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The Criminalization of Ownership

Cart and CarsHere we are in America, where private property rights are sacred, except for the people who own the least. The general housed public has a strange double-standard attitude. Upright citizens who are unable to pack for a weekend without incurring baggage overweight charges, are scornful of people experiencing homelessness who dare to keep a few belongings.

People with an overdose of righteousness get all bent out of shape because homeless people have cell phones. Has no one noticed that the pay phones are all gone? How is a person supposed to make appointments with helpful agencies, or contact prospective employers, or even call the police or fire department to report an emergency?

Say you’re a homeless person who was lucky enough to score a good, warm coat that fits and has all its buttons. What do you do when warm weather comes? Keep wearing it, and suffer the discomfort of being too warm? And be branded mentally incompetent, because wearing clothes inappropriate for the weather is a sign of schizophrenia? Or carry the coat around all summer, in addition to your bedroll and backpack?

Not in my back yard

In an online forum, you might find a message from an average homeowner who has discovered a cache of someone’s belongings on his property. He has a certain amount of compassion, and wants to be a good guy. Others reply with warnings that the bundle might contain drugs, a weapon, stolen goods, or something else that could get the homeowner in trouble. It might contain a blanket infested with bedbugs. There is a notion (spread by the firefighters in at least one city) that a homeless person, rather than simply abandoning unwanted belongings, prefers to burn them – and nobody wants a fire out by the garage.

There is another downside. Suppose a kind-hearted property owner allows someone to stash belongings. What about the neighbors or the occasionally patrolling cops? When trying to access his or her own stuff, that homeless person could be arrested for trespassing, or even summarily shot. But stuff needs to be somewhere.

Necessities of life

People have blankets, clothing, maybe a nicer pair of shoes, hygiene items and medicines that they can’t carry around every minute. They have documents, lists of phone numbers for services and other helpful contacts, and treasured family photos. They might even have money they’re saving up to try and rent a place to live. Carrying everything at all times isn’t safe. Last fall, Buffalo saw a marked increase in robberies of homeless people by street criminals, and it happens everywhere.

Many shelters have neither the space nor the desire to let people bring along all their stuff. The alternative is to find a safe spot, out in the big cruel world, to tuck a few things into a niche or an alcove or under a bush or up a tree in a park, and that is increasingly difficult. People’s belongings are seized if found “abandoned,” and often even if the person is right there on the spot. The Fourth Amendment is supposed to forbid this kind of thing, and judges have struck down such policies in Fresno, Los Angeles, Sacramento and Miami, but cities keep on doing it anyway. The ordinances that enable these warrantless seizures criminalize homelessness.

They never learn

At the end of 2014, Tucson AZ made the news when homeless organizers pushed back against the three-item rule. People were actually being arrested for owning more than a blanket, bedroll, and beverage. Activists struggled for four years before a U.S. District Judge finally granted an injunction to end this – which doesn’t mean it has ended. Early in 2015, Chicago was embroiled in a similar battle. For the Sun-Times, Mark Brown interviewed, among others, a Marine Corps veteran who had been deprived of everything he owned, four different times.

All homeless people are allowed to keep only “portable personal possessions” defined as a “sleeping bag or bedroll, not more than two coats, not more than two pairs of shoes or boots, not more than five blankets, and not more than three bags or suitcases, and such contents as may be contained in said bags or suitcases.”
In the winter months, they can have five more blankets and another sleeping bag.

Last summer, in preparation for a rock concert, Chicago authorities decreed that a neatly organized 20-tent settlement had to be moved from under a bridge, at least temporarily. Supposedly some kind of agreement was in place about sufficient notice, which may or may not have been given, depending on who tells the story. City workers started before the designated time, and threw away blankets, clothing, and other property, rather than store the items and notify people how to recover them, as had supposedly been agreed. The Department of Family and Support Services was supposed to be on hand to help relocate the people and their possessions, and showed up late when the city crews had already disposed of many things. Even when a Chicago Coalition for the Homeless lawyer showed up, the pillaging continued. Journalist Melissa Muto wrote,

Rene Heybach… told them they were in violation of the city agreement. But Heybach said that none of the workers she spoke to Tuesday had been properly trained in that protocol, and none of them, including the supervisor, had even heard of it.

What goes on in these cases? Every agency has telephones and computers. There is no excuse for such a lack of communication. Why is everything so confused and uncoordinated? The following month, Ethan Walker reported on the situation in Berkeley, CA. It was, ironically, at Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park that police seized from four homeless men everything except the clothes they stood up in. Allegedly the belongings were taken to a storage facility. According to homeless activist Mike Zint, the same scenario had been repeated hundreds of times in Berkeley, and more often than not, the seized property was destroyed rather than stored.

Zint said he has lost his property to the police seven times in four years. He said the police came, usually at night, and often cited him for breaking Penal Code 647e, which states that lodging in any place, public or private, without the permission of the owner is an act of disorderly conduct. The police then took his gear as evidence of his violation.

Activist Diane Kimes added,

The personal belongings which had value to their owners were immediately hauled off, while the garbage was left there to rot by the city. Obviously, this isn’t about keeping public space clean and safe–it’s about making life insupportable for those who have nothing…

Reactions?

Source: “Court: Confiscation rules at Tucson park unfair to homeless,” Tucson.com, 12/26/14
Source: “City agrees to be more respectful of homeless belongings,” SunTimes,com, 02/11/15
Source: “Mumford and Sons’ concert displaces homeless,” WBEZ.org, 06/19/15
Source: “Homeless in Berkeley must ‘rebuild’ after police remove property,” DailyCal.org, 07/08/15
Image by urbansnaps – kennymc

 

 

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Costs of Resisting the Housing First Paradigm

Homeless street market

In the great Northwest, in Washington state, the Seattle University School of Law issued a report about the cost of criminalizing homelessness. Examining the municipal codes of 72 cities, they found twice as many anti-homeless ordinances as were on the books in 2000. Journalists Bryce Covert and Andrew Breiner summed it up like this:

Nearly 80 percent enacted ordinances prohibiting or limiting the ability to sit, stand, or sleep in public. Another three-quarters banned urination or defecation in public, although the report notes that “cities typically fail to provide sufficient access to reasonable alternatives such as 24-hour restrooms and hygiene centers.” And nearly two-thirds outlaw “aggressive panhandling, while 22 percent criminalize storing personal property in public.”

Criminalizing homelessness by outlawing the most unavoidable life functions like sleeping and urinating, has become a trend. In Venice, California, which used to be one of the freest places on earth, homeless people are routinely brutalized by the police for such offenses as “items placed on city beach” and “property outside of designated space.” Samuel Arrington, a mentally ill homeless man who was beaten and tazed by 8 LAPD officers and subsequently hospitalized, had brought a chair and an umbrella out onto the sand.

The plot thickened when Arrington told the press that the cops had assaulted him on multiple occasions because he once warned a prospective heroin customer to stay away from a certain undercover cop, and thwarted a sting operation. Of course Arrington sued the city for violation of his civil rights, as have hundreds of others. In 2012 the L.A. Times published a spreadsheet detailing the settlements the LAPD had been ordered to make over the preceding decade. The yearly totals were $12 million, $16 million, and other numbers in that range. Many cases centered around homeless people, and police brutality is only one of the causes for which a city might be sued.

The illustration on this page shows a homeless street market, a bare-bones operation favored by those who want to hold a garage sale but don’t have a garage. In many places, this is a highly illegal enterprise.

Austin, Texas, is a notable example of pushback against “quality of life” ordinances that do nothing for life’s quality when the accused is a person experiencing homelessness. In response to people being legally punished for just sitting around, Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless said something fraught with unintentional dark humor:

It is my belief that 100% of the people receiving these tickets were perceived to be homeless at the time of ticket issuance. I was only able to verify that 96% were experiencing homelessness at the time of the ticketing.

Getting back to Washington, the 5-year total spent by just two cities, Seattle and Spokane, to enforce homeless-persecuting statutes was almost $4 million. The number is just for civil infractions and doesn’t even begin to cover the criminal violations costs. Covert and Breiner wrote:

On the other hand, the report estimates that if the $3.7 million spent enforcing the ordinances were instead spent on housing for the homeless, it would save $2 million a year and more than $11 million over the course of five years.

Criminalizing Homelessness on the East Coast

To varying degrees, some cities are beginning to see value in the Housing First philosophy. In the opposite corner of America, down in Florida, the Daytona Beach News-Journal published a comprehensive article on that state’s homeless policies.

Volusia County Judge Belle Schumann researched 50 homeless people who have cost the county well over $12 million by being arrested multiple times —as many as 400 in one case, and more than 330 times in another. A jail diversion shelter to keep these individuals off the streets would cost approximately $13 per person, per day, as compared to the $65 per diem cost of keeping them in jail. Currently, the county has fewer than 100 shelter beds to serve its 5,000 homeless residents.

Reactions?

Source: “Washington’s War on the Visibly Poor: A Survey of Criminalizing Ordinances & Their Enforcement ,” SSRN.com, 05/06/15
Source: “Arresting Homeless People For Being Homeless Is Unbelievably Wasteful,” thinkprogress.org, 05/11/15
Source: “Venice homeless man sues LAPD, alleges excessive force during arrest,” LATimes.com, 05/19/15
Source: “Legal payouts in LAPD lawsuits,” LATimes.com, 01/22/12
Source: “Arresting, jailing homeless has cost Volusia taxpayers millions,”
news-journalonline.com, 11/23/13
Image by urbansnaps – kennymc

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Looking Toward a Grim Future

Down on the Corner

RawStory.com just published a lengthy article titled “Older and sicker: How America’s homeless population has changed.”

The writer is Margot Kushel, Professor of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. California is always worth keeping an eye on, because what happens there tends to spread to the rest of the country. As always, House the Homeless recommends that interested parties read the entire work, but here some key points.

For starters, about 20% (or one in five) of all the people experiencing homelessness in America are in California, a state with an unprecedented water shortage and a proneness to wildfires – not a good combination, especially for people whose only kitchen may be a campfire. The El Niño weather event will have some benefits, but too much water in too short a time can never bring happy results. Mudslides cover the houses of celebrities and CEOs, and torrents drown people who sleep along riverbeds.

On any day of the year about half a million cold, overheated, or rain-soaked Americans have no place to call home. A lot of adrift people go to urban areas if they can, because that is where the services are. In California, housing costs are the highest of any state, and the major cities are frighteningly expensive even at the best of times. Oakland, always on the scruffier side, is where Dr. Kushel’s research team has tracked the lives of 350 homeless subjects since the summer of 2013. About people over 50, she says:

In the United States, more than 30 percent of renters and 23 percent of homeowners aged 50 and older spend more than half of their household income on rent. This makes it hard to pay for food and medicine, and puts them at high risk of becoming homeless.

And a lot of them do become homeless, just at the time of life when all the years of struggle are supposed to pay off. Many of the people in this study worked for decades at “low-skill, low-wage” jobs, barely able to keep up with present needs, but at least they had somewhere to live. Homelessness at any age is traumatic, but when a middle-aged person falls into it for the first time, the psychological trauma is considerable. In present-day America, half the people experiencing homelessness are over 50. What does this mean in practical terms? Kushel says:

When the homeless population was made up of a majority of younger adults, health care providers focused on treating substance use and mental health disorders, traumatic injuries and infections, many of which could be treated with short-term care. Now, with an older homeless population, health care providers have the difficult task of managing chronic diseases like diabetes and heart and lung disease. The point our study highlights is that the systems set up in the 1980s were not designed to serve an aging population.

About half of the older group are not new to homelessness, but have been in the wind for years, shuttling through the well-worn pathways that lead from shelter to jail to hospital to roadside camp to shelter to jail, on and on with endless variations but always the same old story. Their initiating traumas happened long ago, and their health situations have been deteriorating for years. Of the newer middle- and late-middle-aged homeless, Kushel says:

Their lives became derailed by job loss, illness, a new disability, the death of a loved one or an interaction with the criminal justice system.

Someone rooted in a stable lifestyle might be able to handle one of those tragedies, get through the difficulty, and make a recovery. But life-changing events tend to gang up on a person who is already in a vulnerable state. Troubles arrive in bunches, and the domino effect is alive and well. Once they hit the streets, the sick get sicker, and the previously healthy become sick.

A person who has a roof, electricity, and running water finds it difficult to deal with functional and/or cognitive impairments, multiple medications, special treatments like oxygen, strict dietary requirements, frequent medical appointments, and endless piles of hellish paperwork. For a homeless person, existing with an illness or disability is insanely difficult.

Homelessness shortens anyone’s life expectancy, and it’s not surprising that homeless old people “die at a rate four to five times what would be expected in the general population.” Dr. Kushel leaves us with a statement and two questions:

What policymakers and the general public need to recognize is that the homeless are aging faster than the general population in the U.S. This shift in the demographics has major implications for how municipalities and health care providers deal with homeless populations.

How do we adapt existing programs for homeless adults to meet the needs of an aging population?

And possibly even more intractable but fundamental: how do we stop older people from losing their homes?

Reactions?

Source: “Older and sicker: How America’s homeless population has changed
RawStory.com, 01/09/16
Image by Randy Sloan

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Why Do Some Refuse Shelter?

homeless hungryAll year round, and especially during the annual or biannual count of people experiencing homelessness, outreach workers take on the job of informing people about their options. Maybe some street people don’t know that shelter is available, or what the requirements are. On the other side of the coin, some have had such negative experiences in shelters that they prefer to endure any other accommodations.

One school of thought that some people like to characterize as “tough love” but is more likely just callousness, holds that shelters are not supposed to be nice places. If the place is comfortable, lazy freeloaders will just stay forever. According to this world-view, the necessity to endure discomfort and indignity in a shelter is supposed to provide all the inspiration needed to encourage people to find a job and a home. If only it were that easy! If living under punitive conditions was all it took to turn people’s lives around and set them on the path to success, Skid Row would be full of millionaires.

Rules Are Rules…Which Can Be Bad for the Homeless

For housed people who don’t encounter these problems, it is tempting to go for the easy answer and think that shelter resistance stems from an unwillingness to follow the regulations. Certainly, there are individuals who prefer to live outside and stay inebriated rather than put up with a no-alcohol rule.

Unfortunately, strictures that sound reasonable on paper can be totally counterproductive for those who are fortunate enough to find work. What if the only shelter in the area closes down its sign-in process at 4:30 in the afternoon, and you have a job that ends at 5:00? What if it’s only a part-time gig, or even a full-time job at minimum wage? You still can’t afford to rent a place to live, and thanks to the sign-in time limit, you’re worse off than an unemployed homeless person because you’ll need to sleep outside. That’s “economic homelessness,” a situation in which far too many people find themselves.

A blogger known as “Moondustwriter” wrote about staying with her daughter in an apartment setup shared with another single mother:

This particular shelter didn’t have a soup kitchen. So on the two to maybe three hundred I would have a month, I would struggle to pay for food, basics (like clothes and toiletries) and transportation for two. Don’t get me wrong, I learned how to live on $300 a month but you don’t save any money to get your own place by living in a shelter.

If a person experiencing homelessness is lucky enough to have a job but works night shift, forget about the standard shelter. In some cities, if the weather is unbearably cold or hot, there may be a place where people can hang out during the day. But getting a proper sleep is out of the question.

Often, shelter “beds” are no more than mats on the floor. Sure, that’s probably better than frostbite, but keeping your fingers and toes can come at a high price, like catching tuberculosis from the person on the adjoining mat, or becoming infested with bedbugs, or being stepped on or vomited on by someone on the way to the toilet. There is a psychological price, too. A newly homeless person is in no position to be a snob, but life suddenly becomes full of people you would not consider for the role of bestie. Ted Heistman wrote:

It’s natural to seek rapport with the people you are hanging out with, but you want to avoid having dysfunction rub off on you too much. You don’t want to start thinking its normal to stink and be dirty and drunk or stoned all the time.

Balancing that disadvantage, some experienced people say that the motivated and upwardly bound homeless person will stand out. In a shelter, it’s possible that…

Only about 10 to 20% will be normal middle class type people that have found themselves in a bad situation. This is you. People will go out of their way to help you, even the other hard case homeless people might. So if you swallow your pride and accept the help, you may soon find yourself with a new place to live.

Reactions?

Source: “Homeless in America Creating More Tent Cities,” Financial -Market -News.com, 05/17/14
Source: “Shelters for the Homeless,” Moondustwriter.com, 02/18/14
Source: “How to be “Stealth” Homeless,” Disinfo.com, 10/25/12
Source: “7 Things No One Tells You About Being Homeless,” Cracked.com, 11/12/13
Image by Kenji Nakayama and Christopher Hope