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Holiday Spirit

frio-fame-homelessToday, in the holiday spirit, we concentrate on some good things. Mainly, there is still time to contribute to this year’s Thermal Underwear Drive sponsored by Austin’s House the Homeless, so please keep it in mind. Other than that, we collected a few stories of people who make a difference to America’s displaced persons.

In New York, the TimesUnion published the story of how a 10-year-old 5th-grader named Elizabeth Floud emptied her savings account to buy pizza for people staying at the Shelters of Saratoga. Reporter Wendy Liberatore relates how Elizabeth’s mother realized that $30 wouldn’t be enough for 40 people, and took it to the next level:

So she started a gofundme page, Pizza for the Less Fortunate. She and Elizabeth aimed for $150, but attracted $585. Bucciero’s Pizza in Mechanicville heard of the drive and decided to donate all the pies.

That left $200 to give to the Shelters of Saratoga for future needs, with the remainder going to the food pantry of the local Community Center.

In Washington, D.C., two months ago, Floyd Carter met a married couple who decided to skip their usual Christmas gifts for each other and help Carter get a place to live after three years of homelessness.

Rachel and Erik Cox are both attorneys who understood the reality that a housing voucher, which Carter had already had for months, was worth nothing unless a landlord would actually rent him an apartment. Somehow they made that happen. Since becoming a housed person, Carter, whose ultimate goal is to become a chef, has received job offers that could be the initial ladder rungs to take him there.

West Coast

On the other side of the country, in Orange County, California, nurse Julia Cross was celebrated by the Orange County Register as one of its 100 most influential people. Cross is a licensed vocational nurse who makes rounds on her bicycle, covering a 40-mile route twice a week to visit homeless camps and give medical aid to those who are unable or unwilling to obtain it from other sources.

Along that stretch of the Santa Ana River, sometimes called “Skid River,” the already high number of people experiencing homelessness has grown by 500 over a very short time. Not surprisingly, veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts are among the residents.

Journalist David Whiting writes:

People here live without running water, electricity, heat. Some are mentally ill. Others are addicts. Many are both.

But listen patiently and you hear wisdom, reminders of how mortal we are; how a twist or turn can send any life on a spiral no one would want and some can’t escape…

Each person Cross treats […] has a unique and telling story filled with caution, struggle and, often, optimism.

Working through the nonprofit Illumination Foundation, the nurse not only dispenses first aid but works toward the end of homelessness. Earlier this year, the newspaper featured a long article about her activities, which include visits to the infamous Skid Row area of nearby Los Angeles.

Whiting quotes Julia Cross, daughter of a doctor who “never billed a patient who couldn’t afford it”:

I think the tide has to turn, that society has to embrace the concept that the healthier we are, the less cost there is to take care of the sick. Without adequate health care, the whole house of cards collapses.

Oh, and did we mention the Thermal Underwear Drive?

Reactions?

Source: “10-year-old gives up savings to feed homeless,” TimesUnion.com, 12/22/16
Source: “Homeless man gets new home thanks to couple who forfeited their own Christmas for him,” KLEWtv.com, 12/23/16
Source: “Most Influential 2016: Julia Cross is a nurse who helps the homeless,” OCRegister.com, 12/24/16
Source: “Nurse makes her rounds at an unusual place — a homeless camp by the Santa Ana River,” OCRegister.com, 05/12/16
Photo credit: fotografar via Visualhunt/CC BY-SA

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Winter Holidays

resting-marinesWe will not attempt to pluck at the reader’s heartstrings with reminders of how many children in America are having a lousy winter holiday season, with no chimney for Santa to descend, or any cultural equivalent of that gift-expectancy concept. Why not make the holidays a big deal? Because the plight of the homeless is not just a seasonal accessory, like nutmeg. Rotten things happen to people every day of the year.

But let’s start with some good news. “It was the right thing to do.” People think that a lot, and sometimes they are correct. John Stewart, San Francisco’s chief judge, explained to the press how it is time to stop locking people up for their inability to pay fines, especially for crimes connected with the fact that they are experiencing homelessness.

Whitney Webb introduces the story by noting that…

In cities around the country, the homeless are frequently criminalized, as are those who offer them food and other forms of human kindness…

Many of these arrest warrants were for so-called “quality of life” crimes, which include sleeping on sidewalks or public places, urinating in public, and public drunkenness…

San Francisco Superior Court judges stopped issuing arrest warrants for these “quality of life” crimes. Not only that, but the judges also threw out over 66,000 arrest warrants…

The police union objected, of course. Without crime they would be out of a job. Lucky for them (if not for us), there is little danger of a crime shortage. The main problem is, fines are assessed against people who do these “quality of life” crimes. If the fines are not paid, the people are jailed, which costs the city money, and what’s the point? In some places, the authorities smarten up and spend the money on portable toilets instead.

Webb says:

Though the city’s judges have shown great compassion in dismissing the cases against the city’s homeless, it will take much more for the problem of the San Francisco’s epidemic of homelessness to disappear.

By way of contrast, here are some brief highlights from a story told in great detail by Emily Green for StreetRoots.org. It took place in Portland, Oregon. Jackie, as she is pseudonymously known, has muscular dystrophy and receives disability checks, and is on several affordable-housing waiting lists.

In the area known as Old Town, she saw a man charging his cellphone from an outlet on a decorative planter, and joined him. They both were accused of third-degree theft, a Class C misdemeanor. Jackie’s Public Defender calls this move “another example of resources wasted for frivolous offenses.” Green writes:

According to the Electrical Research Institute, it costs about 25 cents a year to charge the average mobile phone. If the phone in this scenario had gone from zero charge to full charge, the cost would have amounted to mere fractions of a penny.

But it’s the principle of the thing, right? Stealing is stealing, right?

Do we want to go down that path? Do we want to return to the grotesque days when stealing bread could get your hand cut off? If Jackie were convicted of theft, it would be assumed by anyone who knew about it that she had snatched a purse or shoplifted. Even if a kind person were interested enough to ask what the crime had been, would they really believe anyone could be prosecuted for taking a tiny fraction of a cent’s worth of electricity?

Even worse, Jackie would have to go back and revise all those housing applications and check the “yes” box on the criminal history question. Her case went to Community Court, where she missed her arraignment, which resulted in a bench warrant. When Jackie surrendered, she was briefly booked into jail.

No, she’s not the perfect defendant, but the reader is taken through the unbelievable complications of a situation that just gets worse and worse. Jackie used to work in social services, and even sometimes with the police, but she has a different impression of them now.

One question that comes to mind is, before kindly providing indigent people with cellphones, did any government bureaucrat think for one second about how those indigent people would go about filling their phones with electrical power?

Why doesn’t some altruist figure out how to donate this incredibly cheap service of phone-charging? Does anyone really believe that a few cents worth of free electricity will encourage others to embrace the homeless lifestyle? It’s as if they’re afraid kids would hear about such a generous perk and say, “That’s the life for me!”

Reactions?

Source: “San Francisco Judges Dismiss 66000 Arrest Warrants Against The Homeless,” MintpressNews.com, 12/12/16
Source: “Homeless phone-charging ‘thief’ wanted security,” Streetroots.org, 03/06/15
Photo credit: Randy Robertson via Visualhunt/CC BY

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Austin Is All About HUGGS

huggsLike cars and sprinkler systems, people who live outdoors need to be winterized. For this, they need Hats; Underwear of the thermal variety; Gloves; Scarves, and Socks. (Also, rain ponchos, safety whistles, and 2-oz hand sanitizers, but there were a lot of initials already.)

At the annual HUGGS Thermal Underwear Party the guests are nourished by a hot lunch prepared by volunteers. The signup page specifies the time commitment for each volunteer role, along with a brisk, precise description of the task and its expectations.

Even if you don’t live within volunteering range of Austin, take a look, just to appreciate how a good online HQ for a project can change event organizing from a walk on the wild side to a walk in the park. It might even inspire others to put together similar events in their own local areas.

Another option would be to donate through the Thermal Underwear Drive page, which features a heartening photojournal. Also, some dimensions of the event are less visual. Chiefly, this is a chance for the voices of people experiencing homelessness to be heard in a way that conveys meaningful information to the rest of society.

The guests are offered the opportunity to participate in a brief yet remarkably detailed survey. The House the Homeless survey archive is a valuable resource for professionals and students alike, and at the same time perfectly understandable by casual readers.

The survey has a different topic every year. This time, it is the criminalization of homelessness, as that trend plays out in Austin, Texas. But let’s return to an indispensable item on the wish list, namely, socks. Here is a thought experiment, a virtual reality scenario, in which you have nowhere to go.

A minimalist world

But you do have a new pair of socks, which is a darn good thing because you have worn the current ones day and night for two weeks and they are due for retirement. The first order of business is to find a place to take off the old socks and put on the new ones. Even better would be a chance to wash your feet before making the change.

You know of a park that has a rudimentary restroom for picnickers and disk golfers. Of course right now the temperature is near freezing, and the inside of the restroom is no warmer than outside, but it does block the wind. The single basin gives out an anemic stream of icy water. The thought of sticking your naked foot beneath the faucet is horrifying. Besides, you would be in an awkward position, vulnerable to attack.

You could get something wet — your spare T-shirt, for example — and lean against the wall and take off one shoe and sock and wash that foot. You even have a towel. So you could use it to dry that foot, before putting on a new sock and then repeating the process with the other foot. The vulnerability issue would still apply.

At the end, you’d have a sopping wet T-shirt which, even after rinsing, would be pretty foul. And your towel. Just bundle it up damp, or rinse it, too, in the grudging trickle of water? Two wet items are going to affect the rest of the stuff in your pack, as well as its overall weight. Meanwhile, in the ghastly cold water your hands want to scream.

And what about the old socks? Wash them? You have a sliver of soap tucked away, but might, with any luck, at some point have a chance to use it on your body. So, no. Keep the socks, in hopes of some day stumbling into Laundry Heaven? Could you really consider putting those disgusting, bacteria-laden objects in your pack, along with everything else you own on earth?

Well, you do have a small plastic bag. But it’s a nice one, really clean, suitable to put food in, if you happen run across some. It would be a shame to waste it storing filthy socks. So, in full knowledge that you might regret it, you pitch the repulsive things in the trash.

THE SHORT VERSION: People experiencing homelessness need many socks, please. Not only now, but all year round.

Richard Troxell, President of House the Homeless, serves the ideal of a balanced and just society for all, including the least fortunate among us. He says:

It is all but criminal that in the richest country in the world, our businesses will pay wages (Federal Minimum Wage) and our government provide a stipend (Supplemental Security Income, SSI) for our disabled people, that are both so low, that 3.5 million people will experience homelessness again this winter.

House the Homeless is holding its 16th annual Thermal Underwear Drive on Friday, December 30, from 12:00 to 2:00 p.m., at the First Baptist Church, 901 Trinity Street, Austin, TX 78701.

Reactions?

Image by House the Homeless

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The Anti-Good Samaritan Bill

vintage-photograph-buildingThis spring in St. Louis, Missouri, an alderman proposed a bill that would effectively criminalize the unlicensed giving of anything to homeless people. Such items as blankets and bottled water could only be distributed if the giver had a vending license.

Reverend Larry Rice, of the city’s New Life Evangelical Center (NLEC), called this the Anti-Good Samaritan Bill, saying:

It’s wrong. It’s a fraud the way they’re going at this. People are hurting and they should not penalize, nor criminalize, either the homeless or those who want to help the homeless.

NLEC was founded in 1972, its first home the trailer where Rev. and Mrs. Rice lived. Later, it occupied a Victorian fixer-upper, and featured a coffeehouse, guitar music, and puppet shows. It also nurtured the people Rice called “the hurting and the homeless.” When the couple’s first child was due to be born any day, they learned about adversity firsthand:

When Penny went to the clinic to see about her rash and her swollen legs, they wouldn’t accept her because I didn’t make a regular income.

Before long, the NLEC offered not only emergency housing, but help hotlines, free clothing stores, counseling services, a youth center, classes, a leadership training program, and two publications, and did outreach work with penal institutions, hospitals, and the like. They were able to buy the old YWCA on Locust Street, the five-story building in which the Center still resides (pictured on this page.)

In the ensuing 40 years, increasing downtown gentrification has made the NLEC’s presence undesirable. Apparently a bar called Blood & Sand is particularly resentful. Developers, investors, and speculators see the Mission as standing between them and their own mission of gaining greater wealth. But ironically, for many of the neighbors it would be silly to say “Not in my backyard” because technically the area has been the NLEC’s backyard since 1976.

Generally, 50 or so people would actually live at the center, which presented a problem because the occupancy permit was for only 32 beds. Authorities claim that as many as 300 street people sleep there at night, and Rice admits to around 200. The city tried to close the NLEC in the spring of 2015, with the mission’s attorneys arguing that the city must not be allowed to repress the carrying out of religious duties.

Another attempt

Last month, another effort was made to displace the NLEC. The city’s Department of Human Services spokesperson Eddie Roth explained to reporter Elliott Davis that the institution is close to the public library, a children’s park, and a school attended by least 500 teenagers. Even though police conduct surveillance of the area from parked cars for 16 hours a day, the Mission’s presence is seen as posing unacceptable dangers.

Roth said all the city’s other “dozens of facilities” conduct their affairs in a way that is respectful to their neighbors. What he characterizes as a lack of respect is the way NLEC donors hold up traffic while dropping off loads of clothes and food, especially on Saturday mornings.

Meanwhile, an online petition objecting to Bill 66, the “Anti- Good Samaritan Law,” garnered 1,500 supporters. The measure was supposed to have been voted on in September, but the official government web page mentions no activity beyond the first reading in May.

The attempted November shutdown of NLEC did not happen. Plans were made for the Thanksgiving dinner that feeds around 400 people each year, prepared and served by 100 or so volunteers, who also give out free clothes. The police were ordered to prevent donations from being dropped off for the Thanksgiving dinner and clothing distribution.

City spokesperson Roth also charged that the NLEC acts as a magnet to draw homeless people from the entire region into central St. Louis where they are given shelter for a month and then turned loose on the streets, increasing the burden on the city’s other homeless services.

We close with a few cogent points made by Bill McClellan in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

Officials have asked members of the St. Louis Homeless Services Network if they could pick up the slack if the city were to close Rice’s New Life Evangelistic Center. The answer has been, no, we could not pick up the slack.

Rice […] provides an indispensable service, and he does so without public money.

If you’re a homeless man and you call the city’s Homeless Hotline […] you will likely be directed to New Life. Yes, the city regularly refers people to the shelter it has voted to close.

Reactions?

Source: “Proposed bill would require a permit before giving to homeless,” KMOV.com, 07/06/16
Source: “Chapter 4 — Building the New Community,” NewLifeEvangelisticCenter.org, undated
Source: “Police stop donations in front of St. Louis homeless shelter on Thanksgiving,” Fox2now.com, 11/28/16
Source: “McClellan: City’s Vote to Close Shelter Was a Gift for Rice,” Questia.com, 12/28/14
Image by NLEC