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How Clean Does a New Broom Sweep?

homeless-vs-wall-costNobody wants to flush dollars down the toilet. Here is a sentence from “An Open Letter to the Trump Administration”; written by House the Homeless:

Attack Taxpayer Waste: Address the shortcomings of the Supplemental Security Income Stipend, SSI that will result in recipients being able to afford basic rental housing with the disability stipend they already receive.

But in the legislative environs of Washington, D.C., there are many who believe that Social Security, housing assistance, and disability stipends are the taxpayer waste. Similarly, House the Homeless would like to see the minimum wage raised, preferably in the form of the carefully designed Universal Living Wage.

However, a lot of politicians want to see no minimum wage, period.

According to the organizations that keep track of these matters, basic housing has become even less affordable in recent years. All kinds of crazy talk is going around, about messing with Social Security and other safety-net programs. There will be tax cuts, but not for those who need them. Veterans will have to struggle to get their due.

What else will the new administration mean for the half-million Americans who are experiencing homelessness? According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, 47,000 of them live in the entertainment capitol, which is where ABC’s Antony Funnell learned that:

The homeless of LA don’t fit an easy stereotype — they’re young, old, male, female, black, white, Asian and Hispanic. Some clearly have mental health issues.

Some work during the day and live on the streets at night. Some are shabbily attired, others well dressed.

Not all of them sleep on the streets. Some find accommodation in homeless shelters. But there are too many people for the services available and nowhere near enough beds for everyone.

Anyone who follows the news will have noticed stories originating from many cities, about plans to end homelessness; and a lot fewer stories announcing the end of homelessness in any actual place. LA Mayor Eric Garcetti has a plan to eradicate homelessness.

Last year the city’s minimum wage went up to $15, and voters passed a $1.2 billion bond issue that will pay for the building of 1,000 apartment units per year over a 10-year period. So, that’s a bright spot. But nationally, the big picture does not look promising.

To lead HUD (Housing and Urban Development), the new president chose a multimillionaire doctor who is of course fully on board with the tax-cut concept, and who begrudges the expenditure of federal money on anything except armaments. He is known to be “philosophically opposed” to welfare programs of all kinds, and criticizes anti-discrimination rules as “social engineering,” so this does not bode well. The department employs around 8,300 people to keep the wheels turning and, hopefully, compensate for Ben Carson’s lack of field experience other than having lived in public housing as a child.

Health care and La Migra

On the medical front, the prognosis is quite grim, since the administration plans to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. Substance abuse treatment programs are threatened. As we have seen, a large number of street people have histories of traumatic brain injury.

When less urgent levels of care are denied, hospital emergency rooms bear the brunt of the resulting acute illnesses. It goes without saying, that many unhoused people will suffer and die, and a great many currently housed people will experience homelessness for the first time after they go broke from medical bills.

As if all this were not ominous enough, Caroline Spivack reports that Brooklyn is coping with an increase in the number of people who would rather live on the streets of New York than be deported. They are afraid to go near any shelters, and with ICE agents haunting schools and churches to nab undocumented residents, this is a reasonable fear.

Admittedly, some individuals genuinely need to be taken into custody. New York is a sanctuary city and technically, there are well-defined criteria around whom to punish and eject from the country. Supposedly, “officials will not blow the whistle on non-violent undocumented immigrants who enter the shelter system.” In theory, an innocent person, even if undocumented, would have nothing to fear. But nobody is willing to take a chance, so the alleys and doorways overflow.

Reactions?

Source: “What will Donald Trump mean for America’s half a million homeless people?,” ABC.net, 02/08/17
Source: “Undocumented street homeless rises after Trump’s deportation order,” BrooklynPaper.com, 02/07/17
Image by Really American

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Does Tyrone Poole Have the Rental Housing Answer?

tyrone-poole-quote

There are always interesting ways to describe a dire situation, especially such a multi-faceted one as the nation’s affordable housing shortage. For example, in America today, more than 11 million households are giving more than half of their incomes for rent. It is an outrageous proportion, but they are among the lucky ones, to even have the opportunity of paying through the nose to keep their families sheltered.

The federal government can allocate funds and give vouchers to people experiencing homelessness, but it can’t make landlords accept those vouchers and rent them apartments. How could Washington alleviate that situation? Can the federal government educate and inspire landlords? This is an area where the “Act Locally” precept really matters.

People are out there trying to provide temporary shelter and permanent housing. A lot of the resistance manifests itself in zoning laws and other ordinances that are definitely a local concern. Activists need education and empowerment to challenge obstructive and regressive practices in their own cities.

February’s House the Homeless newsletter included an assessment of Ben Carson’s intentions as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and we send good wishes his way. Meanwhile, we look at what one individual has accomplished.

A housing hero

Due to a serious injury and devastating medical costs, young Tyrone Poole found himself homeless in Portland, Oregon. He faced a tight rental market, and every application he submitted required a fee of $30 or even $50. (In some places, crooked managers skim even more, or dishonest aggregators of classified ads sell lists of rentals that are weeks out of date.) The application fee is an ugly custom that should never have become established. People in search of housing are vulnerable, possibly new in town, and beset by many expenses. The cost of processing applications should be built into the landlord’s overall cost of doing business.

Poole saw the need for a service that would help people who don’t look like a very good bet as tenants. His goal was to connect them with property owners willing to rent to someone with an eviction history, or who carries the “felon” label, or to someone with nothing but a government rent voucher in their hand. An early attempt at collecting the necessary information and publishing it as a book did not work out because things changed too fast.

Poole started a different business, made it a success, sold it, and returned to the problem of matching needy people with available rental units and whatever assistance they might qualify for. By now, technology had advanced to where it was possible to create a website that could keep up with changes in real time.

A team of like-minded people joined Poole, who told reporter Andrew Scot Bolsinger:

They believe that I have actually created a market-driven solution to address the homeless problem nationwide. This is something that is funded by consumers and companies, that will never need government grants or donations or assistance in any way once launched.

The dream was for NoAppFee.com to became a “one-stop shopping website, where a single fee connects them to a range of landlords who will accept them.” Landlords paid a fee to list their properties, and the creators tried to amass additional funding through crowdsourcing, but that effort didn’t work. Determined to carry on, Poole told the reporter:

If this project is successful, I will be able to give this rental platform to every single nonprofit organization in America that provides housing assistance. Families will be able to get the keys to a new home as fast as the same day they walked into the shelter or housing program. The extent of their homelessness could be as short as a few hours when it used to be months.

Only last month Laura Bliss, a writer for CityLab.com, caught up with Poole’s project, whose ambitions have expanded to serving renters at every income level. Bliss writes:

A lender at a local bank introduced Poole to Portland’s economic development agency, which was launching a funding contest for civic-minded start-ups by entrepreneurs of color. Poole, who is black, entered in 2014 and won, gaining serious financial backing, free office space, and a host of tech-industry connections.

He signed up eight small management companies to beta-test the new version of NoAppFee.com, which keeps the promise implied by its name by refunding to prospective tenants their initial $35 fee (which pays for a credit and background check) once their first month’s rent has been paid. By the time the first month had passed, the site had 1,700 registered users but had run out of rental units and had to refund a lot of sign-up fees.

In Portland, 14,000 affordable housing units are overseen by the Portland Housing Bureau (PHB). The turnover rate is only about 25% per year, so in any given year there may be 3,500 openings. Yet somewhere around 80,000 local households qualify for these affordable housing slots.

PHB looked for a way to streamline its operations. Policy manager Matthew Tschabold told the reporter:

Someone seeking housing would regularly have to contact 10 to 20 organizations on a weekly basis to find out about vacancies. It was a big burden for people who are already low-income and struggling to live and work in our community.

The Housing Bureau won a cash grant that enabled it to hire Poole’s company, and they are working together to build a .gov website around NoAppFee’s software. Hopefully, it will launch within the year, and, at the same time, the general market version is being retooled. There is much more to know about this innovative program, which can be found on its Facebook page.

Reactions?

Source: “Once Homeless Entrepreneur Now Pairs High Risk Renters With Landlords,” YourBlackWorld.net, 04/10/14
Source: “A Portland Start-Up Is Smashing Barriers to Affordable Housing,” CityLab.com, 01/27/17
Image by Oregon Entrepreneurs Network

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Individuals Making a Difference

homeless-sleeping-by-bookstoreLast week, House the Homeless considered the activities of Pastor Kelly Boyd of Eugene, Oregon, who brings together givers and people who need things. By running for city council, he combines the faith-based approach with the political approach.

In some states of the union, earnest people have a better chance to thrive among progressive-minded neighbors. In other locales, a different social climate produces different results.

There is a growing tendency to criminalize, or at least seriously impede, grassroots activism and individual efforts. It’s as if the government has a split personality, and wants to both ignore the root causes of homelessness, and at the same time own and control everything about homelessness.

The same mindset prompts humans to murder their domestic partners who want to leave. “If I can’t have you, nobody else can either.” The government seems to be saying, “I can’t or won’t do very much for you, but I’m going to make sure nobody else will, either.”

A great philosopher once said that what every person really wants is to make a difference. All over America, individuals are trying to do that in the area of homeless relief. At the same time, penalizing the helpers has become a thing.

One ongoing story happens in Madison, Wisconsin. Brenda Konkel, executive director of the Tenant Resource Center, used to let as many as six people sleep on the porch of the home she shares with Robert Bloch. The couple also fitted out the porch with a dozen locker-room-style storage units for their guests to use.

The city threatened to fine them $300 a day. Journalist Pat Schneider wrote of Konkel, who used to be a city council member:

She worked with members of Occupy Madison a couple of years ago as they tried without success to get city approval to erect a homeless encampment and was instrumental in the group’s success in getting zoning approval for a village of “tiny houses” now under construction on the city’s east side.

Robert Bloch told the reporter that there had only been one police visit to the porch-sleepers, when an ambulance had to be called for a medical emergency. He also said, “The system is not working.”

The homeowners were granted time extensions, but were warned again two months later to clear the porch. The absence of sleepers was not enough, the city wanted the lockers gone too. This was not the activist’s only battle over storage. Tony Galli wrote:

Konkel says the problem of finding places to store the valuables of people who are homeless was highlighted this week, when county facility staff members removed more two dozen large plastic bags of belongings from Madison city hall. Konkel and other advocates for the homeless returned the bags to city hall, and facility officials say they will allow them to remain stacked on the building’s porch, as long as they are not unattended.

Another Konkel effort is toward establishing a day center to meet the needs of people experiencing homelessness. A location has been proposed but, not surprisingly, someone challenged it in court.

A local blogger uses cruel labels and accuses Konkel of being anti-police.This is apparently because she contradicts the mayor’s claims that the city needs somewhere between 13 and 361 additional police officers. She used to sit on the Police Staffing committee, before the department banned anyone, including City Council members, from collaborating on those decisions. Brenda Konkel is still an activist, advocate, and writer about homelessness in Madison.

Reactions?

Source: “Brenda Konkel could be fined for allowing homeless to sleep on her porch,” Madison.com, 09/18/14
Source: “Advocate’s lockers for the homeless must go,” WKOW.com, 11/14/14
Source: “We need 13-361 New Police Officers?,” ForwardLookout.com, 01/05/17
Source: “Tonight! Evictions & Homelessnes,” ForwardLookout.com, 01/10/17
Photo credit: John Benson (ibm4381) via Visualhunt/ CC BY

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Back to the Grassroots in Eugene, Oregon

eugene-oregonOne school of thought believes that funneling all help, and all the helped, through official channels should be the only permissible route. In some places, that philosophy goes even further, to a conviction that anyone who says, “No, thank you” to a solution the government insists on, becomes totally undeserving of help from any source.

Some, like Kelly Boyd of Eugene, Oregon, want to see the giving spirit flourish at the most grassroots, person-to-person level. Soon after moving to town, he filled the bed of his pickup truck with clothes and blankets, and attached to the tailgate a sign that said, “Get One, Give One.”

It wasn’t long before the Ordinance Enforcement Office left a business card and a warning. Anthony Kustura reported:

The note said Boyd must stop putting things in the back of the truck because he is in violation of city code.

The City says Boyd is creating a “liveability impact” and that neighbors complained about finding trash in the street.

Four months later, Boyd was running (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) for a City Council seat. He told local TV station KMTR that aside from the “Get One, Give One” truck, other individual efforts were being squelched. His number-one issue is homelessness, of which he says city officials take an “archaic view.”

Boyd advocates a more organic approach, encouraging citizens to individually help each other. He is sensitive to the fact that many people experiencing homelessness do not want to call on official resources — for what they consider good and sufficient reasons — and their opinions about the matter ought to be respected.

Also, he wants the city to keep a more careful eye on things like cost overruns for public projects, but is not against taxing or spending:

Instead of having boutique taxes to take care of various needs, go ahead and build a groundswell of increased jobs, increased pay, so that there is a greater tax base in our area so that there is a constant resource and income for our city budget.

This facet of Boyd’s platform is interesting because it resonates with the success story of Oklahoma City, whose mayor convinced it to pass an across-the-board sales tax, and a strong case can be made that this move actually blossomed into citywide revitalization.  As always, things are relative and situational. For instance, while a groundswell of increased jobs might sound attractive, many cities have found to their regret that letting a prison or a pollution-producing industry move in can have its drawbacks.

And yet, there is always a tradeoff. The City of Eugene said that people in the neighborhood complained about the trash left behind after the freebie truck’s visits. This is speculation, but it seems as if a person who provides such a service would, could, and should tidy up the area, and especially, would be able to recruit a helper or two in this task.

Boyd and his wife do their volunteer work inspired by their “greater calling, that the needs of all should be met.” In other words, it is a faith-based effort, and people with church-going backgrounds are well accustomed to the idea of helping out with the setup and the cleanup at communal activities.

Making it official

Presumably, this type of logistical methodology is what a City Council with a Boyd-like mindset could approve. They could make ordinances saying, “Go ahead and have your event, and take video with your cell phone of the cleanup process, and of the pristine area when you’re done. Then, shoot some footage of the volunteer crew dropping off the trash at the City’s designated spot.”

Looked at from another angle, in most cities, neighborhoods have things like block parties and coordinated garage sales. Parades, mob shopping days, sports events, and a lot of other happenings tend to leave behind debris. In some college towns, entire neighborhoods successfully impersonate slums. Depending on who causes it, a certain amount of urban mess is accepted. Somehow, everyone lives to party another day.

Also, it seems like a certain amount of selective reinforcement goes on, regarding outdoor group activities, which is all part of the criminalization of homelessness. For the authorities to suppress and even outlaw grassroots activism is counterproductive on many levels.

Reactions?

Source: “City tells man to stop placing items in truck for homeless to take,” NBC16.com, 01/28/16
Source: “Meet the candidate: Kelly Boyd runs for Eugene City Council Ward 1,” NBC16.com, 04/02/16
Source: “A City Refurbished for Health,” Childhood Obesity News, 01/20/17
Photo credit: eddiecoyote via Visualhunt/ CC BY

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What Can We Expect?

marines-marathonIn “An Open Letter to the Trump Administration,” Richard R. Troxell, President of House the Homeless, asks the incoming group of public servants in Washington how they will help in several specific areas. Here, we elaborate on the areas of focus.

Jobs

One thing that could work is adjusting the minimum wage, but not in a one-size-fits-all way. House the Homeless is an advocate of the Universal Living Wage indexed to local housing costs. Here is a serious question: Where is new housing construction? We have been told that a free market works on the principles of supply and demand; that if a demand exists, someone will step up and supply it. So: Where are the affordable shelters needed desperately by many hundreds of thousands of Americans?

Of course, a detail-oriented skeptic will point out that “demand” consists of two elements: both the desire for something, and the ability to pay for it. And then someone else might say, “Plenty of people out there have government vouchers in their hands, ready to pay for shelter, and they can’t landlords who will rent to them. Why doesn’t this economic system work as advertised? To obtain better results, what needs to be tweaked?”

That person might also ask, “When a ton of jobs are needed, and a ton of housing is needed, why is it so hard to put it all together and get these people jobs — as the builders of housing? Why is it so hard to enable people to pay rent, by creating jobs for them in the construction trades?”

The skeptic: “Are you kidding? Homeless people are not trained to build things.”

The believer: “Neither are the volunteers who turn up to build houses with Habitat for Humanity. They sign on for this charitable effort through their churches, or the companies they work for. Yet somehow they manage to build perfectly habitable houses.”

Taxes

The Open Letter says:

Attack Taxpayer Waste: Address the short-comings of the Supplemental Security Income Stipend, SSI that will result in recipients being able to afford basic rental housing with the disability stipend they already receive.

Speaking of revenues collected by the federal government, last week the IRS announced that about 40 million families will receive their tax refunds late. Are these wealthy people with income streams so vast and complicated that the revenue agency will need several extra weeks to sort it all out, lest billions of dollars be allowed to escape the net?

No, they are low-income families, because imagine the horror if some taxpayer who claims the child tax credit or the earned income credit did their math wrong, and the government missed out on a few bucks. But that isn’t the worst part. IRS Commissioner John Koskinen told the Associated Press:

For most of these people it’s the biggest check they are going to get all year.

That fact should be a gigantic red flag. It suggests that the withholding system extracts too much from “most” of 40 million paychecks. Although the taxpayers eventually get it back, in the meantime, the government reaps the benefit of lots of little interest-free loans. A million here, a million there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.

Meanwhile, families struggle, and they borrow. Then, they pay interest on that debt, while at the same time the government is using their money for nothing. Now that we have all the computers and everything, it shouldn’t be so difficult to arrange for taxpayers to have the freedom to spend their own money when they earn it. It should be possible to fine-tune the science of withholding just a bit, so the tax refund isn’t “the biggest check they are going to get all year.”

Veterans

House the Homeless has an important relationship with Dr. Mark Gordon, who does the most outstanding work in treating Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). What is the tie-in with our stated topic? As it turns out, a large number of people experiencing homelessness are veterans, and many of them suffer from TBI. (Another large number of people experiencing homelessness, who are not veterans, also have TBI.) Bottom line, when a government asks or compels citizens to join the military, it incurs the obligation to help them deal with the personal consequences.


Source: “IRS to delay tax refunds for millions of low-income families,” AP.org, 01/10/17
Image by Marine Corps New York

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In Praise of Good Works

knit-hats-stacked-on-tableIt feels so good to recognize and celebrate heroes. Let’s keep that momentum going. First of all, right here in Austin, Texas, the 16th annual House the Homeless Thermal Underwear party took place on December 30, hosted by First Baptist Church.

The event supplied somewhere around 600 people with “winterizing” gear including thermal underwear, scarves, hats, gloves, ponchos, and safety whistles. There was a hot meal and a live band.

Fox7 TV news broadcast a segment with particularly interesting words from House the Homeless President Richard R. Troxell and volunteer Sherry Sampson. A second TV station, WKBN27, emphasized another aspect of the winter preparedness event, with the headline and subtitle:

“Advocacy group to examine ‘criminalization of homelessness'”

As House the Homeless prepared homeless individuals for winter, the organization was also surveying them about their interactions with police

They went into the matter in some depth, including an interview with Officer Shelly Borton, who works for the city’s Homelessness Outreach Team, “which is made up of two police officers, behavioral health specialists, a paramedic and a social worker.” Also, Richard discusses the repercussions on people’s lives when homelessness is criminalized, and people are cited for such violations as sitting in a public place:

If you’re an employer and you’ve got to decide who to employ and you’ve got somebody with no tickets here and somebody with 10 tickets that are criminal in nature, you’re going take the person without the tickets. It becomes a barrier for you to escape homelessness, even though you’re making every effort.

San Francisco was the source of a slightly offbeat story where the hero contributed not food or clothing, but an example of principled defiance. Last March a Department of Public Works employee declined to help tear down a makeshift dwelling. Instead, she filmed the sad demolition and added a commentary complete with salty language and encouragement to a co-worker to refuse also.

Her matter-of-fact attitude makes us forget that the Bay Area is a hard place to survive in, and the possibility of being fired is no joking matter. It takes courage to take a stand. A DPW spokesperson confirmed that…

To refuse could be construed as insubordination, and subject the employee to disciplinary action, dependent on the findings of a thorough and fair investigation…

The person who posted the 2:19 video to YouTube wrote:

I’ve been hearing about a number of DPW workers refusing to be a part of the injustice taking place on our streets right now.

This final story is not current, but it is timeless. World-renowned poet W. H. Auden was remembered by friends for his unwillingness to be seen doing a good deed. Edward Mendelson
described it as going out of his way to seem selfish, when in fact he was very generous. For instance, in the 1950s, Auden worked on a TV production where he demanded to be paid early and made a memorably unpleasant scene about it.

Later on, when the canceled paycheck made its way back to the accounting office, someone noticed that Auden had signed it over to a third person. The recipient was Dorothy Day, who ran the Catholic Workers homeless shelter in New York City, which the fire department was trying to close down. Auden’s contribution paid for the necessary repairs and safety updates to keep the shelter open.

Reactions?

Source: “Thermal Giveaway held in Austin to help the homeless get through winter with some warmth,” Fox7Austin.com, 12/30/16
Source: “Advocacy group to examine ‘criminalization of homelessness’,” WKBN.com, 01/01/17
Source: “San Francisco Worker Refuses To Help Tear Down Homeless Man’s Dwelling,” ThinkProgress.org, 03/09/16
Source: “The Secret Auden,” NYBooks.com, 03/20/14
Image by House the Homeless

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A School, and a Church, Helping

college-campus

Every now and then a story crosses the screen that is really different. “Why a Seattle Homeless Camp was Invited to University of Washington” — see what we mean? Seattle is that West Coast city where rain falls 150 days a year. On any given rainy night, about 4,500 people are sleeping outside, and not to roast marshmallows and swap ghost stories. (Close to 3,000 are in transitional housing, and more than 3,000 in shelters.)

A bunch of people live in Tent City 3, a community that resettles every three months in a different area (including two previous college campuses). This is not an ideal solution for anyone, but when frequent uprooting is done in an orderly way, it can take a lot of stress off both the housed and the unhoused. One way or another, Tent City 3 has survived as an entity for 15 years.

As described by the reporters, the residents seem hyper-aware of the need to be role models and proud representatives of the homeless population. Shamar Waters and Jon Schuppe wrote:

A large portion of the residents are older and disabled, but many others have regular jobs and help keep the camp running. The camps feature communal areas, including kitchens and showers, depending on the availability of electricity and running water.

The 10,000-square-foot encampment will spend one-fourth of the year in a campus parking lot because the kids asked for it. Students in eight different academic disciplines will be able to claim credit for participating in studies and activities involving people experiencing homelessness. About 100 students pitched in with the move-in chores.

The story doesn’t say whether any students objected, based on the parking space scarcity. But even that would be a learning experience, wouldn’t it? Imagine having to park the car (your parents probably bought) a bit farther from class. Compared to having nowhere to live, that is a negligible inconvenience, and a lot of kids would never admit being bothered by it. Imagine having to walk for a considerable distance, out in the weather, to get where you need to go. That’s the everyday reality for people experiencing homelessness.

In addition to the officially recognized educational benefits of interacting with tent-dwelling nomads, there are bound to be unofficial ones. Like when kids realize that if they don’t actively work toward some kind of reform to the college loan system, they could easily end up living in tents too.

Elsewhere

The state of Texas is often perceived as hostile to any number of diverse populations, but Brownwood disproves the stereotype. Just southwest of Dallas-Fort Worth, the city of about 20,000 is the county seat, and the features in and around it include Howard Payne University, a branch of the Texas State Technical College, a state park, a state juvenile correctional complex, a regional airport, and a U.S. Army training camp.

Actor Bob Denver came from Brownwood, and so did legendary burlesque queen Candy Barr, and an impressive list of other people who have made a mark on the world. Perhaps the biggest celebrity is New Beginnings Church, which for 10 years has functioned as the city’s only shelter.

Pastor Kelly Crenshaw says:

Sometimes people just need a day or two or a week or two to get on their feet. Sometimes they just need a little bit of time, once they get lost, to figure out what their next step is…

There are also long-term guests. From the larger community, food bank donations are received, along with blankets, scarves, and other items, which is generous in a place where the median household income is maybe $33,000.

***

Recommended: “The Year in Review,” from House the Homeless

Also recommended: House the Homeless President Richard R. Troxell is interviewed by KXAN television journalist Kevin Schwaller in “Advocacy group to examine ‘criminalization of homelessness’

Reactions?

Source: “Why a Seattle Homeless Camp was Invited To University of Washington,” NBCNews.com, 12/21/16
Source: “Church Acts as Homeless Shelter in Brownwood,” BigCountryHomepage.com, 12/30/16
Photo credit: Joe Wolf (JoeInSouthernCA) via Visualhunt/CC BY-ND

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Holiday Spirit

frio-fame-homelessToday, in the holiday spirit, we concentrate on some good things. Mainly, there is still time to contribute to this year’s Thermal Underwear Drive sponsored by Austin’s House the Homeless, so please keep it in mind. Other than that, we collected a few stories of people who make a difference to America’s displaced persons.

In New York, the TimesUnion published the story of how a 10-year-old 5th-grader named Elizabeth Floud emptied her savings account to buy pizza for people staying at the Shelters of Saratoga. Reporter Wendy Liberatore relates how Elizabeth’s mother realized that $30 wouldn’t be enough for 40 people, and took it to the next level:

So she started a gofundme page, Pizza for the Less Fortunate. She and Elizabeth aimed for $150, but attracted $585. Bucciero’s Pizza in Mechanicville heard of the drive and decided to donate all the pies.

That left $200 to give to the Shelters of Saratoga for future needs, with the remainder going to the food pantry of the local Community Center.

In Washington, D.C., two months ago, Floyd Carter met a married couple who decided to skip their usual Christmas gifts for each other and help Carter get a place to live after three years of homelessness.

Rachel and Erik Cox are both attorneys who understood the reality that a housing voucher, which Carter had already had for months, was worth nothing unless a landlord would actually rent him an apartment. Somehow they made that happen. Since becoming a housed person, Carter, whose ultimate goal is to become a chef, has received job offers that could be the initial ladder rungs to take him there.

West Coast

On the other side of the country, in Orange County, California, nurse Julia Cross was celebrated by the Orange County Register as one of its 100 most influential people. Cross is a licensed vocational nurse who makes rounds on her bicycle, covering a 40-mile route twice a week to visit homeless camps and give medical aid to those who are unable or unwilling to obtain it from other sources.

Along that stretch of the Santa Ana River, sometimes called “Skid River,” the already high number of people experiencing homelessness has grown by 500 over a very short time. Not surprisingly, veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts are among the residents.

Journalist David Whiting writes:

People here live without running water, electricity, heat. Some are mentally ill. Others are addicts. Many are both.

But listen patiently and you hear wisdom, reminders of how mortal we are; how a twist or turn can send any life on a spiral no one would want and some can’t escape…

Each person Cross treats […] has a unique and telling story filled with caution, struggle and, often, optimism.

Working through the nonprofit Illumination Foundation, the nurse not only dispenses first aid but works toward the end of homelessness. Earlier this year, the newspaper featured a long article about her activities, which include visits to the infamous Skid Row area of nearby Los Angeles.

Whiting quotes Julia Cross, daughter of a doctor who “never billed a patient who couldn’t afford it”:

I think the tide has to turn, that society has to embrace the concept that the healthier we are, the less cost there is to take care of the sick. Without adequate health care, the whole house of cards collapses.

Oh, and did we mention the Thermal Underwear Drive?

Reactions?

Source: “10-year-old gives up savings to feed homeless,” TimesUnion.com, 12/22/16
Source: “Homeless man gets new home thanks to couple who forfeited their own Christmas for him,” KLEWtv.com, 12/23/16
Source: “Most Influential 2016: Julia Cross is a nurse who helps the homeless,” OCRegister.com, 12/24/16
Source: “Nurse makes her rounds at an unusual place — a homeless camp by the Santa Ana River,” OCRegister.com, 05/12/16
Photo credit: fotografar via Visualhunt/CC BY-SA

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Winter Holidays

resting-marinesWe will not attempt to pluck at the reader’s heartstrings with reminders of how many children in America are having a lousy winter holiday season, with no chimney for Santa to descend, or any cultural equivalent of that gift-expectancy concept. Why not make the holidays a big deal? Because the plight of the homeless is not just a seasonal accessory, like nutmeg. Rotten things happen to people every day of the year.

But let’s start with some good news. “It was the right thing to do.” People think that a lot, and sometimes they are correct. John Stewart, San Francisco’s chief judge, explained to the press how it is time to stop locking people up for their inability to pay fines, especially for crimes connected with the fact that they are experiencing homelessness.

Whitney Webb introduces the story by noting that…

In cities around the country, the homeless are frequently criminalized, as are those who offer them food and other forms of human kindness…

Many of these arrest warrants were for so-called “quality of life” crimes, which include sleeping on sidewalks or public places, urinating in public, and public drunkenness…

San Francisco Superior Court judges stopped issuing arrest warrants for these “quality of life” crimes. Not only that, but the judges also threw out over 66,000 arrest warrants…

The police union objected, of course. Without crime they would be out of a job. Lucky for them (if not for us), there is little danger of a crime shortage. The main problem is, fines are assessed against people who do these “quality of life” crimes. If the fines are not paid, the people are jailed, which costs the city money, and what’s the point? In some places, the authorities smarten up and spend the money on portable toilets instead.

Webb says:

Though the city’s judges have shown great compassion in dismissing the cases against the city’s homeless, it will take much more for the problem of the San Francisco’s epidemic of homelessness to disappear.

By way of contrast, here are some brief highlights from a story told in great detail by Emily Green for StreetRoots.org. It took place in Portland, Oregon. Jackie, as she is pseudonymously known, has muscular dystrophy and receives disability checks, and is on several affordable-housing waiting lists.

In the area known as Old Town, she saw a man charging his cellphone from an outlet on a decorative planter, and joined him. They both were accused of third-degree theft, a Class C misdemeanor. Jackie’s Public Defender calls this move “another example of resources wasted for frivolous offenses.” Green writes:

According to the Electrical Research Institute, it costs about 25 cents a year to charge the average mobile phone. If the phone in this scenario had gone from zero charge to full charge, the cost would have amounted to mere fractions of a penny.

But it’s the principle of the thing, right? Stealing is stealing, right?

Do we want to go down that path? Do we want to return to the grotesque days when stealing bread could get your hand cut off? If Jackie were convicted of theft, it would be assumed by anyone who knew about it that she had snatched a purse or shoplifted. Even if a kind person were interested enough to ask what the crime had been, would they really believe anyone could be prosecuted for taking a tiny fraction of a cent’s worth of electricity?

Even worse, Jackie would have to go back and revise all those housing applications and check the “yes” box on the criminal history question. Her case went to Community Court, where she missed her arraignment, which resulted in a bench warrant. When Jackie surrendered, she was briefly booked into jail.

No, she’s not the perfect defendant, but the reader is taken through the unbelievable complications of a situation that just gets worse and worse. Jackie used to work in social services, and even sometimes with the police, but she has a different impression of them now.

One question that comes to mind is, before kindly providing indigent people with cellphones, did any government bureaucrat think for one second about how those indigent people would go about filling their phones with electrical power?

Why doesn’t some altruist figure out how to donate this incredibly cheap service of phone-charging? Does anyone really believe that a few cents worth of free electricity will encourage others to embrace the homeless lifestyle? It’s as if they’re afraid kids would hear about such a generous perk and say, “That’s the life for me!”

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Source: “San Francisco Judges Dismiss 66000 Arrest Warrants Against The Homeless,” MintpressNews.com, 12/12/16
Source: “Homeless phone-charging ‘thief’ wanted security,” Streetroots.org, 03/06/15
Photo credit: Randy Robertson via Visualhunt/CC BY

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Austin Is All About HUGGS

huggsLike cars and sprinkler systems, people who live outdoors need to be winterized. For this, they need Hats; Underwear of the thermal variety; Gloves; Scarves, and Socks. (Also, rain ponchos, safety whistles, and 2-oz hand sanitizers, but there were a lot of initials already.)

At the annual HUGGS Thermal Underwear Party the guests are nourished by a hot lunch prepared by volunteers. The signup page specifies the time commitment for each volunteer role, along with a brisk, precise description of the task and its expectations.

Even if you don’t live within volunteering range of Austin, take a look, just to appreciate how a good online HQ for a project can change event organizing from a walk on the wild side to a walk in the park. It might even inspire others to put together similar events in their own local areas.

Another option would be to donate through the Thermal Underwear Drive page, which features a heartening photojournal. Also, some dimensions of the event are less visual. Chiefly, this is a chance for the voices of people experiencing homelessness to be heard in a way that conveys meaningful information to the rest of society.

The guests are offered the opportunity to participate in a brief yet remarkably detailed survey. The House the Homeless survey archive is a valuable resource for professionals and students alike, and at the same time perfectly understandable by casual readers.

The survey has a different topic every year. This time, it is the criminalization of homelessness, as that trend plays out in Austin, Texas. But let’s return to an indispensable item on the wish list, namely, socks. Here is a thought experiment, a virtual reality scenario, in which you have nowhere to go.

A minimalist world

But you do have a new pair of socks, which is a darn good thing because you have worn the current ones day and night for two weeks and they are due for retirement. The first order of business is to find a place to take off the old socks and put on the new ones. Even better would be a chance to wash your feet before making the change.

You know of a park that has a rudimentary restroom for picnickers and disk golfers. Of course right now the temperature is near freezing, and the inside of the restroom is no warmer than outside, but it does block the wind. The single basin gives out an anemic stream of icy water. The thought of sticking your naked foot beneath the faucet is horrifying. Besides, you would be in an awkward position, vulnerable to attack.

You could get something wet — your spare T-shirt, for example — and lean against the wall and take off one shoe and sock and wash that foot. You even have a towel. So you could use it to dry that foot, before putting on a new sock and then repeating the process with the other foot. The vulnerability issue would still apply.

At the end, you’d have a sopping wet T-shirt which, even after rinsing, would be pretty foul. And your towel. Just bundle it up damp, or rinse it, too, in the grudging trickle of water? Two wet items are going to affect the rest of the stuff in your pack, as well as its overall weight. Meanwhile, in the ghastly cold water your hands want to scream.

And what about the old socks? Wash them? You have a sliver of soap tucked away, but might, with any luck, at some point have a chance to use it on your body. So, no. Keep the socks, in hopes of some day stumbling into Laundry Heaven? Could you really consider putting those disgusting, bacteria-laden objects in your pack, along with everything else you own on earth?

Well, you do have a small plastic bag. But it’s a nice one, really clean, suitable to put food in, if you happen run across some. It would be a shame to waste it storing filthy socks. So, in full knowledge that you might regret it, you pitch the repulsive things in the trash.

THE SHORT VERSION: People experiencing homelessness need many socks, please. Not only now, but all year round.

Richard Troxell, President of House the Homeless, serves the ideal of a balanced and just society for all, including the least fortunate among us. He says:

It is all but criminal that in the richest country in the world, our businesses will pay wages (Federal Minimum Wage) and our government provide a stipend (Supplemental Security Income, SSI) for our disabled people, that are both so low, that 3.5 million people will experience homelessness again this winter.

House the Homeless is holding its 16th annual Thermal Underwear Drive on Friday, December 30, from 12:00 to 2:00 p.m., at the First Baptist Church, 901 Trinity Street, Austin, TX 78701.

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Image by House the Homeless

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