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The Very Best Way to Spend New Year’s Day

In case you were wondering if the Thermal Underwear Drive will take place again this year, the answer is, of course! The date is January 1, that’s New Year’s Day, and the place is First Baptist Church, 901 Trinity Street, Austin, TX 78701. Guests will attend from 12 noon to 2 p.m.

House the Homeless invites anyone in or near Austin to take part by donating money or by showing up to help share the HUGSS. (That stands for hats, thermals, gloves, socks, and scarves. Oh, and rain ponchos and safety whistles.) Another way to help is by serving the hot lunch. To see many heartwarming photos from last year’s event, check out the Thermal Underwear Drive page.

Also, the page has a donation button. It’s a golden oval that says “Donate.” You can’t miss it. The donation of $35 will equip one person with the winter necessities, but please give whatever you can. Winter is no joke when most of it is spent outdoors — and a hatless, gloveless winter is almost unimaginable.

We’re going to add a special note here about socks. They are vital, and people experiencing homelessness need a lot of them in every season of the year. We’re not saying a new pair every day, but a lot, and here’s why: It is almost impossible to find a way to wash and dry socks. It’s difficult enough just to find a toilet. Keeping clothes clean is, too often, a luxury. Along with pay phones and single room occupancy buildings, laundromats have almost disappeared, and the few that remain are quite expensive.

In that situation, where do you take off your dirty clothes? And what do you wear while they wash and dry? Socks, consequently, are often worn until they are fit for nothing but disposal. A new pair of socks makes a difference that, hopefully, no one reading this page will ever be forced to understand. So please take our word for it. Socks!

Two kinds of history-making

This collection of essays known as the blog has often mentioned the annual surveys that House the Homeless conducts along with the HUGSS event. (That page has a donation button, too.) The survey topics have included work, health, sleep, use of resources, and police interactions. The results are widely shared with the press and other organizations nationwide.

House the Homeless also welcomes volunteers to help with the survey! It is an eye-opening opportunity to take part in a much-needed and truly significant feat of documentation.

Across the nation, many journalists have contributed to the valuable archive of “The Face of Homelessness” type stories. They are personal, subjective, empathic, and vital. The surveys contrast with and complement those narratives with a wider, more encompassing and objective picture. It is one thing to tell the story of a lost person with PTSD or traumatic brain injury, and another thing entirely to grasp the staggering percentages of unhoused Americans who suffer from those debilities and many others.

This is kind of mind-blowing

HtH President and co-founder Richard R. Troxell points out a detail that does not occur to very many safe and comfortable Americans:

These are the homeless for whom there is no housing, although many of them have stood in line since before Hurricane Katrina, who have lost everything and will continue to be stuck on those streets because evacuees from the endless wars (the push to house our veterans), and then more evacuees from Hurricane Harvey, were given the housing that was to have been theirs.

In other words, contrary to the fairness principle of “First come, first served,” what we see happening is “Last come, first served,” as people who have struggled for years to escape homelessness are again pushed to the end of the line. This in no way implies that any human should be left roofless and destitute. If the government would get its priorities straight, and allocate resources toward life rather than death, there could be room, and rooms, for everyone. The problem is not a lack of wherewithal, but a lack of will.

It couldn’t be easier to participate

But let’s get back to the Thermal Underwear shindig. Through the miracle of technology, all the volunteer options are spelled out on the sign-up page, where a volunteer can specify a task and a time slot somewhere between 10 in the morning and three in the afternoon. Overall, the public event is bracketed by two hours of prep time and one hour of cleanup, and not everyone needs to be there for the whole time.

One-hour, two-hour, and three-hour shifts are available. Understandably, many people are not able to volunteer, especially when they live outside the local area. But that doesn’t mean you can’t participate! Did we mention that every page of the House the Homeless website has a donation button?

Reactions?

Image by House the Homeless

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The SRO — a Much-Needed Housing Solution

The constant shrinkage of the SRO stock (the number of Single Room Occupancy rooms) in America is shameful, and for various historical reasons San Francisco has been particularly hard hit. Recently, Frances Saux wrote:

A 1979 study counted 26,884 SRO units in San Francisco, and those numbers were diminishing. By 2011, the number of residential units stood at 18,910. Those numbers have gone up slightly; in 2015, the city reported a total of 19,166 units, but that includes units that are no longer affordable to low-income residents. Of the Mission’s nearly 1,000 SRO units, 75 — or 8 percent — had become unaffordable for low-income residents by 2015.

Another source says that since the 1970s, more than a third of the city’s SRO stock has disappeared. Many bad things have happened to these buildings, like arson fires set by landlords who wanted to get rid of indigent tenants and build something new and expensive. The Mission SRO Collaborative formed to raise tenant awareness about that danger.

In 2012, a survey carried out buy a coalition of nonprofit agencies learned that “as many as half of SRO residents lived in buildings where there was no elevator, or one that wasn’t always accessible because it wasn’t always working.” Thousands of elderly and disabled tenants were stuck having to walk up and down many flights of stairs, or stay marooned in their rooms.

In 2014, an estimated 30,000 people lived in San Francisco’s SRO dwellings. In that same year a tourist guide, TripAdvisor.com, spoke quite frankly:

In many cities today, SROs are often associated with the homeless, sometimes with just plain bums. Local government, social service agencies, and parole authorities use these, quite frankly, to dump people who aren’t placeable elsewhere. Poor retired law-abiding people who can’t afford apartments may live near chronic street people, criminals, felony parolees, people recovering (either genuinely or supposedly) from substance abuse, the mentally ill, and others who can’t quite fit into the mainstream.

The literature went on to lament that families who can’t find other shelter often live with several people to a room in SRO establishments, and strongly implied that tourists would really be better off somewhere else. Which actually is a great idea. Stay away, tourists, and leave the poor people’s housing alone.

Elderly, low-income, and disabled tenants have always needed protection from rapacious property owners. In more recent years, SROs have been important for undocumented people. Landlords know how difficult it is to find a place. Tenants are unlikely to complain about leaks or bugs, or otherwise “make trouble” for a landlord when they face a very real risk of winding up homeless or worse.

It is hard to keep track of all the political and financial maneuvering that affects housing. In 1981, San Francisco passed Ordinance 41, whose object was to stop the loss of single residential units via conversion or demolition. Apparently the local ordinances around housing have loopholes that allow an SRO to renovate a room and raise the rent to whatever the market will bear.

And SROs have been renting out rooms via Airbnb, which has in fact been class-action sued by a group of tenants in the Tenderloin district. Obviously, when a property owner has access to wealthy tourists and visiting executives with expense accounts, why should they waste their time with tenants who receive government assistance?

Why indeed? Except for the crazy notion that humans should let human needs triumph over greed.

Reactions?

Source: “SF Mission residential hotels renovated for wealthier tenants,” MissionLocal.org, 08/19/17
Source: “San Francisco lawmakers pass SRO rental cap,” Curbed.com, 02/01/17
Source: “When is a ‘hotel’ not a HOTEL? — TA Guide to SROs,” Tripadvisor.com, 08/08/14
Photo by Daniel X. O’Neil on Visualhunt/CC BY

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Housing Solutions Shunned and Ignored

Ace Backwords, who has written extensively on homeless issues, used to live in a single-room occupancy building (SRO) in Berkeley, California. Although he employs an inelegant synonym, that’s what he’s talking about here:

If they want to solve the homeless problem, one of the first things they need to do is start building thousands and thousands of flophouses. Cheap, little rooms with a bed and a sink in them, and a bathroom down the hall. Unfortunately, they’re a dying breed: flophouses. In fact, a couple months after I moved out of the one on 2nd Street, the phone company bought the building, paid off all the tenants a thousand bucks each to “re-locate” and then turned it into one more bland corporate office building.

In his book Looking Up at the Bottom Line, House the Homeless co-founder and President Richard R. Troxell fondly remembers SROs, of which the country used to have several million. Sometimes, in special cases, a collection of units in a hotel-like structure can be more than just a place to live. Richard describes Garden Terrace, Austin’s last SRO facility with supportive housing, where 85 residents lived semi-independently, with food and case management provided, for a nominal amount of rent. At the time, he said, “It is considered transitional housing, but no one can afford the housing to transition into.”

Richard reminisces about the YMCA, which still rents out rooms in some cities, but they all seem to have different rules. In one place, the nightly fee is $50; in another, a year’s minimum lease is required; and so on. But in the old days, says Richard:

On a nightly basis, you could lay down your $5 or $10 and get a decent, clean room with a place to stash your things, get up to an alarm clock, go down the hall in the morning to a shared bathroom, and then head off to work — showered, shaved, refreshed and ready to put in a full day’s work. You could chase the American Dream… Today, the YMCAs do not exist in any significant number.

One after another, SRO buildings fall, sometimes with a great deal of commotion. Truth-out writers Toshio Meronek and Andrew Szeto interviewed long-time activist Charlie Fredrick about the tumultuous events in San Francisco in the 1970s:

As the city closed and demolished many of its SROs, the International Hotel — which housed almost 150 low-income Chinese and Filipino seniors — became a symbol for the war between real estate interests and activists. Years of protest eventually sparked a court battle over whether city funds should go to buying the “I”-Hotel and handing it over to tenants groups, with the seniors being publicly supported by a range of high-profile left activist groups… Ultimately, the tenants of the “I”-Hotel lost the fight.

In 2014, there were still more than 500 SROs in San Francisco. Meronek and Szeto wrote about the Altamont, a hotel in the Mission District. Most of its rooms were rented long-term by people helped financially by HUD. The rooms (normally 11’x14′) were described as “barely larger than the size of a prison cell” with shared bathrooms and kitchens.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. A very large number of people do not want to own houses or condos. They don’t want to shovel snow, mow a lawn, redecorate the foyer, or even cook meals from scratch. They just want to carry out the basic activities of life in a clean and no-hassle space where all the utilities function. Unfortunately, housing developers only want to build more McMansions and fancy condominiums with fireplaces and hand-clap light switches.

Reactions?

Source: “Don’t Look Back,” WordPress.com, 07/19/14
Source: “Looking Up at the Bottom Line,” Amazon.com
Source: “Single-Room Occupancy Buildings: Last Bastion of Affordable Housing in San Francisco?,” Truth-out.org, 11/15/14
Photo by WalterPro on Visualhunt/CC BY

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Fining the Destitute, and Other Crazy Notions

Currently, the House the Homeless home page shows a letter by founder and President Richard R. Troxell, explaining why he wrote an Amicus Brief with the intention of helping the situation in Austin. Many cities throughout the United States currently operate under rules that can only make homelessness worse.

As Richard points out, one factor that helped turn Ferguson, Missouri, into a battle zone in 2014 was a local economy based on money extorted from the people by hyper-zealous law enforcement. Americans who are the least able to afford additional debt are overcharged and over-convicted every day, to the detriment of honest and stable civic peace.

National Public Radio’s Joseph Shapiro recommends his network’s series, titled “Guilty and Charged“:

The series reported that nationwide, the costs of the justice system are billed increasingly to defendants and offenders, and that this creates harsher treatment of the poor. Because people with money can pay their hundreds or thousands of dollars in fines and fees right away they are usually done with the court system.

But in many places, people who live on the edge of solvency are subject to a daily effort to extract a constant flow of dollars from them. Shapiro wrote in another piece:

In 2013, the municipal court in Ferguson — a city of 21,135 people — issued 32,975 arrest warrants for nonviolent offenses, mostly driving violations.

Do we have rulings and protections in place to prevent what is, to all intents and purposes, the return of the medieval debtors prison? Of course we do, but when people are ordered to show up physically to make their monthly installment payments judges can do crazy stuff like order the courtroom locked, and then issue an arrest warrant for a person who was barred from entering.

Or maybe the person just lives too far away and can’t get a ride. Additionally, in Ferguson and places like it, the insanity is mixed in with a huge propensity toward racial profiling.

Land of the unfree

Throughout the U.S. there are many pockets like St. Louis County, with courts notorious for charging outrageous fines and fees. The more petty the crime, the better, because legal defense requires even more expenditure. Unless a person is charged with rape or murder putting up a defense is just added punishment.

Even an employed person can sink under the weight of even a small fine. When finances are precarious, the slightest extra demand can start a spiral of consequences, a vicious cycle of poverty and incarceration that eventually culminates in full-on homelessness.

Jails are full of citizens in pre-trial detention for all sorts of reasons, who are unable to raise bail. If they were employed before, they may not be when they get out, because meanwhile they have been fired for not showing up at work. If they were housed before, same deal. This crazy way of doing things creates homelessness.

Imagine the mulishly stubborn and mindless greed that a municipality must operate by, to take the extraordinary step of laying fines on people experiencing homelessness, who are quite likely to be destitute. They can’t pay, so they go to jail at the taxpayers’ expense, which negates the entire alleged reason for levying fines in the first place, which is to raise money to run the local government. It soon becomes glaringly obvious that the entire point of the exercise is only to punish Americans for being poor.

Criminal justice reform

The very obvious result of incarceration is that any family left on the outside might meanwhile disintegrate before the imprisoned member is released. With not much to live for, a person is likely to get in trouble again, and then politicians rant about the high recidivism rate.

This all plays into the related problem of people who are accused of crimes being coerced into pleading guilty just so they can get out. Statistically speaking, defendants who are held by the system before their trials are more likely to be sentenced, and apt to be handed a longer sentence. Whether a person shows up for court in a suit or a jumpsuit makes a big difference.

The Criminal Justice Reform Blog tells why current practices are so stupid:

For far too many poor people, bail is simply not an option and this plays into the hands of prosecutors who know that they have yet another bargaining chip to hold against the defendant. Court is far far from an even playing field in these situations.

People are stuck in jail before they’re even convicted of a crime all because they cannot afford to make bail. These people are not only costing states billions of dollars each year, but their plight wages lasting destruction upon the communities from which they come.

Reactions?

Source: “In Ferguson, Court Fines And Fees Fuel Anger,” NPR.org, 08/25/14
Source: “Bail Reform — No Get Out of Jail Free Cards — Beware Quick Fixes,” CJReform.info, 11/17/17
Photo credit: Johnny Silvercloud via Visualhunt/CC BY-SA

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Remembering the Departed

Sunday, November 19, is the day of this year’s Homeless Memorial Service. If you are in or near Austin, Texas, please go to Auditorium Shores, at South First and Riverside Drive (on the south side of Lady Bird Lake).

There is a story behind the annual event. In 1992, Austin was a smaller and much less cosmopolitan city, and not quite conscious of how many of its citizens were sleeping rough, or just minimally and occasionally sheltered. All that changed with the death of Diane Malloy.

House the Homeless founder Richard R. Troxell helped another man search for and recover her drowned body. In his book, Looking Up at the Bottom Line, Richard recalls how the tragedy led to the yearly Memorial tradition.

Bodies of water attract bodies of people

People experiencing homelessness meet their ends in various ways: fire; exposure to weather; violence; overdose; being hit by a vehicle. Some even have what are called “natural” deaths, although at an unnaturally young age. Considering the close quarters and lack of sanitation in camps and some shelters, it is amazing that there have not been more flareups of contagious diseases.

As it turns out, water is a very popular spot for the corpses of people no longer experiencing homelessness to be found. A person with no fixed address is quite likely to be discovered dead in or near an ocean, lake, river, pond, ditch, arroyo, or flood plain.

There are practical reasons. Many large and/or warm cities are located on coastlines, and they tend to contain a lot of people experiencing homelessness. Inland, wherever a wooded area hosts a lone camper or a settlement, water is likely to be nearby.

Interestingly, a watery death overtakes far fewer women than men, quite out of proportion to their numbers in the total population. A woman’s body found in water attracts media attention and public sympathy in a way that the drownings of men never quite manage to do. Austin is not the only city that was actually changed by one particular fatality.

In East Los Angeles, the faith-based Guadalupe Homeless Project Women’s Shelter exists because the body of 36-year-old Lorenza Arellano was found in the lake at a municipal park. Authorities said an overdose killed her, though how she got into the water was never explained. This was in 2014, and within the whole enormous geography of Los Angeles, there were only two women-only shelters. Arellano’s death was the catalyst that made the third one happen.

Another story

As a young woman with a genius-level IQ, Cara Nurmi showed infinite promise in her teen years. She studied ballet and photography, and was known as a singer and painter. Hurricane Katrina destroyed her home and all her artwork. During rebuilding, an electrical fire wiped out everything. When the man she loved died suddenly, Nurmi told her mother, “If I don’t have anything, I can’t lose anything,” and went off to hide in the world.

Nurmi’s life unraveled to the point of vagabondage in New Orleans, where she was known to everyone, including the police-run Homeless Assistance Unit, as a pleasant, playful woman with “wonderful energy.” Still, the 34-year-old had been through a rough decade. At some point she signed up for an inpatient alcohol detox program, and in August, a spot opened up.

Of course there was a last party with friends, under a wharf, and Nurmi jumped into the Mississippi River. It seems to have been a habit, and whoever else was there didn’t worry. Her body was found a few days later.

Journalist Richard A. Webster quoted Cara Nurmi’s mom:

I think with Katrina, they only counted the dead bodies, but there are other people who took a little longer to die.

Reactions?

Source: “Looking Up at the Bottom Line,” Amazon.com
Source: “A new shelter in East LA provides sanctuary for homeless women,” SCPR.org, 03/31/15
Source: “Homeless woman found in Mississippi River wavered between heaven and hell, friends say,” NOLA.com, 08/31/17
Image by House the Homeless

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How Are the Homeless Veterans Doing?

Seven years ago, the Veterans Administration announced an ambitious plan to end veteran homelessness within a certain time frame. Reality has forced the goalpost to be moved, and total elimination appears to be an impossible dream.

Amazingly, about half the homeless veterans out there are left over from the Vietnam era. Among veterans experiencing homelessness, none out of 10 are male, and any black or Latinx vet is three times as likely to be homeless as the white comrade-in-arms. Most are single and live in cities, and most are afflicted by physical disability, mental illness, or substance abuse.

The authorities don’t say it in so many words, but surely one problem is that the supply of veterans deserving of care does not seem to be drying up. At the same time, a certain number of psychologically wounded vets will remove themselves, via suicide, from the need for any further help. But the current thinking is that an irreducible minimum number, either too far gone into post-traumatic stress disorder, or simply possessed of loner personalities, will remain on the streets and in wooded enclaves, no matter what.

This summer, VA Secretary David Shulkin addressed the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. He said:

There is going to be a functional zero, essentially somewhere around 12,000 to 15,000 that despite being offered options for housing and getting them off the street, there are a number of reasons why people may not choose to do that.

This seems to suggest that the day will come when, if any vets remain unhoused, it’s on them. Which may be true, up to a point. There will always be individuals who simply do not want to get with the program, for their own reasons which may or may not be valid according to other people. But is something more going on here? Is the public manipulated into blaming the victims, when other entities may be at fault?

Congressional non-action

What is the government doing? In 2017, according to Congress.gov, six pieces of legislation pertaining to veterans were introduced in the House of Representatives, of which three have been referred to the Subcommittee on Health, two to the House Committee on Ways and Means, and one to the Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity.

In the Senate, four bills have been proposed, of which two were referred to the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, one to the Committee on Finance, and one to the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs. None of the measures has been thoroughly picked over and analyzed, much less voted on, and where any of them will end up is an open question.

Here and there in America

The Veterans Resource Center is a nonprofit organization with more than a dozen branches in three states, with most of its funding coming from the federal government. Counselors help with employment, healthcare and other benefits — plus the biggie — which is housing. Without a stable environment in which to sleep and keep their belongings safe, a person is ill-equipped to progress in the areas of health, work, or school. Among the group’s nine areas of concentration are homeless prevention and re-housing, transitional housing, and permanent supportive housing.

Homeless vet populations are concentrated in seven states: California, Texas, Florida, New York, Colorado, Washington, and Oregon. Of course, need exists in every state. In Phoenix, Central Arizona Shelter Services will probably lose a half-million dollar VA grant it has relied on for at least ten years.

In March, southwest Minnesota announced that all its waiting lists were cleared, and all its homeless veterans were currently sheltered. The “how” is worth reading about, as well as the situation’s roots. Journalist Susan Du writes:

Part of the problem was the vilification that arose in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan, who pushed the caricature of the welfare queen who drove a Cadillac and ate steaks for every dinner on Uncle Sam’s dime. It allowed Reagan to make massive cuts to HUD. Ever since, low-income Americans have been fighting a housing shortage that keeps basic shelter out of reach even to those who work multiple jobs.

Meanwhile, celebrities are selling “Once in a lifetime experiences, luxury items, and autographed memorabilia” on eBay to help fund Homes For Our Troops, an organization that focuses on building “specially adapted custom homes for severely injured Post 9/11 Veterans.” The event runs through November 14.

Reactions?

Source: “Shelter: America’s Homeless Veterans,” AlJazeera.com, 11/03/17
Source: “VA drops goal of zero homeless veterans,” MilitaryTimes.com, 06/02/17
Source: “Programs and Services,” VetsResource.org
Source: “In southwest Minnesota, all homeless veterans finally have shelter,” CityPages.com, 03/23/17
Photo credit: mark6mauno via Visualhunt/CC BY

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The Somewhat Discouraging Universe of Tiny Homes

House the Homeless recently mentioned a very bare-bones type of individual housing unit, containing only bed, desk, and shelves, that costs $25,000 apiece. (Coincidentally, this is the same amount that American taxpayers shelled out for a “privacy booth” to be built inside the office of the head of the Environmental Protection Agency.) But if that sounds excessive, prepare for worse to come.

A British entrepreneur has come up the iKozie, a pod “designed to provide temporary accommodation for the homeless.” In this transitional scenario, the tenant will pay the rent and water bills and buy their own food, as training to become a fully functional member of society.

The pod contains a bedroom, full kitchen, bathroom “module,” and entertainment zone, all within 186 square feet. It is said to comply with planning and building regulations, “and has an A rating for energy efficiency.” A crane had to be rented to install the prototype in a volunteer’s backyard, which must add considerably to the tiny unit’s cost — close to $53,000 American.

Even that is an amazing deal, compared with Portland’s pods, whose cost is projected to be a jaw-dropping $75,000 each, paid for by public and private funds. (Wouldn’t a used RV set up on blocks be more economical?)

Leanna Garfield reports:

Each 200-square-foot pod will have a unique design… The pods will be able to house one adult and two children — inside, there will be a bed (some have bunk beds), shelves, a toilet, and a desk. They’ll all come with heat and full plumbing.

In Portland, some 200 homeowners have indicated preliminary willingness to host a pod in their backyard. The people who move in are meant to pay a certain amount of rent, while receiving the same social services as the city’s other sheltered homeless citizens.

This summer the program started with four families. Multnomah County is home to an estimated 4,000 unhoused people, so pricey mini-homes in backyards will not be the whole solution.

HGTV, which hosts a lot of tiny-house shows, defines a tiny house as anything up to 600 square feet. This is actually capacious, compared to similar products, being for example three times the size of the iKozie. Sadly, the production company seems coy about price information, and the general impression is that their designs are more for the wealthy retiree than the struggling former homeless person.

It gets better

Is there a lower end to this spectrum? Yes. In the spring of 1915, an audacious experiment was underway in Wisconsin. After months of struggle, a group called Occupy Madison (OM) oversaw the building of three tiny houses by their prospective tenants. Even equipped with electric heaters, the structures only cost $4,000 apiece. A pre-existing commercial building holds bathrooms, a minimalist kitchen, dining room, workshop, and greenhouse.

The city considered allowing six more tiny houses to be built, if certain improvements were made. Apparently, bathrooms are the concern. Authorities often have a strange perspective on things. They tend to act as if, rather than live where several people share a bathroom, a human being is better off in the wild with no bathroom.

In this particular community, the homes are meant to be permanent, not transitional. OM is situated on private land and funded by private donations. One school of thought says the government should save tax dollars by encouraging this sort of project, but governments often find many reasons not to.

In Seattle, an organization built 14 tiny houses at a cost of about $2,200 apiece. Their size, 8×12 feet, or 76 square feet, is really minuscule, but each unit has insulation, electricity, and heat. Toilets and showers are in a central building. These are meant to be temporary places to regroup while attempting to make more permanent arrangements, and residents pay $90 a month toward the utility bills.

Maybe the federal housing authorities could encourage cities to be more inventive and adventurous about creating housing for people with very low incomes. The problem is not a shortage of know-how. Every day, some college student wins an award for designing an inexpensive small dwelling with basic amenities.

The problem is not a lack of materials that can be recycled and repurposed. The problem is not a shortage of volunteers eager to build something. The problem is not a lack of participation from the people who will live in tiny houses.

The problem is, very few settled people are willing to have a tiny-house village anywhere near them. Or a single tiny house in a neighbor’s backyard. Or in their own backyard. And often, even if the property owners who are directly concerned, and their neighbors, are on board, the housed people from other parts of the city will feel threatened, and throw a monkey wrench into the machinery.

Reactions?

Source: “Micro-house costing just £40,000 is unveiled,” DailyMail.co.uk, 08/30/17
Source: “Portland will start housing the homeless in tiny pods in people’s backyards,” BusinessInsider.com, 03/22/17
Source: “Tiny houses in Madison, Wis., offer affordable, cozy alternative to homelessness,” StarTribune.com, 03/16/15
Source: “Tiny-house villages: An innovative solution to homelessness?,” CSMonitor.com, 01/21/16
Photo credit: Tomas Quinones via Visualhunt/CC BY-SA

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Tiny Homes: The Problem Beneath the Problem

How many kinds of small, self-contained dwellings are there? Dozens, at least. Every day smart and compassionate people figure out how to transform just about anything into minimalist living quarters.

There are miniature geodesic domes, Conestoga huts, and Cardborigami collapsible, transportable shade structures. There are tiny houses made of hempcrete, which repels mold, rodents and insects; and hemp grows quickly and economically almost anywhere. There are not-so-tiny houses made from shipping containers.

A design website relates how University of Southern California architecture students invented shelters, including a combined shopping cart and tent. In response to one assignment, students…

[…] conceived a village consisting of modular units measuring 92 square feet (8.5 square metres). Some contain bedrooms, while others are combined to form bathroom facilities and communal rooms. The complex also is designed to have outdoor terraces and courtyards.

However, a report from a different publication brings up some troubling questions. For MercuryNews.com, Susan Abram describes one Homes for Hope unit as a “mini-modular home” that includes only bed, desk, and shelves. In other words, toilets, showers, and kitchens belong in other units, to be communally shared.

The writer comments on the highly portable rectangles:

Made of a steel frame with structural insulated panels and aluminum cladding, the units resemble camper shells, with sliding windows. They can be heated and cooled, and stacked to create a community on vacant lots for 30 people or less. Social services, a community space and bathroom facilities also could be provided with additional funding.

Let’s just pause for a moment and reflect on that sentence. “Bathroom facilities could also be provided.” Ya think? Abram explains the state law under which “emergency housing of no more than 30 beds can be opened in certain districts within a community” with no conditional use permit required.

Sounds like a stroll in the park, right? Wrong. She quotes some facts learned from project mentor Sofia Borges:

The next step is to get the units state certified so that the teams can begin mass production, Borges said. “If we get the unit itself pre-certified we don’t have to go through the permitting process each time we want to make more.”

That certification process, along other fees and licensing will cost $100,000. Individual units would cost about $25,000.

In what universe should the state be demanding a $100,000 bribe to okay such a simple item that could help so many people? The government presumably has a stake in housing the homeless. Why can’t it just give the green light? And $25,000 apiece, to make a cube with a bed, desk, and shelves in it? Really?

Endless creativity and originality are expended on turning out structures that are, in some cases, only a grade above cardboard boxes. Which is fine, because on a cold night, even a sheet of aluminum between you and the wind can make all the difference.

Based on rationales that range from baffling to incomprehensible, very few locales allow these minimalist solutions. The whole “tiny house” genre is riddled with restrictions, sanctions, ordinances, contradictions, and highly idiosyncratic rules — depending on the jurisdiction the project happens to lie in. In some places, a distinction is made between an actual dwelling and a “pod,” which might be a basic, no-frills box, and as long as it stays beneath a certain size, it’s allowed.

Dream pods

Two Januaries ago, Tucson, Arizona, was all in a tizzy over “dream pods,” basically plywood crates not much bigger than coffins, that activists constructed and brought downtown for people to live in. In March, after much controversy, orders were issued that they all had to go, along with every tent, lean-to, etc. Some of the dream pods were moved to the grounds of a church where they continued to be inhabited.

The problem beneath the problem is, literally, the rock-solid dilemma on which everything rests. It’s not that there aren’t enough housing units to live in, because there easily could be. There is plenty of encouragement for the recycling and repurposing of parts and materials. An enormous amount of ingenuity has been spent in designing units.

Among people experiencing homelessness and caring citizens, there is a great potential pool of volunteer labor. There is government money and private charity money — never as much as we might wish — but it is there, and obtainable by determined individuals and groups willing to do the work. But there is virtually nowhere to put tiny homes. Nobody wants shipping containers, or even storybook-cute mini-houses, anywhere near where they are.

Reactions?

Source: “California architecture students design shelters for LA’s growing homeless population,” Dezeen.com, 02/22/17
Source: “Can these small pods bring a big solution for California cities’ homeless crisis?,” MercuryNews.com, 10/13/17
Source: “‘Dream pods’ removed from Tucson homeless camp,” Tucson.com, 03/13/15
Photo credit: Laura LaVoie (wheezinggirl) via Visualhunt/CC BY

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How to Become Homeless: Get Burned Out

For The New York Times, Kirk Johnson and Conor Dougherty interviewed people experiencing homelessness for the first time in the California city of Santa Rosa. Some consider themselves lucky to have grabbed cell phones, passports and a few clothes before fleeing the deadly blazes. (If you don’t have time to read the whole article, look for the story of a man named John Page.)

Most of the fire refugees who gathered at a donation center did not even have “the paper trail of their lives: deeds and marriage licenses, tax files and social security cards.” Formerly secure Americans are learning the hell of being without documents, a condition all too familiar to both the chronically and temporarily homeless people of America.

Of the estimated 100,000 Northern California evacuees, some travelled as far as 70 miles to take refuge in San Francisco and Oakland, which were pretty crowded already, and expensive. A lot of those folks have nothing left to go back to. The cost in human lives is terrible with 40 people already known to have died.

NIMBY all over again

An old joke goes, “What’s the difference between a developer and an environmentalist? The developer wants to build a house in the woods; the environmentalist already has one.” This has been part of the problem in the state’s counties of Napa and Sonoma, where new housing starts come nowhere near to matching the number of new residents.

The people who work in San Francisco and Silicon Valley have to live somewhere, but there is resistance to building in rural areas. The reporters also cite…

[…] the complexities of California’s housing, zoning and building regulations, and the environmental problems involved in cleaning up home sites made toxic by the ash from the fire.

Climate change increasingly plays a part in the likelihood of more fires. Tribune News Service describes the recent past and the probable future:

Six years of drought was followed by record winter snow and rain, followed by record heat from April through September. Santa Rosa hit 110 degrees Sept. 1, a record high for the date. Five weeks later parts of the city caught fire, destroying hundreds of homes and businesses. Worse extremes can be expected in coming decades.

Some Santa Rosa evacuees are sleeping at the Sonoma Fairgrounds on Red Cross cots. Others are 20 miles away at a shelter manned by the National Guard. What will change in the aftermath of the current fire disaster? Housing prices were already ridiculously high and can only get worse, now that nearly 6,000 buildings have been destroyed. There will be many things to consider, in future housing plans, including better escape routes.

No one is exempt

Recent events make it very clear that people experiencing homelessness are not a different species. A fire can happen to anybody. Almost everyone knows someone whose life was changed irrevocably by a fire. Fire plays no favorites, and some of the narratives contain painful irony. For instance, a 2012 story (that has not been archived on the Internet) described how a Syracuse, New York, couple who had devoted their lives to helping the homeless, were themselves made homeless by a fire.

Seemingly senseless accidents happen, like when a toaster jammed and burned a house leaving an Iowa family of five homeless. In 2015, in Minnesota, a family that had been doubling up with relatives for three months finally completed the formalities and complied with the regulations to move into a house they were buying. The were in residence for only two weeks when a fire made them homeless again.

Sometimes it’s nature, and sometimes human malice is to blame. In January of this year, an apartment fire left 18 people homeless. The man arrested and charged with arson had a grudge against one of the tenants, and had made a previous attempt to burn the building. All kinds of things can happen.

House the Homeless has mentioned T.C. Boyle, whose novel The Tortilla Curtain sketched a heartbreaking picture of the existence of undocumented workers living in a ravine on less than nothing. His newer book, A Friend of the Earth, projects the bleak outlook for the California of the future. When a reporter asked for a remark on the current fires, Boyle said:

People say I was prescient by what I predicted for 2025. The sad joke is I should have said 2015. It is frightening how quickly we got here.

Reactions?

Source: “Fires Leave Many Homeless Where Housing Was Already Scarce,” NYTimes.com, 10/15/17
Source: “Wildfires and weather: Doom fiction called California reality,” WatertownDailyTimes.com, 10/16/17
Source: “Unattended Toaster Sparks Fire, Leaving Family of Five Homeless,” SiouxlandProud.com, 07/26/15
Source: “Previously homeless Winona family loses new home in fire,” KTTC.com, 10/11/15
Source: “Arrest In Buffalo Fire That Left 18 Homeless,” WGRZ.com, 01/22/17
Photo credit: Orin Zebest via Visualhunt/CC BY

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Resistance, Advocacy, and Ambivalence in Maspeth

In Maspeth, which is part of Queens in New York City, a Holiday Inn became a homeless shelter. In April, some locals sued the mayor on technical grounds related to the building’s certificate of occupancy, but apparently an uneasy truce is now in effect.

But the permanent residents are vigilant. A woman filed a FOIA request (subsequently denied) for information on the shelter residents, particularly “employment information, last known addresses, reasons for their homelessness, drug use and length of stay.” In August, a headline read, “Cops say this couple has been breaking into Maspeth homes in broad daylight.” (Not the couple pictured on our page, by the way.)

According to the article on QNS.com:

Police have released images of a man and a woman responsible for a burglary pattern in Maspeth, hitting two homes within a span of three days in broad daylight…

In other words, the pair tried but failed to break into one house, and successfully broke into another and stole things, if that can be called a pattern. Obviously, some journalistic sensationalizing is in play, but, surprisingly, the local news sources are reticent about connecting crimes to the formerly homeless population. Strangely, a blog about local affairs never mentions the shelter at all.

Outside friction

A story from Gothamist is titled, “Ask A Native New Yorker: Is It Wrong To Hate Homeless People?” It quotes lively discussions between journalists, members of the affected community, and people who are neither. It illustrates, among other things, the proneness of trolls to deploy “straw man” arguments.

A person known as “Maspeth Sympathizer” wrote:

No one wants some 20 year old baby breeder and her litter of kids scrubbing off the good hardworking taxpayers.

However, the original Maspeth plan was to create a 110-bed shelter for adult families, defined as couples and families with children older than 18. Using rude and crude language, the same New Yorker voiced the frustrations felt by people who work hard to buy a piece of property with a house on it, and then find their communities playing host to people experiencing homelessness.

Nice middle-class neighborhoods are rare in the metropolis. They are populated by workers who “clean the streets, run the public transportation system, enforce the law, put out the fires, pick up the trash, teach our future and hold the doors open for the snobs who can’t be bothered.”

Clash of cultures

Critics say that people who live in shelters mess up their neighborhoods, and this is an understandable complaint. Parents whose kids play in the local park don’t want broken glass to suddenly start showing up. The obvious retort is that not all people experiencing homelessness are poorly socialized semi-barbarians who were raised in dumpsters with rats for pets.

The families in the shelter might have been traumatically transplanted from a nice middle-class community just like Maspeth. These days, almost no one in America is immune to the threat of homelessness.

A knee-jerk reaction would be to fence the park, limit the hours, convince the police to make a strong presence, or hire security guards. But it doesn’t have to be like that. What if community members went a bit out of their way for a while, and put in a little extra effort?

Local parents could spend more time at the park with their kids, getting healthy exercise and demonstrating by example how to treat a shared public space. Churches could create a welcoming atmosphere. A good-hearted intention to enfold newcomers, rather than repel them, could probably make a considerable difference in many instances.

Some kind of humane approach would certainly accomplish more good than the random pronouncement of blanket generalizations, like the following:

This homeless shelter in Maspeth, like all homeless shelters, is going ruin the neighborhood. There isn’t a neighborhood with a homeless shelter that hasn’t been ruined.

Gothamist publisher Jake Dobkin begs to differ, citing peaceful assimilation in several areas of NYC, both rich and poor. He suggests that what’s really going on is simple fear. Housed people live in terror of the prospect of homelessness, as well they should, because then they might be treated with the same scorn they pour on others now.

Dobkin diagnoses, and advises:

It’s much easier to believe that these people are sub-human trash, rather than just normal people who had the bad luck of being poor in an expensive city—because if you believed that, there’s nothing that could guarantee you’d never end up facing the same problem. Rather than pointing at the poor shelter residents, who are mainly the victims of bad luck and stratospherically-priced housing, you’d be better off directing your anger at the people who really have power in our city’s real estate market: the rich developers and the politicians whom they control.

A bigger picture

It is characteristic of the NIMBY mindset to believe that homeless shelters should only be for people who were rendered homeless in that exact locale. The woman who petitioned the government for personal information was hung up on a 2014 statistic that claimed only four homeless families in Maspeth, and wanted to prove that most of the shelter residents came from other places.

That is an absurdly local perspective. Looked at on a larger scale, out of 12,000 families in the NYC “system” only 135 families (or less than 2%) are from places other than New York City.

The disgruntled “Maspeth Sympathizer” notes that homeless families tend to consist of women and children, with the fathers always missing. Deeper thought and more compassion would promote the understanding that often these families are homeless precisely because the father was taken from them — often by legal action.

It is no secret that minority-group males are accused, convicted, and incarcerated in numbers that do not line up with statistical probability. In city and county jails and state and federal prisons, the black and Hispanic inmate count is wildly disproportionate to the corresponding demographics of the population as a whole. And besides, people in places like Maspeth resent being called racist, when they are merely anti-homeless.

Reactions?

Source: “‘Homeless Holiday Inn’ sparks lawsuit against mayor,” NYPost.com, 04/24/17
Source: “Cops say this couple has been breaking into Maspeth homes in broad daylight,” QNS.com, 08/22/17
Source: “Ask A Native New Yorker: Is It Wrong To Hate Homeless People?,” Gothamist.com, 09/09/16
Photo credit: Steve Baker via Visualhunt/CC BY-ND

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