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Penalizing the Helpers

mini-housesAmong all the tactics used to make war on people experiencing homelessness, one of the most insidious is penalizing their allies. A while back, we published a post titled “Helping the Homeless: No Good Deed Goes Unpunished” and, more recently, one called “People Who Feed People.” Let’s look at what else has been going on in that area.

The title, “Canadian Cop Posing As Homeless Person Fines Guy For Giving Him Change,” pretty much says it all. In Regina, Saskatchewan, an undercover officer dressed as a homeless person with a cardboard sign lured a driver to give a contribution. To reach the window, the driver had to undo his seat belt. A second officer arrived on the scene, and ticketed him for not having his seat belt fastened, which resulted in a $175 fine.

Journalist Jake Kivanç describes how the police masquerade as panhandlers to entrap kind citizens, which is both exploitative and pathetic:

This is all part of an effort by Regina police and other municipalities to capture drivers committing traffic violations — which range from distracted driving to not wearing your seatbelt.

In the USA, a very large problem becomes clearer every day. There is no shortage of ideas about how to make self-contained small living quarters for people who presently live outside. Engineers, grad students, and even bright children have figured out how to make shelters out of everything from hempcrete to shipping containers. Every now and then an American breaks into the news by building noteworthy “tiny houses.”

We have not only the technology, but the materials, the volunteer labor, and the humanitarian incentive to build these things. After volunteers show the way, why can’t employable tiny-house inhabitants be employed to build more tiny houses? The answer appears to be, because no one wants these structures, anywhere. America is just one big Backyard with everybody saying “Not In Mine.”

For example, in St. Cloud, Minnesota, St. John’s Episcopal Church has on its property a tiny house, described as “a 132-square-foot shelter on wheels with electricity, water and heat.” The inhabitant was chosen by the St. Cloud Homeless Men’s Coalition, to live there in return for doing janitorial work.

Reporter Susan Du interviewed the church’s attorney, Robert Feigh, and learned that although there are no zoning ordinances about tiny houses, the city’s inspectors have tried every trick in the book to end this arrangement. St. John’s filed a federal lawsuit against St. Cloud, citing the Bill of Rights, the Religious Land Use Act and the Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000.

With the lawyerly ability to get both sides, Feigh said:

They see it as a vague potential problem if there were tiny houses all over the city, that that wouldn’t be good, and it probably wouldn’t be… The government cannot interfere with churches rendering to the poor on their own property. That’s what it amounts to.

In Dover, Delaware, another church is in the same kind of trouble, and being fined $100 a day, because a three-generation family lives in an RV out back. The woman in the middle generation is blind, pregnant, afflicted with an auto-immune condition, and only 21. Alexis Simms’ mother helps to care for her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter.

Pastor Aaron Appling of Victory Church said:

We want to stand up for her. Because there is nobody else to stand up for her.

The county is upset because the church property holds three camper trucks, but the church doesn’t have special approval to house a commercial recreational campground in an agricultural residential district, which would cost about $100,000 to achieve.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. The uncredited reporter describes the intrigue:

Earlier this year, the parish, in conjunction with the nonprofit Port Hope Delaware, began formulating plans for a Tiny Home Project in Dover. The village would consist of 15 tiny homes on four acres of land on the western half of Victory’s property…

The project ran into zoning issues with the county, as the land could be zoned for four residential homes, but the village would be considered high-density housing.

Neighbors were not impressed by the promise of background checks on applicants, or the fact that tenants would each pay $200 to $300 per month to live in the tiny houses. Reportedly, every residence in the vicinity had a “NO TINY HOUSES” sign in its yard. Neighbors talk about losing equity in their properties, but why not just stay there at the homestead, as they always planned to? The amount of profit that might be realized from a sale is a moot issue.

At a recent City Council meeting, Pastor Appling was accompanied by around 100 people experiencing homelessness and their advocates. Alexis Simms has been unable to find housing for her family through the channels provided by city and county. Speaking at a memorial vigil for three homeless men, she said:

It’s not just me that’s homeless. There’s thousands of us and we want help. We’re not contagious. We’re human people and we’re here.

Reactions?

Source: “Canadian Cop Posing As Homeless Person Fines Guy For Giving Him Change,” Vice.com, 06/10/16
Source: “St. Cloud wants to evict “gentle” homeless man from church’s tiny house,” CityPages.com, 08/30/16
Source: “Church faces daily $100 fine for housing homeless on its lot, battles with neighbors,” RT.com, 10/11/16
Photo credit (from top): Tammy Strobel via Visualhunt/CC BYJon Callas via Visualhunt/CC BYTammy Strobel via Visualhunt/CC BY

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The Starfish Conundrum

starfish-on-sandThere are many versions of the starfish story. Here is one.

A man walking along a shore covered with washed-up, dying starfish notices a boy throwing them back into the ocean, one by one. The man says to the boy that there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish, and that he’ll never make a difference. As the boy throws a starfish back into the ocean, he says, “I just made a difference to that one.”

Almost three years ago several Denver-area news sources related how Joe Manzaneres, on his way to work as a real estate broker, drove past Chris Razec. A certified welder and forklift operator, Razec had fallen on hard times and was experiencing homelessness and displaying the typical cardboard sign.

The real estate broker returned with a different sign and paid Razec $25 a day to show it to the public instead. It read, “No need for your cash! I’m sponsored by Joe Manzaneres!” and gave the businessman’s contact information.

Subsequently, Manzaneres also helped out with clothes, haircut, cell phone, and resume creation. Unfortunately, we don’t know more about either the individual fate of Chris Razec or what happened with Joe Manzaneres’s idea of asking the mayor’s office and the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless to begin some type of one-on-one sponsorship program.

Also in Denver, Purple Door Coffee is an espresso shop that employs “teens and young adults who have been homeless and want to leave homelessness behind.” The interesting thing about their website is the page containing profiles of and interviews with the employees. It really radiates conviction that people’s lives are indeed changing.

From Dothan, Alabama, journalist Matt Elofson described a plan that might help a few people in a state that many consider, social policy-wise, to be very backward. He wrote:

Ken Tuck, the president of Love in Action International Ministries, said they’re planning to open the former Dakota Coffee Works cafe and make it a self-sustaining business by helping train homeless people to run the business…

Tuck grew up in the restaurant business… He said the coffee shop will serve breakfast and lunch. He also said the coffee shop will have a meeting room, and will include a stage for live entertainment and worship nights.

The goal is to provide job training and actual paying work for people experiencing homelessness. Ken and Martha Tuck plan to also teach such life skills as budget planning and how to handle a job interview. Meanwhile, they are holding yard sales, trying to raise at least $250,000 in startup funding.

If a business like this can find its footing, who knows how many people it might help? But it is never easy. A similar project began in 2014 in Fort Collins, Colorado, when RedTail Coffee joined with the city and a local not-for-profit organization to open a coffee shop inside the South Transit Center, a large and fancy new bus transportation hub.

The intention was to only hire people experiencing homelessness. Toward the end of 2015 one of the proprietors, Cailte Kelley, wrote:

We struggled but eventually we figured it out. The people we needed appeared, the opportunities appeared, and with no money, no experience, we put the pieces together…

We’re a small shop, run by my incredible sister-in-law Kelly, with 3 employees with a fourth about to be hired. Two of our employees have found permanent housing and are well on their way to piecing their lives back together.

The food and drink selections were varied and the prices reasonable, but somehow RedTail Coffee didn’t catch on. The transit hub lies well back from the main road, close to nothing but a recreational bike trail, and populated by folks waiting as long as an hour for their transfer buses. It seems like they would be a captive clientele.

But people who ride city buses often can’t spare even a couple of dollars for snacks. Bike trail users are trying to work off calories, not ingest them. And in that location, the little shop certainly was not a “destination.” Only a few months later, it closed without fanfare.

So these efforts have either helped a handful of people, or tried to, or hope to very soon. Sometimes that’s all a person can do, and there is nothing wrong with a small project. But some critics will try to float the idea that unpopular change should exclusively be made by individuals who care about that particular issue, and that those changes are not the responsibility of the country as a whole to endorse, support, or finance. This last paragraph by a writer named Rich Tafel reminds us that, magnanimous as they are, individual efforts are not enough, and need to be backed up by public programs and laws:

Real world problems usually result from a broken ecosystem, and solutions most often require some kind of change to the rules…

Starfish throwing, like charity, isn’t a bad thing, but it is not a solution. When we confuse charity and justice, we perpetuate injustice. True world change requires more of its leaders. We must have the courage to work within our complex systems to change the rules.

Reactions?

Source: “Denver real estate broker hires homeless to help them and his business,” WTKR.com, 01/03/14
Source: “Purple Door Blog,” PurpleDoorCoffee.com, August 2016
Source: “Homeless employees to operate ministry’s downtown Dothan coffee shop,”
DothanEagle.com, 09/03/16
Source: “The Greatest Thing I’ve Ever Done,” Opportunities-fc.com, 11/12/15
Source: “Social Entrepreneurs Must Stop Throwing Starfish,” Ssir.org, 03/20/12
Photo credit: Matt J Newman via Visualhunt/CC BY-SA

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School-Age Kids Experiencing Homelessness

kids-getting-off-school-busLast week, House the Homeless noted that, across America, some 3% of public school students are experiencing homelessness. Sometimes it seems like we mainly hear about happenings in New York and California, because they are the big states representing the East Coast and the West Coast, so they appear important. Today, we look at some news stories, all published within the past year, from states that don’t get as much attention.

This very recent one says it all in the headline: “There are 29,537 homeless kids in Arizona public schools.” Just for reference, the smallest-size football stadiums that Wikipedia bothers to list are 30,000-seaters, so these kids would just about fill one of those. Journalist Michael Hughes characterizes these children as…

[…] young outcasts who, through no fault of their own, have entered a world of motels, doubled-up quarters with relatives, a life on the streets or emergency shelter.

Also, before the recession, there were fewer than 20,000. The greedy and irresponsible financial tricksters who caused that meltdown have a lot to answer for, and the consequences of their misdeeds will linger for generations to come. Safe, affordable housing is the very bedrock necessary for an educated and conscious population.

While the Arizona homeless student total only increased by 50% since the recession, another state has seen a 100% increase. “Number enrolled in Arkansas schools doubles in 10 years,” the headline says. That may sound like an impressive rate of increase over a decade, but in the city of Lexington, Kentucky, it took only three years for the homeless student population to double.

A study by the Lexington Fair Housing Council determined, to no one’s surprise, that “elementary schools with the highest percentage of homeless students were ranked much lower in overall academic performance.” The Fayette County Schools Superintendent expressed disappointment that the Council’s report didn’t offer more answers, saying:

Speaking not as a superintendent, but as an individual who experienced housing insecurity and food insecurity as a child, I implore the council to look at the root causes of homelessness in our community and develop bold recommendations to create a safety net for our families and children.

However, the director of the Homeless Prevention and Intervention Office told the press that although he and the others in the homeless provider community had tried to meet with Superintendent Manny Caulk, “that meeting has not yet happened.” No doubt this same scenario of unscheduleable meetings is being played out all over the country in large cities and small towns.

Kentucky as a whole, incidentally, could fill another of those 30,000-seat football arenas with homeless students. But the state of Washington has them beat, with 35,000 enrolled in public schools, and as for how many others are wandering around, unbeknownst to authorities, that is anybody’s guess.

We have all heard of the McKinney-Vento Act and how much it is supposed to help. But…

Public schools in Kent get no money from McKinney-Vento because the available funds are distributed through a competitive grant process… That means the district spends “thousands and thousands” out of pocket for staff and transportation required by the act.

Just 24 of 295 school districts in Washington received McKinney-Vento money for a three-year period starting in 2013.

In Boston, Massachusetts, during this school year nearly 4,000 students are without homes. With the city’s average apartment rent at $2,300, this is not an astonishing outcome. Nor is it likely to change any time soon, unless serious action is taken.

Obviously, there are quite a few more states we didn’t even get to today. An important aspect to remember is, these tallies don’t even include “unaccompanied youth” who should be enrolled in school, but aren’t. They are mostly, as the old expression has it, “in the wind.” They are easily ignored now, but during the decades of adulthood that lie before them, far too many of those kids will give us reason to regret not looking out for them or taking better care of them.

Reactions?

Source: “There are 29537 homeless kids in Arizona public schools,” AZCentral.com, 09/04/16
Source: “Homeless kids fly under radar; number enrolled in Arkansas schools doubles in 10 years,” ArkansasOnline.com, 09/26/16
Source: “Student homelessness in Lexington nearly doubles over three years,” Kentucky.com,08/07/16
Source: “With 35,000 homeless youth in public schools, state lawmakers seek money to help,” SeattleTimes.com, 02/15/16
Source: “Nearly 4,000 students are homeless as start of school approaches,” WCVB.com, 08/15/16
Photo credit: K.W. Barrett via Visualhunt/CC BY

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For Children and Youth, a Couch Is Not a Home

leith-walk-elementary-schoolThe number of public school students experiencing homelessness has doubled since the recession, over a number that was already too large. Now, an estimated 3% of public school kids are homeless, which is of course an average. Depending on the city and state, it varies wildly.

These words are from Lyndsey Layton and Emma Brown:

The impact is profound on public schools, which struggle to try to address the needs of homeless children. Teachers often find themselves working not only to help children learn but also to clothe them, keep them clean and counsel them through problems — including stress and trauma — that interfere with classroom progress.

Transportation is another issue that teachers find themselves dealing with. School districts have different rules about who has to be taken where, and when and how. The parents of homeless children may not have a car, and anyway they are expected to be either working or looking for work. Kids need school supplies. They need a table somewhere to do their homework on. Mostly, they need stability and peace of mind.

The Homeless Children and Youth Act was introduced in January of 2015. Its point was to expand the official Dept. of Housing and Urban Development’s definition of homelessness on behalf of an estimated million kids and their families, whose lives would be affected. The website of California Senator Dianne Feinstein describes the proposed legislation in detail.

Access to federal housing programs is complicated by confusion among governmental entities over what constitutes homelessness. Sen. Feinstein gives two examples of the results, applicable to her own state and another:

In California, 259,656 children experienced homelessness last year, while HUD counted only 25,094 households that included at least one child as homeless. Due to the narrow HUD definition, only one in 10 homeless children in California is eligible for federal housing programs.

In Ohio, 23,748 children experienced homelessness last year, while HUD counted only 4,714 households that includes at least one child as homeless. Due to the narrow HUD definition, only one in five homeless children in Ohio is eligible for federal housing programs.

One in five is a best-case scenario? That’s crazy. And it doesn’t even mean the family will find housing — only that it is eligible to apply. The National Network for Youth website is a trove of information about the Homeless Children and Youth Act, and their page includes simple instructions for writing to the appropriate members of congress.

One interesting bullet point states that the HCYA…

Prohibits HUD from overriding local communities. Local service providers are the best equipped to evaluate which homeless populations have the greatest unmet needs.

Basically, one aim of the bill is to encourage the federal government to trust local agencies and take their word for it that someone is homeless. Briefly, some of the other sections concern data collection, reporting requirements, and transparency; and simplification of documentation needed to prove eligibility for housing programs.

That documentation requirement is frightening. Imagine a woman going back to the violent husband she escaped from at great risk. “Excuse me, would you mind writing a letter stating that we left because you brutalized me and two of our three children?” Good luck with that.

To learn exactly and in detail why the current rules are problematic, this page explains it fully. We learn from the U.S. Congress website that, despite the fact that 400 organizations are on board with support of the bill, the last action taken was its referral to the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs in January of last year.

In April of 2015 the U.S. Senate Appropriations Transportation, Housing & Urban Development Subcommittee held a hearing on HUD’s Efforts to Prevent & End Youth Homelessness, at which singer Cyndi Lauper related how she was a homeless teen who found a doorway back into society through a youth hostel that helped her earn a high school diploma.

She also said:

We can end youth homelessness in America, but we have to get to the root of the problem. Our country must invest in preventing kids from becoming homeless in the first place, and this is an area of focus that has largely been ignored. That means helping families. It means fixing our broken child welfare system, our flawed juvenile justice system, and our schools. Each one of those places can be a doorway to homelessness or to a better future.

The “Kids 4 Kids Sake” video

House the Homeless urges everyone to watch the video “Kids 4 Kids Sake” and share it with the candidates who are running for president! In fact, please do what you can to bring it to the attention of all candidates for everything, anywhere. Tweet it, share on via social media, contact the candidates directly, and ask your friends to do the same.

Reactions?

Source: “Number of US homeless students has doubled since before the recession,” WashingtonPost.com, 09/14/15
Source: “Homeless Children and Youth Act: A Couch is Not a Home,” NN4yYouth.org, undated
Source: “Bill Introduced to Expand Housing Programs to 1 Million Children, Families,” Senate.gov, 01/27/15
Source: “Current Law and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Regulations Deny Homeless Children and Youth the Help They Need Now,” HelpHomelessKidsNow.org, 02/03/15
Source: “Homeless Children and Youth Act of 2015,” Congress.gov, 01/27/15
Source: “Written Testimony of Cyndi Lauper,” Senate.gov, 04/29/15
Photo credit: Maryland GovPics via Visualhunt/CC BY