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VA Wastes Miracle Machine

Scans can reveal Traumatic Brain Injury.

Scans can reveal Traumatic Brain Injury.

Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) is a hot topic these days among civilians. In schools and even in the professional arena, contact sports are being rethought from the ground up. An irrefutable link between head trauma and homelessness has been identified. For example, an April headline from the Icahn School of Medicine stated, “Nearly Half of All Homeless Men Suffered Brain Injury before Losing Homes.” TBI is closely linked to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, from which a lot of homeless people suffer. Modern warfare is very efficient at producing brain trauma, which has even been called the “signature wound” of the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts. Military.com says,

Common causes of TBI include damage caused by explosive devices, falls and vehicle or motorcycle accidents. Most reported TBI among… service members and veterans has been traced back to Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs…

Medical technology has created the magnetic resonance imaging scanner, a machine that can measure brain injury. For research to go forward in a scientifically valid way, doctors would have to take MRI “before” scans of their human subjects, batter their heads, and then take “after” scans for comparison purposes. This would be an unconscionable violation of medical ethics.

Volunteers

But what if researchers had a large pool of newly-recruited soldiers to draw from, with extensive medical histories on record, from blood type, to weight, to recent inoculations? What if they took “before” MRI scans? Eventually, a certain percentage of those individuals would return from the field with brain injuries. “After” pictures could be taken, along with complete information about the circumstances of the injury, immediate treatment, complications, and so on. Researchers would accumulate a rich database for the eventual harvesting of medical breakthroughs, and/or to create improved means of preventing injury in the first place, such as better helmets.

As House the Homeless described last time, Jeremy Schwartz of the Austin American-Statesman has written a disturbing history of the VA’s mobile MRI scanner. This noble device was purchased in 2007 and “unveiled” in 2008, housed in its own semi-truck trailer, the better to commute between the new soldiers at Fort Hood and the injured ones in Waco’s VA hospital. The $3.6 million taxpayer-funded investment was touted as “the most powerful mobile MRI on the planet.” Capturing brain images for the sake of medical progress, it would eventually prevent a lot of human suffering, especially among veterans.

Anticlimax

But then, somehow, nothing happened. No fresh troops were tested before deployment; no service members with traumatic brain injuries were examined afterwards for comparison purposes. In 2010, North Carolina’s Senator Richard Burr, as a member of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, addressed the VA:

This letter seeks clear answers about the shoddy administration of the Brain Injury and Recovery Laboratory in yet another effort to reinforce the need for proper oversight and responsible spending at VA.

Officials from the Center of Excellence assured Congress that the imaging program was on track, fueled by the cumulative resources of five grants which would fund its activities for several years. But then in 2011, research stopped, supposedly because the scanner produced images of poor quality. Schwartz says,

The machine has sat dormant for the past three years, plagued by a series of delays caused by mismanagement, mechanical failures and bureaucratic roadblocks… In a grim internal assessment, the center’s associate research director… wrote in March 2013: “I think there should be serious consideration of returning the MRI from where it came because we do not have the expertise to use it or care for it.”

While the rig is sitting there, a full-time technician has to perform daily maintenance checks. Turning it off and on would consume far too much costly energy, so it just stays on all the time. An administrator claimed that the mobile MRI taught the Veterans Administration valuable “lessons.” Seems like one of those lessons should have been, “To run fancy machines, hire qualified personnel.” If the machine itself is defective, why not get it fixed? Surely the power and majesty of the U.S. Government can compel a manufacturer to deliver a product in good working order. If Uncle Sam can’t do it, who can?

That is where matters stand at present, with not a single published study to justify all the hoopla and expense. Meanwhile, the program has not helped even one veteran of any branch of service, regardless of rank, race, gender, or housing status.

Reactions?

 

Source: “Study: Nearly Half of All Homeless Men Suffered Brain Injury before Losing Homes,” MSSM.edu, 04/26/14
Source: “Traumatic Brain Injury Overview,” Military,com, undated
Source: “Lost opportunity,” Statesman.com, 09/07/14
Source: “Troubled beginnings,” Statesman.com, 09/07/14
Source: “VA claims troubled Waco MRI research program provided ‘lessons’,” ClaroSports.com, 10/03/14
Image by Jon Olav Eikenes

 

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Open Letter to Federal Reserve Chairman Janet Yellen

Janet Yellen - Caricature

Janet Yellen – Caricature

Janet Yellen, the new Chairman of the Federal Reserve, has called income inequality “one of the most disturbing trends facing the nation.”

National income inequality is a problem that is comprised of many components.  House the Homeless views the Federal Minimum Wage as a major component of this problem.  We are a nation of 1,000 plus economies, and yet we set a federal wage standard that embraces the concept of one size fits all.  At present, it is set at $7.25 per hour.  It is so low that a full-time, minimum wage worker cannot get into, and keep, basic rental housing. This is a statement repeated by the U.S. Conference of Mayors in their annual report for the past several years.

We all know that the single most expensive item in the budget of every American (housing) fluctuates across the nation, and it does not cost the same to live in Washington DC as it does to live in Harlington, Texas or Santa Cruz, California, etc. So how appropriate is this one-size-fits-all approach?

Because of the disparity between what our nation’s minimum wage workers are earning (federally set at $7.25 per hour), and the cost of housing locally, 3.5 million minimum wage workers will experience homelessness again this year.  Ms. Yellen, you are correct, “the nation’s identity as a land of opportunity is at stake.”

It is important to realize that these minimum wage workers compromise the base of our socio-economic society.  These workers are daycare workers, ditch diggers, cafeteria line workers, theater ticket takers, dry clean workers, porta-potty vacuumers, window washers, restraint workers (McDonalds), retail sales people (WalMart), data key operators, hotel/motel maids, construction laborers, janitors, bank tellers, farm workers, receptionists, nurse aids, poultry processors, agricultural workers, home care aids, garage attendants, car washers, manicurists, elder care aids, security guards, infant care workers, etc.  And remarkably, they all have one thing in common; none of these jobs can be out sourced!  They are the last bastion of purely home spun, at home American jobs.  A person has to be on site to flip the burger and serve the child from the cafeteria line.

It only makes sense that if the stability of our economic structure at its core, is dependent upon the economic stability of these workers, we should do everything we can to stabilize their financial situations.  Many businesses are operating under the false assumption that because the pool of minimum wage workers, bolstered by immigration, is basically infinite in scope, that they can continue to use people like tissue paper in less than full-time jobs, and then discard them for easy replacements.  This shortsighted approach, as even Henry Ford realized, carried with it a devastating effect that resulted in exorbitant retraining costs of replacement workers.

By indexing the wage of the local cost of housing in areas about the size of counties referred to as Fair Market Rent areas by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Affairs, we ensure that if a person puts in 40 units of work, they will be able to afford basic rental housing (an efficiency apartment) including utilities, wherever that work is done throughout the United States.

In this fashion, we end economic homelessness for all people desirous and able to work and enable them to put a roof over their own heads, other than a bridge.  As a result, we are able to stabilize businesses that employ minimum wage workers while saving them and tax payers tens of billions of dollars each in unused supports like food stamps, EITC, public assistance (see the 2014 Economic Policy Institute Minimum Wage Report) and retraining costs.  See Looking Up at the Bottom Line for greater detail.

We urge you to urge the U.S. Congress to review this novel approach and simply tweak the Federal Minimum Wage established under the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act.  Such a response will solve the minimum wage conundrum once and for all time, prevent economic homelessness and stimulate the national housing industry by creating needed, affordable housing for workers who like Henry Ford’s employees, will then be able to afford the product that they need most.

Image: DonkeyHotey

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Vital VA Project Got Off on the Wrong Foot

Phoenix

Phoenix Rises from the Ashes

If there is one state in the union where military veterans might expect to be rendered top-shelf service every time, that state would be Texas. There are two regional benefits offices (Houston is the other) and the Waco office has not been living up to the Lone Star state’s reputation for honoring vets.

Six years ago, the Waco RO (which serves Bell County and central Texas) was one of the epicenters of a scandal that affected an entire federal bureaucracy. Ultimately the Department of Veterans Affairs sent out the order to suspend all document shredding until they could figure out what was going on. Belinda J. Finn, the VA’s Assistant Inspector General for Auditing, testified before a federal House of Representatives subcommittee:

In September of 2008, we were conducting an audit of claim-related mail processing, in the Detroit Regional Office. At the suggestion of a VBA employee, we looked in the shred bins and found claim-related documents. We continued our work in the Waco, St. Louis, and St. Petersburg Regional Offices, finding a total of 132 documents, about 45 of which could have affected benefits.

Jeremy Schwartz of the Austin American-Statesman tirelessly keeps track of what the VA is up to. A couple of years back, the situation was so bad that the Waco RO had the country’s longest waiting time for claims processing.

And then it improved and got the claim processing time down to only 464 days. (Yes, that is sarcasm, and yes, that is more than a year.)

About a year ago, bureaucrats told the reporter that there was no need to hire a full-time county veterans service officer, and that there had been no complaints. A volunteer liaison officer who mostly referred calls to the Texas Veterans Commission said that he only saw five or six veterans each year. Still, the Bell County commissioners promised to improve their website by adding referral information for vets, and to hire a veterans service officer before 2014.

The latest

More recently, Schwartz has been looking into a promising and costly medical research program that somehow went off the rails and into the woods. A decade ago, the Veterans Administration okayed the spending of $6.3 million for a brain imaging center to study physical changes in the brains of soldiers before and after their tours of duty in the combat zones of Afghanistan and Iraq. Previous wars produced a lot of gunshot wounds, but in these more recent conflicts, traumatic brain injury (TMI) has been the “signature wound” which could with dark humor be called “the gift that keeps on giving.” The result of such injury is often Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which can affect an individual for the remainder of his or her life, or lead to suicide, whichever comes first.

The center originally opened at UT Austin, but didn’t work out at that location. It was re-established at the Center of Excellence in Waco, where subjects would be available from both Fort Hood (before going overseas) and the VA hospitals in Waco and Temple (after returning). In 2007 a director was hired, but Dr. Robert Van Boven’s first move was to declare that already, $2.1 million had been spent on a project unrelated to traumatic brain injury.

His claims of financial misappropriation did not interest the VA, which at first declined to investigate, although later a report from the office of the agency’s inspector general partially confirmed the allegations of mismanagement. At any rate, the director was fired in 2009. He sued because he had been wrongfully terminated and retaliated against for being a whistleblower. In 2010 the case was settled for an unpublicized amount of money. For the new and much-needed project of learning more about brain damage, this was not an auspicious start.

(…more next time…)

 

Reactions?

 

Source: “Document Tampering and Mishandling at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs,” gpo.gov, 03/03/09

Source: “Troubled beginnings,” Statesman.com, 09/07/14

Source: “Gaps in research,” Statesman.com, 09/07/14

Image: Prairie Kittin

 

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How to Become Homeless: Be a Single Parent

Riding shotgun

Transportation to and from work, and child care, are major obstacles for many single parents.

Brooke McLay met a mother experiencing homelessness (given the pseudonym of Tori) and treated her to a grocery shopping spree, with the understanding that photos would be taken and an article written. When published, it garnered well over 1,000 online comments. Since they lived in a shelter, Tori had to bring along not only her 4- and 6-year-old daughters, but the wagon containing all their belongings, because Crisis Housing has no provision for locking anything up.

While it would have been more economical to buy a lot of cheap processed food with a long shelf life, Tori also selected fruits and vegetables because neither she nor the girls ever got enough fresh produce. But not too much, because without a refrigerator or stove, how could the perishable items be stored or cooked? There is a lot more to this fascinating piece of journalism. McLay writes,

Today, nearly one in six Americans reports running out of food at least once a year. Government food assistance requests are at an all-time high, and funding for these programs is being cut. The need for food and access to affordable fresh fruits and vegetables is no longer just something affecting the guys holding signs on the street corner. Food insecurity affects millions of suburban families. Working folks. Maybe even your neighbors.

Most single parents are female, though many single fathers face equally daunting challenges. Among other feats, the single parent has to fulfill mutually impossible imperatives and be in two places at the same time. The inability to keep up with a constant barrage of conflicting demands can knock a single parent out of the workforce and into public assistance — not a desirable outcome for anyone, including the taxpayers.

Walk a mile in their shoes

Recently, House the Homeless discussed the havoc caused by arbitrary work schedules set up for the convenience of the company. Imagine this double whammy: you hire someone for childcare, and go to work. The boss sends you home because business is slow. So now, you have to go back and do the same rotten thing to another person, and take away expected income from your child minder. Sure, you can negotiate with the sitter to accept less, because you got bumped — but however it plays out, the person may never work for you again. And as a single mom, you cannot afford to lose even one trustworthy friend.

Sometimes, a single parent is forced to make a devil’s bargain with a relative. Family togetherness and mutual help are the most wonderful things in the world, but often have a toxic side. What if the only relative you can really count on for child care, is the one who lets your already-obese child eat anything and everything? Which imperative do you follow? Answer: the one that keeps you earning a paycheck, so your kid will at least be under a roof.

When you deal in the favor bank, you must expect to put aside a certain amount of time to repay favors – more stress. And let’s face it, relatives have their own problems. Ultimately, family members can only do so much, and it’s not as if a single mom can leave her child with just anybody. Look what happened to Relisha Rudd.

Getting around

For people who don’t own cars, transportation is problematic almost everywhere. An adult with a baby or small child can, in theory, bicycle. Conveyances and modified bikes are made for every age group, but they feel risky, and are not useful in all weathers, and so on. In cities, single moms are likely to be dependent on public transportation. Imagine getting your kid up at 4 AM for a bus trip to day care, then you take another bus, and make yet another transfer, and hopefully arrive on time for your 8 AM shift.

Single mothers are tempting targets for violent criminals and con artists, and live in constant fear that the authorities will take away their kids. They belong to the “one missed paycheck” subculture, with one foot in a grim situation and the other on a banana peel. The domino effect can be brilliantly demonstrated by the biographies of thousands upon thousands of single parents and their children. This is how families become homeless.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “What I Learned After Taking a Homeless Mother Grocery Shopping,” Babble.com, 08/01/14

Image by Comrade Foot

 

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Austin’s Community First Village

Alan Graham

Alan Graham of Community First Village

This post is in essence a continuation of last week’s “Exciting Development in Austin,” so a reader who missed that one might want to catch up.

What will go on there

Disabled, chronically homeless people are at a great disadvantage in many ways. In most places, the local taxpayers are also affected by the medical bills that result from so many people living in insalubrious conditions, with untreated physical maladies. Community First Village will help everyone – the residents, by enabling their improved health; and the larger community, by reducing the hospital bills that result from life in the rough.

Located outside Austin, CFV will be a serene and health-positive environment where a great deal of healing and strengthening will take place. Adequate nutrition, nights of unbroken sleep, and an on-site medical facility will help the residents regain levels of vitality and functionality they have not felt for years. Most will be able to actively take part and contribute to the village’s success. We mentioned many activities last time, and people are already making furniture and growing crops.

A strong recycling program is planned. In the carpentry and welding workshops, skills will be taught and learned. The place will have WiFi, so a motivated person could conceivably sell crafts and other products online. The literature speaks of “micro-business opportunities for employment for residents interested in finding a job with employers assisting within this program,” and also suggests possibilities for occasional work at the nearby Travis Exposition Center.

Vision and hard work

The project’s first phase is expected to be done by the spring of 2015. It was kicked off by a groundbreaking ceremony in late August, with some of the prospective residents turning over symbolic shovelfuls of earth.

On that occasion, House Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin) received heartfelt thanks, because he sponsored a bill that exempts CFV from property taxes. Passing that bill will no doubt turn out to be one of the smartest moves the legislature ever made. As far as other people and entities who deserve thanks, please forgive any omissions, and post a comment at the end to set things straight!


The development firm Bury Inc. is involved with the community’s design and MileStone Community Builders LLC with the actualization. H-E-B is helping to start up the commissary, and the local nonprofit organization Caritas will provide caseworkers. Students from the University of Texas School of Architecture designed many of the structures. At Lake Travis High School, the student council and cheerleaders spearheaded a fund drive called “Bring the Homeless Home” which raised $10,000. And of course thousands of volunteers have pitched in and will be donating even more time and energy going forward.

Paying for their stay

Dealing with a hardcore bureaucracy like Social Security is a daunting task even for a housed person with access to all the needed papers and a fully-operational consciousness. For someone who doesn’t own a file cabinet and suffers from physical limitations, pain, and disorientation, these challenges can seem insurmountable. House the Homeless does an amazing job of helping individuals apply for SSI disability status so they can use their benefits to pay the very reasonable rent.

The main driving force is Alan Graham, whose outreach ministry Mobile Loaves and Fishes has been working toward the project for years. Graham, described by journalist Marty Toohey as “a devout man with a sly sense of humor,” sees Community First Village Community as a “promised land” for people who have experienced some of the worst aspects of life on earth. After a recent tour of the property, Toohey wrote:

Graham was careful to note the place is intended to serve the chronically homeless — the portion of the homeless population that, due to mental illness or substance abuse or other issues, cannot keep a home under typical circumstances. For chronically homeless people, said Graham, who is considered one of the nation’s experts on the subject, halfway houses and other “transitional housing” are ultimately ineffective.

One of the most exciting results so far is how Graham and the rest of the CFV support system have inspired other municipalities to step up. A recent OregonLive.com headline reads,

Tiny houses as affordable housing? Austin beats Portland to punch, Eugene follows suit

Is that impressive, or what? Closer to home, a local blogger known as “The Lone Spanger” wrote,

It seems to me that with the continued support of volunteers, donors, and the city, CFV will surely be a success story in the history of homeless housing developments and provide a progressive model for future housing coordinators to follow. I’m looking forward to watching the program blossom and hope it makes a positive impact on the city’s morale towards encouraging more communities like this.

Please visit the Community First Village website to see how you can help!

Reactions?

Source: “Westbanker inspires homeless village,” Statesman.com, 09/03/14
Source: “LTHS students work together to help homeless,” Statesman.com, 09/24/14
Source: “Austin project takes new approach in aiding homeless by avoiding ‘transitional housing’,” TheRepublic.com, 09/18/14
Source: “Tiny houses as affordable housing? Austin beats Portland to punch, Eugene follows suit,” OregonLive.com, 08/22/12
Source: “Hope For the Homeless At Community First Village,” ChallengerNewspaper.org, 08/19/14
Source: “Lake Travis HS Cavaliers – Bring the Homeless Home,” YouTube
Image by mlfnow

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Exciting Development in Austin

Community First Village

Part of the Community First! Village Plan

In Austin, Texas, something is happening that will unavoidably become a subject of great interest to communities across the nation. The new thing is called Community First Village (CFV), and it is happening because many of the town’s officials and citizens believe that ending homelessness is more economical than dealing with the consequences of allowing it to continue.

Both planning and financial preparation for CFV have been underway for about ten years. By July of this year, the nonprofit group Mobile Loaves & Fishes had raised $6.5 million, completing the first fundraising phase of the project whose cost is estimated to come in at between $10 and $12 million. Compare the price tag for providing this safe haven of “permanent, affordable and sustainable housing and caring support for disabled chronically homeless individuals.” Because the residents will have preventative care, protection from the weather, and a nourishing diet, it is expected that the city’s taxpayers will be spared about $10 million each year in medical bills alone.

The place

Soon, roads will be built and water and sewer lines installed on the 27-acre property. The goal is to erect 225 units – an “innovative mix of affordable housing options” – divided between 100 RV trailers, 100 micro-houses, and 25 canvas-walled tent-cottages. Regarding the number of residents, various news reports are confusing, because 240 is the number most often given. On the other hand, one article mentions two-bedroom units, which seems to imply a certain amount of double occupancy. But then another source says “single residents only.” At any rate, this short piece of video reportage should help to visualize the project.

CFV  will be a gated community, not only to keep out troublesome unwanted visitors, but to allow the inhabitants a sense of privacy they have rarely known on the streets and in emergency shelters. The community will have its own clinic, “a medical facility for physical and mental health screenings and support services including hospice and respite care.” Since this will be a final home for many, a memorial garden and columbarium are also among the amenities. Also, McCoy’s Building Supply is putting up a 5500-square-foot structure:

The building will house a 700 sq. ft. art studio and a workshop where residents can be creative. Part of the operations building will also house offices and a community maintenance shop. 

The Alamo Drafthouse is contributing an outdoor theater. Much healthy food will come from “Genesis Gardens,” where 500 fruit trees and a vegetable plot will be cared for by the residents, who will also tend bees and take care of chickens, rabbits, and aquaponically-raised fish that are destined for the dinner table. 

The people

There will be an application process, and prospective residents must pass a background check and have provable income. The rent will be on a sliding scale, with amounts cited by various sources as “between $120 and $250,” “$120-450/month,” and “as little as $90.” The facility’s operating budget is estimated at $1 million per year.

The rules will be similar to those that apply in homeowners’ associations, with expulsion as the penalty for messing up. On-site staff members will help out and keep things running smoothly. Guests will be required to register, and can be kept out. There are even plans for a new city bus stop.

For more about the innovative Community First Village project and the people making it possible, please visit again next week.

 


Source: “Local Austin Homebuilder MileStone Community Builders Part of Community
First!,” BusinessWire,com, 08/26/14
Source: “27 Acre Community First Village Ends Austin Homelessness,” Austinot,com, 09/26/14
Image by Mobile Loaves and Fishes

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How to Become Homeless: Work for the Wrong Company

Starbucks -- better than some

Starbucks — better than some

Jodi Kantor wrote a story for The New York Times that is epic, empathetic, and closely related to homelessness.

One of her sources and subjects was a 22-year-old barista, Jannette Navarro, who supports herself and her 4-year-old son. Kantor describes the situation:

Newly off public assistance, she was just a few credits shy of an associate degree in business and talked of getting a master’s degree…. Her take-home pay rarely topped $400 to $500 every two weeks; since starting in November, she had set aside $900 toward a car….

Along with virtually every major retail and restaurant chain, Starbucks relies on software that choreographs workers in precise, intricate ballets, using sales patterns and other data to determine which of its 130,000 baristas are needed in its thousands of locations and exactly when…. Scheduling is now a powerful tool to bolster profits, allowing businesses to cut labor costs with a few keystrokes.

This Kronos program does not have a humane bone in its body, and Navarro was unable to make any plans more than three days ahead — a dire situation when child care is a constant preoccupation. A worker could speak up, of course, and ask for special treatment, and be a pain in the manager’s posterior. This happens not just at Starbucks but everywhere: a low-level employee who makes waves by asking for a schedule change might reap unexpected consequences, like having her overall hours cut. Whether intentionally punitive or not, stuff happens.

The poor are always being admonished to better themselves via education, but even one night of school per week is impossible if you never know when you will have to work. Uncertain, unpredictable hours can play hell with a family’s budget. It can affect access to preschool and day care opportunities. It gets worse, as Kantor points out:

Child care and policy experts worry that the entire apparatus for helping poor families is being strained by unpredictable work schedules, preventing parents from committing to regular drop-off times or answering standard questions on subsidy forms and applications for aid: ‘How many hours do you work?’ and ‘What do you earn?’

To give credit where it’s due, Starbucks provides health care and other benefits that count for a lot, setting an example that more companies should imitate. In response to the publicity, Starbucks says it will try to do better in the area of erratic and capricious scheduling. Other media noticed this story. On Slate’s DoubleX Gabfest podcast, Jessica Winter said:

These businesses … have offloaded a lot of the natural risk of doing business onto families. So instead of Starbucks, this enormous and rich and incredibly successful enterprise, absorbing the risk of occasionally having an extra barista or two on duty, you have Jannette Navarro risking her child care arrangements, and her relationships, and her home, and her sanity, in order to keep a $9-an-hour job.

Here is Winter’s message for companies that strive to do better:

You create happy, healthy consumers who have more time to go to the mall and have more time to use their disposable income…. I have never understood that divide of how you’re almost destroying part of your consumer base in order to chase maximum profits.

Most single mothers are in such unstable circumstances, one wrong move can bring the whole house of cards tumbling down. When life is so precarious, a seemingly little thing like a schedule change can be the pebble in the pond, with effects that radiate outward in every direction. A lucky family will wind up camping in a relative’s basement, a friend’s dining room, a camper parked in somebody’s driveway, or a garage with no water or electricity. An unlucky family will find itself in a shelter or on the street.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Working Anything but 9 to 5,” NYTimes.com, 08/13/14
Source: “DoubleX Gabfest: The Daddy’s Little Princess Edition,” Slate.com, 08/21/14
Image by Nick Richards

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Show Biz Helps the Homeless

L.A. Mission Thanksgiving

L.A. Mission Thanksgiving

Last week, House the Homeless remembered the good work Robin Williams did on behalf of people experiencing homelessness, but forgot to mention the outstanding gesture he made some years ago, described here by journalist Dustin Volz:

In a stunning moment of candor, Williams testified before the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee in 1990 in support of the Homelessness Prevention and Community Revitalization Act, which sought to direct funding to housing-based support centers for the chronically homeless and to boost mental-health services. (A related bill became law later that year.)

Williams is of course not the first celebrity to leverage fame and name recognition into promotion of societal change for the better. This summer, film star Susan Sarandon told lawmakers at a congressional briefing that people experiencing homelessness need to be included as a protected class, as defined by the Hate Crimes Statistics Act.

But often the venue for publicizing a good cause is less formal than the legislative halls of Washington, D.C. Every Christmas, celebrities come out to serve dinner to thousands at the Los Angeles Mission. Last Christmas, hip-hop stars YG and Snoop Dogg financed a $10,000 shopping spree for 60 L.A. shelter kids, and actor Charlie Sheen donated $50,000 to My Friend’s Place, a center in Hollywood that serves homeless youth. Vocalist Cyndi Lauper holds an annual holiday benefit concert to raise money for her True Colors foundation, which helps homeless LGBT youth.

The extremely popular TV series Breaking Bad, which was made in Albuquerque, N.M., gave many of the show’s wardrobe items to be sold at local thrift stores that support the homeless shelter. Because they are not just used clothes but entertainment-industry memorabilia, the donated items fetched good prices. Back in May, wildman comedian Russell Brand shocked some Beverly Hills neighbors by letting homeless friends stay in his multimillion-dollar house while he was out of the country.

But consciousness of social inequity is not recent. In this video clip from San Antonio 20 years ago, country music legend Townes Van Zandt performs “Marie,” his song about a homeless couple.

In A Deeper Blue, biographer Robert Earl Hardy said of the singer:

Townes had exhibited concern for the poor and homeless since his childhood, and he still made it a habit to give money — often his entire earnings from gigs — to street people.

The Los Angeles Times published a fascinating story by Rene Lynch, who interviewed the winner of the popular televised culinary competition Chopped. The subject, D. Brandon Walker, administers and teaches in a culinary training program for the St. Joseph Center, the venerable helping institution in Venice, Calif. He also fills the post of executive chef, cooking for the Bread and Roses Cafe, which serves meals to people experiencing homelessness. The students get a chance to practice there too. And Walker likes the idea that even people who are broke can have a luxurious dining experience.

Here is the really interesting part. Since the supplies at the Bread and Roses Cafe are donated by food banks and restaurants, the staff never knows what will show up on any given day. They are constantly forced to improvise, creating meals on the fly from whatever is available. It was perfect training for Walker, because the whole format of the TV show Chopped is based on presenting the contestants with a random assortment of ingredients.

So Walker won the competition, and he gives credit to the experience gained from many years of cooking for the indigent people of Venice. The guests and trainees at the St. Joseph Center were very proud of having their very own chef go to New York and win a competition. And Walker says he has the best job in the world. Lynch quotes his inspiring words:

My job is unique in that I am cooking everyday and I’m teaching. We train people who are coming out of all different types of difficulties in their lives…. People who are unemployed or underemployed. Coming out of rehab, or transitional housing, coming out of penal system, or being laid off. We give them the opportunity to learn.

Now, all they need is a Living Wage job!

Reactions?

Source: “What Robin Williams Told the Senate About Homelessness,” NationalJournal.com, 08/12/14
Source: “YG & Snoop Dogg Donate $10,000 To Los Angeles Children,” hiphopdx.com, 12/27/13
Source: “’Breaking Bad’ gives clothes to homeless,” ABQJournal, 02/26/13
Source: “LA chef says serving the homeless helped him win ‘Chopped’,” LATimes.com, 10/27/13
Image by Neon Tommy

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Robin Williams, Paul Walker, and Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin

Let’s talk about something nice for a change — like how a beloved show business figure quietly carried out his own plan for making the world a better place. When comedian and actor Robin Williams died last month, some of the media coverage concerned his activism on behalf of people experiencing homelessness.

Many still remember Comic Relief, a 12-year series of concerts that raised $50 million for programs benefitting people in dire need. In 1986, Whoopi Goldberg, Billy Crystal, and Robin Williams were the original hosts. Brian Lord wrote about Williams:

He actually had a requirement that for every single event or film he did, the company hiring him also had to hire a certain number of homeless people and put them to work…. I’m sure that on his own time and with his own money, he was working with these people in need, but he’d also decided to use his clout as an entertainer to make sure that production companies and event planners also learned the value of giving people a chance to work their way back.

The journalist also expressed the hope that the companies concerned had continued to hire people experiencing homelessness to work on other projects after their connection with Williams ended.

Documentary

Actor Paul Walker, who died last winter, is said to have received hate mail because of a 2009 film project called Shelter. The documentary was a collaboration between Walker, his old friend Brandon Birtell, and social worker Ken Williams. During their college years in California, Walker and Birtell both were homeless for periods of time, actually sleeping in cars and living on the streets. Regarding Shelter, Nick Manai explains:

They centered their efforts on detailing the daily lives of four homeless people they befriended…. three women and one old blind man. All four were being helped by Ken Williams’ social service team, but were still sleeping in tough places that were tortuously rugged.

The very wealthy coastal town of Santa Barbara was ideal for an exploration of homelessness, not only because Walker and Birtell had been homeless students there, but because of the extreme income gap between the richest residents and the poorest. While making Shelter, Walker was also shooting a major motion picture called Fast & Furious, on location in Brazil. His dedication to the indie project was such that he commuted back and forth by plane. Reporter Ivy Jacobson says of Shelter, “The film wasn’t large enough to make it to big screen, but it’s still being shown in classrooms all over the country and making an impact.”

Happy Birthday, Little Tramp

A hundred years ago, in 1914, Charlie Chaplin created the Little Tramp, the cinema’s quintessential homeless character, not from artistic fantasy but from his own life experience. When this amazing actor and director was only 2 years old, he and his mother and brother were abandoned by the elder Chaplin. As a young lad, Charlie spent time in the workhouse. After their overstressed mother was committed to an insane asylum, the boys became street performers. Paul Whitington writes:

Until Chaplin came along, homeless people were almost invariably portrayed in film as vagabonds, drunks and villains…. [The Tramp was] the most beloved cultural icon on the planet for more than a decade: the plucky loser who refuses to believe that the world is as cruel a place as it seems.

Reactions?

Source: “Robin Williams Required Everyone Who Hired Him to Put Homeless People to Work,” aattp.org, 08/23/14
Source: “A Little Known Robin Williams Story,” BrianLord.org, 08/12/14
Source: “Paul Walker Was Homeless in College: Sent Hate Mail for ‘Shelter’ Movie,” guardianlv.com,12/09/13
Source: “Paul Walker Was Once Homeless: How He Learned Compassion,” HollywoodLife.com, 12/09/13
Source: “Charlie Chaplin stumbled on his most famous creation, the Tramp, a week after making his Hollywood debut,” independent.ie, 08/31/14
Image by Insomnia Cured Here

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Overpaid Execs and Destitute Moms

executive overcompensationLast time, House the Homeless considered the inability of small shareholders to influence corporate policy, including executive pay packages. In related news, the Economic Policy Institute gave some statistics about American companies during a chosen time period, 1978 to 2011. During those 33 years, the report says, the compensation received by CEOs “increased more than 725 percent.”

In other words, some of those top executives were making 6 or 7 or 8 times as much as they would have 33 years earlier. The typical worker’s pay increased 5.7 percent over the same time period. The difference between 725% and 5.7% is so ludicrous, you have to wonder if the EPI did the math right.

In 1965, the report says, a CEO was paid about 20 times as much as a worker. In 2011, a CEO was walking away with 231 times as much as a typical employee. Corporate America is permitted to decree that one hour of one Person A’s life is worth hundreds of times as much as one hour of Person B’s life.

In a recent Fortune article, Eleanor Bloxham discussed the ideal CEO-to-average worker pay ratio, which in a sane world would be more like 20-to-1 than 231-to-1. Richard R. Troxell is also quoted in this article, and it was not the first time Bloxham had turned to the president of House the Homeless for authoritative information about homeless issues.

She is deeply concerned with how inequality affects the soundness of the whole social fabric, saying,

Inequality invites us to examine long-held beliefs and the real poverty of greed. It asks us to not only put our brains to work but also to raise our emotional IQs, to challenge ourselves to feel what it is like to walk in other people’s shoes.

Footnote on Foster Care

As a family defense lawyer, Gaylynn Burroughs has known many parents accused of child neglect. One case concerned a young mother named Lisa who called social services because the building’s landlord ignored the raw sewage leaking into her apartment. When a caseworker visited, she asked for a place in a family shelter. Instead, the caseworker took her children away. Adding insult to injury, the system treated Lisa like a criminal, making her take parenting classes, have a mental health evaluation, sign up for therapy, and show up for random urine testing. As for requiring the landlord to make repairs, or finding her and her kids a better place to live, the bureaucracy did nothing.

Mary Ratcliff, an online commenter, wrote that in San Francisco children were routinely taken from parents who lived in dilapidated housing, even when the landlords responsible for the unlivable conditions were the local, state, or federal governments. Burroughs quoted Dorothy Roberts, Stanford University law professor and author of Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare, who states that poor families are 20 times more likely than wealthier families to have dealings with the child welfare system, and that poverty is the main reason why children are sent to foster homes.

Race is a big part of the picture, since black families are four times as likely to be poor. Fifteen percent of American children are black, but 34 percent of the children in foster care are black. But, says Roberts,  caseworker reports make it personal, accusing parents of neglect because their children don’t have adequate food, clothes, education, medical care, or even decent shelter, when the root problem is simple destitution. Going back to the question we asked in a previous post — “Are homeless parents paranoid?” — the answer is “No.” Roberts said:

One thing most women in the United States do not worry about is the possibility of the state removing children from their care. For a sizable subset of women, though — especially poor black mothers [...] — that possibility is very real.

Reactions?

Source: “CEO Pay and the Top 1%,” epi.org, 05/02/12.
Source: “Inequality in the U.S.: Are We Making Any Progress?Fortune.com, 08/04/14.
Source: “Too Poor to Parent?MsMagazine.com, Spring 2008.
Image by Tax Credits.

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