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The Roots of Bell v. City of Boise

iPhone 5cIn Colorado Springs, the mayor is working hard to change an existing ordinance (which forbids anyone to lie down anywhere) so it will criminalize sitting down anywhere in the city. In San Francisco, the mayor doesn’t care whether people experiencing homelessness are sitting, lying, standing straight up, or kneeling in prayer. Whatever their posture, he vows to chase them all out of there before the Super Bowl. Currently, one-third of American cities have laws against sleeping outside. Last week, House the Homeless talked about the “statement of interest” filed by the Department of Justice regarding a current case brought by Idaho Legal Aid Services and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

At the core of this topic is the question of whether anti-camping ordinances are constitutional or not. It is a “currently unsettled area of the law” about which various courts disagree. That is what Bell v. City of Boise is about, and the outcome will have massive policy implications throughout the system.

This started 9 years ago, with a Los Angeles ordinance under which people experiencing homelessness could be arrested for sleeping on the street even when no shelter beds were available. Since there were twice as many homeless people as shelter beds, this meant that, on any given night, half the homeless population of LA was vulnerable to arrest.

Jones v. City of Los Angeles

The ACLU and the National Lawyers Guild filed suit against the City of Los Angeles. Judge Kim M. Wardlaw of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered that the draconian ordinance should no longer be enforced, stating:

The Eighth Amendment prohibits the City from punishing involuntary sitting, lying, or sleeping on public sidewalks that is an unavoidable consequence of being human and homeless without shelter in the City of Los Angeles.

At the time, there was great rejoicing. Mark Rosenbaum, the ACLU attorney who had argued the case, called Judge Wardlaw’s decision “the most significant judicial opinion involving homelessness in the history of the nation.” Sadly, it didn’t turn out that way. But thanks to more recent developments such as Bell v. City of Boise, that bold prediction might still come true.

A year and a half after Judge Wardlaw’s ruling, Los Angeles and the ACLU finally quit arguing about what would happen next, and reached an agreement that no one was really happy with—in other words, a workable compromise. As long as they stayed 10 feet away from entrances and driveways, homeless people could sleep on city streets between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. But the police could start enforcing the no-lying ordinance again as soon as the city built 1,250 units of supportive housing. Not shelter beds, but actual places where a person could settle in and get help to set her or his life on track.

And, says journalist Evan George, they went on to quibble about whether housing units that were already in the process of construction would count. The police department complained about “shelter-resistant” street people who refused to claim available beds. A law professor did a study and found “a median of just four shelter beds available on a given night when the LAPD was counting more than 1,000 people sleeping on the street.” Homeless advocates pointed out that, even if there had been enough shelter beds, it’s not the same thing as supportive permanent housing.

Several years later, when street people were allowed to return to a physically cleaned-up Skid Row, Councilman Bill Rosendahl was called upon by his constituents to explain the situation:

On October 15, 2007, the City entered into a legally binding settlement, agreeing not to enforce the law prohibiting sleeping on the streets, between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. until it builds 1,250 units of permanent supportive housing. The City entered this agreement after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals…found that the law against sleeping on the streets amounted to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the 8th Amendment…,

In the words of Evan George, these were the consequences:

By agreeing to the settlement, the ACLU has given up any claim of using the Ninth Circuit court ruling as precedent for future lawsuits. However…attorneys for the homeless may still cite the decision in future lawsuits.

In other words, even though Judge Wardlaw’s ruling was vacated, the reasoning behind it was sound, and valid enough to use in Bell v. City of Boise, which is why the Justice Department recently wrote:

The statement of interest advocates for the application of the analysis set forth in Jones v. City of Los Angeles, a Ninth Circuit decision that was subsequently vacated pursuant to a settlement. In Jones, the court considered whether the city of Los Angeles provided sufficient shelter space to accommodate the homeless population. The court found that, on nights when individuals are unable to secure shelter space, enforcement of anti-camping ordinances violated their constitutional rights.

Reactions?

Source: “ACLU of Southern California Wins Historic Victory in Homeless Rights Case,” ACLU.org, 04/14/06
Source: “City, ACLU Settle Street Sleeping Case,” LADowntownNews.com, 10/15/07
Source: “Skid Row Homeless Say LAPD Is Trying to Bully Them off Their Freshly Cleaned Turf,” LAWeekly.com, 06/22/12
Source: “Justice Department Files Brief to Address the Criminalization of Homelessness.” Justice.gov, 08/06/15
Image by Sascha Kohlmann

 

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Will Nationwide Change Start in Idaho?

APD 2

Faceless force: police officers strut between Austin’s homeless shelter and Salvation Army building.

On August 6, something interesting and potentially very significant happened. A federal court case filed in the District of Idaho in 2009 is just now being considered, and the Department of Justice filed a “statement of interest” based on the premise that people experiencing homelessness are being unconstitutionally punished for sleeping in public places, even when no shelter beds or any other alternatives are available to them.

The case, titled Bell v. City of Boise et al., was brought by several homeless plaintiffs who were convicted of violating a Boise ordinance that forbids “camping” in public. In this instance, camping does not mean setting up a tent and a barbecue pit and a gravity shower and a volleyball net. It means sleeping, an activity that every human being has to engage in, which means the law makes as much sense as convicting people for breathing.

The Justice Department calls sleeping “conduct that is a universal and unavoidable consequence of being human,” and references the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which says that Americans should not be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. In effect, anti-camping ordinances criminalize people for being homeless. These days, it is certainly not unusual, but it is undeniably cruel.

Who Are the Criminals?

The parties responsible for the economic meltdown have not spent a single night in jail, or for that matter, a single night sleeping behind a dumpster. The parties responsible for starting and perpetuating wars for the further obscene enrichment of billionaires have not attended a single Veterans Stand Down looking for a toothbrush or a pair of socks. Yet thousands of Americans have acquired criminal records because they have to sleep someplace, and thousands more live in daily fear of being punished as criminals because of the human physiological imperative known as sleep. Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, wrote:

Criminally prosecuting those individuals for something as innocent as sleeping, when they have no safe, legal place to go, violates their constitutional rights…Needlessly pushing homeless individuals into the criminal justice system does nothing to break the cycle of poverty or prevent homelessness in the future. Instead, it imposes further burdens on scarce judicial and correctional resources, and it can have long-lasting and devastating effects on individuals’ lives.

The lawsuit that is finally getting its day in court was originally filed by Idaho Legal Aid Services and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP), which issued a report last year announcing the result of a three-year survey that gathered information from 187 American cities. They found that 34 percent (a solid one-third) of these municipalities have laws that ban public camping (also known as sleeping). Almost half—43 percent—prohibit sleeping in vehicles, which is about as senseless as a law can be. Who in their right mind believes that sleeping in a vehicle is worse, for either the homeless person or the general public, than the other alternatives?

Criminalizing Homelessness

As of last year, the agencies responsible for counting people experiencing homelessness came up with 153,000 to represent the number of unsheltered homeless people in the United States on any night of the year. In the main, these unsheltered sleepers are Americans. Some are very young children, whose chances of actually learning anything in school are gravely reduced. Some are teens, who are at risk for more kinds of damage than the average housed person can even imagine. Some are fathers with intense and undeserved feelings of personal failure. Some are mothers whose desperation occasionally makes sordid headlines.

Some are women escaped from domestic situations so violently abusive that even the streets seem like a better deal. Some are mentally ill people for whom the world is a vast unrelenting puzzle. Some are sick and disabled people who would barely be able to take care of themselves even indoors, much less out in the wild. Some are veterans who made a good-faith bargain with the government that was only kept on one side. Some are elderly people who worked hard all their lives and ended up with less than nothing.

And we call ourselves the greatest country on earth.

(…more on this court case next time…)


Source: “Justice Department Files Brief to Address the Criminalization of Homelessness,” Justice.gov, 08/06/15
Source: “It’s unconstitutional to ban the homeless from sleeping outside, the federal government says,” WashingtonPost.com, 08/13/15
Image by Richard R. Troxell

 

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How to Become Homeless—Yes, Even You

JoyThe Weingart Center is a venerable Skid Row institution that offers shelter, job training and counseling. Los Angeles Times writer Sandy Banks interviewed Maxene Johnston, who was in charge of it for 10 years, and learned this:

Her time in the trenches taught her that most people with nowhere to live fell into one of three groups: the derailed, the disabled or the dysfunctional. The derailed are ordinary people hobbled by bad luck…The disabled have mental or physical issues that make it hard to live on their own…The dysfunctional are chronic street dwellers, with limitations that can’t be addressed with short-term help… There are as many back stories as there are broken and desperate people.

The point Johnston makes is that all the people in these subdivisions are still part of the public, the citizenry whose safety and wellbeing the civic authorities are charged with protecting. The derailed, of course, are the easiest to help, and also the easiest to become one of. Life is so precarious that just about everyone is at some degree of risk for becoming homeless. Today we look at a few random ways in which this can happen.

A Davenport, Iowa, mother of five was shown a rental house by “the most wonderful man I ever met in my life” and gave him a $1,300 deposit—all the money she had. Then he disappeared, and even a local news station was unable to help her trace the thief.

An article by Senior Advocate Liza Horvath outlines some of the many ways in which the elderly can be scammed out of their homes and savings, and prefaces the list with strong words:

A rapacious, marauding predator is taking hold in America and it is growing stronger, smarter, meaner and more aggressive each passing minute… If left unchecked it will take everything they have earned and saved throughout a lifetime and dump them—homeless and destitute into the mean streets.

A Rhode Island couple bought a house, sold their old house, and wound up out in the cold. At the last minute, their Realtor told the would-be buyers that “because [a law firm] had failed to provide proper notification of foreclosure, we’d be unable to obtain title insurance.” The firm’s branches in a nearby state had already been under investigation because their practices looked very much like those of a “foreclosure mill,” a well-known variety of illegal enterprise. Yet the error in this case could so plausibly have been an honest (and still unconscionable) mistake, it gave the Attorney General’s subsequent inquiry very little to work with. And the couple, of course, could not get their old house back.

In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the Andrews family learned the hard way that when the city condemns a building, the tenants have to leave immediately. It wasn’t Robin Andrews’s fault that the balcony of a 4th-floor apartment collapsed, or that everyone in the building had to get out right away. His employer paid for the initial week in a motel room for the couple and their three children. Andrews expected to get his $900 security deposit back from the old landlord, but instead was cheated out of it. The result? No resources and nowhere to go.

Everyone has a story, and listening to too many of them at once can have an impact on the hearer. But now, the theme takes a turn. As we have seen, in Florida many volunteer teams of military veterans search the urban areas and the wilderness for their lost brothers. Last year a survey was taken—and bear in mind, this was just one county, Hillsborough, which includes the city of Tampa.

Of the 236 veterans counted…109 said they didn’t know exactly why they were homeless.

Reactions?

Source: “Garcetti, City Council throw homeless problem to the police,” LATimes.com, 07/03/15
Source: “Davenport mom and kids homeless after internet scam,” WQAD.com, 10/14/13
Source: “Scammers can leave seniors homeless,” MonteryHerald.com, 10/31/14
Source: “I-Team: Law firm mistake leaves couple without home,” turnto10.com, 10/28/13
Source: “Family left homeless after balcony collapse,” 620wtmj, 10/10/13
Source: “Number of homeless veterans in the area spikes,” Tbo.com, 05/11/14
Image by Pedro Ribeiro Simões

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Minimum Wage Matters

Walmart business strategyThat’s exactly what the bosses want! They want us fighting over who has the bigger pile of crumbs so we don’t realize they made off with almost the whole damn cake.

Jens Rushing wrote those words, as part of a larger message that could be condensed even further into the popular warning, “Check yourself before you wreck yourself.” In writing his manifesto, Rushing’s aim was to implore workers to wake up and stop complaining about other workers getting a raise. Someone in his own field, for instance, could easily feel resentment about a fry-basket jockey making the same hourly wage as a paramedic. Rushing and his colleagues are highly trained, extremely competent, and responsible for life-and-death decisions. But he asks everybody to stop and analyze the situation.

Among professional comics, one school of thought divides humor into “punching up” and “punching down.” Some consider it improper to make jokes at the expense of anyone who is perceived as less fortunate than the comic and the current audience. Only the powerful can be attacked: only punching up is cool.

But the corporate CEOs and politicians who own everything hope for the opposite. They want us all to punch down. They want us to form warring clans along every possible divisive line—gender and race being the most obvious, but also American-born or newly arrived; white-collar or blue-collar; tech-savvy or future-shocked; housed or experiencing homelessness. Sometimes it seems that we peasants of the “99%” enjoy finding or inventing any reason to fight amongst ourselves. Meanwhile, the Big Bosses are delighted because all the strife diverts our attention from their machinations. As Rushing says:

Why are you angry about fast food workers making two bucks more an hour when your CEO makes four hundred TIMES what you do?

On the subject of bosses that keep the whole damn cake, could there be a more perfect example than Walmart? The CEO makes more than a 1,000 times what the average “associate” makes. And the family that owns a large portion of the company? The six wealthiest members hold more wealth than the combined entire bottom 40 percent of Americans. Four of the Waltons are worth more than $30 billion apiece. Last year, the Walmart shareholders made $7.2 billion.

Walmart is America’s largest private sector employer, and if it were a country, it would have the 26th largest economy in the world. It has 2.2 million employees, which is more than the population of Houston, TX. Just because 25 people apply for every job opening, Walmart feels justified in practicing piracy. People who specialize in figuring out these things say that Walmart could pay workers $14.89 per hour without needing to raise prices. Of course, the notion that the family or the stockholders might take less of the pie is too unlikely to even consider.

But wait—there are even more shameful numbers. Apparently, each store costs the taxpayers more than $900,000 per year in public assistance for its employees. Out of all employers, Walmart is the one where the largest number of workers and their families use taxpayer-funded health insurance programs.  And what about that shady, dicey, sketchy merry-go-round where almost 20 percent of the food stamps in America are redeemed at Walmart AND, coincidentally, a huge percentage of the employees need food stamps to survive. In the comment section of a Walmart-busting website, a worker wrote:

When I started, they actually have a routine to sign you up for Food Stamps and all government assistance during the orientation process. Which is really messed up to take a job to get you away from Government assistance, only part of their plan is to help you get it… I was disgusted at the fact it was part of their written orientation.

Please read the House the Homeless document, “The Fight for $15!” and learn about the Universal Living Wage formula. Universal Living Wage also has a Facebook page. As Jens Rushing said:

Look, if any job is going to take up someone’s life, it deserves a living wage.

Reactions?

Source: “Paramedic Shares Awesome Facebook Post About Minimum Wage Increase,” good.is, 08/03/15
Source: “14 Facts About Wal-Mart That Will Blow Your Mind,” BusinessInsider.com, 06/06/14
Source: “19 Facts That Show Just How Massive Walmart Really Is.” buzzfeed.com, 06/06/14
Source: “Top Reasons the Walton Family and Walmart are NOT “Job Creators”,” walmart1percent.org, March 2014
Image by Mike Licht

 

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The Fight for $15!

FightFor15

Fight for $15! This is the battle cry for higher wages. Seemingly awesome. It is now taking hold on both sides of the nation. At this point, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Berkley, Oakland, Seattle, and now New York, have wage agreements that when eased in over time (3-6 years) will result in higher minimum wages!

For a decade, between 1997 and 2007, Congress failed to raise the Federal Minimum Wage at all. This set workers’ wages (coupled with normal inflation) on a trajectory that was so negative and so severe it resulted in putting the basics of life, including housing, beyond the reach of millions. In fact, the ever shrinking minimum wage relative to the cost of daily necessities has become so extreme that even such things as basic rental housing have moved beyond the reach of full time, 40 hour a week, minimum wage workers. Inaction on the part of Congress has only added to the 3.5 million people now experiencing homelessness in this nation. When the federal government failed to act, the people in desperation, jumped into the fray pushing for higher wages in their areas.

This is the very core of our American Dream…a fair wage for a fair day’s work! If you work hard, keep your head down, eventually you can get ahead, get married, and raise a family.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has indicated his support for recent economic changes. In fact, at a recent rally celebrating the NY wage proposal, he was noted as saying, “This is just the beginning. We will not stop until we reach true economic justice.” Awesome! Finally, we will acknowledge that the minimum wage worker, the janitor, construction laborer, hotel worker, bank teller, fast food worker, theater attendant, farm worker, receptionist, nurse’s aide, maid, poultry processor, child care worker, home care aid, garage attendant, etc. make up the socio-economic base of our society and that they all need living wages.

But wait a minute! Did we just mention farm workers? These are strictly rural workers. What about all the other minimum wage rural workers? While 80% of Americans live in urban areas according to the 2010 census, 20% of all workers are scattered throughout rural America. How will they and others in their situation, ever attain income-equity if they aren’t unionized and are too few in concentrated numbers to affect change? And by the way, ten states have passed laws that prevent local minimum wages to rise about the Federal Minimum Wage (currently set at $7.25 per hour or $2.13 per hour for agricultural workers).

And while we’re at it, when we examine the $15.00 for those who are organized and in states where it is OK to have a minimum wage above the federal minimum wage, we find that even $15 per hour falls significantly short of what is needed to become housed and to get by on a daily basis. Then we examine the common sense of the Universal Living Wage (ULW) formula, we see that it is based on three existing government guidelines:

  1. spend no more than 30% of your income on housing,
  2. work a full 40 hours per week,
  3. index the wage to the local cost of housing.

We calculate that the wage required to afford a one bedroom apartment using the HUD Fair Market Rents in a few notably cities with high costs of living-

City/State Hourly wage for an efficiency apartment Hourly wage for a one-bedroom apartment
New York, NY $23.00 $24.02
Los Angeles, CA $17.56 $21.21
Seattle, WA $18.69 $22.12
San Francisco, CA $24.15 $31.44

$15 per hour is a far cry from any of these basic requirements, and as we have seen in the past, when some of these $15 amounts go into effect as much as six years away, their value will be highly degraded due to inflation and we will be right back where we started. At the same time, currently in rural America we see that in areas such as found in a few sample cities in the table below-

City/State Hourly wage for an efficiency apartment Hourly wage for a one-bedroom apartment
Chico, CA $9.92 $12.63
Little Rock, AR $10.31 $11.90
Cumberland, MD $8.83 $10.42
Asheville, NC $9.81 $13.90
Decatur, IL $7.92 $10.12

This again is a significant distance from the $15 per hour bench mark in the opposite direction. We cannot destabilize small business throughout rural America as we work to stabilize our minimum wage workers.

What we need to do is act smart and address these two major concerns right up front. First, we have all learned by now that one size (or one wage amount) does not fit all. In fact, we have learned that we are a nation of 1,000 plus economies. Each population area throughout the nation has its own cost of living. We’ve all traveled; we know this to be true. We all know it costs much more to visit/live in Washington DC than it does to visit/live in Rapid City, South Dakota. The ULW formula takes this very real concern into account. We realize that by simply ascribing $15/ hour in an area that only requires $10 per hour would seriously hurt small business in that area. We must not saddle them with a one size fits all $15 per hour wage when it’s unnecessary and destructive to small business. Instead, we can use the HUD Fair Market Rent values to determine what a person should reasonably expect to pay for an apartment and other living necessities throughout the nation in areas about the size of counties. Then by simply making the wage relate to the cost of housing by indexing it to the local cost of housing, we ensure that no matter what that housing cost rises to, if we put in our 40 units of work per week, we’ll be able to afford basic housing and the core necessities of life without hurting small business. This is also a reason for people to be drawn away from welfare and back into work.

We need to keep the federal standard created in 1938 after the Great Depression that established The Federal Minimum Wage, in play for the entire nation. We need to be able to afford the basics in life: food, clothing and shelter (now transportation is added with the ULW formula) but we must tweak The Federal Minimum Wage so it is based locally. By using the same principle throughout the nation, but by indexing it locally, we find that over time, we are able to make the wage relate to even the most costly of housing markets in urban America without hurting small businesses in rural America.

This approach finally solves the problem of wage inequality at the minimum wage level while ensuring that a full time minimum wage worker is able to afford a roof over their head, (other than a bridge), and without adding to the existing homeless population. Finally, it gives businesses the opportunity to plan ahead by knowing exactly what the wage of employees will be now and in the future.

 

Photo: Steve Rhodes

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Hidden Costs of Homelessness

Day 3When calculating the civic price of homelessness, communities think about how much it costs to build and maintain shelters; to staff agencies that match available housing and jobs with people experiencing homelessness; and to pay landlords and motel owners for housing that is meant to be transitional. If the community is enlightened, it even factors in the costs of hospitalizing and jailing people who would not need to be in either facility in the first place, if they had somewhere to live.

But there are other, seldom-mentioned categories of expense that taxpayers often don’t even realize have become part of their financial liability. Less than a year ago in Denver, Amy Goodman reported on what has been called an “historic police brutality case”:

Marvin Booker was a homeless street preacher from a prominent family of Southern preachers. In 2010, he was killed by deputies in the booking room of the Denver jail.

It was all on video. The coroner ruled a homicide, the sheriff’s department personnel went totally unpunished, and the citizens of Colorado were handed a bill for $4.65 million to pay compensation and damages to Booker’s family. On the other side of the country, a court told New York City to pay $2.25 million to the mother of a man who was left to die in an oven-like cell at Riker’s Island.

When a hospital does something wrong, the cost of making it right may not come from the tax coffers, but community members pay just the same, as every subsequent patient contributes to cover the deficit. In Southern California, local reporter Sarah Parvini noted:

Over the course of a decade, former patients have been found on Skid Row in hospital gowns or wearing hospital ID bracelets around their wrists. A case of a paraplegic man found crawling with a colostomy bag spurred public outrage and led to investigations as well as criminal charges.

One Los Angeles hospital was fined $200,000 in civil penalties for discharging a patient to nowhere. Sure, they kindly gave the sick homeless person a ride downtown, but still a court took a dim view of such heartless “dumping.” Another local hospital that habitually dropped off patients on Skid Row was ordered to pay $500,000 to homeless service providers, and one suspects that money will not come from the hospital’s profits, but on the backs of future patients.

Also in Los Angeles, the County-USC Medical Center mishandled a homeless woman’s labor and delivery process, resulting in the birth of a severely disabled child who needs institutional care. The story is full of heartbreaking details, not the least of which is a $7.5 million settlement that will come from the pockets of other Californians.

LA’s Skid Row has become less convenient for “patient dumping” for another reason. The city would like to push everyone out of the area, and attempted to start a diaspora by implementing a very aggressive policing program. When a lawsuit was filed by several long-term street people, the power structure agreed to suspend the overnight police sweeps until the city could build 1,250 permanent housing units, which are a long way from becoming reality. Meanwhile, the city (taxpayers) paid for $725,000 worth of the civil rights attorneys’ professional time.

In Dallas, eight years of litigation ended with the city agreeing to pay a quarter million dollars to two organizations with whose feeding of homeless people it had interfered. The story says:

Of the settlement, $166,666.66 will go to Big Heart Ministries and Rip Parker Memorial Homeless Ministry and $83,333.34 will go to the lawyers from National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty who represented the plaintiffs.

Legal representation costs an awful lot, and cities are paying for prosecutors to go after the violent criminals who beat and kill homeless people, and for their public defenders. The bills for hate crimes land in everyone’s mailboxes. Another incidental budget item is the cost of constantly re-arresting offenders for not reporting to the authorities where they live, because they don’t live anywhere. And the cost of putting out fires that are started accidentally by homeless people trying to cook or just to avoid freezing. Really, listing all these miscellaneous expenses could become a full-time job, and they are all expenses that would not exist if everyone had a place to live.

Reactions?

Source: “In Historic Police Brutality Case, Family of Homeless Denver Pastor Killed
in Custody Awarded $4.6M,” Democracynow.org, 10/17/14
Source: “L.A.’s Homeless Patient Dumping Law Leads to $500,000 Settlement With Hospital,” KCET.org, 05/29/14
Source: “Formerly Homeless Woman Awarded Medical Malpractice Settlement Against L.A. Hospital,” LegalExaminer.com, 11/07/13
Source: “City to Pay $250000 Settlement to Homeless Support Groups,” DallasObserver.com,12/08/14
Image by David Shankbone

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Large-Scale Efforts to Stop Food Waste

Mom's Pumpkin PieHow 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.

 

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The “Functional Zero” Fallacy

Maher min wageBob 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.

Philosophical Background

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

 

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The Individual Versus Hunger

Jacques-Imo's- Food StampsPeople 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.

Reactions?

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

 

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Random Acts of Nourishment

St. Michael's CreesloughAmerica 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.

Reactions?

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

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