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The Homeless Still Kicked When Down

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    For those who live on the streets, it is a common experience to be blamed, scorned, scolded, fined, or even jailed for the de facto crime of Breathing While Homeless.

Our northern neighbor Canada does not always set a good example. Toronto has been a very tough place for some time.

In 2012, things were so bad they were holding Homeless Memorials not just yearly, but every month. One of those remembered was Louis Quinn, who died owing the city as much as $30,000 because of the almost daily tickets he was issued for panhandling and encumbering a sidewalk.

Of course he wasn’t the only one. Research showed the insane but unsurprising fact that handing out such tickets used up a million dollars worth of police labor time each year. There were millions of dollars worth of unpaid fines, and the city recouped some spare change by selling the debt to collection agencies, who were then highly incentivized to cause even more grief in the lives of people experiencing homelessness.

John Bonnar wrote:

If they don’t pay up it goes against their credit rating. Then if they do manage to make it back on their feet, their negative credit rating rating could prevent them from obtaining a credit card, renting an apartment, leasing a car or even acquiring a cell phone contract.

Apparently, matters on the Canadian front have not improved. This enlightening paragraph was written earlier this month by Patrick Lejtenyi for Vice.com:

It’s no secret that Montreal cops have monthly ticket quotas to meet. The police admitted as much two years ago… Those quotas are being met in large part by handing them out to the homeless, even with the knowledge that the fines will likely never be paid.

Isabelle Raffestin, coordinator of the Droit Devant legal clinic, told the reporter about a typical case, in which a middle-aged man, ill in both body and mind, owed the government the equivalent of $18,000 USD in fines that stemmed from his homeless condition. Another source mentioned knowing several young people who had made some progress toward getting their lives on track, but who had been dragged back into penury, and even imprisoned, because of the fines levied on them for doing things that housed people have no need or reason to do, or at least tend to get away with.

The good news is that Montreal has a municipal court program where the possibility exists of convincing the public prosecutor to extend amnesty and tear up the tickets. But is that the best solution? Lejtenyi writes:

Those who have lived on the streets and gone through the legal system say the homeless in Montreal are caught in a weird echo-chamber of the city’s making. They are well-served when they want to access social services, programs, and legal aid — but they wouldn’t need them if they weren’t made such easy targets for police in the first place.

It begins to sound as if homelessness is just a gigantic job-creation program for civil servants. In America, House the Homeless has mentioned the ever-increasing number of “sweeps” that take place in cities where enormous resources are used to move people experiencing homelessness from one place to another, invariably losing stability, and possessions, along the way.

One sorry example is Denver, Colorado, where police have become increasingly aggressive and brutal. Meanwhile, over the past three years the city’s police department has spent upward of $1.3 million on its media relations department.

A statement from their boss said their duties include:

[…] handling phone calls and interview requests from the media 24/7, organizing press conferences, writing press releases, producing podcasts, internal communication, safety campaigns, projects with other city agencies, promoting department events, plus many other tasks.

Including, no doubt, plenty of spin and lots of damage control. Apparently it has not occurred to the city that better police training and more humane policies might obviate the need for costly public relations efforts. Meanwhile, even worse stories are out there. In Orlando, Florida, last year, a public defender made news:

Robert Wesley wants to put an end to low value arrests with high court fines, which he said hurts the homeless and is a burden on taxpayers because of the cost incurred during the cases that the defendants ultimately can’t pay.

Wesley told journalist Stewart Moore about a particular case where a man dying in a hospice had to be guarded by police at all times, at ridiculous cost to the taxpayers. Technically, he was under arrest for not paying homeless fines.

Reactions?

Source: “Homeless people racking up thousands in fines under Safe Streets Act,” Rabble.ca, 09/13/12
Source: “Why Did Canada Fine This Homeless Man $80,000?,” Vice.com, 03/01/16
Source: “Denver Police defend spending more than $1.3 million over three years on public relations,” TheDenverChannel.com, 02/16/16
Source: “Local public defender calls for stop to homeless arrests, fines,” WESH.com, 08/11/15
Photo credit: wantmorepuppies via Visualhunt/CC BY

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Guilty of Breathing While Homeless

go-to-jailLast week we mentioned a fellow whose dentures were stolen by the authorities in their quest to “clean up” San Francisco for a gigantic sports event. Oscar McKinney has other problems too, like a couple of dozen citations for loitering, sleeping, and just generally Breathing While Homeless.

In that legendary city, law enforcement is relentless against homeless people who are “engaged in necessary, life-sustaining activities.” According to ThinkProgress.org:

There are 23 city codes criminalizing things like standing or resting in public, sleeping in public places and cars, and panhandling… Police issued nearly 23,000 citations for violations of these codes between 2006 and 2014.

This game has many variations. For a Change.org page that has not been archived, “Slumjack Homeless” once described being ticketed for sleeping on a sidewalk:

Now I’ll have to go to court (more costly and wastefully time consuming than you can imagine, requiring going all the way to another city to do so) where they typically then impose fines (far more “expensive” in this predicament than you might realize) which can also be “paid” via “community service” […] which means working, unpaid, for perhaps 30 hours or so. Free slave labor, really, and from people that STILL can’t sleep or live anywhere.

In nearby Marin County in 2011, Legal Aid attorney Maura Prendiville took a look at the stats, which at the time reported approximately 5,000 people in the county experiencing homelessness or extremely precarious living situations. Even though there was no shelter space, people were ticketed for sleeping outdoors, and for numerous petty infractions.

Activists created a pilot program with the goal of helping people avoid, rather than accrue, criminal records. The community court would have the option of referring defendants to substance abuse programs and other mental health services. Here too, people could “work off” their fines with the judge’s permission.

CBS news quoted Rick Buquia, who described they cycle of court appearances, volunteer work, and jail that had become his life. The reporter wrote:

He has been homeless for three years and is facing a $1,000 ticket he simply cannot afford to pay.

In Looking Up at the Bottom Line, House the Homeless President Richard R. Troxell narrates the beginnings of the battle for sanity in Austin that later, after years of work, resulted in some relatively humane rules. Under a proposed ordinance, sleeping rough would be a criminal offense with a fine of up to $500. People would get tickets they couldn’t pay for, and then be locked up and emerge with criminal records.

The city had only a few hundred shelter beds and a homeless population of several thousand, so how was this supposed to work? Richard wrote:

To some, the idea was ludicrous, for if the homeless had $500.00 surely they would opt to sleep somewhere other than under a bridge. For others, the homeless were merely being asked to pay their “debt to society” for their crime of sleeping in public… These people would then be returned to the streets, still without jobs, or still without jobs paying living wages. They would still have no access to affordable housing, and the only continuity in their lives was that they were assured of being arrested again… and again.

Reactions?

Source: “‘They’re Herding Us Like Cattle’: How San Francisco’s Homeless and the City Are Paying Dearly for Superbowl 50,” Alternet.org, 01/28/16
Source: “San Francisco Clears Out Homeless Ahead Of The Super Bowl,” ThinkProgress.org, 02/03/16
Source: “Why I Choose Streets Over Shelter,” Change.org, 06/03/09
Source: “Community Court Gives Fresh Start To Marin County Homeless,” CBSlocal.com, 05/13/11
Source: “Looking Up at the Bottom Line,” Amazon.com
Photo credit: kenteegardin via Visual hunt/CC BY-SA

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The Sweep Tsunami

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Blending in with the scenery, masked Austin police officers stroll between the ARC homeless shelter and Salvation Army.

Readers will remember the Open Letter to the City of Austin, written by the President and CEO of House the Homeless, Richard R. Troxell. (Scroll down the page past more recent events such as Amplify Austin, the Traumatic Brain Injury Survey Report, Kids 4 Kids Sake, the Thermal Underwear Party, the Homeless Sunrise Memorial Service, the Veterans’ Day Parade, and Bridge the Economic Gap Day. Look for the Department of Justice seal, and you’re there.)

The letter was widely circulated and published, not only to the officials and bureaucrats of Austin, Texas, but to like-minded organizations and to the press. This was in August of last year, more than six months ago, and the problems outlined in the text have only become worse since then.

All over America, even people with jobs can’t afford to pay for roofs over their heads. All over America, laws are in place that criminalize the most basic and necessary human activities, and “Quality of Life” ordinances take into consideration only the quality of housed people’s lives.

Everywhere, “sweeps” and “cleanups” take from people experiencing homeless even the precarious communities they form in vacant lots and under highways. The constant message is, “Move on, get out of here, go somewhere else.” But where?

Less than a week ago, this news came from Colorado:

Today, March 8th, the City Officials of Denver under Mayor Hancock used an “order of removal” ordinance to enable Public Works to decide what is an “encumbrance.” They used this “law” to force everyone out of the area and take away people’s tarps, blankets, and other belongings… Roughly 75 people were displaced from the places they have called home — many of whom for many months or even years. There is no legal option for almost anyone for where to go to.

As far back as last August Ed Lee, the mayor of San Francisco, California, told the press that the homeless would have to leave before Super Bowl time came around. By November, people experiencing homelessness were being pushed out of downtown.

In a city with an estimated 7,000 homeless residents, it is not easy to get them all out of sight so that tourists won’t be bummed out by their presence. City workers “herded” as many people as possible to a new place under a freeway. Typical was a fellow named Oscar McKinney, whose situation was described by journalist Evelyn Nieves:

City workers had removed his possessions right in front of him, he said, including all his identification papers. “They even got my teeth,” he said, displaying a wry, hollow smile. If they come around again, he said, he has no idea where he’ll go.

Meanwhile, the Super Bowl organizers were making sure that no homeless people would get fancy ideas about benefiting from the upcoming city-wide party. No free events would be accessible to them, because no one carrying a tent or a sleeping bag would be allowed to enter.

Sam Dodge, the mayor’s homeless czar, offered a typically callous statement to The Wall Street Journal reporter Stu Woo:

He said the homeless could likely retrieve confiscated belongings at city storage.

In “The Criminalization of Ownership,” House the Homeless has examined that particular fairytale. Another instance of unintentional humor arose after the football festival was over, as expressed in this headline from The Guardian: “Homeless ordered to vacate camp they were pressured into before Super Bowl.”

People who had previously existed in the areas most needed for the celebrations had been moved, in some cases, to shelters, but many were forcibly guided to the underside of a highway overpass. Three weeks after the big game, the public health department wanted them out of there within 72 hours of when the eviction order was issued, largely because of accumulated human waste and general trash.

Did the city not provide portable toilets or dumpsters? Apparently not. A statement from the director of health, Barbara Garcia, said:

Conditions where multiple tents are congregated have become unsafe. People are living without access to running water, bathrooms, trash disposal or safe heating or cooking facilities.

The solution that seemed good to the city authorities was make the people go find some other location without running water, bathrooms, trash disposal, or safe heating or cooking facilities.

Reactions?

Source: “City Sweeps People Without Homes from All the Blocks by Lawrence/Broadway/Park Ave,” wraaphome.org, 03/09/16
Source: “‘They’re Herding Us Like Cattle’: How San Francisco’s Homeless and the City Are Paying Dearly for Superbowl 50,” Alternet.org, 01/28/16
Source: “The Vanishing Homeless of Super Bowl 50,” WSJ.com, 02/02/16
Source: “Homeless ordered to vacate camp they were pressured into before Super Bowl,” TheGuardian.com, 02/25/16

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Catching Up With Austin

homeless-person-in-trashbagAustin, Texas, is often our subject because House the Homeless was founded here 27 years ago and has played a major role ever since in reversing the tide of homelessness. Austin is important for other reasons. It is a progressive city inside a state that in many ways lags behind other places, when it comes to addressing social issues. But Austin definitely tries!

Interesting things have happened over the past few years. In the fall of 2012, the police chief publicly expressed his feelings about the importance, in his eyes, of moving organizations like the Austin Resource Center for the homeless, the Salvation Army, and Caritas out of the city center.

In the spring of March 2014, a group called Austin Atheists Helping the Homeless got some media attention when a volunteer known as Angel talked about the 5-year-old organization, which she and her husband had been donating energy to for several months. They had been looking for something useful they could do as a family, and found it there, working with not only adults but kids of all ages who collected and sorted useful items.

Angel told reporter Amy Roth:

We focus solely on distributing basic living items to people experiencing homelessness. Tangible donations are accepted year round then distributed once a month at “giveaways.”

We set up our tables in the same parking lot as faith-based groups… [W]e make it a point not to preach…

I know our efforts won’t eradicate homelessness. It’s a systemic problem that’s too complex to be solved by an hour-long giveaway once a month. If what we do helps someone get through the next few days, that’s success.

Meanwhile, the Affordable Housing Bond had been approved by voters, allowing the city to borrow $65 million for the purpose of increasing both rental and ownership housing, as well as preserving the city’s existing affordable housing. In the fall of 2014, we reported on Austin’s innovative Community First Village.

The new year of 2015 began, and House the Homeless president Richard R. Troxell told the Statesman about the $8,000 raised by Hill Country Middle School for the annual thermal underwear gift party. This was followed by our reportage on the annual House the Homeless survey, which last year concerned relationships with the police.

Last fall, Austin was deeply concerned with completing its self-assigned task of bringing all homeless veterans in off the street, a mission complicated by the fact that the number of local homeless veterans had doubled since the previous year. This may not have been an actual increase in people, but significant of better methods of keeping track of them. House the Homeless observed Veterans Day with its usual attention, and our pages also featured a piece called “Life and Death in Homeless Austin.”

Austin-Travis County Integral Care announced its plan to break ground for the Housing First Oak Springs facility, a 40,000 square foot property that will contain 50 efficiency apartments and a clinic. Nadia Galindo reported:

Austin-Travis County Integral Care began using the Housing First model in 2013. They placed 200 people in apartments across the community, two years later, 88 percent remain housed and used 70 percent less emergency and clinical services.

Last month, local media reported on some of the difficulties that veterans still have even when established in living spaces. A home is more than a roof, and needs working plumbing, up-to-code electricity, smoke detectors and so on. Apparently, some landlords believe it is no longer their responsibility to maintain rental properties in livable condition, but want public money or donations to repair the buildings they own.

Just a few days ago, Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO) announced that the most recent count of people experiencing homelessness revealed a 20% increase,  although again, this may be the result of better canvassing methods or a growing willingness of people to be counted.

Either way, there appear to be 400 more people living in shelters and on the streets of Austin, than there were at the last count. Fox7Austin interviewed Richard R. Troxell,  who pointed to the low minimum wage and the high cost of living, and went on to speak of the newly discovered extensive link between homelessness and Traumatic Brain Injury.

Reporter Jennifer Kendall summed up:

House the Homeless and ECHO both agree the best way to help those experiencing homelessness in Travis County is to find them shelter, but ECHO said during their annual count they found no empty beds at Austin’s shelters.

So, unless more landlords step up to offer affordable housing to homeless people in the city, anyone new who comes to the area will not have a shelter to stay in.

Reactions?

Source: “Austin police chief wants homeless services out of his backyard,” blogspot.com, 09/21/12
Source: “Do Better Challenge: Austin Atheists Helping the Homeless,” skepckick.org, 03/18/14
Source: “Lack of available housing a challenge for advocates of Austin’s homeless,” impactnews.com, 07/23/14
Source: “House the Homeless lends helping hand,” Statesman.com, 01/08/15
Source: “City working to find housing for Austin’s homeless veterans,” FOX7Austin.com, 10/08/15
Source: “New homeless housing complex to be built in East Austin,” KEYETV.com, 11/13/15
Source: “Homeless veteran placed in home teeming with code violations,” KXAN.com, 01/15/16
Source: “Austin sees 20 percent increase in homeless population,” KHOU.com, 03/03/16
Source: “Annual count of homeless in Travis County shows 20 percent increase,” Fox7Austin.com, 03/03/16
Photo credit: elizaIO via Visualhunt/CC BY-SA

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How to Become Homeless – Have TBI

colorful-spiralThere are quite a few things the general public does not know about concussion injuries. For instance, the victim does not have to be rendered unconscious. In fact, a knockout occurs in only 10% of concussions, so you can’t go by that. What causes a concussion is any kind of sudden impact to the body that makes the brain change speed or direction.

Think of driving a car. On impact, the car is abruptly halted but the driver’s body is still going at the same speed as before, so it is thrown forward. If the air bag inflates, a cushion is created between the driver and the steering column, dashboard, windshield, and other hard objects that are in front.

The brain doesn’t have an airbag, only a surrounding bath of cerebrospinal fluid, which doesn’t have the same properties as a cushion full of air. On impact, the fluid is pushed aside, and the brain hits the inside of the hard skull bone.

When the impact is severe, the brain can then bounce in the other direction, hitting bone again on the opposite side. Cells stretch, tiny veins break, and chemicals are let loose into areas where they don’t belong.

Two different kinds of blunt-force trauma can cause brain damage — linear acceleration and rotational acceleration. We quote here from the informational material included with the Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) survey conducted by House the Homeless in Austin, Texas:

The medical community now believes that this “rotational acceleration” does more damage than “linear rotation” since the blood vessels can stretch and tear as the brain rotates. In both instances, a chain reaction begins as chemicals in the brain move around in chaos creating disruption.

It gets worse

Another problem is Post-Concussive Syndrome, in which intense symptoms last for along time and the person may never recover the ability to concentrate, remember things, or sleep properly. In Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), the long-term results are poor judgment, dementia, drug-taking, lack of insight, depression, tinnitus, inability to balance, and other symptoms that interfere with the ability to hold down a job or even to manage the details of everyday life. It doesn’t help to write down the address of a soup kitchen if the person forgets the note is in his pocket, or can’t figure out how to get there.

Concussion can’t be diagnosed by a blood test or brain scan or other physical test, only by indicators or symptoms. While there are considered to be 26 indicators, nobody manifests all of them all the time, but only a few at a time. CTE can’t be diagnosed until the person’s body is on an autopsy table. These conditions may be associated with Lou Gehrig’s disease, bipolar disorder, Parkinson’s disease, and others processes in which neurotransmission is disrupted.

There is no good concussion, because they all interfere with the brain’s ability to send and receive messages.

Source of information

Along with being president of House the Homeless, Richard R. Troxell is also Director of Legal Aid for the Homeless at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. He uses the annual House the Homeless Thermal Underwear Party as an opportunity to ask the attendees to take part in various surveys.

The 2010 Health Survey revealed that 49% of people experiencing homelessness are too disabled to work a regular full-time job. That is nearly half, and it it lines up uncannily with the fact that nearly half of all homeless men have suffered a traumatic brain injury. This was discovered by Dr. Wayne Gordon of Mount Sinai Hospital’s Icahn School of Medicine.

The brain injuries mainly happened before his rehabilitation patients became homeless, not as a result of rough street life. Some were the victims of parents and caregivers who see baby-shaking as a non-violent method of quieting a baby or getting its attention. On the contrary, baby-shaking is extremely violent and can cause brain injury that lasts a lifetime.

Other patients with TBI had been hit in the head, or been struck playing contact sports, or fallen from heights. Some had been in car accidents or were injured while on active military duty. House the Homeless has spoken before of the diabolical merry-go-round between the streets, the prisons, the foster care system and (for the lucky) hospitalization.

Dr. Wayne Gordon is very concerned about prisoners, who are in a position to receive massive abuse:

You need to train the correction officers to understand brain injuries so that when somebody may be acting rude or answering back or forgetting what they’re supposed to do, it’s not a sign of maladaptive misbehavior or disrespect, it’s a sign of a brain injury.

The Veterans Administration notes that many returning vets wind up homeless for eight or nine times the length of their deployments. In other words, if a person spent a year in a war zone, it’s not unusual for that to be followed by eight years of homelessness.

In fact, 27% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are known to have TBI. The damage is cumulative, because more health risks show up the longer a person is on the streets. The VA has a chilling term, “tri-morbid,” which means a person concurrently has mental illness, physical illness, and substance abuse.

A different physician with the same last name, Dr. Mark L. Gordon of the Millennium Health Centers, has worked extensively with veterans and achieved a totally new understanding of how TBI and Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome might be treated by correcting hormone deficiencies.

One of the most distressing pieces of general ignorance is that when people hear “hormones” they think “sex,” which is only a small part of a very large picture. Hormones do everything, including keeping the brain on track. If implemented, Dr. Mark L. Gordon’s discoveries could treat a vast number of people at a relatively slight cost.

Reactions?

Source: “TBI Survey 2016,” HousetheHomeless.org, February 2016
Source: “Study: Nearly Half of All Homeless Men Suffered Brain Injury before Losing Homes,” mssm.edu, 04/26/14
Source: “National Survey of Homeless Veterans in 100,000 Homes Campaign Communities,” VA.gov, November 2011
Photo credit: new 1lluminati via Visualhunt/CC BY