House the Homeless is a powerful presence in Austin, Texas. The nonprofit organization and its president, Richard R. Troxell, are constantly at the forefront of the effort to help everyone have a good and productive life. Richard holds the invincible belief that America could end homelessness within its borders, and the only thing standing in the way is the lack of political will to do so.
As always, at the top of the list is the need for a living wage indexed to the local cost of housing, one that covers (at very least) the necessities of shelter, food and clothing. He is convinced of the necessity to change two federal standards, the minimum wage and Supplemental Security Income — which means businesses taking care of the people who work, and SSI taking care of people who can’t work.
On the local level, plenty of progress could be made right now by adopting the policy of “Discharge No One into Homelessness,” which would apply to every institution — the military, hospitals, the foster care system, the prison system and so on — and ensure that no one leaving any of those places would be ejected into the streets.
House the Homeless released the report entitled “Prevent Homelessness at Its Core: 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness, Restore Human Dignity and Save Business and Taxpayers $ Millions!” This White Paper was sent to the President and First Lady, all the members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, and many governors, Cabinet members and other influential people.
Additionally, when funding is acquired, the plan is to send it to every mayor in the country. They are the ones responsible for building shelters in their towns, and making laws that apply to people experiencing homelessness. They are the ones who have to deal with their local hospital emergency rooms being filled with homeless people who have no health care alternative. Hopefully, individual mayors will petition the Conference of Mayors to do something, and the Conference of Mayors will petition Congress for relief in the cities. If only 14 mayors (just 1% of their number) would speak up, that would make a significant difference.
Richard has been a staunch voice every time a journalist needs perspective on such things as an apparent hate crime or a renewed effort by the city to make the lives of homeless people more miserable. Recently, he wrote:
Our nation is relying on an all-volunteer military to protect the people of this nation and maintain the stability of the entire planet. We have failed to protect the protectors. In so doing, we have disgraced our nation and failed our Veterans who have selflessly sacrificed everything to ensure our freedom. House the Homeless calls for a full scale Congressional investigation into all allegations of mismanagement, abuse and neglect. The entire VA Disability program needs to be investigated by the United States Attorney General and placed in Special Receivership.
Strong words! Why would he say that? Among other things, remember the gigantic backlog in processing all veterans’ disability claims? If not, please review “Homelessness and the Disabled American Veterans Agenda.” Recently, we looked at the situation in Austin, thanks in part to the journalistic enterprise of Jeremy Schwartz of the Austin American-Statesman, which resulted in Bell County hiring a veterans services officer decades after the law required it. Why did it take a national scandal to implement this?
Image by Señor Codo
What Higher Minimum Wage Does for Workers and the Economy
Honest economists such as Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke have haltingly told the truth on the question of whether raising the minimum wage adversely affects the employment rate: “My response is that I think it doesn’t lower employment.”
Additionally, study after study has shown that 98% or more of all minimum wage increases have been directly spent back into the local economy, thus acting as a local economic stimulant.
Unfortunately, the “Fair” Minimum Wage Act falls short, would hurt small businesses in rural America, and maintains a repressive wage system that would keep workers in a state of poverty throughout our nation.
First of all, how long would it take a worker to climb out of poverty if every step he or she took was less than the distance to reach that poverty goal line? The answer is FOREVER. They would never get there. That has been the Congressional response to minimum wage worker needs for decades. The mantra has been, “Well something is better than nothing.” Clearly, that is not true if our path to escape poverty is forever blocked.
The failure of the Federal Minimum Wage (FMW) has manifested itself as 3.5 million workers falling out of work and into homelessness every year for the last 20 years. The single most costly item in the budget of every American is housing. That is why the Universal Living Wage campaign, since 1997, has chosen to index the FMW to the local cost of housing across America.
Unfortunately, the “Fair” Minimum Wage Act fails to to recognize that we are a nation of 1000+ separate economies. Everyone else knows the cost to live in Washington, D.C., is different from living in Harlingen, Texas, or Fort Lauderdale, Florida, or Santa Cruz, California. ONE SIZE DOES NOT FIT ALL! Let’s imagine the “Fair” Minimum Wage Act becomes law and the national standard becomes $10.10 per hour. This will not get one homeless minimum-wage worker off the streets of Washington, D.C.! At the same time, this will hurt small businesses in rural Fargo, North Dakota, and Cumberland, Maryland, and Erie, Pennsylvania.
By using the formula of the Universal Living Wage — using existing government guidelines to index the FMW to the local cost of housing — we ensure that a person working 40 hours in a week (be it from one job or more) will be able to afford basic food, clothing, shelter (including utilities), public transportation and access to a hospital emergency room.
Richard R. Troxell
Consult Looking Up at the Bottom Line…The Struggle for the Living Wage for supportive documentation.
Image by Lynn Friedman
In many ways and places, our veterans are being abused, while the public is bamboozled by the old magician’s trick of misdirection. When a major event is scheduled, an entire municipality might play “hide the homeless.” On an individual level, the media get all in a tizzy over whether one homeless New Yorker had boots or didn’t have boots before a police officer gave him some.
The latest cultural hiccup is a video made just in time for Veterans Day, in which homeless Army vet Jim Wolf gets a shave and a haircut. And a dye job. Also, he wears a suit. “Now he looks like someone on the cover of GQ,” filmmaker Rob Bliss told ABC News, and went on to say:
It’s more than just a haircut and clothing. To see yourself look like that is to see that potential. There are things inside implied by the way you look outside — stability and peace of mind.
Really? Males on active duty in the U.S. military are closely trimmed and clean-shaven. Do they all possess stability and peace of mind? If so, why do we hear so much about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? The video is based on the assumption that barbering is a panacea. If this were so, all of the thousands of homeless men who have been given complimentary shaves and haircuts by volunteers would be prosperous citizens by now.
The makeover video racked up 15 million YouTube views and inspired dozens of blog posts full of oohs and aahs. At the end of the slickly produced vignette, two screens of text explain that Wolf has taken control of his life and “is now scheduled to have his own housing and is attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for the first time ever.”
Smoke and Mirrors
As it turns out, “scheduled to have his own housing” was word waffling. When the video was made, Wolf had applied for veteran housing. How long that takes, and what a person does during the wait, is anybody’s guess. Meanwhile, the video raised $30,000 for Degage Ministries. And then a bad thing happened. BarstoolSports.com has its finger on the pulse of America, so let their headline tell the story and their writer Jmac sum it up:
“Dude From That Super Viral Homeless Makeover Video Got Arrested For Causing A Disturbance At Burger King”
Neat idea for sure, but this is the real world, folks. A new suit and haircut doesn’t guarantee that a dude is all of a sudden gonna turn his life around. This seems to happen a lot with stories like this. People only wanna discuss the happy theatrics of the whole thing, but they tend to ignore the facts.
For CNN News, Dorrine Mendoza interviewed Jim Wolf’s sister. Robin Thomas has hoped for many years that her brother would eventually exit the cycle of “depression, alcoholism, unresolved grief and chronic homelessness” in which he has been caught. Mendoza writes:
No one disputes Wolf has been arrested dozens and dozens of times, mostly for misdemeanors such as public intoxication. Thomas says her brother “lives in survival mode”…. She also admits that perhaps the video did not give Wolf the “glimpse into the future” that others had hoped. He did not view it as a life-changing event, Thomas says.
Though Degage Ministries put Jim Wolf and Rob Bliss in touch with each other, it’s not clear whether the film was originally conceptualized by the organization or the filmmaker. Someone made a bad decision when picking the person to be “made over.” Everybody is different, but whatever this particular fellow needs, it isn’t a shower of publicity. Jim Wolf might be a great candidate for a Housing First program — with zero fanfare — but he definitely was not ready for this failed experiment in superficial making-over.
Into the Wayback Machine
Another premise on which this project rests is a throwback to the 1960s, when acrimonious hair-length discussions between fathers and sons obscured the serious issues that activists sought to expose and repair. Is that what is happening here? Before Jim Wolf was arrested, Philip J. Reed — contravening popular opinion — wrote a piece titled, “Why I Hate This ‘Homeless Veteran Makeover’ Video, and Why You Should Too.” He calls it absurd, manipulative, offensive, exploitative, embarrassing and demeaning. Reed says:
What, exactly, is meant to be inspiring about this again? It’s the hollowest possible kind of “inspiration,” and it’s one that only works because it withholds the humanity…. But you shouldn’t feel inspired by anything that takes a serious, profound problem with the very core of the society in which you live, and presents it as trivial and easily overcome.
Wolf has a problem. That problem is the country he lives in. That problem is that country’s approach to dealing with the sick and the poor and the unemployed and the homeless. That problem is emphatically not going to be solved by a haircut, a shave, and a necktie. And yet this makeover video wants you to come away feeling that it is solved that way. Because that’s easy. That’s visual. And, what’s more, it’s easy on the eye.
This constant whitewashing of our problems is the problem.
Source: “Homeless Vet’s Makeover Turns His Life Around,” ABCNews.go.com, 11/08/13
Source: “Dude From That Super Viral Homeless Makeover Video Got Arrested For Causing A Disturbance At Burger King,” BarstoolSports.com, 11/21/13
Source: “Homeless vet in makeover video has long road ahead,” CNN.com, 11/19/13
Source: “Why I Hate This “Homeless Veteran Makeover” Video, and Why You Should Too,” NoiselessChatter.com, 11/09/13
Image by Rob Bliss
Austin’s annual Homeless Memorial Sunrise Service is coming up on the 17th at 6:57 a.m. It will be held at Auditorium Shores, at South First and Riverside Drive (on the south side of Lady Bird Lake). For people anywhere in the area, that’s the important thing to know, so it’s right here at the top. The custom is for someone to read the names of all the homeless people who died in Austin in the past year. Last year 156 names were read.
Other cities with hearts hold similar events, of course, and there are poverty-related deaths in every large city. People who live on the streets, in makeshift camps and even in official shelters are vulnerable in so many ways. Malnutrition is almost a certainty, and starvation a possibility. Lack of food is considered the least newsworthy cause of death and suffering on the streets, with violent deaths and assaults attracting far more attention. For instance, Young Lee, co-founder of the Pinkberry frozen yogurt company, could be sentenced to as many as seven years for brutally beating a homeless man with a tire iron in Los Angeles. Allegedly, Lee also tried to intimidate witnesses. Depending on who tells the story, there may have been provocation, but the violence was certainly not unavoidable.
A recent headline reads, “It Is Illegal To Feed The Homeless In Cities All Over The United States.” What happened in Raleigh, N.C., this August when members of the Love Wins organization attempted to continue their years-long practice of bringing breakfast sandwiches and coffee to hungry people? An uncredited author relates the story:
On that morning three officers from Raleigh Police Department prevented us from doing our work, for the first time ever. An officer said, quite bluntly, that if we attempted to distribute food, we would be arrested.
Our partnering church brought 100 sausage biscuits and large amounts of coffee. We asked the officers for permission to disperse the biscuits to the over 70 people who had lined up, waiting to eat. They said no. I had to face those who were waiting and tell them that I could not feed them, or I would be arrested.
In Denver, a charming law “makes it illegal for anyone to sleep or sit and cover themselves against the elements with anything except their clothing.” The presence of a blanket turns the offense into unauthorized camping, punishable by a fine or up to a year in jail. Flagstaff, Ariz., made news when an undercover police officer with nothing better to do than harass the homeless arrested a 77-year-old woman who asked for bus money. As the Love Wins writer points out, more than 50 large cities in America now have anti-camping and/or anti-food sharing laws.
Sometimes the goal appears to be to get the homeless people to go away. Apparently the heartless politicians that are passing these laws believe that if the homeless can’t get any more free food and if they keep getting thrown into prison for “illegal camping” they will eventually decide to go somewhere else where they won’t be hassled so much.
In Boise, Idaho, the American Civil Liberties Union is engaged in a federal lawsuit, “arguing that the city’s recently-passed anti-panhandling ordinance was in violation of the First Amendment…” While the the mayor’s office characterizes the law as “carefully crafted to prevent aggressive solicitation while still ensuring the protection of all citizens’ right to free speech,” ACLU board member Erika Birch disagrees:
The ordinance criminalizes certain speech and expression and specifically restricts words that a person can use in the City of Boise, particularly in the downtown core area. It goes too far and violates constitutionally [protected] speech.
The venerable organization has also succeeded in having Michigan’s anti-begging law, which has been in place for 85 years, declared unconstitutional. TakePart.com adds:
Just this year, the ACLU sued on behalf of homeless men and women opposing begging bans in Indianapolis, Indiana and Worcester, Massachusetts, among other cities, also as violations of free speech and peacefully soliciting money in public. The ACLU of Colorado sued the city of Colorado Springs last November, and an injunction was granted to stop their downtown panhandling ban until it was repealed in March.
The city council of Columbia, S.C., got off on the wrong foot earlier this fall by unanimously voting that people experiencing homelessness should be collected and sequestered in a 240-bed camp outside of town. They would be unable to leave without permission, and the place didn’t even have cooking facilities when this ambitious plan was set to begin. If they didn’t want to go there, the alternative would be jail. But even the police, who would be responsible for the rounding up and guarding, backed away from implementation. The interim police chief, Ruben Santiago, stated:
Homelessness is not a crime. We can’t just take people to somewhere they don’t want to go. I can’t do that. I won’t do that.
So the new plan is to give people a van ride to the shelter and let them stay as long as a week, voluntarily, while workers try to sort out how they can best be helped. The city also promises to install public restrooms and trash cans, and to institute a homeless court.
Bonus Homeless Death Trivia
Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan, writing for Gizmodo, reported on a place whose existence is little known: a tiny island in New York City called Hart Island, “the largest publicly funded cemetery in the world.” In this modern-day potter’s field, there is one deceased person for every eight currently living New Yorkers. Their number is pretty darn close to a million, and a lot of them died homeless.
Currently run by the Department of Corrections, the mass graveyard is closed to the public and infamous for lousy record-keeping. If you were wondering whether prisoners bury the dead, the answer is yes. They do the final honors, presumably with the awareness that they will likely end up in this very same mass grave. A criminal record is practically a guarantee of lifelong unemployment. Furthermore, even working stiffs can’t afford places to live. A lot of both kinds of people end up homeless, so you do the math.
As a warning, the grim assignment is ineffective. No matter how sincerely a prisoner might intend to change his ways, the topography of society rarely permits a new start down a different path. Everyone chosen for this work detail has an excellent chance of winding up at the other end of a Hart Island shovel.
Source: “Pinkberry Co-Founder Convicted of Beating Homeless Man With Tire Iron,” Gawker.com, 11/08/13
Source: “It Is Illegal To Feed The Homeless In Cities All Over The United States,” JewsNews.co.il, 11/08/13
Source: “Urban Camping Ticket Issued to Woman for Trying to Stay Warm,” denverhomelessoutloud.org, 11/02/13
Source: “ACLU Sues City of Boise Over Anti-Panhandling Ordinance,” BoiseWeekly.com, 11/04/13
Source: “The Crime of Poverty: Some Homeless People Face Arrest for Asking for Help,” TakePart.com, 10/09/13
Source: “Columbia, South Carolina Rescinds Decision To Criminalize Homelessness,” HuffingtonPost.com, 09/09/13
Source: “What We Found at Hart Island, The Largest Mass Grave Site In the U.S.,” Gizmodo.com, 11/07/13
Image by David Trawin
Few people are aware that millions of people in this country are facing hard economic times that rival the Great Depression. We see a few people on our street corners with hand written signs like: “Will work for food” or “Anything helps…God Bless”. We quickly write them off as panhandlers. But did you know that US Veterans who have served our nation honorably and valiantly now make up a third of all people experiencing homelessness? Did you know that one of the fastest growing segments of people experiencing homelessness are women with children? This is the result of whole families falling into poverty. Did you also know that the fastest growing segment of the homeless population are female veterans with children? Or did you know that as a result, the age of the average person experiencing homelessness is just nine (9) years old?
Wages Are the Problem
The US Conference of Mayors have released numerous reports explaining that under the existing Federal Minimum Wage standard, a full-time, 40 hour a week worker can’t afford basic rental housing. That’s why there are thousands of full time minimum wage workers with a paycheck in their pocket while they live on the streets of America.
Who among us realizes that the federal government with the Federal Minimum Wage being so deficient ($7.25 per hour) is now the greatest creator of homelessness in this nation? As a result, minimum wage workers are falling out of the workforce and into homelessness. These workers now comprise half the homeless population. The other half consists of people who cannot work. The Government stipend for the ones who can’t work (disabled workers) who get SSI, is only about half the amount that fails under the Federal Minimum Wage or about $4.22 per hour!
This is why our organization, House the Homeless, supports efforts to implement a National Living Wage and Discharge No One Into Homelessness, both detailed in Prevent Homelessness: The Universal Living Wage Whitepaper.
The costs to support people who are homeless are in the billions of dollars. In Austin, Texas, our municipality (like so many others) spends millions of dollars every year just to deal with the problem on an ongoing basis, such as building emergency shelters. Austin’s Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH) cost $8 million dollars to build and was designed to serve only 100 people. Note: Our homeless population is estimated to be around 4,000+ people. We have separate shelters for men, women and children. Last year people experiencing homelessness used one of our major hospitals and its emergency room to the tune of $3,000,000. We have increased our police force specifically to deal with “Quality of Life” ordinances directed at people experiencing homelessness such as; no sitting, no lying down, no loitering, no camping, no solicitation etc. As a result, we have now created an entire separate court system to deal specifically with legal problems stemming from people being homeless in our city. These expenses and so much more are directly and indirectly being paid for by the taxpayers of our city.
The mission of House the Homeless Incorporated is Education and Advocacy. Most of the people in America have no idea about the facts listed above. They see these people on our street corners while on their way to work and angrily ask, “Why don’t they get a job?” They see them as “bums” and “dole” seekers. They don’t realize that the two financial standards set by the Federal Government has lead to their homelessness and is now destroying their lives and acting like a lead anchor around the neck of the taxpayer.
The Proposed Statues Commemorating Austin’s Homeless
House the Homeless has proposed a statute commemorating the men, women and children, who have lived and died on our streets. Last year, we read the names of 157 people. We want to raise awareness about this correctable situation. The statue depicts three road weary homeless individuals who have a chance encounter on a cold winter’s night. The characters involve a veteran, his daughter and an elderly Afro-American woman. It is entitled: The Homecoming.
The Veteran approaches a barrel fire with his young daughter in hand. They stop to warm themselves. He places his backpack down on the ground where he can keep an eye on it. It contains all that’s left of their belongings. He securely tucks his daughter beneath his coat pressed against his outside thigh. He then rubs his cracked hands together feeling the warmth of the fire. He is lost in his own thoughts. Promises of “America the Beautiful” have been betrayed. He sacrificed his youth and in return, only gained the aching hollowness left behind by lost brothers. He will go on because he has true grit. But he is shop-worn. He is angry but he swallows his anger for his daughter. His anger is suppressed and has been supplanted with the drive to bring his daughter into a better world if he can only find it. His gaze is lost staring into the fire as happens to people late at night at the end of a very, very long day…. or after years of searching for “the promised land.”
There is interaction between the old woman and the child. The old woman ever so slowly comes from out of the darkness lugging her satchels and bags. The child sees her first, because in spite of everything, her young spirit remains alive…vital. The old woman is defeated. She may well have partial cataracts following decades absent of medical care. She has lost everything. She has raised three children. One is now dead and two are blowing in the wind. Her husband just left one day and never returned. She is in the absolute darkness. She trudges. She is coming from nowhere and is going to nowhere. She is coming out of the woods toward the light of the fire. When she first sees the flicker of the fire’s light in her upper vision, she is not sure of the shadowy figures behind it.
The little girl sees her and sees the old woman as a possible companion…perhaps a kindred spirit who may know the secrets to the future and what it holds for her. Together, they are reflections of one another’s past and future.
The old woman now drawn closer to the camp, is still hard pressed to see and understand the intentions of the man and daughter now seen clearly warming themselves by the fire. Haltingly, she closes the gap between them and then she freezes. The man aroused from his reverie focuses on the woman. With his hand on his daughters shoulder, he senses her excitement. Astutely, the father assesses the scene and with his lowered right hand signals to the old woman that indeed she is welcome in their camp and in fact…encouraged. The moment’s essence envelops the old woman. She is being welcomed into their camp…their home. She is being beckoned…welcomed home…no questions…encouraged. She is emotionally and physically overwhelmed. Her satchels… her burdens, drop the last 1-½ feet to the ground. There is a look of awe, wonderment, relief, joy…even tears. The energy release can be seen in her shoulders…her entire being. The statue is called The Homecoming.
The cost to make this life-size bronze statue was first determined to be $200,000. Since the newspaper articles first ran, two world-class sculptors have come forward asking to sculpt it. One has a foundry and has offered to produce the trio for $100,000, or half the original expected cost.
By not understanding the costs of dealing with homelessness, some people have questioned this expenditure. “Think how many homeless people this money could help?” Well, as stated, homelessness is a grossly expensive endeavor. For further example, Texas Star Recovery will provide a 5-7 day Detox program for $6,600 coupled with the requisite 30 day Treatment Program for $19,000 for a total of $25,600. So it costs $102,400 just to get four (4) people ready to be housed.
As stated, programs designed to help people experiencing homelessness are grossly expensive. But that said, we will build this statue for about the same as it will take us to help four people to get ready to be housed.
In any event, it takes money to make money. We will build this statue without one dime of taxpayer money. We will generate new, untapped funds because we will place this statute where people live who do not even understand that homelessness exists across our land.
We will place it where people who are busily going on with their daily lives are unaware that 10% of the entire nation are suffering a silent Great Depression of a magnitude never before seen in this country.
They will see the statue and stop. They will ask, “What is that little girl doing in that homeless statue? And they will learn that she represents the age of an average person experiencing homelessness in this country.
They will see that old woman and ask, “Why is she in that homeless statue?” They will learn that it is because she represents the economic disintegration of the poor working family in this country.
They will stop and ask how can there be even one homeless United States Veteran in this nation, especially when we have a Cabinet level Department — The United States Department of Veterans Affairs — funded by billions of taxpayer dollars?
This statue will be a beacon of hope for millions of people experiencing homelessness. It will generate awareness, understanding, conversation, questions, and the compassion necessary to generate the REAL funds necessary to purge us of this attack upon our homeland.
Finally, Austin, Texas fancies itself, “The Live Music Capitol of the World.” This year alone, it generated close to a quarter of a billion dollars in music related revenue. At the same time, the Health Alliance of Austin Musicians (HAAM), the Austin group helping uninsured musicians (another population that lives hand to mouth), provided healthcare for only about 600 musicians who need help. No one has suggested that we melt down the bronze of either the Stevie Ray Vaughn statue or the Willie Nelson statue to cover more musicians with healthcare. Why? Because these statues are symbols, beacons of hope, that will continue in perpetuity to inspire people and make them want to support the music scene and their musical heroes.
Well, veterans, families, and children are my heroes.