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People Who Feed People

Near Windward Ave., Venice BeachA few days ago it was announced that in Knoxville, Tenn., a teen group is passing out something that people need even more than food—drinking water. They are participating in the Win Our World program, which only lasts for a week, but, with any luck, plants the seeds of the “pay it forward” notion in young minds.

Feeding the homeless is in the news a lot these days, especially when cities outlaw practice, as many seem to be doing. The results are lawsuits, adverse publicity, and huge expense. And those are only the stories that make the news. A variety of methods are used to discourage generous, caring people from trying to help others. Of course, those methods don’t always work.

Venice, Calif., has had a long and troubled history as a hotbed of homelessness. A couple of years back, an anonymous donor gave money to the Whole Foods store at a major intersection to host a weekly homeless breakfast program. Neighboring homeowners and tenants were not consulted beforehand, and did not want strangers to tromping through their yards on Sunday mornings, leaving trash and worse.

The locals were already burned out on the idea of feeding the homeless because of another food program operating a block away. There was vigorous debate, and after holding the event out back of its store the first time, Whole Foods began setting up its operation near the beach instead. A year later the program was still in effect at the alternate location, with complaints still rolling in for various reasons.

Not long afterward, in Pasadena Calif., Union Station Homeless Services expected to feed 5,000 at its annual Thanksgiving bash. Local residents had been sharing home-cooked meals with the homeless for 37 years—the same dishes they made for their families. Cooks would pop an extra tray of stuffing in the oven, or stir an extra quart of cranberry sauce, and deliver the surplus to a central location. According to the group’s CEO, Rabbi Marvin Gross, nobody had ever been sick.

Nevertheless, over the years, none of the homemade meals had been prepared in approved locations. When November 2013 rolled around, the Health Department stepped in and put its foot down. Going forward, helpers could only donate store-bought food (which in this fairy-tale scenario is totally, dependably safe and wholesome.) Undaunted, the charity took advantage of the opportunity to promote an approved location, and encouraged its supporters to donate pies obtained from a Los Angeles bakery owned by Mental Health America, which employs people with mental illnesses.

Feeding the Homeless Throughout the Country

A few months later, in New Orleans, Sister Beth Mouch delivered food to the St. Jude Community Center to prepare a meal for 200 people experiencing homelessness. She found a towing service preparing to remove her truck, without even a written ticket from the parking police. Though her vehicle was not even hooked up to the tow truck yet, and she was ready to drive away, the nun was not allowed to leave. Her truck was towed, and she had to pay a fine to recover it. Apparently, this was not the first time that Community Center volunteers had suffered such petty harassment in their efforts to nourish the hungry.

Around the same time, in Salem, Mass., a young convenience store clerk (whose own history included half a year of living in her car) gave a homeless man a small cup of coffee and was fired for it.Once word got out, Ava Lins received other job offers and soon posted on Facebook that she was working for Citizens for Adequate Housing. That story had a happy ending, but every time someone is retaliated against for trying to help, even on such a very small scale, it sends a bad message and teaches a bad lesson.

To offset those grim examples, a story appeared in the same week about a New Jersey couple, Mark and Anna Landgrebe, who were in their 23rd year of driving their minibus into Manhattan every Saturday night to deliver food and clothing to people in need. All over the country, alone or working together, good-hearted people are pushing back against the increasingly oppressive legal climate. Let’s hope that more people look for ways to contribute.


Source: “Teens give water to Knoxville homeless,” WATE.com, 06/23/15
Source: “Whole Foods: Free Meals for the Homeless on Sundays!,” Yovenice.com, 03/24/12
Source: “No more home-cooked donations at Thanksgiving meal for Pasadena homeless,” scpr.org, 11/26/13
Source: “Nun’s truck towed while delivering food to homeless,” TheCelebrityCafe.com, 3/23/14
Source: “7-11 Clerk Says She Was Fired For Giving Freezing Homeless Man A $1 Cup Of
Coffee,” ThinkProgress,org, 03/19/14
Source: “This Family Has Been Feeding the Homeless Every Weekend for 22 Years, and
They Have No …,” lansing.shine.fm, 03/24/14
Image by Ryan Vaarsi

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The Exploitation that Turned Out Not to Be

Tampa

Tampa

Last fall, Will Hobson wrote about one of the most extensive homeless programs in Tampa, Florida, and its connection to large public sports events:

For years, New Beginnings founder and CEO Tom Atchison has sent his unpaid homeless labor crews to work at Tampa Bay Rays, Lightning and Bucs games, the Daytona 500 and the Florida State Fair. For their shelter, he’s had homeless people work in construction, landscaping, telemarketing, moving, painting, even grant-writing.

At any given time, the program serves around 100 men, women, and young adults, many of whom are veterans. Many are also recovering addicts and alcoholics, and Atchison places great importance on work therapy. But the Tampa Bay Times, which undertook an investigation, believed that exploitation of the homeless was underway. Drug and alcohol recovery programs often supervise their residents’ financial lives because that way, it is harder to relapse. But Atchison was also accused of appropriating the residents’ Social Security payments and SNAP benefits, even when the total was more than what they owed the program for their housing and food.

Along with renting out the New Beginnings residents to other companies, Atchison has also started landscaping and telemarketing companies. Legally, each person is supposed to make $7.25 per hour, the federal minimum wage, but according to labor attorneys consulted by the Times, this did not appear to be the case. Hobson’s article compared it to an earlier case in New York State in which a federal judge made a program pay $800,000 in withheld wages to its former employees.

A Fresh Start For New Beginnings, With Proper Wages

By the second week of December, it was announced that the Buccaneers, Lightning, and Rays had all ended their relationship with the inadequately paid workers. Various media outlets flung around terms like indentured servitude and slave labor. Sources the Tampa Bay Times called “homeless advocates” might actually have been disgruntled n’er-do-wells. If someone was ejected from the program for breaking the no-substance pledge and other rules, “going to the media” would be a weapon of revenge.

At the same time, some residents were interviewed who had no complaints and said the program had saved their lives. Just before Christmas, the Tampa Bay Times published an eloquent letter by Brandon Jones that summed up the view held by defenders of New Beginnings and its founder.

Let me see if I have this straight. Pastor Tom Atchison of New Beginnings takes in drug addicts, criminals and sex offenders—basically the unemployable dregs of society whom no other institution will care for—and gives them free room and board, and probably clothing too.

In return he asks the men to pay for their costly care by working a few hours a week at jobs in the community for (at most) pocket money. Nobody is compelled to stay at his homeless shelter and as I understand it nobody is prevented from finding additional employment to earn a few dollars if they so choose. And while in Atchison’s care they are gaining basic job skills, and building a record of steady employment and sobriety that can help them to return to normal society.

At the end of the month a different newspaper, the Tampa Tribune, announced what seemed to be a win-win resolution of the problem, with the old contracting company (Aramark) out of the picture, a new company called All Team Staffing in the driver’s seat, and an even greater number of New Beginnings residents employed, under improved terms. There is more work to do because the new contract includes not just selling concessions, but cleanup after the sporting events. Mike Salinero reported:

The Rev. Tom Atchison, the Pentecostal preacher who founded New Beginnings, said the arrangement through All Team Staffing is better than the Aramark contract because the workers get paychecks with taxes and Social Security taken out.

In March of this year, the Tampa Tribune carried a piece by the New Beginnings leader, Tom Atchison. This is definitely worth reading in its entirety, but here are the main points:

New Beginnings has survived but has had to cut a lot of services because of the loss of income caused by the bogus articles. We will continue to rebuild our services as the truth continues to surface.

After the careful and extensive examination of the financial records of New Beginnings and the interviews of several employees and clients, federal investigators concluded that there were no violations of record keeping or labor laws.

New Beginnings makes no apologies for requiring clients to pay a part of their expenses by working. We want to teach them a work ethic and not to depend on the government and others to support them.

People who hit the streets, with intractable substance use problems, are often not angels. It would be foolish to pretend otherwise. Such difficult people tend to want everything handed to them, and react badly to rules like “work or move out”—an attitude that could account for the troubles that originally set them on the path to a last-resort rehab center. Everyone deserves a second chance, but people who answer the call to be in the second-chance business are allowed, on behalf of society as a whole, to set boundaries and enact real consequences.


Source: “Tampa homeless program uses unpaid, destitute residents as steady labor force, revenue source,” TampaBay.com, 11/29/14
Source: “Letters: Good work at New Beginnings is being punished,” TampaBay.com, 12/19/14
Source: “New Beginnings’ clients working at RayJay again after federal probe,” TBO.com, 12/29/14
Source: “The truth about New Beginnings of Tampa,” TPB.com, 03/28/15
Image by Walter

 

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Homeless Exploitation Comes in All Sizes

George W. Bush found homeless

A Vintage April Fools Day Meme

if u are homeless ill let you stay with me in exchange of helping me run my business.. I have a recording studio in my apartment so i will teach you how

Mature professional gentleman (35) seeks a very mature homeless female for a Serious Makeover. I am going to completely change your life …

I am looking for young homeless bi-sexual or gay guy that needs a place to stay….

Willing to provide housing to a homeless girl. Pregnant or single moms encouraged to reply. I’m a single employed father of 2. No drama no games

Hi I am looking to help a nice single homeless female under 35 with a nice place to live I have a very nice home.

Those quotations are from Craigslist ads, similar to probably hundreds that appear around the country every day. No doubt a certain proportion of them are earnest and sincere, and maybe some people have found a way off the streets through the kindness of strangers. Some ads of this kind are quite sinister, and the desperate person in need of housing must figure out which is which.

Recently, in Michigan, the owner of an auto repair business was arrested for “accosting and soliciting,” because he would let homeless men live in the shop, with video games to play, and an allowance, and even the privilege of borrowing a car—and all he demanded in return was sex.

Stunts Put Homeless in Danger

A different kind of exploitation caused eyebrows to be raised around Skid Row in Los Angeles when stunt bike riders were videotaped “bunny hopping” their vehicles over people asleep on the sidewalk. (It’s probably just a coincidence, but in the summer of 2012, in Austin, the dead body of Valerie Godoy was found along the Ninth Street BMX trail, which was frequented by local bicycle daredevils.) An LAPD officer said for the record, “Often the homeless are targets of stunts that go terribly wrong.”

The Skid Row cowboys displayed their disrespect and bad taste out in public, but gained nothing other than joy of being idiots. Behind closed doors, another level of exploitation goes on all over the country, all the time. Here is how a New Jersey street person was used, according to the Times of Wayne County:

The scam is relatively simple. Find a homeless man, a drug addict, someone expendable, someone who will keep quiet if caught. Give that person a bogus/stolen check and drop them off at a bank. If the person is successful in cashing the check, he/she gets to keep 10% of the ill-gotten money. If the scam keeps working, move to the next bank and repeat the process. If police are called and the scam falls apart, simply drive away leaving the ‘patsy’ to face the legal music.

In Kansas City, a ring of 10 crooks stole over $200,000 by haunting the dumpsters of business parks to retrieve paperwork that held banking information. As Brianne Pfannenstiel reported:

They then used a personal computer to print counterfeit checks before driving to shelters and halfway houses to recruit homeless people to pass the checks at banks.

Great financial gain can be had by bilking the system created to provide medical care for America’s citizens. In Orlando, Florida, a clinic owner and three accomplices recruited people experiencing homelessness to be fake patients in a scheme that defrauded Medicaid of over $200,000.

Similar thievery in New York involved (allegedly thousands of) homeless people who were paid in shoes, while a consortium of nine doctors got away with around $7 million. This cabal hired a guy whose job was to hang around shelters and soup kitchens, roping people into an elaborate hoax. Anybody with a valid Medicaid card could be transported to a clinic and pretend to receive extensive, costly tests and treatment. The New York Times reported:

The doctors, staff members and billing specialists, meanwhile, would rack up hundreds or thousands of dollars per recruit in false Medicaid claims, prosecutors said…The doctors in the group made money by, for instance, seeing a patient for four minutes and billing for 30 minutes, or claiming they had reviewed tests when they had not, or simply billing for procedures they had never done…

George W. Bush Taking Money From the Homeless?

Not long ago, former POTUS George W. Bush gave a speech at a fund-raising gala for a homeless shelter located in McKinney, Texas. Blogger Rob Groce commented:

Bush should be an expert on the topic of homelessness, after all. The number of homeless Americans grew 49 percent in the last two years of his presidency, peaking at 634,000 when he left the White House in 2009. And that surge was certainly aided by a quadrupling in the number of home foreclosures during his last term. Bush doesn’t have a record of compassion regarding the homeless…

But he stood up and talked on their behalf, right? He helped out Samaritan Inn…and also charged his full, customary $100,000 fee. Michael Kruse of Politico.com remarks:

Since 2009…Bush has given at least 200 paid speeches…The part-time work, which rarely requires more than an hour on stage, has earned him tens of millions of dollars.

Tens of millions, and what Kruse implies there is that Bush could afford to donate his fee back to the institution. However, that did not happen, and the shelter’s director expressed tactful joy about raising more than a million dollars. But just think. With a generous gesture from a man whose pockets are already filled to overflowing, the shelter could have had $1,100,000.

House the Homeless’s Experience With George W. Bush

Here is a perfect example of why life can be so confusing and so astonishing. Despite the bad press, it seems that Mr. Bush’s record is not all one-sided. Here is House the Homeless founder Richard R. Troxell:

When George W. Bush was governor of Texas, I designed a continuum of care delivery system to move people out of homelessness for the City of Austin. I pressed for the need for a jobs component and one that paid a living wage. As far as I know, House the Homeless was the only nonprofit to receive funding to aid people experiencing homelessness from Mr. Bush. He gave us $100,000 for my model, Project Fresh Start. Whether he did it for political purposes (I never heard it touted as such) or if he really did get my concept of living wages, I am sure of one thing, that he understood the concept of jobs that paid enough to put a roof over your head other than a bridge.

Read about this exciting episode and more in Richard’s book, Looking Up at the Bottom Line.

Reactions?

Source: “Police: Mich. auto shop owner took in homeless men, then demanded sex,” Newsandtribune.com, 05/22/15
Source: “People aren’t happy about the BMX riders who bunny hopped homeless people,” NetworkA.com, 03/14/14
Source: “Homeless man used as ‘pawn’ in check scheme,” WayneTimes.com, 06/13/15
Source: “Bank scam: homeless men, counterfeit checks, prison,” BizJournals.com, 12/01/14
Source: “4 Charged After Recruiting Homeless To Pose As Patients,” CBSLocal.com, 03/21/15
Source: “9 New York Doctors Are Accused of Defrauding Medicaid Using Homeless People,” NYTimes.com, 03/31/15
Source: “Want George W. Bush To Help Your Homeless Shelter? That’ll Be $100000, Please,” IfYouOnlyNews.com, 06/08/15
Source: “On talk circuit, George W. Bush makes millions but few waves,” Politico.com, 06/07/15
Image by κύριαsity

 

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How to Become Homeless: Be a Puerto Rican Addict

Winter on My Street“Como Se Dice ‘Not It’?” is a prime example of why the public radio series This American Life is famous. A chance meeting with a street person led Chicago newspaper editor Adriana Cardona to uncover an astonishing story that leaves numerous questions to be considered before rendering judgment. Cardona’s approach to the story is beautifully even-handed, and we hope that our summation of the basic points will inspire the reader to go for the full experience and listen to the episode.

Through her casual conversation with a homeless man, the editor learned that heroin addicts are regularly shipped from Puerto Rico to Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and cities in New Jersey, Florida, South Carolina, and Wisconsin. In each destination they are taken to places that on-air host Ira Glass describes as “flop houses open 24 hours a day with group therapy going till late at night, sometimes 10 or 13 hours straight.”

Cardona found 14 branches of this rehab outfit in Chicago alone, and became most familiar with a branch called Segunda Vida (Second Life). Other facilities have such names as El Grito Desesperado (The Desperate Scream) and El Ultimo Paso (The Last Step). They all operate under the auspices of the Puerto Rican organization De Vuelta a la Vida (Return to Life). In the United States, the organization flies under the banner of Alcoholics Anonymous, but AA disowns them, and indeed their methods are unorthodox. Glass says:

The therapy was really just basically like AA meetings led by former addicts who did very un-AA things like yell at them and berate them. When the guys would go through detox, because there was no medicine or methadone or professional staff, they were sometimes given folk remedies, like an onion to bite on, or alcohol would be poured in their belly buttons.

When Cardona showed up at Segunda Vida, she encountered tough men, allergic to microphones and cameras, who claimed there was nobody in charge and therefore nobody she could speak with. The gatekeepers handled all requests from anyone, about anything, with a recommendation to “come back in a few days.” Her persistence finally won a meeting with one of the group’s founders. Efren Moreno confirmed every negative thing that Cardona had heard about the organization, but he did not seem exploitative or evil. Her impression was of…

… someone who wanted to be part of the solution, that he wanted to bring services to those who were not able to get rehab services out there… But at the same time—and he even said—each group has its own rules. And because there is no oversight, it’s really hard to know what are those other groups doing.

In a Chicago facility, an addict gets free room and board for three months, and then is charged $50 to $75 a week, which still includes meals. At some branches, residents are encouraged to sign up for food stamps and contribute their allotments to the kitchen that feeds everybody. This bit of mandatory socialism, while probably not legal, is far from outrageous. Moreno would prefer to get by with no government assistance at all. A recovering addict himself, he claims to really help junkies kick their habits, and says anyone who quits the program is a weak individual who didn’t really want to get better. Apparently that is a large category, because one of Cardona’s co-researchers found, in Chicago alone, 93 men who had quit the program.

Addicts Off the Grid

When Cardona visited Puerto Rico, she was met with astonishment that anyone should question or doubt this successful narcotics rehabilitation program. De Vuelta a la Vida is no secret to municipal authorities or to Puerto Rico’s governor. Glass says:

It’s run by the state police. They help drug addicts get food, clothing, hygiene, and other services on the island. But also, they arrange for lots of them to fly off the island to these unlicensed programs in the United States.

Of course, none of the Puerto Rican bureaucrats knew that the rehab centers are unlicensed. In every place where De Vuelta a la Vida has established outposts, they seem to operate totally under the radar. According to any city records or public health department or professional registration bureau or licensing agency, officially they don’t exist.

What Does De Vuelta a la Vida Have to Do With Homelessness?

Puerto Rican addicts are recruited dishonestly, lured by a fantasy of gleaming premises, plenty of doctors and nurses, and even a swimming pool. In return for a one-way ticket to a mythical luxury rehab center, they sign a waiver that absolves the Puerto Rican government of any further responsibility for them. If they ever want to return, they have to figure it out for themselves. When the men arrive stateside, they lose what little benefits were available in their homeland, including HIV meds and methadone.

Even a successfully cleaned-up Puerto Rican immigrant is unlikely to find work, and will probably end up on the street or, at best, in a shelter. For those who quit the program, life is grim. Unable to speak the language, and still in need of opiates every day, they have to survive brutal winters in a place very unlike the tropical island of their birth.

For these penniless men, going home is an impossible dream. Family members have suffered already from abuse of their trust, and will ignore any plea for help, even with a fancy story about being stranded in America. Also, Segunda Vida and the other centers tend to hang onto identity documents, as Cardona learned by trying to help a newly-arrived HIV-positive addict who had quit the program almost immediately and lived, like so many others, in Chicago’s streets.

Reactions?

Source: “Not It!,” ThisAmericanLife.org, 04/10/15
Image by BluEyedA73

 

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The Economics of SNAP

SNAP logoA government website enumerates the SNAP (Food Stamp) Program rights of people experiencing homelessness.(“Food Support” is the term some states use, and others have their own individual monikers like Wisconsin’s FoodShare, Vermont’s 3SquaresVT, and of course CalFresh.) We are told that homeless persons have even more rights than the housed, because they don’t need to give a permanent address to apply. (In the realm of extra-fancy privileges, that one is underwhelming.) Besides, we keep hearing that homeless applicants still need to give a mailing address, even if it is as ephemeral as a drop-in center.

In order to receive SNAP benefits, a person doesn’t need a place to cook or store food (although it sure helps). And even those who live in shelters where meals are served are eligible. While sources seem to agree that $200 per month is the largest SNAP benefit that an individual might be eligible for, information on the standard amount is confusing. One website says that in 2014, the average benefit was $125 per month, and another says that in 2015, the average was $194 per month, which is more, and that seems odd because as time progresses, these payments are constantly cut. (Even the higher number, however, amounts to less than $7 a day.) An online commenter called Goth Farmer states that a homeless person receives $189 per month.

Currently, people fortunate enough to have Section 8 housing are shocked into awareness that a break on the rent is considered to be quite enough in the way of help, because their SNAP allowance is now under $20 a month. This is a stern reminder that SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. In other words, food stamps are not meant to sustain life, merely to complement the acquisition of food by (chiefly) other means.

For people experiencing homelessness, this brings up issues that even the best-intentioned humanitarians disagree on. Should a shelter or a soup kitchen charge the people who eat there by taking part of their Electric Benefit Transfer funds? Well, yes, because the facility needs help acquiring the food, and it might not even be able to stay open if not for these contributions.

As for the diners, people attain dignity by paying for the things they consume. But on the other hand, after the soup kitchen meal is over, they will need other meals on other days, and their “food stamps.” There is no guarantee of finding a free meal on any given day, and the rules page says, “They cannot force you… to pay for food at the shelter. They can only request that you voluntarily use your SNAP/Food Stamps to pay for meals.”

The SNAP Situation Is About to Get Worse

No matter how bad things are, they are about to get worse for about a million unemployed childless adults, many of whom are either homeless or at risk of becoming so. Members of this demographic typically receive between $150 and $200 per month, according to Ed Bolen, writing for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. After this year, it will be tougher to qualify. The rule was already on the books, with each state having the option to petition for a waiver—which many have been doing. In 2016, it appears that almost no states plan to apply for renewal of that waiver. Bolen explains:

Even SNAP recipients whose state operates few or no employment programs for them and fails to offer them a spot in a work or training program—which is the case in most states—have their benefits cut off after three months irrespective of whether they are searching diligently for a job… This leaves it up to individuals who can’t find a job to try to find training or work program openings on their own, which few are able to do, especially since most training programs have insufficient resources to meet demand, resulting in substantial waiting lists.

Getting back to Goth Farmer, he (or she) says:

There you have a massive flaw in the idea all homeless always have the option of SNAP for food. Then, you have the identity issue. You have to prove identity to qualify and fact is many homeless can’t. They have no proof of who they are. No photo ID, no SS card, not birth cert. or voter card. Many homeless are underage and avoid any contact with any agency or shelter due to fear of being returned to what they ran from… The mentally ill are often not capable of far simpler tasks then wading through a ream of paperwork to get SNAP.

So, things are seldom as simple as they appear, and sufficient nourishment is still a problem for many Americans.

Reactions?

Source: “Homeless Persons’ Rights under the SNAP/Food Stamp Program,” frac.org, undated
Source: “Policy Basics: Introduction to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP),” CBPP.com, undated
Source: “”Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP),” USDA.gov
Source: “Approximately 1 Million Unemployed Childless Adults Will Lose SNAP Benefits in 2016 as State Waivers Expire,” CBPP.org, 01/05/15
Image by U.S. Government