In the 2011-12 school year, in America, an estimated 1.2 million school kids (kindergarten through grade 12) were homeless. As House the Homeless has discussed, counting the people experiencing homelessness is not an exact science. The number of homeless children is assumed to be underreported for several reasons, one of which is that such families tend to keep a low profile, to the point where they have been called the “invisible homeless.” Parents don’t go out of their way to flaunt their homeless-with-kids status in public places. You don’t often see them panhandling in the business district. The last thing they want is to attract the wrong kind of attention — the kind that leads to losing custody of their children.
Apparently it becomes easier every day for a parent to get into deep trouble, as the world saw recently with the arrest of Shanesha Taylor, who left her two children in a car in Scottsdale, Ariz., so she could go to a job interview. Taylor faces a prison term of at least four years, and her children were removed by the authorities.
On paper, according to the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, a homeless child can choose to keep attending the school appropriate to her or his last permanent residence. In reality, the logistics of allowing this to happen can be daunting for both money-starved school districts and parents who are already dealing with all the details of catastrophe.
Another homeless American mother made news within recent memory by using a friend’s address to enroll her 6-year-old son in a better-quality school where he technically didn’t belong. Tanya (or Tonya) McDowell was convicted of stealing educational services and sentenced to a long spell in prison.
Huffington Post writer Mary Ann West made an interesting point:
If the police, prosecutor, or really anyone of authority had shared their concerns with the school board, cooler heads would have prevailed, McDowell’s son’s rights as a homeless child would have been protected under the Federal McKinney-Vento Act, and perhaps a resolution would have been found.
It costs a lot of money per year to keep an adult incarcerated. If a child is placed in foster care, which is where McDowell’s son could easily end up, that costs a lot, too. The amount varies wildly according to the state, the level of care needed, the available funding, and other factors, but it’s a bunch of money. Here is an interesting question. Instead of taking kids away from homeless women and paying foster parents to take care of them, why not just pay the natural mothers enough to maintain homes and raise their own children? It might save the taxpayers a lot of money, and would certainly be cheaper in long-term consequences to society.
In the District of Columbia, the Family Resources Center is where homeless families go for help. But that agency tells the Child and Family Services Agency everything, and CFSA had shown a pattern of taking kids away from parents who are characterized as neglectful just for being homeless. Kathryn Baer of Poverty Insights says it starts with intimidating investigations and interrogations that add to the burdens of already-stressed parents, and frighten already-insecure kids. She learned from the Washington Legal Clinic that, according to local law, “deprivation due to the lack of financial means … is not considered neglect.” However, Baer says:
CFSA has taken many children from their parents without getting a court order first. And, in more than half the cases, the precipitous removals were not justified. We also know, from CFSA’s own report, that “inadequate housing” was the primary reason it placed 35 children in foster care in 2010.
When Baer did her research, 308 families were on the waiting list of the Family Resources Center. How many parents stop renewing their applications for shelter space when they learn that they might be accused of not only neglect, but abuse, just for being poor? How many already know about the agency’s track record and never apply in the first place, preferring to take their chances in more tenuous surroundings? This achieves the exact opposite of what the law was supposed to accomplish, and makes children less safe, rather than more.
In the comments appended to Baer’s piece, two different readers warned of the truly horrifying possibility that some social service agencies may enter into an unholy alliance with private adoption agencies. Apparently, the bounty paid for a healthy, adoptable child, especially if white, can earn an agency thousands of dollars.
With all these things going on, how much anxiety is a homeless parent justified in feeling?
Source: “’Stealing Education’ Case Round II: Petition to Drop Case, Mom Still Homeless,” HuffingtonPost.com, 05/12/11
Source: “Homeless DC Parents Fear Loss of Children … And They’re Right,” Poverty Insights, 05/24/12
Image by Ashley Wilson
All the news stories say the same thing — there are more homeless kids and less available money to do anything about them. Even with the occasional statistical fluke that brings the numbers down here or there, the overall picture is still far from optimal. By 2012, 1.3 million American children were homeless, and families with young children accounted for 40% of the people experiencing homelessness.
A year ago, Greg Kaufmann reported on a congressional briefing given by Joe Volk, the CEO of Milwaukee’s Community Advocates. The subject was the American Almanac of Family Homelessness. He recounted the story of how in 2000 the Department of Housing and Urban Development decided to focus on chronically homeless adults.
It’s a wonderful thing to remove anybody from streets, and recently the Housing First principle has been getting a lot of attention. Single adults who are chronically homeless tend to have serious problems with mental illness, physical disability, and addiction, and when they hang around downtown, it’s bad for business. Housing them saves cities (meaning taxpayers) money that would have otherwise gone to massive medical costs and jail rent, and there is nothing wrong with that.
Meanwhile, homeless families with kids have been relatively ignored. They tend to keep a low profile, eking out bare and crowded existences in sheds, storage units, cars, motels, shelters, and the garages and basements of relatives. Homeless kids are poorly nourished, don’t have access to quality health care, and suffer more from both acute and chronic illnesses. They also have learning disabilities at twice the rate of their housed counterparts, and have more emotional problems, which they act out in the form of behavioral problems. They score lower in reading and math. Sometimes these children can’t even get to school.
In Baltimore, the Public Justice Center, acting on behalf of three homeless families, filed a federal class action lawsuit to try and get their kids transportation to and from school. There were at least 2,800 homeless children in the city’s school system at the time, and the number had doubled since five years before.
One of the plaintiffs, a single mother with two sons, enrolled the younger one in a school near the shelter where they lived. But the older boy needed to stay in his old school for the special education offered there. Often, the mother didn’t have money for gas to drive him. In addition, to keep the benefits she and the children needed to survive, she was obligated to do a certain amount of job searching, which was seriously impacted by the amount of time used up in taking the kids to school.
Need for change
Last fall the National Center for Homeless Education issued a report stating that during the 2011-12 school year, 1.2 million school-age kids were homeless in America. The numbers had decreased in only eight states, and in 10 states there were increases of 20% or greater. At around the same time, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that nearly one-fourth of American children were living below the poverty line, and the Southern Education Foundation revealed that nearly half of all the kids in the country qualified for reduced-price or free meals at their schools. Kaufmann wrote, “The federal government’s plan was to use the savings gained by reducing homelessness among single adults to fight family homelessness. But that hasn’t happened.”
But it needs to happen. The same great cities that are making advances by housing single adults need to realize that kids are the future. Sure, keeping chronically homeless adults out of jails and hospitals saves money. But fewer than one homeless kid in four graduates from high school. What is the societal price of that grim fact, and how much will it cost society in five years, in 10 years, when the bills really start to come in?
Source: “America is Ignoring Homeless Families,” BillMoyers.com, 04/21/13
Source: “How Little Things Add Up to Keep Homeless Kids From School,” TheAtlanticCities.com, 09/30/13
Source: “Youth homelessness at all-time high, says report,” AlJazeera.com, 10/25/13
Image by U.S. Department of Agriculture
A lot of Americans who are well past middle age grew up with Mad magazine parodies as their source of honest political education. Mad had an imitator called Cracked, a print publication that over the decades metamorphosed into a website that’s both entertaining and tuned in to the reality of the times. Strange as it seems, a Cracked.com piece titled “7 Things No One Tells You About Being Homeless” has exposed nearly 1,800,000 visitors to some hard truths that hopefully they will not have the opportunity to find out for themselves.
The author, William Bonnie, who had a job and paid his rent, explains how he came to endure a spell of homelessness anyway. He counts himself as one of the lucky ones, because his life has improved since. He didn’t particularly want to learn these things, but passes along something we all need to know: “The line between where you are now and sleeping in your car is much, much thinner than you think.” In fact, nearly a third of all people experiencing homelessness are actually employed.
Their chances of ever owning a home? Slim to none. The likelihood of saving enough to move into a rental is almost equally nonexistent. First and last month’s rent, plus security deposit, plus enough for minimal furniture, add up to a sizeable chunk of change.
Bonnie goes into considerable detail about the conflicts between shelter rules and the needs of an employed person or someone who’s looking for a job. At the very simplest level, shelters are designed to have people sleep at night and vacate the premises during the day, which makes it impossible to live in a shelter and hold a second- or third-shift job.
Since sleeping within sight of any citizens in town is usually quickly punished, the car resident will need to spend a considerable amount on fuel to go back and forth to some remote area, if one can be found. Keeping warm can be an expensive proposition, and once in a while you need a night in a cheap motel in order to catch a shower.
If you are suddenly homeless, and lucky enough to have a car, you’ll need to invest about $150 in outdoor cooking equipment and, since you don’t have a refrigerator, an ice chest. If you’re lucky enough to get food stamps, the grocery store is only supposed to sell foods that require from-scratch preparation. Food stamps are not supposed to be used for prepared foods such as deli items, and only four states allow their use in restaurants. It’s possible to avoid the cooking problem by subsisting on snack crackers and soda pop, in which case you’ll be not only homeless but fat and malnourished.
The author was indeed one of the lucky ones, being white, personable, able-bodied, capable of inspiring trust, and equipped with at least one skill (gourmet cooking) with which to recompense helpful friends. He elaborates on how he was a member of the “hidden homeless” class, composed of people who have enough of a support system to avail themselves of some of the benefits of housed existence and avoid looking like a “stereotypical homeless guy.”
A foreign thought
One aspect of homelessness does not become apparent until a person is in that situation — the problem of how to fill up massive amounts of free time when there is no job to go to. It costs money to hang out in even the cheapest diner or café, and few businesses want customers who sit around for hours nursing a single cup of coffee. There are places to hang out for free, but it might get you arrested. So, what happens? Sometimes, Bonnie says, even the person who never had a substance abuse problem before can develop one:
What often comes first is having nothing else to do (an especially big problem for people staying in shelters), and the boredom literally drives them crazy. I finally understood, in a very immediate way, why people who’ve been living on the street for a long time tend to be addicts: Drugs not only get you high, but also give you a schedule and a routine. And once again we see how a short-term problem can turn into a cycle that threatens to suck the rest of your life into it.
Another important thing he asks us to keep in mind is that nearly 40% of the homeless are younger than 18, and that includes a huge number of children who never did anything to deserve such a harried and tenuous existence. Millions of Americans spend more than half their paychecks on just staying inside walls. We used to be told that a quarter of our income was a reasonable amount, and then it became a third, and now we’re not supposed to balk at any outlandish proportion of our income going for rent, because we’re darn fortunate not to be sleeping in a dumpster.
Homeowners fare no better, unless they are already wealthy enough not to really need the help they get through the mortgage interest deduction. More than 10 million homeowners are barely hanging on, paying more than half their income for housing. In 2012, homeowners with annual incomes below $50,000 only got 3% of the benefits conveyed by this deduction, while homeowners making more than $100,000 per year reaped 77% of its benefits. But that’s a topic for another day.
Source: “7 Things No One Tells You About Being Homeless,” Cracked.com, 11/12/13
Source: “Mortgage Interest Deduction Is Ripe for Reform,” CPBB.org, 06/25/13
Image by numb3r
Last time, House the Homeless looked at how things are working out in Salt Lake City, Utah. Getting every military veteran off the street is a big priority there, as both the city and the state want to continue to lead the way toward the Veterans Administration’s goal of eliminating veteran homelessness by next year.
Freedom Landing is owned and administered by the municipal Housing Authority. The 110-unit transitional housing facility provides not only a roof but several case managers to help individuals focus on stability and re-entry into both the job market and society in general. At any given time, close to half the residents are already employed and preparing to launch out on their own.
The veterans who live in the repurposed hotel contribute to their rent, and the VA pays part of it. It appears that meals are catered in, but up until a year ago, the only way for a resident to prepare food was to keep an electric skillet or rice-cooker in his or her room. Last March, an underutilized TV room was remodeled into the Freedom Diner and stocked with food donated by the Mormon Church.
Two stoves were installed, one of them wheelchair-accessible, as are some of the tables and counters. People who like to cook are welcome to, not only for themselves but for sharing as well. The idea is to reduce isolation, provide a hangout for morning coffee drinking, and generally foster a sense of camaraderie.
Just two months ago, the Fourth Street Clinic announced its expansion plans, including a dental care center for the homeless, which hopefully will be fully functional by the end of 2015. The Salt Lake Tribune reported:
Dental care has been a major service gap for uninsured Utahns, as decayed or missing teeth erode self-confidence, contribute to unemployment and perpetuate homelessness…. Oral health care will be fully integrated into Fourth Street Clinic’s primary care services and delivered by a combination of paid staff, students, and volunteers. Fourth Street Clinic is currently engaged in a broad-based community fundraising campaign to raise the $450,000 needed to annually operate the dental clinic.
Salt Lake Tribune reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack wrote earlier this week about the Family Acceptance Project, designed to alleviate the isolation and despair experienced by teens and young adults who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.
Research led by Caitlin Ryan of San Francisco State University has shown that in any given year more than 5,000 young people experience homelessness in Utah. About 40% of them are LGBT, mostly from homes characterized as socially and religiously conservative. The Mormon Church is collaborating with other churches and organizations to prevent homelessness among young people by educating families and urging them not to react judgmentally to the news that a teenager is gay, bisexual, or transgender.
‘Support Salt Lake Street News Vendors, Not Panhandlers’
The slogan quoted above refers to the Salt Lake City Mission’s newspaper vending program which was launched last fall to help hundreds of people experiencing homelessness to make honest money as independent marketing agents of the Street Newspaper. The available information is confusing. Reader comments to the Salt Lake Tribune story about the program included this one: “I thought I’d get writing and news from the local homeless population but instead I read nationally syndicated opinions.”
Apparently this was not a true launch but a revival of an earlier version of the publication. The Mission’s website includes issues dated from May/June 2010 up until February 2012, with no indication of what happened between then and last October. But back in the early days, there was plenty of local material. Volume 1 Number 1 contained such stories as “Life of a Katrina Evacuee” and “Dying Boy’s Last Wish is to Help Homeless,” and the rest of the pages were all pretty much about street life. Sadly, less than two years later, almost every page included a “your ad could be here” type of space filler. May the newest incarnation of the Street Newspaper prove more successful for all involved.
Source: “New ‘diner’ will help Utah’s homeless veterans share a meal,” SLTrib.com, 03/04/13
Source: “Clinic opening to fill dental-care gaps for homeless,” SLTrib.com, 01/18/14
Source: “New program aims to prevent suicide, homelessness in LGBT Mormon youth,” SLTrib.com, 03/14/14
Source: “Homeless sell “Street Newspaper” rather than panhandling,” SLTrib.com, 10/02/13
Source: “Salt Lake Street News,” SaltLakeCityMission.org
Image by Garrett
Salt Lake City, Utah, has boarded the Housing First train in a very promising way. To calculate how economical the solution is, the founders contrasted the cost of housing people in apartments with the cost of incarcerating them and the cost of emergency room treatment for all the various illnesses and injuries that can befall a person who lives on the streets. Cory Doctorow writes:
The “Housing First” program’s goal was to end chronic homelessness in Utah within 10 years. Through 2012, it had helped reduce the 2,000 people in that category when it began by 74 percent. Lloyd Pendleton, director of Utah’s Homeless Task Force, said the state is on track to meet its goal by 2015, and become the first state in the nation to do so.
2015! That’s next year! Salt Lake’s commitment to the Housing First ideal began to flower back in 2005, when research showed that the state spent $16,670 a year on jailing and/or providing emergency medical services for each chronically homeless individual. These were people who had experienced homelessness for an average of 25 years.
On the other hand, it would cost the taxpayers only $11,000 per capita and per annum to provide not only an apartment but the attention of a caseworker. We couldn’t find a suitable graphic for Salt Lake City, but the chart on this page illustrates the same type of comparison for Los Angeles in a 2008 study. The revolutionary part of the Housing First plan is to attach no strings. People are offered the resources and encouragement to make positive changes, but the deal is unconditional.
Mayor Ralph Becker announced in January that Salt Lake City had “ended veterans’ homelessness” except for eight individuals who did not want homes but who were still being contacted by social workers in hopes that they would change their minds.
There may be some confusion, however. Not all homeless vets are in the “chronic homeless” category, which is defined as experiencing homelessness for at least a year or four times within three years while coping with a disability. Indeed, some online comments reacting to an MSNBC story indicate that either miscommunication or misunderstanding is in effect.
One commenter’s veteran son ended up living in a truck because he did not receive the help he was entitled to, a situation the commenter blamed on caseworker incompetence. A cab driver wrote in to offer a specialized tour of the city to “anyone who wants to see the real situation.” Another commenter served up a description that by no means resembles “no strings attached”:
Salt Lake & Phoenix have thousands of homeless veterans on the streets; and the veterans they are calling ‘HOUSED’ are in prison-like & all-controlling insane asylum complexes, where the veterans are baby-sat 24/7 & threatened with being thrown to the streets if they have ONE BEER while watching a football game!
Still, there is no doubt that many, many people experiencing homelessness have been helped. But despite all the good news, conditions are not idyllic in Utah’s capital city.
Only a few weeks before the mayor’s speech, Marjorie Cortez, writing for Deseret News, reported that in the previous year only five new units of permanent supportive housing had been added, and no transitional housing units. She interviewed Matt Minkevitch, who serves as executive director of private nonprofit social service agency The Road Home, about food insecurity and learned that during that year emergency food requests had increased by 15%.
In December, the city bureaucracy flexed its muscles and reminded distributors of food to the homeless of the necessity for papers, including a “free expression” permit, a waste management permit, and a food-safety temporary event permit from the Health Department, which must be in hand at least a couple weeks before the event. On the surface, they seem easy enough to get and not outlandishly expensive. Yet this has created big problems for The Road Home. After interviewing the organization’s community relations director, Celeste Eggert, journalist Amy McDonald reported:
A bill that passed the House and awaits final action in the Senate would exempt volunteers from the requirement to have a food handler’s permit to dish out meals to the homeless…. When the homeless shelter and aid organization learned of the health rules and informed volunteer groups, it lost 39 volunteer groups. As a result, the organization missed out on an estimated 5,850 donated meals…. Eggert says the organization’s winter-overflow shelter in Midvale received no donated meals in January and February.
The ironic thing is, 30 years of volunteer food preparation have not resulted in one instance of food poisoning or the finding of foreign objects in any meals.
Source: “Fighting homelessness by giving homeless people houses,” BoingBoing.net, 01/22/14
Source: “Second American City Ends Chronic Homelessness Among Veterans,” ThinkProgress.org, 01/06/14
Source: “Salt Lake City joins Phoenix in ending veteran homelessness,” MSNBC.com, 01/06/14
Source: “Report: Salt Lake City’s homelessness efforts making gains but food needs still unmet,” DeseretNews.com, 12/12/13
Source: “SLC city officials: Must have a permit to hand out food to the homeless,” 4Utah.com, 12/24/2013
Source: “Food safety rules block thousands of meals to homeless in SLC,” SLTrib.com, 03/11/14
Image by Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority
House the Homeless has looked at the costs involved in putting homeless people through the court system and warehousing them in jails, hospitals, and shelters. When pointing out the logic and fiscal responsibility that characterize the Housing First philosophy, those institutional expenses are the easiest to tally up.
It also costs money to run the ambulances and fire department vehicles that so often respond to emergencies involving people experiencing homelessness. Many more seldom-mentioned expenses pull tax money away from places in our society where it is desperately needed. For instance, how much does the federal government pay the contractor in charge of counting the homeless? How much money would it save if there were no homeless to count? How much is it costing society to disqualify so many people from future employment possibilities because of petty charges connected with homelessness? Journalist Barbara Ehrenreich puts the criminalization of the homeless in perspective:
Once you have been deemed a criminal, you can pretty much kiss your remaining assets goodbye. Not only will you face the aforementioned court costs, but you’ll have a hard time ever finding a job again once you’ve acquired a criminal record. And then of course, the poorer you become, the more likely you are to get in fresh trouble with the law, making this less like a “cycle” and more like the waterslide to hell.
There is a whole constellation of crimes that we, with dark humor, call “breathing while homeless.” Here are a few headlines illustrating the often-overlooked ways in which cities and counties hemorrhage money while prosecuting those crimes and waging a de facto war on the poor.
‘City to pay homeless man $200,000 in police beating’
Michael Allen Mallicoat suffered broken ribs and a punctured lung after being handcuffed and beaten by three police officers. Three cops pleaded guilty to felony official misconduct and resigned. Four other cops were suspended, and three supervisors reprimanded. The $200,000 is a settlement, in return for which the victim agreed not to sue Knoxville, Tenn., for a much larger amount.
‘LA ordered to pay $700K to lawyers for homeless in lawsuit’
A U.S. appeals court ordered Los Angeles to pay $700,000 to lawyers for homeless people in a lawsuit resulting in overturning a ban on sleeping in the streets…. A 2006 court ruling held clearing people from streets without providing beds is cruel and unusual punishment.
‘Innocent Homeless Family’s Wooden Shack Raided By Police’
In the fall of 2010, two L.A. County sheriff’s deputies, unequipped with a warrant and without identifying themselves as police — indeed, with no verbal exchange or warning at all — broke into a wooden shack where Angel and Jennifer Mendez slept. Apparently police opened fire before even seeing the BB gun rifle which was all Angel Mendez had to protect his pregnant wife from ill-intentioned intruders. The deputies fired 15 times, hitting the husband 10 times and the wife once.
Mendez ended up losing a leg. The sheriff’s department conducted an internal review which found, of course, that the shooting was justified. But a federal judge decided that the cops had violated the couple’s Fourth Amendment rights, and awarded the husband $3.8 million and the wife $222,000. Writer Bobby Caselnova asked, quite reasonably:
Why is it that if an ordinary citizen had broken into a home and started firing at the occupants, they would be thrown in prison, but when law enforcement officers do the same thing — and are found by a judge to be wrong — only the taxpayers are punished, not the officers themselves?
‘Homeless food case costs Albuquerque $120,000′
In Albuquerque, N.M., three people were arrested and charged with “inciting a riot, refusing to obey an officer, resisting arrest and failure to have a required permit.” What on earth were they doing? Giving food to people experiencing homelessness. A lengthy legal battle ensued, and eventually the charges were dismissed. But the three men filed civil rights lawsuits against the city, claiming that their First and Fourth Amendment rights had been violated. The settlement they were awarded cost the city more than $120,000.
‘City must pay $134K for targeting the homeless’
Ninety-nine criminal citations were dismissed thanks to the intervention of the San Luis Obispo Homeless Alliance. Dozens of people in the California city had been accused of the crime of sleeping in their cars, but a judge found the city’s law against vehicular sleeping to be unconstitutional, and awarded a payout of $134,000, which all went to the lawyers.
Sgt. Theresa Skinner, a senior lead officer in the Venice, Calif., police force, said in a recent interview that about 75% of the complaints she deals with concern transients, which is a rather rude term for people experiencing homelessness. Sgt. Skinner is quoted as saying, “Sometimes I wish I had crime that was more police-related. We’ll never make enough arrests or write enough tickets to get rid of homelessness.”
Source: “Tomgram: Barbara Ehrenreich, Looting the Lives of the Poor,” TomDispatch.com, 05/17/12
Source: “City to pay homeless man $200,000 in police beating,” KnoxNews.com, 01/22/14
Source: “LA ordered to pay $700K to lawyers for homeless in lawsuit,” UPI.com, 01/31/14
Source: “Innocent Homeless Family’s Wooden Shack Raided By Police,” PoliceStateUSA.com, 08/20/13
Source: “Homeless food case costs Albuquerque $120,000,” ABQJournal.com. 08/12/13
Source: “City must pay $134K for targeting homeless,” MercuryNews.com, 01/18/13
Source: “Venice’s famed tolerance is being tested by the homeless,” LATimes.com, 02/03/14
Image by Steve Lyon
These posts often focus on Austin for two reasons, the more obvious of which is that House the Homeless is located there. The other is that Austin’s display of leadership is always worth watching. Now it’s time to catch up again, because a lot has happened in the capital city of Texas, including the distribution of a white paper titled “Prevent Homelessness at Its Core: 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness, Restore Human Dignity and Save Business and Taxpayers $ Millions!”
This document was sent to 1,424 mayors of American cities, along with a Resolution they are urged to sign and send to the U.S. Congress. According to the trim tab metaphor, the application of just a little bit of leverage can have an enormous effect. For those who like their information in e-book form, please follow the link to Livable Incomes: Real Solutions That Stimulate the Economy. The plan just might be the trim tab that nudges the rudder that turns the whole ship onto a new course. It calls for changes to the Federal Minimum Wage and the Supplemental Security Income stipend.
One adjustment would affect the lowest level of employees, potentially preventing millions of people from falling into homelessness, and allowing millions more to escape the homeless condition. For Americans who can work, businesses need to take responsibility for paying them enough that a person working a 40-hour week can afford a place to live (i.e., an efficiency apartment), utilities, food, and the other necessities of life. What a lot of people don’t realize is that many homeless people do work. How can you hold a well-paying job when there’s no place to iron a shirt or get a good night’s sleep? Housed people are much more effective workers.
For those who can’t work due to disability, the rest of us need to continue to help them with shelter, food, clothing, etc. The issue has nothing to do with political party affiliation — Democrat-vs.-Republican doesn’t enter into it. This is about getting America back on its feet, dusted off, and back in the role of the greatest country in the world.
The local scene
In January, Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless presented Hill Country Middle School with the Curtis Ray Wilson Compassion Award. The school raised just over $6,000 to donate to the Thermal Underwear Drive and New Year’s Day lunch, warming and feeding a lot of people experiencing homelessness.
The Austin American-Statesman is incredibly fortunate to have Andrea Ball on staff, a reporter who has written knowledgeably about homeless issues for years. Recently she reported on the homeless count, which officially has decreased for the fourth consecutive year. Starting from 2011, the numbers show a 16% decrease, and House the Homeless has already extensively discussed the problems with obtaining accuracy in these counts. Ball writes:
Regardless of whether the count captures the true number of people living on the streets, most can agree that the city has made strides in increasing the number of housing units for homeless and low-income people funded with federal, city and private money….
Over the past six years, the city’s supply of permanent supported housing units — low-rent homes that include support services such as job training or mental health care — has jumped from 374 in 2008 to 1,035 in 2013…. The city is likely to have more than 1,300 permanent supportive housing units by the end of the year.
Texas is particularly fond of its veterans, and in Austin federally funded housing vouchers currently make housed life possible for 355 veterans. Ball also mentions Walter Moreau, executive director of Foundation Communities, which has been responsible for developing 3,400 low-income housing units over the past half-decade or so. (Richard calls Moreau a “great guy.”) Austin, keep on being a dynamic, fair-minded, sane and compassionate place, a great example, and a beacon of hope.
Source: “House the Homeless Nonprofit Releases 10-Year Plan to End and Prevent Economic Homelessness,” Yahoo.com, 01/30/14
Source: “The Power of Trim Tabs – How Small Changes Create Big Results,” ThoughtMedicine.com, July 2010
Source: “Subject: Hill Country raises over $6,000 for homeless,” Statesman.com, 01/22/14
Source: “Austin’s homeless population is down 16 percent since 2011,” Foundcom.org, 02/16/14
Image by Matthew Rutledge
Sometimes people have the most inane knee-jerk reactions to ideas. For instance, the idea of housing the homeless elicits howls of resistance — “Think how much money that would cost! It would be so expensive!” Well, O.K., let’s start by thinking about how much money goes into doing things the way they are currently done. This enlightening quote is from Elizabeth Dillard, executive director of the Homeless Resource Network in Columbus, Ohio:
Homelessness is about what happens in our emergency rooms. It’s about what happens in our jails, what happens with our fire and rescue, what happens when a building burns down because a person built a fire because he was cold.
Homelessness is about what happens in our libraries. A disgruntled San Franciscan recently warned his fellow citizens that since the Internet has made public libraries less relevant, the bureaucrats “scrambled around” to figure out what to do with libraries and decided to turn them into homeless outreach centers.
We live in a society that levies fines on people who obviously have no money, for the crime of having nowhere to live, and punishes them by providing a place to “live” that’s temporary, dangerous, and locked. Then we punish them further by putting marks on their record to guarantee they will never become employed, productive members of the community. Could anything be more absurd than the street-jail-street merry-go-round?
It’s worse than bad, it’s useless
Upon learning how Eureka, Calif., spent $13,000 to prosecute one person for sleeping in public, Arnie Klein, a retired deputy district attorney, called the judicial system a travesty. He elaborates:
The maximum penalty of six months in county jail or a $1,000 fine is a farce…. In no way will this prosecution prevent homeless people from camping on our public lands. Having 40 years’ experience on both sides of the table in the arena of criminal law, I would have recommended a more humane and cost-saving solution.
I do know for a fact … that money was expended to pay the judge, the bailiff, the court reporter, the jury, the defense attorney, and the prosecutor, as well as for the use of the courtroom, to pursue this fool’s errand.
On the other side of the country, in Orlando, Fla., public defender Bob Wesley had this to say:
Any time you have a court case, you’re going to have judge with a graduate degree, two lawyers there, bailiffs in the courtroom, court reporters — you’ve got to have a court, all to solve the problem.
From just south of Orlando, in Osceola County, Scott Keyes reported that, over the past 10 years, a grand total of $5 million has been spent on 37 individuals. Did this $5 million buy them houses fitted out with all the mod cons, and perhaps a swimming pool and a couple of servants? No, all it paid for was to put them in jail a bunch of times.
The charges were what are called “quality-of-life” offenses, which basically means it bums everybody out and ruins their day to see people snoring on the sidewalk. Never mind how the people experiencing homelessness feel about it — their lives don’t have any quality, and aren’t supposed to, because they screwed up by taking a wrong turn in life’s journey.
Some of the “bad choices” that have rendered people homeless include joining the military and coming back with a head injury; needing to escape from a spouse who turned abusive; working for a company that fires loyal employees the day before their pensions kick in; and accruing ruinous medical bills from being hit by an uninsured driver. Babies make the stupid choice of being born to homeless parents!
It’s worse than useless, it’s bad, and it’s costly!
Those 37 Osceola County homeless people piled up 1,230 arrests, resulting in 61,896 jail days at $80 per day, resulting in a cumulative price tag of $5,081,680. Keyes weighs the costs:
A far cheaper option than criminalizing and jailing the homeless is to provide them with permanent supportive housing. An average permanent supportive housing unit in Osceola County costs $9,602 per year, which includes $8,244 for rent and utility subsidies and $1,358 for a case manager (with a case load of 30 clients). In other words, each supported housing unit costs the county 40 percent less than what they’re currently paying to put homeless residents in jail.
For more on this question of costs, please see Richard R. Troxell’s Looking Up at the Bottom Line, pages 102 and 131.
Source: “Homelessness organizations look to house 100,000 by July,” Ledger-Enquirer.com, 01/12/14
Source: “Surprise! San Francisco Public Library Now a Homeless Shelter,” DailyPundit.com, 01/17/14
Source: “Hauling homeless into court a waste,” Times-Standard.com, 01/08/14
Source: “Arresting homeless people for sleeping outside costs taxpayers,” WFTV.com, 12/25/13
Source: “One County Spent Over $5 Million Jailing Homeless People Instead Of Giving
Them Homes,” ThinkProgress.org, 02/05/14
Image by ThinkProgress
In the realm of homelessness, there is always more than plenty of regrettable news to talk about. For instance, the newest fad is people thinking it’s cute to take a “selfie” photo with somebody in the background sleeping on the sidewalk. Let’s just dismiss that trend as beneath contempt and get back to the count of people experiencing homelessness in America. House the Homeless has looked at several different aspects of it.
Confusion arises from the fact that there are really two different counts. Responsible for both is the local Continuum of Care, comprising the state and local governments and other government agencies concerned with housing, as well as private nonprofits and community mental health associations (i.e., public nonprofits). From them, every year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development demands an annual Point-in-Time count
of everybody in emergency shelters, transitional housing and Safe Havens on a single night.
In addition, every other (odd-numbered) year, the Continuum of Care in each place is responsible for counting the unsheltered. Confusion arises over who is sheltered and who is not. Ivy Farguheson, reporting on the situation in Indiana, puts it like this:
The count defines homelessness in a different manner than school corporations or social service agencies. That definition also changes from time to time. In the past, those sleeping on couches or staying temporarily in rooms of friends and family members could be counted as homeless and still are by Indiana’s school corporations and almost all local nonprofits. Now, those individuals and families are not counted as homeless under the HUD definition. Those court-ordered to substance abuse programs such as some men at the Muncie Mission or others paying small fees for housing, including many women at the YWCA of Muncie, can no longer be included in the numbers.
It seems like this could cause a lot of logistical problems. For instance, the CoC administrators also have to report to the appropriate federal agencies how many rooms or beds their facilities contain, so the government knows what resources there already are in a geographical area that’s asking for more money. So the bed has to be reported as existing. And the person occupying it is counted as “sheltered” even though it’s meant to be the most temporary of accommodations. Meanwhile, that person is not being counted amount the unsheltered, or true homeless. Depending on how the numbers are presented, it can look like more beds are available than actually are, or it can look like fewer people are totally unsheltered than actually are.
So much depends on this job being done accurately and conscientiously. Taking a census is, after all, the vital first step toward directing federal funds to the right places. But social policy reporter Mikel Livingston brings to light something most people have probably never thought about:
The number of homeless as determined by the count is not directly related to the federal dollars an agency or community receives. In other words, it’s nothing like public school funding, in which a certain number of students translates into a certain number of dollars. Instead, the count is one of many requirements for those entities to be eligible to apply for funding.
Livingston writes about Tippecanoe County, also coincidentally in Indiana, and about federal policy, which results in the homeless being “severely” undercounted. He mentions some of the many glaring contradictions. In his own state, the 2013 homeless total was down slightly from the 2012 number. But he gives examples to show that “the number of homeless clients who went through just one local shelter hints at a much larger population,” concluding:
There are several things the Point-in-Time survey is good for…. But judging the overall size of Tippecanoe County’s homeless population isn’t one of them.
[I]n Indianapolis and surrounding Marion County, 1,599 homeless people were identified during the 2013 Point-in-Time survey. But an accompanying study from the Indiana University Policy Institute and the Coalition for Homelessness Intervention & Prevention estimated that between 4,800 and 8,000 people experienced homelessness during the year.
The sad fact is that House the Homeless could fill its pages with anomalies and discrepancies related to the Point-in-Time count until the next one rolls around. We remember the great advocate Mitch Snyder, who once made the suggestion that the homeless could be counted just fine, once they had been brought inside. What a great solution! Meanwhile we look forward to the day when the phrase “homeless count” causes people to scratch their heads with incomprehension, because there will be no people experiencing homelessness.
Source: “ ‘Counting’ the homeless: Official numbers don’t tell the story,” TheStarPress.com, 01/30/14
Source: “Homeless ‘Point-In-Time’ snapshot falls short,” jconline.com, 02/02/14
Image by Valerie Everett
ABT, the company hired by the government to count the homeless, collects data from the winter Point in Time surveys and puts it through a process called “imputing,” which basically means making a wild-ass guess with the assistance of some electronic device. ABT has developed at least 10 different ways of “imputing,” but no matter how it’s done, the company needs reliable numbers to start with, and that commodity seems to be in short supply. The methodology is far from being an exact science.
In regard to last year’s reported decrease in veteran homelessness, journalist Joe Pappalardo got some answers from ABT project director Alvaro Cortes and highlighted the part that critics had trouble with:
Even though HUD used different methods to tally homeless vets in 2010 and 2011, it compared the two years to produce the 12 percent drop.
That decrease might have been what Cortes calls “an artifact of changing methodologies.” Or was it what Pappalardo calls “an artifact of murky statistics”? For the purpose of receiving federal aid, how are the people experiencing homelessness counted? Statistician David Marker was designated by the American Statistical Association to answer questions from the press, and Pappalardo reported on their communication:
‘The biggest weakness of the 2010 numbers is that almost half of the localities didn’t collect any information, so in these communities the 2009 numbers were reused,’ Marker says. For this reason he prefers to use more reliable statistics generated in 2009. Comparing 2009 stats with those of 2011, Marker sees an 11 percent drop in veteran homelessness, with overall homelessness going down only 1 percent over the same time.
The journalist also contacted Greta Guarton, executive director of the Nassau-Suffolk Coalition for the Homeless, which covers Long Island. At the time, it seemed to Guarton that ending veteran homelessness was at the top of a lot of people’s lists in Washington but, she said, “no one really knows how many homeless veterans there even are.” At the time of that interview, in January of 2012, she had not seen any decrease, getting more calls from homeless veterans than ever.
Last month in Nassau and Suffolk counties, as in many other parts of the nation, volunteers braved sub-freezing temperatures as they searched for non-sheltered people. Because more than a foot of snow fell in the area, only half the expected volunteers came out. On the other hand, midwinter counting has one advantage — the visibility of footprints leading to buildings where people take refuge. Timothy Bolger learned this by following Guarton around as she shouted questions at various abandoned houses.
But when footprints are evident, the people inside often decline to make their presence known, for any number of reasons. If they happen to be undocumented immigrants, there is no upside for them. They are not eligible for emergency housing or anything else, and could end up being deported. As the reporter eloquently phrases it, “the margin of error for polling such a transient group is incalculable.”
As for Long Island’s homeless veteran population, Bolger learned that mental illness and substance abuse are still significant problems. But help has arrived in the form of Services for the Underserved, a New York-based nonprofit vet group that set up a branch on Long Island this year and formed alliances with local veteran groups.
This may or may not enhance the accuracy of the next count. People who live in their cars, for instance, are very hard to keep track of. People in jail or in psychiatric or rehab facilities are not counted, even though many of them would have no place to call home if released — and despite the fact that these people are under government supervision, their statistics are not made available to the curious. Bolger goes on to say:
Suffolk officials report a more than 62-percent increase in individuals seeking temporary housing assistance over the past five years….
LI’s homeless coalition reports a 42-percent hike in sheltered people in the county from ’09 to ’12….
The population of people who are homeless on LI is by estimates up 18 percent in the five years following the 2008 Wall Street crash that caused the Great Recession….
Guarton expects the stats for LI’s unsheltered to be lower than reality.
Source: “How Does Washington D.C. Count America’s Homeless Vets?” PopularMechanics.com, 01/19/12
Source: “Homeless: More People Live on the Streets Amid Arctic Blasts than Stats Show,” LongIslandPress.com, 02/01/14
Image by MarineCorps NewYork