The 2015 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress, available as an 80-page PDF file, is the most recent and comprehensive federal report on homelessness in America.
In any discussion of homeless statistics it is important to remember that information-gathering in this area is not an infallible science. House the Homeless has discussed the many difficulties before. All statistics come with caveats, or should, but for the purpose of this post, we take the AHAR numbers on faith.
Another problem connected with such endeavors is expressing the final numbers in meaningful ways. One person experiencing homelessness may belong to many subgroups: female, veteran, Hispanic, family member, disabled, and so on. It is beyond the scope of this post to thoroughly examine the numbers in all groups and all their implications.
Perhaps most worrisome is the subcategory known in the report as “Chronically Homeless Families with Children.” Almost two-thirds of people in this classification were staying in shelters (64%, or 8,412 people), and the rest lived in unsheltered conditions (36%, or 4,693 people).
Since 2007, the overall “families with children” number decreased in 32 states while it increased in 18 states and DC. More than half of all the homeless people in families with children are accounted for by five states: New York, California, Massachusetts, Florida, and Texas. It is said that between 2014 and 2015, the “chronically homeless families with children” number by 14%.
Of all homeless people in families, 48.7% — that’s almost half — are African American. Of that number, almost exactly half live in shelters. Different as they might seem, families have something in common with veterans. A total of 12.8% of the people in the U.S. identify as African-American and 15.45 as Hispanic, yet 56% (well over half) of homeless veterans belong to one of those two groups. The technical term for this is “over-represented.”
Children are relatively easy to keep track of because of mandatory education. But the census-availability spectrum has another end. Veterans who don’t want to be counted, or are so far out of touch that they don’t even think about it, are a slippery and elusive bunch. In some of America’s gnarliest backwaters small bands of dedicated vets search for their lost comrades in order to connect them with services.
Nationally, since 2009, the total number of homeless vets is said to have decreased from 73,367 to 47,725, which is encouraging. On the other hand, the percentage of homeless women vets has risen disproportionately to their number. Female vets are twice as likely, or even three times as likely, to be homeless as any other population group.
Particularly worrisome is the fact that “About one-half of all veterans experiencing homelessness who have participated in VA homeless assistance programs are involved in the justice system.” This overlap is the basis of the vicious cycle that many veterans are caught in. Their lives alternate between incarceration and the streets in classic “revolving door” fashion.
It’s hard to discover whether incarcerated vets and VA hospital inpatients count as homeless. On the darkest side of the equation, it has been pointed out that many vets have evaded showing up in the homeless statistics by committing suicide.
Older and Elder
Almost all housed Americans hold some kind of mental stereotype that probably doesn’t match up with who the people experiencing homelessness actually are. Many picture a brash young panhandler, or a teenage girl who meets men at truck stops. Shockingly, more than half of the homeless population is older than 50, but the distribution across decades is not smooth. “Older” persons between 50 and 64 constitute a big demographic bulge. The National Coalition for the Homeless says:
There is a relatively low percentage of ‘elder’ (aged 65 and over) homeless persons’ among the current homeless population. This smaller proportion may be due to the increased availability of successful safety net programs, which only kick-in at a certain age including:
- Subsidized housing — Available at age 62
- Medicare — Available at age 65
- Social Security benefits — Available at age 65
Still, the waiting lists for subsidized housing are long, and a basic problem faced by many people lack of documentation. A person can spend decades on the street with no paperwork, but for many, the attempt to hook up with services sets off a chain reaction of bureaucratic demands and Kafkaesque frustration.
Source: “The 2015 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress,” HUDexchange.info, November 2015
Source: “Veteran Homelessness Facts,” DVNF.org, undated
Source: “Breaking the Cycle of Veteran Incarceration and Homelessness: Emerging Community Practices,” USICH.gov, undated
Source: “Elder Homelessness,” NationalHomeless.org, undated
Photo credit: Ben Tavener via Visualhunt/CC BY
Granted, the situation described in Fort Worth, TX, in May was dire, with residents being attacked by “transients,” especially after a tent city in nearby Dallas was forcibly depopulated. But still, this headline is worded in a pretty offensive way: “Families, business owners ‘fed up’ with homeless in Fort Worth.” According to this insensitive phraseology, both business owners and families are totally separate and distinct populations, not overlapping with “homeless” at all.
True, there are not many homeless business owners. But there are plenty of homeless families, despite this headline pretending that “homeless” and “family” are radical opposites like “acid” and “alkaline.” This headline implies that they are mutually exclusive terms. It tries to give the impression that families are never homeless, and people experiencing homelessness are never families.
And another thing: If housed families are “fed up” with homelessness, imagine how homeless families feel about homelessness. Would “fed up” be an adequate term to describe how a parent feels about being unable to shelter and protect and nurture his or her own children? Would “fed up” be strong enough words to describe how it feels to see no future?
A matter of interpretation
Then, there is the type of headline that makes false promises. “Solve homelessness by addressing its root causes” gives the impression that some hard-hitting journalism will follow, pointing a finger perhaps at the cabal of bankers that caused a worldwide recession in 2008, or the cynical mortgage brokers who allowed the housing market to lose all semblance of sanity, or the businesses that refuse to pay their workers a living wage.
But at what is the finger pointed? What are the identified root causes of homelessness? Mental health issues and substance abuse, and people. Journalist Richard R. Bebout writes, “People with persistent mental illness and substance-use disorders make up a disproportionately high percentage of the District’s homeless population.”
Well yes, they do. But is it possible that isn’t where the real blame lies? Rather than people with mental health issues, maybe the problem is a system totally unequipped to handle mental health issues. Maybe the problem is a country that, unlike every other developed nation in the world, staunchly resists the idea of creating a universal healthcare system.
Maybe the problem is a government addicted to war. Maybe the problem is a society that alienates more and more of its members every year, to the point where they shun reality in favor of a drugged stupor.
There are a lot of candidates for the causes of homelessness, and somebody out there can make a pretty good case for any one of them. But mental illness and substance-use disorders are not simply causes of homelessness. Those two conditions are equally the result of homelessness. Substance abuse and mental illness are symptomatic of much larger problems that are the true causes of homelessness.
In the old days there were workhouses, insane asylums, orphanages, and prisons where society’s unwanted members could be warehoused, and mostly they were horrible places. At the same time, for many families, a lower cost of living and more spacious homes allowed for options. In the old days, more families could afford to donate a spare room to an ailing relative, and maybe even shelter another relative to help care for the first one.
Here is another eye-popping, jaw-dropping piece of news, this time from Great Britain. After one sentence of run-up, the important part is in bold print:
Section 21 eviction notices served on 3 February at the block, which also contains owner-occupied flats, state:
All tenants are being asked kindly to leave Carpenters Place and find alternative accommodation so that the company can continue with helping the ever growing need of homelessness.
At least here there is no doubt about what is happening, and no blame is directed at medical conditions. Alon Aviram writes:
Termination of private-sector tenancies was the leading cause of homelessness in Bristol last year according to government statistics…
Source: “Families, business owners ‘fed up’ with homeless in Fort Worth,” KHOU.com, 05/20/16
Source: “Solve homelessness by addressing its root causes,” WashingtonPost.com, 05/20/16
Source: “Bristol firm profiting from housing homeless — by kicking other tenants out,” TheBristolCable.org, 05/27/16
Photo credit: Ben Tavener via Visualhunt/CC BY
At the beginning of this year Seattle, Washington, already had a couple of safe-parking zones in the Ballard, Interbay and Sodo areas of the city. People could park their RVs and live there on a permit that was renewable each week. The city provided trash removal, portable toilets, and case management (if the person chose), with money made available after the mayor declared a state of emergency. It cost the city around $270 per month per vehicle to run a “zone.”
Also, in January, the city announced that it would open two “safe lots.” Unlike the “zones,” the safe lots would allow people to stay for a month at a time. Rather than optional, case management would be mandatory. The “safe lot” concept is different from the “zone” in other ways. The safe lot comes with water, electricity, a communal cooking tent, and full-time security staffing.
Opening the Ballard safe lot in February had consequences. One was that the Ballard “zone” closed, making its residents homeless again. The Ballard safe lot was never meant to be permanent, and indeed the land is only available until August, when the safe lot may be relocated or the idea may be abandoned entirely.
And the unexpected cost of the first safe lot changed the city’s mind about opening a second one. The planned second site, in Delridge, would have cost nearly the same amount, but would have held only half the number of vehicles.
Two safe zones had their time extended for two months. All in all, the net gain, in terms of improving the lives of actual humans, was not very impressive. Daniel DeMay writes that “city staff didn’t know exactly how much such a project would cost”:
[…] about a month after the Ballard lot opened […] it became clear that the cost was a lot higher than anyone expected.
[…] one parking lot, with about 20 vehicles in it, was costing the city $35,000 per month, and that’s on top of the setup costs of $24,689
[…] the city is renting the lot from Seattle Public Utilities at a rate of $7,522 per month
[…] the largest cost is staffing — almost $19,000 per month, due to the need to have 24-hour staff on site…
The monthly cost pencils out to about $1,750 per vehicle — more than the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Seattle.
This story quotes city official Sola Plumacher as saying, “We have never done a safe lot. We didn’t really have a sense of what the costs were.” But why? How can this be? Has no other city ever undertaken a similar project? Doesn’t shareable information exist about the costs on some government website? Why is it necessary to reinvent the wheel? Couldn’t someone have made a phone call to learn the hourly rates for whatever type of rent-a-cops were needed? Isn’t the pay scale of a case manager a known element?
More questions: Why can’t Seattle Public Utilities take $1 a month instead of more than $7,000 a month, for land that nobody else would pay to rent anyway? For decades, the film industry has trained experts to estimate the cost of a project with pinpoint accuracy. Couldn’t a city hire one of them?
Seattle is a big place, with many homeless interventions going on. The Safe Parking pilot project started back around 2011 and yielded a grand total of seven parking spaces, provided by two churches. At the time, it was estimated that between 500 and 1,500 people lived in vehicles on any given day, so the scale of the problem is evident and has only become worse.
This year, while bemoaning the unanticipated cost of one safe lot with a 20-vehicle capacity, the city was also planning to clear out “the Jungle” and evict 300 people without even vehicles to live in. Guess what happened in May? On the Interbay land where 25 RV-dwellers had been living, the lease ran out and a call was issued to friendly mechanics to come and help the people with un-drivable vehicles get out of there within a week.
Sure, it’s always easy to “Monday morning quarterback” the other guy’s mistakes until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes, and so on. But really, Seattle? Really?
Source: “City had no idea ‘safe lots’ for homeless would be so costly,” Seattlepi.com, 03/31/16
Source: “Program to help homeless living in cars off to slow, steady start,” SeattleTimes.com, 12/25/12
Source: “Homeless in Seattle’s Interbay area have one week to leave RV ‘Safe Lot’,” q13fox.com, 05/26/16
Photo credit: tiffany98101 via Visual Hunt/CC BY
At the end of 2014, the National Center on Family Homelessness reported that America contained 2.5 million homeless children. The data came from the Census Bureau and the U.S. Dept of Education, which apparently defined homelessness as having no fixed residence, or living in accommodations not meant for human habitation (like garages, storage lockers, etc.), or in “some kind of temporary housing,” or as being on the verge of losing their housing.
One reason for the difficulty of discussing this issue is that various agencies define homelessness in different ways. The Dept. of Housing and Urban Development doesn’t recognize “doubling up” with another family as technically being homeless — or at least, sets up more hoops to jump through when a family is in this situation.
In one way, this is quite fair, because at least they have a bathroom and cooking facilities and even enough space to lie down and sleep — unlike a family living in a car. Still, the “doubled up” situation soon becomes untenable for both hosts and guests.
Another complication is that the people most likely to take in a homeless family are probably poverty-stricken themselves, and if they receive assistance to pay for their housing, Section 8 rules forbid sharing. To take in relatives or friends is to risk losing one’s own housing, and once a family is kicked out of the program, it is highly unlikely that they will ever get back in. So the end result is a large number of “invisible” homeless families who, even if they are counted in the statistics, probably can’t expect help that really makes a difference.
Last month, for CNS News, Susan Jones compared the 2009-10 school year figure with the 2013-14 number and found a 38.44% increase in the number of homeless students nationwide. The U.S. Department of Education recognizes four types of homeless students. One is sheltered, which includes those waiting for foster care placement. Another is “unsheltered,” and fortunately only 3% of these kids fall into that designation, which encompasses abandoned buildings, public spaces, and homeless “camps.” Another subcategory of homelessness is for kids residing in a hotel or motel; and the fourth is the “doubled-up” option.
Then, the Dept. of Education defines four other subgroups, according to personal circumstance rather than living situation. Any given child, in addition to being a part of one of the living situation categories, might also belong to more than one of these subgroups:
Homeless children with disabilities comprise the largest subgroup, followed by homeless students with limited English proficiency; unaccompanied homeless youth who are not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian; and migratory children (related to seasonal agricultural work).
The grim news is that every one of those classifications contains a larger number of kids every year. They are more likely than securely housed kids to suffer from poor nutrition and extended periods of hunger. They are also more likely to fall ill, and this includes mental illness. Among homeless children of school age, the mental illness rate is estimated at 40%.
Homeless kids’ access to healthcare is limited, and they are less likely to have opportunities for healthful exercise. Parental supervision might be inadequate, and what supervision there is, might be abusive or even violent.
The stress level that many such children experience has been called toxic. It interferes with brain function, and kids who experience mental and/or physical trauma in early childhood have even been found to have smaller brains.
Given all this, keeping up in school is bound to be a challenge. As one small example:
The Minnesota Department of Education found that only 24 percent of homeless or highly mobile fifth-graders were proficient in math while 61 percent of all fifth-graders were proficient.
The earlier this kind of stress begins, and the longer it goes on, the worse the outlook becomes for their ability to comply with societal norms, to sustain personal relationships, to be employable, and to avoid addiction. Prof. Abigail Gewirtz, director of the Institute for Translational Research in Children’s Mental Health, says that formerly homeless children are “worse off” than those who never experienced homelessness.
Cathy ten Broeke of Heading Home Minnesota notes that even if the housing situation is remedied and becomes more stable, there is a lag time and it takes a while to catch up. This quotation is from Prof. Ann Masten of the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development:
I feel it’s the issue of our times in the United States, how to invest in child development and address the inequality that’s undermining our future. The well-being of these children affects everybody.
Source: “2.5 Million Children Are Homeless in US, New Data Reveals,” ChristianPost.com, 11/27/14
Source: “America’s Homeless Kids Crisis,” TheAtlanticCities.com, 11/01/13
Source: “1,301,239: Number of Homeless Students in Nation’s Public Schools Up 38% Since 2009-10,” CNSNews.com, 04/12/16
Source: “Child homelessness can have long-term consequences,” SCTimes.com, 06/04/16
Image by woodleywonderworks
Believe it or not, this question puzzles many housed people. In fact, some are more than puzzled — they are angry, indignant, scornful, and totally clueless.
Jeremy Reynalds, Ph.D., is the founder and CEO of Albuquerque’s Joy Junction Inc., the largest family shelter in the state of New Mexico. He asked some housed people how they felt about seeing a cell phone in the hand of a person experiencing homelessness.
One respondent said that it’s fine, as long as the phone is only used for essential communication. (Maybe that should be added to the list of violations that the police check for. No open containers; no more than one trash can full of possessions; and no non-essential cell phone use.)
An example of a very unreasonable response was, “If you can afford an iPhone, you can afford food.” Several questions come to mind.
How was this lady so sure that what she saw in a homeless man’s hand was an iPhone? There are many brands of cell phones, in a wide variety of price ranges, depending on the instrument itself and the usage plan.
And even the classy iPhone is sold at a discount in used and/or refurbished condition. Or maybe what the guy had was a cheap, disposable, no-contract phone. Maybe it was a free Lifeline service phone (aka Obama phone).
It’s helpful to remember that just because a person has friends or family, that doesn’t mean living quarters are automatically available. There can be a hundred reasons why even the most compassionate, caring relative or friend can’t offer a place to stay. But maybe some supporter, unable to offer more substantial help, decided to spring for a cell phone. Why should anyone begrudge that?
Or maybe the person recently became homeless through some catastrophe, and has lost everything else of value. Even if it is the latest, greatest iPhone, can he really be expected to sell such a useful item for the price of a few meals?
When Reynalds asked Joy Junction residents and homeless Facebook friends why they have cell phones, the most frequently mentioned reasons were potential work, family connections, and possible emergencies. When children go to public school, a parent needs to be reachable in case of sickness or misbehavior. If a grownup winds up in the hospital, a family member or pastor needs to be called.
Medical appointments need to be made and confirmed. A person needs to be reachable, because getting to an appointment can be difficult for a homeless person, especially with no car. To make a heroic effort to be someplace, and find that the doctor or agency cancelled the appointment, can be crushing.
A phone helps with prescription renewal. It lets a person be free from an anxious spouse for a few hours, with conversational reassurance available. It lets a person check the weather report, to know whether it’s worth fighting for a shelter bed on a particular night.
A phone can mean everything, especially if it does more than simply make and receive calls. It can function as an alarm clock and a calendar to keep track of appointments and deadlines. With the Internet, a person can find information about available services, along with locations, hours, and requirements.
Craigslist and other “classified ad” applications can help find housing and odd jobs. Freecycle can help find needed items.
A woman spoke of using her phone to read the Bible. A man wrote:
When I became homeless, the first thing I did was sell my guitar and buy the cheapest Android phone possible. I viewed it like going into battle; wanted to set up communications right away.
This whole debate is reminiscent of the old saying, “Give a man a fish, food for a day; teach a man to fish, food for a lifetime.” Possession of a mobile phone is the metaphorical equivalent of knowing how to fish, because this one device could potentially provide “food for a lifetime.” In fact, Jeremy Reynalds called the cell phone “the first tool necessary toward helping them get back on their feet.”
BONUS QUOTE from Ace Backwords:
You don’t have a bathroom, or a bathroom mirror, and rarely see how you look during the course of the day…
It’s also sort of existential. As in: “Who the hell IS that guy?” and “What does it mean to be a human being alive on planet earth amidst an infinite universe while staring at a photo of one’s face in a cellphone?”
Source: “How Do You Feel when You see the Homeless With a Cell Phone?,” JoyJunction.org, undated
Source: “Face Bookwords,” WordPress.com, 11/03/12
Image by Ace Backwords
A few American cities have reached a kind of homelessness boiling point, and San Francisco is one of them. The latest count, more than a year old, determined that 6,686 people experienced homelessness in the city at that time. In the San Francisco Chronicle, Heather Knight notes that “There are about 700 homeless people living in 100 encampments around San Francisco,” and goes on to enumerate the myths of homelessness.
The first myth to fall is that San Francisco is overburdened with homeless people because of its generosity, which is predicated on the notion that people are voluntarily homeless. According to that school of thought, if the city would summon the will to exert “tough love” by cutting services, people experiencing homelessness will change their minds and pursue a different lifestyle.
According to the myth, the services offered by a compassionate city act as a magnet to draw an opportunistic crew of dispossessed people from everywhere. On the contrary, a survey showed that 71% of San Francisco’s street people had formerly been housed in the city.
They were trying to establish lives there, and they experienced setbacks. Knight says:
So a few hundred of the 6,686 homeless people in San Francisco came for our great homeless services — a sizable chunk, but nowhere near the majority.
Matthew Doherty, executive director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, came to San Francisco recently and said just about every city he visits claims it’s a magnet for homeless people because of its robust services. Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, Ore. — you name it.
This suggests that if other communities would do more, the hub cities would not have to absorb so many abandoned and disenfranchised individuals.
Myth 2 — “A lot of people just want to be homeless” — contains a kernel of truth. A small percentage of rough sleepers actually insist on a nomadic life, for reasons that range from schizophrenia to PTSD to reckless adventurousness. Unfortunately, some folks are “treatment resistant” because of inadequate excuses for treatment they have been subjected to in the past. Most shelters don’t let partners stay together, or allow pets, or provide safe storage for belongings. Even if a shelter bed costs nothing, the price may be too high in other ways.
But if everybody stayed in full compliance with the rules, there wouldn’t be enough beds for nearly 7,000 San Franciscans. Despite Myth 3, that there are plenty of beds, the city only has 1,200, and at any given time more than 600 people are likely to be on the waiting list.
Myth 4 holds that if only the homeless people were gone, the streets would be pristinely clean. According to this myth, college students, tourists, and housed people never toss litter on the sidewalk, pee in the bushes, dispose of unwanted possessions inappropriately, or let their dogs deposit feces in public places.
Myth 5, according to Knight, is a particularly hurtful one, that the Coalition on Homelessness is getting rich off the current situation and only wants it to become worse. This is related to Myth 6, which has to do with the mathematics of how the city’s homeless services budget is distributed. We needn’t go into San Francisco’s particulars, but it is a good reminder that in any city, someone needs to keep a close eye on how the homeless money is spent.
Next is Myth 7 and its rebuttal:
Myth 7: If a homeless person wants services, he or she can get them immediately.
You’d hope this would be true in a city that spends $241 million — a whopping amount — on the problem. But it isn’t.
A homeless person can get a one-night emergency shelter bed quickly. But anything else — supportive housing, longer-term shelter beds, mental health care, substance abuse services — requires a waiting list. If the waiting list is even taking new names. Some are so long, they’re closed… All waiting lists for housing beyond shelter take years.
Myth 8 on Knight’s list is that “We’re all just one paycheck away from being homeless.” She believes that the average person, if faced with homelessness, would be helped by friends or family members.
Unfortunately, in the real world, housed people are not willing to get rid of their pets just because an animal-allergic friend needs a place to stay. They keep their spare room empty in case their college-student kid decides to visit, or keep it filled with stuff owned by another relative who doesn’t want to pay for a storage unit.
People receiving Section 8 help are forbidden by the government from sharing their living space. Housed people have a lot of different reasons for being unable to help, so Knight’s assessment might be overly optimistic.
Source: “What San Franciscans know about homeless isn’t necessarily true,” SFChronicle, 04/01/16
Source: “Myths, like homeless problem, not going away,” SFChronicle.com, 04/08/16
Photo credit: Dale Simonson via Visualhunt.com/CC BY-SA
In case you missed it, we strongly recommend this very thorough overview of the latest development in reducing the horrendous amount of damage that has resulted from traumatic brain injury.
“Survey Links Brain Injury to Medical Causes of Homelessness To be Addressed with Hormone Therapy” describes the efforts of endocrinologist Dr. Mark L. Gordon of Millennium Heath Centers, who has made it his mission to certify 500 doctors in hormone replacement therapy. Dr. Gordon is collaborating with special forces veteran Andrew Marr and the Warrior Angels Foundation, and with House the Homeless.
But what does this have to do with homelessness? Our readers will remember that traumatic brain injuries have been suffered by an astonishing number of people experiencing homelessness, including a large humber of veterans.
Now let’s celebrate some other people who work at the intersection of medicine and homelessness. California is always a good state to look at, because a lot of things are tried out there first before being adopted in other parts of the country. Five years ago, when Alameda County received a $300,000 federal stimulus grant, the money went to replace the old worn-out mobile health bus with a “flashy RV with the ability to treat almost every small to medium-sized medical problem on the spot.” The plan was for it to travel among 28 locations in the county, which includes Oakland, Berkeley, and several other cities. The current schedule can be found online.
In San Diego, the St. Vincent de Paul organization has been holding the line against poverty and homelessness for some 60 years. They have had mobile clinics for a long time, but homeless healthcare is only one facet of the many services, which include rental assistance, education, job training, mental health, food, clothing, addiction treatment, case management, and child development. The Village Family Health Center exclusively serves homeless patients, including care in the specialized areas of dentistry, pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology, and psychiatry.
Dr. Chris Searles, the former director of clinical outreach, once described the frustration of knowing that, for every patient who eventually would be seen, there were rough sleepers who could not muster up the trust to present themselves, and others who did not identity themselves as having a problem. Equally dismaying, then and now, are the many people who need multiple medications just to maintain, but who can’t afford to pay several hundred dollars a month for pharmaceuticals.
Dr. Searles told reporter Randy Doting:
We see a lot of people with skin infections. We see people who make their living from canning (gathering cans for recycling) in dumpsters get impetigo… [D]ifferent types of skin infections and a lot of respiratory problems…
Sometimes it takes seven or eight times before they’re ready to make an appointment…
We see people who’ve lived with untreated schizophrenia or bipolar disorder for years, and sometimes the very thing they need to be treated for is pushing them away from the clinic. A paranoid schizophrenic who doesn’t trust easily is not going to want to go to a doctor…
Serving as medical director of Homeless Health Care LA, Dr. Susan Partovi espouses the same take-it-slow philosophy, and told journalist Usha Lee McFarling that street medicine is all about developing relationships. This is done by listening respectfully, moving gradually, and most of all, waiting.
In Los Angeles, “Skid Row” is famous worldwide for its huge concentration of people experiencing homelessness, and an awful lot of the residents are very sick with everything from scurvy to the virulent MRSA infection. For over a decade, Dr. Partovi has visited the area often, helping in any way she can. Often, this help involves exercising a skill that has caused her to be known as Queen of the Abscess. The practice of street medicine offers many intangible rewards, but glamour is not one of them.
Source: “Roving Medical Bus Provides Health Care to Alameda County’s …,” CBSLocal.com, 10/01/11
Source: “Alameda County HCHP Homeless Services Calendar,” Alameda County Public Health Department
Source: “St. Vincent de Paul Village, Inc.,” AllianceHealthCareFoundation.org, February 2012
Source: “A Transient Doctor for the Homeless,” VoiceofSanDiego, 06/10/11
Source: “Her office is Skid Row: A doctor tends to the staggering needs of the homeless,” StatNews.com, 05/13/16
Photo credit: Indavar via Visualhunt.com/CC BY-ND
The cops used to come by a few times a year, now it’s twice a night.
That is what Ray Lyall, resident of the Denver streets, said to LA Times reporter David Kelly. The police “come by” to roust people who live outside, tell them to move on to another location, and, often, throw away their belongings. Kelly also includes a quote from an official who asks, in a rhetorical sort of way, “Who could have foreseen the great recession?”
The question sounds disingenuous, until the reader understands that the speaker works for a city agency with an agenda. On the contrary, in the days since 2008, it has become clear that the crippling economic crisis could have been, and was, foreseen by the people who engineered it. But as long as they and their friends profited from the recession, at the cost of everyone else, they didn’t care. Bennie Milliner also said this:
The homeless problem was greatly exacerbated by the housing downturn and the bursting of the housing bubble.
… To which Kelly adds:
Now the opposite is true. The Denver-Aurora metro area has seen a 26% increase in home prices over the last two years, one of the highest in the country.
Consider that telling phrase, “Now the opposite is true.” In other words, both general prosperity and the lack of general prosperity are causes of homelessness. Any society in which both things are true is a society that has something basically wrong with it.
This point of view is not unique. Kelly notes that “critics believe the city is applying bandages when major surgery is needed.” The American Civil Liberties Union says that Denver, other Colorado cities, and municipalities all over the nation are criminalizing homelessness.
Scorched earth policy
A particular type of news story has become very common as it emanates from one city after another. There is a fire at a homeless encampment, and immediately the citizens cry for the camp to be abolished, and police and city workers do a “sweep” to push all the inhabitants out of the area. Makeshift shelters are torn down; tents, tarpaulins, and bedding are loaded into trucks and taken to the landfill. The fact that there was a fire (or some other incident) is used to justify making a gigantic leap to the idea that no settlements should exist.
There are much better reasons for society to decide that it is not good for people to experience homelessness in random encampments. The best reason for camps to be abolished would be if the inhabitants had some other place to go and live, but this is seldom the case. When something bad happens in a shantytown, housed people have a thoughtless, knee-jerk impulse to tear down the impromptu village.
But strangely, when there is a conflagration in an apartment building, nobody goes public with a demand to abolish all apartment buildings. When a private home catches fire, citizens don’t rise up and agitate for bulldozers to move in and level neighborhoods of single-family dwellings.
This comparison could be extended almost endlessly. When a school, grocery store, or church catches fire, no sane person proposes that schools, grocery stores, or churches should be banned. Kelly also quoted the manager of the Denver Rescue Mission, who confided that the encampments wiped out by authorities were “rife with gambling, drug dealing and prostitution.” Steve Walkup went on to say:
But they’ll probably rebuild their shantytowns. One will go up and another and another.
But pause and consider… A certain Nevada locale is rife with gambling, drugs, and prostitution, yet hardly anyone suggests nuking Las Vegas. When an outdated structure is demolished, very few people shake their heads and say, “But they’ll probably rebuild their hotels and casinos. One will go up and another and another.” Of course they will. Only a very naive or oblivious person is surprised by anything that happens in such a capital of commerce, because that is its nature.
And what happens in any city where thousands of people have nowhere to live should not be surprising either. Of course, camps form. Small communities are established, and in those rough-and-ready colonies are all kinds of humans, including people with a work ethic and moochers who just want to coast; and conscientious neighbors, and careless jerks who allow fires to start.
There are some virtually helpless people, and some who can cope with anything life throws at them. Some whose ideals and principles never waver, and some desperate enough to try anything. In short, people experiencing homelessness, who live in camps, are pretty much like people in rowhouses and highrises, except more exposed and vulnerable. Otherwise, the differences are superficial.
Anyone who cares to may have a look at the 80-page PDF file, The 2015 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress.
Megan Elliott specializes in picking through reams of statistics to throw light on tendencies and trends. It is believed that around 565,000 people experience homelessness at any given time in America. Half of that entire population is concentrated in only five states — California, New York, Florida, Texas, and Massachusetts.
California is a mess. There are more than 40,000 homeless people in the city and county of Los Angeles, and 70% of them are unsheltered. New York City is another disaster, with 14% of the entire country’s homeless people living there.
Despite Massachusetts being in the top five, it is interesting that the city of Boston has the lowest rate of unsheltered homeless people, and the lowest rate of those categorized as “chronically homeless.” Washington, D.C., is the opposite, with a very high percentage of the people who were counted being categorized as “chronically homeless” — 42% versus 23%, so almost twice as high as the national average. The nation’s capital also has a lot of homeless veterans.
In San Diego, whose entire economy is dictated by military spending, veterans account for disproportionate segment of the homeless demographic. In California as a whole, 62% of homeless vets were found to be unsheltered.
San Francisco and Las Vegas are the youth magnets, with the highest proportions of unaccompanied children and teens. These kids are on their own. Sure, a few had bad attitudes and ran away for stupid reasons. Some were simply let go, perhaps because their parents divorced and neither one wanted to take the responsibility.
When separated parents form other attachments, the new partners might perceive the kids as embarrassing mistakes, or rivals for scare emotional currency, or even as actual threats. Kids who suffer from cruelty at home would often rather take their chances out in the world.
In both Seattle and Chicago, families with children make up around one-third of the entire homeless population. This news from New York City is hot off the press:
The already strained shelter system — which is so crowded that the city has resorted to using hotels to accommodate people — has also seen a spike in the number of single adults and adult families without kids.
The number of singles averaged 12,232 a night last month, the highest since the city started separating singles from families in 2009, according to the latest stats from the Department of Homeless Services.
And the number of adult families — typically married couples — also peaked with an average of 2,221 families a night in February, which is also the highest total in that category since 2009.
Meanwhile, the number of families with children — which began climbing in August — is at near record levels, with 12,232 families on an average night, according to DHS.
That’s a lot of kids going through a real hard time in the van or garage where they hole up, maybe with bathroom privileges from a kind neighbor. Imagine being a third-grader whose single mother is overwhelmed by terror or hopelessness. How do you tell her, “It’s all right, you don’t have to go back with Daddy and get yelled at or hit.”
At school, everything is stacked against these kids. They show up in yesterday’s clothes, with less-than-optimal grooming, and get free lunches or none at all, and can’t afford the outfit to either join a sports team or cheer for the athletes. It’s widely believed that in America, the years of what used to be called junior high school are the worst. Imagine being in middle school and homeless, with nothing and no one to depend on.
Nationwide, the best estimate is something like 130,000 children who are growing up with food insecurity, and in situations where permanent, stable housing — i.e. a home — is a foolish dream. Where will these kids be in 10 years? What will they be doing? It’s worth giving this a good, hard think.
Source: “The 2015 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress,” hudexchange.info, November 2015
Source: “Poverty: 10 Cities With the Most Homeless People,” CheatSheet.com, 04/25/16
Source: “EXCLUSIVE: NYC homeless shelters have near-record number of families with children,” NYDailyNews.com, 03/07/16
Photo credit: USDAgov via Visualhunt/CC BY
An essay that Dan Arel wrote for Counterpunch about the current goings-on in San Diego is vital because it concerns two topics that have been extensively covered by House the Homeless: the Housing First concept and “sweeps.”
Arel speaks of the violent El Nino weather patterns that afflicted Southern California early last month, just when “community frustration” about the large number of people experiencing homelessness was rising. The only answer the mayor’s office could come up with was to order a “cleanup,” as if poverty-stricken, unhoused people are dirt that needs to be swept away.
Many police officers took part in the tearing down of shelters and the relegation of people’s possessions to garbage trucks. Arel writes:
To make matters worse, the officers timed their action when many of the homeless in the area had gone inside to access restrooms at the Neil Good Day Center. When the homeless citizens went inside, police deemed their property abandoned and collected it all.
Aside from everything else, the reporter was told by activist Michael McConnell that the response rate of the police department to actual crimes is far from admirable, and to have police personnel throwing away blankets and tents is a terrible waste of public funds. Caltrans also keeps its workers busy with “a crew out almost every day cleaning out downtown area camps.” Supposedly, the homeless are given three-days notice to move elsewhere, which is a cruel joke when there is no other place to go.
As always, the city cites sanitation and hygiene concerns. As always, decent people wonder why there can’t be public restrooms and even places for washing up and doing laundry. The society we live in has ambitions to build colonies on other planets, yet can’t figure out how to provide sanitation and hygiene in a modern, advance city here on Earth.
In addition to “sweep” and “cleanup,” civic authorities also use the term “purge” which has even worse connotations. A purge is the abrupt or violent removal of people from an organization or place. The word has many synonyms, including expulsion, ejection, exclusion, eviction, and eradication. Purges were and are engaged in by conscienceless tyrants in banana republics, Iron Curtain countries, and places ruled by medieval-minded warlords.
Somewhere around 9,000 homeless people live in San Diego, and a lot of them lost vital medications, personal papers and documents, irreplaceable belongings, sleeping bags, spare clothes, and more in this effort to clean up the city. The local activists, when they show up at protests and meetings, wear trash bags to convey the message, “Stop treating human beings like garbage.”
The reporter says:
Roughly one-third of the unsheltered homeless have a physical disability, and one-fifth suffer from severe mental illness. These men and women need more help than is available and what they receive instead is harassment by law enforcement and the city government… Throwing away possessions and destroying homeless camps does not solve the crisis facing the city… With mentally ill and elderly people lining our streets, San Diego must do better.
Allegedly, “tens of millions of dollars” are available to help people pay rent under the Section 8 program, but as in so many other places, landlords refuse to take Section 8 tenants. Obviously some other solution is needed, and needed now.
One of the most disturbing paragraphs in this deeply disturbing story concerns the reporter’s assessment of the Housing First paradigm as a failure — at least in San Diego:
The solution, which looks fantastic on paper, gives these men, women, and families a stable living situation and allows them to rebuild their lives and even reenter the workforce. However, this plan has never been successful and instead of rethinking the strategy, it seems that city officials have just thrown their arms up in frustration… Using landlords as a scapegoat for inaction accomplishes nothing…
Who should be the scapegoats? The municipal administrators who allegedly are smart enough to run things, but who can’t figure this stuff out — not just in San Diego, but everywhere in America.
It’s funny how, whenever a city wants to build a dog park or a racetrack or a sports arena, funding is available and obstacles magically melt away. But when it comes to creating places for people to live under roofs with electricity and running water, it’s like this enormous puzzle that none of these college-educated, highly-paid bureaucrats can wrap their heads around.
Housing? For humans? The clever, suit-wearing winners are at a complete loss. Imagining how to get people in out of the weather is an insurmountable challenge.