘transitional housing’,” TheRepublic.com, 09/18/14
Source: “Tiny houses as affordable housing? Austin beats Portland to punch, Eugene follows suit,” OregonLive.com, 08/22/12
Source: “Hope For the Homeless At Community First Village,” ChallengerNewspaper.org, 08/19/14
Source: “Lake Travis HS Cavaliers – Bring the Homeless Home,” YouTube
Image by mlfnow