Alert readers of House the Homeless blog have noticed that toilets have been a theme. We haven’t even gotten into showers or laundry, because there is so much to say about the most basic of sanitary facilities.
Latrines, and the means to wash hands after using them, are the building blocks of civilization. Toilets are a basic necessity and people experiencing homelessness need them.
Aside from the human suffering and indignity, and the menace to public health posed by a lack of toilets, there is another serious issue. In a societal/cultural/political absurdity that is indistinguishable from actual insanity, people are acquiring criminal records for public elimination when there is literally no other choice. Let’s take a close look at how one American city is working on the problem.
Last year, Miami, Florida, experienced a long period of civic unrest over toilets. Attempting to shame the Dade Homeless Trust into using some of its $55 million of public money for a public restroom project, Downtown Development Authority board member Jose Goyanes made a video titled “Homeless Urine & Feces in Miami May 2015.” The DDA also prepared an infographic — a map of the downtown area with little feces icons in appropriate places.
The unimpressed administrator wouldn’t even look at the presentation, and scolded Mr. Goyanes for assuming “that the Homeless Trust is responsible for anything and everything involving homeless individuals.” Ron Book, who has run the Trust since Hector was a pup, told reporters:
We are not going to be putting toilets or showers in downtown Miami… We’ve looked at this several times over the last 10 to 12 years and we are just not doing it.
These folks think I’m supposed to divert scarce resources and be on poop patrol and clean up after homeless folks. My priority is homes and getting people off the streets, not providing poop stations.
In Book’s world, a $55 million budget is “scarce resources.” Also amazing is that such a high-ranking official believes that people only do one thing in a restroom.
Book’s theory, which is no doubt eagerly adopted by officials in other cities, goes like this:
If I’m making it easier for them to be on the streets, then I’m making it more difficult for my outreach staff to coax chronic homeless people off of the streets.
Mainly, this view seems counterproductive. When the first thing a person has to do on arrival at a job interview is ask for directions to the restroom, what kind of a start is that? Maybe if people had some basic amenities to work with they wouldn’t need to depend on the Trust for additional help.
Meanwhile, because the lack of bathrooms might change some hardcore street people’s minds about turning themselves over for rehab or whatever, everybody else could just wear diapers. It came down to a big County Commission board meeting with merchants, local residents, representatives from the City, the Homeless Trust, and the DDA. Whether the meeting was attended by any people experiencing homelessness was not noted.
Mayor to the rescue
Apparently, the Commission could have compelled the Homeless Trust to pay, but that turned out not to be necessary, as Mayor Tomas Regalado dipped into a multi-million dollar discretionary fund and pulled out $500,000. The order was made for four portable toilets, described as “airplane bathrooms on wheels.” A truck brings them around to designated spots at 2 PM and takes them away at 9 PM. They are open for less than one-third of the day, which is better than nothing.
In mid-December, the mayor and the DDA were happy to report that after only two months, the pilot program had more than halved the number of human-feces complaints. By the six-month mark, the effort had reduced the piles of downtown feces by 57%. As a bonus, the program turns out to cost less than the budget anticipated, so funds will carry it through to October.
The success of the Pit Stops is attributed to having attendants on duty. Among other chores, the worker knocks on the door after five minutes of occupancy. One of these monitors told a reporter that the toilets are used not only by street people, but by police, bus drivers, and government workers.
A lot of elderly people live in Miami, and a lot of tourists visit the city. Surely they appreciate restrooms too. The DDA’s Ken Russell said:
What started off as an initiative for the homeless actually has sort of blossomed into a service for the full city, as well as a jobs program for the homeless.
So, a few jobs have been created, although the seven-hour daily shift inspires the question of whether anyone gets full-time benefits.
Last month, it was reported that Miami will invest in three permanent public toilets. Construction for the first one starts in October, with an opening date in December. The funding? The county, the city, and the DDA.
Source: “Video Of Feces Downtown Sparks New Fight Over Public Toilets For Homeless,” MiamiNewTimes, 05/13/15
Source: “Miami gets a taxpayer-funded homeless poop map,” WQAD.com, 05/16/15
Source: “Miami Installs Free Public Bathrooms For Homeless People,” HuffingtonPost.com, 12/29/15
Source: “Miami mayor offers to pay for roving downtown toilet program,” MiamiHerald.com, 06/18/15
Source: “Miami mayor: $500K porta potty program a success,” MiamiHerald.com, 12/11/15
Source: “Pilot Program Provides ‘Pit Stop’ For Miami’s Homeless,” CBSlocal.com, 07/18/16
Source: “Public Bathroom Project for the Homeless Will Become Permanent,” WLRN.org, 07/21/16
Photo credit: Phillip Pessar via Visualhunt/CC BY
A news article about events in Denver summarized the situation in many American cities:
Currently, urinating outside is an inevitability for people who are homeless, yet it exposes them to police citation and ticketing. What is more, when an individual fails to pay a citation, or appear in court for it, they become subject to arrest. Thus, simply fulfilling a basic human need ultimately results in arrest. This greatly stalls that individual’s ability to extricate her or himself from homelessness.
The title of a piece from TheDailyBeast.com stated the case even more succinctly: “Homeless People Have to Pee, Too. Find a Place for Them & Stop Complaining About It, You Monsters.”
It quotes Shawn Shafner of The Poop Project, who agrees that prosecuting people for public urination criminalizes homelessness.
People who get dogs and don’t take them out to pee — we call them abusers. Those dogs get taken away. But for people with Crohn’s (Disease) or colitis or IBS, or those who develop incontinence with old age, or even pregnant women who need that space— we don’t afford them those same privileges a lot of the time.
And then there’s food poisoning, always a risk among people who depend on discarded food. Research confirms that a large number of people experiencing homelessness also suffer from a multitude of medical problems including traumatic brain injury.
People are walking around out there who are not even sure what year it is or what planet they are on. It is unlikely that such deeply disconnected people will go far to line up at a single restroom that is only open during certain hours of the day.
Not using a toilet is wrong, but using one is, too. Last March, in Santa Monica, CA, a burglary was reported at an apartment building with an untenanted unit. Inside, police found a man who just wanted to use the bathroom of an empty apartment whose door, he said, he had found unlocked. He had even brought his own toilet paper roll. Arrested for trespassing, he was taken to jail and his bail amount was set at $5,500.
A little farther south, in Orange County, an elementary school located next to a park has apparently been troubled by years of intrusions by people who need the facilities. The reporters don’t mention anything about any proposals to set up a port-a-potty or washing facilities. However, the District Superintendent has promised that a fence will be built and police patrols will be increased. Farther north, in Berkeley, where public elimination is of course outlawed, activists discussed the idea of mass break-ins at municipal administration buildings — not to steal, vandalize, or take hostages, but simply to use the porcelain facilities.
In Tucson, where people could sleep on sidewalks but not on grass, fast food outlet manager Nathan Hauser characterized a downtown encampment as “counterproductive,” particularly because a nearby park, used as a restroom, was a blight and a burden on the taxpayers. He said:
We pay to maintain that grass. We pay to maintain that park so people can enjoy it and right now nobody can enjoy it.
He was talking about townspeople and visitors, of course, but chances are, the people who are forced into this kind of behavior don’t actually enjoy it either.
The perceived need for debate stalls a lot of projects, as local officials seem unable to get past the stage of mulling over the pros and cons of public conveniences. They say things like, “We don’t have a definitive yes or no response on this issue at this time. There are a lot of variables that need to be considered.” Bathrooms, they say, need to be maintained, monitored, and managed. (So do golf courses, but cities that have them don’t seem to suffer from paralysis of the will over that topic.)
Last year in Fort Wayne, Indiana, there was discussion over whether to keep a downtown park’s restroom open all the time, rather than just during civic events. The Parks Director reminded the public of the expense that would be incurred by cleaning and maintenance, and liability insurance, and constant police attention. Compassionate City Council candidate Rev. Terry Anderson called a press conference, and brilliantly chose for its location a railroad overpass that traditionally served as an open-air latrine.
Source: “Downtown Denver Public Toilet Inventory,” DHOL, 8/17/14
Source: “Homeless People Have to Pee, Too. Find a Place for Them & Stop Complaining About It, You Monsters,” TheDailyBeast.com, 07/19/15
Source: “Homeless man arrested for trespassing needed to use restroom (crime watch),” SMDP.com, 03/21/15
Source: “Parents Worried About Kids Safety as Homeless Use OC Elementary School Bathrooms,” NBCLosAngeles.com, 05/13/15
Source: “Berkeley City Council Approves Crackdown on Homeless, Prohibits Urination in Public,” NBCBayArea.com, 11/18/15
Source: “Downtown business says homeless camp brings problems despite city crackdown,” KVOA.com, 03/10/14
Source: “Lack of public toilets gives city’s homeless no place to ‘go’,” News-Sentinel.com, 10/17/15
Photo credit: Dave Conner via Visualhunt/CC BY
House the Homeless has been discussing the absurdity and the inhumanity of depriving people of toilets, and even worse, the insanity of criminalizing natural functions. The subject frequently comes up in the press. Earlier this week Daily Mail.com, always an enthusiastic purveyor of American showbiz news, published a whole series of photos from the making of an episode of the TV series “Girls.” Walking in the SoHo district of New York, star Lena Dunham reacts with consternation when she passes a squatting man.
In many American cities, this type of scene is all too frequently real. In San Francisco, web developer Jennifer Wong used a Department of Public Works database to create a map spotlighting all the locations from which six months worth of human waste complaints were reported by phone.
In places that have them, public restrooms are often locked at night. Bus terminals and train stations may be an option, but even if homeless people can slip in to use a toilet, such activities as sponge bathing, shaving, and sock washing are discouraged.
In Denver, Ray Lyall of Homeless Out Loud told a reporter:
There’s literally 10 restrooms that you can actually use without anybody saying anything to you… Most of those are only open during their hours of operation, so there are only two that are open 24/7.
In Austin, Texas, the subject has been a contentious one for years. Back in the autumn of 2009, journalist Marc Savlov explored some of the issues connected with the downtown presence of Caritas, the Salvation Army, and the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH) and found that…
Unfortunately, the location of all three major social services outreach groups — smack in the middle of the entertainment district and within a one-block radius of both a major liquor store and the long strip of rowdy, alcohol-fueled nightlife — has inevitably drawn fire from Sixth Street area merchants and stakeholders, pleading, “Not in our front yard.”
At the same time, plans were being made for an extensive downtown re-do centered around Waller Creek. Users of the Yelp website discussed it at length, and one person pointed out the irony of attempting to get rid of the homeless residents so the “post frat drunken tourist district” could flourish and, no doubt, create more homeless people, as both drinking and gambling have been known to have that exact result.
In 2011, the Waller Creek Conservancy announced an international competition for a master design plan. Members of the public commented that the area would still be a “giant alky toilet” and vowed that “the bums will have to be driven out.”
A local landowner named Carl Daywood told the press:
You can have all the dreams in the world of what Waller Creek is to be like, but it’s not going to happen if we don’t deal with the transient population. The City Council needs to step up to the plate and pass stronger laws and insist that the police enforce them and the judges back them up.
Two years later, nothing had been solved and the First United Methodist Church sent out a distress call. It was providing services for people experiencing homelessness, but because of the lack of public restrooms, the church property was acquiring an “overpowering” smell of urine. Because of the same lack, certain businesses take the brunt of the inconvenience, like chain coffee shops that are open when overnight shelters turn their patrons out into the streets.
One school of thought holds that all restrooms located in businesses should be available to anyone. This is unlikely to happen, because the NIMBY, or “Not In My Back Yard,” sentiment only becomes more intense with “Not In My Bathroom, Yo.”
A politician suggested that churches should take over bathroom duty. Imagine a future in which churches are both punished for feeding people, and at the same time pressured to provide access to their restrooms. The same guy recommended that people should pester whatever staff members are on duty at the shelter during its officially closed daytime hours.
House the Homeless President Richard R. Troxell works at ARCH, providing pro bono legal help for clients. If put in charge of the bodily functions problem, what would he do? He says:
First, as Toilet Czar I would encourage all the employers on famed 6th Street to act as Ambassadors, and to open up their facilities to all users regardless of gender, etc. And I would place portable toilets at park and trail heads and recreation areas.
Private citizens would have access through pay-as-you-use coin operation. Homeless individuals would acquire tokens from any of the shelters or service organizations upon request.
Then I would create automatic toilets that would have deep sink facilities and cell phone charging capabilities. These would be drawing cards to encourage people to leave the creek areas for washing and defecation purposes. There would be visibly open bottoms so users would be discouraged from inappropriate activity.
Periodically, the toilets would automatically lock to outside access at stated times. After 20 minutes, an internal flush system would hose down the facility three times a day.
We should seek funds from the Restaurant Association, the local Chamber of Commerce, Health and Human Services, the Municipality (the City of Austin), Parks and Recreation Department (and therefore the sporting goods industry), the federal government under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, and the Centers for Disease Control.
Source: “Human feces map finds San Francisco’s homeless,” NYPost.com, 01/02/15
Source: “Homeless America: ‘Everyone should be able to pee for free with dignity’,” AlJazeera.com, 08/29/14
Source: “Faces of Homelessness,” AustinChronicle.com, 10/09/09
Source: “Will the Waller Creek Development be the death of Red River music scene?,” Yelp.com, October 2009
Source: “Private conservancy outlines plan to rescue, revive Waller Creek,” Statesman, 04/27/11
Source: “Homeless need restrooms,” MyStatesman.com, 11/01/13
Photo credit: apple_lipsis via Visualhunt/CC BY
In 2014, a California town of Manteca announced its intention to outlaw virtually everything that a person experiencing homelessness could possibly need or do. An ordinance was put in place to forbid the removal of shopping carts from stores, and, granted, that is theft.
On the other hand, good, housed citizens don’t all have cars, and in some places it’s accepted for a regular customer to walk a cart home and bring it back next time. Quite possibly, elderly and low-income housed people in Manteca have suffered from the necessity for this rule.
But when ordinances are voted on, one of the selling points is that they are fair, and apply to everyone. For instance, it is just as illegal for a housed resident or a homeless person to lie down on a table in a park. They are equal under the law.
They are not equal in circumstance. A local resident who visits the downtown area and doesn’t feel well, or suddenly needs a nap, can probably duck into a business establishment or a friend’s house, or be taken home quickly. A homeless person who feels ill or suffers from sleep deprivation is out of luck.
The Manteca homeless are vigorously discouraged from hanging around the library, where they are said to intimidate the patrons. Police Chief Nick Obligacion gave quotes to the press:
My officers understand that this (the homeless in Library Park) is a big issue with me.
There are two types of homeless. There are the ones down on their luck and there are the ones that chose that lifestyle.
My goal is to make it as inconvenient for them as possible.
If we arrest them and drive them to French Camp (the county jail) enough, sooner or later they will get tired of walking all the way back to Manteca…
Of course this pavement-therapy tactic is not unique to the town, or even the state. It’s the sort of life-hack tip that law enforcement officers all over the country enjoy sharing via their professional websites. Police can do a lot of things to penalize homelessness.
In Manteca, sleeping outside or “camping” was made illegal on both public and private property, which leaves no slack. It seems strange that homeowners would acquiesce to such a rule, which would include kids in tents, in their own backyards.
Of course, an non-discriminatory ordinance that applies equally to peasant or king banned public urination and defecation. City workers started locking whatever public restrooms existed (which, again, is probably inconvenient for the housed locals, but higher principles are at stake here). On the plus side, Chief Obligacion assured journalist Dennis Wyatt that officers are careful not to violate the rights of the homeless, because…
We don’t want to create expensive litigation for the city.
That is, for the locals, perhaps enough of a benefit to compensate for the loss of courtesy grocery cart loans and even public restrooms. However, such reticence was too late to help a parole violator who was shot 13 times (fatally) by a Manteca officer back in 2011. In April of 2014 a settlement was arrived at, in which the city agreed to pay the deceased man’s family $2.2 million. The new, stricter anti-homeless ordinances were proposed the following month.
Also in May, a police officer rousted a sleeping homeless veteran named Robert Olvera, inflicting serious injuries, and the whole story sounds pretty sketchy. Olvera is also suing the city, with a trial set for next April. That’s right, this matter will not come to court until 2017, and a lot of things can happen to a homeless plaintiff between now and then.
In November of 2015, four homeless men sued the city for civil rights violations. All the plaintiffs have received citations for camping, and claim that the ordinances target homeless people. Robert Schuknecht says he has lived in Manteca for more than 30 years, including residence in an SUV which the police towed away in 1995 because he was trying to feed other homeless people.
The law firm of Morrison & Foerster, and California Rural Legal Assistance, say that the area offers few shelter options, and most applicants don’t meet the eligibility standards.
In May of this year, the local news published an uncredited article titled “Conceding Manteca to the homeless?” which characterizes the people experiencing homelessness as brazen and bold, with an “in-your-face-I-can-do-whatever-I-please” attitude. By expressing gratitude that pedophiles, gang members and drug dealers have not yet sued the city for civil rights violations, the writer indirectly yet unmistakably equates homeless people with those groups.
Source: “Strategy: Inconvenience homeless,” MantecaBulletin.com, 07/22/14
Source: “This City Criminalized Homelessness, So The Homeless Are Fighting Back,” ThinkProgress.org, 11/20/16
Source: “$2.2 million settlement ends lawsuit over Manteca police shooting,” SacBee.com, 04/07/14
Source: “Manteca police: Below the belt attack led to officer’s clash with transient,” Recordnet.com, 05/31/14
Source: “Homeless suing Manteca over civil rights,” Recordnet.com, 12/05/15
Source: “Conceding Manteca to the homeless?,” MantecaBulletin.com, 05/16/16
Image by PH
Incredibly, people don’t seem to understand the repercussions that a criminal conviction can have on a person’s life. Those who perceive “the homeless” as members of a different species don’t seem to stop and think at all. Their war cry is “Get a job!” — yet they appear to have no clue about the policies of potential employers regarding past offenses.
While demanding “Get a job!,” harsh critics find the time and energy to convince lawmakers to punish humans for the most life-essential activities. Many people experiencing homelessness are served with legal paperwork for performing necessary natural functions.
Sure, a small percentage are needlessly gross, and take perverse pleasure in sullying the environment. But then, so do some wealthy and privileged college students.
Speaking of which… Remember how, only a year ago, the New York Post stirred public outrage by assigning a squadron of reporters — allegedly, 16 of them — to follow around a schizophrenic man and take a picture of him urinating in the street? He was called a “peeing menace,” a “foul-smelling vagrant,” and a “disgusting derelict” by the seven journalists who collaborated to write up the vital news. Then, The New York Times appropriated the story, allotting it 1,500 words crafted by three reporters. Although the venerable paper of record had no suggestions toward solving the homeless restroom problem,
They did, however, offer a solution for wealthy people who had already been charged with public urination and wanted to spend about $1,000 to get their ticket changed to “littering.”
In cities, of course the lack of restrooms has societal effects. Business owners find human waste in bushes, on sidewalks, in alleys and parking lots and garages, and sometimes in front of their doors. Downtown residents and visitors aren’t happy either. Some urban areas are said to stink for blocks. In parks, dog owners are against human poop, because their dogs like to roll around in anything malodorous and wear it home on their fur.
California is a mess
In Santa Ana, displaced people camp next to the county Civic Center and Central Justice Center, causing great distress:
Staff members have witnessed the homeless emptying their “potty buckets” in the bushes near the back entrance of the courthouse, and observed feces in the bushes adjacent to the courthouse as well as in the stairwell in the library-parking garage. There is a constant puddle of urine by the east side of the building at the base of the emergency stairwell, and individuals often urinate very near the courthouse, occasionally in front of courthouse windows.
You’d think the officials would have gotten a clue, after the first few days, and made sanitation arrangements, but apparently this situation has been ongoing for some time.
In Salinas, people camped in the alley behind the local Buddhist Temple, and “about 30 bags of human waste” were reportedly flung into the backyard of a local minister. In San Francisco, where they paint walls with hydrophobic paint that guarantees urine splash-back, Debra J. Saunders reported:
Monday night, a light pole corroded by urine collapsed and crashed onto a car, narrowly missing the driver.
As of two months ago, according to an online report, this was the situation in a place that reportedly attracts 16 million tourists per year:
The restrooms in Venice Beach have been closed for a long time except during peak daytime hours…
Back in 2012, DearDirtyAmerica.com published a wickedly satirical “news” item which announced then-mayor Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s plan to build a giant sandbox where people experiencing homelessness could take care of their needs:
Instruction placards showing a homeless person how to properly relieve himself would hang around the tall chain-linked fence shielding the sandbox from the outside. “We could have a few city officials the first couple of weeks training people how to squat, or basically do their business with as little hassle or mess as possible,” Villaraigosa said.
Some officials are unintentionally self-satirical, as in this item from Oregon:
While volunteering at a warming shelter this winter, Salem Mayor Anna Peterson says she learned the number one request from the homeless is toilets. She says it’s a basic human need…
Well, duh! Isn’t it mind-boggling, how a grown adult, who runs a city, has just now learned that elimination is a basic human need?
NOTE: Next time, we will look at some “best practices” in this realm.
Source: “Homeless People Have to Pee, Too. Find a Place for Them & Stop Complaining About It, You Monsters,” TheDailyBeast.com, 07/19/15
Source: “Santana: Homeless Camp Now Keeping People From Jury Duty,” voiceofoc.org, 05/23/16
Source: “Ordinance passed to remove homeless property,” TheCalifornian.com, 10/14/15
Source: “San Francisco’s summer of urine and drug-addicted homeless,” 08/05/15
Source: “SoCal businesses debate closing bathrooms to homeless,” Scpr.org, 05/05/16
Source: “New Bathroom Facility for Los Angeles Homeless To Be Giant…,” deardirtyamerica.com, 06/12/12
Source: “Salem considers portable toilets for homeless,” opb.org, 03/10/14
Photo credit: archer10 (Dennis) 78M Views via Visualhunt.com/CC BY-SA
Many cities are on the “sweep” bandwagon, and newspapers across the country are full of “sweep” news. Somehow the idea has become popular that the best thing to do with people experiencing homelessness is keep moving them around.
Citing the frequency of fights, fires, and drug overdoses in a 31-acre encampment, Brockton, Massachusetts, swept the area last month. The former residents, who were given a week’s notice before the place was bulldozed, are now scattered throughout the city.
Reporter Benjamin Paulin talked with Leigh Fuller of Church in the Woods, which provides clothing and tents, and feeds about 50 people every Saturday. Fuller told the reporter that the Tent City settlers “brought it on themselves” with unacceptable behavior, and expressed his disappointment that so few of those who could use rehabilitation are willing to accept the available programs. Some people moved to available shelter, while others returned to a roaming existence, sleeping in alleys.
What happens when the city with the nation’s fourth highest homeless population gets ready for its biggest-ever month of tourism? Looking ahead to the Major League Baseball All-Star Game and the many events surrounding it, San Diego, California, started months ago to shuffle the homeless out of sight. Back in April, the city attracted unfavorable publicity by piling $57,000 worth of jagged rocks along the walkways of a pedestrian underpass, to prevent people from sleeping there.
In late June, hundreds of campers near Petco Park were given 72 hours notice before city crews cleared the area to wash sidewalks and throw out trash. A woman who was camping two blocks from the ballpark told a reporter that she and others had been threatened with arrest, while a city spokesperson said that most of the people who had been moved for the cleaning would end up back in the same place.
Early in July, a group of protesters made their displeasure known. A local pastor reported that he had been threatened by the police and a civic group, and told to stop serving weekly meals. Word on the street is that at least two other organizations were asked to stop feeding the homeless during July.
Reporter John Magdaleno says:
During a February 12 meeting with the San Diego Police Department and Clean & Safe, police officers allegedly threatened to “bring the hammer down” on [Pastor James] Merino if his non-profit hosted one of their meals during the week of the All-Star Game.
While the local police department declined to comment about procedures or the number of “encroachment” tickets it has distributed, homeless activist Michael McConnell gave the reporter his point of view:
“It’s a process of criminalizing homelessness,” says McConnell, speaking about the city’s protocol when it comes to its clean-up sweeps. If you have outstanding tickets, you’re liable for arrest, and one of the bargaining chips police might use in that case is a stay-away order for the area you were ticketed in, according to McConnell, who regularly interviews the homeless. “[It’s] the ultimate displacement because if you come back to that area, then you just continually get arrested,” he says.
Earlier this summer in Portland, Oregon, the city carried out a cleanup in an area where an estimated 300 people camped. Apparently the people just moved eastward a bit along the Springwater Corridor to join up with an existing camp in a wildlife refuge, making it one of the largest homeless settlements in the country. But no one is proud of the statistic, and now, that patch is scheduled to be depopulated of some 500 residents between now and August 1.
Like many other politicians, Portland’s mayor speaks of “public safety and environmental issues” as if the people experiencing homelessness are somehow not part of the public, and as if the environment is more crucial to housed residents than to the people who actually live out in it.
Meanwhile, in the city, a 200-bed shelter is expected to open next week — but a 267-bed shelter will close on the same day, making a net deficit of 67 beds. The really sad part is that Portland is an open-hearted and forward-thinking city that tries a lot harder than most. If it is capable of dislodging 500 people in a single action, imagine what goes on in worse places.
Recalling the old saying, “Everybody’s gotta be someplace,” reporter Rachel Monahan obtained from homeless advocate Israel Bayer a very eloquent quotation:
The situation on the Springwater is the direct result of not having any physical locations for people experiencing homelessness to be.
Source: “Brockton homeless advocate worried for those kicked out of ‘Tent City’,” EnterpriseNews.com, 06/27/16
Source: “No Action Taken Against Downtown Homeless Ahead of MLB All-Star Game: City,” NBCSanDiego.com, 06/27/16
Source: “San Diego’s Controversial Push to Hide Its Homeless Before the All-Star Game,” Citylab.com, 07/11/16
Source: “Mayor Charlie Hales is Evicting Hundreds of Homeless Campers from the Springwater Corridor,” Wweek.com, 07/15/16
Image by Michael McConnell
For a lot of Americans, their mental picture of a person experiencing homelessness is a scruffy man standing on a corner with a cardboard sign. Few stop to consider that close to half of the homeless population is made up of people who probably won’t be seen in such a public place. They are families with children, who now comprise 41%, or about two-fifths of the homeless total, and who are considered to be the fastest-growing homeless demographic.
Aside from visibility, there are other differences of course. Individuals, especially those termed chronically homeless, are more likely to suffer from mental illness or have substance abuse issues. But among displaced families, unemployment is the major cause, with low-paying jobs running a close second. Somewhere between one-third and one-half of homeless adults actually are employed.
To form a comprehensive picture of the situation, just go to the search box on this page and enter the term “living wage.” Plenty of people work, even full-time, and still can’t afford a place to live. When children are in the picture, things get complicated, because obviously someone needs to take care of them.
While it seems incredible that this should even need to be spelled out, Martha T.S. Laham notes:
People who are living in poverty are at greatest risk of becoming homeless. Demographic groups that are more apt to face poverty are also more vulnerable to homelessness.
Since 2010, Laham reports, family homelessness has been reduced by 15% thanks to “Opening Doors,” the Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness. (The chronic and veteran improvement rates are higher.) This is discouraging, because the program’s stated goal was to eradicate child and family homelessness within 10 years. Since it’s been 6 years already, a 15% reduction is not the number we might have expected, and certainly hoped, to see at this point in time. Why is child and family homelessness such a seemingly intractable problem?
It is easy to say, as decent people do, that safe, affordable housing is a basic human right. But we don’t seem to be making it happen. Homeless families face multiple barriers, one of which is transportation. We always seem to hear so much about the trend-setting places like California and New York, both of which have their own distinct cultures, but this illustration comes from a more modest place — Asheville, North Carolina.
When journalist Mark Barrett reported on local conditions, he talked with a mother who lived with her four children at the Western Carolina Rescue Ministries shelter. To coordinate with the city bus system, they all had to wake up at 4 AM on school days. Barrett also spoke with shelter’s executive director, Pastor Michael Woods, who confirmed that:
[…] a shortage of child care and the amount of time involved in using city buses to get to school or work make it much more difficult for homeless parents to find work… A mother “has to be there to put her daughter on the bus to go to school and she has to be there to pick her up, so she can’t get a job.”
Even when government money is available for rent vouchers, many landlords just don’t want formerly homeless families for tenants, and won’t rent to them. Another hitch is that landlords can be as picky as they please, refusing anyone who has ever paid a single utility bill late, or who has had a run-in with the law for even the most minor, victimless violations. Homeless families can rarely boast of spotless credit histories, especially if they took on debt in a desperate but failed attempt to stay housed.
Richard R. Troxell, co-founder of House the Homeless, reports that contrary to the mantra “Family First,” many shelters, starting with the Salvation Army in Austin, will demand that the homeless father and mother be separated in order to get services. “Mother remains with the children, Dad is sent to another facility clutching his wedding license and holding back tears,” says Troxell. “It is when they are down and out that the family truly needs the comfort and support of one another.”
Along with all the obvious practical aspects of living in a shelter, a single mother worries about less tangible issues. Because of the public nature of their lives in shared spaces, a mom can’t shield her kids from unwelcome influences. With no private space to retreat to, it’s hard to have intimate family moments, or sentence a child to a needed “timeout.”
Kids also can’t be protected from the foul language or wacky ideas of adults in the environment, or from the bullying of other children, or even their cold germs. If one kid gets sick, the whole shaky structure of coping mechanisms can fall apart.
What kind of a country are we building, when so many children grow up with instability, insecurity, and downright chaos? When they are grownups, 10 and 20 years from now, how will America look? As a nation, we really need to ask ourselves more often, “Are the kids all right?”
Source: “Fastest-Growing Segment Of The Homeless Population May Surprise You,” HuffingtonPost.com, 06/07/2016
Source: “Homeless families face multiple barriers, speakers say,” citizen-times.com, 06/30/14
Photo credit: Bryon Lippincott via Visual Hunt/CC BY-ND
The housed people of San Francisco, and the businesses they run and patronize, are upset. For one thing, they pay for the weekly removal of an estimated 12.5 tons of garbage from homeless encampments. That sounds like a lot, but it turns out to be not even a truckful, according to John a. Bates via Answers.com:
The truck I drive is a 2005 Mack LE600 with a McNeilus 32 cubic yard packing body and I average weights ranging from 14.5 tons (multiple bulky items) to 18 tons (little or no bulky items). The most weight I have put on this truck in one shot is 21.74 tons.
A skeptic could formulate questions. How much of every ton of “trash” actually consists of wanted and needed personal property like blankets, sleeping bags, and tents? Are the garbage numbers ever padded, like, for instance, the notoriously inflated drug raid totals that turn up every now and then, just to make a better story?
The crews remove a lot of human waste, too, and steam-clean the sidewalks for sanitary purposes. All this costs the taxpayers $4.7 million per year, and a reasonable person might ask why the beautiful and exquisitely civilized city by the bay doesn’t use some of that money for restrooms, or at least port-a-potties.
The SF Homeless Project is part media blitz, part conceptual “human catastrophe” prevention effort, around which many events were planned by numerous agencies and charities. Over 70 media organizations pitched in to raise awareness, starting last Wednesday, and Alissa Walker of Gizmodo has collected information on numerous aspects of the citywide campaign.
Remember our post about Airbnb? The company was founded in 2008, the same year that is generally acknowledged to have launched the recession that pushed homelessness to the top of the problem list. Only the most adamant conspiracy theorist would see a connection, but still…
The company ferociously resists any attempt to curb its voracious appetite. Proposed legislation known as Proposition F sought to impose a few restraints, and to require hosts to report their taxable income. But Airbnb reached into its $30 billion pocket and bought enough influence to defeat the attempt.
Maybe San Francisco’s current wretched housing situation stems partly from the fact that “the city is Airbnb’s most avid user.” Michael J. Coren writes:
A new Statista analysis found San Francisco has nearly double the listings per capita (9.8 per 1,000 inhabitants) versus any other city, based on InsideAirBnB data. (Airbnb cited its own similar statistics on San Francisco when we asked for confirmation.)
This fall, the city’s voters will have the opportunity to approve even more drastic anti-homeless measures. They will decide whether to pass a referendum designed to banish all homeless camps and tents from the streets. Kriston Capps cuts to the heart of the matter:
The ballot is a heinous way to decide the fate of San Francisco’s nearly 7,000 homeless residents. A referendum enables the city’s most callous voters to indulge in indifference, but that’s not even the worst of it. A referendum asks many more voters to accept a short-term solution to homelessness by pushing them out of sight and out of mind, which helps to foreclose on the possibility of a viable long-term structural solution.
And now the words from Richard R. Troxell, President of House the Homeless:
This week in LA a drunken woman drove onto a sidewalk and ran down a person experiencing homelessness.
After he crashed through her wind shield, she drove for a mile with the man collapsed in her passenger seat. Sound familiar? In 2002, Gregory Glen Biggs met a similar fate when a nurse’s aid, after a night of partying, did the same thing. However, she drove all the way home with the man still impaled in her windshield.
She parked in her garage and lowered the door. For three days she talked to him explaining her sorrow. Upside down and bleeding out for three days, he finally died. The nurse’s “aid” then got her cronies to dump his body in a park where homeless folks gather, knowing he would not be noticed too quickly.
Then while at another party, she retold the story in a cavalier fashion. Aghast and disbelieving the story, a listener contacted the police. The story was uncovered and the judge set her bond at $10,000. We were incensed and got the bond reset. Mr. Gregory Glen Biggs was an unemployed bricklayer in Fort Worth trying to turn things around at the time.
Post Script: The Coroner later said that the original injuries were not life-threatening and that had Mr. Biggs been brought to the hospital he would have, in all likelihood, survived.
I am saddened beyond explanation. So little has changed in so many years.
In longer form, this dark story also appears in Richard’s book, but to offset the grim realities, Looking Up at the Bottom Line is packed full of positive and uplifting accounts of many amazing accomplishments.
Source: “Tons of waste removed from San Francisco Homeless Camps Weekly,” ABC7news.com, 06/29/16
Source: “How much can the average American garbage truck hold?,” Answers.com, 2016
Source: “The Best and Worst Ideas from San Francisco’s Big Homelessness Project,” gizmodo.com, 06/29/16
Source: “San Francisco has a love-hate relationship with Airbnb,” qz.com, 06/30/16
Source: “One More Threat to San Francisco’s Homeless: San Francisco Voters,” CityLab.com, 06/29/16
Photo credit: Franco Folini via Visualhunt.com/CC BY-SA
The 2015 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress, available as an 80-page PDF file, is the most recent and comprehensive federal report on homelessness in America.
In any discussion of homeless statistics it is important to remember that information-gathering in this area is not an infallible science. House the Homeless has discussed the many difficulties before. All statistics come with caveats, or should, but for the purpose of this post, we take the AHAR numbers on faith.
Another problem connected with such endeavors is expressing the final numbers in meaningful ways. One person experiencing homelessness may belong to many subgroups: female, veteran, Hispanic, family member, disabled, and so on. It is beyond the scope of this post to thoroughly examine the numbers in all groups and all their implications.
Perhaps most worrisome is the subcategory known in the report as “Chronically Homeless Families with Children.” Almost two-thirds of people in this classification were staying in shelters (64%, or 8,412 people), and the rest lived in unsheltered conditions (36%, or 4,693 people).
Since 2007, the overall “families with children” number decreased in 32 states while it increased in 18 states and DC. More than half of all the homeless people in families with children are accounted for by five states: New York, California, Massachusetts, Florida, and Texas. It is said that between 2014 and 2015, the “chronically homeless families with children” number by 14%.
Of all homeless people in families, 48.7% — that’s almost half — are African American. Of that number, almost exactly half live in shelters. Different as they might seem, families have something in common with veterans. A total of 12.8% of the people in the U.S. identify as African-American and 15.45 as Hispanic, yet 56% (well over half) of homeless veterans belong to one of those two groups. The technical term for this is “over-represented.”
Children are relatively easy to keep track of because of mandatory education. But the census-availability spectrum has another end. Veterans who don’t want to be counted, or are so far out of touch that they don’t even think about it, are a slippery and elusive bunch. In some of America’s gnarliest backwaters small bands of dedicated vets search for their lost comrades in order to connect them with services.
Nationally, since 2009, the total number of homeless vets is said to have decreased from 73,367 to 47,725, which is encouraging. On the other hand, the percentage of homeless women vets has risen disproportionately to their number. Female vets are twice as likely, or even three times as likely, to be homeless as any other population group.
Particularly worrisome is the fact that “About one-half of all veterans experiencing homelessness who have participated in VA homeless assistance programs are involved in the justice system.” This overlap is the basis of the vicious cycle that many veterans are caught in. Their lives alternate between incarceration and the streets in classic “revolving door” fashion.
It’s hard to discover whether incarcerated vets and VA hospital inpatients count as homeless. On the darkest side of the equation, it has been pointed out that many vets have evaded showing up in the homeless statistics by committing suicide.
Older and Elder
Almost all housed Americans hold some kind of mental stereotype that probably doesn’t match up with who the people experiencing homelessness actually are. Many picture a brash young panhandler, or a teenage girl who meets men at truck stops. Shockingly, more than half of the homeless population is older than 50, but the distribution across decades is not smooth. “Older” persons between 50 and 64 constitute a big demographic bulge. The National Coalition for the Homeless says:
There is a relatively low percentage of ‘elder’ (aged 65 and over) homeless persons’ among the current homeless population. This smaller proportion may be due to the increased availability of successful safety net programs, which only kick-in at a certain age including:
- Subsidized housing — Available at age 62
- Medicare — Available at age 65
- Social Security benefits — Available at age 65
Still, the waiting lists for subsidized housing are long, and a basic problem faced by many people lack of documentation. A person can spend decades on the street with no paperwork, but for many, the attempt to hook up with services sets off a chain reaction of bureaucratic demands and Kafkaesque frustration.
Source: “The 2015 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress,” HUDexchange.info, November 2015
Source: “Veteran Homelessness Facts,” DVNF.org, undated
Source: “Breaking the Cycle of Veteran Incarceration and Homelessness: Emerging Community Practices,” USICH.gov, undated
Source: “Elder Homelessness,” NationalHomeless.org, undated
Photo credit: Ben Tavener via Visualhunt/CC BY
Granted, the situation described in Fort Worth, TX, in May was dire, with residents being attacked by “transients,” especially after a tent city in nearby Dallas was forcibly depopulated. But still, this headline is worded in a pretty offensive way: “Families, business owners ‘fed up’ with homeless in Fort Worth.” According to this insensitive phraseology, both business owners and families are totally separate and distinct populations, not overlapping with “homeless” at all.
True, there are not many homeless business owners. But there are plenty of homeless families, despite this headline pretending that “homeless” and “family” are radical opposites like “acid” and “alkaline.” This headline implies that they are mutually exclusive terms. It tries to give the impression that families are never homeless, and people experiencing homelessness are never families.
And another thing: If housed families are “fed up” with homelessness, imagine how homeless families feel about homelessness. Would “fed up” be an adequate term to describe how a parent feels about being unable to shelter and protect and nurture his or her own children? Would “fed up” be strong enough words to describe how it feels to see no future?
A matter of interpretation
Then, there is the type of headline that makes false promises. “Solve homelessness by addressing its root causes” gives the impression that some hard-hitting journalism will follow, pointing a finger perhaps at the cabal of bankers that caused a worldwide recession in 2008, or the cynical mortgage brokers who allowed the housing market to lose all semblance of sanity, or the businesses that refuse to pay their workers a living wage.
But at what is the finger pointed? What are the identified root causes of homelessness? Mental health issues and substance abuse, and people. Journalist Richard R. Bebout writes, “People with persistent mental illness and substance-use disorders make up a disproportionately high percentage of the District’s homeless population.”
Well yes, they do. But is it possible that isn’t where the real blame lies? Rather than people with mental health issues, maybe the problem is a system totally unequipped to handle mental health issues. Maybe the problem is a country that, unlike every other developed nation in the world, staunchly resists the idea of creating a universal healthcare system.
Maybe the problem is a government addicted to war. Maybe the problem is a society that alienates more and more of its members every year, to the point where they shun reality in favor of a drugged stupor.
There are a lot of candidates for the causes of homelessness, and somebody out there can make a pretty good case for any one of them. But mental illness and substance-use disorders are not simply causes of homelessness. Those two conditions are equally the result of homelessness. Substance abuse and mental illness are symptomatic of much larger problems that are the true causes of homelessness.
In the old days there were workhouses, insane asylums, orphanages, and prisons where society’s unwanted members could be warehoused, and mostly they were horrible places. At the same time, for many families, a lower cost of living and more spacious homes allowed for options. In the old days, more families could afford to donate a spare room to an ailing relative, and maybe even shelter another relative to help care for the first one.
Here is another eye-popping, jaw-dropping piece of news, this time from Great Britain. After one sentence of run-up, the important part is in bold print:
Section 21 eviction notices served on 3 February at the block, which also contains owner-occupied flats, state:
All tenants are being asked kindly to leave Carpenters Place and find alternative accommodation so that the company can continue with helping the ever growing need of homelessness.
At least here there is no doubt about what is happening, and no blame is directed at medical conditions. Alon Aviram writes:
Termination of private-sector tenancies was the leading cause of homelessness in Bristol last year according to government statistics…
Source: “Families, business owners ‘fed up’ with homeless in Fort Worth,” KHOU.com, 05/20/16
Source: “Solve homelessness by addressing its root causes,” WashingtonPost.com, 05/20/16
Source: “Bristol firm profiting from housing homeless — by kicking other tenants out,” TheBristolCable.org, 05/27/16
Photo credit: Ben Tavener via Visualhunt/CC BY