Counting the Homeless, Sort Of

Confucius ChristmasBack 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.


Young and Homeless in New York

Security BlanketsHouse the Homeless has been looking at the ongoing mess in New York City, bad enough before the catastrophic weather events hit, and not getting any better. To suggest that conditions are worse for any particular demographic group is specious, because human misery just can’t be quantified that way. There is plenty of it to go around and dish out a share for everybody. But the the kids are, without a doubt, having a rough time.

They are homeless for a lot of reasons. The little ones are, hopefully, still with their dispossessed parents who, without a roof of their own, are keeping the family together somehow. There are “throwaway” kids, whose parents don’t mind their departure because they are unwanted reminders of previous failed marriages, and runaways who escape physical abuse or other intolerable conditions. There are young people whose sexual orientation is unacceptable to their parents, and others who have “aged out” of the foster care system.

In June of last year, homeless advocacy groups reported 17,000 minors in New York City shelters every night, and Mayor Bloomberg maintained that the city’s shelters offered a “much more pleasurable experience than they ever had before.” A Huffington Post writer gave an example of this idyllic existence as experienced by a 9-year-old child:

The girl and her mother, having been relocated to a shelter in uptown Manhattan, struggled to wake up at 4:45AM every morning to avoid being late for school in Brownsville, Brooklyn. But despite their efforts, Whitnee Layne said her daughter was at the risk of being suspended because no matter how much they tried to arrive on time, the difficult commute was just too much.

In October, the nice round number of 20,000 kids in shelters was reported, and journalists were compelled to make comparisons with the Great Depression. There are towns with total populations smaller than the number of children sleeping in New York City shelters, struggling with overcrowding and broken families and poor nutrition and interrupted schooling and inadequate medical care.

As AlterNet‘s Tana Ganeva had already pointed out the previous year, as many as 65% of the families that apply for shelter space in the city do not get in, so the bureaucracy’s numbers don’t include “homeless kids who are not sleeping in shelters because their families have been turned away.” In that same time frame, New York Magazine‘s Noreen Malone noted that the city’s public schools enrolled nearly 43,000 students without fixed abode. And that was before Hurricane Sandy and massive flooding.

Nationwide, at the present time, about 1 million public school students go “home” to shelters, cars, vans, abandoned buildings, cheap motels, church basements, garages, or odd corners in the homes of relatives or friends. The destabilizing effect of homelessness affects the young in numerous ways, impeding their normal mental and psychological growth and physical well-being.

The National Center on Family Homelessness estimates that homeless kids are four times as likely to have delayed development and twice as likely to experience learning disabilities, and these disabilities are often unrecognized and untreated. More than a third of these kids wind up repeating at least one grade.

A lot of things that housed children take for granted homeless children don’t even know about. They don’t have computers or quiet places to do homework. They probably don’t get enough sleep. Kids whose circumstances force frequent transfers to new schools are only half as likely to even graduate from high school. Kids who don’t graduate are twice as likely to become poverty statistics and join the ranks of second-generation homeless, and the long-range effect of that is a life expectancy of nine years less than average.

In grade school, middle school, and high school (if they make it that far) homeless kids are anxious and depressed, and prone to behavioral problems. They can’t concentrate in class. Inadequate sleep, hunger, and fear of the future, says Carol Smith of Enumclaw, WA, Patch.com, leads to “increased levels of stress hormones such as cortisol, which can wreak havoc on young brains.”

Tana Ganeva says:

Homeless kids get sick more often and with stranger and more serious ailments than poor kids who have homes, suffering respiratory infections and digestive infections at significantly higher rates.

These children tend to withdraw from social interaction and have what are called “attachment disorders.” They might even be shunned or bullied by classmates who look down on them. Any friendships that they manage to create are likely to be broken by frequent relocations.

But while there is plenty of research showing how homelessness affects children, there isn’t much on what schools could be doing to better the situation. For the Christian Science Monitor, Michelle D. Anderson interviewed Joseph Murphy of Vanderbilt University, author of Homelessness Comes to School, whom she quotes on the subject of the Mckinney-Vento Law:

Before the law was passed, only about 25 percent of homeless students were in school. Today, that number is 85 percent… The law requires that schools waive typical requirements, such as proof of residency… It also waives requirements mandating that parents provide medical, immunization, and academic records, and requires schools to offer transportation options.

Sounds good, right? So good, in fact, that caring attorneys were moved to create Project LEARN (Lawyers Education Access Resource Network) to provide legal advocacy to homeless families when school districts are ignorant of, or simply ignore, the law. According to their website:

Across the country, children are being kicked out of school when they become homeless. It’s not something you hear talked about much. Maybe that’s because homelessness in general is ignored in our public discourse. This may even be the first time you’re hearing about it.

But not the last. The whole situation is a ticking time bomb whose eventual results are set to tear the entire fabric of our society to shreds.


Source: “Homeless Children In NYC Shelters Rises To 19000, Near Great Depression Highs,” The Huffington Post, 09/10/12
Source: “How One GOP Plutocrat Helped Make 20000 Kids Homeless,” AlterNet, 11/29/12
Source: “There’s Been a Surge in Homeless New York City Students,” New York Magazine, 9/8/11
Source: “Homeless Children Face Emotional, Developmental Hurdles,” Patch.com, 06/08/11
Source: “Schools facing rise in homeless students,” The Christian Science Monitor, 04012/11
Source: “Homeless children shouldn’t be kicked out of school,” HomelessnessLaw.org, 03/01/12
Image by elizaIO.


New York City Gets Worse

Blanket ManLet’s recap. In New York City, there was a program that helped employed, formerly homeless parents to pay rent, and the city terminated the program. Then, they tried to make a rule requiring single homeless people to document the fact that shelters are their only option. With breathtaking arrogance and cruelty, the administration forged ahead with the forbidding of surplus food donations to shelters, by churches, synagogues, and other institutions.

In June of last year, municipal shelters were serving 43,000 people every night. The city opened more shelters, which cost more than continuing the Advantage program would have done. Each housing unit, holding two or three people, costs the city around $3,300 per month. Since Mayor Bloomberg took office, his policies have succeeded in increasing the number of people experiencing homelessness by 36%, according to the Coalition for the Homeless.

Before Hurricane Sandy in October, at least 46,000 shelter beds were occupied nightly, and of course that doesn’t even begin to count the people with nowhere to sleep at all. The approaching storm made it necessary to close up the subways, so that reliable refuge of the chronically homeless was gone.

Then suddenly, there was a whole additional population of newly homeless people whose usual residences were washed away by the flood, or were under water. Some of them, old and helpless, came from nursing homes. Despite the desperate need everywhere, the city retained its right to be picky about accepting food donations.

A November story by Nina Bernstein for The New York Times tells how when the storm hit:

… [C]ity officials ramped up emergency spaces to shelter thousands more people, mostly in public schools and colleges. Amid complaints of chaotic, unsanitary conditions, it then scattered hundreds of those people to $300 hotel rooms, from Midtown Manhattan to remote parts of Brooklyn and Queens. This week, officials closed all evacuation centers but two on Staten Island. Now they plan to rely solely on hotels, even as they brace for a new wave of people displaced from storm-damaged housing where they are facing winter without heat or hot water.

It was crisis after crisis. In January, The Huffington Post writer Maura Mcdermott told how nearly 1,000 Long Island families were on the verge of being ejected from FEMA’s emergency program that was keeping them in hotels. Their stay had already been extended twice. Mcdermott interviewed individuals and emphasized in her story how hard it was for displaced people to get to work, keep their medical appointments, and do other necessary activities.

When the 3-month storm anniversary date rolled around, there were still at least 3,500 New York and New Jersey families living in hotels. The uncredited author of a piece in Crain’s New York Business also sought out real people to interview, including Ayanna Diego, and wrote:

For storm victims with no other housing options, the anxiety is palpable. Most spend their days on the phone with a never-ending stream of federal agencies, contractors and insurance agents, struggling to sort out the housing mess Sandy left behind… Ms. Diego qualified for the maximum $31,900 lump sum allowed under FEMA’s household assistance program, and the money is supposed to be used for home repairs and short-term rentals. Instead, she is using those dollars to pay for gas and tolls to drive her niece to school in their old neighborhood, pay the mortgage on their wrecked home and buy meals for the family of four.

Earlier this month, the New York Post‘s Michael Gartland complained of homeless people hanging around in Grand Central Terminal, smelling bad and spoiling the appetites of restaurant patrons. But the transit cops only make them leave between 2:00 and 5:00 in the morning, when the station is closed to everyone. This, the writer apparently believes, is an occasion for outrage.

Remember “the public face for bona fide bad guys,” Alan Lapes? Thanks to the storm and the numerous cozy connections between bureaucrats and bad guys, New York City is doing even more business with this Lapes creature and his ilk. According to journalists Joseph Berger and Nate Schweber, Lapes is the:

[…] major private operator of homeless shelters. He is by most measures the city’s largest and owns or leases about 20 of the 231 shelters citywide. Most of the other shelters and residences are run by the city or by nonprofit agencies, but his operation is profit-making, prompting criticism from advocates for the homeless and elected officials.

Mr. Lapes, who lives in a multi-million-dollar house, does not deign to reply to messages left by reporters who request to interview him about how it feels to profit from the misery of others. When the city pays more than $3,000 per month each for rooms, the landlord get about half and the rest is supposed to pay for security and for social services for the sheltered people, many of whom are mentally ill, addicted, unable to work, and/or coping with numerous other problems.

At the Lapes establishments, security guards are present, but don’t seem able to do much about the violence, and nobody does anything about rodents, bugs, busted elevators, lack of hot water and heat, or fire-code violations. Amenities like counseling and job referrals are pretty much non-existent. The reporters quote Patrick Markee of the Coalition for the Homeless, who:

[…] blamed the Bloomberg administration for the continuing use of private landlords to house the homeless, citing a policy not to give the homeless priority for public housing projects and Section 8 vouchers because of long waiting lists. ‘The crisis that’s causing the city to open so many new shelters is mostly of the mayor’s own making,’ he said. ‘Instead of moving families out of shelters and into permanent housing, as previous mayors did, the city is now paying millions to landlords with a checkered past of harassing low-income tenants and failing to address hazardous conditions.’

Poor New Yorkers. And incidentally, from the other side of the country, here is a piece well worth reading, from Lita Kurth, called “Gimme Shelter: (un)affordable housing.”


Source: “How Sandy hits the homeless,” Salon.com, 10/29/12
Source: “Storm Bared a Lack of Options for the Homeless in New York,” The New York Times, 11/20/12
Source: “Sandy Victims In Long Island Face Hotel ‘Checkout’ As FEMA Program Nears End,” The Huffington Post, 01/11/13
Source: “Sandy’s homeless lead lives of anxiety in hotels,” Crain’s New York Business, 01/25/13
Source: “Filth and Fury: Homeless return to debase Grand Central Terminal,” New York Post, 02/02/13
Source: “For Some Landlords, Real Money in the Homeless,” The New York Times, 02/08/13
Image by Andrew Xu.


People Experiencing Homelessness in New York City

Homeless on NY SubwayIn 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.

House the Homeless has laid this out already in many of our pages — which a search for the “Universal Living Wage” will reveal. Briefly, as co-founder Richard R. Troxell recently wrote:

… [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.


Unstable Housing Is Contemporary Slavery

the homeless problemAs in the days of Les Miserables, people who lack wealth or property tend to be marginalized, disenfranchised, and dehumanized. Last week — and nothing has changed since then — House the Homeless discussed how, in America, poverty and homelessness are no longer lifestyles experienced chiefly by members of minority groups. Sure, ancestry is a factor in human fate, but almost always, the ultimate measuring device is money.

Recently, Northern California’s “Armstrong & Getty” radio show included the on-air reading of an email from homeless activist Ace Backwords. Here is an excerpt:

I’ve also been homeless for about 10 years… I’ve worked and supported myself for most of my life, including while I was homeless, and rarely went to the free meals or used the social services…

You see only the most grotesque and obvious members of the homeless community… The ones you don’t notice are the millions of otherwise normal people who don’t look or act homeless (which is why you don’t notice them) but just happen to be homeless. This is especially true of the latest generation of homeless — the ones in their 20s and 30s. A good percentage of them, there’s nothing particularly ‘street’ about them. They’re just normal people who got priced out of the rental market or victimized by the economic downturn. I read somewhere that 50% of recent college graduates are unemployed. And a surprising number of them end up homeless.

Whatever the percentage, isn’t it kind of shocking that any percentage of college graduates are unemployed? When even the educated white folks start finding themselves in the bread line, the situation is serious!

We also talked last week about Richard R. Troxell’s reflections on the book Why We Can’t Wait, by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which was published in 1963 — almost 50 years, or half a century ago. Drawing a parallel between black Americans in the past and many people of all races in the present, Richard wrote:

… [W]ages can still be correctly characterized as slave wages as they are today even though they are set by the federal government itself. This is the case today with the federal minimum wage being set at so low a level that it leaves a full time worker firmly impoverished and unable to afford life’s basic necessities… Today, American business remains unwilling to relinquish what still amounts to a vast human reservoir of cheap labor paid at poverty wages that continues to economically enslave workers.

Part of the problem here is the “one size fits all” assumption on which the federal minimum wage is based. As Richard says, America is a nation of a thousand economies, at least. In different regions, the minimum wage needs to be different. The Universal Living Wage would go a long way toward rectifying matters.

Nicole Hudley of New America Media relates how California’s Homeless Youth Project (HYP) is trying to get a handle on the extent of the problem, as represented by raw numbers. To understand how they cope, the HYP also surveyed 200 young people, both black and white, on the streets of San Francisco. The researchers learned that while white kids are more apt to sign in at shelters, black kids are more likely to find makeshift solutions like sleeping on buses or in fast food restaurants.

Hudley writes:

The African American youth were 38 percent more likely to be placed in the foster care system by Child Protective Services than whites. African American young people were also more likely to attribute family conflict to temporary problems associated with such issues as finances or substance abuse. Whites, on the other hand, often viewed their family trouble as being permanent and irresolvable.

Perhaps this is why African American youths who succeed in eluding the foster system are less likely to call themselves homeless, because many of them manage to patch together a series of temporary semi-homes. They get more support from extended family and friends, often “couch-surfing” from one place to another and using their food stamp allotments to pay back the favor. While not, technically, the same as absolute homelessness, this mode of survival is certainly “unstable housing” and needs to be recognized as equally problematic.

The poor of all ethnic groups share in common the feedback loop between homelessness and jail and homelessness and jail, and so on. Using prisoners for slave labor is actually fine, according to the Constitution. It says so right there in the 13th Amendment, as “Jehu” reminds us. This writer also notes that anti-vagabond laws were often used in the previous century to collect black men from the streets so they could be forced to work on behalf of corporate interests for no pay.

Jehu quotes a political author named Carl V. Harris:

In 1906 the editor of the Birmingham News said: ‘Anyone visiting a Southern city or town must be impressed at witnessing the large number of loafing negroes… They can all get work, but they don’t want to work. The result is that they sooner or later get into mischief or commit crimes.’ The editor believed that such Negroes were ‘not only a menace to the public safety’ but also ‘to some extent a financial burden upon the taxpayers.’

Doesn’t that sound just like what is said of people experiencing homelessness in the present day? Unlike the American South of over a hundred years ago, where black people were demonized, we now have an entire country where anyone can be demonized, regardless of race, creed, or whatever. All they have to be is homeless. This is equality like never before — progress indeed. And yes, that was a sarcastic remark.


Source: “The Armstrong and Getty radio show,” Acid Heroes, 12/14/12
Source: “Homeless Black Youth Largely Invisible to Service Providers,” New America Media, 01/03/13
Source: “A critical examination of Kevin Carson’s Mutualism (Part One),” Gonzo Times, 06/09/11
Image by D.C. Atty.


Homelessness — It’s About Green

mirrormanIn Richard R. Troxell’s exegesis of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 book Why We Can’t Wait, he compares today’s “quality of life” laws, which promise the very opposite of quality for people experiencing homelessness, to the discriminatory Jim Crow laws of the past:

These laws created living conditions that were ‘separate but equal.’ These included segregated hospitals and cemeteries. This is startlingly similar to the separate ‘Community Courts’ now targeting people experiencing homelessness across America.

In the old days, restroom facilities for the dominant race and the minority race were separate. But at least there were restrooms. Now, cities don’t want to provide toilet facilities for anyone, no matter what color, if they are homeless.

Richard says:

Also falling into this category, are today’s laws exclusively focused on people experiencing homelessness that include no camping, no soliciting, no sitting, no lying, no loitering, and laws regulating and limiting the feeding of people experiencing homelessness.

A nice middle-aged grandma who lives in a house could do any of these things with impunity. She could erect a tent to wait in line for a big blowout sale, or window-shop all day, or sit on a curb to eat an ice-cream cone, or buy a waffle for somebody else. Each one of these actions is different if a homeless person does it — like putting up a tent; or if someone does it for a homeless person — such as giving away food.

In other words, these are Jim Crow laws because they apply only to a segment of the population. Speaking of laws, here is another quotation from Richard’s piece:

Dr. King contends that there are two types of laws. He sees them as either just or unjust. He says it is our ‘moral responsibility’ to disobey all unjust laws.

It’s easy to see why Dr. King’s ideas make a lot of people uncomfortable. But Richard sees Why We Can’t Wait as an underappreciated treasure that should be read and understood by more people. He also writes:

Dr. King points out that, ‘The struggle for rights is, at the bottom, a struggle for opportunities.’ […] It was generally acknowledged that the lowest paid, and the least stable jobs were earmarked for the ‘Negro.’ Some might say the same is true of today’s ‘African Americans.’ Others would say the impoverished base has simply broadened out and engulfed the weakest.

Both assessments are accurate. Black and white people are both worse off. Equality has taken a strange form. Now, even educated white folks have the opportunity to be unemployed and homeless. This is the unspoken message of many media portrayals, probably because it is what the jargon calls “relatable.”

The subliminal message is, “When horrible misfortune can happen even to educated white folks, it’s time to take things seriously!” The heroes of the civil rights movement and the idealistic radicals of the 60s fought for equality, never dreaming that the equality the future held would look like this. America has 3.5 million minimum-wage workers who are nonetheless homeless, and they have skin of all colors.

Katie Kirkendoll, who goes to school and experiences homelessness in Tennessee, has picked up on the “Homeless is the new black” trope, and written an interesting explanation of why:

As a child growing up in the ’70s I was used to reading headlines ‘Black Man robs drug store’, or ‘John Doe, black, was arrested for’… [T]he days of media targeting black males are on the decline (at least we pray), however now they have decided to target a new group of humans, the homeless.

I looked at one of the local news websites and I found this little headline: ‘Homeless man robs Walgreens, police arrest him before he leaves.’ I ask why does the fact that he is homeless warrant the headline of the story? […] [I]t is a stereotype no different that lumping all African Americans or all Hispanics together in a group to fit stereotypes. It puts those of us who happen to not have a home at this time, to be a part of this stereotyping. This isolates the homeless people (remember we are still people?), from the public: at a time when he or she may need people the most.

I try to get up, dress neatly and put on my makeup, each day. Why do I do this? Because I believe a part of my survival depends on how I appear. Is that what it felt like to ‘pass’? I can’t say, but in many ways that is what I am attempting to do in hope of avoiding danger and promoting a kinder reception when I am in contact with others.

No doubt Ms. Kirkendoll is familiar with another popular saying, one which Richard quotes: “It’s not about white or black, it’s about green.” And no, they’re not talking about the movement that wants to preserve the environment, nothing that exalted. It just means that discrimination is no longer only about race; now more than ever it’s also about money.


Source: “Homeless is the new black,” katiekirkendoll, 10/21/12
Image by BelongingVictoria.com.


Why We Can’t Wait: Wages As a Civil Rights Issue

MLK Day Parade, Austin

House the Homeless marches in the 2013 MLK Day Parade

A Book Review With Reflections on Society Over 50 Years After MLK

Why We Can’t Wait

Wages As a Civil Rights Issue 

Imagine my delight routing through the 25¢ bins in west Texas when I came across a gem by the late, great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,  Why We Can’t Wait, written in 1963. The subject of his book is the “Negro Revolution” in America. This is a fascinating, close and personal look at the American Civil Rights Movement at its most volatile moment. The good Reverend Doctor King tells the tale of a people, who after 200 years of enslavement and total economic thievery find the ultimate weapon to achieve a bloodless revolution: non-violence.

Dr. King crystallizes our understanding of the motivation behind the Civil Rights Movement/Revolution when he points out that even 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the “American Negro” was living on a “lonely island of economic insecurity” while “in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” Dr. King asserted that “Negroes” existed within two overlapping circles of segregation: one of color and one of poverty.

He went on to point out that even as late as 1963, there were two and one-half times as many unemployed Negros as whites. Dr. King contended that evidence of racial prejudice and economic repression continuing was clear by the fact that in 1963, the black median income was only half that of whites. Dr. King pointed out that, “Many white Americans, of good will, have never connected bigotry with economic exploitation.” He points out that while some sympathetic “whites” deplored prejudice, they “either tolerated or ignored economic injustice.”

It was generally acknowledged that the lowest-paid and the least stable jobs were earmarked for the “Negro.” Some might say the same is true of today’s “African Americans.” Others would say the impoverished base has simply broadened out and engulfed the weakest.

MLKReverend King speaks of the Jim Crow Laws that were enacted following the Emancipation Proclamation. These laws created living conditions that were “separate but equal.” These included segregated hospitals and cemeteries.

This is startlingly similar to the separate “Community Courts” now targeting people experiencing homelessness across America. Also falling into this category are today’s laws exclusively focused on people experiencing homelessness that include no camping, no soliciting, no sitting, no lying, no loitering, and laws regulating and limiting the feeding of people experiencing homelessness.

All of this comes at a time when the 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.

The movement to resist segregation drew its strength from the pulpit of the black churches. There was certainly strength in numbers, but at the same time, there was resistance  from other African Americans. For example, when Dr. King was arrested and thrown into jail in Birmingham for marching in the streets, he received great resistance from the community and church leaders.

While in the Birmingham jail, he wrote a very long and impassioned open letter to these well-intended but sheepish leaders who felt his actions were rash, brash, and ahead of their time. The theme of the letter and the title of the book I write about here stems from Dr. King’s arguments as to “why we can’t wait.”

For starters, the people for whom Dr. King advocated have suffered physical attacks from snarling, vicious police dogs, stinging welts from indiscriminate police nightsticks, the raging force of fire hoses that were known to strip the bark off of trees, and sometimes the short end of a rope wielded by an angry mob.

Dr. King contends that there are two types of laws. He sees them as either just or unjust. He says it is our “moral responsibility” to disobey all unjust laws. The Reverend decries any unjust law and declares that it is “out of harmony with the moral law.”

He goes on to define any law that degrades human personality as unjust. He puts all segregation statutes into this category because segregation “distorts the world and damages the personality.” I would include in this Jim Crow laws and similarly all modern day Quality of Life ordinances that are applied against one faction of the citizenry and not others.

It is one thing to have a law that prevents sitting down and blocking a sidewalk, but it is entirely another when the targets of the laws or ordinances are mentally or physically disabled and have a legitimate need to sit or lie down while leaving room for reasonable passage. So as Dr. King aptly puts it, “Sometimes a law is ‘just’ on its face and unjust in its application.”

Dr. King states that defying a law in the face of imprisonment “is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.” He points to the acts of Adolf Hitler and that technically they were “legal” while at the same time, “everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was illegal.” The world is upside down.

Regarding economics, Dr. King shines a very bright light on the fact that for more than two centuries, our forebears labored in this country without any wages whatsoever.

The Civil Rights actions of 1963 were non-violent acts of resistance, i.e., marching without a permit and direct non-violent defiance of segregation laws that declared “Whites only” and acts that involved civil disobedience at lunch counters. These came in department stores throughout the south and ultimately up and down the eastern seaboard. This came in department stores that gladly took the money from black patrons for items purchased but denied the Negro the right to sit at the lunch counters where White patrons also occupied seats.

As the action of non-violently occupying lunch counters continued, more and more Negroes volunteered to “learn” how to become non-violent as Gandhi had taught it. Wave after wave of Negroes, adults and children, practiced civil disobedience and resisted unjust segregationist laws and got themselves arrested while remaining non-violent.

They remained non-violent as their heads were crushed, the fire hoses and the dogs attacked them, and while they were choked with tear gas. Upon reflection, Dr. King stated that, “One of the wisest moves we made was introducing children into the Birmingham campaign.” They added energy, civility, and a voice for righteous indignation.

As the protests proceeded, Dr. King and the other leaders were very anxious to establish a dialogue with city leaders, businessmen, and others.

They sought:

  1. Desegregation of lunch counters, rest rooms, fitting rooms, and drinking fountains in variety and department stores.
  2.  The upgrading and hiring of ‘Negroes’ on a non-discriminatory basis throughout the business and industrial community of Birmingham.
  3. The dropping of all charges against jailed demonstrators.
  4. The creation of a biracial committee to work out a timetable for desegregation in other areas of Birmingham life.

The resistance to these concessions was great. Many businessmen would rather face bankruptcy than concede to integration under pressure.

The 1963 Battle of Birmingham could be seen all the way to Washington, D.C. Attorney General Robert Kennedy sent an emissary, Burke Marshall, his chief civil-rights assistant, to open lines of communications. At the same time, the Commissioner of Public Safety, “Bull” Connor, literally turned up the water pressure of the fire hoses and all but ripped the flesh off of peaceful demonstrators.

The escalation was swift and instantly became violent. “Bull” Conner called in state troopers for backup. The Senior Citizens Committee, the white residents of Birmingham trying to find a solution to this human upheaval, met repeatedly. Then, one afternoon, 125 of these businessmen returning from lunch were stopped in their tracks when they witnessed that several thousand Negroes had marched into town.

The jails and recreation centers were so full of ongoing arrests that they could only arrest a handful more. They were face to face with thousands of black faces that were relentlessly singing freedom songs. One of the more resistant businessmen was quoted as saying, “You know, I’ve been thinking this through. We ought to be able to work something out.”

That same day, President John F. Kennedy used the opening sections of his press conference to call for compromise and acknowledged that both sides were now talking. By the end of the next day, every request/demand had been agreed upon. A peace pact had been signed. While this did not quell the angst, or even the bombings and the assassinations, there was at least a framework for congressional legislation that would ultimately come during the Johnson Administration.

In the meantime, Dr. King, in reflection, wrote that, “A social movement that only moves people is merely a revolt. A movement that changes both people and institutions is a revolution.” He was determined to integrate the schools and the factories.


It is said that power gives up nothing without a struggle, and so it is with the enslaving of people where their labor is stolen openly, or when a “Negro’s” freedom was periodically sold to that same slave, or when wages can still be correctly characterized as slave wages as they are today even though they are set by the federal government itself. This is the case today with the federal minimum wage being set at so low a level that it leaves a full-time worker firmly impoverished and unable to afford life’s basic necessities.

The emancipation of the American “Negro” led to the theoretical end of 200 years of a free pool of labor, that coupled with seemingly endless natural resources, catapulted this nation forward like no other in the history of mankind. American enterprise was firmly built upon this human resource. Today, American business remains unwilling to relinquish what still amounts to a vast human reservoir of cheap labor paid at poverty wages that continues to economically enslave workers.

Dr. King, recognizing that slavery was, in part, the engine of our Southern economy, reflected that slavery was beginning to loosen its grip and that there needed to be additional steps to end the “institution” of slavery. He felt that there should be some kind of reparations for the theft of the labor of these workers over the last 200 years.

In what some argued then and some still argue today is a kind of reverse discrimination, Dr. King recounted a conversation between himself and Prime Minster Nehru about how India addressed compensation for the past discriminations against the “untouchables” that is now reflected in India’s Constitution. It was established that if two applicants were to compete for acceptance to a college or university and one is from a high caste and one an “untouchable,” the “untouchable” would be hired.

This country adopted a version of that which came to be known as “affirmative action.” But if the cheated worker was to be compensated at a set fair wage, then the current federal minimum wage would have to be recast to resemble a Universal Living Wage. In this fashion, a full-time minimum-wage worker would be assured of working 40 hours in a week and being able to afford the basics as stated:  food, clothing, and shelter (including utilities) — wherever that work is done throughout the United States.

Dr. King wrote about the irony of  the lunch-counter sit-ins in Greensboro, N.C., and a night club comedian’s observation that, “had the demonstrators been served […] they could not have paid for the meal.”

Civil Rights Memorial

Dr. King asks: What advantage is it to achieve integration if one simply becomes subject to financial servitude? Dr. King points out that, “The struggle for rights is, at the bottom, a struggle for opportunities.” The good Reverend wrote that “no amount of gold could provide just compensation for 200 years of exploitation and humiliation.” But, he asserted, “he can be compensated for his 200 years of robbed wages.”

Dr. King, while continuing to reflect on economic compensation, wrote that “while Negroes form the vast majority of America’s disadvantaged, there are millions of poor ‘Whites’ who would also benefit from A Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged.” Dr. King contended that:

The moral justification for special measures for ‘Negroes’ is rooted in the robberies inherent in the institution of slavery. Many poor ‘Whites’; however, were the derivative victims of slavery. As long as labor was cheapened by the involuntary servitude of the ‘Black man’, the freedom of ‘white labor’, especially in the South, was little more than a myth. It was free only to bargain from the depressed base imposed by slavery upon the whole labor market. Nor did this derivative bondage end when formal slavery gave way to the de-facto slavery of Economic Discrimination. To this day, the ‘White poor’ also suffer deprivation and the humiliation of poverty if not of color. They are chained by the weight of discrimination, though its badge of degradation does not mark them.  It corrupts their lives, frustrates their opportunities and withers their education. In one sense, it is more evil for them because it has confused so many by prejudice that they have supported their own oppressors.

Dr. King harks back to the 1930s and the struggle by workers to organize to secure a living wage. He found it interesting to note that it was some of the same states that opposed the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s that opposed organizing for living wages in the 1930s.

The same can be said today. People who want to make their way forward off the back of others are strident in their march of oppression. They marginalize the vulnerable using the color of their skin, or the weight of their wallet, the level of their education, or their belief in their God.

Dr. King felt that a mutual support between organized labor and the civil rights movement was “not a matter of choice but a necessity.” I agree, but the AFL-CIO of today must shed itself of non-progressive thinking of yesteryear if it is to help the folks at the bottom today. The shopworn approach of “one size fits all” for our national minimum wage is folly at best and grossly repressive at worst.

We are a nation of a thousand-plus economies. It is important to recognize that a single federal minimum wage of, say, $10.00 an hour won’t get a single homeless, minimum-wage worker off the streets of our nation’s capitol. At the same time, $10.00 per hour would devastate small business in rural America.

A single federal minimum wage that only goes part of the way to the economic goal of escaping poverty only ensures economic slavery for every minimum-wage worker. And it makes no sense to set a wage that will crush small businesses all across rural America. It is no small wonder as to why small businesses continue to resist gulping changes that so affect these small engines of our economy.

If the AFL-CIO, that remained neutral during the civil rights movement, is to redeem itself as a level-headed, thinking advocacy organization, it will need to abandon this one-size-fits-all approach. Evidence of the failure of “one size fits all” rests in the fact that 3.5 million minimum-wage American workers under that policy will experience homelessness in this year, 2013.

If the union leaders of America are to be considered enlightened, they will need to acknowledge that we are a nation of a 1,000-plus economies, with the single most costly item in every American’s monthly budget being housing. And therefore, what we need to do to free the American minimum-wage worker, is to index the federal minimum wage to the local of housing.

In this fashion, anyone working 40 hours in a week, (be it at one job or more) — the individual  “Black” or “White” — they will be able to afford basic food, clothing, and shelter (including utilities) wherever that work is done throughout the United States. This will conservatively end homelessness for over 1,000,000 minimum-wage workers and prevent Economic Homelessness for all 10.1 million minimum-wage workers.

These impoverished workers will then be in a position to avail themselves of America’s opportunities and chase the American Dream along with everyone else. Until then, they just be poor folks… white or black; it’s about green… some say it always has been.

Dr. King saw the 1950-1960s Civil Rights Movement and the events of 1963 in particular as a true beginning for the American “Negro,” the downtrodden, the oppressed, and the poor “Whites” everywhere. He saw unity among these groups as our strength and non-violence as our greatest weapon.

Final Note: House the Homeless borrowed a quote from the late, great Dr. King and it now adorns the Homeless Memorial in Austin, TX.  “There is nothing but short sightedness to prevent a livable income for every American family.”

Universal Living Wage

Join us in the fight for a Universal Living Wage!

Image by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Los Angeles District
Image by Elvin Wong
Image by uusc4all



Living on the Shifting Sands of Affordability

Downtown AustinWhat the U.S. Census bureau calls a “conventional” amount of money to pay for housing (PDF) is 30%. According to economics experts, a family is considered financially responsible if it spends just under one-third of its income on housing costs. More than that, and the household is considered financially “burdened.” About one-third is the standard for most rental housing programs.

A Census Bureau report says:

Because the 30 percent rule was deemed a rule of thumb for the amount of income that a family could spend and still have enough left over for other nondiscretionary spending, it made its way to owner-occupied housing too.

But there are exceptions. Indeed, a mortgage website says that it is following the guidelines of most lenders by allowing a total debt-to-income ratio of up to 36%. The government report explains this:

Many households whose housing costs exceed 30 percent of their incomes are choosing then to devote larger shares of their incomes to larger, more amenity-laden homes. These households often still have enough income left over to meet their non-housing expenses.

In other words, for some people, affordability is not an issue, no matter how big a chunk of their income they spend to put a roof over their head. Lifestyle choice is the only consideration. They want gourmet kitchens and swimming pools, and if they can afford it, good for them. However, the report goes on to say:

But for those households at the bottom rungs of the income ladder, the use of housing costs in excess of 30 percent of their limited incomes as an indicator of a housing affordability problem is as relevant today as it was four decades ago.

The 30% figure is generally accepted now, and is conventional in the sense that it has been quoted since around 1980 when the government set the rent standard for subsidized housing, which shouldn’t charge more than one-third of what a family had.

But there is a strange historical wrinkle that people don’t seem to think about. This recommended proportion that came into vogue 30-odd years ago was not the same as it had been a few years before. The number had “evolved,” as the government report explains. The received wisdom about the amount of family income that should be spent on housing was different wisdom from what it had been previously.

Some of us remember Home Economics class, where we were taught that only a fool would ever consider moving into a place that costs more than 25% of your income. You spent one-fourth on housing, and there were other recommended percentages for other things the budget needed to cover. But for renting or buying a place to live, a quarter of what you made should definitely be the limit. To commit to a greater obligation was the act of an irresponsible person.

In 1968, there was the Housing and Urban Development act, and the next year, the Brooke Amendment set the rent threshold at one-fourth of family income. For the mathematically unskilled, one-fourht is less than one-third. The recommendation used to be to spend even less of the family’s total income on housing.

And guess what? Before that, it used to be considered prudent, rational, and logical to spend only one-fifth of the family income on housing, which is an even smaller proportion. The National Housing Act in 1937 created the public housing program, which had a rent standard that stopped at 20%, or one-fifth of income.

In other words, our idea of the portion of income that is reasonable and prudent to pay for housing has suffered from expectation creep. Every so often, we are presented, by the shifting sands of the affordability concept, with a new normal. Somehow, while we weren’t looking, one of the Great Universal Truths was swapped out for a different Great Universal Truth. Within one human lifespan, the expectation went from “housing should cost one-fifth of what you make” to “housing should cost one-third of what you make.” One-third is more. A lot more.

So, all other talk of housing costs is resting on a big, slimy, insidious con job. That being said, the struggle continues to provide housing that people can afford, and to get people into jobs that pay enough so they can afford housing.

House the Homeless is located in Austin, TX, where the issues of work, wages, and the affordability of housing are particularly acute lately because of the Waller Creek project which is remaking the downtown area. HtH President Richard R. Troxell recently contributed to the public discourse about subcontractor wages, informing the County Commissioners and City Council about the Universal Living Wage campaign. The concept is staggeringly simple: Any person who performs a standard 40-hour-per week job ought to be able to afford shelter (including utilities), food, clothing, and at least public transportation.

It’s kind of amazing that anybody should need this explained. But subcontractor pay is not the only matter being discussed in Austin these days. Much more on Richard’s mind, and the minds of people experiencing homelessness in the city, is the redevelopment project. Matters seem to be poised at a cusp where the agencies serving the homeless can either seize a huge advantage or lose a great deal of their ability to benefit the destitute and the striving.

The Austin Chronicle‘s Ari Phillips interviewed Richard for a thoughtful piece about the Waller Creek project and its ramifications. We quote from that article:

Troxell estimates that about 1,000 homeless individuals use the creek corridor daily. Lately, he says, the city has been encouraging the police to keep the homeless out of the area, he believes to prepare for coming development. He imagines the future Waller Creek as much like the heavily commercialized San Antonio River Walk — homeless-free…

Troxell thinks nonprofits aiding the homeless need to work together and plan ahead to build resources and move their organizations elsewhere; otherwise, the business community will buy them out one at a time. ‘If they do get bought out, the homeless community will be run over by this wave of new energy that’s coming,’ he said. ‘A wave that will be very moneyed and very police-secure.’

By the way, Looking Up at the Bottom Line, by Richard R. Troxell, is now available in electronic formats, i.e. the Kindle and the Nook.


Source: “Who Can Afford To Live in a Home?” (PDF), U.S. Census Bureau, 2006
Source: “Going With the Flow,” The Austin Chronicle, 01/11/13
Image by Tim Patterson.


Download the Free HtH Pet Calendar for 2013

Jerrol and Frank, photographed by Austin's Sigma Chi

Jerrol and Frank, photographed by Austin’s Sigma Chi

All of us love love our pets. They’re part of the family. And homeless people are no exception. Download the HtH 2013 Pets Calendar, featuring some of the homeless men and women of Austin with the pets they love so much. The photos were donated by Sigma Chi.


This calendar is free, but if you would like to donate to HtH please click here to give using PayPal.

Suggested Donation: $10

Hugs your pets today!


Hundreds of Austin Homeless Receive Clothing

House the Homeless’s annual thermal underwear drive was recently featured on Austin’s Fox News 7. Hundreds of men, women, and children picked up clothing that will help them survive the winter cold. The drive goes all winter so there is still time for you to contribute money or clothing.

Thermal Underwear Drive

Thermal Underwear Drive by HtH


The attitude toward the Austin street community started changing with the skyline. And as the growth downtown continues, so does the pressure.

Homeless advocate Richard Troxell, who organized the clothing give-away says he is bracing for a crisis.

“I think as long as people out live the resources that’s what is going to happen, in inevitable so we have to deal with this,” Troxell said.

According to a recent survey by Troxell 52 percent of those living on the streets cannot work because of health problems. Forty-eight percent are able to work. But according to Troxell the few jobs available don’t pay enough to get people off the streets.

Read more.

Richard R. Troxell, founder of House the Homeless, is advocating for a Universal Living Wage as one way to solve the homelessness problem.

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