How to Be of Active Service

northbound I-15Since 1989, Utah has maintained a Homeless Trust Fund, which raises money through contributions made by checking a box on state income tax forms. Most of the contributions are small—only one or two dollars. But they add up to a significant sum that is divvied up every year among various programs that serve the homeless.

That paragraph from The Deseret News describes a fund whose full name includes that of Pamela Atkinson, a longtime activist for the homeless, and advisor to the last three governors of Utah.

Some other states have similar affordable housing funds, which collect money in the same way, but Utah’s apparently has some extra features, like supporting nutrition and anti-addiction programs and even health care services. Homeless advocates would like to see more money dedicated to early intervention, preferring to help people before they actually lose everything and hit the streets.

Some speculate that publicity about the state’s success in reducing homelessness has actually backfired, and worry that potential donors don’t realize there are still people experiencing homelessness, or at risk. In 1990 the Homeless Trust Fund took in $300,000, but in 2014 it only collected less than one/sixth that amount ($48,000). Still, many people have been helped and are still being helped.

How to Do the Most Good in the World

Of course, Pamela Atkinson does a lot of other things, like organize a yearly Christmas dinner for people experiencing homelessness in Salt Lake City. In 2012, Devin Thorpe interviewed her for Forbes, and came away with what is for all practical purposes, a textbook authored by an effective and respected activist, on how to do the most good in the world. We won’t include all 13 principles, because the source article deserves to be read.

One thing that helps in any endeavor is to keep ego out of it. The idea is not to ride in like a savior on a white horse, but to empower the people whose lives are most affected by the change you are working for. Change needs to be owned by the people in whose daily lives the difference will manifest. This segues into the next principle: collaboration. It takes a whole lot of coordination and cooperation to get the ball rolling, and to gain momentum and bring a community project to the point of sustainability takes even more collaboration.

Of Pamela Atkinson in fundraising mode, Thorpe says:

When she hears “no,” she asks, “What can I do to help change your mind?” She offers to provide tours, introductions, whatever it will take to change a mind. Her approach has made her one of the most successful fundraisers in Utah.

Don’t burn bridges. Relationships need to be respected, and so do volunteers. For the organization that is being built, Atkinson recommends absolute transparency from day one. Anyone who gives time and energy should be able to know anything about the project. Perhaps the most important thing is to speak up, especially about injustice, because you never know how far your influence may reach. Thorpe says:

She’s learned that even when everyone in the room openly opposes her, she’ll often get private indications of support from people who are grateful for her leadership.

Source: “Check it: Pamela Atkinson Homeless Trust Fund donation option on state income tax form,” DeseretNews.com, 02/15/15
Source: “13 Lessons From A Great Social Entrepreneur, Pamela Atkinson,” Forbes.com, 09/23/12
Image by Garrett



People Who Give

Manny Pacquiao

Manny Pacquiao

Unlike many others to whom the description is sloppily applied, boxing champion Manny Pacquiao truly is a “living legend.” After his father ate his dog, the 12-year-old boy left home to live in the streets and sleep in a cardboard box. He started boxing professionally at 14 and became the only eight-division world champion, “Fighter of the Decade,” and the world’s second highest-paid athlete. He also sings, acts, and plays and coaches basketball.

Earlier this month Pacquiao, who is now also a member of the Philippine House of Representatives, gave 150 houses to people who needed them. He spent well over half a million dollars of his own money to build Pacquiao Village, but this is only one-fourth of the intended scope of the project, which includes 600 new homes. Pacquiao (predicted by many to be future president of the Philippines) told the recipients:

Give thanks to God for what you have received today. It’s a gift from Him. He’s just using me to help you. Take good care of this property and don’t sell it.

Giving to Squatters in the United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom two sports figures, Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs, have been involved in a complicated drama concerning Manchester’s old Stock Exchange, which they bought with the intention of remodeling it into a luxury hotel.

In October, the property was occupied by about 30 squatters, and the new owners agreed that they could stay on the ground floor until the renovation work begins in early 2016. Neville even paid for electricians and plumbers to make the building safely habitable in the meantime, and arranged for full meals to be delivered to the residents three times a week.

But then apparently the original group would not allow other, rowdier homeless activists to join them, and windows were broken, and there were numerous police calls. Things settled down, and Neville and Giggs arranged with local authorities to go in with support services including help for mental health and addiction issues, and aid in finding more permanent accommodations.

Giving in San Bernardino

Kim Carter of San Bernardino, Calif., was elected by CNN viewers as one of the year’s Top 10 Heroes, an honor that comes with a $10,000 award to help further the work of the nonprofit group she started. Journalist Ryan Hagen writes:

Time for Change Foundation has helped close to 800 women since 2002, with a mission to empower disenfranchised low-income women and families by building leadership through evidence-based programs and housing to create self-sufficiency and thriving communities.

It includes case-management services in a drug-free environment, an emergency shelter, transitional housing, financial education and money management classes, independent living skills, family reunification, leadership development and parenting education.

Carter has also been responsible for the creation of a low-income housing project for people who would otherwise probably be homeless.

Meanwhile, Helping the Homeless in Wichita

In Wichita, Kan., Alan Kailer provides help with another of life’s necessities—transportation. After 35 years as a big-city corporate attorney, he retired and pedaled across America with his wife on a bicycle built for two. Out of necessity, he became a competent repairer of bikes, a skill that he now employs one morning a week at the local homeless shelter. Arriving in a minivan stocked with tools and donated parts, he fixes bikes and, more importantly, teaches people to do maintenance and repairs on their own.


Don’t let another year go by without reading Looking Up at the Bottom Line by Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless!


Source: “Manny Pacquiao gives away 150 houses to homeless families in Saranggani,” KickerDaily.com, 12/15/15
Source: “Gary Neville signs deal to offer support to homeless people living in Stock Exchange building,” ManchesterEveningNews.co.uk, 11/03/15
Source: “Kim Carter, of San Bernardino, chosen as top 10 CNN Hero.” SBSun.com, 10/08/15
Source: “Wichita man offers help, tools and a willing ear for homeless cyclists.” kansas.com, 07/05/15
Image by Michael Howard


Cities Create Jobs

CompassionEarlier this month, two major American cities announced jobs programs. In Los Angeles, city services have been deteriorating since the global economic disaster of 2008. Trees don’t get trimmed, which is not just an aesthetic issue but a safety issue. Streets don’t get cleaned, and in fact many other tasks remain undone, impacting both the appearance and functionality of the city. Public demand for the return of various services has become a sore point.

To alleviate these problems and to provide jobs, the city created the Workforce Restoration Program. Its goal for the 2017-18 fiscal year is to hire 5,000 full-time city workers. Mayor Eric Garcetti has issued a request for all city departments to prepare reports on their hiring needs. Who will be hired? Journalist Dakota Smith quoted Jackie Goldberg, a member of the California Assempbly and former City Councilwoman:

We have targeted groups…which are the homeless, which are veterans, which are people who have had gang affiliations.

The meaning is clear if the context is known, and the administration is certainly wise to concentrate on these underserved groups, but…“targeted”? Surely there must be a more friendly and positive way for agencies to describe their attempts to help certain demographics. Who wants to be a target? Smith includes a couple of sentence that seem to hint that reality might not live up to the hype:

It’s expected those groups will make up just a percentage of the applicants selected to work for the city…While adding 5,000 employees is the goal, it’s unclear how many workers will actually be hired, because the ultimate figure will depend on how many employees leave city jobs.

Albuquerque Turning Around, Perhaps

Albuquerque, New Mexico, has earned a dark reputation because of the extreme brutality of its police force, whose violence often (in the traditional sense of the word) targets people experiencing homelessness and the mentally ill. Proportionately, the city’s police have fatally shot more citizens than the New York City police. Partly because of intervention by the Justice Department, Albuquerque is trying to become kinder and gentler. Writer Fernanda Santos describes one change:

Training in crisis intervention has become a requirement for police cadets, who must try to find their way out of staged real-life scenarios—encounters with distressed drug addicts, rape victims or suicidal war veterans—without pulling out their guns.

The police department says that the “aggressive panhandling” ordinance is rarely enforced. Another innovation is the city’s effort to influence drivers. Money should not be handed out through car windows to supplicants at intersections, but donated instead to the fund for cleaning up the city. Those dollars fund food and shelter for the workers, and equally important, their daily pay.

The concept here is to hire the homeless, but not to imitate the habits of private staffing agencies that exploit day laborers by keeping a large share of their earnings. Of course, temp workers want to keep all the money that comes from the employers. But surely the agency needs to make something, if it is to pay for an office and someone to answer the phone, and especially if it is to vet the employers and make sure they are safe and fair. The only people who can afford to run such an enterprise for free are nonprofits or the government.

Of course if the government runs it, it’s not really free, because it’s on the taxpayers’ dime. Still, aside from HeadStart programs for kids, a temporary employment agency is one of the more benign and useful ways a taxpayers’ dime could be spent. As House the Homeless has said before, many people experiencing homelessness are able and willing to work. (In fact, many of them work full time and are still homeless—but that is another topic.)

Albuquerque’s Plan to Hire the Homeless

Using the same time-honored technique as the crew bosses who roll up and choose day laborers from the group of hopefuls in the Home Depot parking lot, a city employee takes a van out and picks up 10 people and delivers them to the site of a clean-up. The shift is only five or six hours and workers make $9 an hour plus lunch. This happens twice a week, so one person could make about $50 per week, or $100 if fortunate enough to be chosen on both days.

$50,000 has been allocated for this program, in city funds, just about enough to cover the paychecks, if not the lunches and the other city services needed to pick up the gathered trash and so forth. It is slightly grim that these teams clean up homeless campsites that have been broken up, so a person might even be working in a place he formerly called home. Mayor Richard J. Berry is optimistic, telling the reporter:

Fines and jail time don’t solve anything. If we can get your confidence up a little, get a few dollars in your pocket, get you stabilized to the point where you want to reach out for services, whether the mental health services or substance abuse services—that’s the upward spiral that I’m looking for.

Since the program started in September, five workers have reportedly found steady jobs. On the downside, the police department has not yet revised its use-of-force directive.

Source: “LA wants to hire homeless, former gang members, veterans
DailyNews.com, 12/07/15
Source: “Albuquerque, Revising Approach Toward the Homeless, Offers Them Jobs
NYTimes.com, 12/07/15
Image by Aaron Alexander



States of Emergency – or Not

Homeless  AmericanaA state and some cities have declared a state of emergency. Traditionally, such a designation would come after a natural disaster, but this time, the reason is homelessness. It doesn’t mean they get federal money— not unless the federal government itself declared the emergency—but the move does enable the release of local funds and the loosening of rules. For instance, permits for building affordable housing can be issued more quickly—although why this process could not have been expedited all along is a mystery. For PewTrusts.org, Rebecca Beitsch wrote:

Many cities and states, even those that have declared states of emergency, are investing more in long-term affordable housing, whether by constructing new housing or spending more money on existing programs to help people stay in private housing. Those programs offer various types of affordable housing and rapid rehousing, including subsidized units, security deposit assistance and permanent supportive housing. In many cases, tenants pay 30 percent of their income in rent and may even be matched with nearby caseworkers who help them stay in housing and connect to services.

Regarding Hawaii, ThinkProgress.com spun the situation this way: “After Destroying Homeless Camps, Hawaii Declares State of Emergency on Homelessness.” The authorities in Hawaii and elsewhere are notorious for not only raiding camps, but destroying the possessions of people just trying to live.

In October, when the proclamation was made, the state’s 1.4 million people included at least 5,000 people experiencing homelessness, with an estimated 2,000 of them unsheltered. To complicate the situation, Hawaii’s homeless seem particularly reluctant to go into shelters. Nevertheless, the governor’s decision released $1.3 million from the state’s general fund and was said to provide more shelter options for families that want to remain united.

States of Emergency in Northwest Cities

Portland plans to do more than just throw money at the problem. There is talk of adjusting restrictive land-use and zoning rules, which appear to have delayed the deployment of approximately $60 million that was already available from the federal government under other affordable housing programs. Beitsch reports that developers who take part in those building projects “must keep rent at an affordable level for 60 years before charging market rates,” and what entrepreneur wants to sign off on that?

Portland also looks forward to an additional $1 million per year that will be used for affordable housing, with the revenue coming from tax on Airbnb facilities.

In Seattle, 3,000 public school children are known to be homeless, and 45 impoverished people have died in the streets during the past year. The sale of some city property should bring in more than $5 million and King County is kicking in $2 million.

At the very least, Seattle plans to add 150 shelter beds, but there is talk of attacking the root causes of chronic homelessness by providing more PTSD counselors for veterans and more addiction treatment options. The city also plans to press for federal funding via FEMA or any other possible agency.

 L.A. Fails to Address Homelessness

Los Angeles is estimated to have nearly 18,000 unsheltered homeless people and again, as in Hawaii, many find life on the streets more bearable than the shelters, particularly if they are administered by religious organizations. Los Angeles plans to spend at least $100 million in the coming year and journalist Bruce Covert says of Mayor Eric Garcetti:

He also called for shelters to stay open 24 hours a day during the rainy season, for winter shelter availability to be extended by two months, and for an increase in access to storage, bathrooms, showers, laundry, and other services.

But more than two months after the idea of declaring a state of emergency was floated, Los Angeles has not yet actually acted on its publicized intention. Some call this stalling; others call it judicious consideration of all the possible remedies. Is the City Council dragging its feet, or are all parties doing their best to plan wisely? Meanwhile, people experiencing homelessness in L.A. are facing more numerous and tougher ordinances than ever before, amounting to the criminalization of homelessness.

Only two weeks ago, Gary Blasi wrote for the LA Times:

Last week, the City Council decided to make it a crime for a homeless person to refuse to break down a tent on a sidewalk at 6 a.m., or to put the same tent up before 9 p.m., even in a pouring rain. If a federal judge does not block that rule, the mayor could [do so]…The mayor could open unused city buildings or enter into short-term leases for private buildings to provide shelter for the homeless to sleep and keep some of their belongings…The mayor could help people stay alive in the shelters they have made for themselves…City agencies could provide pallets or other means of getting them off the ground, and tents and tarps that do not leak in a heavy storm.

Supposedly, the talk of emergency declaration draws attention to the problem and inspires a sense of urgency which will help to obtain resources and lubricate a creaky bureaucracy. So, talk, talk, talk—and then, nothing. Is it any wonder that many critics hear just another variation on the same old political bloviation? But Maria Foscarinis of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty sees hope in the various actions, telling Bruce Covert:

I think the declarations are right. Declaring that homelessness is an emergency is calling a crisis by its rightful name…I think it’s totally appropriate and very important to recognize it as such, and in fact it’s long overdue.

Source: “Cities, States Turn To Emergency Declarations To Tackle Homeless Crisis,” pewtrusts.org, 11/11/15
Source: “After Destroying Homeless Camps, Hawaii Declares State Of Emergency On
Homelessness,” ThinkProgress.org, 10/19/15
Source: “Murray: Loss of life warrants homeless emergency declaration,” MyNorthwest.com, 11/03/15
Source: “The Situation Facing Los Angeles And Portland Homeless Populations Is An
Emergency,” ThinkProgress.org, 09/30/15
Source: “Preparing to declare a ‘local emergency’ could save LA’s homeless people when El Niño rains hit,” LATimes.com, 11/23/15
Image by Tom Fortunato


Making the Homeless Unwelcome

Caution Deer signOut in California’s Coachella Valley desert, about 75 people are about to be evicted from their huts and tents. The California Department of Transportation doesn’t want them on its land. The ostensible reason is a concern for safety because, Paulina Rojas reports:

Those living in the camps often attempt to cross the expressway on foot, creating a hazardous situation for themselves and drivers.

Throughout America, there must be thousands upon thousands of deer crossings and appropriate warnings. They even have solar-powered animal sensors hooked up to signs that let drivers know in real time that a creature is near the road. CalTrans could express its concern by erecting a “human crossing” sign, and leave the squatters alone.

But no, the local government wants those people gone, and want it so sincerely, they plan to surround the area with a “reinforced fence.” That’s not all. CalTrans plans to cut down the trees that provide the area’s shade. Isn’t there an environmental regulation? Something about oxygen? Just build a nice, sturdy fence, fellas. Leave the trees alone.

Criminalizing Homelessness – Again

The destruction of trees to prevent certain people from enjoying their shade is a classic move, like something from a Grimm fairy tale. It recalls the program of chemical defoliation so drastic it left behind uncountable victims both in Vietnam and in the homes and veterans’ hospitals of America. Maybe CalTrans will borrow from an earlier historical era and sow the ground with salt to prevent any vegetation ever growing back.

The upcoming Coachella Tree Slaughter is one of the many instances in which our society seems bent on not only criminalizing homelessness, but on doing it with as vindictive and mean a spirit as possible. It is a perfect metaphor for hysterical over-reaction. It beautifully illustrates the old saying, “He cut off his nose to spite his face.” In its attempt to punish the homeless, America is committing slow suicide.

The intention to massacre trees in a desert comes from the same mindset as the decision to remove all benches from a public area. Sacramento’s Central Library was criticized for replacing several old-style benches with hostile new backless benches, exactly two of them. When 29 benches disappeared from downtown Nashville, this was noticed by people experiencing homelessness. A Public Works spokesperson said only 12 or 13 benches were removed and, as always, the issue was safety. Apparently, these benches were damaged in ways that could injure citizens. Apparently, Nashville Public Works is unaware of the concepts of repair or replacement.

A Different Approach to “Handling” the Homeless

And never mind any progressive ideas about how sleeping on a bench might be safer than sleeping on the ground. A community’s concern with street people’s safety does not extend that far. The mission is to prevent the homeless from sitting or lying on benches. The result is to deny them to everyone. An elderly person with a portable oxygen tank can’t take a rest. A struggling mother doesn’t get to sit with the baby while helping her little twins put their jackets on. For dozens of reasons, benches are welcome and useful things. Only we can’t have them because there are homeless people.

Maybe what a city needs is more benches. Plenty for everyone. Maybe a downtown needs park benches and public restrooms and trash receptacles that are emptied frequently, with the city employee who empties them responsible for picking up any loose trash within a ten-foot radius.

Meanwhile, in the Coachella Valley, the emergency shelters are already full.


Source: “Caltrans to remove homeless camps along Highway 86,” DesertSun.com,11/24/15
Source: “Deer Crossing Signs and Technologies,” DeerCrash.org, undated
Source: “Homeless protest removal of downtown Nashville benches,” KPHO.com, 12/12/13
Image by State Farm