Last week, House the Homeless remembered the good work Robin Williams did on behalf of people experiencing homelessness, but forgot to mention the outstanding gesture he made some years ago, described here by journalist Dustin Volz:
In a stunning moment of candor, Williams testified before the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee in 1990 in support of the Homelessness Prevention and Community Revitalization Act, which sought to direct funding to housing-based support centers for the chronically homeless and to boost mental-health services. (A related bill became law later that year.)
Williams is of course not the first celebrity to leverage fame and name recognition into promotion of societal change for the better. This summer, film star Susan Sarandon told lawmakers at a congressional briefing that people experiencing homelessness need to be included as a protected class, as defined by the Hate Crimes Statistics Act.
But often the venue for publicizing a good cause is less formal than the legislative halls of Washington, D.C. Every Christmas, celebrities come out to serve dinner to thousands at the Los Angeles Mission. Last Christmas, hip-hop stars YG and Snoop Dogg financed a $10,000 shopping spree for 60 L.A. shelter kids, and actor Charlie Sheen donated $50,000 to My Friend’s Place, a center in Hollywood that serves homeless youth. Vocalist Cyndi Lauper holds an annual holiday benefit concert to raise money for her True Colors foundation, which helps homeless LGBT youth.
The extremely popular TV series Breaking Bad, which was made in Albuquerque, N.M., gave many of the show’s wardrobe items to be sold at local thrift stores that support the homeless shelter. Because they are not just used clothes but entertainment-industry memorabilia, the donated items fetched good prices. Back in May, wildman comedian Russell Brand shocked some Beverly Hills neighbors by letting homeless friends stay in his multimillion-dollar house while he was out of the country.
But consciousness of social inequity is not recent. In this video clip from San Antonio 20 years ago, country music legend Townes Van Zandt performs “Marie,” his song about a homeless couple.
In A Deeper Blue, biographer Robert Earl Hardy said of the singer:
Townes had exhibited concern for the poor and homeless since his childhood, and he still made it a habit to give money — often his entire earnings from gigs — to street people.
The Los Angeles Times published a fascinating story by Rene Lynch, who interviewed the winner of the popular televised culinary competition Chopped. The subject, D. Brandon Walker, administers and teaches in a culinary training program for the St. Joseph Center, the venerable helping institution in Venice, Calif. He also fills the post of executive chef, cooking for the Bread and Roses Cafe, which serves meals to people experiencing homelessness. The students get a chance to practice there too. And Walker likes the idea that even people who are broke can have a luxurious dining experience.
Here is the really interesting part. Since the supplies at the Bread and Roses Cafe are donated by food banks and restaurants, the staff never knows what will show up on any given day. They are constantly forced to improvise, creating meals on the fly from whatever is available. It was perfect training for Walker, because the whole format of the TV show Chopped is based on presenting the contestants with a random assortment of ingredients.
So Walker won the competition, and he gives credit to the experience gained from many years of cooking for the indigent people of Venice. The guests and trainees at the St. Joseph Center were very proud of having their very own chef go to New York and win a competition. And Walker says he has the best job in the world. Lynch quotes his inspiring words:
My job is unique in that I am cooking everyday and I’m teaching. We train people who are coming out of all different types of difficulties in their lives…. People who are unemployed or underemployed. Coming out of rehab, or transitional housing, coming out of penal system, or being laid off. We give them the opportunity to learn.
Now, all they need is a Living Wage job!
Source: “What Robin Williams Told the Senate About Homelessness,” NationalJournal.com, 08/12/14
Source: “YG & Snoop Dogg Donate $10,000 To Los Angeles Children,” hiphopdx.com, 12/27/13
Source: “’Breaking Bad’ gives clothes to homeless,” ABQJournal, 02/26/13
Source: “LA chef says serving the homeless helped him win ‘Chopped’,” LATimes.com, 10/27/13
Image by Neon Tommy
For the Christian Science Monitor, staff writer Schuyler Velasco compiled a list of the American corporations where the yawning abyss between CEO pay and employee pay is most apparent. For every dollar the average McDonald’s employee makes, CEO Donald Thompson takes home 1,196 of them. How is it possible that any human being’s time is worth more than a thousand times as much as the time of another human being?
Existential questions aside, McDonald’s is the most egregious example of ridiculously munificent executive compensation, followed by Starbucks and Dollar General. Among the top 10, the least discrepancy is found at AT&T, where the biggest boss makes only 558 times the wage of an average worker.
Ratcheting up Salaries
For Dissent Magazine, Colin Gordon explains the process of deciding how much to pay a bigwig. A show of detached neutrality is made by deferring to the wisdom of a “compensation committee.” The members are other bigwigs with similar job descriptions. Next week, one of those execs will be up for a raise, and guess who will be on his compensation committee? That’s right — the very same guy whose salary he is deciding today. Gordon says:
These compensation committees […] have perfected a machine for ratcheting up executive pay. As a general rule, CEO pay is calculated from a benchmark of peers. The result is a lucrative game of leapfrog. The selection of peers is arbitrary — and often consists of cherry-picking larger and successful firms with higher-paid executives.
In effect — with very limited input from shareholders and no demonstrable connection to firm performance — top executives set their own salaries.
Shareholders Lack Clout
Supposedly, performance-based pay is subject to shareholder approval, and a reasonable person might ask, “Why don’t they take charge, and rein in these greed-heads?” But as it turns out, the deck is stacked. The system contrives to make shareholder influence largely theoretical. Their role is purely advisory and the corporation doesn’t have to do what they recommend.
For a giant business with high-powered lawyers on retainer, it is very easy to circumvent any rule. The corporate entity can hide, even from its own stockholders, exactly what is going on, in what Gordon calls “a concerted effort to camouflage the level and terms of executive pay packages with various forms of stealth compensation (such as lavish retirement deals) or rigged performance measures (such as stock options).” Even worse, there are two classes of shareholders. Gordon says:
Increasingly, shareholding is dominated by the block holdings of big institutional investors (mutual funds, pension funds, and the like). And many public firms use ‘dual class’ shares to distribute voting rights more narrowly than stock ownership.
Stockholding citizens, even the most socially conscientious, have very little clout. And what do the execs get paid for? Who knows, but it’s a pretty sure bet they are not busy figuring out how to reduce the income gap, and pay enough so that none of their employees need to apply for government relief.
Universal Living Wage
Eleanor Bloxham, CEO of The Value Alliance and Corporate Governance Alliance, believes that a company should be transparent about whether it pays a living wage to every person who works for it. For a recent Fortune CNN article, she quoted House the Homeless President Richard R. Troxell about the Universal Living Wage concept, so please go and take a look.
Also, please remember Economic Gap Day is coming up on Tuesday, September 2. Everyone is urged to organize or join a demonstration in a highly visible public place. Check out this video of a past Economic Gap Day to catch the vibe:
The Universal Living Wage means basic food, clothing, shelter (including utilities), public transportation, and access to an emergency room! This must be the minimum standard for every American and all people.
Source: “CEO Vs. Worker Pay: Walmart, McDonald’s, and Eight Other Firms With Biggest Gaps,” CSMonitor.com, 12/12/13.
Source: “Fatter Cats: Executive Pay and American Inequality,” DissentMagazine.org, 04/24/14.
Source: “Inequality in the U.S.: Are We Making Any Progress?” Fortune.com, 08/04/14.
Image by Devendra Makkar.
House the Homeless has been considering, with dismay, the brisk back-and-forth exchange between the foster care system and the ranks of people experiencing homelessness. An untethered, chaotic lifestyle leads to more of the same in the next generation. Any young person whose past includes periods of homelessness is more likely to face homelessness in the future. Kids who age out of the foster care system are more likely to become homeless. In a vicious cycle, kids from homeless families are often at risk of winding up in the foster care system.
Writer Annie Gowen interviewed the executive director of the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare, Ruth Anne White, who said “about half of states list a caregiver’s inability to provide shelter as part of their definition of abuse and neglect.” In mid-2012, news came from Washington, D.C., that homeless parents were not signing up with agencies that existed to help them because they feared losing their children.
The Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless learned that clients avoided seeking help because intake workers had threatened, if the clients really had nowhere to live, to report them to the child welfare authorities. According to rumor, the city purposely created this climate of fear to scare families away from applying for services in an overburdened system. The Washington Post quoted a Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) spokesperson who said:
[W]hile homelessness alone is not sufficient reason under D.C. law to remove a child from a parents’ care, the agency has investigated families seeking shelter to see if there were other issues of abuse and neglect.… So far, 32 families have been reported … but no children have yet been removed from their parents’ care.
Also in our nation’s capital, the disappearance and probable death of 8-year-old Relisha Rudd caused consternation. Relisha went missing from D.C.’s former General Hospital, now a massive homeless shelter where she and three younger brothers were among some 600 children in residence. They stayed with their mother, Shamika Young (who, incidentally, entered the foster-care system at age 6). Relisha was allowed to leave the facility with her “god-daddy,” a man Young trusted as a longtime friend who had taken Relisha to his family’s home many times before. She was last seen on March 1, and shortly afterward the man killed his wife and then was found dead himself.
When questioned about why she had not reported her daughter missing, Young said she was afraid that if she went to the police, the authorities would take her other kids. Apparently, this fear was not unfounded. Records showed that some type of report had been generated three times before that could have led to the four children being placed in the foster care system. Nothing ever happened, but the possibility was perceived by their mother as a real threat.
When Relisha Rudd was in the news daily, some online commenters expressed very sentimental opinions about the superiority of foster care over shelter life or, even worse, street life. How, they wondered, could anyone possibly hesitate to recommend foster care? The sad truth is, it’s all too easy to find foster care horror stories, and all too easy to meet unaccompanied youth who ran away from foster placements to become street people.
The mutability of circumstance presents child welfare agencies with chronic uncertainty. A crisis focuses official attention on the family, but then their situation stabilizes. Then turmoil comes again, followed by relative calm. The rationale for placing kids in foster care is rarely cut-and-dried. Case workers have to make judgment calls all the time. On behalf of Washington’s CFSA, Mindy Good spoke to a reporter who wrote this account:
[I]n 2012, the District had one of the nation’s highest removal rates and one of the lowest in placing children with relatives once they were taken from the home, Good said. A year earlier, the city’s Citizen Review Panel, which is charged with monitoring the agency, issued a report that called for “significant reforms to prevent unnecessary removals — and to prevent the unnecessary harm they cause to children and families.”
In other words, the child protection authorities are criticized and attacked for two opposite reasons — for interfering too much and taking too many kids; and for not removing Relisha and her brothers from their mother’s care. The city’s health and human services, the official bodies in charge of Relisha’s life and well-being, promised a review of their procedures, but no report has yet been issued. At any rate, it is clear that homeless parents are not paranoid, because a very real possibility exists that their children can be taken from them. Sometimes it is necessary; other times it is not in the best interests of anyone.
Source: “Homeless D.C. families, who turn to the city for help, risk triggering a child welfare investigation,” WashingtonPost.com, 06/23/12
Source: “Before Relisha Rudd went missing, the 8-year-old longed to escape D.C.’s homeless shelter,” WashingtonPost.com, 04/05/14
Source: “Body in park tentatively identified as Relisha Tatum’s alleged abductor, police chief says,” WashingtonPost.com, 03/31/14
Image by Lyman Erskine
Every now and then a scandal arises from the foster care system. Earlier this year, Americans were horrified by a story from North Carolina that broke when a law enforcement officer observed an 11-year old boy handcuffed to the porch of a house. The weather was cold, and someone had tied a dead chicken around his neck. It turned out that, along with this foster child, four adopted children lived in the house. The adults in residence were a medical professional — a male who worked as a hospital nurse — and a female Department of Social Services employee who happened to be the county’s child protective services supervisor.
Had no one noticed the abuse and neglect? Some faculty members did, where the kids used to go to school. But the couple who fostered and/or adopted them had unenrolled them in favor of home-schooling. The publicity surrounding this story pointed up the fact that North Carolina has more than 53,000 registered home schools, many of them populated by foster children — some of whom were taken on just for the sake of earning subsistence payments from the government. Since there is no legal requirement to inspect home schools, this means a lot of foster kids are being raised in sequestered environments, ignored and forgotten. The potential is huge for every kind of abuse.
The case made enough of a splash to get several other social services workers fired, and to stimulate a review of the process by which foster-care licenses are granted. Meanwhile, investigators looked for approximately 36 children who had been fostered by the couple in the past.
Those former foster kids must be scattered all over the map. Maybe some of them ended up in the Morongo Basin, an area of Southern California whose population includes about 800 people experiencing homelessness. On leaving the area, longtime advocate Rae Packard told an audience,
In my experience working at Morongo Basin Unity Home, women who choose to leave their abuser and go into a shelter most often lose custody of their children. Judges nationwide consider shelter housing to be ‘homeless’ and give custody of the children to the abuser, who is stable in the home.
Remember the House the Homeless post titled “Are Homeless Parents Paranoid?” If paranoia represents an unreasonable or unlikely fear, homeless parents apparently are not paranoid. All kinds of heart-rending scenarios take place every day in offices and courtrooms. A homeless mother faces the real possibility that her kids can be turned over to the violent non-provider who caused all the trouble, or taken by the state and placed in foster situations. Or she can try to stay under the radar and avoid government agencies altogether. This involves teaching kids to lie to authorities, and other habits that can get them in trouble.
Elsewhere in California, journalist Greg Lee interviewed the CEO of the Riverside County branch of Court Appointed Foster Children (CASA). In that county, some 4,000 foster children reside, with another 1,500 in the nearby Coachella Valley. CASA is a volunteer organization with not nearly enough volunteers for its mission, which is to assign each child an advocate to help them deal with the court system. Deborah Sutton-Weiss made a startling statement:
The foster system is broke. We have more homeless children on the streets now than we have vets and that’s a big deal…. What does happen to them is that they either end up homeless, prostituting, in jail or dead.
The authorities take kids from their parents for reasons that are sometimes excellent and sometimes wrong or pointless. Those children grow up in foster homes, age out of the system, and all too often find themselves on the streets. Vulnerable and unprotected, girls get pregnant and have children who either have no place to live or are removed to foster placements. (Either way, they grow up with a greater chance of being chronically homeless.) There is far too much two-way traffic between the foster care system and homelessness, and plenty more about it to discuss.
Source: “Two growing NC student populations: homeless and homeschooled,” BlueNC.com, 11/24/13
Source: “About 800 homeless in Hi-Desert, speaker tells advisers,” HiDesertStar.com, 04/18/14
Source: “Homelessness among foster children on the rise in California,” KESQ.com, 07/22/14
Image by Martin Belam
The cost of homelessness has been a topic before, here at House the Homeless. When we’re talking about cost, it’s not just the enormous waste incurred among the people experiencing homelessness — of life, of time and talent, and productivity, and potential contributions that they might make to the world if they were not so busy trying to survive and avoid arrest. That huge loss of human potential is sad enough and bad enough. But compared to the enormous societal expense, it’s a drop in the bucket.
How much longer can this go on? The most cursory glance at history will show what happens when too much wealth is concentrated in too few hands, and when the majority of the people struggle just to get through each day. It’s almost as if some hidden specter sits back chuckling, taking bets on how soon a cataclysm will occur, and speculating on its own selfish gains if that dire day ever arrives.
This week, House the Homeless looks at some current media offerings. Cardboard Stories is a viral video, meaning lots of people have seen it and passed it around to others. A story about it is subtitled, “Viral Video Reveals Who the Homeless Are — and It Might Surprise You.” Those words contain a grim and ironic joke. Far too many Americans have found out who the homeless are the hard way — by waking up to find themselves out in the cold (or heat).
Yes, learning the identity of “the homeless” does come as a big surprise to many people. One day you’re a solid citizen, regarding those haunters of the street as a tribe that preferably should just disappear — maybe even a different species. Next day you’re one of them. Such a rude awakening has become the reality for far too many Americans. Xander Landen for PBS says:
Since 2001, the U.S. has lost nearly 13 percent of its low-income housing according to a report by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty that surveyed 187 cities. The advocacy group’s report found that laws placing restrictions on loitering, begging, sitting and lying down in public have increased nationwide since 2009. Eighteen percent of cities now ban sleeping in public and 42 percent of cities ban sleeping in vehicles.
Understand what they are saying — It’s illegal to pee! It’s illegal to have a bowel movement! And to help the homeless avoid the temptation to perform those functions, it’s illegal to feed them! It’s illegal to sit down, even if you’re old and sick and suffering from hyperthermia or dehydration or anything else. Cities would rather spend their money to build and fill jails than to provide public restrooms or even benches. PBS also sponsors a Twitter chat that touches on many aspects of the problem.
18 days remain
Speaking of problems, there is a sizable one connected with talking about Destiny’s Bridge, a film by Jack Ballo. The film is crowd-funded through Indiegogo (the drive closes August 15), and because every paragraph is loaded with astonishing revelations and galvanizing ideas, the problem lies in choosing which section of its proposal to quote here. Should it be these words?
We see their gifts and talents at work as they set off to create their own homeless shelter called Destiny’s Bridge. The conflict in this documentary is clear — township officials file a lawsuit against homeless residents demanding eviction…. The government chooses to spend millions of dollars paying hotel owners and landlords without understanding the real issues behind homelessness or searching for solutions.
Or should it be these?
People whose lives have been taken over by poverty, addiction, depression and mental illness don’t have the resources to be rehabilitated and to get their lives back together like most people can who have family support, healthcare and financial stability…. Over an 8 year period, there have been between 80-120 people living in Tent City at any given time without any government subsidies, effectively saving tax payers millions of dollars.
Oh, please just go and check out the page for yourself.
Source: “‘Cardboard Stories’ Viral Video Reveals Who the Homeless Are — and It Might Surprise You,” TheBlaze.com, 07/23/14
Source: “More cities across the U.S. consider homelessness a crime,” PBS.org, 07/19/14
Source: “Destiny’s Bridge – A Home for the Homeless,” igg.me, 07/16/14
Image by Jack Ballo
The Department of Housing and Urban Development gives the number of homeless youth in America as 46,000 on any given night, and in any given year, about 2 million youth experience homelessness for at least one night. The number of shelter beds available for this population is under 4,200. In other words, if you’re a homeless teen, your odds of finding a place to sleep are less than 1 in 10.
To break it down by age group, there are more than 6,000 homeless teenagers under 18, and about 60% of them are unsheltered. In the youth demographic of 18-24, there are more than 40,000, and about half of them are unsheltered. The system deals with two different kinds of kids — those still with parents and those on their own. Even with better funding for school districts to hire homeless liaison personnel, there is no way to know how many youth fly under the radar, uncounted.
Most of these kids come from poverty, and they can be wary and hard to reach. Some are on the loose because their parents are in the penal system. Some have had negative experiences with mental health providers whose only tool was medication that worsened rather than helped their conditions. A lot of kids are ejected from their families, and many leave voluntarily to escape flagrant neglect, violence, sexual exploitation, or other untenable situations.
Imagine a family so dysfunctional that a 16-year-old girl asks the authorities to put her in a foster home or institution. That’s what Kathy Long’s twin sister did. Kathy had gone to visit friends for part of a summer, people she used to babysit for who had moved out of state. While she was gone, her parents ran away from home. Returning to an empty house and no forwarding address, she asked a schoolmate’s parents to rent her a room, worked part-time to pay for it, and finished high school. She went on to become a mixed martial arts fighter and five-time world kickboxing champion, and her story is definitely worth hearing. But not every abandoned teenager has Kathy Long’s gumption.
As House the Homeless has discussed, the challenges presented to former foster kids are daunting. Even worse, in a news story about California’s “hidden human disaster,” John Burton and Carol Liu observed that youth who never were in foster care fare much worse on their own. Older teens
who become homeless and have no prior child-welfare-system involvement have a very rough time. But today’s economy is cruel to most homeless teens, who find themselves increasingly pushed out of the job market and unable to reap the basic rewards of work:
Becoming gainfully employed helps homeless youth form their identities, connects them to conventional institutions such as employers and banks, provides income that could lead to self-sufficiency, and reduces their chances of engaging in risky behaviors such as panhandling and exchanging sex for money, shelter or food.
It is very easy to criticize people for not working, especially when, despite scarce resources, agencies exist to offer help in finding employment. What prevents homeless youths from connecting with services like training, tutoring, and placement programs? What circumstances either encourage young people to use available services, or to avoid them?
In facilitating this type of connection, how much influence do friends and acquaintances exert? That is the specific question asked by Anamika Barman-Adhikari and Eric Rice, whose findings will be published in the August issue of the Journal of Evaluation and Program Planning, under the title “Social Networks as the Context for Understanding Employment Services Utilization Among Homeless Youth.”
The researchers surveyed 138 Los Angeles homeless youth between the ages of 15 and 21. Slightly more than half of the subjects were literally homeless; slightly less than half were “couch surfing.” The researchers took a keen interest in how the presence of a support system affects a youth’s motivation toward employment. They differentiated carefully between human sources of support (street peers or other friends/family) and types of support (material or emotional).
The knee-jerk reaction would be to assume that kids who are given some degree of help, even if it is partial and sporadic, are less zealous in their search for employment. What Barman-Adhikari and Rice learned is counterintuitive, intriguing, and too multi-faceted to summarize here, so please see their full report.
Source: “Study: More Resources, Smartly Used, Needed for Youth Who Are Homeless,” PSCHousing.org, 04/15/14
Source: “Eddie Bravo Radio – Episode 39 – Kathy Long (11/24/2013),” YouTube.com
Source: “Opinion: California is failing homeless youths,” MercuryNews.com, 01/24/11
Source: “Primary Sources: How ‘Social Networks’ Affect Homeless Youths,” HHS.gov, 07/16/14
Image by Surian Soosay
Care continuum workers know that early episodes of homelessness increase a child’s risk of continuing to experience homelessness throughout life. The foster care system tries to alleviate some of the damage but carries its own risks. Even in such an enlightened state as Washington, every year nearly 200 children run away from their foster homes.
It’s painful to think of the darker reasons why a child might prefer the streets, but some runaways take off because of a powerful need to find family members from whom they have been separated. In Washington, there is a rule that a runaway foster child should be represented by an attorney, to make sure that the compulsion to connect with a sister or brother does not become a punishable offense.
The four biggies
Writing for the Seattle publication Crosscut, Judy Lightfoot discussed the four main reasons why it’s so difficult for foster kids to achieve and maintain stability in their lives. Health is a big factor, both mental and physical. A child with allergies, asthma, or any one of a hundred other ailments will face extra obstacles. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that when a child is removed from a situation of neglect or even abuse, separation trauma still hurts deeply. It should come as no surprise that a displaced kid might suffer from panic disorder, depression, nightmares, or addiction proneness.
One of the experts Lightfoot consulted was Cacey Hanauer, director of Foster Care Transitions at the YMCA. There she learned:
Another side effect of separation is a natural resistance to agencies. Youngsters raised in a system that wrenched them away from their parents ‘don’t trust anyone agency-based,’ says Hanauer. ‘Just walking in the door is hard for them.’ Even if doing so means accessing services that could help them.
Sadly, the foster care system is underfunded and in many ways dysfunctional. In this setting, it’s particularly hard to train young people to plan for the future. By its very nature, the system trains kids into passivity, because so much waiting is involved in every stage of their journey through it. For a child to try to change anything is dangerous, because complaints can be interpreted as a bad attitude. Attempts to be proactive and take responsibility for oneself can backfire spectacularly and bring down an avalanche of trouble.
Another thing that happens in the system is mobility from one foster home to another, for a variety of reasons either personal or bureaucratic. The placement might not be a good fit for the child or the foster parents, and some kids end up needing to be moved repeatedly. Even under the best conditions, it’s hard for a foster child to build a network of supportive adults and appropriate peers. Every relocation severs bonds and decreases the opportunity for a stable human community.
According to Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services, every year about 550 teens age out of the foster care system, and 35% of them end up on the streets within a year. For nearly a decade, the state legislature has worked at building rules to stem the tide of homeless young people spewed out by the system. Thanks to the Extended Foster Care (EFC) laws, most 18-year-olds are eligible for financial support and other state benefits until they are 21. Presently, about 360 youth are enrolled with EFC.
Care continuum personnel must also be aware of “the two-steps-forward, one-step-back” pattern followed by so many former foster kids. Their progress toward self-sufficiency is rarely linear. It seems that in Washington, at least, the bureaucracy’s consciousness has been raised enough to allow for flexibility and even fallibility.
Source: “How to keep foster youth from becoming homeless youth,” Crosscut.com, 07/07/14
Image by Cambodia4kids.org Beth Kanter