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Homeless Tropes and Archetypes

graffiti-and-pile-of-stuffThere are reasons why a reporter chooses a certain individual for the “Face of Homelessness” type of article, just as there are reasons for picking the ideal subject for a “Face of Single Motherhood” story or a “Face of Traumatic Brain Injury” story. Last week, House the Homeless looked at a long profile written by John Flynn and Matt Kramer of Sacramento.

Their subject was Russell Bartholow, a Native American man who had been homeless for 15 years after a series of familial, medical and legal misfortunes. Russell had collected, at that time, 190 citations related to his lack of a permanent abode.

The things that happened to him as a person experiencing homelessness are typical of the experiences of many other homeless people. He had lost all his teeth. On the streets, he had been severely beaten several times, and once was set on fire, which resulted in a long, painful, and expensive (to the taxpayers) hospital stay.

A basic absence of justice

Homeless people are told to get jobs if they expect to eat, and told to stop begging and to quit trying to live off the fat of the land, and to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and so on and so forth. Not only are they blamed for their condition, but when they attempt to better themselves they are punished for it.

For instance, Russell Bartholow decided to feed himself by planting a garden. At a 2015 press conference publicizing the (unsuccessful) Right to Rest Act, he told a crowd at the State Capitol building about this foray into self-reliance. The writers quote him:

I had a beautiful garden, spent two-and-a-half years growing it. They came in and poisoned it with herbicide. Destroyed it.

How have we managed to create a world where growing food is illegal? Aside from all the other obvious and blatant absurdities of this stance, there is the hypocrisy issue. How can society yell about jobs — as if getting one were so easy — and berate people experiencing homelessness, and then prosecute those same people for growing food to feed themselves?

It was not his best-ever decision, but, Bartholow decided to eat the remaining vegetables, and fell sick. He believes the chemicals gave him cancer, though he might have already had it. While hospitalized, he saw his niece’s name in the local newspaper and reached out to her. In February of 2015, they met, and Jessica Bartholow became an advocate.

Flynn and Kramer describe how she turned things around:

Jessica had to overturn official government records declaring Russell deceased. She then got to work securing Russell a birth certificate, an identification card, a cellphone, Supplemental Security Income, health insurance and a spot at a methadone clinic.

There, he met an old friend who needed a roommate, giving Russell a place to live after shelters and hotels had turned him down due to lack of space and/or Russell’s lack of paperwork. He made friends on Facebook and reconnected with his son, Kieran.

“It was a couple months of advocacy, just a couple of hours at a time,” Jessica said of that period. “It didn’t take that much to find somebody a home and dignity and safety.”

She did not stop with helping her uncle, but became an activist for the Right to Rest legislation. Russell Bartholow also became a signature gatherer, but lived his remaining months in fear and uncertainty. There were still dozens of active warrants out on him, mostly for failure to appear in court to face various accusations, such as sleeping in the wrong place.

In this way, he was like many other people experiencing homelessness, who avoid contact with authorities because once they are “in the system,” who knows what negative details might turn up?

Before Bartholow had spent even two years indoors, cancer claimed him. His son came to say goodbye. While the Right to Rest law failed, California had just passed its Right to Die law, and in October of 2016 he took enough pain medication to avoid waking up again.

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Source: “Sacramento’s $100,000 homeless man,” NewsReview.com, 02/16/17
Photo credit: Bill Benzon (STC4blues) via Visualhunt/CC BY-SA

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“Face of Homelessness” Journalism

leopard-blanket-homeless-person-sleepingHere is an electrifying sentence from a long-form piece by John Flynn and Matt Kramer:

During overnight storms last month, two homeless people died on City Hall property, elevating Sacramento’s humanitarian debate to a national level.

Later, Courtney Collins, daughter of one of the deceased men, testified before the city council:

I was terrified to find out about the very legal confiscation of blankets, sleeping bags and other sources of warmth and shelter for those living on the streets by the police… I have been unraveling truths so ugly, it feels impossible to go up against such a monstrous system.

This current and ongoing crisis in the state capitol of California was seen by Flynn and Kramer as a fitting occasion to tell the story of another homeless man, an activist who once spoke to a crowd from the steps of the Capitol building. This genre of news story is known as “putting a human face on” a tragedy — in this case, homelessness. The face they chose was that of Russell Bartholow, who is also deceased, although not one of those who died during the storm.

His history, like many others, should be a wake-up call for people who don’t believe that homelessness could ever be their fate. It is no exaggeration to say that millions of Americans are one paycheck away from living on the streets.

Russell Bartholow’s biography

The writers go back to their subject’s childhood, when he was the last of 60 foster children sheltered by Gertrude Bartholow, who legally adopted him. His niece Jessica remembers him as “beyond normally brilliant” in math and science.

In high school, the Native American youth was kicked in the head in a racially motivated incident. As House the Homeless readers well know, an astonishingly high proportion of people experiencing homelessness suffer from traumatic brain injury.

Bartholow spent some years as a single man, then married and had a son, then returned to his childhood home to care for his adopted mother and her husband. “But in 2000,” the writers say, “he was arrested for a drug-related offense.” The particular crime is not specified, but in general, this fact is another proof of the counterproductive nature of the War on Some Drugs and All Adults.

It was only serious enough to put him in jail for a month — during which his parents died and relatives sold the home. Once released, living with his wife and son was apparently no longer an option, and Bartholow began his 15-year residence beneath a bridge.

Flynn and Kramer wrote:

Like thousands of others in Sacramento County, once he found himself on the streets, he entered an alternate reality where the government couldn’t hear him; where those supposed to help instead focused on erasing his existence; and where the only permanent home the county offered him was in jail. It’s a system that feeds on absurdity, in which homelessness can cost more than a Midtown loft and survival is a crime.

Soliciting, panhandling and sleeping are some of the activities forbidden to unhoused citizens of Sacramento. Bartholow was cited 190 times, sometimes twice in one day, for these offenses, with the police often acting like inundating him with legal problems was all a big game. Technically, he owed more than $100,000 in fines.

The taxpayers paid to host him for more than 100 days in jail. His biography continues:

Though a full 132 of Russell’s cases were either dismissed or had their fines waived, there were other costs. Being in jail caused Russell to miss appointments to obtain government assistance, as part of eight attempts over 13 years to get money for which he qualified due to the lingering effects of the brain injury, which he believed contributed to paranoia and drug addiction. To pay for living expenses and fines, Russell turned to panhandling or selling flowers — which only led to more arrests.

The speech Bartholow gave in February of 2015 promoted the adoption of a Right to Rest Act, The No Sit/No Lie Ordinance and the Americans with Disabilities Act. But the effort failed, and many activities associated with homelessness remained criminalized, partly because politicians have a habit of ignoring the most basic truths about what is going on out there.

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Source: “Sacramento’s $100,000 homeless man,” NewsReview.com, 02/16/17
Photo credit: Mick Baker via Visualhunt/CC BY-ND

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The War Against Ourselves

austin-police-departmentNot long ago, Thomas Johnson of MimesisLaw.com published a piece called “How Does it Feel Winning the War Against the Homeless?” He sees an ongoing assault against the poor, waged by cops who increasingly act as private security forces for the wealthy elite class.

This is especially offensive because a myth, vigorously promoted in certain parts of the culture, portrays the police as victims. To them Johnson says:

When you spend your time kicking the homeless around and arresting people for trying to serve them some food, you’ve gone far off your mission of fighting crime. You’re no hero.

As House the Homeless has also done, Johnson mentions cities where folks have been arrested and/or fined for feeding people experiencing homelessness. He admits that members of the police force don’t make the laws — although evidence shows that, in a sense, they do.

Word on the street has it that police unions and prison guard unions wield far more lobbying power than they ought to, in areas that directly affect the creation and enforcement of laws (like mandatory minimum sentencing). In particular, they work hard to escalate the War on Some Drugs and Most Adults.

The thought experiment

The writer takes his readers on an imaginary journey reminiscent of two different Michael Douglas movies. In Falling Down, a tie-wearing professional abandons his car on the freeway and walks through Los Angeles, quickly devolving into a one-man death squad. In The Game, a man is drawn into a mysterious live-action role-playing game in which he believes he has lost everything, with equally homicidal results.

Those are fictitious characters, but Johnson asserts that any mayor, city councilperson, banker, real estate developer, or law enforcement officer (stripped of uniform and equipment) would be similarly unhinged. The writer posits:

You are on the street, with only the possessions on your back. You have nothing, you are nobody. Maybe it’s your own fault. Maybe you’re innocent. Either way, you are sleeping outdoors tonight.

It is all too easy to imagine. A newly homeless person soon learns that sleeping is easier said than done. At the same time, there is little else to do. Few commercial establishments are open at night, and those that are do not want scruffy penniless bums hanging around.

After four or five days, your odor is decidedly pungent. Nobody cares about your sad story, especially not the police, of whom who you quickly learn to steer clear.

Taking the final step into degradation, you stake out a panhandling spot. The ruffian who claims that patch of sidewalk pushes you into an alley and hurts you badly. Soon, you’re digging through dumpsters for food that may or may not give you a case of salmonella poisoning, and you still haven’t hit bottom yet.

It is easy to agree with Johnson that an upper-class American, if dropped into the bad part of town with empty pockets and no resources, would soon go feral. He gives a description and a warning:

Welcome to your new mental state: A hazy mix of terror, stress and sleeplessness that will guide you to desperate acts and many poor decisions.

Smugly thinking it could never happen to you is wrong. Fortunes change.

Realize that it could be you out there and declaring war on those less fortunate will not make them go away…

Inspired by such thought experiments, many complacent Americans are able to experience a shift in consciousness. Attitudes adjust and activism amplifies. They come to believe that “Conditions need to change, because if not, the bad thing could happen to me some day.”

It is a start. But we should demand from ourselves something better than that — something a bit more akin to, “Conditions need to change because, in millions of lives, the bad thing has already happened.”

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Source: “How Does it Feel Winning the War Against the Homeless?,” MimesisLaw.com, 01/11/17
Image by Richard R. Troxell

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Mental Illness and Homelessness

homeless-person-sleepingRemember State Representative Tom Brower of Hawaii, who got headlines by destroying a bunch of shopping carts? In a followup story, Brower expressed only one regret: that some people had interpreted his berserker sledge-hammer rampage as an “attack on the homeless.” 

Apparently still puzzled about why anyone would think that, a couple of years later he was filming residents of a homeless camp without their permission, and some teenage boys asked him to delete the pictures he had taken, and he refused, and they roughed him up.

A short time later Brower told the press he was not angry, and would continue to stay “in touch with the community” in the same way. Two weeks after that, he decided to press charges against at least one of the youths. Apparently, voters are content with all this, as Brower was reelected again just three months ago.

Speaking of mental instability…

In a Nation of Change opinion piece, Prof. Carol Caton, whose expertise is in the sociomedical sciences, addressed the issue of Americans with severe mental illness. She proposed that the government would be foolish to defund what has proven to be “a cost-effective intervention that provides a solution to homelessness.”

What is this intervention? According to Caton:

Supportive housing, funded and coordinated by several different federal agencies and nonprofits, provides homeless people who have severe mental illness with housing coupled with treatment and support services.

Unlike the temporary respite provided by crisis shelters, it provides access to permanent housing, mental health treatment and support from mental health professionals to guide the adjustment from homelessness to stable residence in the community.

There is no increase in net public cost compared to street and shelter living… Cutting funds to house the homeless would cost us more money than it would save.

Those last two sentences are important. When something needs to be done about a harmful situation, humane reasons are very often insufficient. Several federal agencies provide funding to aid those who are both mentally ill and experiencing homelessness, and the taxpaying public needs to be reassured that the bottom line will not suffer. Fortunately, dedicated people and organizations keep close track of the numbers, and can verify the savings to the public wallet.

Supportive housing means less use of homeless shelters, psychiatric hospitals, or community hospital emergency rooms; less expenditure for legal aid and other costly public services; and certainly less criminal incarceration. The movement took hold in the early 1980s, and the journey has never been easy. Over a nine-year period ending in 2016, it helped reduce the particular category of homelessness known as “chronic” by 35%.

Still, there is a great shortage of supportive housing units, not nearly enough to fill the need, and the threat of losing the existing facilities is appalling. Significant funding comes from the departments of Housing and Urban Development, and Health and Human Services — or did, anyway, up until the next round of budget cuts. Four states pitch in some dollars, and so does the occasional county or city government. There are even charitable donations and a modicum of support from private foundations. Still, the prognosis is not good.

What next?

An estimated one-third of homeless people suffer from mental illness, “often compounded by multiple health problems and substance abuse.” At the mention of substance abuse, a segment of the public has the knee-jerk reaction of “Let them go, it’s no loss.” But moral judgments are not productive. The only difference between a rich alcoholic and a poor alcoholic is that one of them can afford rehab in Malibu.

Leaving aside the question of bad lifestyle choices, there actually are people who are too disabled to work for reasons they had nothing to do with causing. A person with shaken baby syndrome never had a chance. A veteran is very likely to suffer from traumatic brain injury. Do we want soldiers thinking they made a bad lifestyle choice?

Reactions?

Source: “Hawaii politician opens up about assault near homeless encampment: ‘I have no ill will to anyone’,” NYDailyNews.com, 07/03/15
Source: “How funding to house mentally ill, homeless is a financial gain, not drain,” NationOfChange.org, 05/10/17
Photo credit: J.RISTANIEMI via Visualhunt/CC BY-ND