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Celebrities and Homelessness

Susan SarandonSomewhere over 630,000 Americans are living on the streets or in shelters, says the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Ordinary people are helping in a lot of ways. They donate to Project Night Night, which distributes blankets, stuffed animals, and bedtime story books. They help out with food and vet bills for the pets of people experiencing homelessness. Starting right here on this page, they sign petitions and donate thermal underwear.

Another thing that people with talent resources do is they help tell the stories. Video blogger Mark Horvath of Invisible People is only one example. A lot of people join organizations like U.S. Vets, which has helped thousands of veterans find housing and jobs.

And what do celebrities do? Some prominent people also adopt homeless veterans as their cause. A rap musician known as T.I. (Clifford Joseph Harris, Jr.) has launched a global campaign called “Give Like a King.” Ruth Manuel-Logan reported that, in conjunction with the Veterans Empowerment Organization, the goal is to provide more in the way of housing, health care, food, counseling, and job training. Their strategy is a media campaign that will encompass print, the Internet, radio, television, and “even billboards.”

Actor and comedian Russell Brand reportedly spends more than $2,000 a month supplying food and clothing to people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles. A believer in individual autonomy, he also directly gives out cash. Sports star David Beckham has made news by visiting the Philippines and touring facilities for homeless children in Manila. Articulating his concern, Beckham said:

All these children have been failed by adults in the crucial early years of their lives. I would not be where I am today without the love and support of my parents — every child deserves that, every child deserves a second chance.

Another sports figure, Kobe Bryant, works with his wife to support their nonprofit organization whose main goal is to end youth homelessness. They think the problem is solvable, and work with such institutions as the already established My Friend’s Place. TV personality Kelly Osbourne is also a supporter of My Friend’s Place, having donated clothes from her own wardrobe. Another Los Angeles institution is the True Colors Residence, started by singer Cyndi Lauper for homeless youth.

Also in LA, the perpetually troubled Lindsay Lohan was at one point ordered to do community service at the Good Shepherd Center for Homeless Women, but they wouldn’t have her. Reassigning her to help at the morgue instead, the judge said of the Center:

They refused to take you because they said you’re a bad example for the women who are trying to get their lives in order.

On the other coast of America, Susan Sarandon has served meals at the New York City Rescue Mission where they also distribute gift bags to mothers and children. ABC News captured this wonderful quotation from the actor:

When you can recognize groups that are helping people through a bad time, it helps you to feel like maybe things aren’t so out of control to give a little. So it’s really very self-serving, you meet fabulous people.

Of course America isn’t the only place where the rich and famous inhabitants of the entertainment world contribute to alleviating homelessness. In her native country of Australia, Cate Blanchett is patron of the Homeless Short Film Competition which, with hefty prize money, encourages secondary school students to engage in citizen journalism and create awareness of homeless issues. In short, anyone, anywhere, can find something useful to do in the holiday season, or any time at all.

Reactions?

Source: “Rapper T.I. To Help Homeless Vets In ‘Give Like a King Campaign,’NewsOne, 12/14/12
Source: “David Beckham Visits Homeless Children: ‘They Risk Horrific Abuse’,” Entertainmentwise, 12/02/11
Source: “Lakers: Kobe, Vanessa help homeless,” OC Register, 06/08/11
Source: “ Susan Sarandon helps homeless mothers,” 7Online.com, 05/07/11
Source: “Cate Blanchett Launches Oasis: Homeless Short Film Competition,Just Jared, 04/06/11
Image by Incase.

1

Wal-Mart’s Untrammeled Greed

Walmart WorldCongressman Alan Grayson stirred things up a bit by making some audacious statements that inspired Katie Sanders of PolitiFact to check his sources. Grayson declared to the world, via The Huffington Post, that:

In state after state, the largest group of Medicaid recipients is Walmart employees. I’m sure that the same thing is true of food stamp recipients. Each Walmart ‘associate’ costs the taxpayers an average of more than $1,000 in public assistance.”

He also appeared on a TV show called “The Young Turks” and asserted that Walmart employees are the largest group of food-stamp recipients. These allegations didn’t fall out of a clear blue sky. Apparently, a lot of eyeballs scrutinize the figures, and they don’t like what they see. Sanders says:

Democrats and labor unions have long been critical of the non-union retailer and have recently been emphasizing that its low wages end up costing government because workers seek food stamps and other aid… Newspapers, lawmakers and liberal policy groups for years have analyzed which companies have large numbers of employees that seek public health insurance assistance.

Doesn’t everybody love Wal-Mart? Well, no. (Sanders explains that Wal-Mart is the corporation and Walmart is a store, but they seem to be used interchangeably.) Anyway, for being the biggest private employer in the country, the corporation pays relatively low wages.

Apparently, there is only data from less than half the states (24), and not all of those states keep track of the Medicaid numbers. But the Good Jobs First organization did look at state-run programs for people in nowhere-land, who neither earn enough to buy insurance, nor earn little enough to qualify for Medicaid.

Sanders takes the reader through examples of what goes on in the various states, with help from Phil Mattera of Good Jobs First. The trouble is, most of the information is eight years old. Apparently, more recent numbers are not available. But even if by some miracle all these numbers have been halved since then, it’s still too much.

Of all the companies in Florida, Wal-Mart has the most employees and their dependents eligible for Medicaid. Pennsylvania is in dire straits. Wal-Mart has 48,000 workers there, and one out of every six is signed up with Medicaid. The state (the taxpayer) kicks in around $15 million per year.

In Missouri, the corporation is the second biggest employer, and has the most people enrolled in the state’s Medicaid plan. Ironically, Missouri’s biggest employer is the state government, many of whose employees are occupied with counting the social costs incurred by the low wages paid by the second-largest employer.

On the question of food stamps, there are more recent statistics but fewer of them. It is known, for instance, that other Florida taxpayers subsidize $2.6 million per year worth of food assistance needed by Wal-Mart’s workforce. But going by what they had, PolitiFact rated Grayson’s claim “Mostly true.”

Trina Clemente is the author of a petition found at Change.org, which commits its signers to boycotting Walmart. She mentions that six members of the Walton family, who of course make their money from the corporation, have more of it than the combined wealth of the lowest 30% of American workers. The taxpayers are chipping in, paying for the employees’ food stamps and medical needs, so that a few Waltons can be richer than any human needs to be. Clemente writes:

Walmart workers are some of our country’s most vulnerable workers. Many of them are literally just a paycheck or two away from homelessness. Most already qualify for food assistance and Medicaid. With over 2 million employees and a large percentage of them having to rely on public assistance despite working, Walmart has managed to become the recipient of a huge transfer of public wealth (tax dollars) into private hands.

How many of the company’s employees actually are homeless is anybody’s guess. Chances are, they do their best to hide it. Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless, and National Chairman of the Universal Living Wage Campaign, makes this suggestion:

How about we make a deal with business? They can can pay for the homeless workers and we as taxpayers just pay for the disabled homeless. Now that seems fair.

Reactions?

Source: “Walmart: Listen to your workers and your customers,” Change.org, 2012
Source: “Alan Grayson says more Walmart employees on Medicaid, food stamps than other companies,” PolitiFact, 12/06/12
Image by Patrick Hoesly.

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Major Reversal: Economists Agree Minimum Wage Works!

Model T Ford

For many decades, economists have sounded nearly unanimous in their condemnation of the minimum wage. The consensus view among economists was that minimum-wage rules resulted in lower employment, and that the most uneducated and unskilled workers were those most likely to lose their jobs due to a mandatory minimum wage.

Well, the research is in, and the majority of economists were wrong! Surprise! Minimum-wage laws actually don’t reduce employment. In fact, they increase the welfare of minimum-wage workers and their employers.

Who says so? None other than The Economist, the house organ of the economics profession, the gold standard of consensus among economists. In a recent “Free Exchange” column, The Economist dishes the numbers on minimum-wage laws and begrudgingly concludes, “Whatever their flaws, minimum wage laws are here to stay.”

Why? Because “whatever their flaws,” they work. The Economist cites a slew of data about the effectiveness of minimum-wage laws that has become available recently — data which refutes the long-held belief that minimum-wage laws increase unemployment.

Much of this data comes from Great Britain, which introduced a national minimum-wage law in 1999. The British government requires a minimum wage equal to about 46% of median earnings — compared with a less generous 40% in the United States. When Great Britain instituted the national minimum wage “worries about potential damage to employment were widespread,” says The Economist, itself a major worrier. “Yet today the consensus is that Britain’s minimum wage has done little or no harm.”

In case you’re having trouble with the British accent, “little or no harm” means the law did quite a bit of good — by every measurable standard:

Not only has it pushed up pay for the bottom 5% of workers, but it also seems to have boosted earnings further up the income scale — and thus reduced wage inequality. Wage gaps in the bottom half of Britain’s pay scale have shrunk sharply since the late 1990s. A new study by a trio of British labour-market economists (including one at the Low Pay Commission) attributes much of that contraction to the minimum wage. Wage inequality fell more for women (a higher proportion of whom are on the minimum wage) than for men and the effect was most pronounced in low-wage parts of Britain.

Again, let me translate from the British: The minimum-wage law boosted wages at the very bottom of the earnings scale — and all the way up the scale! As Richard R. Troxell, head of the campaign for a Universal Living Wage has eloquently argued, greater income at the bottom leads to greater spending at the bottom, boosting the entire economy. It also leads to lower government spending, lower taxes, and lower budget deficits, as those at the bottom rely less on government subsidies.

How is that possible — for increasing wages to increase profits? The Economist thinks much more work needs to be done to understand the relationship between employment and the minimum wage. The magazine goes part way by explaining that increased wages at the bottom lead to less turnover which saves more money for businesses than the wage increase costs them.

This lesson was not lost on Henry Ford. He paid workers more and thereby reduced the costs of building a car while increasing his profits. All of this is laid out in Richard R. Troxell’s book, Looking Up at the Bottom Line: The Struggle for the Living Wage. While it’s gratifying to see The Economist finally reverse its kneejerk objections to a guaranteed living wage, they have a long way to go to make up for the delays caused by their previous incorrect statements about the mythical damage caused by a minimum wage.

Source: “The Argument in the Floor,” The Economist, 11/24/12
Image by bsabarnowl (Bill McChesney).

2

Some Things About Housing

Conestoga hutNews comes from Oregon that Erik de Buhr has designed a “Conestoga hut” that would provide shelter for people who don’t have any. That is, of course, if the city of Eugene decides to allot any piece of ground to contain them. The city council has been studying this issue for months, and apparently has not even progressed as far as checking to see how Conestoga huts fit in with the state’s building code.

Governments everywhere invoke the magic word “safety” when refusing to allow new housing solutions. They hold onto a quaint belief that it is more salubrious for people to sleep under bushes than in tents, shacks, shipping containers, or whatever. Any architecture student knows there are a hundred ways to create cheap shelters, using recycled materials and engineered to include at least some level of civilized existence. Inventing mini-shelters is not the problem. The problem is no place for them to be.

It seems a bit strange that effort is being put into building a better hut, at a time when there are empty buildings all over the landscape. Some groups are trying to make squatting acceptable, but that movement is losing traction even in Great Britain where it has long been an entrenched way of life.

Yes, it’s all very complicated, and the first question that occurs is, if anybody were to live in a foreclosed house, why not the people who were trying to buy it in the first place instead of some other homeless people? It’s all very complicated, but the bottom line is, thousands of people are homeless and thousands of buildings are empty. If America is as smart as it thinks it is, it needs to figure out a way to fix that.

In Austin, TX, the last elections included a $78 million housing bond which was defeated by a close 49-51% vote, despite the efforts of a very competent team. However, Prop. 17 passed, which will expand the available space in temporary shelters for women and children. Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless says:

We had realized that this was a responsible group of free thinkers who were likely to vote once informed, and vote they did.

The difference might lie in the way the women’s shelter issue was framed. In the public mind, it was associated with an actual person, Valerie Godoy, who was murdered while sleeping out in the open. The idea of permanent affordable housing might need the same kind of public relations. Maybe at this very moment there is an activist in Austin wondering what to do next. Maybe this is the project — to find a way of personalizing the need for housing, by concentrating on individuals. Humanize the story, one human at a time, for as long as it takes. For examples, see Invisible People, Underheard in New York, and numerous others.

Permanent housing — wouldn’t it create jobs? Couldn’t it even create a few jobs for people experiencing homelessness? Sure, there are a lot of homeless people who have some kind of paid work, but still can’t afford to live anyplace. And others are just plain unemployed. There is a reputable university in Austin. Couldn’t it think up a spectacularly innovative way to bring back a housing initiative that would do something good for the homeless, the housed, the business owners, the tourists — in short, everybody? And earn more renown for itself of course, for creating a win-win-win-win-win situation.

For many reasons, Austin has a unique opportunity to show every other American city how it ought to be done. In many ways, Austin has already charted the course. For example, Richard mentions this year’s Foundation Communities’ Annual Fund Raiser, which put a human face on the organization’s work, and not just one but many faces:

They showed videos of beautiful and affordable housing that Walter Moreau and his wonderful team have already brought to Austin. They brought out men, women and children whom they had helped. The individuals told their stories and told how getting their home had changed their lives.

Moreau’s accomplishments are further detailed on the Foundation Communities page, headed by its motto, “Creating housing where families succeed in Austin and North Texas.” When the organization won an award for Best Affordable Housing Intervention last year, this is the reason given by the “Best of Austin Critics”:

Foundation Communities creates housing for low-income folks through a holistic philosophy that includes literacy training, financial coaching, afterschool care, and counseling. This whole supportive web of services helps families stabilize, survive, and kiss the bad times goodbye.

Reactions?

Source: “Huts for homeless,” The Register-Guard, 12/08/12
Image of Conestoga Hut by The Register-Guard.

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Thermal Underwear Drive Starting Now

Starting today Austin residents and others are encouraged to donate winter clothing items and participate in House the Homeless’ Thermal Underwear Drive. The Thermal Underwear Drive is an annual event which has successfully raised money and clothing for people suffering from homelessness.

Today House the Homeless Founder Richard R. Troxell — and sidekick “Homie” — spoke with Austin’s Fox 7.

 

 

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High-Profile Homeless Activism

Lebowski Fest 2011Mega-successful novelist Danielle Steel was recently exposed by Catherine Bigelow as a secret giver, in a profile that is both fascinating and inspiring, especially the part about the teddy bears. Steel, who in her childhood wanted to become a nun, has gone through some rough experiences and developed a lot of empathy. One of her children died, and because he had always been good to people experiencing homelessness, she became a quiet activist.

The novelist not only started the Yo! Angel! Foundation, but went out and did hands-on work herself — not once, and not once a year, but for several hours every month. It was only when other life circumstances led her to quit doing street work, that any of this became known. Bigelow writes:

Almost no one, except for the crew she worked with, her children and two close friends, had any idea that for 11 years, beginning in 1998, Danielle Steel would slip away from her Pacific Heights home under midnight shadows into a van filled with supplies to assist homeless people she sought out in the dark, dingy corners of San Francisco.

She quotes Steel as saying:

This work is totally addictive: Just one more time, just one more trip, just one more bag for one more person. You can never empty that ocean of homelessness. What I found on the street is there’s such a generosity of spirit and heart. It brought out the best in our team. The homeless were so kind to us, and we felt grateful to them. They gave us something every time.

A website called Look to the Stars covers “the world of celebrity giving” and keeps the public informed on the favorite causes that actors and other show business pros donate to, and help raise funds for. A page devoted to the Los Angeles Mission, for instance, lists 27 of that organization’s year-round supporters, as well as those who come out to help serve Thanksgiving dinner to the homeless. From amongst the 3,019 public-spirited entertainment professionals, the site sorts out the “top celebrities” according to their activism — including Angelina Jolie, George Clooney, Annie Lennox, and Bono.

Despite all this, Nadia Gomos, who has herself experienced homelessness, examined Look to the Stars with a critical eye, and wrote for The Huffington Post:

People by and large have no desire or interest in helping the homeless. They do not want to help people who are mentally ill, drug and alcohol addicts and the poor… People want a cause or campaign they can relate to, something that makes them feel good about themselves. That is why the most popular causes are animals and poor children; they are helpless. Because of the stigma associated with homelessness, they are not considered helpless but are considered lazy and irresponsible.

To most of the world homelessness is a problem that needs to be contained and not solved.

Gomos concludes that homelessness is a relatively unpopular cause, and regrets that no celebrity has adopted the cause to the exclusion of all others. There is another side to the story, however. Any celebrity who said, “No, thank you, I only do homelessness,” would be very unpopular among fellow celebrities, who would then be unwilling to help with their events or publicity. It’s only natural that any celeb who helps at all will help in multiple ways.

Jon Bon Jovi’s Soul Kitchen project has registered 20,000 “likes” on Facebook. Located in New Jersey, the restaurant has no set prices, but asks for donation, or people can pay for their meals by working. The singer’s Soul Foundation is also involved in another project, reports Dr. Robin Wulffson, in cooperation with the departments of Veterans Affairs, Health and Human Services, and Housing and Urban Development. It’s a competition called the Project REACH Developer Challenge:

The contest challenges the community to create a free, easy-to-use Web and smartphone app that provides current, real-time information regarding housing, health clinics, and food banks to homeless veterans.

Actors and pop culture heroes offer things for auction via the new “eBay Celebrity” platform, and whatever the highest bidder pays goes straight to a designated charity. One of the early adapters was Brad Pitt’s Make it Right Foundation, which builds houses for people left homeless by the New Orleans disasters.

Jeff Bridges, “The Dude” from The Big Lebowski (shown on this page), is an actor who inspires instinctive trust. A couple of months ago, he made news by manning a donation point outside a supermarket in Santa Barbara, CA. Reportedly, the effort filled up two vans with food and hygiene products for people experiencing homelessness. But that’s not all. Bridges then made a tour of salons asking for, and getting, donations from women who were having their nails done.

Even the First Lady has gotten into the picture. Michelle Obama’s gardening book, American Grown, includes a section on donating garden bounty to those in need. The White House has donated about a third of the crops from Mrs. Obama’s garden to Miriam’s Kitchen, a Washington, D.C., social services agency that provides meals for the homeless.

Reactions?

Source: “Danielle Steel’s secret forays to aid homeless,” SFGate, 11/19/12
Source: “Celebrity Charity News, Events, Organizations & Causes,” LookToTheStars.org
Source: “Homelessness Is Not a Popular Cause,” The Huffington Post, 07/31/12
Source: “Bon Jovi sparks project to help homeless veterans,” Examiner.com, 06/06/12
Source: “Introducing eBay Celebrity,” eBay Stories, 11/12/11
Source: “Jeff Bridges: Kind to The Homeless,” Showbiz Spy, 09/27/12
Image by vidmon (Joe Polletta).

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Homelessness and Fame

Justin TimberlakeThanksgiving dinner at the Los Angeles Mission has attracted show business personalities for many years. They wear distinctive aprons and get their pictures taken, ladling out portions of food for people experiencing homelessness.

This year, under the direction of “Top Chef” winner Michael Voltaggio, the mission served up:

3,000 pounds of smoked turkey, 700 pounds of corn and maple stuffing, 80 gallons of gravy, and 800 pounds of vegetables in addition to twice-baked potatoes, spaghetti squash casserole and pumpkin pie.

Natural disasters always inspire celebrities to help the newly homeless. Large parts of America’s east coast are still struggling with the ruin brought by Hurricane Sandy. Alec Baldwin visited his old school, New York University, to raise the morale of students who were evacuated into a recreation center. Jerry Seinfeld and other comics will donate the proceeds of the Sandy Storm Relief Benefit (December 19) to people made homeless by the flooding.

AFC’s Drop-In Center — where kids living on the street could walk in and receive food, showers, clothing, medical care, housing referrals, employment assistance, HIV testing and treatment, and mental health and substance abuse services — was completely destroyed by Hurricane Sandy.

Those words from Tracie Egan Morrissey describe the fate of the innovative and essential Ali Forney Center, a place where lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth could feel at home. This project was so important to actor Bea Arthur that when she died, her will gave the AFC $300,000.

Bless their publicity-seeking hearts, celebrities are often involved with activism, and quite a few famous people have helped raise funds for many good causes, which is always appreciated. More importantly, celebrities help raise awareness, which is why there is nothing wrong with seeking publicity. Some very nice folks do it.

As an example, House the Homeless wants as many people as possible to wrap their heads around the concept of Discharge No One Into Homelessness, and then proceed to sign the petition, print out the petition, and tell friends, and so forth. That’s just how we roll.

As for the motives of the various celebrities, there is a temptation sometimes to be suspicious and judgmental. When Kim Kardashian shows up to serve meals at the LA Mission, is that exploitation, or what? For an entertainer who is just getting started, the whole public relations game is vital, and it’s always good to be known as a volunteer. At that point in a career, sponsoring a charity might be more beneficial for the calculating striver than for the organization they are helping.

When the person is truly famous, with a high name-recognition score, then the alliance does more good for the helping organization. It might be ambition or pure altruism, but whatever degree of influence a celebrity wields, if they are out there trying to use that influence for good, then more power to them.

Often, the publicity has nothing to do with activism in aid of a cause. For some reason, anytime celebrity connects with homelessness, it’s a story. Like that actor who bumped into a guy’s shopping cart, and the Interwebs can’t stop flapping their jaws about it.

One prominent media tizzy concerned a very famous actor and musician, who probably doesn’t deserve the blame. It looks like he got blindsided by a friend with not much class and too much time on his hands. What happened was, Justin Timberlake and his sweetheart Jessica Biel pitched a big fancy wedding in Italy. A guy who sells real estate went into the streets of Los Angeles and paid people experiencing homelessness to record various greetings to the couple, labeled as messages from “your Hollywood friends who couldn’t make it.”

Gawker got hold of the video and exposed it to the world, and the real estate guy unleashed his lawyers, who said it was a “private joke” and they had better cease and desist. Everybody had something to say about it, and TMZ interviewed one of the “actors,” who was paid $40, which isn’t bad for reading a few lines. But when the man found out that the whole episode had contributed to spoiling someone’s wedding, he felt that a trick had been played on him.

Justin Timberlake handled the situation as responsibly as a celebrity could, under the circumstances, and issued a handsome apology which said, in part:

I was always taught that we as people, no matter what your race, sex, or stature may be, are equal… As it pertains to this silly, unsavory video that was made as a joke and not in any way in mockery… I want to say that, on behalf of my friends, family, and associative knuckleheads, I am deeply sorry to anyone who was offended by the video. Again, it was something that I was not made aware of. But, I do understand the reaction and, by association, I am holding myself accountable.

Another recent apology was sent out into the world by comedian Tracy Morgan after a lot of people got mad at him for saying homophobic things during his standup comedy routine. Many professional entertainers make podcasts, whose archives now contain hours of debate about this particular issue. One side feels that nobody should ever say anything mean, bullying, homophobic, racist, or whatever. The other side says, basically, “You don’t get it. A lot of comics do material in character. Did anyone scold actor Carroll O’Connor for the lines he spoke as Archie Bunker in the classic series ‘All in the Family’? Of course not, because they got it.”

At any rate, Morgan visited the Ali Forney Center (before it was flooded) to raise his consciousness and relate to some homeless kids. He also issued a public statement:

While I am an equal opportunity jokester, and my friends know what is in my heart, even in a comedy club this clearly went too far and was not funny in any context.

TV actor Erin Moran has been in the news lately, not as an activist, but as the exact kind of trainwreck that media consumers hunger for. The former “Happy Days” star suffered foreclosure about a year ago and was evicted from her home a few months later. She and her husband (who is employed) moved to a trailer park, then to a series of down-scale hotels, and the public seems to be waiting, breath held, for the day when this unfortunate couple hits the streets.

Admittedly, Moran seems to have 99 problems in her personal life, but she’s not a veteran with PTSD or a youth who “aged out” of foster care. And neither are a lot of the other people who have no place to stay. This is the point made by Joel John Roberts, CEO of PATH, who also writes for The Huffington Post:

Celebrities who become homeless are an extreme version of the warning that ‘it could happen to anyone.’ Yes, homelessness could happen to you or me. If a celebrity can become homeless, then so can I… Something unexpected could happen — chronic illness with insufficient health insurance, losing a job, or developing mental health issues. Or we might just make foolish decisions. We could turn to substances to cope with depression, break the law in a moment of desperation, or gamble away our savings… I guess the only way to truly end homelessness for people, both rich and poor, is to help them address their personal issues and provide affordable housing.

Reactions?

Source: “LA Mission Serves Up 76th Annual Thanksgiving Dinner,” CBS Los Angeles, 11/21/12
Source: “Bea Arthur’s Favorite Charity, a Shelter for Homeless LGBT Youth … ,Jezebel, 11/05/12
Source: “World’s Worst Wedding Joke,” Salon, 10/26/12
Source: “Tracy Morgan visits homeless gay teenagers on apology tour,” DailyMail.co.uk, 06/18/11
Source: “Homeless Celebrities: ‘Happy Days’ to Homeless Days,” The Huffington Post, 10/03/12
Image by nikkiboom.

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Homeless Memorials — Bring the Numbers Down

MemorialOn Sunday, November 18, an important 20-year tradition continued in Austin, TX, as residents gathered in a park at dawn for prayer and song, and the reading of this year’s homeless casualty list. The annual Homeless Memorial acknowledges the men, women, and children experiencing homelessness who have died in the city throughout the past 12 months.

This year, the list held more than 140 names. Always, “Taps” is played and some years, there is a visual aid, with each deceased person represented by a hat. House the Homeless shares a beautiful album page of photos from previous observances. The touching story of how the Memorial began is recounted in Looking Up at the Bottom Line, written by Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless (100% of the book sales go toward ending homelessness).

This year, three City Council members attended, and the keynote speaker, fiercely committed activist Brigid Shea, expressed regret that the recent election defeated an affordable housing bond. Another speaker specifically commemorated the veterans. House the Homeless co-founder Cecilia Blanford recalled a previous Memorial where a member of the crowd was upset by the Bible quotation about how the poor will always be with us. But, she quickly reminded the angry man, it doesn’t say the rich will always be with us.

The anecdote was presciently ironic, considering the disruption that started a few minutes later and continued through much of the ceremony. As in any city that lives off tourism, arrangements are often made more for the pleasure of affluent visitors than to accommodate the needs of the inhabitants. Auto racing took place at a track near Austin on the same day as the Memorial, and Richard says, “As we were reading the names of the citizens who died in poverty in Travis County, a helicopter stopped over our heads to allow his client to take in the view of the city.”

Surely, no disrespect was intended. The two events just happened to coincide. But how symbolic! While Americans down on the ground took part in a tribute to their fallen friends and neighbors, other Americans hovered over the ceremony in a noisy, expensive toy, sightseeing, or perhaps waiting for clearance to land downtown for a nice breakfast in a classy restaurant.

One of the people lost this year was the charismatic Leslie Cochran, the homeless activist and three-time mayoral candidate whose Wikipedia page characterizes him as “the man who personified ‘Keep Austin Weird.’” Cochran once appeared on Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show,” and his memorial service this spring was attended by hundreds of local residents. By official decree, every March 8 in Austin from now on will be “Leslie Day.”

You can see (and hear) the whole Nov. 18 Homeless Memorial service via Ustream, and there was a march afterward, and a noon gathering at City Hall to focus on the fact that there are about 4,000 Austin citizens experiencing homelessness, competing for 607 shelter beds.

There are of course Homeless Memorials in other American cities. San Francisco’s, organized by Project HOPE and the community-based nonprofit organization Anka, took place on November 9. A press report quotes Anka’s regional director Shayne Kaleo:

Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, ‘Everyone is precious, everyone matters’ — that is the spirit that the Project HOPE Homeless Memorial embraces, and the mentality we want the public to remember when thinking about the hundreds of men and women facing homelessness every year in our community.

Recently, House the Homeless discussed one of the wrinkles in the system that worsens homelessness, the custom of discharging medical patients to the streets. Subsequently, The Huffington Post invited Dr. Kelly Doran to illuminate this problem, which she described with terrifying specificity and deep compassion. Dr. Doran quotes a recent study which found that nearly 70% of homeless patients spend their first night after discharge from the hospital in a shelter, which is at least a place.

Even more alarming, the research shows that 11% of discharged patients don’t even find shelter space, but spend their first night after hospital discharge on the streets. And even if they have a place to sleep, shelter regulations send them onto the streets all day — mothers with newborns; confused elders who forget to take their meds; post-op patients in great pain who are often forbidden from even resting on park benches. Dr. Doran says:

Ignoring the issue simply creates more expensive problems in the future. Patients who leave the hospital and are homeless cycle through a revolving door of costly, inefficient and dangerous care from the hospital to the streets or shelter and then back again… Hospitals could be part of the solution by breaking the cycle of homelessness rather than perpetuating that cycle. Ideally, homeless patients would be discharged to supportive housing rather than back to homelessness. Another option is medical respite programs, which have been started in approximately 50 locales throughout the U.S…

Please sign the petition demanding that we “Discharge No One Into Homelessness,” and have a happy and safe Thanksgiving holiday, keeping in mind the many Americans who don’t have quite so much to be thankful for.

Media Bonus
A classic of a peaceful protest — Thanksgiving at the Bank of America, with Reverend Billy Wirtz, Occupy Wall Street, and Picture the Homeless.

By the way, Looking Up at the Bottom Line is also available for the Kindle and the Nook.

Reactions?

Source: “Memorial Service Honors the 35 Homeless Men and Women Who Passed Away,” In Contra Costa, SFGate.com, 11/09/12
Source: “Hospitals Should Never Discharge Homeless Patients to the Streets,” The Huffington Post, 11/12/12

2

No “Discharge to Nowhere”

2012_City_of_Austin_Homeless_ProclamationRichard R. Troxell, founder of the nonprofit group House the Homeless in Austin, TX, has initiated a campaign to “Discharge No One Into Homelessness” (DNOIH) which he is convinced will resonate with many people. In Surviving on the Streets, Ace Backwords mentions an example of homeless humor:

‘What does the street person do when he gets sick?’
‘He dies.’

Indeed, we don’t even know how for how many people illness, homelessness, and lack of family or other support system, adds up to a death sentence. In a Huffington Post article about cancer patients discharged into homelessness, Pat LaMarche writes:

Frustratingly, the only statistics I could find on homeless individuals getting ill were pretty ancient history. Most dated from the 1990’s. Then — and all advocates for the homeless would agree things have only gotten much worse… As for how many were hospitalized? The very few statistics I could find were provided by the Veterans Administration… The VA says that about 30% of homeless vets are ill enough to require hospitalization.

What happens to the elderly and chronically ill, and the street kids who get sick or hurt, when a hospital, clinic, or nursing home discharges them? Patients are just one subgroup at risk. What happens to those whose military service ends, and to teens no longer supervised by child protection agencies, and to juveniles and adults released from jails and prisons and halfway houses?

Brittany Wallman recently reported on how the state of Florida is in danger of violating a federal consent decree that concerns inmate overcrowding. Homeless people who can’t afford bail stay locked up, at huge expense. Fewer people would be discharged into homelessness if fewer homeless people were jailed in the first place. Wallman says:

There are better ways to deal with homeless people, many of whom are mentally ill and need treatment, not jail. They get no treatment there, and so frequently land right back in jail. Undeterred, the cycle perpetuates itself. Unacceptably, it has been doing so for years… The problem cannot be solved without addressing the complex interplay of homelessness, mental illness and the justice system… Mental health and social service agencies must be involved too. They’re the only ones that can give many of the homeless the help they need to end this costly cycle that does neither the homeless nor the justice system nor the taxpayers an ounce of good.

By a change in circumstances, a person is taken out of accustomed life, forced into a new environment, and turned into something they previously were not: patient, inmate, foster child, soldier. Time goes by, and they are tossed back out into the world, often alone and without resources. All these extreme life changes have one thing in common: a very definite transition point between one condition and another.

The trouble is, when someone leaves hospitalization or incarceration, or is discharged from the military, or “ages out” of foster care, there might not be any place to go back to. They can’t stay where they are, and will have to go somewhere anyway, so an intervention at this point is a pragmatic way to divert a person from the streets and lower the homelessness statistics.

The “Discharge No One Into Homelessness” tenet is a practical step toward the overall goal of ending homelessness in our lifetime, and an example of how an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure. In our newsletter, Katie McCaskey noted:

In a recent House the Homeless survey of 601 Austin residents experiencing homeless, 90% of these people wanted to work. However, 40% had spent time in mental health facilities — a stigma on job applications — and 48% were unable to work due to physical limitations or illness. With the combined efforts of those participating in a DNOIH outreach we could reduce the societal costs of homelessness and find productive work suitable to all who benefited from this housing.

With the help of all these institutional staffs and social workers, we need to figure out how to ensure that people are discharged, on time of course, into safe and stable housing environments. So here it is on paper, the “Discharge No One Into Homelessness” proclamation:

Be it known that whereas, the first official recognition of the men, women and children living and dying in homelessness on the streets of Austin occurred in 1992; and, whereas, that year, House the Homeless led a memorial and an impromptu  march on the State Capital where the names of the 24 homeless people who had died that year were read; and, whereas, the number of deaths of those living on our streets has grown steadily each year since with more than 2,000 homeless people having been remembered at memorial services over the past 20 years; and, whereas, we urge all citizens, social workers, jailers and caregivers at every level to do their best to embrace and carry out the tenet to “’no one into homelessness'; now, therefore, I, Lee Leffingwell, Mayor of the City of Austin, Texas, do hereby proclaim November 18, 2012 Homeless Memorial Day in Austin.

The “Discharge No One Into Homelessness” proclamation was presented and read at the Austin City Council meeting on November 8 by City Council Member Laura Morrison. Morrison has been very supportive of the effort to provide more shelter for vulnerable women experiencing homelessness. That dream will become reality thanks to the efforts of House the Homeless, the Salvation Army, Trinity Episcopal Church, the Austin Human Rights Commission, and many others.

In the recent elections, Austin came through like a champ, as 60% of the voters voted with their hearts and said yes to a bond package that includes $3.8 million for expansion and rehabilitation of the Austin Women and Children’s Shelter.

Here is proof that, as Richard believes, people are moving forward in their thinking, toward a more humane world. Leaving aside ethical and moral issues, society is also moving toward recognition of the economic reality that when people have somewhere to stay, it costs society a lot less, both in the short run and in the long run. Michael Stoops, Director of Community Organizing for the National Coalition for the Homeless, wants to send Austin’s “Discharge No One Into Homelessness” proclamation to cities all over the United States for their consideration.

Readers who believe in this cause are urged to comment here. Everyone is invited to sign the petition and share it with others via Facebook.

Austin’s Homeless Memorial
Keynote speech — Brigid Shea
Prayer — Pastor Doug Keenan
Songs — Sara Hickman
Perspective — Richard R. Troxell
At sunrise – 6:59 a.m.
On Sunday, November 18th
Auditorium Shores at the Homeless Memorial (South 1st & Riverside Dr.)

Reactions?

Source: “Surviving on the Streets,” Amazon.com
Source: “Too Many Cancer Patients Leave the Hospital for Homelessness,” The Huffington Post, 10/02/12
Source: “To fix jails, address revolving door,” Sun-Sentinel.com, 11/03/12
Source: “Discharge No One Into Homelessness,” House the Homeless newsletter

0

Homeless Vets Earned “Sweat Equity” in America

RobEarlier this year, a Daily Kos columnist pointed out that, however many American service members died in the Vietnam war, twice that many Vietnam veterans are currently experiencing homelessness in the United States, for which they fought and are owed plenty. We have heard of “the gift that keeps on giving.” Vietnam was “the war that keeps on taking.” For these men and women, Southeast Asia is not ancient history. In fact, there are even veterans still around from before Vietnam.

Additionally, numerous veterans of more recent and ongoing conflicts are on the streets. They have all earned “sweat equity” in our country, or perhaps it should be called “blood equity.” Here is the quotation:

67,495 veterans are homeless on any given night and twice as many experience homelessness during a year.

The page consulted here gives a whole list of statistics, and these are two of the most pertinent ones.

23% of the homeless population are veterans
76% experience alcohol, drug, or mental health problems.

There are two different facets to look at. One is the accuracy of the various numbers. Popular Mechanics magazine published a very technical yet highly understandable article about why the numbers are problematic. Joe Pappalardo explains how current figures can lose their apparent meaning, because it is impossible to know whether the methodology obscures some deeper truth. He mentions an announcement that was made by HUD secretary Shaun Donovan, stating that veteran homelessness had decreased by nearly 12% in a year.

The journalist says of Donovan:

But what he didn’t mention is that between 2010 and 2011, HUD changed the way it counts homeless veterans, and those changes could throw uncertainty on the veracity of the numbers. Last year, HUD stopped using statistical estimates and instead mandated that homeless organizations that receive federal money survey homeless people to determine if they are veterans. They also used figures supplied by local Veteran Administration (VA) programs instead of estimates.

In time, of course, a change of technique becomes the new routine, and numbers are more reliable. But they are never entirely reliable. They are always, at best, estimates. Because so much of bureaucratic procedure depends on numbers, both the government agencies and the public would prefer accurate ones, but we make do with what we can get.

More important is the human story behind the numbers, and sometimes fiction can illustrate such things better than hard facts. In Michael Connelly’s novel The Black Echo, one character is a retired colonel who runs a group home for veterans released from jail. He says:

You know, these boys were destroyed in many ways when they got back. I know, it’s an old story and everybody’s heard it, everybody’s seen the movies. But these guys have had to live it. Thousands came back here and literally marched off to the prisons… I wondered what if there hadn’t been any war and these boys never went anywhere… Would they still have ended up in prison? Would they be homeless, wandering mental cases? Drug addicts? For most of them, I doubt that. It was the war that did it to them, that sent them the wrong way.

Los Angeles is the site of one of the most bitter and long-fought battles on the home front. Since 1888, America’s vets have owned 400 acres of prime real estate smack-dab in the middle of LA. The land contains the Veterans Administration hospital and outpatient clinics, and a whole pack of unrelated business tenants. The administration and the VA need to put that land to the use of the veterans, and build long-term supportive housing on it. All the bureaucrats are blaming each other for the lack of progress, and the American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit.

To renovate one (1) building to house the homeless, $20 million was allotted months ago. No construction contract has even been drawn up, but somehow a completely renovated building is promised by August of 2014. Gee, that’s only another year and a half — and it will only have 65 beds! Meanwhile, an estimated 8,000 veterans are on the streets of LA every night. Advocates are asking for at the very least, help in establishing a tent city on some of the land. But the prospects don’t look good.

A Housing Placement Boot Camp was, coincidentally, held in Los Angeles, to teach agencies how to shorten the time it takes (many months) to place a homeless veteran into housing. One suggestion is that nonprofit organizations obtain the inspection standards required by the local public housing authority, so they can get a jump on checking out prospective rental quarters. Also, it would help a lot if the minimum income requirements could be eliminated.

Several other recommendations, if followed, can speed up the process. One is that the individual’s military discharge form be considered as adequate identification, without requiring a birth certificate or social security card. The big one, which House the Homeless has discussed before, is that the “housing first” principle be followed. Since federal law doesn’t require a veteran to enter or complete substance abuse treatment before receiving a housing voucher, local VA branches should not require that. With a home base to work from, a recovering addict or alcoholic has a much greater chance of success. If the true goal is to help people clean up their act, “housing first” is the obvious course.

Reactions?

Source: “Helping Our Homeless Veterans,” Daily Kos, 10/26/12
Source: “How Does Washington D.C. Count America’s Homeless Vets?,Popular Mechanics, 01/19/12
Source: “Homeless Veterans: Whose Responsibility?,” The New York Times, 10/08/12
Source: “Top 9 Things You Can Do Right Now from 100K Homes,” usich.gov
Image by sneakerdog.

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