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All the Empty Houses

vacant homesThe illustration on this page is, like so many internet memes, an oversimplification. Socially conscious commentators like to point out that there are enough empty properties that each homeless person in America could have anywhere between 6 and 22 of them. Of course an exact number would be impossible to obtain, because it all depends on how you define “available” and “homeless” and a whole bunch of other variables. But the stark truth is that while hundreds of thousands of people have no place to call home, an astonishing amount of livable indoor space is empty.

About a year and a half ago, a website asked for comments on this particular 6-to-22 house claim, and collected some numbers and some sources (or possible sources) from which the numbers were derived. Those behind the site didn’t reach a definitive answer.

Philadelphia contains about 40,000 abandoned houses, lots and commercial buildings, and Detroit between 50,000 and 60,000. Why can’t at least some of those empty buildings have people in them? Why are perfectly viable buildings torn down? Why can’t people be allowed to squat or homestead in abandoned spaces? What kind of twisted logic says they are better off with no shelter than with substandard, even code-violating shelter?

Using Abandoned Housing Fairly

But then you have to look at the basic fairness of the thing. Say there’s a house where the people had to give up and move out because although they tried hard, they couldn’t pay the mortgage. If this house could somehow be used to house the homeless, is it fair that someone should get to live there who never even tried to pay a mortgage? Obviously, something is wrong with that picture.

And what about the family who originally tried to buy the house? Do they move into a different place that was foreclosed on because they are now homeless and it’s empty? Does the whole society turn into a vast game of musical chairs? We have to find a way to cope with the basic insanity of so many empty buildings and so many unhoused humans. In August of 2013, Daniel G. J. of StoryLeak.com wrote:

There are still over 14 million homes sitting empty in the United States…The worst-hit city is Las Vegas, which still has 40,481 vacant single family homes, 5,137 empty townhomes, and 16,542 empty condominiums.

In the same year, the point-in-time count found 7,355 people experiencing homelessness in Southern Nevada. And don’t forget, Las Vegas is the place with hundreds of miles of flood tunnels underneath it, where at least 300 people are said to live.

Less than 6 months ago, Alana Semuels reported for The Atlantic that Baltimore, Md., held 16,000 vacant homes, and that a group had formed to try and make them into affordable, permanent housing for the city’s currently homeless residents. She wrote:

A minimum-wage worker in Maryland would have to work 138 hours a week to afford a two-bedroom unit…Baltimore closed the waiting list for Section 8 Housing vouchers eleven years ago.

Housing Our Neighbors, part of the Housing Is a Human Right Roundtable, is made up of labor activists, homeowners, and homeless people…They say the data will show there are far more vacant homes in Baltimore than the city has previously acknowledged, and they argue that those homes should be turned into affordable housing.

The goal here is to create a nonprofit community land trust, a legal construct that “takes the “market” part out of the housing market, allowing people to buy homes but restricting their resale value in order to make them affordable for the next buyer.” Hopefully, it shouldn’t be hard to get started, since “out of the 300 homes the Roundtable has surveyed, about 80 are owned by the city.” Semuels says this method has worked in Austin, Texas; Albany, Georgia; and Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Reactions?

Source: “Are there enough unused houses in America for each homeless person to have six?,” Stackexchange.com, 11/10/13
Source: “Philadelphia Raises Stakes With Plan to Reverse Blight.” NYTimes.com, 08/22/13
Source: “Recovery? US Has Enough Empty Houses to Hold Population of Britain.” StoryLeak.com, 08/06/13
Source: “Inside Las Vegas’ Underground Homeless Community,” PhoenixNewTimes.com, 04/07/14
Source: “Can Homeless People Move Into Baltimore’s Abandoned Houses?,” TheAtlantic.com, 10/20/14
Image by the Internet

 

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Homelessness and Houses

Abandoned houseDozens of news stories show up daily in answer to the alert term “homeless.” Every now and then, one comes along that incorporates such classic elements that it would make the perfect case study for interstellar sociologists to puzzle over. Visualize a teacher from another planet, standing in front of a class full of students, trying to explain the strange ways of Earth.

Suppose that teacher picks a random a news story originating in Washington Township, a 23-square mile area that encompasses 7 communities in Gloucester County in southern New Jersey. Conscientiously, the teacher has looked up some background information. Last year, Gloucester County’s point-in-time count found 585 homeless people (and these counts are generally understood to be on the low side because of the “hidden homeless” factor). Strangely, entering the word “homeless” into the search box at Washington Township’s official website fails to return any result.

Make no mistake, Gloucester County seems to have quite a lot going on in the way of food pantries and so forth. But life is hard for the unemployed and the underemployed. Preparing for class, the teacher finds an article written by Samantha Melamed, who quotes an official saying that the county gets about 1,900 Section 8 vouchers from the federal government, while 8,000 people are on the waiting list for them. In temporal terms, that usually works out to a wait of about 4 years for affordable housing. In other words, a family that applied for subsidized housing back in 2011 when Melamed’s piece was published might just now be accepted. She notes:

Part of the problem is that cheap housing in our region is staggeringly hard to come by.

Yet, throughout that same region, houses sit empty—which is the subject of the current news item chosen by the alien teacher to make some points about human illogic on our weird planet. Its title is “Gloucester County cracks down on abandoned homes.” Zeroing in on a typical property, the reporter writes:

Weeks’ worth of wet newspapers are piled in the driveway…Trash cans and debris are stacked along a fence, and vines hang from the empty brown house’s gutters…The dwelling is among more than 370 vacant properties in the municipality and 3,000 in Gloucester County…

In other words, here’s a county with an official homeless count of 585 bodies, and 3,000 empty dwellings. What is wrong with the Earth inhabitants that they can’t figure something out? Even a neighboring “fast-growing” community called Woolwich holds 51 abandoned properties within its borders, and the news piece says:

Last year, the township experienced a “big uptick” in foreclosures and homeowners walking away from houses.

Here, the teacher from another planet might point out how the Earthlings keep saying their latest financial crisis happened in 2008, while evidence like this shows it is obviously still going on. Who do they think they’re kidding? Residents are upset because the banks don’t take care of foreclosed properties, so the grass grows hip-high and the buildings decay, lowering the market value of inhabited houses. One question the alien students might ask is, “Obviously, these Earthlings planned to establish long-term residence in this place. Since their intent is to stay, why do they care about the current market value? In fact, if the property is valued lower, doesn’t that mean they pay a lower tax?”

Meanwhile, an official notes that neglect and the resulting blight create “a significant quality-of-life impact.” But at the same time, the Earthlings are totally oblivious to the “quality-of-life impact” on the people who have no roof over their heads, while perfectly usable buildings sit empty. How can they sit back and be comfortable with this ridiculous waste of resources?

Registries are created with databases to keep track of who owns “abandoned” buildings, so the owners can (theoretically) be forced to pay for upkeep. More often, the best outcome is that a house will decay quickly, so it can be labeled “unsafe for human occupancy” and demolished, which is cheaper than paying for a landscaping crew year after year. Across America, how many houses are truly unsafe and unsalvageable, and how many viable buildings are arbitrarily labeled that way because it is the necessary bureaucratic step toward forcing the owner to tear them down?

Of course there is more to be said on this subject, and House the Homeless will be back to say more next time.

Reactions?

Source: “Far From Home,” SouthJerseyMagazine.com, March 2011
Source: “Gloucester County cracks down on abandoned homes,” TheDailyJournal.com, 03/21/15
Image by David Berry

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Lame Rationalizations Criminalize Homelessness

Camp of Harry the HomelessThe important thing about this news story is not its timeliness, or the people’s race, or age, or which American state, or any other mundane detail. This story is a stand-in for scenarios taking place all over the country every day. It goes beyond generic into classic, because of the assumptions behind it. As journalists are taught to do, Zack McDonald sums up the facts in the first sentence of his article:

A homeless couple has been arrested on charges of child neglect after police found them camping in the woods with their 2-year-old child exposed to the elements…

Wait a minute. What’s wrong with that? Aspen and Vail are full of 2-year-olds  exposed to the elements. Those ski slopes are cold! Whereas this story happened in a place with a subtropical climate and an average temperature of 74 degrees, this time of year.

Both parents were charged with placing the child in danger of physical and mental injury when officers investigated the conditions of the camp, and the child was taken into protective custody.

The first question that springs to mind is whether the child was ever left alone in the woodsy camp, or always in the presence of an adult. This important information was not given. McDonald reports the facts from the police department’s documentation, which covers only part of the situation, because at the time the story was published, more criminal charges were expected.

On a higher level, what kind of a catch-all criminal charge is that anyway? Every person on earth is in danger of physical or mental injury, at every moment, including those kids on skis. Here is another messed-up angle. Apparently, the police find the crime of living in the woods particularly heinous because, in their estimation, these people didn’t really have to live there.

It would be different if they were just down on their luck, but… they had the means to help themselves.

So claims Sgt. Aaron Wilson, in an example of cop logic at its most ludicrous. He says the mother had “enough U.S. currency on her, which she could have rented a motel room.” Really? For how long? One night, before the family would be back out in the woods again with nothing left for food or diapers? What if the only motel in the area requires that guests have a car, and they don’t? What if they can’t reach a motel without walking for miles along a busy highway, exposing their child to massive air pollution and the danger of being hit by a truck? What if the motel requires picture I.D., and for one of any number of possible reasons, they don’t have it? If they spend their money on exorbitantly-priced temporary accommodation, how are they supposed to save up the first and last month’s rent, plus security deposit, that they will need to move into an apartment, provided that anyone will rent them one?

Law Enforcement and Cash

Whatever amount the mother had, the officer characterized it as “more money than most people carry around.” For starters, a lot of people these days never carry cash, because they have credit cards and debit cards and pay their bills online with direct bank transfers. Nowadays, having cash is proof of belonging to the lower class.

However much the woman had, maybe it was earmarked for something—like a vaccination for the kid, or to buy a bus ticket out of town. The point is, we don’t know, and neither did the police, and it’s none of their business anyway.

Though the couple did not have a permanent residence…Parker Police were hesitant to call them “homeless.”… After further investigation, officers also found that the couple had been paying rent on a storage unit and were paying two cellphone bills…

The implication seems to be that according to the police, to truly deserve the status of homeless, people are supposed to own absolutely nothing. It’s also disturbing how the police don’t seem to be aware that even the cost of a storage unit and two phones is still only a small fraction of what it takes to actually live under a roof.

Police reported that witnesses had seen the couple and child coming and going from the camp site for weeks. The site had several blankets, but no tent or shelter.

To call the observers “witnesses” instead of neighbors really reinforces the idea that people experiencing homelessness are criminals. And what about these witnesses? During all these weeks of seeing the couple and child, how many of them came forward to offer a tent or sleeping bag, or the room above their garage, or a hot meal?

The child was turned over to the care of the…Department of Children and Families after immediate family…declined to take custody.

The public is supposed to assume that if relatives won’t help by taking in the child, these must be incredibly bad people. But maybe the only living relative is a grandparent with one leg, who has kidney dialysis five times a week, and can’t possibly care for a child. Or what if the mother’s side won’t take the child because they disapprove of the father’s religious affiliation? We don’t have a clue about what’s going on, but are all too ready to judge.

And speaking of prejudicial language, when authorities approached, the father “fled on foot” (only to be rounded up later.) Well, what was he supposed to do, stick around and volunteer to be arrested and locked up too? From that helpless position, how could he ever rescue his woman and child from custody?

Now, there may be reasons why this particular couple deserves jail time. But none of the reasons cited in the article actually qualifies—not in a decent society. There may be reasons why the child should be taken away and the parents incarcerated—but they have not yet been heard. What about “family values?” What about sticking together and trying to make it on their own? Obviously these parents did not want to hand their child over to the state, and for that, on a heart level, can they really be blamed?

Reactions?

Source: “Homeless couple charged with child neglect
NewsHerald.com, 03/12/15
Image by Daniel R. Blume

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Homelessness and Pointless Identity Theft

Occupy Austin ArrestsPaperwork has never been more important. Identification is necessary to open a bank account, cash a check, apply for a job, get a mailbox, rent a room, get food stamps and other benefits, sleep in a shelter, or even to board the Greyhound and leave town. In a city where the public library has computers, the privilege of using one to check email or search job listings will probably require I.D.

Almost everyone has had some kind of I.D. at one time or another, but on the streets, material objects come and go. Possessions are all too easily lost or stolen. Many of the people experiencing homelessness also struggle with mental health issues, PTSD, symptoms of head trauma, advanced age, and/or chronic pain. They are constantly being uprooted and “moved on.” Many facilities that serve the homeless do not allow belongings to be brought inside. Backpacks fall into rivers or are swept away by flash floods.

A Treacherous World for the Homeless

A person might stash a few belongings in a seemingly safe place, like the rough sleeper who left his blanket and pack in the electricity cupboard behind a church. He returned to find that another street person had dragged his things out and set them on fire— the sixth time in just a year that similar destruction had happened to him. Or it might be an over-zealous municipal crew, enforcing a city ordinance, that burns a homeless person’s possessions or pitches them into a truck bound for the landfill. Cleanup missions and “sweeps” carried out at camps can affect the inhabitants’ lives with apocalyptic fury.

To replace a birth certificate costs money and requires an address where the hard copy can be sent. Even a successful request can take as long as four months to be fulfilled, and that is only the first step. Acquiring a Social Security card can take weeks, and the Department of Motor Vehicles, where even non-driving I.D. cards originate, can present additional difficulties and delays. To acquire I.D. requires proof of residency and a legal address—the very things a person needs the I.D. in order to get. The process can be so Kafkaesque that some advocates spend all their volunteer time helping people with just that one problem.

Protect and Serve

Then, after jumping through all the bureaucratic hoops, imagine having your I.D. confiscated by an officer of the law—a person who has sworn to serve and protect citizens, including people experiencing homelessness. Richard R. Troxell, president of House the Homeless in Austin, Texas says:

All social services in Austin require photo identification. To be left without photo identification only acts as an additional barrier to escaping homelessness.

That is a polite understatement. Stealing and deliberately destroying a person’s identification does not only cause massive inconvenience and hardship, it can be a de facto death sentence. This terrifying act of personal annihilation can and does happen much too frequently, all across the country. It can result from a casual police encounter, and there are reports—even from such beautiful and smiling states as Hawaii—of I.D. being thrown away when a homeless person goes to jail.

In Austin, House the Homeless held its 14th Annual Thermal Underwear Distribution Party on January 1, 2015. As always, the attendees were invited to participate in a survey, which this year 277 people did. The average age of survey respondents was 45; their average time spent homeless was about 9.5 years; their average time in Austin just over 6 years. This year’s topic was interactions with the police.

Have you ever had your ID taken by police and not returned?

Yes: 92 No: 183
Approximately 1/3rd of all people surveyed had their identification permanently taken from them by the police.

A similar question concerned other possessions, such as backpacks, bags, bedrolls, clothing items, and so forth, any of which might hold papers and other personal valuables:

Have you ever had your things taken by police without giving you a receipt and the name of a contact person to get your things back?

Yes: 125 No: 152
Almost half the folks answering the question reported improper impounding practices conducted by officers of the Austin Police department.

Is it even necessary to point out how wrong thievery is when perpetrated by the very people who are supposed to be better than average, who are held up as examples of (as the old saying had it) Truth, Justice, and the American Way? We leave with a few words from Lisa Burrell, a social worker who helps the homeless:

It’s not uncommon for people to lose their possessions…The reaction I see in them is very similar to people who have been burgled and had their possessions taken. The loss is hard and it’s very deep.

Reactions?

Source: “Homeless man’s bag torched near Horsham church,” WSCountyTimes,co.uk, 07/21/14
Image by Ann Harkness

 

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Homelessness and the Obliteration of Personhood

Fun With I.D. Badges, Part 2Emily Topper, writing for The Gargoyle at Flagler College, examined the process of obtaining an I.D. in Florida, and found a system rigged against people experiencing homelessness

This rigged system is repeated in many localities throughout the U.S. Topper spoke with Mark Samson, a Community Resource Officer, who said:

In order to get a Social Security card, they need to have some type of ID card. But in order to get that, they must have the Social Security card.

This is a classic Catch-22 situation, and the damage it does can not be overstated. There may be scattered exceptions, but in most places a person needs I.D. to open a bank account, cash a check, apply for a job, or rent a Post Office box. The laws have even been tightened to prevent someone with no proof of a permanent physical address from using a private mailbox facility. Is the insanity of that sinking in? The person who most needs it, because of having no place to actually live, cannot obtain a mailing address.

The days of anonymous Greyhound Bus journeys are over, because a photo I.D. must be presented even if the ticket is paid for in cash. Without I.D., a person can’t rent a hotel or motel room (or even, as a recent widely publicized case demonstrated, occupy a room paid for by kind strangers.)

A person in need of any kind of government assistance, whether it be food stamps, medical treatment, or disability benefits, is ineligible without I.D. And good luck getting into a temporary shelter. Sure, whoever runs the shelter needs to protect guests from violent criminals and sexual predators. But the policy, as it stands, also puts vulnerable people at risk by leaving them on the streets with the violent criminals and sexual predators.

A Typical Story

Topper relates the story of Vincent Youngberg of St. Augustine. During a recent incarceration, his vehicle registration had expired and a ticket went unpaid, so the car was impounded. After being released from prison, Youngberg learned that getting the car back would require I.D., which in turn would require a Social Security card, birth certificate, and two proofs of residency. And money for the towing and storage fees, of course. Before he could get any of this together, the impoundment contractor sold the car along with its contents—including the birth certificate that Youngberg needed to prove his existence.

Requesting a replacement birth certificate is a red-tape-intensive job that involves the ability to fill out forms, a payment to the bureaucracy, a usable mailing address, and a long, long wait while the state in question takes weeks or months to process the application. It amounts to such a grueling ordeal that some specialist agency workers and volunteers do nothing but help people acquire the paperwork to validate their lives. Homeless advocates in St. Augustine work with a couple of substitutes which, though inadequate, are “better than nothing.” Beth Kuhn, a caseworker at the St. Francis House, told the reporter:

If [the homeless] were treated at Flagler Hospital, they can ask for a face-sheet from the records office there. This sheet is accepted at the Social Security office, and they will give you a printout… valid enough to get a real state ID. Once you have that, you can go back and get a real Social Security card.

Not exactly a miracle of accommodation, but better than the alternative. Topper says a person leaving prison receives a practically useless paper with a picture and booking information, and quotes Vincent Youngberg:

It never expires, but no one except law enforcement accepts it. I don’t understand it. I was fingerprinted when I was released from prison. Why can’t they use those fingerprints? Why can’t they just give me a photo I.D.? Even if it was a temporary one for 90 days, just so I could get something.

Is the irony sufficiently glaring? The fingerprints of former inmates are in the system, along with their complete histories, their facial biometrics, and probably their DNA. The government was sufficiently convinced of their identities, letting them serve the sentences. Shouldn’t they at least come out of prison with viable identification?

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Source: “Homeless struggle to obtain IDs, Social Security cards in Florida,” Flagler.edu, 10/25/13
Image by brykmantra