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Housing Solutions Shunned and Ignored

Ace Backwords, who has written extensively on homeless issues, used to live in a single-room occupancy building (SRO) in Berkeley, California. Although he employs an inelegant synonym, that’s what he’s talking about here:

If they want to solve the homeless problem, one of the first things they need to do is start building thousands and thousands of flophouses. Cheap, little rooms with a bed and a sink in them, and a bathroom down the hall. Unfortunately, they’re a dying breed: flophouses. In fact, a couple months after I moved out of the one on 2nd Street, the phone company bought the building, paid off all the tenants a thousand bucks each to “re-locate” and then turned it into one more bland corporate office building.

In his book Looking Up at the Bottom Line, House the Homeless co-founder and President Richard R. Troxell fondly remembers SROs, of which the country used to have several million. Sometimes, in special cases, a collection of units in a hotel-like structure can be more than just a place to live. Richard describes Garden Terrace, Austin’s last SRO facility with supportive housing, where 85 residents lived semi-independently, with food and case management provided, for a nominal amount of rent. At the time, he said, “It is considered transitional housing, but no one can afford the housing to transition into.”

Richard reminisces about the YMCA, which still rents out rooms in some cities, but they all seem to have different rules. In one place, the nightly fee is $50; in another, a year’s minimum lease is required; and so on. But in the old days, says Richard:

On a nightly basis, you could lay down your $5 or $10 and get a decent, clean room with a place to stash your things, get up to an alarm clock, go down the hall in the morning to a shared bathroom, and then head off to work — showered, shaved, refreshed and ready to put in a full day’s work. You could chase the American Dream… Today, the YMCAs do not exist in any significant number.

One after another, SRO buildings fall, sometimes with a great deal of commotion. Truth-out writers Toshio Meronek and Andrew Szeto interviewed long-time activist Charlie Fredrick about the tumultuous events in San Francisco in the 1970s:

As the city closed and demolished many of its SROs, the International Hotel — which housed almost 150 low-income Chinese and Filipino seniors — became a symbol for the war between real estate interests and activists. Years of protest eventually sparked a court battle over whether city funds should go to buying the “I”-Hotel and handing it over to tenants groups, with the seniors being publicly supported by a range of high-profile left activist groups… Ultimately, the tenants of the “I”-Hotel lost the fight.

In 2014, there were still more than 500 SROs in San Francisco. Meronek and Szeto wrote about the Altamont, a hotel in the Mission District. Most of its rooms were rented long-term by people helped financially by HUD. The rooms (normally 11’x14′) were described as “barely larger than the size of a prison cell” with shared bathrooms and kitchens.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. A very large number of people do not want to own houses or condos. They don’t want to shovel snow, mow a lawn, redecorate the foyer, or even cook meals from scratch. They just want to carry out the basic activities of life in a clean and no-hassle space where all the utilities function. Unfortunately, housing developers only want to build more McMansions and fancy condominiums with fireplaces and hand-clap light switches.

Reactions?

Source: “Don’t Look Back,” WordPress.com, 07/19/14
Source: “Looking Up at the Bottom Line,” Amazon.com
Source: “Single-Room Occupancy Buildings: Last Bastion of Affordable Housing in San Francisco?,” Truth-out.org, 11/15/14
Photo by WalterPro on Visualhunt/CC BY

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Fining the Destitute, and Other Crazy Notions

Currently, the House the Homeless home page shows a letter by founder and President Richard R. Troxell, explaining why he wrote an Amicus Brief with the intention of helping the situation in Austin. Many cities throughout the United States currently operate under rules that can only make homelessness worse.

As Richard points out, one factor that helped turn Ferguson, Missouri, into a battle zone in 2014 was a local economy based on money extorted from the people by hyper-zealous law enforcement. Americans who are the least able to afford additional debt are overcharged and over-convicted every day, to the detriment of honest and stable civic peace.

National Public Radio’s Joseph Shapiro recommends his network’s series, titled “Guilty and Charged“:

The series reported that nationwide, the costs of the justice system are billed increasingly to defendants and offenders, and that this creates harsher treatment of the poor. Because people with money can pay their hundreds or thousands of dollars in fines and fees right away they are usually done with the court system.

But in many places, people who live on the edge of solvency are subject to a daily effort to extract a constant flow of dollars from them. Shapiro wrote in another piece:

In 2013, the municipal court in Ferguson — a city of 21,135 people — issued 32,975 arrest warrants for nonviolent offenses, mostly driving violations.

Do we have rulings and protections in place to prevent what is, to all intents and purposes, the return of the medieval debtors prison? Of course we do, but when people are ordered to show up physically to make their monthly installment payments judges can do crazy stuff like order the courtroom locked, and then issue an arrest warrant for a person who was barred from entering.

Or maybe the person just lives too far away and can’t get a ride. Additionally, in Ferguson and places like it, the insanity is mixed in with a huge propensity toward racial profiling.

Land of the unfree

Throughout the U.S. there are many pockets like St. Louis County, with courts notorious for charging outrageous fines and fees. The more petty the crime, the better, because legal defense requires even more expenditure. Unless a person is charged with rape or murder putting up a defense is just added punishment.

Even an employed person can sink under the weight of even a small fine. When finances are precarious, the slightest extra demand can start a spiral of consequences, a vicious cycle of poverty and incarceration that eventually culminates in full-on homelessness.

Jails are full of citizens in pre-trial detention for all sorts of reasons, who are unable to raise bail. If they were employed before, they may not be when they get out, because meanwhile they have been fired for not showing up at work. If they were housed before, same deal. This crazy way of doing things creates homelessness.

Imagine the mulishly stubborn and mindless greed that a municipality must operate by, to take the extraordinary step of laying fines on people experiencing homelessness, who are quite likely to be destitute. They can’t pay, so they go to jail at the taxpayers’ expense, which negates the entire alleged reason for levying fines in the first place, which is to raise money to run the local government. It soon becomes glaringly obvious that the entire point of the exercise is only to punish Americans for being poor.

Criminal justice reform

The very obvious result of incarceration is that any family left on the outside might meanwhile disintegrate before the imprisoned member is released. With not much to live for, a person is likely to get in trouble again, and then politicians rant about the high recidivism rate.

This all plays into the related problem of people who are accused of crimes being coerced into pleading guilty just so they can get out. Statistically speaking, defendants who are held by the system before their trials are more likely to be sentenced, and apt to be handed a longer sentence. Whether a person shows up for court in a suit or a jumpsuit makes a big difference.

The Criminal Justice Reform Blog tells why current practices are so stupid:

For far too many poor people, bail is simply not an option and this plays into the hands of prosecutors who know that they have yet another bargaining chip to hold against the defendant. Court is far far from an even playing field in these situations.

People are stuck in jail before they’re even convicted of a crime all because they cannot afford to make bail. These people are not only costing states billions of dollars each year, but their plight wages lasting destruction upon the communities from which they come.

Reactions?

Source: “In Ferguson, Court Fines And Fees Fuel Anger,” NPR.org, 08/25/14
Source: “Bail Reform — No Get Out of Jail Free Cards — Beware Quick Fixes,” CJReform.info, 11/17/17
Photo credit: Johnny Silvercloud via Visualhunt/CC BY-SA

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Remembering the Departed

Sunday, November 19, is the day of this year’s Homeless Memorial Service. If you are in or near Austin, Texas, please go to Auditorium Shores, at South First and Riverside Drive (on the south side of Lady Bird Lake).

There is a story behind the annual event. In 1992, Austin was a smaller and much less cosmopolitan city, and not quite conscious of how many of its citizens were sleeping rough, or just minimally and occasionally sheltered. All that changed with the death of Diane Malloy.

House the Homeless founder Richard R. Troxell helped another man search for and recover her drowned body. In his book, Looking Up at the Bottom Line, Richard recalls how the tragedy led to the yearly Memorial tradition.

Bodies of water attract bodies of people

People experiencing homelessness meet their ends in various ways: fire; exposure to weather; violence; overdose; being hit by a vehicle. Some even have what are called “natural” deaths, although at an unnaturally young age. Considering the close quarters and lack of sanitation in camps and some shelters, it is amazing that there have not been more flareups of contagious diseases.

As it turns out, water is a very popular spot for the corpses of people no longer experiencing homelessness to be found. A person with no fixed address is quite likely to be discovered dead in or near an ocean, lake, river, pond, ditch, arroyo, or flood plain.

There are practical reasons. Many large and/or warm cities are located on coastlines, and they tend to contain a lot of people experiencing homelessness. Inland, wherever a wooded area hosts a lone camper or a settlement, water is likely to be nearby.

Interestingly, a watery death overtakes far fewer women than men, quite out of proportion to their numbers in the total population. A woman’s body found in water attracts media attention and public sympathy in a way that the drownings of men never quite manage to do. Austin is not the only city that was actually changed by one particular fatality.

In East Los Angeles, the faith-based Guadalupe Homeless Project Women’s Shelter exists because the body of 36-year-old Lorenza Arellano was found in the lake at a municipal park. Authorities said an overdose killed her, though how she got into the water was never explained. This was in 2014, and within the whole enormous geography of Los Angeles, there were only two women-only shelters. Arellano’s death was the catalyst that made the third one happen.

Another story

As a young woman with a genius-level IQ, Cara Nurmi showed infinite promise in her teen years. She studied ballet and photography, and was known as a singer and painter. Hurricane Katrina destroyed her home and all her artwork. During rebuilding, an electrical fire wiped out everything. When the man she loved died suddenly, Nurmi told her mother, “If I don’t have anything, I can’t lose anything,” and went off to hide in the world.

Nurmi’s life unraveled to the point of vagabondage in New Orleans, where she was known to everyone, including the police-run Homeless Assistance Unit, as a pleasant, playful woman with “wonderful energy.” Still, the 34-year-old had been through a rough decade. At some point she signed up for an inpatient alcohol detox program, and in August, a spot opened up.

Of course there was a last party with friends, under a wharf, and Nurmi jumped into the Mississippi River. It seems to have been a habit, and whoever else was there didn’t worry. Her body was found a few days later.

Journalist Richard A. Webster quoted Cara Nurmi’s mom:

I think with Katrina, they only counted the dead bodies, but there are other people who took a little longer to die.

Reactions?

Source: “Looking Up at the Bottom Line,” Amazon.com
Source: “A new shelter in East LA provides sanctuary for homeless women,” SCPR.org, 03/31/15
Source: “Homeless woman found in Mississippi River wavered between heaven and hell, friends say,” NOLA.com, 08/31/17
Image by House the Homeless

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How Are the Homeless Veterans Doing?

Seven years ago, the Veterans Administration announced an ambitious plan to end veteran homelessness within a certain time frame. Reality has forced the goalpost to be moved, and total elimination appears to be an impossible dream.

Amazingly, about half the homeless veterans out there are left over from the Vietnam era. Among veterans experiencing homelessness, none out of 10 are male, and any black or Latinx vet is three times as likely to be homeless as the white comrade-in-arms. Most are single and live in cities, and most are afflicted by physical disability, mental illness, or substance abuse.

The authorities don’t say it in so many words, but surely one problem is that the supply of veterans deserving of care does not seem to be drying up. At the same time, a certain number of psychologically wounded vets will remove themselves, via suicide, from the need for any further help. But the current thinking is that an irreducible minimum number, either too far gone into post-traumatic stress disorder, or simply possessed of loner personalities, will remain on the streets and in wooded enclaves, no matter what.

This summer, VA Secretary David Shulkin addressed the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. He said:

There is going to be a functional zero, essentially somewhere around 12,000 to 15,000 that despite being offered options for housing and getting them off the street, there are a number of reasons why people may not choose to do that.

This seems to suggest that the day will come when, if any vets remain unhoused, it’s on them. Which may be true, up to a point. There will always be individuals who simply do not want to get with the program, for their own reasons which may or may not be valid according to other people. But is something more going on here? Is the public manipulated into blaming the victims, when other entities may be at fault?

Congressional non-action

What is the government doing? In 2017, according to Congress.gov, six pieces of legislation pertaining to veterans were introduced in the House of Representatives, of which three have been referred to the Subcommittee on Health, two to the House Committee on Ways and Means, and one to the Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity.

In the Senate, four bills have been proposed, of which two were referred to the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, one to the Committee on Finance, and one to the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs. None of the measures has been thoroughly picked over and analyzed, much less voted on, and where any of them will end up is an open question.

Here and there in America

The Veterans Resource Center is a nonprofit organization with more than a dozen branches in three states, with most of its funding coming from the federal government. Counselors help with employment, healthcare and other benefits — plus the biggie — which is housing. Without a stable environment in which to sleep and keep their belongings safe, a person is ill-equipped to progress in the areas of health, work, or school. Among the group’s nine areas of concentration are homeless prevention and re-housing, transitional housing, and permanent supportive housing.

Homeless vet populations are concentrated in seven states: California, Texas, Florida, New York, Colorado, Washington, and Oregon. Of course, need exists in every state. In Phoenix, Central Arizona Shelter Services will probably lose a half-million dollar VA grant it has relied on for at least ten years.

In March, southwest Minnesota announced that all its waiting lists were cleared, and all its homeless veterans were currently sheltered. The “how” is worth reading about, as well as the situation’s roots. Journalist Susan Du writes:

Part of the problem was the vilification that arose in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan, who pushed the caricature of the welfare queen who drove a Cadillac and ate steaks for every dinner on Uncle Sam’s dime. It allowed Reagan to make massive cuts to HUD. Ever since, low-income Americans have been fighting a housing shortage that keeps basic shelter out of reach even to those who work multiple jobs.

Meanwhile, celebrities are selling “Once in a lifetime experiences, luxury items, and autographed memorabilia” on eBay to help fund Homes For Our Troops, an organization that focuses on building “specially adapted custom homes for severely injured Post 9/11 Veterans.” The event runs through November 14.

Reactions?

Source: “Shelter: America’s Homeless Veterans,” AlJazeera.com, 11/03/17
Source: “VA drops goal of zero homeless veterans,” MilitaryTimes.com, 06/02/17
Source: “Programs and Services,” VetsResource.org
Source: “In southwest Minnesota, all homeless veterans finally have shelter,” CityPages.com, 03/23/17
Photo credit: mark6mauno via Visualhunt/CC BY