If there is one state in the union where military veterans might expect to be rendered top-shelf service every time, that state would be Texas. There are two regional benefits offices (Houston is the other) and the Waco office has not been living up to the Lone Star state’s reputation for honoring vets.
Six years ago, the Waco RO (which serves Bell County and central Texas) was one of the epicenters of a scandal that affected an entire federal bureaucracy. Ultimately the Department of Veterans Affairs sent out the order to suspend all document shredding until they could figure out what was going on. Belinda J. Finn, the VA’s Assistant Inspector General for Auditing, testified before a federal House of Representatives subcommittee:
In September of 2008, we were conducting an audit of claim-related mail processing, in the Detroit Regional Office. At the suggestion of a VBA employee, we looked in the shred bins and found claim-related documents. We continued our work in the Waco, St. Louis, and St. Petersburg Regional Offices, finding a total of 132 documents, about 45 of which could have affected benefits.
Jeremy Schwartz of the Austin American-Statesman tirelessly keeps track of what the VA is up to. A couple of years back, the situation was so bad that the Waco RO had the country’s longest waiting time for claims processing.
And then it improved and got the claim processing time down to only 464 days. (Yes, that is sarcasm, and yes, that is more than a year.)
About a year ago, bureaucrats told the reporter that there was no need to hire a full-time county veterans service officer, and that there had been no complaints. A volunteer liaison officer who mostly referred calls to the Texas Veterans Commission said that he only saw five or six veterans each year. Still, the Bell County commissioners promised to improve their website by adding referral information for vets, and to hire a veterans service officer before 2014.
More recently, Schwartz has been looking into a promising and costly medical research program that somehow went off the rails and into the woods. A decade ago, the Veterans Administration okayed the spending of $6.3 million for a brain imaging center to study physical changes in the brains of soldiers before and after their tours of duty in the combat zones of Afghanistan and Iraq. Previous wars produced a lot of gunshot wounds, but in these more recent conflicts, traumatic brain injury (TMI) has been the “signature wound” which could with dark humor be called “the gift that keeps on giving.” The result of such injury is often Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which can affect an individual for the remainder of his or her life, or lead to suicide, whichever comes first.
The center originally opened at UT Austin, but didn’t work out at that location. It was re-established at the Center of Excellence in Waco, where subjects would be available from both Fort Hood (before going overseas) and the VA hospitals in Waco and Temple (after returning). In 2007 a director was hired, but Dr. Robert Van Boven’s first move was to declare that already, $2.1 million had been spent on a project unrelated to traumatic brain injury.
His claims of financial misappropriation did not interest the VA, which at first declined to investigate, although later a report from the office of the agency’s inspector general partially confirmed the allegations of mismanagement. At any rate, the director was fired in 2009. He sued because he had been wrongfully terminated and retaliated against for being a whistleblower. In 2010 the case was settled for an unpublicized amount of money. For the new and much-needed project of learning more about brain damage, this was not an auspicious start.
(…more next time…)
Source: “Document Tampering and Mishandling at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs,” gpo.gov, 03/03/09
Source: “Troubled beginnings,” Statesman.com, 09/07/14
Source: “Gaps in research,” Statesman.com, 09/07/14
Image: Prairie Kittin
Brooke McLay met a mother experiencing homelessness (given the pseudonym of Tori) and treated her to a grocery shopping spree, with the understanding that photos would be taken and an article written. When published, it garnered well over 1,000 online comments. Since they lived in a shelter, Tori had to bring along not only her 4- and 6-year-old daughters, but the wagon containing all their belongings, because Crisis Housing has no provision for locking anything up.
While it would have been more economical to buy a lot of cheap processed food with a long shelf life, Tori also selected fruits and vegetables because neither she nor the girls ever got enough fresh produce. But not too much, because without a refrigerator or stove, how could the perishable items be stored or cooked? There is a lot more to this fascinating piece of journalism. McLay writes,
Today, nearly one in six Americans reports running out of food at least once a year. Government food assistance requests are at an all-time high, and funding for these programs is being cut. The need for food and access to affordable fresh fruits and vegetables is no longer just something affecting the guys holding signs on the street corner. Food insecurity affects millions of suburban families. Working folks. Maybe even your neighbors.
Most single parents are female, though many single fathers face equally daunting challenges. Among other feats, the single parent has to fulfill mutually impossible imperatives and be in two places at the same time. The inability to keep up with a constant barrage of conflicting demands can knock a single parent out of the workforce and into public assistance — not a desirable outcome for anyone, including the taxpayers.
Walk a mile in their shoes
Recently, House the Homeless discussed the havoc caused by arbitrary work schedules set up for the convenience of the company. Imagine this double whammy: you hire someone for childcare, and go to work. The boss sends you home because business is slow. So now, you have to go back and do the same rotten thing to another person, and take away expected income from your child minder. Sure, you can negotiate with the sitter to accept less, because you got bumped — but however it plays out, the person may never work for you again. And as a single mom, you cannot afford to lose even one trustworthy friend.
Sometimes, a single parent is forced to make a devil’s bargain with a relative. Family togetherness and mutual help are the most wonderful things in the world, but often have a toxic side. What if the only relative you can really count on for child care, is the one who lets your already-obese child eat anything and everything? Which imperative do you follow? Answer: the one that keeps you earning a paycheck, so your kid will at least be under a roof.
When you deal in the favor bank, you must expect to put aside a certain amount of time to repay favors – more stress. And let’s face it, relatives have their own problems. Ultimately, family members can only do so much, and it’s not as if a single mom can leave her child with just anybody. Look what happened to Relisha Rudd.
For people who don’t own cars, transportation is problematic almost everywhere. An adult with a baby or small child can, in theory, bicycle. Conveyances and modified bikes are made for every age group, but they feel risky, and are not useful in all weathers, and so on. In cities, single moms are likely to be dependent on public transportation. Imagine getting your kid up at 4 AM for a bus trip to day care, then you take another bus, and make yet another transfer, and hopefully arrive on time for your 8 AM shift.
Single mothers are tempting targets for violent criminals and con artists, and live in constant fear that the authorities will take away their kids. They belong to the “one missed paycheck” subculture, with one foot in a grim situation and the other on a banana peel. The domino effect can be brilliantly demonstrated by the biographies of thousands upon thousands of single parents and their children. This is how families become homeless.
Your responses and feedback are welcome!
Source: “What I Learned After Taking a Homeless Mother Grocery Shopping,” Babble.com, 08/01/14
Image by Comrade Foot
This post is in essence a continuation of last week’s “Exciting Development in Austin,” so a reader who missed that one might want to catch up.
What will go on there
Disabled, chronically homeless people are at a great disadvantage in many ways. In most places, the local taxpayers are also affected by the medical bills that result from so many people living in insalubrious conditions, with untreated physical maladies. Community First Village will help everyone – the residents, by enabling their improved health; and the larger community, by reducing the hospital bills that result from life in the rough.
Located outside Austin, CFV will be a serene and health-positive environment where a great deal of healing and strengthening will take place. Adequate nutrition, nights of unbroken sleep, and an on-site medical facility will help the residents regain levels of vitality and functionality they have not felt for years. Most will be able to actively take part and contribute to the village’s success. We mentioned many activities last time, and people are already making furniture and growing crops.
A strong recycling program is planned. In the carpentry and welding workshops, skills will be taught and learned. The place will have WiFi, so a motivated person could conceivably sell crafts and other products online. The literature speaks of “micro-business opportunities for employment for residents interested in finding a job with employers assisting within this program,” and also suggests possibilities for occasional work at the nearby Travis Exposition Center.
Vision and hard work
The project’s first phase is expected to be done by the spring of 2015. It was kicked off by a groundbreaking ceremony in late August, with some of the prospective residents turning over symbolic shovelfuls of earth.
On that occasion, House Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin) received heartfelt thanks, because he sponsored a bill that exempts CFV from property taxes. Passing that bill will no doubt turn out to be one of the smartest moves the legislature ever made. As far as other people and entities who deserve thanks, please forgive any omissions, and post a comment at the end to set things straight!
The development firm Bury Inc. is involved with the community’s design and MileStone Community Builders LLC with the actualization. H-E-B is helping to start up the commissary, and the local nonprofit organization Caritas will provide caseworkers. Students from the University of Texas School of Architecture designed many of the structures. At Lake Travis High School, the student council and cheerleaders spearheaded a fund drive called “Bring the Homeless Home” which raised $10,000. And of course thousands of volunteers have pitched in and will be donating even more time and energy going forward.
Paying for their stay
Dealing with a hardcore bureaucracy like Social Security is a daunting task even for a housed person with access to all the needed papers and a fully-operational consciousness. For someone who doesn’t own a file cabinet and suffers from physical limitations, pain, and disorientation, these challenges can seem insurmountable. House the Homeless does an amazing job of helping individuals apply for SSI disability status so they can use their benefits to pay the very reasonable rent.
The main driving force is Alan Graham, whose outreach ministry Mobile Loaves and Fishes has been working toward the project for years. Graham, described by journalist Marty Toohey as “a devout man with a sly sense of humor,” sees Community First Village Community as a “promised land” for people who have experienced some of the worst aspects of life on earth. After a recent tour of the property, Toohey wrote:
Graham was careful to note the place is intended to serve the chronically homeless — the portion of the homeless population that, due to mental illness or substance abuse or other issues, cannot keep a home under typical circumstances. For chronically homeless people, said Graham, who is considered one of the nation’s experts on the subject, halfway houses and other “transitional housing” are ultimately ineffective.
One of the most exciting results so far is how Graham and the rest of the CFV support system have inspired other municipalities to step up. A recent OregonLive.com headline reads,
Is that impressive, or what? Closer to home, a local blogger known as “The Lone Spanger” wrote,
It seems to me that with the continued support of volunteers, donors, and the city, CFV will surely be a success story in the history of homeless housing developments and provide a progressive model for future housing coordinators to follow. I’m looking forward to watching the program blossom and hope it makes a positive impact on the city’s morale towards encouraging more communities like this.
Please visit the Community First Village website to see how you can help!
Source: “Westbanker inspires homeless village,” Statesman.com, 09/03/14
Source: “LTHS students work together to help homeless,” Statesman.com, 09/24/14
Source: “Austin project takes new approach in aiding homeless by avoiding ‘transitional housing’,” TheRepublic.com, 09/18/14
Source: “Tiny houses as affordable housing? Austin beats Portland to punch, Eugene follows suit,” OregonLive.com, 08/22/12
Source: “Hope For the Homeless At Community First Village,” ChallengerNewspaper.org, 08/19/14
Source: “Lake Travis HS Cavaliers – Bring the Homeless Home,” YouTube
Image by mlfnow
In Austin, Texas, something is happening that will unavoidably become a subject of great interest to communities across the nation. The new thing is called Community First Village (CFV), and it is happening because many of the town’s officials and citizens believe that ending homelessness is more economical than dealing with the consequences of allowing it to continue.
Both planning and financial preparation for CFV have been underway for about ten years. By July of this year, the nonprofit group Mobile Loaves & Fishes had raised $6.5 million, completing the first fundraising phase of the project whose cost is estimated to come in at between $10 and $12 million. Compare the price tag for providing this safe haven of “permanent, affordable and sustainable housing and caring support for disabled chronically homeless individuals.” Because the residents will have preventative care, protection from the weather, and a nourishing diet, it is expected that the city’s taxpayers will be spared about $10 million each year in medical bills alone.
Soon, roads will be built and water and sewer lines installed on the 27-acre property. The goal is to erect 225 units – an “innovative mix of affordable housing options” – divided between 100 RV trailers, 100 micro-houses, and 25 canvas-walled tent-cottages. Regarding the number of residents, various news reports are confusing, because 240 is the number most often given. On the other hand, one article mentions two-bedroom units, which seems to imply a certain amount of double occupancy. But then another source says “single residents only.” At any rate, this short piece of video reportage should help to visualize the project.
CFV will be a gated community, not only to keep out troublesome unwanted visitors, but to allow the inhabitants a sense of privacy they have rarely known on the streets and in emergency shelters. The community will have its own clinic, “a medical facility for physical and mental health screenings and support services including hospice and respite care.” Since this will be a final home for many, a memorial garden and columbarium are also among the amenities. Also, McCoy’s Building Supply is putting up a 5500-square-foot structure:
The building will house a 700 sq. ft. art studio and a workshop where residents can be creative. Part of the operations building will also house offices and a community maintenance shop.
The Alamo Drafthouse is contributing an outdoor theater. Much healthy food will come from “Genesis Gardens,” where 500 fruit trees and a vegetable plot will be cared for by the residents, who will also tend bees and take care of chickens, rabbits, and aquaponically-raised fish that are destined for the dinner table.
There will be an application process, and prospective residents must pass a background check and have provable income. The rent will be on a sliding scale, with amounts cited by various sources as “between $120 and $250,” “$120-450/month,” and “as little as $90.” The facility’s operating budget is estimated at $1 million per year.
The rules will be similar to those that apply in homeowners’ associations, with expulsion as the penalty for messing up. On-site staff members will help out and keep things running smoothly. Guests will be required to register, and can be kept out. There are even plans for a new city bus stop.
For more about the innovative Community First Village project and the people making it possible, please visit again next week.
Source: “Local Austin Homebuilder MileStone Community Builders Part of Community
First!,” BusinessWire,com, 08/26/14
Source: “27 Acre Community First Village Ends Austin Homelessness,” Austinot,com, 09/26/14
Image by Mobile Loaves and Fishes
Last week, House the Homeless remembered the good work Robin Williams did on behalf of people experiencing homelessness, but forgot to mention the outstanding gesture he made some years ago, described here by journalist Dustin Volz:
In a stunning moment of candor, Williams testified before the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee in 1990 in support of the Homelessness Prevention and Community Revitalization Act, which sought to direct funding to housing-based support centers for the chronically homeless and to boost mental-health services. (A related bill became law later that year.)
Williams is of course not the first celebrity to leverage fame and name recognition into promotion of societal change for the better. This summer, film star Susan Sarandon told lawmakers at a congressional briefing that people experiencing homelessness need to be included as a protected class, as defined by the Hate Crimes Statistics Act.
But often the venue for publicizing a good cause is less formal than the legislative halls of Washington, D.C. Every Christmas, celebrities come out to serve dinner to thousands at the Los Angeles Mission. Last Christmas, hip-hop stars YG and Snoop Dogg financed a $10,000 shopping spree for 60 L.A. shelter kids, and actor Charlie Sheen donated $50,000 to My Friend’s Place, a center in Hollywood that serves homeless youth. Vocalist Cyndi Lauper holds an annual holiday benefit concert to raise money for her True Colors foundation, which helps homeless LGBT youth.
The extremely popular TV series Breaking Bad, which was made in Albuquerque, N.M., gave many of the show’s wardrobe items to be sold at local thrift stores that support the homeless shelter. Because they are not just used clothes but entertainment-industry memorabilia, the donated items fetched good prices. Back in May, wildman comedian Russell Brand shocked some Beverly Hills neighbors by letting homeless friends stay in his multimillion-dollar house while he was out of the country.
But consciousness of social inequity is not recent. In this video clip from San Antonio 20 years ago, country music legend Townes Van Zandt performs “Marie,” his song about a homeless couple.
In A Deeper Blue, biographer Robert Earl Hardy said of the singer:
Townes had exhibited concern for the poor and homeless since his childhood, and he still made it a habit to give money — often his entire earnings from gigs — to street people.
The Los Angeles Times published a fascinating story by Rene Lynch, who interviewed the winner of the popular televised culinary competition Chopped. The subject, D. Brandon Walker, administers and teaches in a culinary training program for the St. Joseph Center, the venerable helping institution in Venice, Calif. He also fills the post of executive chef, cooking for the Bread and Roses Cafe, which serves meals to people experiencing homelessness. The students get a chance to practice there too. And Walker likes the idea that even people who are broke can have a luxurious dining experience.
Here is the really interesting part. Since the supplies at the Bread and Roses Cafe are donated by food banks and restaurants, the staff never knows what will show up on any given day. They are constantly forced to improvise, creating meals on the fly from whatever is available. It was perfect training for Walker, because the whole format of the TV show Chopped is based on presenting the contestants with a random assortment of ingredients.
So Walker won the competition, and he gives credit to the experience gained from many years of cooking for the indigent people of Venice. The guests and trainees at the St. Joseph Center were very proud of having their very own chef go to New York and win a competition. And Walker says he has the best job in the world. Lynch quotes his inspiring words:
My job is unique in that I am cooking everyday and I’m teaching. We train people who are coming out of all different types of difficulties in their lives…. People who are unemployed or underemployed. Coming out of rehab, or transitional housing, coming out of penal system, or being laid off. We give them the opportunity to learn.
Now, all they need is a Living Wage job!
Source: “What Robin Williams Told the Senate About Homelessness,” NationalJournal.com, 08/12/14
Source: “YG & Snoop Dogg Donate $10,000 To Los Angeles Children,” hiphopdx.com, 12/27/13
Source: “’Breaking Bad’ gives clothes to homeless,” ABQJournal, 02/26/13
Source: “LA chef says serving the homeless helped him win ‘Chopped’,” LATimes.com, 10/27/13
Image by Neon Tommy
For the Christian Science Monitor, staff writer Schuyler Velasco compiled a list of the American corporations where the yawning abyss between CEO pay and employee pay is most apparent. For every dollar the average McDonald’s employee makes, CEO Donald Thompson takes home 1,196 of them. How is it possible that any human being’s time is worth more than a thousand times as much as the time of another human being?
Existential questions aside, McDonald’s is the most egregious example of ridiculously munificent executive compensation, followed by Starbucks and Dollar General. Among the top 10, the least discrepancy is found at AT&T, where the biggest boss makes only 558 times the wage of an average worker.
Ratcheting up Salaries
For Dissent Magazine, Colin Gordon explains the process of deciding how much to pay a bigwig. A show of detached neutrality is made by deferring to the wisdom of a “compensation committee.” The members are other bigwigs with similar job descriptions. Next week, one of those execs will be up for a raise, and guess who will be on his compensation committee? That’s right — the very same guy whose salary he is deciding today. Gordon says:
These compensation committees [...] have perfected a machine for ratcheting up executive pay. As a general rule, CEO pay is calculated from a benchmark of peers. The result is a lucrative game of leapfrog. The selection of peers is arbitrary — and often consists of cherry-picking larger and successful firms with higher-paid executives.
In effect — with very limited input from shareholders and no demonstrable connection to firm performance — top executives set their own salaries.
Shareholders Lack Clout
Supposedly, performance-based pay is subject to shareholder approval, and a reasonable person might ask, “Why don’t they take charge, and rein in these greed-heads?” But as it turns out, the deck is stacked. The system contrives to make shareholder influence largely theoretical. Their role is purely advisory and the corporation doesn’t have to do what they recommend.
For a giant business with high-powered lawyers on retainer, it is very easy to circumvent any rule. The corporate entity can hide, even from its own stockholders, exactly what is going on, in what Gordon calls “a concerted effort to camouflage the level and terms of executive pay packages with various forms of stealth compensation (such as lavish retirement deals) or rigged performance measures (such as stock options).” Even worse, there are two classes of shareholders. Gordon says:
Increasingly, shareholding is dominated by the block holdings of big institutional investors (mutual funds, pension funds, and the like). And many public firms use ‘dual class’ shares to distribute voting rights more narrowly than stock ownership.
Stockholding citizens, even the most socially conscientious, have very little clout. And what do the execs get paid for? Who knows, but it’s a pretty sure bet they are not busy figuring out how to reduce the income gap, and pay enough so that none of their employees need to apply for government relief.
Universal Living Wage
Eleanor Bloxham, CEO of The Value Alliance and Corporate Governance Alliance, believes that a company should be transparent about whether it pays a living wage to every person who works for it. For a recent Fortune CNN article, she quoted House the Homeless President Richard R. Troxell about the Universal Living Wage concept, so please go and take a look.
Also, please remember Economic Gap Day is coming up on Tuesday, September 2. Everyone is urged to organize or join a demonstration in a highly visible public place. Check out this video of a past Economic Gap Day to catch the vibe:
The Universal Living Wage means basic food, clothing, shelter (including utilities), public transportation, and access to an emergency room! This must be the minimum standard for every American and all people.
Source: “CEO Vs. Worker Pay: Walmart, McDonald’s, and Eight Other Firms With Biggest Gaps,” CSMonitor.com, 12/12/13.
Source: “Fatter Cats: Executive Pay and American Inequality,” DissentMagazine.org, 04/24/14.
Source: “Inequality in the U.S.: Are We Making Any Progress?” Fortune.com, 08/04/14.
Image by Devendra Makkar.