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Homeless Tropes and Archetypes

graffiti-and-pile-of-stuffThere are reasons why a reporter chooses a certain individual for the “Face of Homelessness” type of article, just as there are reasons for picking the ideal subject for a “Face of Single Motherhood” story or a “Face of Traumatic Brain Injury” story. Last week, House the Homeless looked at a long profile written by John Flynn and Matt Kramer of Sacramento.

Their subject was Russell Bartholow, a Native American man who had been homeless for 15 years after a series of familial, medical and legal misfortunes. Russell had collected, at that time, 190 citations related to his lack of a permanent abode.

The things that happened to him as a person experiencing homelessness are typical of the experiences of many other homeless people. He had lost all his teeth. On the streets, he had been severely beaten several times, and once was set on fire, which resulted in a long, painful, and expensive (to the taxpayers) hospital stay.

A basic absence of justice

Homeless people are told to get jobs if they expect to eat, and told to stop begging and to quit trying to live off the fat of the land, and to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and so on and so forth. Not only are they blamed for their condition, but when they attempt to better themselves they are punished for it.

For instance, Russell Bartholow decided to feed himself by planting a garden. At a 2015 press conference publicizing the (unsuccessful) Right to Rest Act, he told a crowd at the State Capitol building about this foray into self-reliance. The writers quote him:

I had a beautiful garden, spent two-and-a-half years growing it. They came in and poisoned it with herbicide. Destroyed it.

How have we managed to create a world where growing food is illegal? Aside from all the other obvious and blatant absurdities of this stance, there is the hypocrisy issue. How can society yell about jobs — as if getting one were so easy — and berate people experiencing homelessness, and then prosecute those same people for growing food to feed themselves?

It was not his best-ever decision, but, Bartholow decided to eat the remaining vegetables, and fell sick. He believes the chemicals gave him cancer, though he might have already had it. While hospitalized, he saw his niece’s name in the local newspaper and reached out to her. In February of 2015, they met, and Jessica Bartholow became an advocate.

Flynn and Kramer describe how she turned things around:

Jessica had to overturn official government records declaring Russell deceased. She then got to work securing Russell a birth certificate, an identification card, a cellphone, Supplemental Security Income, health insurance and a spot at a methadone clinic.

There, he met an old friend who needed a roommate, giving Russell a place to live after shelters and hotels had turned him down due to lack of space and/or Russell’s lack of paperwork. He made friends on Facebook and reconnected with his son, Kieran.

“It was a couple months of advocacy, just a couple of hours at a time,” Jessica said of that period. “It didn’t take that much to find somebody a home and dignity and safety.”

She did not stop with helping her uncle, but became an activist for the Right to Rest legislation. Russell Bartholow also became a signature gatherer, but lived his remaining months in fear and uncertainty. There were still dozens of active warrants out on him, mostly for failure to appear in court to face various accusations, such as sleeping in the wrong place.

In this way, he was like many other people experiencing homelessness, who avoid contact with authorities because once they are “in the system,” who knows what negative details might turn up?

Before Bartholow had spent even two years indoors, cancer claimed him. His son came to say goodbye. While the Right to Rest law failed, California had just passed its Right to Die law, and in October of 2016 he took enough pain medication to avoid waking up again.

Reactions?

Source: “Sacramento’s $100,000 homeless man,” NewsReview.com, 02/16/17
Photo credit: Bill Benzon (STC4blues) via Visualhunt/CC BY-SA

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“Face of Homelessness” Journalism

leopard-blanket-homeless-person-sleepingHere is an electrifying sentence from a long-form piece by John Flynn and Matt Kramer:

During overnight storms last month, two homeless people died on City Hall property, elevating Sacramento’s humanitarian debate to a national level.

Later, Courtney Collins, daughter of one of the deceased men, testified before the city council:

I was terrified to find out about the very legal confiscation of blankets, sleeping bags and other sources of warmth and shelter for those living on the streets by the police… I have been unraveling truths so ugly, it feels impossible to go up against such a monstrous system.

This current and ongoing crisis in the state capitol of California was seen by Flynn and Kramer as a fitting occasion to tell the story of another homeless man, an activist who once spoke to a crowd from the steps of the Capitol building. This genre of news story is known as “putting a human face on” a tragedy — in this case, homelessness. The face they chose was that of Russell Bartholow, who is also deceased, although not one of those who died during the storm.

His history, like many others, should be a wake-up call for people who don’t believe that homelessness could ever be their fate. It is no exaggeration to say that millions of Americans are one paycheck away from living on the streets.

Russell Bartholow’s biography

The writers go back to their subject’s childhood, when he was the last of 60 foster children sheltered by Gertrude Bartholow, who legally adopted him. His niece Jessica remembers him as “beyond normally brilliant” in math and science.

In high school, the Native American youth was kicked in the head in a racially motivated incident. As House the Homeless readers well know, an astonishingly high proportion of people experiencing homelessness suffer from traumatic brain injury.

Bartholow spent some years as a single man, then married and had a son, then returned to his childhood home to care for his adopted mother and her husband. “But in 2000,” the writers say, “he was arrested for a drug-related offense.” The particular crime is not specified, but in general, this fact is another proof of the counterproductive nature of the War on Some Drugs and All Adults.

It was only serious enough to put him in jail for a month — during which his parents died and relatives sold the home. Once released, living with his wife and son was apparently no longer an option, and Bartholow began his 15-year residence beneath a bridge.

Flynn and Kramer wrote:

Like thousands of others in Sacramento County, once he found himself on the streets, he entered an alternate reality where the government couldn’t hear him; where those supposed to help instead focused on erasing his existence; and where the only permanent home the county offered him was in jail. It’s a system that feeds on absurdity, in which homelessness can cost more than a Midtown loft and survival is a crime.

Soliciting, panhandling and sleeping are some of the activities forbidden to unhoused citizens of Sacramento. Bartholow was cited 190 times, sometimes twice in one day, for these offenses, with the police often acting like inundating him with legal problems was all a big game. Technically, he owed more than $100,000 in fines.

The taxpayers paid to host him for more than 100 days in jail. His biography continues:

Though a full 132 of Russell’s cases were either dismissed or had their fines waived, there were other costs. Being in jail caused Russell to miss appointments to obtain government assistance, as part of eight attempts over 13 years to get money for which he qualified due to the lingering effects of the brain injury, which he believed contributed to paranoia and drug addiction. To pay for living expenses and fines, Russell turned to panhandling or selling flowers — which only led to more arrests.

The speech Bartholow gave in February of 2015 promoted the adoption of a Right to Rest Act, The No Sit/No Lie Ordinance and the Americans with Disabilities Act. But the effort failed, and many activities associated with homelessness remained criminalized, partly because politicians have a habit of ignoring the most basic truths about what is going on out there.

Reactions?

Source: “Sacramento’s $100,000 homeless man,” NewsReview.com, 02/16/17
Photo credit: Mick Baker via Visualhunt/CC BY-ND

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The War Against Ourselves

austin-police-departmentNot long ago, Thomas Johnson of MimesisLaw.com published a piece called “How Does it Feel Winning the War Against the Homeless?” He sees an ongoing assault against the poor, waged by cops who increasingly act as private security forces for the wealthy elite class.

This is especially offensive because a myth, vigorously promoted in certain parts of the culture, portrays the police as victims. To them Johnson says:

When you spend your time kicking the homeless around and arresting people for trying to serve them some food, you’ve gone far off your mission of fighting crime. You’re no hero.

As House the Homeless has also done, Johnson mentions cities where folks have been arrested and/or fined for feeding people experiencing homelessness. He admits that members of the police force don’t make the laws — although evidence shows that, in a sense, they do.

Word on the street has it that police unions and prison guard unions wield far more lobbying power than they ought to, in areas that directly affect the creation and enforcement of laws (like mandatory minimum sentencing). In particular, they work hard to escalate the War on Some Drugs and Most Adults.

The thought experiment

The writer takes his readers on an imaginary journey reminiscent of two different Michael Douglas movies. In Falling Down, a tie-wearing professional abandons his car on the freeway and walks through Los Angeles, quickly devolving into a one-man death squad. In The Game, a man is drawn into a mysterious live-action role-playing game in which he believes he has lost everything, with equally homicidal results.

Those are fictitious characters, but Johnson asserts that any mayor, city councilperson, banker, real estate developer, or law enforcement officer (stripped of uniform and equipment) would be similarly unhinged. The writer posits:

You are on the street, with only the possessions on your back. You have nothing, you are nobody. Maybe it’s your own fault. Maybe you’re innocent. Either way, you are sleeping outdoors tonight.

It is all too easy to imagine. A newly homeless person soon learns that sleeping is easier said than done. At the same time, there is little else to do. Few commercial establishments are open at night, and those that are do not want scruffy penniless bums hanging around.

After four or five days, your odor is decidedly pungent. Nobody cares about your sad story, especially not the police, of whom who you quickly learn to steer clear.

Taking the final step into degradation, you stake out a panhandling spot. The ruffian who claims that patch of sidewalk pushes you into an alley and hurts you badly. Soon, you’re digging through dumpsters for food that may or may not give you a case of salmonella poisoning, and you still haven’t hit bottom yet.

It is easy to agree with Johnson that an upper-class American, if dropped into the bad part of town with empty pockets and no resources, would soon go feral. He gives a description and a warning:

Welcome to your new mental state: A hazy mix of terror, stress and sleeplessness that will guide you to desperate acts and many poor decisions.

Smugly thinking it could never happen to you is wrong. Fortunes change.

Realize that it could be you out there and declaring war on those less fortunate will not make them go away…

Inspired by such thought experiments, many complacent Americans are able to experience a shift in consciousness. Attitudes adjust and activism amplifies. They come to believe that “Conditions need to change, because if not, the bad thing could happen to me some day.”

It is a start. But we should demand from ourselves something better than that — something a bit more akin to, “Conditions need to change because, in millions of lives, the bad thing has already happened.”

Reactions?

Source: “How Does it Feel Winning the War Against the Homeless?,” MimesisLaw.com, 01/11/17
Image by Richard R. Troxell

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Mental Illness and Homelessness

homeless-person-sleepingRemember State Representative Tom Brower of Hawaii, who got headlines by destroying a bunch of shopping carts? In a followup story, Brower expressed only one regret: that some people had interpreted his berserker sledge-hammer rampage as an “attack on the homeless.” 

Apparently still puzzled about why anyone would think that, a couple of years later he was filming residents of a homeless camp without their permission, and some teenage boys asked him to delete the pictures he had taken, and he refused, and they roughed him up.

A short time later Brower told the press he was not angry, and would continue to stay “in touch with the community” in the same way. Two weeks after that, he decided to press charges against at least one of the youths. Apparently, voters are content with all this, as Brower was reelected again just three months ago.

Speaking of mental instability…

In a Nation of Change opinion piece, Prof. Carol Caton, whose expertise is in the sociomedical sciences, addressed the issue of Americans with severe mental illness. She proposed that the government would be foolish to defund what has proven to be “a cost-effective intervention that provides a solution to homelessness.”

What is this intervention? According to Caton:

Supportive housing, funded and coordinated by several different federal agencies and nonprofits, provides homeless people who have severe mental illness with housing coupled with treatment and support services.

Unlike the temporary respite provided by crisis shelters, it provides access to permanent housing, mental health treatment and support from mental health professionals to guide the adjustment from homelessness to stable residence in the community.

There is no increase in net public cost compared to street and shelter living… Cutting funds to house the homeless would cost us more money than it would save.

Those last two sentences are important. When something needs to be done about a harmful situation, humane reasons are very often insufficient. Several federal agencies provide funding to aid those who are both mentally ill and experiencing homelessness, and the taxpaying public needs to be reassured that the bottom line will not suffer. Fortunately, dedicated people and organizations keep close track of the numbers, and can verify the savings to the public wallet.

Supportive housing means less use of homeless shelters, psychiatric hospitals, or community hospital emergency rooms; less expenditure for legal aid and other costly public services; and certainly less criminal incarceration. The movement took hold in the early 1980s, and the journey has never been easy. Over a nine-year period ending in 2016, it helped reduce the particular category of homelessness known as “chronic” by 35%.

Still, there is a great shortage of supportive housing units, not nearly enough to fill the need, and the threat of losing the existing facilities is appalling. Significant funding comes from the departments of Housing and Urban Development, and Health and Human Services — or did, anyway, up until the next round of budget cuts. Four states pitch in some dollars, and so does the occasional county or city government. There are even charitable donations and a modicum of support from private foundations. Still, the prognosis is not good.

What next?

An estimated one-third of homeless people suffer from mental illness, “often compounded by multiple health problems and substance abuse.” At the mention of substance abuse, a segment of the public has the knee-jerk reaction of “Let them go, it’s no loss.” But moral judgments are not productive. The only difference between a rich alcoholic and a poor alcoholic is that one of them can afford rehab in Malibu.

Leaving aside the question of bad lifestyle choices, there actually are people who are too disabled to work for reasons they had nothing to do with causing. A person with shaken baby syndrome never had a chance. A veteran is very likely to suffer from traumatic brain injury. Do we want soldiers thinking they made a bad lifestyle choice?

Reactions?

Source: “Hawaii politician opens up about assault near homeless encampment: ‘I have no ill will to anyone’,” NYDailyNews.com, 07/03/15
Source: “How funding to house mentally ill, homeless is a financial gain, not drain,” NationOfChange.org, 05/10/17
Photo credit: J.RISTANIEMI via Visualhunt/CC BY-ND

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Possessions Inspire Strong Emotions

carts-stacked-in-supermarketIn May of 2015, there were two remarkably similar incidents, one in Fort Collins, Colorado, at the nonprofit Sister Mary Alice Murphy Center for Hope. On the premises was a storage pod filled with the belongings of 58 people experiencing homelessness. Also operating from the Center was an organization called Serve 6.8, whose director one day gave the staff the afternoon off, and had the contents of the storage pod taken to the landfill.

As it turned out, some of the belongings had apparently been permanently abandoned by their owners. But 22 people had signed storage agreements that should have still been in force, and their losses included medical documents, family photos, and other irreplaceable items. The local newspaper was unable to shed much light on what happened and why. “Internal miscommunication” was the cited cause.

Journalist Sarah Jane Kyle reported that “Serve 6.8 and Murphy Center staff are drafting a written procedure for handling homeless persons’ property.” It was a classic case of closing the barn door after the horse had already bolted. Apparently, no one said why such a procedure did not already exist or why, if it did, it was not followed.

Meanwhile, in another state

A week later in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, four men who had been staying at the Water Street Mission were very upset because their belongings, along with the property of “dozens of other people,” were allegedly thrown into a dumpster. They announced their intention of going through the dumpster to get their stuff back, but were threatened with arrest. Among the items were a winter coat given to one of the men by his mother, boots needed for a construction job, prescription antibiotics, and a winter jacket.

But the story has another side. Colleen Elmer, the Mission’s vice president of programs, told a reporter that the four men had been asked to leave the Mission because of (unspecified) misbehavior, and furthermore their bags had not been placed in a dumpster but were still on the premises. The men were given the opportunity to return the following day to recover their belongings, which two of the four actually did.

The actual events may never have been truly sorted out, but the news story stimulated a batch of lively online comments. A particularly interesting one, signed Dan Pate, said:

I lived and worked there for almost a year and they do (or did in the past) just toss belongings of residence of the shelter with or with out warning not caring who it belong to or what is in the bags. I’ve been ordered to throw away peoples belonging into the dumpster and many of those times i wasnt allowed to mention it to any 1 and to call for a intern if people went into the dumpsters and the police have come to deal with them diving into them its messed up…

… And another state

Hawaii’s media once carried a photograph of a man attacking, with a sledgehammer, the possessions of people experiencing homelessness. Journalist Scott Keyes identified this rash individual as five-term State Representative Tom Brower and added:

Noting that he’s “disgusted” with homeless people, Brower told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser about his own personal brand of “justice”: “If I see shopping carts that I can’t identify, I will destroy them so they can’t be pushed on the streets.”

The paragraph contains a red flag or two. Those shopping carts are not actually the property of homeless people, but of the grocery stores from which they were borrowed. Such carts generally are clearly branded, and the claim that none could be identified is ludicrous.

To recap: An elected official did not arrange for the return of these items to their rightful owners, the supermarket chains. Instead, he destroyed (by his own count) approximately 30 carts. Whether or not the wreckage was left lying around on the streets was not reported.

Reactions?

Source: “Fort Collins nonprofit dumps homeless people’s property,” Coloradoan.com, 05/06/15
Source: “Homeless men said Water Street tossed their belongings; Mission denies claim,” LancasterOnline.com, 05/15/15
Source: “State Rep. Uses Sledgehammer To Destroy Homeless People’s Possessions,” ThinkProgress.org, 11/19/13
Photo credit: Polycart via Visualhunt/CC BY

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Fourth Amendment Still in Effect

homeless-camp-near-highwayDifficult as it often is to believe, the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has not yet been annulled and is still in effect. It goes like this:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated…

Some professionals make entires careers out of debating such questions as whether this only applies to people who have houses. In the street (or as we now say, on the ground, as if America were a vast battlefield), people experiencing homelessness may technically be protected by the law, but have few de facto rights. The term “property” itself is more often used with reference to real estate, and who does or does not have a right to be present within borders of that territory.

Much less often does anyone contemplate the meaning of “property” when it applies to the personal belongings of people who only have what they can carry. Yet authorities relish the chance to confiscate and destroy these possessions. 

Some cities have a policy that seized possessions must be stored for a certain amount of time, but it rarely happens. Often, the stolen items are very difficult or impossible to replace.

Enterprising reporters find the individual tales of victimization, and each one describes things that just shouldn’t be happening in America. For Mother Jones, Laura Smith collected such stories from around the country.

Regrettable examples

A Los Angeles woman whose tent and blanket were seized contracted pneumonia, was hospitalized, and sued the city. In Denver, police were told not to take bedding and camping gear during the cold months, but when April 1 rolled around, it was open season again. Seattle has been the scene of much contention because when “sweeps” are planned people are not given proper notice and their personal property is not respected.

In San Francisco, the storage rules are ignored and the California Department of Transportation has been sued for stealing tents, bedding, stoves, and other items. It is even tough to survive in Honolulu. Smith writes:

In a survey of homeless residents by the Department of Urban Planning at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, nearly 60 percent reported losing personal identification, 40 percent lost tents, and 21 percent lost medicine in sweeps.

Any housed citizen who has ever lost a wallet or purse, or experienced a burglary or fire, knows what a hassle it is to replace documents. For a person experiencing homelessness, without a phone, address, or checking account, the loss of ID is catastrophic.

Smith spoke with Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, and learned that seizure and destruction of personal property happens all over the country. Smith writes:

Belongings are often seized under anti-camping laws or laws that prohibit sleeping in public — part of a larger trend of what Foscarinis calls “the criminalization of homelessness.” Earlier this year, her organization released a study tracking the phenomenon in 187 cities.

In Reno, Nevada, the local shelters were full, and Robert Wynters lived under a bridge. He carefully stashed his few extra clothes, hygiene supplies, personal papers, and bicycle to go out and look for work, and returned to find everything gone. This happened not once, but three times in a six-month period.

In each case, inquiries at the sheriff’s office the very next day were futile, because each time he was told that his property had been destroyed. In April of 2015, he filed a civil rights lawsuit against the sheriff’s department.

In July, the Washoe County Board of Commissioners approved a $14,000 settlement for Wynters and his attorney, and resolved to adopt some better procedures for the removal and storage of personal property from campsites. Every now and then, somebody wins.

With the help of organizations or lawyers willing to do pro bono work, once in a while a plaintiff is heard and compensated. Of course in these cases, society loses, because the monetary awards are paid for by the taxpayers, who would probably much prefer that good practices had been in effect sooner.

Reactions?

Source: “Denver Isn’t the Only City Seizing Homeless People’s Gear,” MotherJones.com, 12/16/16
Source: “Reno accused of illegally seizing property of homeless,” NevadaAppeal.com, 04/17/15
Source: “Board of County Commissioners Washoe County, Nevada,” WashoeCounty.us, 07/28/15
Photo credit: Joe Green (Divine in the Daily) via Visualhunt/CC BY-ND

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A Sad Loss — Michael Stoops

Michael-Stoops-headshotThis month of May 2017 began with a much-grieved death on its very first day. Michael Stoops was a legendary figure in the world of anti-homelessness activism and a person of extraordinary commitment.

Megan Hustings, Director of the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH), wrote:

There will never be anyone like Michael, with his dedication to others, his tenacity, his quiet leadership and quirky humor. We all loved Michael as a mentor, a colleague, a brother and a friend.

A Quaker and a product of the fabled 1960s era, Stoops went to Portland, Oregon, to begin using his B.A. in social work to serve others. In the course of working with Vietnam veterans, he became known as a compelling speaker and an inspiring fundraiser. In 1986-87, he participated in a five-month winter campout protest with Mitch Snyder in Washington, D.C., credited with swaying sentiment toward the passing of the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act.

When the National Coalition for the Homeless began, Stoops was one of the board of directors’ founding members. In 1988 he joined the NCH staff, and in 2004 became Acting Director.

He also sat on the board of Street Sense, a street newspaper in Washington, D.C., and was a founding member of the North American Street Newspaper Association. He was called upon to give expert testimony to state and local legislatures trying to alleviate homelessness.

Hustings describes his special talent for seeing the potential in others, and calls him “the rock of NCH,” and even a super hero. She goes on to say:

He made time for each and every student doing research, for every mother crying because she couldn’t find shelter for her family, for every filmmaker wanting to make a difference, for each traveler who happened upon our office looking for help, and for every advocate looking for a way to fight for change.

Stoops recognized the vital importance of inclusiveness and of grassroots recruitment, and his skills as an organizer had the spark of genius. He taught thousands of people how to be troublemakers in the best possible sense of the word.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) states:

Michael developed the “You Don’t Need a Home to Vote Campaign” that won state legislative changes nationwide to ensure that people without a residence could legally vote in elections. And he established NCH’s Speakers Bureau, which provides people experiencing homelessness a platform to share their stories and receive speaking fees while raising public awareness about homelessness.

In 1997, NCH recognized House the Homeless President Richard R. Troxell with an award. He joined the Board of Directors and has worked with Michael Stoops on the Civil Rights Committee since then.

We have mentioned Richard’s book, Looking Up at the Bottom Line, which includes (on page 85) the narrative of how Stoops took on the producers and peddlers of the disgustingly exploitative “Bum Fights” videos. When putting together the first Bridge Action in 2005, Richard looked to his friend for ideas, also described in the book. The NLIHC calls him a giant.

His final days, spent at Washington Adventist Hospital, were full of visits from friends who read to him and played music. In an email to concerned friends everywhere, Julieanne Turner wrote:

Michael’s entire life is about standing in solidarity with people who are poor, their voice, based on their needs. There is something so holy about this. Although, Michael conducted himself with humility, never took up too much personal space on this earth, his foot print is huge.

The Memorial for Michael Stoops will be held in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, May 25, at the Church of the Pilgrims, at noon. Anyone who wants to acknowledge the good done by this exceptional person is asked to donate to the National Coalition for the Homeless.

Reactions?

Source: “Michael Stoops,” NationalHomeless.org, 05/01/17
Source: “In Memoriam: Michael Stoops,” NLIHC.org, 05/08/17
Image by National Coalition for the Homeless

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When Homelessness Is Criminalized

homeless-man-on-a-benchFor Alternet.org, Ebony Slaughter-Johnson wrote:

In communities all over the country, police are strongly incentivized — by federal grant conditions and local budgetary constraints alike — to make arrests and issue fines as frequently as possible.

After such a truth-bomb of a first sentence, all the rest is just details — the kinds of details that pile up relentlessly, day after day, in some parts of the country, until an outlaw life looks better than nothing. But, too often, young people are implicated in crimes they never put an ounce of intention or awareness into. A person can wind up in prison for loaning their car to a friend.

The poor are systematically hit with fines and penalties that make their survival even more precarious. In 2013, in Ferguson, Missouri, the courts “released more arrest warrants than there were people.”

The notorious, enormously protested 2015 death of Sandra Bland in Prairie View, Texas, was found to be part of a similar scheme. States with no personal income tax, of which Texas is one, are particularly vulnerable to piracy in uniform.

It is all part of a system that, as Slaughter-Johnson says, “creates poverty with one hand while violently punishing it with the other.” She relates the appalling story of Alton Sterling, a homeless man killed by police in Baton Rouge, LA. People experiencing homelessness are hit hardest of all, especially in neighborhoods that are mostly African-American. The much-touted solution of mass incarceration has solved nothing.

Communities in crisis

Remember when Sarasota, Florida, arrested Darren Kersey for charging his cell phone in a public picnic shelter in a city park? This led to a night in jail, a charge of Utilities Theft, and a $500 bail bond. It costs about 25¢ per year to charge a cell phone, so that seems a bit extreme. The likelihood that a person experiencing homelessness could post bail, or pay any fine, was vanishingly small.

In 2015, there was a similar cell-phone case in Portland, Oregon, generally perceived as a liberal and left-leaning town. A man and a woman (who identified herself as “Jackie”), both experiencing homelessness, were accused of third-degree theft for charging their phones from “an outlet on a sidewalk planter box in Old Town.”

This is the type of outlet that powers the extravagant holiday light displays in cities across America, spending a chunk of taxpayers’ money for decorations for people to enjoy. Why a city would begrudge homeless people the fraction of a cent’s worth of electricity needed to charge a phone is a mystery indeed.

Reporter Emily Green mentioned the foolishness of wasting public resources on such a trifling “offense” especially when, as in this case, the time and energy of four uniformed officers are utilized. She also pointed out the serious consequences that could accrue:

Jackie has never been convicted of a crime. If this charge led to a conviction, it would mean the difference between checking “no” or “yes” to questions about criminal history on a job or housing application.

Jackie’s case was destined for Community Court, but when TechDirt.com followed up the story, reporting that the accused had lost the citation and consequently missed her court date. She turned herself in and was jailed.

The following month, Alternet.org reported that Jackie had refused a plea bargain because of the damage it could do to her future chances of housing and employment, and said that “eventually, the theft charge was dropped.”

Back in Florida

Let’s get back to the fate of Florida’s accused electricity thief, Darren Kersey. A sane judge threw the case out. The ACLU’s Michael Barfield told the press:

We have been monitoring the efforts to root the homeless out of the parks, and have several actions planned against the city. So much happens on a daily basis, it’s hard to keep up with it. Every day there’s something new.

Barfield is a former jailhouse lawyer who, because of his criminal record, is not permitted to become an attorney. The law allows him to practice as a paralegal, which he does enthusiastically, defending so many unpopular causes that surely a movie will be made about his life some day. In the whole country, he is one of the more flamboyant public figures involved with homeless issues. As a not-quite lawyer, he is in a position similar to that of many not-quite-reporters.

The great news-gatherers and news-dispensers of the past and present deserve infinite respect. Still, there has probably never been a time when citizen journalism flourished more ornately or more effectively. The general public may never hear of the contributions made to justice by their fellow Americans whose energy is directed according to Motivation 3.0, the formulation articulated by Daniel Pink as a combination of autonomy, purpose, and mastery.

Few people will ever know how much any story was enriched by amateur sleuthing and bureaucrat-bothering, contributed by ordinary folks who aspire to be the difference they want to see in the world.

Reactions?

Source: “The Criminalization of Black Homelessness,” AlterNet.org, 12/06/16
Source: “Homeless man jailed after charging cell phone,” OrlandoSentinal.com, 11/13/12
Source: “Homeless phone-charging “thief” wanted security,” StreetRoots.org, 03/06/15
Source: “Portland Police Bravely Defend Public From Homeless Woman Looking To Charge Her Cell Phone,” TechDirt.com, 03/19/15
Source: “Jailed for Charging a Cell Phone? 7 Cruelest Instances of Class Warfare in America,”
AlterNet.org, 04/08/15
Photo credit: Pedro Ribeiro Simoes (pedrosimoes7) via Visualhunt/ CC BY

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Interesting Housing Ideas

penn-ave-washington-dcThis week we turn from regretting the current housing situation to exploring a couple of intriguing ideas. For CityLab.com, Kriston Capps articulated one of America’s frequently-asked questions:

There’s vacant property everywhere, and there are homeless people everywhere. So why the hell don’t we use that property to house the homeless?

The answer may lie in the somewhat obscure Title V, part of 1987’s McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, the same legislation that demanded education for children experiencing homelessness. Title V says that property no longer wanted by the federal government can and should be given to states, cities and nonprofits, for housing and relevant needed services.

The long and winding road that must be traveled to do this is described by Capps in exquisite detail which is briefly encapsulated here. Although Title V is “a shockingly sensible way to tap into a vast amount of property sitting unused in American cities,” the process sounds excruciating, so challenging, in fact, that in 2003, almost 1,000 orphan federal properties deemed as homeless shelter-suitable were on the roster — yet only 17 applications were made.

How it starts

The Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) gathers information on properties that Uncle Sam is done with. Their availability is made known to interested parties, and homeless-related causes are at an advantage. Before the government can sell or otherwise convey a property, it has to be offered first to an organization dedicated to alleviating homelessness.

Although HUD does the publicity, application must be made via the Dept. of Health and Human Services. Capps wrote:

To receive final approval from HHS, an applicant would need to demonstrate not just expertise but also a financing plan to convert the building or property. (Title V commits no funds to homeless services.) That could be difficult for an applicant to demonstrate on a tight turn-around of just 90 days… Agencies frequently fail to comply with Title V, and there have been consistent congressional efforts to bypass it.

Still, despite difficulties, it is being done. In Los Angeles, the Salvation Army used Title V to create the Bell Shelter. San Francisco is working on a similar plan to build two structures with an overall 250 housing units. In Washington, D.C., the process is underway to turn a former federal warehouse into a combination of permanent supportive housing for seniors and transitional services facility.

Capps wrote:

Title V has created some 500 emergency shelters, transitional housing facilities, nonprofit offices, and other spaces using about 900 acres of federal land across 30 states and D.C.

Last December, recognizing the shortcomings of the original legislation, Congress passed some more laws to fix it. Available properties are now listed online, and the application process is easier. Permanent supportive housing is now allowed. If a local government, faith-based organization or housing nonprofit wants to turn an old federal building into a shelter, apparently zoning laws and the objections of neighborhood associations can be ignored.

Can they work together?

Truth-Out.org recently published a piece by Christa Hillstrom that focuses on how locally owned businesses thrive when organized as co-operatives. Could these two concepts meld together? Could a housing co-op meet the requirements to get a big, formerly federal building? Word on the street is that the headquarters of the FBI (pictured) might soon be available. As Capps reminds us, any organization that can turn it into a homeless shelter gets first dibs.

Reactions?

Source: “The Unsung Government Program That Gives Federal Property to the Homeless,” CityLab.com, April 2017
Photo credit: kmf164 via Visualhunt/CC BY-SA

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A Few Things About Rent

min-wage-state-mapGeorge Orwell, author of 1984 and Animal Farm, published another book 80 years ago called The Road to Wigan Pier, about the terrible conditions in England just after the Great Depression. What does it remind you of?

In the industrial areas the mere difficulty of getting hold of a house is one of the worst aggravations of poverty. It means that people will put up with anything — any hole and corner slum, any misery of bugs and rotting floors and cracking walls, any extortion of skinflint landlords and blackmailing agents — simply to get a roof over their heads.

Most of the people I talked to had given up the idea of ever getting a decent habitation again. They were all out of work, and a job and a house seemed to them about equally remote and impossible. Some hardly seemed to care; others realized quite clearly in what misery they were living.

It reminds us of the situation in parts of America today, where more and more economically stressed people are competing for fewer and fewer affordable rentals. Remember our posts about Airbnb as it manifests in Los Angeles and San Francisco?

More happened. The short-term rental broker sued the city of San Francisco and here’s the crazy part: Airbnb had participated in writing the law it sued about, one that “capped short-term rentals at 90 days in addition to requiring renters to register.” Doesn’t sound so unreasonable, does it?

Airbnb soon reversed its stance, and claimed that the law violates not only the First Amendment free speech right, it also violates the federal Communications Decency Act. Gizmodo’s Angela Chen explains exactly how, along with other complicated circumstances, and also why the mayors of 10 big cities met to figure out what to do about Airbnb.

Airbnb is also accused in other contexts as being exclusively white-privileged. Proponents call it homesharing, to make it sound all warm and fuzzy, because who would want to come out against homesharing?

But these domiciles are not being freely shared with newly-evicted families, no, they are being rented at unbelievably elevated prices to people who already have at least one home. Property owners can make so much more money renting to a never-ending series of vacationers than to, for instance, a nice family looking for stable situation to raise a couple of kids in.

Not inspiring of optimism

Meanwhile, who wouldn’t want to know about a rental ripoff even more disgusting than Airbnb? Rentberry, described as “a cross between Craigslist and eBay, wants to expand from 10 to 1,000 U.S. cities. Basically, from the highest bidders’ pool, landlords can choose the prospective tenant who makes the best impression.

Supposedly, it will even lower rents in some parts of the country. This prediction is partly based on an outlandish-sounding claim that there is an oversupply of apartments in America:

[…] if it takes off and becomes the new standard for renting apartments… landlords will have the control.

[…] the ease of having background checks already complete and the possibility of higher rents than expected could prove enticing.

And Rentberry isn’t the only one to see the potential in this business model. Competitors like Biddwell are also coming up, ensuring that this idea won’t live or die with just one startup.

The following notes were taken by your correspondent who went undercover to a seminar for Colorado landlords, presented by a nationally acclaimed consultant. This was around 20 years ago — in the good old days:

He gave them advice on what he called a powerful control tool. “Do not give yearly leases. By keeping the tenants on a month-to month lease, you can get rid of them in ten days instead of thirty.”

Discussing three-day eviction, he exclaimed, “This is fabulous stuff, fabulous. For crying out loud, use it!”

renters-income-chart

Simple Charts Are the Best Charts

… Such as this one from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Much of their raw data, incidentally, comes from the decennial census, and here are some facts about that:

The census is one of the most impressive attempts any country makes to count its own people, a crucial building block for the world’s largest economy…

The census affects every corner of America, determining where hundreds of billions of federal dollars flow annually, where businesses open new stores and which states gain — or lose — seats in the House of Representatives in 2020 reapportionment.

The bad news, as delivered by Danny Vinik, is that the nation’s ability to carry out its next national census appears to be threatened. How this can particularly affect the expenditure of $500 billion dollars in such areas as housing, based on the American Community Survey, is explained in chilling detail by ScienceMag.org.

More posts concerning rent and other closely related topics:

  1. Living on the Shifting Sands of Affordability
  2. Minimum Wage and the Rental Market
  3. Economic Homelessness, Rent, and Deadened Memories
  4. The Fight for $15!
  5. Does Tyrone Poole Have the Rental Housing Answer?
  6. Ending and Preventing Economic Homelessness
  7. The Universal Living Wage
  8. Economic Homelessness in New York: One Man’s Story

Reactions?

Source: “The Road to Wigan Pier,” George Orwell
Source: “Airbnb Sues San Francisco Over Law It Helped Draft,” Gizmodo.com, 06/28/16
Source: “Bidding Website Rentberry May Be the Startup of Your Nightmares,” Gizmodo.com, 04/02/17
Source: “Trump’s Threat to the 2020 Census,” Politico.com, 04/09/17
Source: “Scientists fear pending attack on federal statistics collection,” ScienceMag.org, 01/03/17
Image sources: Fair use (top), CBPP

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