Life and Death in Homeless Austin

UtahOn Sunday, November 15, the Homeless Sunrise Memorial Service took place in Austin, TX. It was the 23rd annual service, and 171 names were read, names of people who died in poverty in the city from October 2014 to the same month of this year. Anyone can learn more about it from the House the Homeless homepage, but the most important reason to go to that page now is to find out how to donate to the Thermal Underwear Drive, a major initiative that also takes place every year in Austin.

The annual memorial is perfectly fitting, and so is the annual National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week (this year, it was November 15-21). The downside of annual events, however, is that the space between them lets matters slip from the forefront of our consciousness the rest of the time.

At some point, the realization has to strike: every day, people die in poverty. Every day, people are hungry. Every day, people shiver with cold or gasp from heat stroke. Every day, people know the embarrassment of not having a safe place to take a dump, or having anything to wipe with. Every day, people suffer the humiliation of letting themselves be treated like human garbage, because they know that the smallest increment of assertiveness could have unthinkably terrible consequences.

Baby, It’s a Wild World

Although most people experiencing homelessness are peaceful, their rejection of violence makes their lives on the streets even more dangerous. People who want nothing more than to be left alone are hurt every day by the relatively small number of predators who are also homeless. Or they are hurt by housed people who see them as the enemy. Or they run afoul of the law, with varying degrees of trauma.

Austin American-Statesman writer James Barragan tells the story of a man whose transition into homelessness and eventual premature and needless death began with the death of his mother. Before following the rest of his tragic steps, one is tempted to ask (as someone from another country or another planet might), “Why wasn’t grief counseling available to him? Or if it was, what prevented him from taking the opportunity?” Could our society do a better job of helping people cope with the horrors of life, so the first step on a self-destructive path will not be taken?

In this particular case, the man who wound up homeless and dead had been troubled all his life by the knowledge that he was adopted. Sometimes, even the most loving adoptive parents can’t fill the void that results from a child’s awareness of having been abandoned. So many stressors break up families or prevent them from ever forming in the first place. Could our society do more to alleviate those pressures? The reporter spoke with relatives and friends of other homeless people who had died. A criminal record is a real handicap, and a very easy thing to acquire. Could our society thrive with fewer laws and fewer of its citizens behind bars? It quite probably could.

House the Homeless, since its inception in 1989, has always felt that Housing First is the best approach…hence the organization’s name. Through Housing First, people are able to stop street abuse that includes violence, rape, and quality-of-life ordinances that criminalize homelessness and act as barriers to escaping homelessness.

Barragan talks about the Housing First concept:

Once housed, the theory goes, the groups can help people tackle their other problems. But often, the general public thinks homelessness is an unsolvable problem and that those experiencing it have done it to themselves by not working hard enough or drinking or drugging themselves into ruin.

A brand-new report from the Associated Press does little to change such perceptions, saying:

An examination of deaths among the homeless in the Austin region show they’re dying of homicide, suicide and accidents at a rate much higher than the general population…While 86 percent of Travis County residents die of natural causes, only 29 percent of the homeless included in the analysis did, according to the report.

In 49% of the fatalities, alcohol “played a role” and in 36%, drugs “were a factor”—but some of these were the same people. In other words, in many cases alcohol and other drugs were both contributing factors. But in others, substances played no role.

The AP interviewed House the Homeless founder Richard R. Troxell, who was particularly articulate about the 11% of homeless deaths that occurred within a few days of the deceased being discharged from a jail or hospital. For more about that, see our archived post, “No ‘Discharge to Nowhere’.”

We also recommend James Barragan’s “Shining a light on a vulnerable population,” and the Austin American-Statesman‘s splendidly interactive map.

And please, don’t forget the Thermal Underwear Drive!


Source: “A humanizing look behind the numbers of homeless deaths in Austin.” MyStatesman.com, 11/15/15
Source: “Report: Homicide, violence claim high number of homeless.” Star-Telegram.com, 11/15/15
Image by Jobs with Justice



Housing for Veterans Challenge is Being Met

Veterans Day with Mayor Steve Adler

Veterans Day with Mayor Steve Adler

For American cities that want to learn from the success of others, Austin is a place to watch. The Texas capitol tries hard and does a lot of wonderful things, setting a very worthy example. As we noted last week, Mayor Steve Adler is putting tremendous energy into meeting the goal of housing all Austin veterans by the end of the year. Earlier this month he told KVUE how 82 vets have already been housed, with “several dozen additional homes that are lined up at this point that we are in the process of filling.”

The TV station also interviewed Gus Villegas, president of the Austin Apartment Association. He encourages landlords to make units available and let ECHO do the rest. In strictly economic terms, there is not much incentive. The vacancy rate is tiny, with many qualified candidates vying for each space. Austin landlords are accustomed to being choosy, and to commanding high rents.

The federal vouchers available to house homeless veterans are insufficient, and the mayor was happy to announce that $375,000 in donations have been made to help cover the difference. Because everything is in their favor, the landlords who make units available are to be congratulated. All the more so, if they give a break on the rent.

The mayor’s program to house veterans was among several local initiatives mentioned recently by the editorial board of the Austin American-Statesman, which also added:

Last year, social outreach ministry Mobile Loaves & Fishes opened its doors to an innovative concept to take homeless people off of Austin street: a microvillage… And since 2010, the city of Austin’s Roof Over Austin campaign has successfully created 350 units of housing for homeless individuals within existing and new development projects. But more units are needed at a much quicker pace.

Focusing in on House the Homeless! Inc., two of the organization’s most recent activities were marching in the Veterans Day Parade, and hosting the Homeless Memorial. This ceremony of remembrance happens every year right around Veterans Day and the whole city is invited. The advance notice said:

It is always a Sunrise Service to suggest a New Day…This year we will read over 160 names of people who have died in abject poverty in Austin this past year. Mayor Steve Adler will be the Keynote Speaker and Deann Renee will up lift us with song.

Nationally, between 2014 and 2015 the Department of Housing and Urban Development counts about 2,000 veterans as having been removed from the homeless roster. But the big picture is not improving as quickly as everyone had hoped. The administration’s optimistic vision of totally ending veteran homelessness by the start of the new year may instead be “many years away.” However, encouraging signs abound. For MilitaryTimes.com, Leo Shane III wrote:

The annual point-in-time count, conducted in January, shows there are about 48,000 homeless veterans across the country. That’s down from the 50,000 in the January 2014 count, but a smaller drop than the 5,000 veterans taken off the streets in each of the previous three years.

Since the latest count was conducted in January, officials in a number of major metropolitan areas—including Houston, Las Vegas, New Orleans and Salt Lake City—have announced they have “effectively” ended veterans homelessness by putting in place enough assistance programs and shelters to quickly house any veterans in financial distress…On Veterans Day, Virginia officials announced theirs had become the first state to end veterans homelessness statewide.

Uber and Lyft Offer Rides for Veterans

An interesting announcement was made by companies Uber and Lyft. Both companies are aware that veterans attempting to return to the work force might have a hard time getting to job interviews. Even worse, having found employment, they might find it next to impossible to travel to and from their jobs. Few cities have truly great bus systems, and even under the best circumstances, bus lines don’t run everywhere and often don’t take night shift workers into account. According to a government press release:

Both companies have committed to donating free rides to veterans—to be administered by the employment counselors who work with them every week.

Some details of how this will work are not clear. For instance, it is doubtful that all homeless people, even if they are employed veterans, have smartphones with which to summon drivers. The Huffington Post goes into a bit more detail by suggesting that Lyft will donate “thousands of rides” and Uber will be giving away about 10,000 free rides. There was also an opportunity, on Veterans Day, for the public to donate $5 toward the cost of Uber’s program—although it is a mystery why such contributions would only be accepted on one day of the year.


Source: “Austin initiative to end veteran homelessness approaching goal date,” KVUE.com, 11/05/15
Source: “Updated policies, more homes needed to protect Austin’s homeless,” MyStatesman.com, 11/14/15
Source: “Homeless veterans number decreased only slightly last year,” MilitaryTimes,com, 11/13/15
Source: “Joining Forces to Help Veterans Transition,” whitehouse.gov, 11/10/15
Source: “Uber And Lyft Offer Homeless Vets Free Rides To Job Interviews,” huffingtonpost.com, 11/10/15
Image by the Challenger



Veterans Day in Austin, 2015

Veterans Day with Mayor Steve Adler, who has pledged to end veteran homelessness in Austin, Texas by December 31st, 2015.

Veterans Day with Mayor Steve Adler, who has pledged to end veteran homelessness in Austin, Texas by December 31st, 2015.

Back in August, Austin mayor Steve Adler announced an ambitious plan to end veteran homelessness in the city by tomorrow (Veterans Day 2015). The first thing to understand is that finding viable permanent housing for all people in that situation would be impossible. Mostly, the goal here is temporary housing for all. A first step, but by no means a final one.

Donations For Homeless Housing

Before long, the news came out: “Austin Board of REALTORS® donates $15,000 to house Austin’s homeless veterans.” But an attentive reading of the press release discloses that it was actually the National Association of REALTORS® who made the generous grant. What the local Austin Board of REALTORS® Foundation did was donate $5,000 to a fund for such expenses as housing repairs (though it does seem that should be the landlord’s responsibility anyway). The literature says:

The Housing Our Heroes Initiative is part of the national Mayor’s Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness. Austin’s effort involves a coalition of Austin landlords, business leaders and service providers, who are working together to provide stable housing, extensive support services and temporary financial assistance to Austin’s homeless veterans.

It was announced that “seven leases have been executed on REALTOR®-managed properties to date, and additional units have been committed to this purpose.” Although every bit of help is appreciated, seven units doesn’t make much of a dent in the number of homeless vets.

Journalist Kayla Stewart questioned the director of ECHO (Ending Community Homelessness Coalition) who made some cogent points. For one thing, between January and August, the number of homeless veterans in Austin appears to have doubled to around 500. Stewart says:

While about half are housed, property owners tend to be reluctant to rent to veterans.

The reluctance to rent to veterans is saddening. In the past, Texas has been perceived as holding military veterans in high esteem. Maybe the state has changed a lot, or maybe it’s just that Austin is its own place. Maybe it’s simply that a saturation point has been reached.

By ECHO’s count, the percentage of Austin homeless people who are veterans is higher than the national average—around 20%. They add:

Veterans are not only more likely to become homeless, but are also more likely to stay on the streets longer than the average homeless person. And within that group, yet another group is overrepresented: almost 50% of homeless Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans are African-American.

These facts are found in a substantial and impressive Austin Chronicle piece by Kahron Spearman that recapitulates a ton of important backstory and enumerates in exhaustive detail the obstacles faced by many veterans. Another factor in the crisis is that the housing program “ceiling” is $800 per month, which presumably means a landlord cannot ask more. Still, that seems like an awful lot for a single person.

Obstacles to Housing Veterans

But Megan Podowski of Caritas explains: the city’s rental units are 98% occupied, and landlords are in a position to demand that prospective tenants present impeccable credentials. Many veterans, especially those who struggle with personal demons and service-inflicted disabilities, have gaps in their residence histories and may have been late with their rent on occasion. And indeed, Spearman goes on to say:

The majority of homeless veterans are male, suffer from mental illness or recurring disorders, [and] abuse drugs and/or alcohol.

What so many folks really need is supportive housing, with full-bore and hard-core Housing First philosophy behind it. But Austin is doing the best it can with the resources at hand. Also quoted is Tu Giang of Front Steps:

We take veterans based on a vulnerability scale…Once we complete intake, that individual gets with a case manager [and is assessed for current needs]. We’ve really ramped up our resources, with a lot of aggressive and concerted outreach.

As such projects will do, this one ran into problems. As of mid-October, 100 housing units were still being sought, and the goal date was moved to December 31, 2015. Mayor Adler’s three-pronged call to action includes his request to spread the word via social media. At the Housing Heroes website (which still publicizes the old deadline) a person can house a veteran, donate, sign up for the email newsletter, and write to a member of the mayor’s staff.

Finding the Homeless

Other parts of the overall plan continue uninterrupted. On October 16, representing Legal Aid for the Homeless and House the Homeless, Richard R. Troxell participated in a two-hour training session, led by the mayor’s aide Earl Jones. The following day, the various teams spent three morning hours in outreach to veterans experiencing homelessness. Richard says:

As we located homeless folks, we offered Veterans information about Coordinated Assessment and offered them a Pathway out of homelessness. We also offered immediate shelter and a reserved shelter bed at Austin’s Resource Center for the Homeless, ARCH. For uninterested veterans, but those in desperate need, we offered 45 days of transitional housing in a local motel when we would provide other service like health care, supportive housing, Legal Aid, etc.

The volunteers also distributed Plastic Resource Pocket Guides from House the Homeless. Overall, it was a successful outreach effort. Much more information is available from ECHO, a recommended destination for those who want more details and especially for those who want to help. December 31 is approaching fast.


Source: “Austin Board of REALTORS® donates $15,000 to house Austin’s homeless veterans,” NewsRadioKLBJ.com, 09/16/15
Source: “Mayor’s Plans to End Veteran Homelessness Halted,” patch.com, 10/12/15
Source: “Collateral Damage,” AustinChronicle.com, 07/17/15
Image by Sly Majid, Office of the Mayor



Bell v. City of Boise Lives On, Kind Of

fallen leavesRecently, House the Homeless discussed Bell v. City of Boise and its importance. Quick review: More than a decade ago, Los Angeles was sued over its severe anti-homeless ordinances. The outcome was awaited with great interest. If the city lost, then conditions would improve for people on the street.

If the city won, then the case would be appealed to the Supreme Court, which might engender some real fireworks. If it came to challenging the constitutionality of “breathing while homeless” laws, the American landscape could change radically. In due time, Judge Kim M. Wardlaw laid down words that would look good engraved in stone:

The Eighth Amendment prohibits the City from punishing involuntary sitting, lying, or sleeping on public sidewalks that is an unavoidable consequence of being human and homeless without shelter in the City of Los Angeles.

The U.S. Constitution may not be perfect, but it’s the best tool we have for securing liberty and justice for all. Judge Wardlaw coupled that basic fact with the realization that everybody’s got to be someplace, and while they’re there, they just might need to sit down, or even lie down and sleep. For people experiencing homelessness all across America, things were looking up. But the aftermath dragged on, and optimism was quenched when, subsequent to a compromise agreement, the judgment was vacated.

But Judge Wardlaw’s words were not forgotten. More recently, when Boise, Idaho, was sued for similar reasons, the Justice Department stepped in (critics would say “interfered”) by filing a statement of interest. It is the federal bureaucracy’s way of putting the city on notice—“We will be keeping an eye on you.” In its official communication, the Justice Department quoted Judge Wardlaw’s words, and the whole issue started to pick up momentum again.

Boise’s Version of the Truth

Associated Press writer Samantha Wright noted the total number of people charged with public camping in each of four consecutive years, ranging from 12 in 2012 to 293 in 2015. That is more than a 24-fold increase. To put it another way, for every one person cited with public camping in 2012, 24 were cited in 2015. To put it yet another way, that is 24 times as many. Clearly, some kind of escalation has taken place.

Yet, soon after the Justice Department declared its concern, the City of Boise reacted by saying they had gotten the wrong end of the stick. Wright explained:

The Department says it is opposing the Boise law that makes it a crime for homeless people to sleep or camp in public places because it unconstitutionally punishes them for being homeless. But city spokesman Mike Journee says the law was changed and police can no longer give tickets for camping if homeless shelters are full. And if there is room at a shelter, police will try to convince people to go there…The suit was originally brought by seven homeless people in 2009 who were cited under the law, even though there was no room for them at local shelters.

But two months later, it became obvious that the constitutionality of forbidding people to sleep would not see its day in court. Judge Ronald E. Bush of the U.S. District Court dismissed the lawsuit. He and the other Boise officials hold that the only people who have been punished for sleeping outside had refused to procure a shelter bed. In this version of reality, if no shelter space is available, the police don’t bother anybody.

The Future for Anti-Homeless Laws

Eric Tars is an attorney for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, representing the plaintiffs. He told journalist Frankie Barnhill that one reason the suit was dismissed was that “all but two of the plaintiffs are no longer homeless, so they don’t have a fear of being arrested for camping in public.” Which is ridiculous, because what about all the other people who are, currently, homeless? Besides, just letting time go by is a reprehensible way to run a legal case. Stall long enough, and everybody’s dead.

The director of the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project, Sara Rankin, warned other cities not to become over-confident about their own anti-homeless laws, saying:

Cities would be very ill-advised to interpret the Bell v. Boise case as carte blanche to enact broad anti-camping ordinances. The reason for that is the decision in Bell v. Boise was not rendered on the merits.

Clearly, this issue will keep popping up over and over in different cities until somebody makes a definitive ruling that is an irresistible call to action. In the meantime, anyone who cares about housing or otherwise helping the homeless could start by learning just what the laws are in her or his own city. It might be enlightening.


Source: “City Weighs In On DOJ Criticism Of Boise Homeless Camping Law,” boisestatepublicradio.org, 08/07/15
Source: “Advocacy Group Responds To Dismissal Of Boise Homeless Case,” boisestatepublicradio.org, 10/01/15
Source: “Boise Homeless Case Dismissed, What Happens Next?,” boisestatepublicradio.org, 10/02/15
Image by Thomas Quine


How to Become Homeless: Live in One of LA’s Nine Hot Neighborhoods

AirB&B300dpiLos Angeles holds the distinction both of having the highest percentage of renters of any American city, and of being, for renters, the least affordable American city. Since the USA is freedom-based, landlords are bitter when not allowed to wring every possible dime out of their properties. The issue of rent control has always been fiercely contested in LA. Hillel Aron explains:

If a landlord’s unit falls under the Los Angeles rent stabilization ordinance (meaning all apartment units built before 1978) landlords are prohibited from raising the rent above a certain amount, and these buildings can only be torn down or taken off the market in certain circumstances.

Since 1982, the Mello Act has been in place, ostensibly preventing landowners from converting residential units for commercial use. But somehow it happens anyway. Leading up to the 1984 Summer Olympics, poor people all over the city were displaced for the sake of wealthy visitors. This happens, Mark Lipman says, when…

Laws are ignored, process is circumvented, zoning is changed, exceptions are made, and enforcement is non-existent, when it favors the land speculator….

More recently, the advent of Airbnb and similar enterprises really threw gasoline on the fire. In March, the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy released a study showing that more than 7,000 rental units had disappeared from the city’s traditional rental market for use as short-term rentals or what some call “underground hotels.”

Of course, the people in favor of permitting unregulated, short-term renting talk about how much it helps the average tenant of a house or apartment, because they can sublet a spare bedroom to a traveler and make a bundle. Homeowners can benefit even more. Theoretically, a homeowner can rent out his place for a couple of weeks and earn enough to pay for his own vacation, plus a couple of months’ mortgage payments.

In theory, it all sounds delightful, but in practice, the situation is quite different. While Airbnb claims that 80% of the 4,500 amateur innkeepers in LA are “primary residents” of the spaces they offer, opponents tell a different tale. They say the overwhelming majority of Airbnb listings originate from professional companies that specialize in managing numerous short-term-rental units.

The Nine LA Gold Mines

In Los Angeles, more than 70% of Airbnb profits emanate from just nine neighborhoods, of which the beachfront community of Venice is one. An astonishing 12.5% of all the rental units in Venice are now rented out through Airbnb. One sad example is the venerable Waldorf, where Charlie Chaplin used to occupy the penthouse. Among the consequences is a reduced quality of life for the tenants who are being encouraged to leave. Adrian Glick Kudler writes:

The owner has been changing units over to Airbnbs as soon as they become vacant and residents “have felt increasingly unwelcome in their homes [and] believe their landlord is no longer performing basic maintenance on their apartment because they are not as profitable as the tourist-serving units.”

Judith Goldman of Keep Neighborhoods First told LA Weekly that neighborhood residents are being harassed and intimidated into leaving, and when possible, outright evicted. She characterizes the rise of Airbnb as not home sharing, but home snatching. Elena Popp of Eviction Defense Network told a reporter, “Venice is a nightmare.” The Weekly says:

According to Airbnb’s website, the average Venice rental goes for under $200 a night—for a weeknight. Weekends average around $225. The most expensive places go for more than $1,000 nightly.

No wonder Airbnb spends $100,000 per year to lobby City Hall office-holders! Writing for the Free Venice Beachhead, Mark Lipman indicts the Council District 11 office, which apparently is in the habit of changing zoning rules and issuing permits without the required public input. Consequently, in the 3-square-mile Venice Coastal Zone, more 1,200 units have dropped out of the regular rental market. Lipman says:

This is having a devastating effect on our community, exacerbating homelessness and driving the price of rent through the roof.

Venice has always had a large and flagrantly visible homeless population and now, with this Airbnb takeover, it is growing even larger. In many American cities, Lipman notes, there is a “drastic ramping up of criminalization of status.” In Venice, this happens to the point where he sees the municipal government as both creating homelessness and making it as miserable as possible.

This area of the city is policed by LAPD’s Pacific Division, which by its own admission spends four fifths of its energy and resources dealing with people experiencing homelessness. In the main, that means harassing people for doing things that people have to do, like sit and sleep. (During one era of Venice history, a mentally disturbed young man spent his days walking in circles in a particular spot on the boardwalk. Tough as his life was, at least “Circles” never got a ticket for sitting or sleeping.) It costs $62,000 to keep a person in jail for a year in LA. Lipman says:

That’s a lot of money, to pay a lot of police salaries…money we wouldn’t have to spend—police we wouldn’t need on the streets—if we simply provided the basic services that our communities have been demanding for well over a decade.

Obviously, corporate shell companies and foreign investors, and the prison guards’ powerful union, are in need of some policing, but as usual, all the law enforcement attention is focused on the poor and the homeless.

The short-term rental business is both a direct and an indirect cause of homelessness. In light of this, Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless suggests that cities take regulatory action that would create a contributory pool into which Airbnb and similar enterprises would donate a small amount, perhaps 2%, of their profits for the benefit of people experiencing homelessness.

Furthermore, we urge you to contact your local government officials and state legislators.


Source: “Airbnb Is Making Things Worse For L.A. Renters, Report Says,” LAWeekly.com, 03/06/15
Source: “Why Venice Beach is Ground Zero For the Airbnb Backlash.” LAWeekly.com, 08/19/15
Source: “Follow the Money – The Political Will of Creating Homelessness.” FreeVenice.org, September 2015
Source: “Airbnb and other short-term rentals worsen housing shortage, critics say,” LATimes.com, 03/11/15
Source: “The Nine Neighborhoods That Make All the Airbnb Money in LA,” curbed.com, 03/11/15
Image by http://www.jonwolff.net/ with permission


To Criminalize Homelessness is Massively Counterproductive

Bits and piecesLast week we looked at some of the life problems that particularly affect homeless youth, in the cauldron of social unrest known as California. Although these conflicts are more evident in that state because of sheer numbers, they exist in all American cities.

Among the righteously housed folk, anti-homeless laws are known by the politically correct term “quality of life ordinances.” Always the big question is, whose life? For housed people who dislike the chaotic ambiance of urban streets, there is a place to escape to and shut the door on it. “Unaccompanied” young people don’t have the luxury of that alternative.

The California Homeless Youth Project report says:

The use of “quality of life” as a characterization of such policies fundamentally excludes the lives of people surviving on the streets.

Such policies are in fact discriminatory and abusive, and they provide far too many occasions for contact between street kids and law enforcement personnel. This is unfortunate, because the odds are against any one police contact turning out well, and the more contacts, the worse the odds become.

At the very least, officers will probably demand that kids “move along,” and in most cases that involves relocating from populated and relatively safe areas to more isolated and dangerous patches of territory. At best, it’s harassment, and at worst, an invitation to disaster. The same report quoted Ric Declan, an Oregon police sergeant with a maverick spirit, as saying:

We know that homeless youth are more often the ‘victims’ rather than the ‘perpetrators’ of crime and should be treated as such.

The authors of that document also noted that “not one youth interviewed reported ever turning to police for help when they needed it.” What does that say about the often-mythical slogan “Protect and Serve?”

When a community is allowed to enforce rules that violate basic human rights, nobody wins and everybody loses. Tax revenues are used to extend police hours into overtime, open more courtrooms, hire more guards, pay more public defenders, and rent more space in penal institutions for people whose initial crime is having nowhere to live. Laws that criminalize homelessness are so counterproductive they can do nothing but make situations worse—not only for the people convicted, but for society as a whole.

The tragedy of all this is multiplied when young people are the targets. They are already teetering on the edge of oblivion. Even a teen with a full complement of parents, extended family members, teachers, and coaches can have a rough adolescence. Imagine how much more difficult it is to grow up in the middle of nowhere, with no support system, and surrounded by predators. No kid needs a criminal record, which is likely to become Step 1 in a career of recidivism. Maria Foscarinis, Executive Director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, says:

Laws criminalizing homeless youth deprive them of the opportunity to succeed in life, creating additional barriers to housing, employment, and education, and only serve to punish them at a time when they are most vulnerable.

These things (again, according to the California Homeless Youth Project) need to be done:

  • Decriminalize necessary human behavior that occurs in the absence of alternatives
  • Create a continuum of housing options
  • Convene community forums to facilitate dialogue among service providers, law enforcement, business owners and associations, and homeless youth
  • Increase resources for homeless youth
  • Create Homeless Outreach Teams that are trained to respond to the unique circumstances of homeless residents
  • Address need for affordable transportation

Other than mentions of mental health and substance abuse, the list of high-priority policy recommendations does not include physical health care outreach. House the Homeless hopes to see it join the list.


Source: “Adding Insult to Injury: The Criminalization of Homelessness and Its Effects on Youth.” September 2015
Image by urbansnaps – kennymc



Unaccompanied Youth in California

the kids aren't alright“If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair,” went the refrain of a once-popular song. California was Shangri-la, a land of magic and hope, the preferred destination for the abandoned and disaffected youth of our entire nation.

These days, it’s a good place for homeless teens and young adults to steer clear of. With facilities stretched to their limits, helping organizations work harder than before, trying to accomplish more with ever-shrinking budgets. Housed people fall prey to compassion fatigue, and there is a steady increase in laws designed to make life unpleasant for the peasant.

Currently, the golden state contains more homeless youth than any other state, and they are more likely to be unsheltered than in most other states. Among the nation’s cities as rated by their “mean streets,” California has three of the top ten spots.

The last two decades have seen the creation of numerous restrictive ordinances, and over the past five years, the pace of anti-homeless legislation has picked up, according to Shahera Hyatt and Jessica Reed, the credited authors of “Adding Insult to Injury: The Criminalization of Homelessness and Its Effects on Youth.” Though only two names are on the cover, this 16-page report utilized all the resources of the California Homeless Youth Project, with help from the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.

Things Are Tough for Unaccompanied Youth

Many of the offenses that people experiencing homelessness are charged with have nothing to do with age. They may be forbidden to sit, stand, rest, or sleep in public places; or to set up a tent or lean-to shack anywhere. They may not be allowed to ask for contributions or sort through trash receptacles for food or recyclable materials. Organizations that want to serve them food may be told they are not allowed to give away so much as a sandwich.

Then there is another layer of legal difficulty known as selective enforcement, when homeless people are not allowed to do things that are apparently okay for others. The most well-known example is sidewalk camping. People who wait in line all night to buy concert tickets or the latest model phone are allowed to set up tents or sack out in sleeping bags while homeless people, of course, would be breaking the law.

The things that unaccompanied youth most often get in trouble for are, the report says, “sleeping in public or private spaces at night, or sitting in public space during the day.” The other big problem is traveling to places where help is available. Kids often sneak rides on public transportation and get nailed for theft of services.

Age-Related Crimes

Then there is the problem of “status offenses,” or things that are illegal for a person under 18 to do unless a court has previously deemed her or him an “emancipated minor.” Curfew violations get kids in trouble while not affecting adults. Kids are supposed to be enrolled in school until a certain age, and not showing up makes them truant. Truancy is a crime even for the homeless. Young people have been locked up for that crime, which makes no sense whatsoever. Incarcerating a kid for skipping school has got to be one of the most irrational government actions ever. The report says:

Homeless students are much better served by community-based organizations, which have been shown to be more developmentally appropriate, cost effective, and humane than the juvenile justice system.

For an adult, running away from home may not always be the wisest choice, and can even cause problems to multiply, but at least it isn’t illegal in and of itself. But for a minor (which in California means under 18), mere existence is a status offense, because kids that age are not supposed to be anywhere else except under their family roof. Here is what the authors say:

Youth who run away do so for their own survival, often fleeing their homes due to abuse, extreme poverty, and/or rejection of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity and expression. Yet in many jurisdictions, runaway youth may be apprehended by law enforcement and returned to their home of origin, even if that home is dysfunctional and/or abusive.


Source: “Adding Insult to Injury: The Criminalization of Homelessness and Its Effects on Youth.
September 2015
Image by Senia L


Richard Gere in Time Out of Mind

2009-07-22There were rumblings and inklings of this for months—of actor Richard Gere feeling his way into a movie role by going out incognito and blending in with people experiencing homelessness in their daily pursuits. For instance, a French tourist gave him some pizza but remained clueless until a picture of the two of them showed up in a newspaper.

Last month the film, Time Out of Mind, was released. It’s about a man trying to survive in New York, a tough city in which to be homeless (not that anyplace is easy). For those accustomed to appreciating Gere playing romantic leads or “shifty power mongers,” this performance is unsettling. National Public Radio’s Ella Taylor says:

George scrambles to keep body and soul together, shuttling between welfare offices, an overwhelmed homeless shelter in Bellevue hospital, and the streets. There, enraged and frustrated at being alternately ignored and ringed around with rules and red tape, he conducts himself like a man trying to bargain without chips.

From Taylor’s review, it sounds like a movie worth seeing, with several great characters, like other street people played by Ben Vereen and Kyra Sedgwick. For aficionados of cinematic technique, the writer mentions how the 66-year old Gere is in every scene, but hardly ever at the center of the action. She says director Oren Moverman…

…shoots Gere in very long shots through wire fences and glass doors and windows, down hallways, up and down the streets he roams aimlessly, into the shelter where he retires to bed down for the night…a man for whom the simple business of feeding himself and finding a bed for the night requires constant, unrelenting effort.

This review makes the film seem very layered and nuanced, with plenty of psychological and emotional kinks, just like real life. It ends by saying, “it’s the finest portrait of homelessness I’ve ever seen.” The comments garnered by the piece are interesting too, like the one from a person who credits the Salvation Army for—true to its name—making a save.

HuffingtonPost.com offers a 25-minute video segment in which Gere discusses his connection with the Coalition for the Homeless and his longtime determination to make this film whose script he first read in 1988. He discusses the history of how the movie came to be made, and many aspects of the homeless scene including the crucial difference between housing and warehousing.

Gere also references Land of the Lost Souls: My Life on the Streets, a book by a fellow known as Cadillac Man, who at one time was the most famous homeless person in Northern Queens. It made a deep impression on Gere and greatly influenced the contributions that he made to the Time Out of Mind script.


Source: “Richard Gere Plays homeless Man Convincingly
NPR.org, 04/29/14
Source: “Richard Gere Shines In The Bleak ‘Time Out Of Mind’
NPR.org, 09/10/15
Source: “’Time Out Of Mind’ Star Richard Gere LIVE
HuffingtonPost.com, 09/09/15
Image by arincrumley


When Pope Francis Came to Town

Pope TeesWhen Pope Francis visited Washington, D.C., recently, there had been a tentative plan for him to stop by the sculpture installed on a bench outside the headquarters of Catholic Charities. Sadly, this viewing of “Jesus the Homeless” did not fit into the schedule—but the Pope had, of course, already seen a smaller version of Timothy P. Schmalz’s touching work of art last year when it was brought to the Vatican to receive his blessing

At St. Patrick’s Church, the Pope spoke to about 250 people experiencing homelessness who currently depend on Catholic Charities. One does not need to be the least bit religious to grasp the basic idea behind his strong words:

We can find no social or moral justification, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing. The Son of God came into this world as a homeless person. The Son of God knew what it was to start life without a roof over his head.

Outside, a tent had been set up where 300 lunch guests waited. They included residents of the Catholic Charities shelter and the Harriet Tubman Women’s Shelter, all of whom had signed up and then been vetted by the shelter managers. Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times reported:

A few minutes later Francis came out the church doors to cheers and applause from the lunch guests. He gave a brief blessing, then said “Buen apetito,” to loud laughter. He himself did not eat, but he waded through the tables, stopping to lay his hand on the heads of children…

The Pope’s next stop was New York, where custom-designed metal spikes were installed to prevent homeless people from lingering or sleeping within the pitiful shelter of alcoves in the walls of buildings near Madison Square Garden. At the same time, 18 “seating pods” disappeared from a nearby pedestrian plaza, and the property management company responsible for their removal told a reporter that these “homeless magnets” would not be replaced.

Hiding the Homeless in Philadelphia

In the City of Brotherly Love, preparations for the papal visit included the displacement of people experiencing homelessness from any chance of encountering him. According to Amy S. Rosenberg, all was peaceful in the Parkway area as authorities established the Secure Pope Perimeter. She provides many heart-warming anecdotes to illustrate how incident-free the process was, as the people who usually sleep in the park simply made alternate arrangements. But other reports differ, relating how the police threw everyone’s belongings in the trash. The city’s local CBS affiliate quoted outreach worker Amir Robertson:

If you’re homeless, the best thing I can suggest you do is stay off the streets because you’re either going to go to jail or they’re going to put you in the worst part of the neighborhood where you’re going to end up getting killed.

Nearly two weeks before the Pope’s arrival, six families who were unable to obtain either emergency housing vouchers or shelter beds set up housekeeping in an empty lot. Photos went out via social media, and next thing you know, television crews showed up. While the city spent millions of dollars to prepare for the pontiff’s visit, the homeless continued to suffer. Organizers pointed out the bitter irony of this, especially in the face of the Pope’s demonstrable affinity for the homeless.

The protestors challenged the city to figure out how to turn unused buildings into livable places and put people into them. At last count, there were something like 40,000 abandoned houses, commercial structures, and empty lots in Philadelphia. (As House the Homeless has discussed, HtH President Richard R. Troxell initiated the Philadelphia Stabilization Program here back in the 1980s.) Coverage of the campsite proved that poverty is no respecter of race, and that the public cared enough to bring food donations to the “pantry” tent. It also proved that public shaming can be effective. The Philadelphia Housing Authority stepped up and found public housing vouchers for the six families.

Source: “Pope Francis to See Statue of Homeless Jesus During Visit to DC,” CBSLocal.com, 09/18/15
Source: “Pope Francis’ Most Welcome Words to Homeless: ‘Buon Appetito’,” NYTimes.com, 09/24/15
Source: “Photos: Sharp Anti-Homeless Spikes Have Been Installed Near Pope’s Route,” Gothamist.com, 09/25/15
Source: “Outreach workers get homeless to leave the Parkway.” Philly.com, 09/25/15
Source: “Homeless People Being Relocated In Preparation For Papal Visit,” CBSLocal.com, 09/25/15
Source: “Six Homeless Families Living in Tents in Philly Lot,” NBCPhiladelphia.com, 09/16/15
Image by Mike Maguire



Breathing While Homeless – in the News Again

Where do they all belongTo speak of the crime of “Breathing While Homeless” is no joke any more—not that it ever was. In the late 1880s, singly and in groups, thousands of jobless, impoverished people roamed the countryside. The homeless wanderers were called tramps, and in Wisconsin Death Trip, Michael Lesy quotes a local newspaper’s report on what happened when 250 tramps approached the settlement. “They were marched to the river, made to wash themselves, given something to eat, and rushed out of town.” That can be looked at as an unconscionable violation of Americans’ rights, or as a relatively benign intervention.

On the other hand, what were the untold stories? Scores of people were herded to the river and—what? Made to strip down and wash their clothes by pounding them with rocks? Or were they forced to just wade into the river in what they wore, regardless of the ambient temperature, their state of health, the precious identity papers and photos they might have held onto…There is a lot we don’t know. At least the tramps were fed, but again, we don’t know exactly what that means.

Anyway, such an incident could provide opportunity for many kinds of abuse and even assault. It would not occur to the news editor to mention it, because everyone would assume it was business as usual. Nothing to see here, folks, so move on. Does our romanticized view of the country’s past throw a rosy glow over atrocities?

The point is that America has never rewarded those who just can’t make it. Adding insult to injury, the people who most despise the homeless are, often, the very ones who caused the dire and desperate financial conditions against which the rest of us struggle. Because the misery is so widespread, many journalists have done stories about its manifold aspects. In so many places it is either de jure or de facto illegal to sit, sleep, eat, or eliminate. But people have to do those things. This is the basis of the currently controversial Bell v. City of Boise legal case. A judge once said you can’t punish people for what people can’t help doing. The Justice Department, which appears to have sat mute on this question for a couple of decades, has decided to take an interest. Change may come. Only last month, Alan Pyke wrote:

Any community that makes homelessness illegal may soon find it harder to obtain Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funding for building shelters and staffing outreach positions.

The criminalization of homelessness enriches certain industries and provides better employment opportunities for certain workers (like police and prison guards). For a person experiencing homelessness, every encounter with law enforcement is potentially lethal. When a community legislates against non-violent non-crimes like sitting on the sidewalk, the frequency of interaction goes up, and so does the fatality rate. Listen to what Allen Arthur said, also last month:

Nearly a third of those living in New York City homeless shelters are employed—at jobs that obviously don’t pay them enough to afford rent….Around 12 percent of homeless are veterans –their job deified when wartime profits call, but left for dead in the streets when their usefulness is exhausted…Both politically and economically, for the ruling class, the problem is more profitable than the solution.

Arthur has a great deal more to say, and does it clearly. He points out that 18 million housing units are empty in the United States. Some critics would wander off into the woods, arguing the exact amount of theoretically liveable space, or why it shouldn’t be lived in anyway. This writer breaks it down for us in terms of exactly who has benefited from the impoverished and homeless condition in which so many Americans find themselves. We can’t say “jobless” because today’s homeless and inadequately housed people are unlike those displaced people who entered and exited a Wisconsin town so long ago. Today, many of the people experiencing homelessness are working, and even working full-time. Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless says:

For me, the issue is simple. If someone is prevented from pursuing a basic act of survival, then the fault lies with the entity that is disrupting the individual’s ability to survive unimpeded, be it another individual, a government, a system or a community.

Thanks to Richard and many, many other hard-working and highly-principled people, the city of Austin has been, in some areas, a pioneer. Please do visit “No Sit/No Lie: Troxell’s Testimony,” or one of our several other posts about this hot-button topic.


Source: “ Wisconsin Death Trip”
Source: “Local Officials Have Pushed To Criminalize Homelessness For Years. The Feds Are Starting To Push Back,” ThinkProgress.org, 08/18/15
Source: “Homelessness is the crime, not the homeless,” SocialistWorker.org, 08/09/15
Image by Christiaan Triebert


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