How much food goes to waste each year? One source gives the global figure as 200,000 tons, another source claims the same amount is wasted each year in the United Kingdom alone. Obviously, we’re dealing with a lot of educated guesses. In the United States, a somewhere from 30 to 40 percent is wasted, depending on which authority is speaking. Allegedly, 30 million tons of food wind up in American landfills each year.
Komal Ahmad asks us to imagine a football stadium filled to the top like a gigantic bowl—because that’s how much food goes to waste in America in a single day. While a student at UC Berkeley in California, she forged a connection between the school’s dining halls and local homeless shelters, initiating a program that, within three years, spread to 140 colleges across the country.
Now, Ahmad is CEO of Feeding Forward, a nonprofit organization that uses a website and a mobile app to connect all kinds of businesses with shelters in their area. When a company hosts a big event, it can summon volunteers to come and package the leftovers, and deliver them to food banks and venues that feed people experiencing homelessness. Since its inception in 2013, Feeding Forward has recovered more than 600,000 pounds of food and provided almost that number of meals.
A similar program was started by Jean-François Archambault in Montreal, Canada back in 2005, and has spread to other Canadian cities and even taken a leap down to Mexico City. As a hotel management student, Archambault was appalled by the waste his classes generated, and told reporter Karon Liu:
We were preparing so much food and they threw away a lot of it because there were only 20 students, but we were practicing to cook for 80 to 100 people.
Later, working in major hotels, he observed that between a quarter and a third of the food prepared for banquets and buffets would be thrown away. Now, La Tablée Des Chefs matches the places that have food with the places that need it, and provides aluminum and plastic containers and bags. When the Montreal Canadiens play at the city’s Bell Centre, between 700 and 900 homeless people are fed the following day.
From one major hotel alone, as many as 10,000 meals can be recovered in a year. With more than 60 food distribution organizations and 50 hospitality establishments involved, La Tablée Des Chefs has been responsible for serving a total of about half a million meals.
Plan Zheroes, which feeds thousands of people experiencing homelessness in the United Kingdom, aims to expand into Wales and Portugal. Volunteers remember how it was in the old days, before Plan Zheroes was founded in 2009. Each potential donation triggered a confusing flurry of phone calls to discover the place where food was needed most and to gather people and vehicles to move it from Point A to Point B.
Determined to make better use of time, food, and all other resources, a consulting firm called Keytree developed the new social network as a pro bono project. In this case, the donors are not hotels but retail grocery outlets whose products have reached their mandated “sell-by” date.
Often, change is met with resistance, because people who are used to doing things a certain way rarely welcome change. But continuing advances in technology promise that such compassionate sharing systems will continue to improve and spread.
Source: “Surplus food for the homeless is just an app away.” CNET.com, 06/21/15
Source: “Your Uneaten Hotel Breakfast Is Now Feeding the Homeless,” vice.com, 05/12/15
Source: “This Homeless Charity Got Smart And Built Own Social Network,” forbes.com, 05/22/15
Image by Kurman Communications, Inc.
Bob Erlenbusch is Executive Director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness and, like House the Homeless founder Richard R. Troxell, he sits on the board of the National Coalition for the Homeless. Currently, in a paper called Homelessness & “Functional Zero:” a Critique, Erlenbusch challenges the validity of the bedrock principles of homelessness policy. (We received the piece from Erlenbusch; it is not, as far as we know, available online.) It appears that some underlying notions seriously need to be re-thought.
The author points out that, lamentably, ten-year plans that started so boldly are now “in their second decade or abandoned altogether.” Strategies that were originally mapped out might need remodeling. For example, when authorities set the triage standards, and prioritized the various arbitrarily-named subgroups, it was decided that the chronically homeless would be dealt with first, then veterans, families, and youth. Of course, any person could belong to more than one of those groups. Anyway, the idea was to eliminate homelessness among one group, then move on to the next. By and large, that plan is not working out as advertised.
Why have things gone so wrong? For one thing, there’s the minimum wage, which Erlenbusch says “keeps people shackled to poverty.” What does poverty do? The stress of it makes people sick. A chronic shortage of money tempts them to a criminal path. Financial distress breaks up families. Grownups wind up in a hospitals, jails and prisons. Kids wind up in foster homes.
Every year, those institutions discharge thousands of people into homelessness—people who are vulnerable because of poor health, youth who are at risk in many ways, and men and women who are perhaps perfectly capable of supporting themselves, except for being unemployable because of their criminal records. All too often, those jackets are acquired in the first place through crimes directly connected with being homeless—sitting on the wrong bench, panhandling, public urination, and so forth. The vicious cycle that connects prison and the streets (and the foster care system) creates a revolving door that rotates so fast it would make your head spin.
Going farther back, the Reagan administration set the stage for all this in 1980 by making three-quarters of the federal affordable housing budget disappear. Also at some point the mental health system took a dive, which can be blamed on either Reagan or the ACLU, depending on who tells the story. (It might have been both.) All these factors, and more, add up to what Erlenbusch describes as:
…systems and policies that have created three decades of mass homelessness.. Prisons and jails have become the housing for people experiencing homelessness, especially people of color and those with mental health issues.
So now, how do we handle the fallout? For starters, we try to “arrest our way out of homelessness,” and one of the results has been the de facto criminalization of mental illness. (It would be a cliché to invoke the name of a certain World War II military dictator, but his thoughts were on the same wavelength.)
Something else happened, too— what Erlenbusch calls “defining our way out of homelessness.” This trick has been used extensively by bureaucracies full of number-massagers with statistics degrees and flexible principles when discussing, for instance, the unemployment rate. Even when well-intentioned (but ill-advised) people set to work on the definition of homelessness, things can really get ugly.
The Fatal Flaw in Functional Zero
The big fallacy is a concept called “functional zero” and Erlenbusch hopes to inspire a major shift in the thinking behind it. Here is the gist of his argument:
Basically, a community can still have 10,000 homeless people, for example, but if that community can say the number of people entering homelessness is equal to the number exiting, they have reached “functional zero”—forget the 10,000 languishing on the streets and in shelters…
An analogy: say a person weighs 800 pounds. If he ingests 2,000 calories worth of food per day, and moves around enough to burn 2,000 calories in a day, you could say his intake/output ratio is at “functional zero.” Yeah, but he still weighs 800 pounds! This falls under no one’s definition of health. Erlenbusch goes on to say:
It is harmful because when politicians and community members hear “zero”—they hear we have ended homelessness… Then when it is time to allocate scarce public resources it would not be unreasonable for the public and/or elected officials to argue we don’t need as many resources for homelessness because we have solved it! Yet we know nothing could be further from the truth.
One excellent point made by the author is that, just like “no means no,” zero should mean zero. In order to grasp the insidious damage done by the “functional zero” doctrine, we relate one of Erlenbusch’s statements to a few other quotations and ideas. He says that because of this convention, “…hundreds of thousands of people experiencing homelessness have remained invisible to our leaders at all levels.” He quotes Marc Uhry:
When people are invisible, you can’t find a solution because you don’t see them.
In The Transformation, George B. Leonard wrote:
One of the most powerful taboo mechanisms is simply not providing a vocabulary for the experience to be tabooed.
The venerable Illuminatus! Trilogy gave us the word “fnord,” which has to do with things that are apparent but indefinite; and the ability to see truths that most people can’t; and being forcibly conditioned to fear that seeing. It might even bear some relationship to what Obi Wan Kenobi famously said: “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.” It’s about mental judo. Community Solutions defines functional zero like this:
At any point in time, the number of people experiencing sheltered or unsheltered homelessness will be no greater than the current monthly housing placement rate for people experiencing homelessness.
Our minds can be clouded to think that makes sense. But it doesn’t. That definition merely describes homeostasis, or maintenance of the status quo. In any case, those things are not necessarily good, and in this case, they are definitely bad. The definition is, at best, meaningless jargon, and at worse an evil gimmick. It signifies no more than treading water, or running in a hamster wheel—with the appearance of activity but no real progress.
Of course, that’s not entirely fair either. Even when the math is from Alice in Wonderland, every time an individual or family receives help from any agency, it’s a step in the right direction. As in the oft-repeated starfish story, “It made a difference for that one.”
Source: “Topic: Reagan kicked people out of institutions,” Snopes.com, 02/05/06
Image by Bill Maher
People often wonder, “What can one person do?” House the Homeless is in the process of saluting a number of one-person operations that have collectively fed thousands of hungry people in many places.
In London’s fabled East End, the Crisis Cafe teaches culinary skills to people experiencing homelessness, and to recently re-housed people who are getting back on their feet. Of course many dedicated volunteers are behind this project, but the program received some well-deserved publicity when Sophie Thompson, who had a role in one of the Harry Potter movies, stopped by. In addition to cinematic star power, Thompson brought her reputation as the 2014 Celebrity MasterChef winner and her recipe for pumpkin soup.
In Hail, Saudi Arabia, a man set up a commercial-sized, glass-fronted refrigerator outside his home, where he and his neighbors place food for hungry people to come and get. Of course, probably anywhere in America such a gesture would be forbidden by zoning laws, anti-litter ordinances, “eyesore” abatement programs, and health department rules. It is a nice idea, though.
Feeding the Hungry in the U.S.
Every Thursday, a woman who works in Chicago’s business district spends her lunch hour distributing sandwiches purchased from a fast food outlet, whose owner also contributes a few freebies. Kasonja Holley is often accompanied by her friend Darlene Green, and the pair sometimes carry along toiletries and blankets. Holley started a nonprofit called Love in Motion, whose volunteers recently celebrated its third anniversary by serving 300 meals.
Mason Wartman quit his lucrative Wall Street career to make a difference in the city he loves, Philadelphia, by opening a pizza parlor. The restaurant’s unique meal-sharing system is based on sticky notes. A paying customer can choose to give a dollar, write a friendly message, and post it on the wall, and somebody who needs it can take one of those sticky notes and redeem it for a free meal. In a one-year period, Wartman’s business served 14,000 partially subsidized pizza slices.
Moved by a similar sentiment for his home town, Baltimore, restaurant owner Michael Tabrizi is skipping the annual promotional week during which restaurants offer great deals to attract customers who can afford to eat out. Instead, he is setting aside five days to serve three meals a day to the homeless.
In Allan Law’s Minneapolis apartment, 17 freezers run at all times. Over the course of a year, about 800 groups (business, civic and faith-based) take turns stocking them with food. A retired teacher, Law now works nights for free, driving a van through dark streets to distribute the necessities of life. Boyd Huppert reports that in one year, Law handed out “more than 700,000 sandwiches, 7,000 pairs of socks and 75,000 bus tokens.” He also makes the rounds of local businesses to pick up food that would otherwise go to waste.
In Hartford, Conn., Sister Patricia McKeon recently let go of the executive director reins after 50 years of feeding the homeless via Mercy Housing and Shelter. Edible calories are only one of the blessings dispensed by the organization, which also is instrumental in finding homes for around 250 people every year. Sister Pat told a reporter:
This wasn’t just a job, it was a ministry to help people….You know, it’s been a wonderful ride. It really, really has.
Feeding People in The Golden State
California keeps up its reputation as a forerunner in societal improvement, thanks to such caring citizens as Donna Dolgovin, the retired nurse from Pomona who one day gave a cup of soup to a homeless man and went on to found a nonprofit called Helping Hands, Caring Hearts, which feeds as many as 150 people every Sunday.
In Monterey, Sarah Luiz Chandler was homeless for more than a year before receiving a sizeable inheritance that allows her to do things like host community meals. She describes helping others as “the greatest, most satisfying, electric experience you can ever imagine,” and says:
Homelessness doesn’t have to be a lifestyle. It can be just a moment in time.
Source: “Harry Potter star Sophie Thompson weaves her magic to help homeless people,” Mirror.co.uk, 01/31/15
Source: “Saudi Man Finds Innovative Way To Feed Homeless,” Ecorazzi.com, 05/12/14
Source: “Kasonja Holley is feeding the Loop’s homeless on her lunch break,” ChicagoReader.com, 12/09/14
Source: “How to Quit Wall Street and Crowdfund Pizza for the Homeless,” HuffingtonPost.com, 07/02/15
Source: “Baltimore Restaurant Owner Opts Out Of Restaurant Week To Feed The Homeless
Instead,” HuffingtonPost.com, 07/06/15
Source: “700,000 sandwiches later, this man is still helping the homeless,” USAToday.com, 04/20/15
Source: “After 50 years, Sister Pat passing the baton on feeding homeless,” WFSB.com, 03/09/15
Source: “Everyday Heroes: Pomona woman feeds homeless with regular Sunday meals,” DailyBulletin.com, 12/20/13
Source: “Homeless-woman-turned millionaire gives back,” KSBW.com, 07/07/14
Image by Mills Baker
America is full of people who feel called to feed others, whether sporadically or on a regular basis, and they do it in an astonishing number of ways. Every now and then, a celebrity will perform an impulsive act, as when comedian Russell Brand treated some West Hollywood street people to a café breakfast.
Non-celebrities don’t usually get as much attention. But the world does sometimes find out about people like Mary Younkin, who typically carries around a dozen or so sack lunches in her car, ready to give away. For others who might want to try it, her blog gave a list of items that work well for this purpose, and included the words:
I hate the empty feeling of seeing someone in need and looking the other way…My children get to see that they can help make a difference in someone else’s day and perhaps life.
Another good Samaritan, Kevin Quinn, has set up a GoFundMe page for his project, “Water for the Homeless.” His most recent updates report temperatures in Boise, Idaho, of over 100 degrees. He keeps contributors informed with reports like this:
I spent the last two days handing out iced waters and apples. Needing water bottles, apples and ice has added up. Sadly, a lot of the homeless do not have teeth and apples are not an option. I need to find a softer item for these people, to provide something to eat during the day.
A few years back, the Texas city of Lubbock planned to shut down a meal-sharing event in a city park. Apparently, the problem lay in some ordinance violations that could easily have been overlooked, but were seized upon by authorities who warned the volunteer cooks to end their weekly picnic.
When local business owner Alex Scarborough heard about this, he developed a feisty attitude and invited a bunch of friends to hold a potluck dinner in that same park, with plates for anyone who cared to show up. A couple of city council members supported him in the press, with one calling the ban a “vast overreach of city authority” and another remarking wryly that the city must have “bigger fish to fry,” meaning, of course, civic matters of higher priority. Scarborough told reporter Adam D. Young:
This surprised the living daylights out of me…I’m just wondering when we started regulating people’s kitchens…When you have to ask the officials for permission or a permit to gather and eat in the park—that’s not the country I grew up in.
Around the same time, in Detroit, Brother Al Mascia of St. Aloysius Outreach Ministries made news with the converted bicycle that helped him answer the daily needs of around 300 people experiencing homelessness. Patricia Montemurri wrote:
The food cart fits over the bicycle’s front end…outfitted with foldable countertops, insulation and a battery for lighting. It holds Thermos bottles of coffee and hot chocolate. Some days, Mascia dispenses muffins and cookies. On really good days, he has hot homemade breakfast sandwiches donated by church groups.
Perhaps inspired by Detroit’s Franciscan friar, the satire website GlossyNews.com published a story by Dan Geddes in which the city of Orlando was disturbed by a fellow who showed up at a local park with 12 friends and made a speech about love, forgiveness, and social justice. Of course critics called him “hippie scum walking around stirring up class warfare” and “domestic terrorist.” The fictional piece goes on to say:
After someone in the crowd shouted out “We’re hungry!” Christos reached into a picnic basket containing two loaves of Wonder Bread and a bag of Long John Silver fish filets. Christos instructed his friends to start sharing the food with the crowd.
In what many eyewitnesses described as a “miracle,” the bread and fish did not run out, and appeared to feed all 5,000 homeless people to their satisfaction.
Source: “Russell Brand Treats Homeless Group To Breakfast,” HuffingtonPost.com, 09/28/12
Source: “Barefeet In The Kitchen: Sack Lunches for the Homeless,” barefeetinthekitchen.com, 01/23/14
Source: “Local man passes out water, food to homeless,” KTVB.com, 07/02/15
Source: “Lubbockite plans public potluck after officials halt homeless picnic,” LubbockOnline.com, 07/20/11
Source: “Meals on bicycle wheels: Franciscan friar feeds, clothes homeless,” tdn.com, 04/15/11
Source: “Jesus Look-alike Arrested for Feeding 5000 Homeless People,” GlossyNewscom, 06/01/14
Image by Steve Cadman
if u are homeless ill let you stay with me in exchange of helping me run my business.. I have a recording studio in my apartment so i will teach you how
Mature professional gentleman (35) seeks a very mature homeless female for a Serious Makeover. I am going to completely change your life …
I am looking for young homeless bi-sexual or gay guy that needs a place to stay….
Willing to provide housing to a homeless girl. Pregnant or single moms encouraged to reply. I’m a single employed father of 2. No drama no games
Hi I am looking to help a nice single homeless female under 35 with a nice place to live I have a very nice home.
Those quotations are from Craigslist ads, similar to probably hundreds that appear around the country every day. No doubt a certain proportion of them are earnest and sincere, and maybe some people have found a way off the streets through the kindness of strangers. Some ads of this kind are quite sinister, and the desperate person in need of housing must figure out which is which.
Recently, in Michigan, the owner of an auto repair business was arrested for “accosting and soliciting,” because he would let homeless men live in the shop, with video games to play, and an allowance, and even the privilege of borrowing a car—and all he demanded in return was sex.
Stunts Put Homeless in Danger
A different kind of exploitation caused eyebrows to be raised around Skid Row in Los Angeles when stunt bike riders were videotaped “bunny hopping” their vehicles over people asleep on the sidewalk. (It’s probably just a coincidence, but in the summer of 2012, in Austin, the dead body of Valerie Godoy was found along the Ninth Street BMX trail, which was frequented by local bicycle daredevils.) An LAPD officer said for the record, “Often the homeless are targets of stunts that go terribly wrong.”
The Skid Row cowboys displayed their disrespect and bad taste out in public, but gained nothing other than joy of being idiots. Behind closed doors, another level of exploitation goes on all over the country, all the time. Here is how a New Jersey street person was used, according to the Times of Wayne County:
The scam is relatively simple. Find a homeless man, a drug addict, someone expendable, someone who will keep quiet if caught. Give that person a bogus/stolen check and drop them off at a bank. If the person is successful in cashing the check, he/she gets to keep 10% of the ill-gotten money. If the scam keeps working, move to the next bank and repeat the process. If police are called and the scam falls apart, simply drive away leaving the ‘patsy’ to face the legal music.
In Kansas City, a ring of 10 crooks stole over $200,000 by haunting the dumpsters of business parks to retrieve paperwork that held banking information. As Brianne Pfannenstiel reported:
They then used a personal computer to print counterfeit checks before driving to shelters and halfway houses to recruit homeless people to pass the checks at banks.
Great financial gain can be had by bilking the system created to provide medical care for America’s citizens. In Orlando, Florida, a clinic owner and three accomplices recruited people experiencing homelessness to be fake patients in a scheme that defrauded Medicaid of over $200,000.
Similar thievery in New York involved (allegedly thousands of) homeless people who were paid in shoes, while a consortium of nine doctors got away with around $7 million. This cabal hired a guy whose job was to hang around shelters and soup kitchens, roping people into an elaborate hoax. Anybody with a valid Medicaid card could be transported to a clinic and pretend to receive extensive, costly tests and treatment. The New York Times reported:
The doctors, staff members and billing specialists, meanwhile, would rack up hundreds or thousands of dollars per recruit in false Medicaid claims, prosecutors said…The doctors in the group made money by, for instance, seeing a patient for four minutes and billing for 30 minutes, or claiming they had reviewed tests when they had not, or simply billing for procedures they had never done…
George W. Bush Taking Money From the Homeless?
Not long ago, former POTUS George W. Bush gave a speech at a fund-raising gala for a homeless shelter located in McKinney, Texas. Blogger Rob Groce commented:
Bush should be an expert on the topic of homelessness, after all. The number of homeless Americans grew 49 percent in the last two years of his presidency, peaking at 634,000 when he left the White House in 2009. And that surge was certainly aided by a quadrupling in the number of home foreclosures during his last term. Bush doesn’t have a record of compassion regarding the homeless…
But he stood up and talked on their behalf, right? He helped out Samaritan Inn…and also charged his full, customary $100,000 fee. Michael Kruse of Politico.com remarks:
Since 2009…Bush has given at least 200 paid speeches…The part-time work, which rarely requires more than an hour on stage, has earned him tens of millions of dollars.
Tens of millions, and what Kruse implies there is that Bush could afford to donate his fee back to the institution. However, that did not happen, and the shelter’s director expressed tactful joy about raising more than a million dollars. But just think. With a generous gesture from a man whose pockets are already filled to overflowing, the shelter could have had $1,100,000.
House the Homeless’s Experience With George W. Bush
Here is a perfect example of why life can be so confusing and so astonishing. Despite the bad press, it seems that Mr. Bush’s record is not all one-sided. Here is House the Homeless founder Richard R. Troxell:
When George W. Bush was governor of Texas, I designed a continuum of care delivery system to move people out of homelessness for the City of Austin. I pressed for the need for a jobs component and one that paid a living wage. As far as I know, House the Homeless was the only nonprofit to receive funding to aid people experiencing homelessness from Mr. Bush. He gave us $100,000 for my model, Project Fresh Start. Whether he did it for political purposes (I never heard it touted as such) or if he really did get my concept of living wages, I am sure of one thing, that he understood the concept of jobs that paid enough to put a roof over your head other than a bridge.
Read about this exciting episode and more in Richard’s book, Looking Up at the Bottom Line.
Source: “Police: Mich. auto shop owner took in homeless men, then demanded sex,” Newsandtribune.com, 05/22/15
Source: “People aren’t happy about the BMX riders who bunny hopped homeless people,” NetworkA.com, 03/14/14
Source: “Homeless man used as ‘pawn’ in check scheme,” WayneTimes.com, 06/13/15
Source: “Bank scam: homeless men, counterfeit checks, prison,” BizJournals.com, 12/01/14
Source: “4 Charged After Recruiting Homeless To Pose As Patients,” CBSLocal.com, 03/21/15
Source: “9 New York Doctors Are Accused of Defrauding Medicaid Using Homeless People,” NYTimes.com, 03/31/15
Source: “Want George W. Bush To Help Your Homeless Shelter? That’ll Be $100000, Please,” IfYouOnlyNews.com, 06/08/15
Source: “On talk circuit, George W. Bush makes millions but few waves,” Politico.com, 06/07/15
Image by κύριαsity
“Como Se Dice ‘Not It’?” is a prime example of why the public radio series This American Life is famous. A chance meeting with a street person led Chicago newspaper editor Adriana Cardona to uncover an astonishing story that leaves numerous questions to be considered before rendering judgment. Cardona’s approach to the story is beautifully even-handed, and we hope that our summation of the basic points will inspire the reader to go for the full experience and listen to the episode.
Through her casual conversation with a homeless man, the editor learned that heroin addicts are regularly shipped from Puerto Rico to Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and cities in New Jersey, Florida, South Carolina, and Wisconsin. In each destination they are taken to places that on-air host Ira Glass describes as “flop houses open 24 hours a day with group therapy going till late at night, sometimes 10 or 13 hours straight.”
Cardona found 14 branches of this rehab outfit in Chicago alone, and became most familiar with a branch called Segunda Vida (Second Life). Other facilities have such names as El Grito Desesperado (The Desperate Scream) and El Ultimo Paso (The Last Step). They all operate under the auspices of the Puerto Rican organization De Vuelta a la Vida (Return to Life). In the United States, the organization flies under the banner of Alcoholics Anonymous, but AA disowns them, and indeed their methods are unorthodox. Glass says:
The therapy was really just basically like AA meetings led by former addicts who did very un-AA things like yell at them and berate them. When the guys would go through detox, because there was no medicine or methadone or professional staff, they were sometimes given folk remedies, like an onion to bite on, or alcohol would be poured in their belly buttons.
When Cardona showed up at Segunda Vida, she encountered tough men, allergic to microphones and cameras, who claimed there was nobody in charge and therefore nobody she could speak with. The gatekeepers handled all requests from anyone, about anything, with a recommendation to “come back in a few days.” Her persistence finally won a meeting with one of the group’s founders. Efren Moreno confirmed every negative thing that Cardona had heard about the organization, but he did not seem exploitative or evil. Her impression was of…
… someone who wanted to be part of the solution, that he wanted to bring services to those who were not able to get rehab services out there… But at the same time—and he even said—each group has its own rules. And because there is no oversight, it’s really hard to know what are those other groups doing.
In a Chicago facility, an addict gets free room and board for three months, and then is charged $50 to $75 a week, which still includes meals. At some branches, residents are encouraged to sign up for food stamps and contribute their allotments to the kitchen that feeds everybody. This bit of mandatory socialism, while probably not legal, is far from outrageous. Moreno would prefer to get by with no government assistance at all. A recovering addict himself, he claims to really help junkies kick their habits, and says anyone who quits the program is a weak individual who didn’t really want to get better. Apparently that is a large category, because one of Cardona’s co-researchers found, in Chicago alone, 93 men who had quit the program.
Addicts Off the Grid
When Cardona visited Puerto Rico, she was met with astonishment that anyone should question or doubt this successful narcotics rehabilitation program. De Vuelta a la Vida is no secret to municipal authorities or to Puerto Rico’s governor. Glass says:
It’s run by the state police. They help drug addicts get food, clothing, hygiene, and other services on the island. But also, they arrange for lots of them to fly off the island to these unlicensed programs in the United States.
Of course, none of the Puerto Rican bureaucrats knew that the rehab centers are unlicensed. In every place where De Vuelta a la Vida has established outposts, they seem to operate totally under the radar. According to any city records or public health department or professional registration bureau or licensing agency, officially they don’t exist.
What Does De Vuelta a la Vida Have to Do With Homelessness?
Puerto Rican addicts are recruited dishonestly, lured by a fantasy of gleaming premises, plenty of doctors and nurses, and even a swimming pool. In return for a one-way ticket to a mythical luxury rehab center, they sign a waiver that absolves the Puerto Rican government of any further responsibility for them. If they ever want to return, they have to figure it out for themselves. When the men arrive stateside, they lose what little benefits were available in their homeland, including HIV meds and methadone.
Even a successfully cleaned-up Puerto Rican immigrant is unlikely to find work, and will probably end up on the street or, at best, in a shelter. For those who quit the program, life is grim. Unable to speak the language, and still in need of opiates every day, they have to survive brutal winters in a place very unlike the tropical island of their birth.
For these penniless men, going home is an impossible dream. Family members have suffered already from abuse of their trust, and will ignore any plea for help, even with a fancy story about being stranded in America. Also, Segunda Vida and the other centers tend to hang onto identity documents, as Cardona learned by trying to help a newly-arrived HIV-positive addict who had quit the program almost immediately and lived, like so many others, in Chicago’s streets.
Source: “Not It!,” ThisAmericanLife.org, 04/10/15
Image by BluEyedA73
A government website enumerates the SNAP (Food Stamp) Program rights of people experiencing homelessness.(“Food Support” is the term some states use, and others have their own individual monikers like Wisconsin’s FoodShare, Vermont’s 3SquaresVT, and of course CalFresh.) We are told that homeless persons have even more rights than the housed, because they don’t need to give a permanent address to apply. (In the realm of extra-fancy privileges, that one is underwhelming.) Besides, we keep hearing that homeless applicants still need to give a mailing address, even if it is as ephemeral as a drop-in center.
In order to receive SNAP benefits, a person doesn’t need a place to cook or store food (although it sure helps). And even those who live in shelters where meals are served are eligible. While sources seem to agree that $200 per month is the largest SNAP benefit that an individual might be eligible for, information on the standard amount is confusing. One website says that in 2014, the average benefit was $125 per month, and another says that in 2015, the average was $194 per month, which is more, and that seems odd because as time progresses, these payments are constantly cut. (Even the higher number, however, amounts to less than $7 a day.) An online commenter called Goth Farmer states that a homeless person receives $189 per month.
Currently, people fortunate enough to have Section 8 housing are shocked into awareness that a break on the rent is considered to be quite enough in the way of help, because their SNAP allowance is now under $20 a month. This is a stern reminder that SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. In other words, food stamps are not meant to sustain life, merely to complement the acquisition of food by (chiefly) other means.
For people experiencing homelessness, this brings up issues that even the best-intentioned humanitarians disagree on. Should a shelter or a soup kitchen charge the people who eat there by taking part of their Electric Benefit Transfer funds? Well, yes, because the facility needs help acquiring the food, and it might not even be able to stay open if not for these contributions.
As for the diners, people attain dignity by paying for the things they consume. But on the other hand, after the soup kitchen meal is over, they will need other meals on other days, and their “food stamps.” There is no guarantee of finding a free meal on any given day, and the rules page says, “They cannot force you… to pay for food at the shelter. They can only request that you voluntarily use your SNAP/Food Stamps to pay for meals.”
The SNAP Situation Is About to Get Worse
No matter how bad things are, they are about to get worse for about a million unemployed childless adults, many of whom are either homeless or at risk of becoming so. Members of this demographic typically receive between $150 and $200 per month, according to Ed Bolen, writing for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. After this year, it will be tougher to qualify. The rule was already on the books, with each state having the option to petition for a waiver—which many have been doing. In 2016, it appears that almost no states plan to apply for renewal of that waiver. Bolen explains:
Even SNAP recipients whose state operates few or no employment programs for them and fails to offer them a spot in a work or training program—which is the case in most states—have their benefits cut off after three months irrespective of whether they are searching diligently for a job… This leaves it up to individuals who can’t find a job to try to find training or work program openings on their own, which few are able to do, especially since most training programs have insufficient resources to meet demand, resulting in substantial waiting lists.
Getting back to Goth Farmer, he (or she) says:
There you have a massive flaw in the idea all homeless always have the option of SNAP for food. Then, you have the identity issue. You have to prove identity to qualify and fact is many homeless can’t. They have no proof of who they are. No photo ID, no SS card, not birth cert. or voter card. Many homeless are underage and avoid any contact with any agency or shelter due to fear of being returned to what they ran from… The mentally ill are often not capable of far simpler tasks then wading through a ream of paperwork to get SNAP.
So, things are seldom as simple as they appear, and sufficient nourishment is still a problem for many Americans.
Source: “Homeless Persons’ Rights under the SNAP/Food Stamp Program,” frac.org, undated
Source: “Policy Basics: Introduction to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP),” CBPP.com, undated
Source: “”Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP),” USDA.gov
Source: “Approximately 1 Million Unemployed Childless Adults Will Lose SNAP Benefits in 2016 as State Waivers Expire,” CBPP.org, 01/05/15
Image by U.S. Government
Critics enjoy suggesting that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program offer courses teaching people how to prepare healthful food from scratch, and maybe they wouldn’t buy so much junky processed stuff. Courses are available here and there, not necessarily under the auspices of SNAP. However, such courses are nothing like a comprehensive answer to junk food issues, because even if food is available, cooking can present a real challenge for people with no kitchens.
Certain things can only be done by those who are housed, however marginally. Even a family living in a single motel room is at a tremendous advantage if there is a refrigerator. Sure, a large tub of yogurt is more economical to buy, and can last all week, but there has to be somewhere to keep it. Certainly, a 10-pound bag of rice or a 50-pound sack of dried beans can save a bunch of money—but you need a cupboard to store it in, and clean water, and a range or even just a hotplate for cooking.
Say you find a sweet deal on ten pounds of chicken thighs. With kitchen appliances, you can cook the meat, separate it into units for separate meals, and refrigerate or even freeze them. Then you can use the stock to make soup. If you can’t eat all the soup, you can stick it in the refrigerator, too, and have it tomorrow. Even with only a sink, a bag of ice can preserve coolness short-term or on special occasions. Millions of Americans take for granted the simple ability to keep food on hand. They don’t know what it’s like to have to eat what is in front of you, right now, or lose it. This reminder comes from a Reddit.com respondent:
Uh, believe it or not, many low income families have no way to actually store perishable food or cook it. When I was homeless, it was boxed, jar, or canned food all of the time. I gained 50 lbs and felt like I was starving most of that time.
We found descriptions of culinary coping written by individuals, like vehicle-dweller William Bonnie of Seattle, who invested about $150 in a decent-quality camp stove and mess kit. Camp stove fuel, of course, is an ever-recurring expense. Bonnie was cautious enough to not park or sleep or start a cooking fire within the municipal borders. Of course gasoline costs money, so that meant a lot of driving back and forth to the woods—“an expensive commute every day.” Imagine having to drive to the kitchen every time you wanted to cook something. Bonnie says:
The food stamps were helpful….but severely hindered by the realities of my situation…With little exception, you can only buy stuff that needs to be prepared at home… If you’re homeless, that means it’s kind of like one of those cruelly ironic wishes granted by a genie.
In a piece called “How to be ‘Stealth’ Homeless,” Ted Heistman related the ease with which an Electronic Benefits Tranfer (EBT) card could be obtained, but that was back in 2012 and things seem to have changed since then. Of course a lot depends on the particular city where a person is experiencing homelessness, and its current political climate. At that time, Heistman wrote:
Most towns have enough free meals for a person to get fat on. If you wanted to, you could eat six times a day if you timed it right, plus load up every few days at a food bank, plus buy food with your EBT.
Jon Mixon, who works with homeless veterans, wrote for Quora about other possibilities. A street person whose relationship with authorities and institutions is problematic may not even have the borrowed address of a shelter to use when applying. On the streets, people with easily stealable EBT cards are subject to predation.
As to what can be purchased, the rules have relaxed in some cities, with some vendors. In the past, you could buy a couple of potatoes and half a pound of ground beef and figure out how to turn them into an edible meal. Now, you can buy a burger and some fries. While fast-food menus might not provide optimal nutrition, at least people can get food that is cooked and hot. For those who do have cooking facilities, a provision in the 2014 Farm Bill allocated funds so SNAP recipients who go to participating farmers’ markets can swipe their EBT cards and get tokens worth twice as much.
Always, too, a great deal depends on luck. Only the young and healthy can thrive by eating whatever comes along. Older and disabled homeless people have other things going on—like teeth that are in no shape to chew that crunchy fresh produce; or meds that need to be taken at certain times, with food; or allergies that severely limit what they may eat. It’s never as easy as it looks.
Source: “SNAP Challenge raises awareness for hunger, can you eat for $4.50 per day?,” Reddit.com, 2014
Source: “7 Things No One Tells You About Being Homeless,” Cracked.com, 11/12/13
Source: “How to be “Stealth” Homeless.” Disinfo.com, 10/25/12
Source: “Why don’t homeless people use food stamps?.” Quora.com, 04/08/13
Image by U.S. Department of Agriculture