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Will Nationwide Change Start in Idaho?

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Faceless force: police officers strut between Austin’s homeless shelter and Salvation Army building.

On August 6, something interesting and potentially very significant happened. A federal court case filed in the District of Idaho in 2009 is just now being considered, and the Department of Justice filed a “statement of interest” based on the premise that people experiencing homelessness are being unconstitutionally punished for sleeping in public places, even when no shelter beds or any other alternatives are available to them.

The case, titled Bell v. City of Boise et al., was brought by several homeless plaintiffs who were convicted of violating a Boise ordinance that forbids “camping” in public. In this instance, camping does not mean setting up a tent and a barbecue pit and a gravity shower and a volleyball net. It means sleeping, an activity that every human being has to engage in, which means the law makes as much sense as convicting people for breathing.

The Justice Department calls sleeping “conduct that is a universal and unavoidable consequence of being human,” and references the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which says that Americans should not be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. In effect, anti-camping ordinances criminalize people for being homeless. These days, it is certainly not unusual, but it is undeniably cruel.

Who Are the Criminals?

The parties responsible for the economic meltdown have not spent a single night in jail, or for that matter, a single night sleeping behind a dumpster. The parties responsible for starting and perpetuating wars for the further obscene enrichment of billionaires have not attended a single Veterans Stand Down looking for a toothbrush or a pair of socks. Yet thousands of Americans have acquired criminal records because they have to sleep someplace, and thousands more live in daily fear of being punished as criminals because of the human physiological imperative known as sleep. Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, wrote:

Criminally prosecuting those individuals for something as innocent as sleeping, when they have no safe, legal place to go, violates their constitutional rights…Needlessly pushing homeless individuals into the criminal justice system does nothing to break the cycle of poverty or prevent homelessness in the future. Instead, it imposes further burdens on scarce judicial and correctional resources, and it can have long-lasting and devastating effects on individuals’ lives.

The lawsuit that is finally getting its day in court was originally filed by Idaho Legal Aid Services and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP), which issued a report last year announcing the result of a three-year survey that gathered information from 187 American cities. They found that 34 percent (a solid one-third) of these municipalities have laws that ban public camping (also known as sleeping). Almost half—43 percent—prohibit sleeping in vehicles, which is about as senseless as a law can be. Who in their right mind believes that sleeping in a vehicle is worse, for either the homeless person or the general public, than the other alternatives?

Criminalizing Homelessness

As of last year, the agencies responsible for counting people experiencing homelessness came up with 153,000 to represent the number of unsheltered homeless people in the United States on any night of the year. In the main, these unsheltered sleepers are Americans. Some are very young children, whose chances of actually learning anything in school are gravely reduced. Some are teens, who are at risk for more kinds of damage than the average housed person can even imagine. Some are fathers with intense and undeserved feelings of personal failure. Some are mothers whose desperation occasionally makes sordid headlines.

Some are women escaped from domestic situations so violently abusive that even the streets seem like a better deal. Some are mentally ill people for whom the world is a vast unrelenting puzzle. Some are sick and disabled people who would barely be able to take care of themselves even indoors, much less out in the wild. Some are veterans who made a good-faith bargain with the government that was only kept on one side. Some are elderly people who worked hard all their lives and ended up with less than nothing.

And we call ourselves the greatest country on earth.

(…more on this court case next time…)


Source: “Justice Department Files Brief to Address the Criminalization of Homelessness,” Justice.gov, 08/06/15
Source: “It’s unconstitutional to ban the homeless from sleeping outside, the federal government says,” WashingtonPost.com, 08/13/15
Image by Richard R. Troxell

 

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How to Become Homeless—Yes, Even You

JoyThe Weingart Center is a venerable Skid Row institution that offers shelter, job training and counseling. Los Angeles Times writer Sandy Banks interviewed Maxene Johnston, who was in charge of it for 10 years, and learned this:

Her time in the trenches taught her that most people with nowhere to live fell into one of three groups: the derailed, the disabled or the dysfunctional. The derailed are ordinary people hobbled by bad luck…The disabled have mental or physical issues that make it hard to live on their own…The dysfunctional are chronic street dwellers, with limitations that can’t be addressed with short-term help… There are as many back stories as there are broken and desperate people.

The point Johnston makes is that all the people in these subdivisions are still part of the public, the citizenry whose safety and wellbeing the civic authorities are charged with protecting. The derailed, of course, are the easiest to help, and also the easiest to become one of. Life is so precarious that just about everyone is at some degree of risk for becoming homeless. Today we look at a few random ways in which this can happen.

A Davenport, Iowa, mother of five was shown a rental house by “the most wonderful man I ever met in my life” and gave him a $1,300 deposit—all the money she had. Then he disappeared, and even a local news station was unable to help her trace the thief.

An article by Senior Advocate Liza Horvath outlines some of the many ways in which the elderly can be scammed out of their homes and savings, and prefaces the list with strong words:

A rapacious, marauding predator is taking hold in America and it is growing stronger, smarter, meaner and more aggressive each passing minute… If left unchecked it will take everything they have earned and saved throughout a lifetime and dump them—homeless and destitute into the mean streets.

A Rhode Island couple bought a house, sold their old house, and wound up out in the cold. At the last minute, their Realtor told the would-be buyers that “because [a law firm] had failed to provide proper notification of foreclosure, we’d be unable to obtain title insurance.” The firm’s branches in a nearby state had already been under investigation because their practices looked very much like those of a “foreclosure mill,” a well-known variety of illegal enterprise. Yet the error in this case could so plausibly have been an honest (and still unconscionable) mistake, it gave the Attorney General’s subsequent inquiry very little to work with. And the couple, of course, could not get their old house back.

In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the Andrews family learned the hard way that when the city condemns a building, the tenants have to leave immediately. It wasn’t Robin Andrews’s fault that the balcony of a 4th-floor apartment collapsed, or that everyone in the building had to get out right away. His employer paid for the initial week in a motel room for the couple and their three children. Andrews expected to get his $900 security deposit back from the old landlord, but instead was cheated out of it. The result? No resources and nowhere to go.

Everyone has a story, and listening to too many of them at once can have an impact on the hearer. But now, the theme takes a turn. As we have seen, in Florida many volunteer teams of military veterans search the urban areas and the wilderness for their lost brothers. Last year a survey was taken—and bear in mind, this was just one county, Hillsborough, which includes the city of Tampa.

Of the 236 veterans counted…109 said they didn’t know exactly why they were homeless.

Reactions?

Source: “Garcetti, City Council throw homeless problem to the police,” LATimes.com, 07/03/15
Source: “Davenport mom and kids homeless after internet scam,” WQAD.com, 10/14/13
Source: “Scammers can leave seniors homeless,” MonteryHerald.com, 10/31/14
Source: “I-Team: Law firm mistake leaves couple without home,” turnto10.com, 10/28/13
Source: “Family left homeless after balcony collapse,” 620wtmj, 10/10/13
Source: “Number of homeless veterans in the area spikes,” Tbo.com, 05/11/14
Image by Pedro Ribeiro Simões

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Minimum Wage Matters

Walmart business strategyThat’s exactly what the bosses want! They want us fighting over who has the bigger pile of crumbs so we don’t realize they made off with almost the whole damn cake.

Jens Rushing wrote those words, as part of a larger message that could be condensed even further into the popular warning, “Check yourself before you wreck yourself.” In writing his manifesto, Rushing’s aim was to implore workers to wake up and stop complaining about other workers getting a raise. Someone in his own field, for instance, could easily feel resentment about a fry-basket jockey making the same hourly wage as a paramedic. Rushing and his colleagues are highly trained, extremely competent, and responsible for life-and-death decisions. But he asks everybody to stop and analyze the situation.

Among professional comics, one school of thought divides humor into “punching up” and “punching down.” Some consider it improper to make jokes at the expense of anyone who is perceived as less fortunate than the comic and the current audience. Only the powerful can be attacked: only punching up is cool.

But the corporate CEOs and politicians who own everything hope for the opposite. They want us all to punch down. They want us to form warring clans along every possible divisive line—gender and race being the most obvious, but also American-born or newly arrived; white-collar or blue-collar; tech-savvy or future-shocked; housed or experiencing homelessness. Sometimes it seems that we peasants of the “99%” enjoy finding or inventing any reason to fight amongst ourselves. Meanwhile, the Big Bosses are delighted because all the strife diverts our attention from their machinations. As Rushing says:

Why are you angry about fast food workers making two bucks more an hour when your CEO makes four hundred TIMES what you do?

On the subject of bosses that keep the whole damn cake, could there be a more perfect example than Walmart? The CEO makes more than a 1,000 times what the average “associate” makes. And the family that owns a large portion of the company? The six wealthiest members hold more wealth than the combined entire bottom 40 percent of Americans. Four of the Waltons are worth more than $30 billion apiece. Last year, the Walmart shareholders made $7.2 billion.

Walmart is America’s largest private sector employer, and if it were a country, it would have the 26th largest economy in the world. It has 2.2 million employees, which is more than the population of Houston, TX. Just because 25 people apply for every job opening, Walmart feels justified in practicing piracy. People who specialize in figuring out these things say that Walmart could pay workers $14.89 per hour without needing to raise prices. Of course, the notion that the family or the stockholders might take less of the pie is too unlikely to even consider.

But wait—there are even more shameful numbers. Apparently, each store costs the taxpayers more than $900,000 per year in public assistance for its employees. Out of all employers, Walmart is the one where the largest number of workers and their families use taxpayer-funded health insurance programs.  And what about that shady, dicey, sketchy merry-go-round where almost 20 percent of the food stamps in America are redeemed at Walmart AND, coincidentally, a huge percentage of the employees need food stamps to survive. In the comment section of a Walmart-busting website, a worker wrote:

When I started, they actually have a routine to sign you up for Food Stamps and all government assistance during the orientation process. Which is really messed up to take a job to get you away from Government assistance, only part of their plan is to help you get it… I was disgusted at the fact it was part of their written orientation.

Please read the House the Homeless document, “The Fight for $15!” and learn about the Universal Living Wage formula. Universal Living Wage also has a Facebook page. As Jens Rushing said:

Look, if any job is going to take up someone’s life, it deserves a living wage.

Reactions?

Source: “Paramedic Shares Awesome Facebook Post About Minimum Wage Increase,” good.is, 08/03/15
Source: “14 Facts About Wal-Mart That Will Blow Your Mind,” BusinessInsider.com, 06/06/14
Source: “19 Facts That Show Just How Massive Walmart Really Is.” buzzfeed.com, 06/06/14
Source: “Top Reasons the Walton Family and Walmart are NOT “Job Creators”,” walmart1percent.org, March 2014
Image by Mike Licht

 

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The Fight for $15!

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Fight for $15! This is the battle cry for higher wages. Seemingly awesome. It is now taking hold on both sides of the nation. At this point, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Berkley, Oakland, Seattle, and now New York, have wage agreements that when eased in over time (3-6 years) will result in higher minimum wages!

For a decade, between 1997 and 2007, Congress failed to raise the Federal Minimum Wage at all. This set workers’ wages (coupled with normal inflation) on a trajectory that was so negative and so severe it resulted in putting the basics of life, including housing, beyond the reach of millions. In fact, the ever shrinking minimum wage relative to the cost of daily necessities has become so extreme that even such things as basic rental housing have moved beyond the reach of full time, 40 hour a week, minimum wage workers. Inaction on the part of Congress has only added to the 3.5 million people now experiencing homelessness in this nation. When the federal government failed to act, the people in desperation, jumped into the fray pushing for higher wages in their areas.

This is the very core of our American Dream…a fair wage for a fair day’s work! If you work hard, keep your head down, eventually you can get ahead, get married, and raise a family.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has indicated his support for recent economic changes. In fact, at a recent rally celebrating the NY wage proposal, he was noted as saying, “This is just the beginning. We will not stop until we reach true economic justice.” Awesome! Finally, we will acknowledge that the minimum wage worker, the janitor, construction laborer, hotel worker, bank teller, fast food worker, theater attendant, farm worker, receptionist, nurse’s aide, maid, poultry processor, child care worker, home care aid, garage attendant, etc. make up the socio-economic base of our society and that they all need living wages.

But wait a minute! Did we just mention farm workers? These are strictly rural workers. What about all the other minimum wage rural workers? While 80% of Americans live in urban areas according to the 2010 census, 20% of all workers are scattered throughout rural America. How will they and others in their situation, ever attain income-equity if they aren’t unionized and are too few in concentrated numbers to affect change? And by the way, ten states have passed laws that prevent local minimum wages to rise about the Federal Minimum Wage (currently set at $7.25 per hour or $2.13 per hour for agricultural workers).

And while we’re at it, when we examine the $15.00 for those who are organized and in states where it is OK to have a minimum wage above the federal minimum wage, we find that even $15 per hour falls significantly short of what is needed to become housed and to get by on a daily basis. Then we examine the common sense of the Universal Living Wage (ULW) formula, we see that it is based on three existing government guidelines:

  1. spend no more than 30% of your income on housing,
  2. work a full 40 hours per week,
  3. index the wage to the local cost of housing.

We calculate that the wage required to afford a one bedroom apartment using the HUD Fair Market Rents in a few notably cities with high costs of living-

City/State Hourly wage for an efficiency apartment Hourly wage for a one-bedroom apartment
New York, NY $23.00 $24.02
Los Angeles, CA $17.56 $21.21
Seattle, WA $18.69 $22.12
San Francisco, CA $24.15 $31.44

$15 per hour is a far cry from any of these basic requirements, and as we have seen in the past, when some of these $15 amounts go into effect as much as six years away, their value will be highly degraded due to inflation and we will be right back where we started. At the same time, currently in rural America we see that in areas such as found in a few sample cities in the table below-

City/State Hourly wage for an efficiency apartment Hourly wage for a one-bedroom apartment
Chico, CA $9.92 $12.63
Little Rock, AR $10.31 $11.90
Cumberland, MD $8.83 $10.42
Asheville, NC $9.81 $13.90
Decatur, IL $7.92 $10.12

This again is a significant distance from the $15 per hour bench mark in the opposite direction. We cannot destabilize small business throughout rural America as we work to stabilize our minimum wage workers.

What we need to do is act smart and address these two major concerns right up front. First, we have all learned by now that one size (or one wage amount) does not fit all. In fact, we have learned that we are a nation of 1,000 plus economies. Each population area throughout the nation has its own cost of living. We’ve all traveled; we know this to be true. We all know it costs much more to visit/live in Washington DC than it does to visit/live in Rapid City, South Dakota. The ULW formula takes this very real concern into account. We realize that by simply ascribing $15/ hour in an area that only requires $10 per hour would seriously hurt small business in that area. We must not saddle them with a one size fits all $15 per hour wage when it’s unnecessary and destructive to small business. Instead, we can use the HUD Fair Market Rent values to determine what a person should reasonably expect to pay for an apartment and other living necessities throughout the nation in areas about the size of counties. Then by simply making the wage relate to the cost of housing by indexing it to the local cost of housing, we ensure that no matter what that housing cost rises to, if we put in our 40 units of work per week, we’ll be able to afford basic housing and the core necessities of life without hurting small business. This is also a reason for people to be drawn away from welfare and back into work.

We need to keep the federal standard created in 1938 after the Great Depression that established The Federal Minimum Wage, in play for the entire nation. We need to be able to afford the basics in life: food, clothing and shelter (now transportation is added with the ULW formula) but we must tweak The Federal Minimum Wage so it is based locally. By using the same principle throughout the nation, but by indexing it locally, we find that over time, we are able to make the wage relate to even the most costly of housing markets in urban America without hurting small businesses in rural America.

This approach finally solves the problem of wage inequality at the minimum wage level while ensuring that a full time minimum wage worker is able to afford a roof over their head, (other than a bridge), and without adding to the existing homeless population. Finally, it gives businesses the opportunity to plan ahead by knowing exactly what the wage of employees will be now and in the future.

 

Photo: Steve Rhodes

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Hidden Costs of Homelessness

Day 3When calculating the civic price of homelessness, communities think about how much it costs to build and maintain shelters; to staff agencies that match available housing and jobs with people experiencing homelessness; and to pay landlords and motel owners for housing that is meant to be transitional. If the community is enlightened, it even factors in the costs of hospitalizing and jailing people who would not need to be in either facility in the first place, if they had somewhere to live.

But there are other, seldom-mentioned categories of expense that taxpayers often don’t even realize have become part of their financial liability. Less than a year ago in Denver, Amy Goodman reported on what has been called an “historic police brutality case”:

Marvin Booker was a homeless street preacher from a prominent family of Southern preachers. In 2010, he was killed by deputies in the booking room of the Denver jail.

It was all on video. The coroner ruled a homicide, the sheriff’s department personnel went totally unpunished, and the citizens of Colorado were handed a bill for $4.65 million to pay compensation and damages to Booker’s family. On the other side of the country, a court told New York City to pay $2.25 million to the mother of a man who was left to die in an oven-like cell at Riker’s Island.

When a hospital does something wrong, the cost of making it right may not come from the tax coffers, but community members pay just the same, as every subsequent patient contributes to cover the deficit. In Southern California, local reporter Sarah Parvini noted:

Over the course of a decade, former patients have been found on Skid Row in hospital gowns or wearing hospital ID bracelets around their wrists. A case of a paraplegic man found crawling with a colostomy bag spurred public outrage and led to investigations as well as criminal charges.

One Los Angeles hospital was fined $200,000 in civil penalties for discharging a patient to nowhere. Sure, they kindly gave the sick homeless person a ride downtown, but still a court took a dim view of such heartless “dumping.” Another local hospital that habitually dropped off patients on Skid Row was ordered to pay $500,000 to homeless service providers, and one suspects that money will not come from the hospital’s profits, but on the backs of future patients.

Also in Los Angeles, the County-USC Medical Center mishandled a homeless woman’s labor and delivery process, resulting in the birth of a severely disabled child who needs institutional care. The story is full of heartbreaking details, not the least of which is a $7.5 million settlement that will come from the pockets of other Californians.

LA’s Skid Row has become less convenient for “patient dumping” for another reason. The city would like to push everyone out of the area, and attempted to start a diaspora by implementing a very aggressive policing program. When a lawsuit was filed by several long-term street people, the power structure agreed to suspend the overnight police sweeps until the city could build 1,250 permanent housing units, which are a long way from becoming reality. Meanwhile, the city (taxpayers) paid for $725,000 worth of the civil rights attorneys’ professional time.

In Dallas, eight years of litigation ended with the city agreeing to pay a quarter million dollars to two organizations with whose feeding of homeless people it had interfered. The story says:

Of the settlement, $166,666.66 will go to Big Heart Ministries and Rip Parker Memorial Homeless Ministry and $83,333.34 will go to the lawyers from National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty who represented the plaintiffs.

Legal representation costs an awful lot, and cities are paying for prosecutors to go after the violent criminals who beat and kill homeless people, and for their public defenders. The bills for hate crimes land in everyone’s mailboxes. Another incidental budget item is the cost of constantly re-arresting offenders for not reporting to the authorities where they live, because they don’t live anywhere. And the cost of putting out fires that are started accidentally by homeless people trying to cook or just to avoid freezing. Really, listing all these miscellaneous expenses could become a full-time job, and they are all expenses that would not exist if everyone had a place to live.

Reactions?

Source: “In Historic Police Brutality Case, Family of Homeless Denver Pastor Killed
in Custody Awarded $4.6M,” Democracynow.org, 10/17/14
Source: “L.A.’s Homeless Patient Dumping Law Leads to $500,000 Settlement With Hospital,” KCET.org, 05/29/14
Source: “Formerly Homeless Woman Awarded Medical Malpractice Settlement Against L.A. Hospital,” LegalExaminer.com, 11/07/13
Source: “City to Pay $250000 Settlement to Homeless Support Groups,” DallasObserver.com,12/08/14
Image by David Shankbone