Prison As Shelter — A Worldwide Problem

Recently, Kathryn Phelan wrote about the tragedy that brought so many immigrants to America:

Forty percent of Ireland’s population died in the mid-1800s, in the Great Famine. Men stole food, either to feed their families or in the hope of going to jail, where they were guaranteed bread and porridge every day. The jail was overrun with petty thieves who all had the same idea.

This problem still exists there. For one example, an Irish Examiner headline read, “Homeless man asked to be arrested.” But a simple request was not enough to accomplish that goal, so the man told the authorities he would do something stupid, and did. In a pharmacy, he went behind the counter to rummage through boxes of pills, and this got him a five-month jail sentence.

A month later, in Hereford, England, a man asked the police to lock him up, was refused, and had to break the window of a pharmacy and grab the closest item from it, in order to accomplish his ambition. Around the same time, another Englishman, who had narrowly escaped serious injury or death when the dumpster he slept in was picked up, nicked two cans of beer in an effort to be arrested, but suffered disappointment when the judge only sentenced him to one day in jail.

Another British subject, who had been our of prison for less than a month, stole a bottle of vodka as his ticket back to four more weeks of shelter and food. In yet another part of England, this headline and subtitle told pretty much the whole story:

Homeless Teesside man commits hundreds of drink-related crimes to get a bed in jail: Michael Patrick Williams in court after wandering into local police station clutching an open can of cider a fortnight after doing exact same thing.

Although Williams’ record included almost 400 similar offenses, sometimes the magistrate would thwart his purpose by sentencing him to only one day, and then declaring that the time had been served by his showing up in court.

More recently, a nearby British town produced this news item:

Bradley Grimes had been given a four-month suspended prison sentence for breaching anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs) by sleeping in shop doorways. The 23-year-old asked the court to activate the sentence and take him off the streets.

Grimes, suffering from autism and a brain tumor, had been a ward of the government since the age of seven. On this occasion, he asked to be jailed because of his upcoming birthday, when he wanted to wake up somewhere warm with food to eat.

In Durham (also England), a homeless man walked into a chain store armed with a pool cue in one hand and a machete in the other, in a successful attempt to be arrested. But just in case those weapons were not provocation enough, he also carried two billiard balls in a sock.

In the Australian city of Waterford, the manager of a shelter told the press:

This time of year is always berserk. We either have homeless people trying to injure themselves to get a warm hospital bed or committing petty crimes to get a jail cell for the night.

In Perth, a 33-year-old man who had been thrown out of his lodging that day, entered a police station and turned himself in, asking for a five-year sentence. There were no outstanding warrants, but the six-inch knife in his backpack was enough to get him housed in a jail cell for four months.

How cold is Iceland? Cold enough so that police will occasionally let people voluntarily inhabit jail cells without being charged with a crime. Emilia S. Olafsdottir Kaaber wrote:

Demand for space at the homeless shelter on Lindargata has been unusually high as of late. “We’re full night after night and have at times had to turn people away…” said Sveinn Allan Morthens, manager of the shelter.

For The Guardian, the manager of a small independent charity in Britain wrote about the difficulty of finding shelter for a convicted arsonist, which is for various reasons more difficult than finding a place for sex offender. It is especially futile to send the “single, non-priority homeless” to the government for help.

The anonymous social worker wrote:

We are supporting more and more people who, just five years ago, would have received help via the Adult Social Care budget. This has been pared back so far that a choice is made on who is worthy enough to be supported.we quickly fall into the trap of using “in” terms such as complex need and high risk almost as an excuse…
Labels are so easy to throw about. They land conveniently on the shoulders of those we want to keep in a box. Challenging, attention-seeking and damaged are common labels and we stop seeing the person and instead see a problem which we feel the need to contain.

All over the world, many people accept the sad fact that prison is their social welfare safety net of last resort.


Source: “Lost,” TheSunMagazine.org, June 2017
Source: “Homeless man asked to be arrested,” IrishExaminer.com, 06/05/14
Source: “Homeless man pleads with police to lock him up,” HerefordTimes.com, 07/21/14
Source: “Homeless man who slept in a skip gets arrested as ‘life in prison is better’,” BriefReport.co.uk, 03/08/14
Source: “Homeless thief stole so he could go back behind bars,” BriefReport.co.uk, 02/07/14
Source: “Homeless Teesside man commits hundreds of drink-related crimes to get a bed in jail,” GazetteLive.co.uk, 01/20/14
Source: “Homeless man asks judge to send him to prison for birthday ‘so he can wake up somewhere warm’,” Independent.co.uk, 10/13/17
Source: “Homeless man wielded machete in Durham Tesco in act of desperation,” TheNorthernEcho.co.uk, 03/10/12
Source: “Homeless people committing illegal offences and injuring themselves after being turned away from shelters,” CourierMail.com, 06/15/13
Source: “Homeless man pulled knife at police station in bid to stay overnight,” STV.tv, 05/22/13
Source: “Homeless Request Overnight Stay in Prison,” IcelandReview.com, 05/27/15
Source: “With winter coming, would my homeless clients be better off back in prison?,” TheGuardian.com, 10/22/16
Photo by Daniel Lobo (Daquella manera) on Visualhunt/CC BY


State of the Year

Last month, at Austin’s 25th Homeless Memorial, participants read the names of 187 poverty-stricken people who died in Austin this year. Earlier this month, the Austin American-Statesman published a commentary by House the Homeless president Richard R. Troxell.

He discussed three city ordinances that harm thousands of people for no good reason, and needlessly create conditions that act as barriers to people trying to escape homelessness. There seems to be a belief among law enforcement professionals that the criminal justice system should be wielded as a tool to compel people to seek treatment.

But the resources to treat them don’t exist, so now they still have no treatment, plus a criminal record. Richard says:

It is the responsibility of every municipality to provide for the welfare of every citizen and to protect every citizen. While most cities are making serious efforts to house people who find themselves experiencing homelessness, almost all of those same cities are failing to protect those who they do not house from the winter elements. This is unacceptable.

An oldie but goodie

We take this opportunity to remind readers about a publication by the National Coalition for the Homeless, “Resolve to Fight Poverty,” which is available as a downloadable PDF file. A person might say, “Wait a minute — this thing is dated 2012!” But nobody is steering you wrong. That document is not obsolete — far from it. The unfortunate truth is, everything in there is still relevant.

An enormous amount of poverty needs to be combatted by any means necessary. People need opportunities and encouragement toward education. Activities need to be organized. The media needs to be alerted about events and informed about issues. Public energy needs to be organized and channeled.

January 1, 2018
First Baptist Church at 901 Trinity Street
12:00 noon – 2:00 p.m.

There is still time to participate in the Thermal Underwear Drive and Annual Survey. If you are in Austin, Texas, be a volunteer. One of the perks is a live performance by PJ Lyles and the South Austin Rockin Gospel Project Band. Please donate to the cause of “winterizing” people who find this winter a particularly tough one.

Thoughts for the holidays

Housed people have some strange ideas about people experiencing homelessness. For instance, they might think every homeless person is some kind of trainwreck. Unenlightened citizens might think, “If they were decent people, they would have friends and relatives. Someone they know would take them in.”

Let’s unpack that assumption. For starters, family might be the problem. You can’t imagine the kinds of abusive situations that people are compelled to escape. Or a natural disaster might be the precipitating incident. Fires and floods are not picky, they devour everyone. Friends and relatives might have been hit by the same disaster, and be looking for help too.

A person might want to help, but if they receive government assistance they can’t take in extra people. Visiting rules exist, and if company stays too long, the tenant can be evicted. Once someone is off Section 8, there’s no getting back on.

Even for independently employed people, renting an apartment can come with very strict rules on the lease, and if you break the rules, for instance by sheltering a friend or two, you get thrown out and are homeless also. It may be that the only people who can really help are those who own their homes — unless they are bound by some kind of homeowners’ organization agreement.

Unceasing disadvantage

We hear that intergenerational wealth accumulation is one of the main markers that betray inequity in a society. This is especially true with minorities, who are notoriously prevented by multiple barriers from accumulating and passing along wealth. Intergenerational wealth equals intergenerational help, and at least some members of the lower middle class used to have it to give.

In many families, a solid homestead was maintained by grandparents, where there was always room for a nephew who just got out of jail, or a granddaughter whose husband wanted to kill the baby. Nowadays, Grandma and Grandpa lost the house in the 2008 debacle; he’s probably dead and she’s a bag lady. Support systems have dissolved.

Put yourself in the shoes of a homeless person. A relative or friend might be willing to take you in, but their husband or wife, not so much. People can’t afford that kind of a risk, to break up their marriage and maybe wind up on the streets themselves.

There are a lot of possible reasons why a person has nobody to stay with. The fact that they can’t find a couch to sleep on is not an indictment of the person.


Source: “Commentary: How Austin could atone for policies that harm the homeless,” MyStatesman.com, 12/15/17
Image by House the Homeless


The Very Best Way to Spend New Year’s Day

In case you were wondering if the Thermal Underwear Drive will take place again this year, the answer is, of course! The date is January 1, that’s New Year’s Day, and the place is First Baptist Church, 901 Trinity Street, Austin, TX 78701. Guests will attend from 12 noon to 2 p.m.

House the Homeless invites anyone in or near Austin to take part by donating money or by showing up to help share the HUGSS. (That stands for hats, thermals, gloves, socks, and scarves. Oh, and rain ponchos and safety whistles.) Another way to help is by serving the hot lunch. To see many heartwarming photos from last year’s event, check out the Thermal Underwear Drive page.

Also, the page has a donation button. It’s a golden oval that says “Donate.” You can’t miss it. The donation of $35 will equip one person with the winter necessities, but please give whatever you can. Winter is no joke when most of it is spent outdoors — and a hatless, gloveless winter is almost unimaginable.

We’re going to add a special note here about socks. They are vital, and people experiencing homelessness need a lot of them in every season of the year. We’re not saying a new pair every day, but a lot, and here’s why: It is almost impossible to find a way to wash and dry socks. It’s difficult enough just to find a toilet. Keeping clothes clean is, too often, a luxury. Along with pay phones and single room occupancy buildings, laundromats have almost disappeared, and the few that remain are quite expensive.

In that situation, where do you take off your dirty clothes? And what do you wear while they wash and dry? Socks, consequently, are often worn until they are fit for nothing but disposal. A new pair of socks makes a difference that, hopefully, no one reading this page will ever be forced to understand. So please take our word for it. Socks!

Two kinds of history-making

This collection of essays known as the blog has often mentioned the annual surveys that House the Homeless conducts along with the HUGSS event. (That page has a donation button, too.) The survey topics have included work, health, sleep, use of resources, and police interactions. The results are widely shared with the press and other organizations nationwide.

House the Homeless also welcomes volunteers to help with the survey! It is an eye-opening opportunity to take part in a much-needed and truly significant feat of documentation.

Across the nation, many journalists have contributed to the valuable archive of “The Face of Homelessness” type stories. They are personal, subjective, empathic, and vital. The surveys contrast with and complement those narratives with a wider, more encompassing and objective picture. It is one thing to tell the story of a lost person with PTSD or traumatic brain injury, and another thing entirely to grasp the staggering percentages of unhoused Americans who suffer from those debilities and many others.

This is kind of mind-blowing

HtH President and co-founder Richard R. Troxell points out a detail that does not occur to very many safe and comfortable Americans:

These are the homeless for whom there is no housing, although many of them have stood in line since before Hurricane Katrina, who have lost everything and will continue to be stuck on those streets because evacuees from the endless wars (the push to house our veterans), and then more evacuees from Hurricane Harvey, were given the housing that was to have been theirs.

In other words, contrary to the fairness principle of “First come, first served,” what we see happening is “Last come, first served,” as people who have struggled for years to escape homelessness are again pushed to the end of the line. This in no way implies that any human should be left roofless and destitute. If the government would get its priorities straight, and allocate resources toward life rather than death, there could be room, and rooms, for everyone. The problem is not a lack of wherewithal, but a lack of will.

It couldn’t be easier to participate

But let’s get back to the Thermal Underwear shindig. Through the miracle of technology, all the volunteer options are spelled out on the sign-up page, where a volunteer can specify a task and a time slot somewhere between 10 in the morning and three in the afternoon. Overall, the public event is bracketed by two hours of prep time and one hour of cleanup, and not everyone needs to be there for the whole time.

One-hour, two-hour, and three-hour shifts are available. Understandably, many people are not able to volunteer, especially when they live outside the local area. But that doesn’t mean you can’t participate! Did we mention that every page of the House the Homeless website has a donation button?


Image by House the Homeless


The SRO — a Much-Needed Housing Solution

The constant shrinkage of the SRO stock (the number of Single Room Occupancy rooms) in America is shameful, and for various historical reasons San Francisco has been particularly hard hit. Recently, Frances Saux wrote:

A 1979 study counted 26,884 SRO units in San Francisco, and those numbers were diminishing. By 2011, the number of residential units stood at 18,910. Those numbers have gone up slightly; in 2015, the city reported a total of 19,166 units, but that includes units that are no longer affordable to low-income residents. Of the Mission’s nearly 1,000 SRO units, 75 — or 8 percent — had become unaffordable for low-income residents by 2015.

Another source says that since the 1970s, more than a third of the city’s SRO stock has disappeared. Many bad things have happened to these buildings, like arson fires set by landlords who wanted to get rid of indigent tenants and build something new and expensive. The Mission SRO Collaborative formed to raise tenant awareness about that danger.

In 2012, a survey carried out buy a coalition of nonprofit agencies learned that “as many as half of SRO residents lived in buildings where there was no elevator, or one that wasn’t always accessible because it wasn’t always working.” Thousands of elderly and disabled tenants were stuck having to walk up and down many flights of stairs, or stay marooned in their rooms.

In 2014, an estimated 30,000 people lived in San Francisco’s SRO dwellings. In that same year a tourist guide, TripAdvisor.com, spoke quite frankly:

In many cities today, SROs are often associated with the homeless, sometimes with just plain bums. Local government, social service agencies, and parole authorities use these, quite frankly, to dump people who aren’t placeable elsewhere. Poor retired law-abiding people who can’t afford apartments may live near chronic street people, criminals, felony parolees, people recovering (either genuinely or supposedly) from substance abuse, the mentally ill, and others who can’t quite fit into the mainstream.

The literature went on to lament that families who can’t find other shelter often live with several people to a room in SRO establishments, and strongly implied that tourists would really be better off somewhere else. Which actually is a great idea. Stay away, tourists, and leave the poor people’s housing alone.

Elderly, low-income, and disabled tenants have always needed protection from rapacious property owners. In more recent years, SROs have been important for undocumented people. Landlords know how difficult it is to find a place. Tenants are unlikely to complain about leaks or bugs, or otherwise “make trouble” for a landlord when they face a very real risk of winding up homeless or worse.

It is hard to keep track of all the political and financial maneuvering that affects housing. In 1981, San Francisco passed Ordinance 41, whose object was to stop the loss of single residential units via conversion or demolition. Apparently the local ordinances around housing have loopholes that allow an SRO to renovate a room and raise the rent to whatever the market will bear.

And SROs have been renting out rooms via Airbnb, which has in fact been class-action sued by a group of tenants in the Tenderloin district. Obviously, when a property owner has access to wealthy tourists and visiting executives with expense accounts, why should they waste their time with tenants who receive government assistance?

Why indeed? Except for the crazy notion that humans should let human needs triumph over greed.


Source: “SF Mission residential hotels renovated for wealthier tenants,” MissionLocal.org, 08/19/17
Source: “San Francisco lawmakers pass SRO rental cap,” Curbed.com, 02/01/17
Source: “When is a ‘hotel’ not a HOTEL? — TA Guide to SROs,” Tripadvisor.com, 08/08/14
Photo by Daniel X. O’Neil on Visualhunt/CC BY