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Individuals Making a Difference

homeless-sleeping-by-bookstoreLast week, House the Homeless considered the activities of Pastor Kelly Boyd of Eugene, Oregon, who brings together givers and people who need things. By running for city council, he combines the faith-based approach with the political approach.

In some states of the union, earnest people have a better chance to thrive among progressive-minded neighbors. In other locales, a different social climate produces different results.

There is a growing tendency to criminalize, or at least seriously impede, grassroots activism and individual efforts. It’s as if the government has a split personality, and wants to both ignore the root causes of homelessness, and at the same time own and control everything about homelessness.

The same mindset prompts humans to murder their domestic partners who want to leave. “If I can’t have you, nobody else can either.” The government seems to be saying, “I can’t or won’t do very much for you, but I’m going to make sure nobody else will, either.”

A great philosopher once said that what every person really wants is to make a difference. All over America, individuals are trying to do that in the area of homeless relief. At the same time, penalizing the helpers has become a thing.

One ongoing story happens in Madison, Wisconsin. Brenda Konkel, executive director of the Tenant Resource Center, used to let as many as six people sleep on the porch of the home she shares with Robert Bloch. The couple also fitted out the porch with a dozen locker-room-style storage units for their guests to use.

The city threatened to fine them $300 a day. Journalist Pat Schneider wrote of Konkel, who used to be a city council member:

She worked with members of Occupy Madison a couple of years ago as they tried without success to get city approval to erect a homeless encampment and was instrumental in the group’s success in getting zoning approval for a village of “tiny houses” now under construction on the city’s east side.

Robert Bloch told the reporter that there had only been one police visit to the porch-sleepers, when an ambulance had to be called for a medical emergency. He also said, “The system is not working.”

The homeowners were granted time extensions, but were warned again two months later to clear the porch. The absence of sleepers was not enough, the city wanted the lockers gone too. This was not the activist’s only battle over storage. Tony Galli wrote:

Konkel says the problem of finding places to store the valuables of people who are homeless was highlighted this week, when county facility staff members removed more two dozen large plastic bags of belongings from Madison city hall. Konkel and other advocates for the homeless returned the bags to city hall, and facility officials say they will allow them to remain stacked on the building’s porch, as long as they are not unattended.

Another Konkel effort is toward establishing a day center to meet the needs of people experiencing homelessness. A location has been proposed but, not surprisingly, someone challenged it in court.

A local blogger uses cruel labels and accuses Konkel of being anti-police.This is apparently because she contradicts the mayor’s claims that the city needs somewhere between 13 and 361 additional police officers. She used to sit on the Police Staffing committee, before the department banned anyone, including City Council members, from collaborating on those decisions. Brenda Konkel is still an activist, advocate, and writer about homelessness in Madison.

Reactions?

Source: “Brenda Konkel could be fined for allowing homeless to sleep on her porch,” Madison.com, 09/18/14
Source: “Advocate’s lockers for the homeless must go,” WKOW.com, 11/14/14
Source: “We need 13-361 New Police Officers?,” ForwardLookout.com, 01/05/17
Source: “Tonight! Evictions & Homelessnes,” ForwardLookout.com, 01/10/17
Photo credit: John Benson (ibm4381) via Visualhunt/ CC BY

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Back to the Grassroots in Eugene, Oregon

eugene-oregonOne school of thought believes that funneling all help, and all the helped, through official channels should be the only permissible route. In some places, that philosophy goes even further, to a conviction that anyone who says, “No, thank you” to a solution the government insists on, becomes totally undeserving of help from any source.

Some, like Kelly Boyd of Eugene, Oregon, want to see the giving spirit flourish at the most grassroots, person-to-person level. Soon after moving to town, he filled the bed of his pickup truck with clothes and blankets, and attached to the tailgate a sign that said, “Get One, Give One.”

It wasn’t long before the Ordinance Enforcement Office left a business card and a warning. Anthony Kustura reported:

The note said Boyd must stop putting things in the back of the truck because he is in violation of city code.

The City says Boyd is creating a “liveability impact” and that neighbors complained about finding trash in the street.

Four months later, Boyd was running (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) for a City Council seat. He told local TV station KMTR that aside from the “Get One, Give One” truck, other individual efforts were being squelched. His number-one issue is homelessness, of which he says city officials take an “archaic view.”

Boyd advocates a more organic approach, encouraging citizens to individually help each other. He is sensitive to the fact that many people experiencing homelessness do not want to call on official resources — for what they consider good and sufficient reasons — and their opinions about the matter ought to be respected.

Also, he wants the city to keep a more careful eye on things like cost overruns for public projects, but is not against taxing or spending:

Instead of having boutique taxes to take care of various needs, go ahead and build a groundswell of increased jobs, increased pay, so that there is a greater tax base in our area so that there is a constant resource and income for our city budget.

This facet of Boyd’s platform is interesting because it resonates with the success story of Oklahoma City, whose mayor convinced it to pass an across-the-board sales tax, and a strong case can be made that this move actually blossomed into citywide revitalization.  As always, things are relative and situational. For instance, while a groundswell of increased jobs might sound attractive, many cities have found to their regret that letting a prison or a pollution-producing industry move in can have its drawbacks.

And yet, there is always a tradeoff. The City of Eugene said that people in the neighborhood complained about the trash left behind after the freebie truck’s visits. This is speculation, but it seems as if a person who provides such a service would, could, and should tidy up the area, and especially, would be able to recruit a helper or two in this task.

Boyd and his wife do their volunteer work inspired by their “greater calling, that the needs of all should be met.” In other words, it is a faith-based effort, and people with church-going backgrounds are well accustomed to the idea of helping out with the setup and the cleanup at communal activities.

Making it official

Presumably, this type of logistical methodology is what a City Council with a Boyd-like mindset could approve. They could make ordinances saying, “Go ahead and have your event, and take video with your cell phone of the cleanup process, and of the pristine area when you’re done. Then, shoot some footage of the volunteer crew dropping off the trash at the City’s designated spot.”

Looked at from another angle, in most cities, neighborhoods have things like block parties and coordinated garage sales. Parades, mob shopping days, sports events, and a lot of other happenings tend to leave behind debris. In some college towns, entire neighborhoods successfully impersonate slums. Depending on who causes it, a certain amount of urban mess is accepted. Somehow, everyone lives to party another day.

Also, it seems like a certain amount of selective reinforcement goes on, regarding outdoor group activities, which is all part of the criminalization of homelessness. For the authorities to suppress and even outlaw grassroots activism is counterproductive on many levels.

Reactions?

Source: “City tells man to stop placing items in truck for homeless to take,” NBC16.com, 01/28/16
Source: “Meet the candidate: Kelly Boyd runs for Eugene City Council Ward 1,” NBC16.com, 04/02/16
Source: “A City Refurbished for Health,” Childhood Obesity News, 01/20/17
Photo credit: eddiecoyote via Visualhunt/ CC BY

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What Can We Expect?

marines-marathonIn “An Open Letter to the Trump Administration,” Richard R. Troxell, President of House the Homeless, asks the incoming group of public servants in Washington how they will help in several specific areas. Here, we elaborate on the areas of focus.

Jobs

One thing that could work is adjusting the minimum wage, but not in a one-size-fits-all way. House the Homeless is an advocate of the Universal Living Wage indexed to local housing costs. Here is a serious question: Where is new housing construction? We have been told that a free market works on the principles of supply and demand; that if a demand exists, someone will step up and supply it. So: Where are the affordable shelters needed desperately by many hundreds of thousands of Americans?

Of course, a detail-oriented skeptic will point out that “demand” consists of two elements: both the desire for something, and the ability to pay for it. And then someone else might say, “Plenty of people out there have government vouchers in their hands, ready to pay for shelter, and they can’t landlords who will rent to them. Why doesn’t this economic system work as advertised? To obtain better results, what needs to be tweaked?”

That person might also ask, “When a ton of jobs are needed, and a ton of housing is needed, why is it so hard to put it all together and get these people jobs — as the builders of housing? Why is it so hard to enable people to pay rent, by creating jobs for them in the construction trades?”

The skeptic: “Are you kidding? Homeless people are not trained to build things.”

The believer: “Neither are the volunteers who turn up to build houses with Habitat for Humanity. They sign on for this charitable effort through their churches, or the companies they work for. Yet somehow they manage to build perfectly habitable houses.”

Taxes

The Open Letter says:

Attack Taxpayer Waste: Address the short-comings of the Supplemental Security Income Stipend, SSI that will result in recipients being able to afford basic rental housing with the disability stipend they already receive.

Speaking of revenues collected by the federal government, last week the IRS announced that about 40 million families will receive their tax refunds late. Are these wealthy people with income streams so vast and complicated that the revenue agency will need several extra weeks to sort it all out, lest billions of dollars be allowed to escape the net?

No, they are low-income families, because imagine the horror if some taxpayer who claims the child tax credit or the earned income credit did their math wrong, and the government missed out on a few bucks. But that isn’t the worst part. IRS Commissioner John Koskinen told the Associated Press:

For most of these people it’s the biggest check they are going to get all year.

That fact should be a gigantic red flag. It suggests that the withholding system extracts too much from “most” of 40 million paychecks. Although the taxpayers eventually get it back, in the meantime, the government reaps the benefit of lots of little interest-free loans. A million here, a million there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.

Meanwhile, families struggle, and they borrow. Then, they pay interest on that debt, while at the same time the government is using their money for nothing. Now that we have all the computers and everything, it shouldn’t be so difficult to arrange for taxpayers to have the freedom to spend their own money when they earn it. It should be possible to fine-tune the science of withholding just a bit, so the tax refund isn’t “the biggest check they are going to get all year.”

Veterans

House the Homeless has an important relationship with Dr. Mark Gordon, who does the most outstanding work in treating Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). What is the tie-in with our stated topic? As it turns out, a large number of people experiencing homelessness are veterans, and many of them suffer from TBI. (Another large number of people experiencing homelessness, who are not veterans, also have TBI.) Bottom line, when a government asks or compels citizens to join the military, it incurs the obligation to help them deal with the personal consequences.


Source: “IRS to delay tax refunds for millions of low-income families,” AP.org, 01/10/17
Image by Marine Corps New York

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In Praise of Good Works

knit-hats-stacked-on-tableIt feels so good to recognize and celebrate heroes. Let’s keep that momentum going. First of all, right here in Austin, Texas, the 16th annual House the Homeless Thermal Underwear party took place on December 30, hosted by First Baptist Church.

The event supplied somewhere around 600 people with “winterizing” gear including thermal underwear, scarves, hats, gloves, ponchos, and safety whistles. There was a hot meal and a live band.

Fox7 TV news broadcast a segment with particularly interesting words from House the Homeless President Richard R. Troxell and volunteer Sherry Sampson. A second TV station, WKBN27, emphasized another aspect of the winter preparedness event, with the headline and subtitle:

“Advocacy group to examine ‘criminalization of homelessness'”

As House the Homeless prepared homeless individuals for winter, the organization was also surveying them about their interactions with police

They went into the matter in some depth, including an interview with Officer Shelly Borton, who works for the city’s Homelessness Outreach Team, “which is made up of two police officers, behavioral health specialists, a paramedic and a social worker.” Also, Richard discusses the repercussions on people’s lives when homelessness is criminalized, and people are cited for such violations as sitting in a public place:

If you’re an employer and you’ve got to decide who to employ and you’ve got somebody with no tickets here and somebody with 10 tickets that are criminal in nature, you’re going take the person without the tickets. It becomes a barrier for you to escape homelessness, even though you’re making every effort.

San Francisco was the source of a slightly offbeat story where the hero contributed not food or clothing, but an example of principled defiance. Last March a Department of Public Works employee declined to help tear down a makeshift dwelling. Instead, she filmed the sad demolition and added a commentary complete with salty language and encouragement to a co-worker to refuse also.

Her matter-of-fact attitude makes us forget that the Bay Area is a hard place to survive in, and the possibility of being fired is no joking matter. It takes courage to take a stand. A DPW spokesperson confirmed that…

To refuse could be construed as insubordination, and subject the employee to disciplinary action, dependent on the findings of a thorough and fair investigation…

The person who posted the 2:19 video to YouTube wrote:

I’ve been hearing about a number of DPW workers refusing to be a part of the injustice taking place on our streets right now.

This final story is not current, but it is timeless. World-renowned poet W. H. Auden was remembered by friends for his unwillingness to be seen doing a good deed. Edward Mendelson
described it as going out of his way to seem selfish, when in fact he was very generous. For instance, in the 1950s, Auden worked on a TV production where he demanded to be paid early and made a memorably unpleasant scene about it.

Later on, when the canceled paycheck made its way back to the accounting office, someone noticed that Auden had signed it over to a third person. The recipient was Dorothy Day, who ran the Catholic Workers homeless shelter in New York City, which the fire department was trying to close down. Auden’s contribution paid for the necessary repairs and safety updates to keep the shelter open.

Reactions?

Source: “Thermal Giveaway held in Austin to help the homeless get through winter with some warmth,” Fox7Austin.com, 12/30/16
Source: “Advocacy group to examine ‘criminalization of homelessness’,” WKBN.com, 01/01/17
Source: “San Francisco Worker Refuses To Help Tear Down Homeless Man’s Dwelling,” ThinkProgress.org, 03/09/16
Source: “The Secret Auden,” NYBooks.com, 03/20/14
Image by House the Homeless

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A School, and a Church, Helping

college-campus

Every now and then a story crosses the screen that is really different. “Why a Seattle Homeless Camp was Invited to University of Washington” — see what we mean? Seattle is that West Coast city where rain falls 150 days a year. On any given rainy night, about 4,500 people are sleeping outside, and not to roast marshmallows and swap ghost stories. (Close to 3,000 are in transitional housing, and more than 3,000 in shelters.)

A bunch of people live in Tent City 3, a community that resettles every three months in a different area (including two previous college campuses). This is not an ideal solution for anyone, but when frequent uprooting is done in an orderly way, it can take a lot of stress off both the housed and the unhoused. One way or another, Tent City 3 has survived as an entity for 15 years.

As described by the reporters, the residents seem hyper-aware of the need to be role models and proud representatives of the homeless population. Shamar Waters and Jon Schuppe wrote:

A large portion of the residents are older and disabled, but many others have regular jobs and help keep the camp running. The camps feature communal areas, including kitchens and showers, depending on the availability of electricity and running water.

The 10,000-square-foot encampment will spend one-fourth of the year in a campus parking lot because the kids asked for it. Students in eight different academic disciplines will be able to claim credit for participating in studies and activities involving people experiencing homelessness. About 100 students pitched in with the move-in chores.

The story doesn’t say whether any students objected, based on the parking space scarcity. But even that would be a learning experience, wouldn’t it? Imagine having to park the car (your parents probably bought) a bit farther from class. Compared to having nowhere to live, that is a negligible inconvenience, and a lot of kids would never admit being bothered by it. Imagine having to walk for a considerable distance, out in the weather, to get where you need to go. That’s the everyday reality for people experiencing homelessness.

In addition to the officially recognized educational benefits of interacting with tent-dwelling nomads, there are bound to be unofficial ones. Like when kids realize that if they don’t actively work toward some kind of reform to the college loan system, they could easily end up living in tents too.

Elsewhere

The state of Texas is often perceived as hostile to any number of diverse populations, but Brownwood disproves the stereotype. Just southwest of Dallas-Fort Worth, the city of about 20,000 is the county seat, and the features in and around it include Howard Payne University, a branch of the Texas State Technical College, a state park, a state juvenile correctional complex, a regional airport, and a U.S. Army training camp.

Actor Bob Denver came from Brownwood, and so did legendary burlesque queen Candy Barr, and an impressive list of other people who have made a mark on the world. Perhaps the biggest celebrity is New Beginnings Church, which for 10 years has functioned as the city’s only shelter.

Pastor Kelly Crenshaw says:

Sometimes people just need a day or two or a week or two to get on their feet. Sometimes they just need a little bit of time, once they get lost, to figure out what their next step is…

There are also long-term guests. From the larger community, food bank donations are received, along with blankets, scarves, and other items, which is generous in a place where the median household income is maybe $33,000.

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Recommended: “The Year in Review,” from House the Homeless

Also recommended: House the Homeless President Richard R. Troxell is interviewed by KXAN television journalist Kevin Schwaller in “Advocacy group to examine ‘criminalization of homelessness’

Reactions?

Source: “Why a Seattle Homeless Camp was Invited To University of Washington,” NBCNews.com, 12/21/16
Source: “Church Acts as Homeless Shelter in Brownwood,” BigCountryHomepage.com, 12/30/16
Photo credit: Joe Wolf (JoeInSouthernCA) via Visualhunt/CC BY-ND