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People Who Feed People

Near Windward Ave., Venice BeachA few days ago it was announced that in Knoxville, Tenn., a teen group is passing out something that people need even more than food—drinking water. They are participating in the Win Our World program, which only lasts for a week, but, with any luck, plants the seeds of the “pay it forward” notion in young minds.

Feeding the homeless is in the news a lot these days, especially when cities outlaw practice, as many seem to be doing. The results are lawsuits, adverse publicity, and huge expense. And those are only the stories that make the news. A variety of methods are used to discourage generous, caring people from trying to help others. Of course, those methods don’t always work.

Venice, Calif., has had a long and troubled history as a hotbed of homelessness. A couple of years back, an anonymous donor gave money to the Whole Foods store at a major intersection to host a weekly homeless breakfast program. Neighboring homeowners and tenants were not consulted beforehand, and did not want strangers to tromping through their yards on Sunday mornings, leaving trash and worse.

The locals were already burned out on the idea of feeding the homeless because of another food program operating a block away. There was vigorous debate, and after holding the event out back of its store the first time, Whole Foods began setting up its operation near the beach instead. A year later the program was still in effect at the alternate location, with complaints still rolling in for various reasons.

Not long afterward, in Pasadena Calif., Union Station Homeless Services expected to feed 5,000 at its annual Thanksgiving bash. Local residents had been sharing home-cooked meals with the homeless for 37 years—the same dishes they made for their families. Cooks would pop an extra tray of stuffing in the oven, or stir an extra quart of cranberry sauce, and deliver the surplus to a central location. According to the group’s CEO, Rabbi Marvin Gross, nobody had ever been sick.

Nevertheless, over the years, none of the homemade meals had been prepared in approved locations. When November 2013 rolled around, the Health Department stepped in and put its foot down. Going forward, helpers could only donate store-bought food (which in this fairy-tale scenario is totally, dependably safe and wholesome.) Undaunted, the charity took advantage of the opportunity to promote an approved location, and encouraged its supporters to donate pies obtained from a Los Angeles bakery owned by Mental Health America, which employs people with mental illnesses.

Feeding the Homeless Throughout the Country

A few months later, in New Orleans, Sister Beth Mouch delivered food to the St. Jude Community Center to prepare a meal for 200 people experiencing homelessness. She found a towing service preparing to remove her truck, without even a written ticket from the parking police. Though her vehicle was not even hooked up to the tow truck yet, and she was ready to drive away, the nun was not allowed to leave. Her truck was towed, and she had to pay a fine to recover it. Apparently, this was not the first time that Community Center volunteers had suffered such petty harassment in their efforts to nourish the hungry.

Around the same time, in Salem, Mass., a young convenience store clerk (whose own history included half a year of living in her car) gave a homeless man a small cup of coffee and was fired for it.Once word got out, Ava Lins received other job offers and soon posted on Facebook that she was working for Citizens for Adequate Housing. That story had a happy ending, but every time someone is retaliated against for trying to help, even on such a very small scale, it sends a bad message and teaches a bad lesson.

To offset those grim examples, a story appeared in the same week about a New Jersey couple, Mark and Anna Landgrebe, who were in their 23rd year of driving their minibus into Manhattan every Saturday night to deliver food and clothing to people in need. All over the country, alone or working together, good-hearted people are pushing back against the increasingly oppressive legal climate. Let’s hope that more people look for ways to contribute.


Source: “Teens give water to Knoxville homeless,” WATE.com, 06/23/15
Source: “Whole Foods: Free Meals for the Homeless on Sundays!,” Yovenice.com, 03/24/12
Source: “No more home-cooked donations at Thanksgiving meal for Pasadena homeless,” scpr.org, 11/26/13
Source: “Nun’s truck towed while delivering food to homeless,” TheCelebrityCafe.com, 3/23/14
Source: “7-11 Clerk Says She Was Fired For Giving Freezing Homeless Man A $1 Cup Of
Coffee,” ThinkProgress,org, 03/19/14
Source: “This Family Has Been Feeding the Homeless Every Weekend for 22 Years, and
They Have No …,” lansing.shine.fm, 03/24/14
Image by Ryan Vaarsi

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The Exploitation that Turned Out Not to Be

Tampa

Tampa

Last fall, Will Hobson wrote about one of the most extensive homeless programs in Tampa, Florida, and its connection to large public sports events:

For years, New Beginnings founder and CEO Tom Atchison has sent his unpaid homeless labor crews to work at Tampa Bay Rays, Lightning and Bucs games, the Daytona 500 and the Florida State Fair. For their shelter, he’s had homeless people work in construction, landscaping, telemarketing, moving, painting, even grant-writing.

At any given time, the program serves around 100 men, women, and young adults, many of whom are veterans. Many are also recovering addicts and alcoholics, and Atchison places great importance on work therapy. But the Tampa Bay Times, which undertook an investigation, believed that exploitation of the homeless was underway. Drug and alcohol recovery programs often supervise their residents’ financial lives because that way, it is harder to relapse. But Atchison was also accused of appropriating the residents’ Social Security payments and SNAP benefits, even when the total was more than what they owed the program for their housing and food.

Along with renting out the New Beginnings residents to other companies, Atchison has also started landscaping and telemarketing companies. Legally, each person is supposed to make $7.25 per hour, the federal minimum wage, but according to labor attorneys consulted by the Times, this did not appear to be the case. Hobson’s article compared it to an earlier case in New York State in which a federal judge made a program pay $800,000 in withheld wages to its former employees.

A Fresh Start For New Beginnings, With Proper Wages

By the second week of December, it was announced that the Buccaneers, Lightning, and Rays had all ended their relationship with the inadequately paid workers. Various media outlets flung around terms like indentured servitude and slave labor. Sources the Tampa Bay Times called “homeless advocates” might actually have been disgruntled n’er-do-wells. If someone was ejected from the program for breaking the no-substance pledge and other rules, “going to the media” would be a weapon of revenge.

At the same time, some residents were interviewed who had no complaints and said the program had saved their lives. Just before Christmas, the Tampa Bay Times published an eloquent letter by Brandon Jones that summed up the view held by defenders of New Beginnings and its founder.

Let me see if I have this straight. Pastor Tom Atchison of New Beginnings takes in drug addicts, criminals and sex offenders—basically the unemployable dregs of society whom no other institution will care for—and gives them free room and board, and probably clothing too.

In return he asks the men to pay for their costly care by working a few hours a week at jobs in the community for (at most) pocket money. Nobody is compelled to stay at his homeless shelter and as I understand it nobody is prevented from finding additional employment to earn a few dollars if they so choose. And while in Atchison’s care they are gaining basic job skills, and building a record of steady employment and sobriety that can help them to return to normal society.

At the end of the month a different newspaper, the Tampa Tribune, announced what seemed to be a win-win resolution of the problem, with the old contracting company (Aramark) out of the picture, a new company called All Team Staffing in the driver’s seat, and an even greater number of New Beginnings residents employed, under improved terms. There is more work to do because the new contract includes not just selling concessions, but cleanup after the sporting events. Mike Salinero reported:

The Rev. Tom Atchison, the Pentecostal preacher who founded New Beginnings, said the arrangement through All Team Staffing is better than the Aramark contract because the workers get paychecks with taxes and Social Security taken out.

In March of this year, the Tampa Tribune carried a piece by the New Beginnings leader, Tom Atchison. This is definitely worth reading in its entirety, but here are the main points:

New Beginnings has survived but has had to cut a lot of services because of the loss of income caused by the bogus articles. We will continue to rebuild our services as the truth continues to surface.

After the careful and extensive examination of the financial records of New Beginnings and the interviews of several employees and clients, federal investigators concluded that there were no violations of record keeping or labor laws.

New Beginnings makes no apologies for requiring clients to pay a part of their expenses by working. We want to teach them a work ethic and not to depend on the government and others to support them.

People who hit the streets, with intractable substance use problems, are often not angels. It would be foolish to pretend otherwise. Such difficult people tend to want everything handed to them, and react badly to rules like “work or move out”—an attitude that could account for the troubles that originally set them on the path to a last-resort rehab center. Everyone deserves a second chance, but people who answer the call to be in the second-chance business are allowed, on behalf of society as a whole, to set boundaries and enact real consequences.


Source: “Tampa homeless program uses unpaid, destitute residents as steady labor force, revenue source,” TampaBay.com, 11/29/14
Source: “Letters: Good work at New Beginnings is being punished,” TampaBay.com, 12/19/14
Source: “New Beginnings’ clients working at RayJay again after federal probe,” TBO.com, 12/29/14
Source: “The truth about New Beginnings of Tampa,” TPB.com, 03/28/15
Image by Walter

 

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Homeless Exploitation Comes in All Sizes

George W. Bush found homeless

A Vintage April Fools Day Meme

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.

Reactions?

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

 

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How to Become Homeless: Be a Puerto Rican Addict

Winter on My Street“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.

Reactions?

Source: “Not It!,” ThisAmericanLife.org, 04/10/15
Image by BluEyedA73

 

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The Economics of SNAP

SNAP logoA 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.

Reactions?

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

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Homeless Eating Advice

2012Critics 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.

Reactions?

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

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Eating While Homeless Is Not Easy

Gwyneth Paltrow_ TIFF 2012Recently, actor Gwyneth Paltrow made news by taking part in a publicity stunt designed to raise awareness and empathy by challenging celebrities and others to live on the $29-per-week food allowance given by SNAP (aka food stamps). Her choices included one lime for every day of the week, which will surely keep scurvy at bay. Also, her menu excluded meat.

Illinois blogger Rebecca Vipond Brink put together a more plausible list, with all amounts and prices noted, comprising the following items: potatoes, eggs, frozen chicken breasts, cheese, milk, apples, oatmeal, celery, peanut butter, raisins, fresh carrots, and rice. Brink points out that she did not have to attempt the challenge in a food desert:

I lived it in a suburb that was safe. I lived it with a car, even if it was a car that was on its last legs.

Let’s imagine a homeless person who follows Brink’s lead. $2 is cheap for 5 pounds of potatoes—except you have to carry them around with you. Chicken at $1 per pound is a screamin’ deal, but after eating part of it, you’re still stuck with a few pounds of meat that needs to be stored in a refrigerator. So do the eggs and cheese; and so does the milk, which may be available for $2.50 per gallon, but who carries a container of souring milk around? Unfortunately, milk in the more practical pint cartons costs more per ounce.

Unrefrigerated celery and carrots tend to go unappealingly limp rather quickly. While 4 pounds of apples may be $3, buying them individually would cost more. At $2, a 16-ounce jar of peanut butter is quite a deal—but then, like a soldier in the field, you have to hump it. Raisins are tasty and need no preparation, but they are one of the fruits most likely to retain hideous amounts of pesticides, and the organic variety costs considerably more.

More Obstacles to Eating Well

A 3-pound bag of dry oatmeal might not be too weighty a burden, but how to prepare it? With a saucepan, and clean water, and a source of heat capable of first boiling the water and then moderating to a simmer. Same goes for the rice, and the pot definitely needs a lid for the steaming process to work correctly. Neither potatoes nor eggs should be eaten raw, and cooking the chicken is another challenge.

Brink did not stock up on dried beans, one of the cheapest foods available, which are often mentioned in connection with food banks and government handouts. They really need to be soaked in water overnight before cooking, and to avoid the flatulent effects, they should be rinsed and the water replaced several times. For this fancy maneuver, a person would need to carry around a strainer or colander. And dried beans have to cook for quite some time before they soften enough to eat. Throw in some catsup pilfered from a fast food joint, and you’ve got yourself a meal. Maybe you are even lucky enough to have a little paper packet of salt, if it didn’t melt when the rain soaked through your backpack.

You’d have to carry around, at bare minimum, a bowl, a fork and/or spoon, and a cooking pot. You’d need a can opener, and luckily the GI model is tiny and lightweight. Also easy to lose, and useless to a homeless person with arthritis in her hands. To cut a melon in half, or cut a free loaf of unsliced bread, or section an apple, you’d need a nice sharp knife. Which is also, technically, a weapon—the possession of which can get a street person into a world of trouble.

SNAP Regulations

Under the rules, SNAP benefits can’t be used to buy alcohol or cigarettes, or non-food items like toilet paper, a toothbrush, or soap. Nor can they be used to buy vitamin supplements, which is puzzling. Most inexplicable of all is the prohibition against hot foods, or even cold foods, if consumable on the spot, like potato salad from the deli counter. If a food stamp recipient wants to enter a convenience store and buy an embalmed hot dog from the rolling grill, why on earth should that be forbidden? It would protect public safety more efficiently than making the customer buy cold wieners to cook over a little blaze in the park. Citizens are always upset to hear that an empty house or a sector of wooded land has burned, but it’s a miracle there are not more runaway fires. And it isn’t just the homeless, as this Reddit commentator points out:

You can have a home but not a stove or other appliances. Where do you think poor urban families are going to get logs and coal from if they can’t afford basic gas and electricity? They’re going to steal it or try to build fire with illegal/dangerous materials in an illegal/dangerous way.

The federal SNAP rules allow restaurant meals for the elderly, disabled, and homeless—but that program is implemented in only two states, and parts of three others. In addition, people themselves have built-in limitations—like an allergy to peanut butter, or one of any number of other edible substances. A person might need to carefully follow an anti-diabetes diet, or might have teeth too damaged and painful to chew with, or no teeth at all. And in many places, people experiencing homelessness have to use up a portion of their SNAP benefits just to obtain drinkable water.

Reactions?

Source: “What $29 A Week For Food Looks Like For Actual Low-Income People (And Not Gwyneth Paltrow),” TheFrisky.com, 04/10/15
Source: “SNAP Challenge raises awareness for hunger, can you eat for $4.50 per day?,” Reddit.com, 2014
Image by Michael Mayer

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Colorado Coalition for the Homeless in Denver

Stout Street Health CenterA recent House the Homeless post outlined the poor management of the construction of a new hospital that has brought the Veterans Administration into the news. This affects all veterans, including those experiencing homelessness, and health care is especially important to those who are at risk of becoming homeless because they are unable to work or, in many cases, adjust to society.

Today we look at another side of Denver, a more positive side, which is particularly apt because House the Homeless President Richard R. Troxell recently attended a National Coalition for the Homeless conference in the city. He also took part in a gathering aimed at organizing a national movement to address the growing criminalization of the homeless through limitations on public eating, sleeping, going to the bathroom, and other basic functions.

While in Denver, Richard visited one of the many facilities that the Coalition for the Homeless has created, the beautiful Stout Street Health Center, shown above. The Center offers dental, vision, and behavioral services, along with a wide array of basic health services. Help is available to those enrolling in Medicaid. New patients are seen four mornings per week, and existing patients can get same-day appointments. It has its own pharmacy, and offers such thoughtful amenities as bicycle locks for patients don’t have their own, but need to secure their bikes while being seen. In addition,

The Coalition operates a mobile medical clinic that makes scheduled stops at homeless shelters and drop-in centers in Denver and at Colfax Avenue motels that have become a shelter of last resort for families.

Supportive Housing for the Homeless

The same capacious building contains the Renaissance Stout Street Lofts, consisting of 78 housing units, which in this location are one and two-bedroom apartments with on-site property managers and social workers. The brochure says:

The Lofts blend supportive housing units for chronically homeless individuals, families, and youth… Amenities include on-site laundry facilities, a community room with a common kitchen and outdoor courtyard, a computer room, elevator access, video surveillance systems, and secured electronic access with underground parking.

Also nearby and adjacent to the Health Center are the Renaissance Off Broadway Lofts, with 81 units varying from studio apartments to even a few 3-bedroom apartments, open since 2001 and billed as “the first newly-constructed, affordable rental lofts project in Denver’s history.” Half the units are occupied by formerly homeless tenants and the rest by people who work downtown but can’t afford the high central city rents. And of course, on-site case management and support services are available to residents who need this help.

These are only two of the many properties described in the brochure that have been built or re-purposed to house the homeless in Denver. Some of the principles behind these residences are nearness to transportation, safety, environmentally friendly features that reduce energy costs, accessibility for the disabled, and nearby employment opportunities. Thanks to these numerous and well-planned facilities, the city experiences:

…significant savings in municipal costs resulting from fewer emergency room visits, inpatient hospital stays, detox visits and days in jail…Services such as counseling, life skills training, financial literacy and employment assistance contribute to housing stability for those that once were homeless.

Behind Denver’s Success: John Parvensky

The scene in Denver is of course attributable to the hard work and dedication of hundreds of individuals who have devoted themselves over the last 30 years to helping and housing the homeless. Particularly noteworthy are the contributions of John Parvensky, who has served as President of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless since 1986 (and is President of the Board of Directors of the National Coalition for the Homeless). He supervises more than 500 employees and administers more than 40 programs that each year help around 15,000 people experiencing homelessness. We close with a few more selected excerpts from Mr. Parvensky’s extensive biographical notes:

He has also spearheaded the production of 16 distinct, integrated housing developments that combine high-quality housing for homeless individuals and families with affordable units for community residents with lower incomes, resulting in homes for 2,300 households… He earned a 2010 Housing Colorado! Eagle Award for his long-standing work to expand affordable housing in the state…Mr. Parvensky was also chosen by his peers to receive the 2010 People’s Choice Award, an honor awarded by housing professionals in the private sector, government and non-profit arenas. In April 2012, he received the 2012 Be More Award from Rocky Mountain PBS for his outstanding, innovative leadership and direction in social justice benefiting the entire community.

Reactions?

Source: “Stout Street Health Center Services,” ColoradoCoalition.org, undated
Source: “No Place Like home,” coloradocoalition.org, undated
Source: “John Parvensky Bio,” ColoradoCoalition.org
Image by Colorado Coalition for the Homeless

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Two Exemplary Advocates for People Experiencing Homelessness

Frances Fitzpatrick

Francis “Pat” Fitzpatrick, photographed by Jenny O’Donnell

Last year, Gene Estess died at the age of 78. His story was an unusual one. After a privileged upbringing and a college education, he spent 20 years working on Wall Street. His family had everything they needed and more, but something about the lifestyle didn’t set right with him. The malaise, according to his surviving wife, stemmed from a feeling that his time and talents had not served any philosophically or morally significant purpose.

In 1984 his attention was caught by a mentally ill homeless addict who hung out with her poodle in Grand Central Terminal. Taking on the project of finding a place for her to live, he connected with the practically brand-new Jericho Project. He was invited to join the nonprofit’s board, and ended up being its director for 18 years. In addition, he was the motivating force behind the establishment of many residences. Helping formerly homeless women get their children back was a particular interest of his.

Estess Left Wall Street Behind

In the summer of 1987, the world of high finance was thriving, but Estess was done with it. He walked away, and a few months later, as if to vindicate his choice, the stock market collapsed. Shortly afterward, he took the post of director at Jericho and worked his first year for no salary.

Imagine writing a movie script about his life. The temptation would be great to invent a scene in which a ruined speculator turns up seeking shelter, and encounters the man he had mocked for abandoning the soulless financial district—who is now running the organization designed to help the homeless. Douglas Martin said in the New York Times:

Today the Jericho Project serves 1,500 adults and children, including more than 500 military veterans, with housing and services. It says it spends $12,000 a year for each adult client—less than half the cost of a cot in a New York City shelter.

Fitzpatrick’s Work in Florida

In Gainesville, Florida, Cleveland Tinker published a tribute to Frances Fitzpatrick on the occasion of his election to the Hall of Fame by Florida’s Martin Luther King Jr. Commission. Perhaps Fitzpatrick’s destiny was shaped by his undergraduate years as a history major, from which he went on to earn a degree in rehabilitation counseling. His career included time in the military, a period of living in his car and catching fish to eat, and a couple of years as a Vista volunteer helping migrant workers in what he calls the “brutal poverty” of the Everglades.

He was hired by the United Farm Workers to handle, in his words:

…slave and peonage cases where they had this curator system where the curator is hired by the grower, and he exploits the hell out of these people. There were people in slavery, and there was actually a crew that got paid only in wine.

He worked for the Florida Coalition Against Hunger, and as a drug counselor in the prison system until privatization put an end to that. Living by the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi, in the 1990s he served on the board of directors of a shelter and soup kitchen named after the saint. Unlike his fellow directors, who only showed up for meetings, Fitzpatrick stuck around to mingle with the residents.

In 2002 he was part of the group that founded the Home Van, Alachua County’s mobile soup kitchen and clothing distributor. The principled troublemaker has picketed City Hall, and been arrested for giving people food. When Gainesville passed an ordinance that put an arbitrary limit of 130 on the number of meals the soup kitchen could serve in a single day, Fitzpatrick’s spirited objections cause him to be ejected from City Commission meetings numerous times. But in the end, the restriction was repealed. A highly regarded documentary film, Civil Indigent, http://civilindigent.com/was made about that chapter of his life.

In 2013 he was interviewed for the University of Florida’s Samuel Proctor Oral History Program. Among other matters, he spoke of his fondness for the Food Not Bombs organization:

They’re not only into charity but also into justice—getting rid of the reason people have to stand in soup lines… We’re really good at charity but we’ve got to get better at justice.

Reactions?

Source: “Gene Estess, Who Left Wall Street to Aid the Poor, Dies at 78,”
NYTimes.com, 04/19/14
Source: “A Champion for the Homeless,” Gainesville.com, 01/13/12
Source: “Civil Indigent,” civilindigent.com, undated
Source: “History and the People Who Make It: Pat Fitzpatrick,” Gainesvilleiguana.org, 03/08/13
Image by Jenny O’Donnell

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The Denver VA Hospital Debacle

Caring for a vet at the VA Hospital in Portland

Caring for a vet at the VA Hospital in Portland

America engages in constant military activity and pays lip service to the honor and respect owed to the troops on the ground. But actions speak louder than words and, sad to say, once the veterans are back in the USA, the country does a lax job of taking care of them. House the Homeless has been looking at examples of both individual and institutional wrongdoing that end up being detrimental to veterans who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.

It isn’t just the government. Other entities have plenty of opportunity for wrongdoing. And it isn’t just homeless vets who get shortchanged. Having a place to live doesn’t guarantee timely attention or good care. The thing is, every adverse event that happens to a vet makes it more likely that she or he will at some point end up on the street. Once there, the climb back to conventional life is so much more difficult.

One of Four Troubled VA Projects

In mid-December, construction of a new Veterans Administration hospital ground to a halt, and a panel of three federal judges ruled that the VA was in breach of contract. The contractor Kiewit-Turner, which had kept working until $100 million of its own money was sunk into the project, was allowed to quit.

Only 62% completed, the new hospital was already over budget by hundreds of millions of dollars. It was supposed to replace the existing Denver VA hospital, in business since 1951 and described in a comment appended to this Wall Street Journal article as a “gilded rat hole.” If it is ever finished, it will serve over 80,000 vets, or nearly 500,000, depending on which news source you look at.

The original contract said Kiewit-Turner would complete 10 hospital buildings, a research and treatment center, a 30-bed rehab center, and three parking garages for $600 million. It required that construction begin even though plans had not been finalized. This backwards approach led the contractor to warn that the whole thing, as conceptualized, would cost over a billion dollars. Apparently the VA told the company to go ahead and keep on building, or else it would be in breach of contract. Reporter Ben Kesling wrote:

VA management problems led James Lynn, a top employee at the VA’s construction manager for the project, to describe it as having “the least effective and most dysfunctional staff on any project that he had ever seen.”

Then in January it was double-whammy time, as a VA whistleblower revealed how the existing Denver VA hospital had lied about its secret waiting lists that kept hundreds of veterans from getting timely care. Senator Jerry Moran of Kansas started a movement to cure the “system that rewards mediocrity and failure” by giving the VA secretary more power to discipline the high-ranking executives responsible for messes.

In 2012, Eric Shinseki had created a Construction Review Council to oversee VA projects and put some accountability in place, but it was too late to help the Denver project. And by the time Sen. Moran got on the case, after the nationwide scandal over waiting times in the VA medical system, Shinseki was no longer Secretary.

A New Start for VA Hospital Projects

Earlier this month, in the wake of hearings held by the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, more details of the Denver hospital project emerged, like how multi-million dollar machines could not fit into the rooms designed for them, because nobody had taken correct measurements. It was determined that the final cost for the facility will work out to about $9.5 million for each of its 182 beds. Normal is, at most, $2 million per bed.

Meanwhile, the General Accounting Office added the Denver project to a growing list of other VA hospital projects—in Orlando, New Orleans, and Las Vegas—where similar bungling and a total disconnect with reality had run up hundreds of millions of dollars of cost overruns. Representative Mike Coffman of Colorado was quoted as saying:

The VA couldn’t lead starving troops to a chow hall when it comes to managing a construction project. They need to get out of the construction business.

Reporter Emily Wax-Thibodeaux of The Washington Post added:

Internal VA e-mails dating to 2010 show that VA contracting officials were ignored when they warned their supervisors about mounting cost overruns.

They were not only ignored, but fired, like the unfortunate whistleblower Adelino R. Gorospe, Jr., who was let go by Glenn Haggstrom, executive director of the Office of Acquisition, Logistics and Construction. Haggstorm is the same VA bigwig who was awarded more than $50,000 in performance bonuses for unexplained reasons, before retiring in the face of investigation of the Denver project.

As it stands, the Army Corps of Engineers has been given responsibility, and Kiewit-Turner is back on the job, and aside from a paltry emergency $56 million that was allotted, nobody knows where the rest of the funding will come from.

Let the Punishment Fit the Paycheck

Often, the people who cheat veterans work directly for the government, and are even high officials, but the public only learns about a small fraction of what goes on. The workings of the military bureaucracy keep the threat of retribution active. It is possible to make a case against anyone, so almost no one dares to report anybody, because they can be made to appear equally bad, even if they never did anything wrong. The threat hangs over every whistleblower that he or she will be next on the chopping block.

Apparently, there isn’t a lot of oversight, and the old question of “Who watches the watchdogs?” is appropriate. On the rare occasion when someone is caught doing something criminally culpable on the job, it might help if the punishment were proportionate to pay grade. If a top administrator steals, the sentence should be many times longer than it would be for an Army private.

Reactions?

Source: “VA Hospital Project Grinds to a Halt Amid Budget Overruns
WSJ.com, 12/10/14
Source: “Video: Denver VA reverses denials, admits using secret wait lists
Hotair.com, 01/30/15
Source: “VA building projects riddled with mistakes and cost overruns
WashingtonPost.com, 04/13/15
Image by Parker Knight

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