The important thing about this news story is not its timeliness, or the people’s race, or age, or which American state, or any other mundane detail. This story is a stand-in for scenarios taking place all over the country every day. It goes beyond generic into classic, because of the assumptions behind it. As journalists are taught to do, Zack McDonald sums up the facts in the first sentence of his article:
A homeless couple has been arrested on charges of child neglect after police found them camping in the woods with their 2-year-old child exposed to the elements…
Wait a minute. What’s wrong with that? Aspen and Vail are full of 2-year-olds exposed to the elements. Those ski slopes are cold! Whereas this story happened in a place with a subtropical climate and an average temperature of 74 degrees, this time of year.
Both parents were charged with placing the child in danger of physical and mental injury when officers investigated the conditions of the camp, and the child was taken into protective custody.
The first question that springs to mind is whether the child was ever left alone in the woodsy camp, or always in the presence of an adult. This important information was not given. McDonald reports the facts from the police department’s documentation, which covers only part of the situation, because at the time the story was published, more criminal charges were expected.
On a higher level, what kind of a catch-all criminal charge is that anyway? Every person on earth is in danger of physical or mental injury, at every moment, including those kids on skis. Here is another messed-up angle. Apparently, the police find the crime of living in the woods particularly heinous because, in their estimation, these people didn’t really have to live there.
It would be different if they were just down on their luck, but… they had the means to help themselves.
So claims Sgt. Aaron Wilson, in an example of cop logic at its most ludicrous. He says the mother had “enough U.S. currency on her, which she could have rented a motel room.” Really? For how long? One night, before the family would be back out in the woods again with nothing left for food or diapers? What if the only motel in the area requires that guests have a car, and they don’t? What if they can’t reach a motel without walking for miles along a busy highway, exposing their child to massive air pollution and the danger of being hit by a truck? What if the motel requires picture I.D., and for one of any number of possible reasons, they don’t have it? If they spend their money on exorbitantly-priced temporary accommodation, how are they supposed to save up the first and last month’s rent, plus security deposit, that they will need to move into an apartment, provided that anyone will rent them one?
Law Enforcement and Cash
Whatever amount the mother had, the officer characterized it as “more money than most people carry around.” For starters, a lot of people these days never carry cash, because they have credit cards and debit cards and pay their bills online with direct bank transfers. Nowadays, having cash is proof of belonging to the lower class.
However much the woman had, maybe it was earmarked for something—like a vaccination for the kid, or to buy a bus ticket out of town. The point is, we don’t know, and neither did the police, and it’s none of their business anyway.
Though the couple did not have a permanent residence…Parker Police were hesitant to call them “homeless.”… After further investigation, officers also found that the couple had been paying rent on a storage unit and were paying two cellphone bills…
The implication seems to be that according to the police, to truly deserve the status of homeless, people are supposed to own absolutely nothing. It’s also disturbing how the police don’t seem to be aware that even the cost of a storage unit and two phones is still only a small fraction of what it takes to actually live under a roof.
Police reported that witnesses had seen the couple and child coming and going from the camp site for weeks. The site had several blankets, but no tent or shelter.
To call the observers “witnesses” instead of neighbors really reinforces the idea that people experiencing homelessness are criminals. And what about these witnesses? During all these weeks of seeing the couple and child, how many of them came forward to offer a tent or sleeping bag, or the room above their garage, or a hot meal?
The child was turned over to the care of the…Department of Children and Families after immediate family…declined to take custody.
The public is supposed to assume that if relatives won’t help by taking in the child, these must be incredibly bad people. But maybe the only living relative is a grandparent with one leg, who has kidney dialysis five times a week, and can’t possibly care for a child. Or what if the mother’s side won’t take the child because they disapprove of the father’s religious affiliation? We don’t have a clue about what’s going on, but are all too ready to judge.
And speaking of prejudicial language, when authorities approached, the father “fled on foot” (only to be rounded up later.) Well, what was he supposed to do, stick around and volunteer to be arrested and locked up too? From that helpless position, how could he ever rescue his woman and child from custody?
Now, there may be reasons why this particular couple deserves jail time. But none of the reasons cited in the article actually qualifies—not in a decent society. There may be reasons why the child should be taken away and the parents incarcerated—but they have not yet been heard. What about “family values?” What about sticking together and trying to make it on their own? Obviously these parents did not want to hand their child over to the state, and for that, on a heart level, can they really be blamed?
Source: “Homeless couple charged with child neglect
Image by Daniel R. Blume
Emily Topper, writing for The Gargoyle at Flagler College, examined the process of obtaining an I.D. in Florida, and found a system rigged against people experiencing homelessness
This rigged system is repeated in many localities throughout the U.S. Topper spoke with Mark Samson, a Community Resource Officer, who said:
In order to get a Social Security card, they need to have some type of ID card. But in order to get that, they must have the Social Security card.
This is a classic Catch-22 situation, and the damage it does can not be overstated. There may be scattered exceptions, but in most places a person needs I.D. to open a bank account, cash a check, apply for a job, or rent a Post Office box. The laws have even been tightened to prevent someone with no proof of a permanent physical address from using a private mailbox facility. Is the insanity of that sinking in? The person who most needs it, because of having no place to actually live, cannot obtain a mailing address.
The days of anonymous Greyhound Bus journeys are over, because a photo I.D. must be presented even if the ticket is paid for in cash. Without I.D., a person can’t rent a hotel or motel room (or even, as a recent widely publicized case demonstrated, occupy a room paid for by kind strangers.)
A person in need of any kind of government assistance, whether it be food stamps, medical treatment, or disability benefits, is ineligible without I.D. And good luck getting into a temporary shelter. Sure, whoever runs the shelter needs to protect guests from violent criminals and sexual predators. But the policy, as it stands, also puts vulnerable people at risk by leaving them on the streets with the violent criminals and sexual predators.
A Typical Story
Topper relates the story of Vincent Youngberg of St. Augustine. During a recent incarceration, his vehicle registration had expired and a ticket went unpaid, so the car was impounded. After being released from prison, Youngberg learned that getting the car back would require I.D., which in turn would require a Social Security card, birth certificate, and two proofs of residency. And money for the towing and storage fees, of course. Before he could get any of this together, the impoundment contractor sold the car along with its contents—including the birth certificate that Youngberg needed to prove his existence.
Requesting a replacement birth certificate is a red-tape-intensive job that involves the ability to fill out forms, a payment to the bureaucracy, a usable mailing address, and a long, long wait while the state in question takes weeks or months to process the application. It amounts to such a grueling ordeal that some specialist agency workers and volunteers do nothing but help people acquire the paperwork to validate their lives. Homeless advocates in St. Augustine work with a couple of substitutes which, though inadequate, are “better than nothing.” Beth Kuhn, a caseworker at the St. Francis House, told the reporter:
If [the homeless] were treated at Flagler Hospital, they can ask for a face-sheet from the records office there. This sheet is accepted at the Social Security office, and they will give you a printout… valid enough to get a real state ID. Once you have that, you can go back and get a real Social Security card.
Not exactly a miracle of accommodation, but better than the alternative. Topper says a person leaving prison receives a practically useless paper with a picture and booking information, and quotes Vincent Youngberg:
It never expires, but no one except law enforcement accepts it. I don’t understand it. I was fingerprinted when I was released from prison. Why can’t they use those fingerprints? Why can’t they just give me a photo I.D.? Even if it was a temporary one for 90 days, just so I could get something.
Is the irony sufficiently glaring? The fingerprints of former inmates are in the system, along with their complete histories, their facial biometrics, and probably their DNA. The government was sufficiently convinced of their identities, letting them serve the sentences. Shouldn’t they at least come out of prison with viable identification?
Source: “Homeless struggle to obtain IDs, Social Security cards in Florida,” Flagler.edu, 10/25/13
Image by brykmantra
The barbers of Rome were among the first to get on board with the Vatican’s plan for a beautiful and useful facility near St. Peter’s Square where people experiencing homelessness can get cleaned up. The hair specialists have donated barber chairs and other necessary equipment, and have pledged their time and talents. Haircuts are offered on Mondays, and showers six days a week, at the historic location that opened earlier this month.
Monsignor Konrad Krajewski, the papal almoner (person in charge of giving alms), handed out 400 sleeping bags in December and 300 umbrellas that had been left by visitors to the Vatican’s various museums. Regarding the new cleanliness center, his office announced:
Our pilgrims without a home will receive, along with a shower, a complete change of underwear and a kit with a towel, soap, toothpaste, razor, shaving cream and deodorant, according to different individual needs.
The financing comes from businesses, individuals, and the sale of “parchments certifying a papal blessing,” says writer Carol Glatz, who adds more good news:
The Vatican communiqué said the St. Peter’s shower project is part of a larger initiative, in partnership with local parishes, to install similar amenities throughout the city in areas where there are soup kitchens and large numbers of homeless people.
The Catholic Herald page also presents a concise, one-minute video tour of the new shower facilities. House the Homeless has mentioned Pope Francis before, because of HtH founder Richard R. Troxell’s collaboration with Timothy P. Schmalz, the Canadian artist who created the sculpture “Jesus the Homeless.” Casts of it can now be found in many American cities, and when a smaller-scale version visited the Vatican, the Pope looked favorably upon it. If Rome’s city government approves, a full-size statue may be placed along the Via della Conziliazione.
Showers and Flip Flops in America
In the summer of 2014, six teenagers in Savannah, Georgia, wanted to do something useful, so they asked around and learned that the Inner City Night Shelter and the Social Apostalate could use shower shoes. While both facilities offered showers to people experiencing homelessness, their budgets didn’t stretch to preventative measures against athlete’s foot. So the kids raised money for 3,200 pairs of flip-flops.
In July, Bethany Grace Community Church in Bridgeton, New Jersey, inaugurated a shower and clean underwear program, church-open-shower-program-homeless/12119441/open two hours every Saturday morning.
The picture at the top of this page is from Project WeHOPE, in Palo Alto, California, which is currently raising funds for the Dignity on Wheels project. The organization hopes to put its trailer on the road, bringing restrooms, showers, and washing machines to those in need.
WeHOPE opened a full-time shelter in November, and plans to send a nurse or a case manager along with the hygiene trailer when it starts up. Like San Francisco’s Lava Mae project, in addition to helping people directly, the intention is relieve the local hospitals by providing some prevention and intervention, reducing the overall amount of illness.
Source: “Vatican unveils free showers and haircuts for the homeless,” CatholicHerald.co.uk, 02/07/15
Source: “Flip Flop Drop Provides Shower Shoes to the Homeless in Georgia,” People.com, 07/24/14
Source: “Church to open shower program for homeless,” TheDailyJournal.com. 07/04/14
Source: “This Really Simple Idea Could Change Homeless People’s Lives,” ThinkProgress.org, 02/03/15
Image by Dignity on Wheels
One of the traditions of House the Homeless (founded in 1989) is the survey through which people experiencing homelessness in Austin, Texas, can go on record about various matters that affect their lives. The questions were composed by the organization’s president and founder, Richard R. Troxell, who is also Director of Legal Aid for the Homeless.
This year’s topic, presented at the annual Thermal Underwear Distribution Party, was “Protect and Serve,” and concerned interactions with the police. One word instantly springs to mind when describing the results: appalling.
277 participants, averaging 45 years of age, answered the questions, with about four times as many males as females responding. A lot of mistreatment is the petty kind of stuff that housed people rarely encounter, like being told to “move along” when in a public place. Then, there is another tier of harassment, revealed in answer to the question, “Did you ever get a ticket, go to court, then be told your ticket is not in the system yet and you would have to return?”
The Community Court system is supposed to be an improvement on the old way of handling minor crime, but in far too many cases, as Richard notes, it “actually hinders their ability to change their condition of being homeless.” Here is how he puts it:
We have been told that people have often had to return to the court multiple times before a ticket is reported to the court. If a person is unable to coordinate their response with the submittal of the ticket, then it will “go to warrant.” This will result in the arrest of the individual for what was otherwise only a class C ticket, equivalent to a parking ticket.
When you don’t have a car or a telephone or a computer; when there is no secure place to store your belongings; when you don’t have the right clothes or accessories to protect yourself from the weather; when you don’t know where your next meal will come from or where you will sleep that night; when you are physically disabled or suffering from mental illness— EVERYTHING is enormously difficult.
So, what does the system do? Too often, it responds by demanding that you show up somewhere that is hard to get to, dragging everything you own along because there is no safe place to leave it. You have to walk a long way, or wait for transportation that you might be unable to pay for—and don’t even think about trying to break the law against hitch-hiking. You have to get there on time, regardless of how hot or cold it is outside, or how much pain you may be having.
It Gets Worse
And then, too often, the system says you have to come back because, through no fault of your own, the system isn’t ready for you. Or it punishes you for not knowing you were supposed to show up, or insists on your attendance at some place far from the nearest food source and at the wrong time of day to make it back in time to eat or even worse, to sign up for a bed. And if you have one or more children to worry about, everything is exponentially more demanding.
It’s as if the system is deliberately and maliciously designed to crush the spirit and drain the last ounce of energy and hope from a person—and Austin is a model city, better than a lot of other American cities by many orders of magnitude. Imagine what hellish places some of them must be! Austin’s No Sit/No Lie ordinance is shining example of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act—and yet, even that hard-won, monumental victory has not succeeded in compelling the police to always do the right thing.
The Protect and Serve Survey results were sent, along with a cover letter written by Richard R. Troxell, to Austin’s City Manager, Police Chief, Mayor, Mayor Pro Tem, City Council members, Public Safety commissioners, Human Rights commissioners, and to the National Coalition for the Homeless— and future posts will have more to say about it.
Image by Picture 084
The homepage of Lava Mae is a model of classic simplicity and clarity. “Mobile showers for the homeless,” it says, and lists the vital information front and center. On Wednesdays the San Francisco hygiene bus is parked at a women’s center; on Thursdays and Fridays at a venue in the fabled Tenderloin district; and on Saturdays at a resource center in the historic Mission district.
The bus has two bathrooms, with a sink, toilet, and shower in each. People sign up ahead of time for ten minute slots, and are assured a private and safe bathing experience. Lava Mae is a pun on the Spanish for “wash me,” and the official motto is “Delivering dignity, one shower at a time.” Founder Doniece Sandoval once told a reporter:
The United Nations states that access to clean water is a basic human right, but for many residents in our city, that is clearly not a reality. This is about restoring some of their dignity.
This was back in 2013, when Sandoval was working on design basics and figuring out where to get the money to turn her vision into reality. Her vision came from a street incident, when she walked past a young homeless woman who lamented out loud that she would never be clean again.
At the time, the Lava Mae crew reckoned it would cost as much as $100,000 to retrofit a single bus. San Francisco Municipal Transit donated one of its retired vehicles and committed to follow up with more if the pilot project worked out.
Lava Mae’s Origins
By year’s end, at least ten organizations were lending their support. (Currently, the Partners page lists quite a few more businesses and agencies who help in some way. The social networking site Twitter, for instance, donated laptop computers for the staff.)
An online crowdfunding campaign that aimed to raise $75,000 only made $58,000, but more donations came from other sources. At that time, the yearly budget was anticipated to be more than $300,000, and it was estimated that a top-performing bus could handle 500 showers a day. The opening date was projected as March 2014, and with astonishing optimism the group hoped to have four buses remodeled and operative by then, an ambition that sadly did not come true. The timetable had to be adjusted too, with the opening month moved to June.
Thanks to her day job in public relations, Sandoval had developed immense skill working with the media, as shown by the extensive collection of news articles featured on the Lava Mae site. Wired, Huffington Post, Al Jazeera, Washington Post, Newsweek, and Fast Company are only a few of the publications where stories appeared.
Started by Private Citizens
The words “started by private citizens” appear in the organization’s biography, and that concept is of primary importance. Sandoval and the other creators of Lava Mae are just regular people, and they want other regular people to understand how much is possible when problems are met with originality and determination. At the same time, they are eager to share their knowledge with anyone who is interested. The website says:
We’ve been contacted by groups and individuals across the globe – from Singapore to Sao Paulo, LA to Atlanta – who want to create a Lava Mae for their community.
We’re here to help. Our business plan, budget, best pracitces and insights are there for the asking. Let’s create a mobile revolution!
Source: “New Startup Hopes To Create Homeless Showers In Repurposed Muni Buses ,
Source: “Nonprofit Retrofits Buses as Mobile Showers for the Homeless,” TriplePundit.com, 10/18/13
Image by Lava Mae
In a four-year period, the county of Arlington, Virginia, figured out how to house 100 families and about 300 chronically homeless adults, while at the same time saving the taxpayers a ton of money. In that neck of the woods, it costs about $45,000 a year for someone to “bounce between shelters, jail and hospital emergency rooms” as compared to $22,000 a year it takes to put them under a roof. As the saying goes, it’s a no-brainer. “Housing First” is the wave of the future.
People experiencing homelessness often have problems that contributed to their becoming homeless. But the Housing First philosophy says that in order to fix those other problems, they need a place to live as a base to work from. While detox programs and other facilities are available, and the pursuit of health is encouraged, imperfection is allowed. Even addicts, alcoholics, and the mentally ill are eligible for housing. For the Washington Post, Patricia Sullivan reports:
Arlington has a master spreadsheet that lists homeless individuals by name. The spreadsheet includes whether the people want housing, what health problems they have, their income sources and anything that might help or hinder their search for a home … One person takes responsibility for each name on the spreadsheet. They go line by line, brainstorming about which public and private treatment programs and funding can be tapped to help each homeless person.
The technique starts with data from the annual homeless count and more significantly, from “carefully cultivated contacts,” including staff at shelters and food distribution centers. The task force that meets monthly includes social services personnel from the county, health specialists, and advocates.
From Kathleen Sibert, who directs A-SPAN (Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network), the journalist learned the importance of “breaking down the silos,” which means ignoring agency divisions to draw on the expertise of everyone present, even if the needy individual does not directly qualify for benefits or aid from their particular agency.
One of the most important services is help with ID issues. After years or decades on the streets, documenting the fact that you exist can be a nightmare, and re-entry into society requires paperwork. 95 percent of the people helped over the last 4 years are said to be still in place. Some landed in jail, some were evicted, and some even found better places to live.
Reportedly, the method followed in Arlington is scalable, and could work in much larger cities. Like Washington, D.C., perhaps, which is right down the road, and said to be “operating in crisis mode.” Apparently D.C. had a strong “Housing First” culture a couple of mayoral administrations back. Then things started to slip, but are now predicted to improve.
A lot of the problems homeless people have are the result of being homeless. They don’t want to be without ID, but sometimes stuff gets stolen. They don’t want to be hygienically challenged, but there is no place to wash up. They don’t want to lose teeth, but dentistry is a luxury beyond their wildest dreams. An awful lot of homeless people, once they have a place to live and a job, are indistinguishable from you or me. That’s because you and I, if we are like most Americans, are just a paycheck or two away from having the bottom drop out and seeing our worlds collapse.
Source: “Arlington’s no-silos approach has housed hundreds of chronically homeless adults,” WashingtonPost.com, 01/31/15
Source: “Bowser administration says DC ‘operating in crisis mode’ on homeless issue.” WashingtonPost.com, 01/30/15
Image by Cliff
Dr. Mark Gordon’s traumatic brain injury (TBI) treatment program could be a life-changer for a huge number of veterans, including many who have sunk into chronic homelessness and many more who are at risk. TBI is so prevalent that some journalists refer to it as the “signature wound” of the American presence in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
The public perception of head trauma is pretty much limited to damage done by roadside bombs, as seen on television. But jumping out of a truck can cause as much damage as an improvised explosive device, if someone does it enough. Mere acceleration or deceleration can have an effect that never goes away (think about whiplash, and then think about what that same motion would do to the brain). A lot of life events cause brain damage in small increments that can add up to tragedy.
Add to that other random factors like football. A healthy young soldier probably played sports in school, and got a “head start” on a life-threatening brain condition. A helmet does not help, because it can’t stop the brain from slamming against the inside of the skull, which causes direct damage. Of course, veterans are not the only victims. A disproportionate number of civilians experiencing homelessness have head injuries in their medical histories.
What Happens Over Time
Dr. Gordon has found shocking deficits in the pituitary hormones of head injury patients. For instance, a shortage of growth hormone causes serious psychological, emotional, and neurological problems. We’re talking about muscular weakness, obesity, sleep loss, heart attack risk, hypertension, diabetes, memory loss, anger outbursts, attention failure, mood swings, and the inevitable depression that will haunt anyone in such a miserable state of health. As Dr. Gordon explained to journalist Joseph Carrington, the long-range consequences are weighty:
These processes include alterations in cerebral blood flow and increased pressure within the skull, contributing substantially to damage from the initial injury… Increasingly, we are discovering that traumatic brain injury is also a causative factor for accelerated hormonal deficiencies.
It starts with the hypothalamus. Via the connection known as neuroendocrine function, it rules the pituitary, which in turn sends out orders to the various endocrine glands, telling them to secrete more of something and less of something else. Damaged by traumatic brain injury, the hypothalamus and pituitary can get out of sync, and only interventional endocrinology can restore their balance.
Even the world of professional sports has started paying attention to how the effects of small, secondary injuries can accumulate over time. They cause symptoms that don’t show up for years. When a person retires from the boxing ring or is discharged from the military, an exit physical will not reveal every possible problem — far from it.
A Bum Rap
Testosterone is another chemical whose insufficiency brings serious repercussions to the traumatic brain injury patient. This fact is very controversial because of the hormone’s negative image. The medical and military establishments see it as a vanity drug that bodybuilders use to cheat in competitions. Also, the public intuitively associates testosterone with violence. The feeling is that a certain number of brain-damaged warriors are already volatile and potentially aggressive — why add fuel to the fire? But, as Dr. Gordon explains, “it doesn’t work that way.”
He defines yet another serious problem:
Unfortunately, people with so-called minor traumatic brain injury, who comprise the largest group of brain-injured patients, have no visible damage at all on brain scans.
In other words, this type of devastation will probably not be uncovered unless the doctor looks for hormonal deficiency. For this reason, brain injury is often misdiagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder and therefore untreated or under-treated.
Like PTSD victims, patients with hormone deficiencies show up with depression, low energy, fatigue, poor emotional state, poor quality of life, and bad disability rating scores. It is easy to mistake one condition for the other, and indeed some people are afflicted with both. But it is no longer necessary to make this mistake, when apparently it can be avoided by asking the right questions and administering the relevant blood test to detect pituitary dysfunction.
Another frequent problem with VA medicine is that even if the doctors recognize, for instance, testosterone deficiency, they tend to prescribe far too much of the hormone. When Dr. Gordon accepts a patient, his pioneering protocol begins with the panel of hormone tests. After a complete physical exam and a detailed narrative history, he creates an individualized hormone replacement program in which both physical and cognitive functions are re-evaluated every month. (In April, he will teach his method to 100 doctors who recognize that once in a while, a Big Answer comes along, and this might be one of them.)
The Patient Who Went Public
Former Navy SEAL Matthew Gosney describes the long, drawn-out VA process of being prescribed one thing, then another, then something a bit stronger (“come back in 3 months”) and finally winding up on a total of 12 meds, 3 of them opium derivatives, and none of them effective. If not for Dr. Gordon, he says, he would be dead. Gosney is working on a book, Hidden Wounds
I went years with hormonal deficiencies that were not tested for … on a protocol that did not and could not help me recover … The second part of the book focuses on PTSD and how after getting physiologically back to baseline I was finally in a place where the hidden wounds of my mind could finally be processed and dealt with … The purpose of this book is to get information out there so veterans can be empowered and take back their lives. There is hope and an answer.
Source: “Using Hormones to Heal Traumatic Brain Injuries,” lef.org, January 2012
Image by Matthew Gosney
German Lopez of Vox.com has published a very enlightening essay called “11 myths about homelessness in America.”
Perhaps the saddest is Myth #2 — “Getting a job will keep someone out of homelessness.” If only! Instead, as House the Homeless has emphasized many times, even full-time work is no guarantee of living inside walls. That condition of being employed, yet unable to afford housing, is called “economic homelessness,” and it is ugly. Not only ugly, but absurd. In what universe would these words make any sense?
The National Low Income Housing Coalition found a full-time minimum wage worker would have to work between 69 and 174 hours a week, depending on the state, to pay for an “affordable” two-bedroom rental unit … A full-time minimum wage worker couldn’t afford a one- or two-bedroom apartment at Fair Market Rent, a standard set by the federal government, in any state.
Source: “11 myths about homelessness in America,” Vox.com. 01/15/15
Image by David Shankbone