On March 3, 2013, the Austin American-Statesman banner masthead read, “’Living Wage’ Proviso Targeted.” (See the article, “Dallas legislator aims to stop wage requirements in incentive deals.”)
Apparently, the Dallas legislature does not want Texas municipalities, Austin-led, to require companies to pay “living wages.” The federal minimum wage is $7.25/hour, but Austin, like the federal government, has now plucked an imaginary number out of the air and dubbed it a “living wage” at only $11.00/hour. For the moment, let’s put aside the issue as to whether or not a municipality should be able to exercise its power position of employer to extract better wages for its employees.
To be clear, $11/hour is not a living wage.
A living wage is an amount that ensures that a person working 40 hours in a week will be able to afford basic: food, clothing, shelter (including utilities), and public transportation. In Austin, it is $13.10/hour. This is calculated by using a 40-hour-a-week job, spending no more than 30% of one’s income on housing ( a national banking standard), and HUD’s Section 8, Fair Market Rent Formula. It is also calculated based on the cost of an efficiency apartment in Austin, which is $681 on average.
To pay a lower wage can result in economic homelessness. At this pay scale, 3.5 million people will again face homelessness in our nation this year.
Image by Ari Moore.
Last time, House the Homeless looked at some of the erratic ways in which people experiencing homelessness are counted during the annual attempt to define the extent of this social disaster. A question that might come to mind is, “Who says erratic is bad?” On the contrary, it’s good that communities have latitude to conduct the homeless census in whatever way is compatible with the bioregion, etc.
Who knows? Some municipality might come up with a better idea, one that could be adapted by others to the benefit of all. But ever since the federally mandated program started in 2005, there has been dissent, directed at either the whole concept in general, or some aspect of it.
In 2011, word came from Fremont, Ohio, that:
Despite recent data released by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development showing homelessness is on the decline in the region, one local shelter director said the problem is just as prevalent as ever.
The story quoted the executive director of Fremont’s Liberty Center, Margaret Weisz, who may have spoken for many of her colleagues when she said:
Those numbers are misleading. In reality, homelessness is actually up. We have seen about a 30 percent increase over the last two years.
In Illinois, Susan Frick Carlman listed some of the things wrong with how the DuPage County census was made:
[…] driven in part by programming cuts at local domestic violence shelters, the county saw a 24 percent increase in families turning up at emergency and interim shelter sites during the latest fiscal year.
Also absent from the formal homeless equation are people who resort to friends and relatives when they lose their own homes — a practice advocates call ‘couch surfing.’
In the fiscal year that ended June 30, there were 1,486 people who used emergency shelters and other interim housing. Last year the number was 1,512.
That’s a difference of what, 26 individuals? In a year? The 1,486 remaining homeless people, divided by 26 per year… Extrapolate it out — that’s 57 years to get the rest of them under a roof. Some people have an unusual definition of progress, for sure.
The journalist also mentioned that:
Among other things, the yearly report found that workers must earn more than twice the minimum hourly wage of $8.25 to afford the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the county.
More than twice the minimum hourly wage, did you catch that? Meaning, even if Mama and Papa are both working full-time, it’s not enough.
Ken Korczak is a freelance journalist who covers environmental, energy, poverty, and political issues. Last year, he pointed out that North Dakota had the supposedly best economy in the entire United States, with a “stunningly low” unemployment rate of 3%. Then he asked, if the economy is so vibrant and the unemployment number so tiny, why are the homeless shelters in Grand Forks and Fargo turning away hundreds of applicants every night?
As a possible answer, Korczak recommends a program led by Dr. Jill Stein, the Green Party’s 2012 Presidential nominee, and Cheri Honkala, The Green New Deal, whose literature states its goals as ending unemployment and debt in America. Their point of view is based on a belief that the system is rigged by the two dominant political parties, which might as well be one party, since they are both totally controlled by corporations. They also believe that corporations will not voluntarily pay appropriate wages, and are all too eager to reduce employees and export jobs.
The program could be financed, Stein says, by:
[…] shifting from an economy in which the majority — the majority — of our discretionary budget is spent on war and the occupation of other countries, to an economy that provides the secure, just, peaceful future we all deserve.
They believe this could be done by returning military spending to the level of a decade ago, and by “getting rid of an array of other corporate welfare schemes — such as billions in subsidies to oil and coal companies, banks and others,” says Korczak.
There is more to say about the methods of counting people experiencing homelessness. The counting is useful and necessary, if there is to be a fair appropriation of funds. But aside from sheer numbers, there are other questions it is very useful to ask.
House the Homeless recently released the conclusions of its 2013 Civil Rights Survey. As co-founder Richard R. Troxell says:
We strive to hear what people have to say about their situation and involve them in creating and pursing viable options.
These paragraphs contain some amazing stuff. People are turned down for housing. Reason given: because they are homeless. Without the proper 30-minute warning, they get ticketed for sitting or lying down in public. When they show up for a court date, the journey is wasted because they are told to return another day. (This runaround had happened to about half of the survey’s respondents!)
More than a third of them had been wrongfully deprived of belongings, by the police, and an even one-third had had their identity papers confiscated. It is very difficult for someone experiencing homelessness to obtain a useful ID. To have their ID cards, birth certificates, discharge papers, or whatever, taken away, could be the equivalent of a death sentence.
Source: “Liberty Center director: Recent numbers of homeless are misleading,” TheNews -Messenger.com, 03/14/11
Source: “DuPage homeless numbers defy pigeonholing,” The Naperville Sun, 02/22/11
Source: “Homeless numbers grow rapidly,” Examiner.com, 09/18/12
Source: “2013 HtH Civil Rights Survey Summary,” HouseTheHomeless.org, 02/27/13
Image by mikecogh (Michael Coghlan).
On January 1, 2013, House the Homeless (HTH) held its 13th annual Thermal Underwear Giveaway Party. While there are between 4,000 and 6,000 people experiencing homelessness in the Austin Metropolitan area, there are only 607 emergency shelter beds for every man, woman, and child. This means that literally thousands of people will find themselves left out in the cold again this winter.
One of our goals is to reduce the number of names read in November at the House the Homeless Annual Memorial Service (146 names of people who died in poverty were read this year). To that end, HTH outfits all takers with hats, gloves, socks, rain ponchos, scarves, and life-saving thermal underwear. Each year at this event, we invite participants to complete a survey that reflects upon their condition of homelessness.
This year, our focus is on the civil rights of people experiencing homelessness. Volunteers of HTH provided a 17-question survey. The survey team was led by Robbin Polter who interacts on a daily basis with people experiencing homelessness.
House the Homeless is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization made up of homeless and formerly homeless persons and those wishing to end homelessness as it exists today. Established in 1989, we believe that the best way to respond to homelessness is by involving those immediately suffering its condition. Rather than make assumptions about that condition, we strive to hear what people have to say about their situation and involve them in creating and pursing viable options. Below is an excerpt.
Richard R. Troxell
A little over 630 people attended the event. Of those attendees, 208 completed the survey, or about one-third.
1. Completing the survey, 170 respondents were male and 47 were female. This would indicate that a greater percentage of women than men participated in completing the forms as past surveys place the female population at between 10-15% of the overall homeless population in Austin.
2. The average age of all respondents taking the survey is 45.
3. Responding were 33 veterans and 175 non-veterans (veterans comprised 18% of the total respondents.) A past HTH survey of 600+ people placed homeless veterans at 28% in Austin. Nationally, the percentage, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless, is 33% of the overall homeless population.
4. 74 people, or 36%, said that they had been hurt or abused for being homeless. The nature of what constitutes “abuse” was not specified.
5. Specifically, 28, or 13%, said that they had been sexually assaulted while experiencing homelessness.
6. Only 8%, or 16 people, reported the sexual assault to the authorities.
7. Only half of those reporting the assaults, or 8, said that the actions of the authorities satisfied them.
8. Without asking the respondents’ gender, we learned that 25 people, or an overall 12% of the respondents, took a partner in order to avoid sexual harassment.
9. Without stating the specific nature of denial, 56 people, or 27% of respondents, reported having been turned down for housing due to their condition of being homeless. Circumstances are unknown.
10. Of the 208 total respondents, 95 people, or 46%, said a police officer had given them a ticket for sitting or lying down even though the individual had told the police officer they were disabled or too sick to move.
A previous HTH survey indicated that 48% of the people surveyed then were so disabled that they could not work. This shows consistency across the samplings.
Sadly, this question was posed more than one year after HTH had successfully worked with Austin City Council Members to bring the No Sit/ No Lie Ordinance in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. This response suggests that enactment of the changes has yet to reach its fullest potential.
11. An overwhelming 64% of people reported having been told to “move on” by police without first having been given a reason or an opportunity to comment. This indicates that not all peace officers have fully embraced the tenets of the Americans with Disabilities Act and determined the underlying cause behind the individual sitting or lying down before responding to the situation.
12. Specifically, 18%, or 37 people, said that, as a disabled person, they were denied a 30-minute warning period before they were ticketed for sitting or lying down.
13. While solicited to come to the downtown area to apply for services, 51% (more than half ), reported that they had been turned away from either the ARCH or the downtown Salvation Army due to lack of room.
14. Having been turned away for shelter, and having explained this to the police, 66, or 32% of the survey respondents, still received a ticket for either sleeping or camping. This has been ruled unconstitutional in Miami, Florida, based on the “necessity” defense.
15. 68 people, or 33%, stated that they had their ID taken by a police officer and not returned. Loss of identification can be a costly and time-consuming replacement event. While this may or may not be an intentional act, the frequency of occurrence would seem to be cause for concern.
16. 77 people, or 37% of those surveyed, had their belongings taken or destroyed by police without being given a receipt or contact person to see about retrieving their belongs. Again, such action in the Miami-Dade, Florida, courts has resulted in settlements that favor the injured parties at considerable/needless cost to the municipality.
17. 98, or 47% of the survey respondents, have been given a ticket with a court date only to show up on that date and be told to return sometime in the future either because the accusing officer did not show up and/or because the ticket had not yet been processed in the system.
HTH has been told this is a regularly occurring event with multiple returns per ticket. Note that if at any time, the person experiencing homelessness fails to report on the assigned/reassigned date, the ticket “goes to warrant” and the individual becomes subject to arrest and jail time. A class “C” misdemeanor (e.g., no camping ticket) is a criminal offense and serves to be one a more barrier to housing, employment, and escaping homelessness.
Image by roboppy (Robyn Lee).
Back in 2005, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) activated a plan that would attempt to get a handle on the number of Americans experiencing homelessness. Each community would be responsible for counting and reporting their totals. These “point-in-time” surveys would ultimately determine how much federal money would flow to the community to address the problem. There seems to be a fair amount of latitude in how they go about it.
The enumerators might be volunteers or paid. In some places, they go around on foot, but a lot of the counting is done “drive-by” style. The count is supposed to include people who sleep outside; in substandard housing (no toilet, or washing, or cooking facilities); in HUD’s transitional housing programs; and one-night-at-a-time shelters.
Confusingly, on alternate years there is supposed to be a “full count” that includes couch-surfers squeezed in with family members or friends, people scheduled for release from corrective custody or hospitals, and those in permanent supportive housing, although HUD no longer considers them technically homeless.
The first time Los Angeles County did a homeless census, they scheduled it over three days, and used both temporary employees (at $10 per hour) and volunteers, some driving their own vehicles. The 1,200 personnel went out in pairs, into a territory divided into 500 pieces.
Carla Rivera reported in the LA Times that the overall project also included “an in-depth survey of 3,300 homeless people and a telephone survey of households.” It would be interesting to know more about that. Did they just call a random sample and ask, “Is a homeless person sleeping on your couch?”
Since the weather forecast threatened rain, the expenses included a sum for “hundreds of parkas to hand out” — to the enumerators. (Surely the reporter meant ponchos, not parkas.) The bureaucracy also had to rent a bunch of vans.
At any rate, the whole enterprise cost $350,000 out of the funds available to combat homelessness. Could the actual homeless people have used that money? Most certainly, but they must look on it as in investment in their future.
Another thing about the forecast rain, Rivera says:
… [T]he threat of wet weather probably drove some homeless people into hiding places.
There were further difficulties. A lot of homeless people who wanted to apply for the paying jobs were turned away. Enumerators were told by a police officer that Burbank had no homeless people, and to go away.
In Santa Monica, one team was twice challenged by the police, and anyway, they only found about a dozen people experiencing homelessness. To anyone who has ever visited the area where Santa Monica intersects with the ocean, this is an astonishing claim. Also, there were rumors that the local law enforcers had rousted the people experiencing homelessness just a few days before the “point-in-time” census.
In the Antelope Valley, where the government has been quite active in creating homelessness, a whole census tract:
[…] was scrapped after canvassers found the mountainous road washed out… Early morning was chosen because it is easier to locate homeless encampments in the daylight in the rugged rural terrain… [O]ne large census tract in Pacoima was abandoned because teams didn’t have transportation.
More recently, Mary Flynn shared tales how the 2013 count was conducted, in different parts of California:
In Contra Costa, volunteers counted those visible from their vehicles, while more direct interaction with the homeless population is left to the teams of qualified outreach workers who venture to the known encampments of homeless people.
The 120 volunteers went around during the day, though the director contrasted this with the technique used at a previous posting in San Francisco, where the census was done in the middle of the night. The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness is eager to have more accurate numbers on “transitioning youth” between the ages of 14 and 24, but how accurate can the enumerators be about ages, when their observations are based on drive-by sightings?
Santa Clara county took to heart this emphasis on the young, and rather than in the early morning, sent its teams out in the afternoon, when more kids would be readily apparent. This county used homeless youth as enumerators, on the grounds that they would more readily recognize their compatriots. Apparently, young homeless people are not as easy to identify by sight, because they try to avoid the homeless “look.”
According to HUD regulations, the count has to be made during the last 10 days of January. California is one thing, but in most parts of the country, this is not the time of year when you want to be out on the roads trying to catch sight of people who have burrowed as far as possible into the crannies and crevices of the landscape to escape the cold. In midsummer, the picture would be much different, so this the wintertime census is an excellent way to keep the total minimized, on paper anyway. And California is not alone in its erratic methods — there is much more to be said on this subject.
Source: “Homeless Count or Are Counted,” LA Times, 01/27/05
Source: “In annual homeless census, counting youth is a challenge,” HealthyCal.org, 02/21/13
Image by Wonderlane.
In the fall of 2011, New York City’s “Advantage” program was running out of money because the state quit paying, and the city didn’t want to pay, and a judge said okay, the city didn’t have to. It was predicted that the number of homeless families in New York would double, and that the building of at least 70 more shelters would be imperative. Jennifer Peltz wrote for The Huffington Post:
The four-year-old program was designed to move families out of shelters and into permanent housing. It provides rent subsidies for up to two years to homeless people who have secured jobs but can’t pay the rent from their earnings alone.
Let us repeat that, because it might be the most significant phrase on this page. “[…] homeless people who have secured jobs but can’t pay the rent from their earnings alone.”
It is a point that many of the program’s critics ignored, but a very important point nonetheless. That program came into being not for the benefit of the very troubled, messed up, most recalcitrant, and off-putting segment of the homeless population. No. The program was created for people with jobs. In other words, the working poor; fathers and mothers who were employed and doing their best to support their families, and still not making it.
… [T]he federal government sets a national federal minimum wage that affects tens of millions of our poorest citizens, both black and white. Remarkably, the last several U.S. Conference of Mayors Reports point out that this standard is so low that even while working 40 hours in a week, at this wage rate, no one can get into and keep basic rental housing anywhere in this country.
In other words, it is theoretically impossible for just about anyone to live inside of walls beneath a roof. How people manage to do it is a heartbreaking story in itself, of multiple jobs and overcrowding, and a constant shortage of everything.
In February of 2012, the homeless advocates who took it to court lost their case, and the city prepared to cut off rent assistance to around 9,000 of the formerly homeless families who were in the two-year program. Most had known the assistance would end by summertime anyway. That had been a ticking time-bomb all along, something they had to be ready to face. But the early termination would leave everyone even less prepared.
The Associated Press quoted Mary Brosnahan of the Coalition for the Homeless, who mentioned that it would cost the city less to keep the Advantage program going than to finance the existence of the same people in shelters. Of course, nobody listened.
Then, on another front, New York City tackled the problem of single homeless people looking for shelter beds. A policy was suggested whereby the supplicants would have to prove they had no other options. This idea has two outlandish aspects. First, isn’t there something in classical logic about the impossibility of proving a negative? Second, the authorities are making the ridiculous and unbelievable assumption that anyone would choose to stay in a homeless shelter if they had any other option.
Anyway, a judge put a stop to it, but only on procedural grounds, not because the requirement itself would be illegal.
Only a month later, the city’s controversial mayor Michael Bloomberg decided that homeless shelters could no longer accept food that had not been nutritionally assessed. Since New York contains some of the world’s wealthiest people, a lot of what the distribution centers received was rich folks’ food, dropped off by synagogues and churches with long-standing arrangements to donate their surplus leftovers after social events.
But Mayor Bloomberg was concerned that the balance of vitamins and minerals eaten by people experiencing homelessness might not be optimal, and the proportion of fiber in their diets might not be correct, and they might be taking in too much trans fat or too much salt. Therefore, he reasoned, it would be better for them to eat nothing at all. Even Investors.com called the ban “ludicrous” and said:
He would rather see the five boroughs’ downtrodden starve than consume excess cholesterol.
(To be continued…)
Source: “Judge: NYC OK To End Rent Subsidy For Ex-homeless,” The Huffington Post, 09/03/11
Source: “8k formerly homeless NY families to lose rent help,” The Wall Street Journal, 02/03/12
Source: “Court: NYC can’t implement new homeless policy for singles,” USA TODAY, 02/21/12
Source: “New York’s Bloomberg Says Let The Homeless Eat Nothing,” Investors.com, 03/26/12
Image by edkohler.