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Life and Death in Homeless Austin

UtahOn Sunday, November 15, the Homeless Sunrise Memorial Service took place in Austin, TX. It was the 23rd annual service, and 171 names were read, names of people who died in poverty in the city from October 2014 to the same month of this year. Anyone can learn more about it from the House the Homeless homepage, but the most important reason to go to that page now is to find out how to donate to the Thermal Underwear Drive, a major initiative that also takes place every year in Austin.

The annual memorial is perfectly fitting, and so is the annual National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week (this year, it was November 15-21). The downside of annual events, however, is that the space between them lets matters slip from the forefront of our consciousness the rest of the time.

At some point, the realization has to strike: every day, people die in poverty. Every day, people are hungry. Every day, people shiver with cold or gasp from heat stroke. Every day, people know the embarrassment of not having a safe place to take a dump, or having anything to wipe with. Every day, people suffer the humiliation of letting themselves be treated like human garbage, because they know that the smallest increment of assertiveness could have unthinkably terrible consequences.

Baby, It’s a Wild World

Although most people experiencing homelessness are peaceful, their rejection of violence makes their lives on the streets even more dangerous. People who want nothing more than to be left alone are hurt every day by the relatively small number of predators who are also homeless. Or they are hurt by housed people who see them as the enemy. Or they run afoul of the law, with varying degrees of trauma.

Austin American-Statesman writer James Barragan tells the story of a man whose transition into homelessness and eventual premature and needless death began with the death of his mother. Before following the rest of his tragic steps, one is tempted to ask (as someone from another country or another planet might), “Why wasn’t grief counseling available to him? Or if it was, what prevented him from taking the opportunity?” Could our society do a better job of helping people cope with the horrors of life, so the first step on a self-destructive path will not be taken?

In this particular case, the man who wound up homeless and dead had been troubled all his life by the knowledge that he was adopted. Sometimes, even the most loving adoptive parents can’t fill the void that results from a child’s awareness of having been abandoned. So many stressors break up families or prevent them from ever forming in the first place. Could our society do more to alleviate those pressures? The reporter spoke with relatives and friends of other homeless people who had died. A criminal record is a real handicap, and a very easy thing to acquire. Could our society thrive with fewer laws and fewer of its citizens behind bars? It quite probably could.

House the Homeless, since its inception in 1989, has always felt that Housing First is the best approach…hence the organization’s name. Through Housing First, people are able to stop street abuse that includes violence, rape, and quality-of-life ordinances that criminalize homelessness and act as barriers to escaping homelessness.

Barragan talks about the Housing First concept:

Once housed, the theory goes, the groups can help people tackle their other problems. But often, the general public thinks homelessness is an unsolvable problem and that those experiencing it have done it to themselves by not working hard enough or drinking or drugging themselves into ruin.

A brand-new report from the Associated Press does little to change such perceptions, saying:

An examination of deaths among the homeless in the Austin region show they’re dying of homicide, suicide and accidents at a rate much higher than the general population…While 86 percent of Travis County residents die of natural causes, only 29 percent of the homeless included in the analysis did, according to the report.

In 49% of the fatalities, alcohol “played a role” and in 36%, drugs “were a factor”—but some of these were the same people. In other words, in many cases alcohol and other drugs were both contributing factors. But in others, substances played no role.

The AP interviewed House the Homeless founder Richard R. Troxell, who was particularly articulate about the 11% of homeless deaths that occurred within a few days of the deceased being discharged from a jail or hospital. For more about that, see our archived post, “No ‘Discharge to Nowhere’.”

We also recommend James Barragan’s “Shining a light on a vulnerable population,” and the Austin American-Statesman‘s splendidly interactive map.

And please, don’t forget the Thermal Underwear Drive!

Reactions?

Source: “A humanizing look behind the numbers of homeless deaths in Austin.” MyStatesman.com, 11/15/15
Source: “Report: Homicide, violence claim high number of homeless.” Star-Telegram.com, 11/15/15
Image by Jobs with Justice

 

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Housing for Veterans Challenge is Being Met

Veterans Day with Mayor Steve Adler

Veterans Day with Mayor Steve Adler

For American cities that want to learn from the success of others, Austin is a place to watch. The Texas capitol tries hard and does a lot of wonderful things, setting a very worthy example. As we noted last week, Mayor Steve Adler is putting tremendous energy into meeting the goal of housing all Austin veterans by the end of the year. Earlier this month he told KVUE how 82 vets have already been housed, with “several dozen additional homes that are lined up at this point that we are in the process of filling.”

The TV station also interviewed Gus Villegas, president of the Austin Apartment Association. He encourages landlords to make units available and let ECHO do the rest. In strictly economic terms, there is not much incentive. The vacancy rate is tiny, with many qualified candidates vying for each space. Austin landlords are accustomed to being choosy, and to commanding high rents.

The federal vouchers available to house homeless veterans are insufficient, and the mayor was happy to announce that $375,000 in donations have been made to help cover the difference. Because everything is in their favor, the landlords who make units available are to be congratulated. All the more so, if they give a break on the rent.

The mayor’s program to house veterans was among several local initiatives mentioned recently by the editorial board of the Austin American-Statesman, which also added:

Last year, social outreach ministry Mobile Loaves & Fishes opened its doors to an innovative concept to take homeless people off of Austin street: a microvillage… And since 2010, the city of Austin’s Roof Over Austin campaign has successfully created 350 units of housing for homeless individuals within existing and new development projects. But more units are needed at a much quicker pace.

Focusing in on House the Homeless! Inc., two of the organization’s most recent activities were marching in the Veterans Day Parade, and hosting the Homeless Memorial. This ceremony of remembrance happens every year right around Veterans Day and the whole city is invited. The advance notice said:

It is always a Sunrise Service to suggest a New Day…This year we will read over 160 names of people who have died in abject poverty in Austin this past year. Mayor Steve Adler will be the Keynote Speaker and Deann Renee will up lift us with song.

Nationally, between 2014 and 2015 the Department of Housing and Urban Development counts about 2,000 veterans as having been removed from the homeless roster. But the big picture is not improving as quickly as everyone had hoped. The administration’s optimistic vision of totally ending veteran homelessness by the start of the new year may instead be “many years away.” However, encouraging signs abound. For MilitaryTimes.com, Leo Shane III wrote:

The annual point-in-time count, conducted in January, shows there are about 48,000 homeless veterans across the country. That’s down from the 50,000 in the January 2014 count, but a smaller drop than the 5,000 veterans taken off the streets in each of the previous three years.

Since the latest count was conducted in January, officials in a number of major metropolitan areas—including Houston, Las Vegas, New Orleans and Salt Lake City—have announced they have “effectively” ended veterans homelessness by putting in place enough assistance programs and shelters to quickly house any veterans in financial distress…On Veterans Day, Virginia officials announced theirs had become the first state to end veterans homelessness statewide.

Uber and Lyft Offer Rides for Veterans

An interesting announcement was made by companies Uber and Lyft. Both companies are aware that veterans attempting to return to the work force might have a hard time getting to job interviews. Even worse, having found employment, they might find it next to impossible to travel to and from their jobs. Few cities have truly great bus systems, and even under the best circumstances, bus lines don’t run everywhere and often don’t take night shift workers into account. According to a government press release:

Both companies have committed to donating free rides to veterans—to be administered by the employment counselors who work with them every week.

Some details of how this will work are not clear. For instance, it is doubtful that all homeless people, even if they are employed veterans, have smartphones with which to summon drivers. The Huffington Post goes into a bit more detail by suggesting that Lyft will donate “thousands of rides” and Uber will be giving away about 10,000 free rides. There was also an opportunity, on Veterans Day, for the public to donate $5 toward the cost of Uber’s program—although it is a mystery why such contributions would only be accepted on one day of the year.

Reactions?

Source: “Austin initiative to end veteran homelessness approaching goal date,” KVUE.com, 11/05/15
Source: “Updated policies, more homes needed to protect Austin’s homeless,” MyStatesman.com, 11/14/15
Source: “Homeless veterans number decreased only slightly last year,” MilitaryTimes,com, 11/13/15
Source: “Joining Forces to Help Veterans Transition,” whitehouse.gov, 11/10/15
Source: “Uber And Lyft Offer Homeless Vets Free Rides To Job Interviews,” huffingtonpost.com, 11/10/15
Image by the Challenger

 

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Veterans Day in Austin, 2015

Veterans Day with Mayor Steve Adler, who has pledged to end veteran homelessness in Austin, Texas by December 31st, 2015.

Veterans Day with Mayor Steve Adler, who has pledged to end veteran homelessness in Austin, Texas by December 31st, 2015.

Back in August, Austin mayor Steve Adler announced an ambitious plan to end veteran homelessness in the city by tomorrow (Veterans Day 2015). The first thing to understand is that finding viable permanent housing for all people in that situation would be impossible. Mostly, the goal here is temporary housing for all. A first step, but by no means a final one.

Donations For Homeless Housing

Before long, the news came out: “Austin Board of REALTORS® donates $15,000 to house Austin’s homeless veterans.” But an attentive reading of the press release discloses that it was actually the National Association of REALTORS® who made the generous grant. What the local Austin Board of REALTORS® Foundation did was donate $5,000 to a fund for such expenses as housing repairs (though it does seem that should be the landlord’s responsibility anyway). The literature says:

The Housing Our Heroes Initiative is part of the national Mayor’s Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness. Austin’s effort involves a coalition of Austin landlords, business leaders and service providers, who are working together to provide stable housing, extensive support services and temporary financial assistance to Austin’s homeless veterans.

It was announced that “seven leases have been executed on REALTOR®-managed properties to date, and additional units have been committed to this purpose.” Although every bit of help is appreciated, seven units doesn’t make much of a dent in the number of homeless vets.

Journalist Kayla Stewart questioned the director of ECHO (Ending Community Homelessness Coalition) who made some cogent points. For one thing, between January and August, the number of homeless veterans in Austin appears to have doubled to around 500. Stewart says:

While about half are housed, property owners tend to be reluctant to rent to veterans.

The reluctance to rent to veterans is saddening. In the past, Texas has been perceived as holding military veterans in high esteem. Maybe the state has changed a lot, or maybe it’s just that Austin is its own place. Maybe it’s simply that a saturation point has been reached.

By ECHO’s count, the percentage of Austin homeless people who are veterans is higher than the national average—around 20%. They add:

Veterans are not only more likely to become homeless, but are also more likely to stay on the streets longer than the average homeless person. And within that group, yet another group is overrepresented: almost 50% of homeless Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans are African-American.

These facts are found in a substantial and impressive Austin Chronicle piece by Kahron Spearman that recapitulates a ton of important backstory and enumerates in exhaustive detail the obstacles faced by many veterans. Another factor in the crisis is that the housing program “ceiling” is $800 per month, which presumably means a landlord cannot ask more. Still, that seems like an awful lot for a single person.

Obstacles to Housing Veterans

But Megan Podowski of Caritas explains: the city’s rental units are 98% occupied, and landlords are in a position to demand that prospective tenants present impeccable credentials. Many veterans, especially those who struggle with personal demons and service-inflicted disabilities, have gaps in their residence histories and may have been late with their rent on occasion. And indeed, Spearman goes on to say:

The majority of homeless veterans are male, suffer from mental illness or recurring disorders, [and] abuse drugs and/or alcohol.

What so many folks really need is supportive housing, with full-bore and hard-core Housing First philosophy behind it. But Austin is doing the best it can with the resources at hand. Also quoted is Tu Giang of Front Steps:

We take veterans based on a vulnerability scale…Once we complete intake, that individual gets with a case manager [and is assessed for current needs]. We’ve really ramped up our resources, with a lot of aggressive and concerted outreach.

As such projects will do, this one ran into problems. As of mid-October, 100 housing units were still being sought, and the goal date was moved to December 31, 2015. Mayor Adler’s three-pronged call to action includes his request to spread the word via social media. At the Housing Heroes website (which still publicizes the old deadline) a person can house a veteran, donate, sign up for the email newsletter, and write to a member of the mayor’s staff.

Finding the Homeless

Other parts of the overall plan continue uninterrupted. On October 16, representing Legal Aid for the Homeless and House the Homeless, Richard R. Troxell participated in a two-hour training session, led by the mayor’s aide Earl Jones. The following day, the various teams spent three morning hours in outreach to veterans experiencing homelessness. Richard says:

As we located homeless folks, we offered Veterans information about Coordinated Assessment and offered them a Pathway out of homelessness. We also offered immediate shelter and a reserved shelter bed at Austin’s Resource Center for the Homeless, ARCH. For uninterested veterans, but those in desperate need, we offered 45 days of transitional housing in a local motel when we would provide other service like health care, supportive housing, Legal Aid, etc.

The volunteers also distributed Plastic Resource Pocket Guides from House the Homeless. Overall, it was a successful outreach effort. Much more information is available from ECHO, a recommended destination for those who want more details and especially for those who want to help. December 31 is approaching fast.

Reactions?

Source: “Austin Board of REALTORS® donates $15,000 to house Austin’s homeless veterans,” NewsRadioKLBJ.com, 09/16/15
Source: “Mayor’s Plans to End Veteran Homelessness Halted,” patch.com, 10/12/15
Source: “Collateral Damage,” AustinChronicle.com, 07/17/15
Image by Sly Majid, Office of the Mayor

 

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Bell v. City of Boise Lives On, Kind Of

fallen leavesRecently, House the Homeless discussed Bell v. City of Boise and its importance. Quick review: More than a decade ago, Los Angeles was sued over its severe anti-homeless ordinances. The outcome was awaited with great interest. If the city lost, then conditions would improve for people on the street.

If the city won, then the case would be appealed to the Supreme Court, which might engender some real fireworks. If it came to challenging the constitutionality of “breathing while homeless” laws, the American landscape could change radically. In due time, Judge Kim M. Wardlaw laid down words that would look good engraved in stone:

The Eighth Amendment prohibits the City from punishing involuntary sitting, lying, or sleeping on public sidewalks that is an unavoidable consequence of being human and homeless without shelter in the City of Los Angeles.

The U.S. Constitution may not be perfect, but it’s the best tool we have for securing liberty and justice for all. Judge Wardlaw coupled that basic fact with the realization that everybody’s got to be someplace, and while they’re there, they just might need to sit down, or even lie down and sleep. For people experiencing homelessness all across America, things were looking up. But the aftermath dragged on, and optimism was quenched when, subsequent to a compromise agreement, the judgment was vacated.

But Judge Wardlaw’s words were not forgotten. More recently, when Boise, Idaho, was sued for similar reasons, the Justice Department stepped in (critics would say “interfered”) by filing a statement of interest. It is the federal bureaucracy’s way of putting the city on notice—“We will be keeping an eye on you.” In its official communication, the Justice Department quoted Judge Wardlaw’s words, and the whole issue started to pick up momentum again.

Boise’s Version of the Truth

Associated Press writer Samantha Wright noted the total number of people charged with public camping in each of four consecutive years, ranging from 12 in 2012 to 293 in 2015. That is more than a 24-fold increase. To put it another way, for every one person cited with public camping in 2012, 24 were cited in 2015. To put it yet another way, that is 24 times as many. Clearly, some kind of escalation has taken place.

Yet, soon after the Justice Department declared its concern, the City of Boise reacted by saying they had gotten the wrong end of the stick. Wright explained:

The Department says it is opposing the Boise law that makes it a crime for homeless people to sleep or camp in public places because it unconstitutionally punishes them for being homeless. But city spokesman Mike Journee says the law was changed and police can no longer give tickets for camping if homeless shelters are full. And if there is room at a shelter, police will try to convince people to go there…The suit was originally brought by seven homeless people in 2009 who were cited under the law, even though there was no room for them at local shelters.

But two months later, it became obvious that the constitutionality of forbidding people to sleep would not see its day in court. Judge Ronald E. Bush of the U.S. District Court dismissed the lawsuit. He and the other Boise officials hold that the only people who have been punished for sleeping outside had refused to procure a shelter bed. In this version of reality, if no shelter space is available, the police don’t bother anybody.

The Future for Anti-Homeless Laws

Eric Tars is an attorney for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, representing the plaintiffs. He told journalist Frankie Barnhill that one reason the suit was dismissed was that “all but two of the plaintiffs are no longer homeless, so they don’t have a fear of being arrested for camping in public.” Which is ridiculous, because what about all the other people who are, currently, homeless? Besides, just letting time go by is a reprehensible way to run a legal case. Stall long enough, and everybody’s dead.

The director of the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project, Sara Rankin, warned other cities not to become over-confident about their own anti-homeless laws, saying:

Cities would be very ill-advised to interpret the Bell v. Boise case as carte blanche to enact broad anti-camping ordinances. The reason for that is the decision in Bell v. Boise was not rendered on the merits.

Clearly, this issue will keep popping up over and over in different cities until somebody makes a definitive ruling that is an irresistible call to action. In the meantime, anyone who cares about housing or otherwise helping the homeless could start by learning just what the laws are in her or his own city. It might be enlightening.

Reactions?

Source: “City Weighs In On DOJ Criticism Of Boise Homeless Camping Law,” boisestatepublicradio.org, 08/07/15
Source: “Advocacy Group Responds To Dismissal Of Boise Homeless Case,” boisestatepublicradio.org, 10/01/15
Source: “Boise Homeless Case Dismissed, What Happens Next?,” boisestatepublicradio.org, 10/02/15
Image by Thomas Quine