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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

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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

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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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Homelessness and Shameful Waste

Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, NYCOne of the worst and most underreported aspects of the homeless crisis is the amount of money wasted by cities in their attempts to not deal with it, or to handle it in ways ranging from sloppy to deeply criminal. Boise, Idaho, for example, really knows how to flush dollars down the toilet.

Briefly summarized here is a story reported by Rebecca Boone for Associated Press. Back in the 1990s, the city worked with an agency called Community House (CH), but the relationship was rocky, and in 2003, the city announced that its shelter would hitherto be run by the Boise Rescue Mission, which serves only men. The much more vulnerable women and children would be left out.

Boone writes:

Community House filed a complaint under the Fair Housing Act contending that the move amounted to discrimination against the homeless women and children currently living there because it would leave them with no place to go.

The city went ahead with its plans, so CH filed a federal lawsuit, and the jury found that the city had violated the state constitution and engaged in retaliatory behavior, and, most of all, discriminated against women and children. Eventually, Boise was ordered to pay $1 million dollars to CH. But all the attorneys who have worked on the case for seven years need to be paid, too, and they intend to charge the city nearly another $2 million for their fees.

But the city intends to have the discrimination and retaliation case overturned, which would leave both CH and the lawyers unpaid, and, incidentally, pile up even more legal fees. Not to worry, a spokesperson assured the public. The party line is, even if the worst happens, and the monetary award is upheld, it won’t cost the citizens, because the city’s insurer will pay.

Does that make any sense? Surely, it’s the taxpayers who buy the insurance policy, and will continue to do so after the rates are raised, in the wake of a big payout. If that isn’t the way it works, someone please explain. And what has all this expenditure on legal talent accomplished, as far as actually putting anybody under a roof?

Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, NY, a story is brewing whose ugliness increases daily. We know about it due to an impressive series of articles by investigative reporter Andrew Rice. The basic fact is that more than 45,000 New Yorkers are in the homeless system, some housed already at a monthly cost of $3,300 per unit, which is more than the market rate in Manhattan.

Of course, the price is described as including “services,” which mainly seem to consist of a hefty security staff. If the amount includes nurses, counselors, dietitians, and other personnel who do something for the residents, other than keep the rowdy ones in line, such expenditure would be justified. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. Rice explains how they do things in New York:

Shelter contracts can work in a variety of ways. Sometimes a property owner like Lapes bids directly and then subcontracts to a service provider. Sometimes, as is the case in Carroll Gardens, a service provider bids after having identified a property to lease. Few landlords, though, are willing to turn their buildings into shelters. That means the city must pay a premium, sometimes to sketchy characters.

The big story right now concerns Carroll Gardens, a building originally containing 10 apartments, that is being remodeled into a 170-bed shelter. What’s not to like? Several things, apparently, including pervasive secrecy and the invocation of “emergency contract rules” rationalized by the need to finish the work in a hurry before winter sets in.

That is the clearest aspect of the tale, which quickly devolves into a complicated mess concerning the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) and several unsavory characters, none of whom deign to return the reporter’s messages. Rice has been tracing all the people who stand to make money off the current project, and it’s not looking good.

He writes:

D.H.S. prepares to award a no-bid contract worth millions of dollars to the agency’s recently departed commissioner, who appears, in turn, to be renting the building that will house the shelter from one of his newly established nonprofit’s own board members… While few specifics [...] have been disclosed, public records indicate that the bidder has an unusually involved relationship with the building’s landlord, who stands to profit from the deal.

The building appears to be owned by Alan Lapes, a convicted felon once characterized by the New York Post as “the public face for bona fide bad guys.” More than 20 shelters are run for the DHS by a shady outfit called Aguila Incorporated that was accused by the Comptroller of overcharging the city by almost a million dollars last year. And who is in charge of Aguila? The former DHS commissioner, a fellow named Robert Hess, also boss of Housing Solutions, which has three board members, two of them business associates of this Lapes character.

Then, there’s Amsterdam Hospitality, headed by Stuart Podolsky, whose expertise in previous ventures consisted of terrorizing tenants out of rent-controlled apartments (thus causing a great amount of homelessness) so the buildings they were driven from could be turned to much more profitable uses. Not surprisingly, Lapes also used to work for them, and all kinds of dicey things went on in the shelters he supervised. Rice says:

In recent years, scandals involving politically connected nonprofits and public-service contracts have led to corruption indictments and tough new state regulations on executive compensation and oversight.

Here, too, the legal costs have been ridiculous, including those incurred in several more lawsuits along the way, which Rice catalogues. Really, the whole sordid story deserves to be read in its entirety, and not just read, but studied and taken to heart as an object lesson, by any city that truly intends to house the homeless, and not merely enrich a battalion of attorneys and a legion of thieves.

Reactions?

Source: “Lawyers for homeless shelter seek almost $2M,” Idahostatesman.com, 10/25/12
Source: “A New Carroll Gardens Homeless Shelter Built on Old Relationships,” CapitalNewYork.com, 10/15/12
Source: “The controversial landlord behind a mystery-shrouded Carroll Gardens shelter project,” CapitalNewYork.com, 10/18/12
Source: “Hidden in a Carroll Gardens shelter project, an owner with ‘terror’ on his resume,” CapitalNewYork.com, 10/22/12
Image by TijsB.

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“Housing First” Offers Precious Opportunity

Interesting ConversationThe fictional character of Dracula was inspired by the real Prince Vlad of Romania, sarcastically described here by Robert Davenport in his Roots of the Rich and Famous:

Realizing that the plight of the homeless was an important problem in his country, he had all of the homeless people invited to a huge feast in a specially prepared building. They were then fed until they could barely move, at which point Dracula had the doors closed and the building burned down, thus ‘eliminating’ the problem.

We have come a long way since then, and some locales have made more progress than others. Last week, House the Homeless blog looked at the advantages of housing the homeless, especially the small percentage who place a disproportionate strain on the budgets of jails and courts.

And fire departments. Last year in Albuquerque, for instance, nearly 80% of one fire station’s calls (3,000 of them) rendered aid to homeless people with substance addictions. Is it really in a city’s best interest to employ fire trucks for anything but fires?

In the same city, the “Heading Home” initiative was planned to create publicly funded housing for the 75 most vulnerable homeless citizens. A single individual had logged 120 emergency room visits and 30 inpatient stays within a single year, at a cost of more than $100,000.

Malcolm Gladwell mentions a study undertaken by the University of California’s medical center in San Diego. It lasted a year and a half, and concentrated on 15 chronically homeless people who were either mentally ill, addicted, or both. Guess how many ER visits they collectively racked up? A total of 417. One man came in 87 times during that period. Those 15 people, in that time frame, averaged medical bills of $100,000 each.

As surveys show, a great percentage of people experiencing homelessness also suffer from chronic illnesses and disabilities. According to federal law, anyone who shows up at an emergency room has to be evaluated and treated. While this is a good thing, it also leads to medical centers being inappropriately forced to serve as de facto temporary housing. Barbara Williams writes:

At hospitals, the homeless know they can get a hot meal and escape the cold or rain for a few hours when shelters are full. Emergency rooms have become such a lifeline that some return to the same ER every few weeks, while others rotate among hospitals so they don’t show up too often at the same facility…

Some call it “working the system,” but the system is the only game in town. If a patient spends three nights in a hospital, Medicaid considers the person eligible for a nursing home. But even if a hospital wants to go that route, it’s often hard to justify a three-night hospital stay, in order to fulfill that requirement. In some states, such as New Jersey, the law mandates a “safe discharge” plan. That means somewhere to stay, a way to get meds, and followup office visits if necessary (and we will be talking more about “safe discharge”).

A reader from Rochester, NY, describes the limited efforts that cause schizophrenic and bipolar tenants to be “dumped” into state-subsidized apartment buildings where they frighten or even threaten the tenants who are merely old and/or disabled. Three successful suicides had been completed since she lived there:

It is interesting that the state gives them food stamps to use, gives them vouchers for furniture and clothing, but does not provide the one essential of having someone make sure they take their meds.

It is counter-productive to insist that people be addiction-free before they can be housed. The most success has been achieved with a “housing first” policy. Supportive care ensures that people who need meds do indeed take them, and performs many other services that prevent the disbursement of large amounts of money in the near future. Plus, on the do-the-right-thing side of the equation, merely providing a roof is not enough, not when the tenants use it to jump from.

In Denver, the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless began a “housing first” program in 2003. When the results were compiled, they showed that emergency-room visits decreased to such an extent that the taxpayers paid 73% less for the care of each participant — averaging only $31,500 per person. Portland, ME, found that permanent supportive housing reduced the cost of mental health services by 57%.

Heather Scoffield reports on Canadian research which proved that bringing the chronically homeless who are mentally ill into supportive housing cut the expense by more than half:

One study shows that taxpayers pay between $66,000 and $120,000 to cover the basic annual costs for prison or psychiatric hospitals for just one homeless person… For chronically homeless people who are frequent users of social services, the annual savings are $25,899 per person.

When substance abuse is the only issue, “housing first” offers a strong possibility that the person will re-enter the larger community, making space in the facility for someone in greater need. Often, however, those with mental illness might never become self-sufficient. But at least supportive housing can keep them out of the costly emergency rooms and prison cells. How often does the chance come along to do good AND save money? Really, it’s a no-brainer.

Reactions?

Source: “Housing Homeless Saves Public Money,” DailyLobo.com, 04/25/11
Source: “Why problems like homelessness may be easier to solve than to manage,” Gladwell.com, 02/13/06
Source: “More homeless in NJ using hospital ERs for shelter and food,” NorthJersey.com, 05/25/12
Source: “Housing First: County poised for major shift in dealing with homelessness,” TDN.com, 05/14/11
Source: “Cheaper to buy homeless their own place,” The Province, 09/25/12
Image by Ed Schipul.

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Do It Now and Save Money

39 arrestsDo what? Get people experiencing homelessness under a roof. Even the most expensive supportive housing is cheaper than what it costs to keep a person on the streets. This has been demonstrated over and over again. Amazingly, many people, even those who are already moved by compassion to act, are not aware of the facts.

If a piece of clothing is torn, the hole is likely to catch on something and rip even further. But if it’s sewn up quickly, it’s much less work to repair. That is why “A stitch in time saves nine” is a venerable old saying. When the social fabric is torn, the adage is equally true. Sure, money is tight, but spending a dollar now will prevent the spending of many multiples of that dollar. One stitch instead of nine. And the beauty part is, the savings begin immediately.

The people mainly concerned here are the chronically homeless, meaning, on the streets for more than a year, or with a history of four or more episodes of homelessness in the previous three years. Often, there is a component of mental illness and/or substance addiction. Overall, less than one-fifth of people experiencing homelessness fall into this category. But their care accounts for more than half of the resources set aside for homeless assistance.

Budget-wise, the law enforcement and medical establishments take the biggest hit. Courts get jammed up, fire departments are affected, and the cost even extends to public libraries, some of which have added extra staff and new programs to cope with their patrons experiencing homelessness.

Whether agencies are funded by city, state, or federal government, the same people pay for all the damage, and they’re called taxpayers. It has been proven that a lot of social problems can be alleviated with a lot less of the taxpayers’ money. Of course, people experiencing homelessness pay taxes, too. Like everyone else, they pay sales tax on what they buy. And they have their own special tax, embodied in the ordinances that cities everywhere are instituting. They get fined for Breathing While Homeless. Not surprisingly, they mostly can’t pay, so homeless people are thrown in jail and become a big expense to everybody else. Then, they wind up back on the streets again and cost the citizens even more.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The answer is “housing first,” an idea which took flight in New York City in the 1990s. People are encouraged to get off street, into subsidized housing, with no strings attached. They do not have to get sober or un-addicted first. It’s a come-as-you-are invitation.

The always-emphatic Kirsten Anderberg puts her own spin on it:

No one makes sobriety a requirement for middle class people to live in, own, or inherit houses. That clean and sober requirement to live in housing is a bar a majority of middle class people could not meet yet they demand it of the poor. The double standard where the middle class can act irresponsibly… but if you are poor, you need to be a damned angel to get any help, needs to be examined.

The majority of “housing first” clients take advantage of the opportunity to pull themselves together and become productive members of society. In a story that gives some very detailed instances of success, Amy M.E. Fischer writes:

The Housing First approach takes chronically homeless people off the streets and places them in their own apartments, without the usual hurdles of screening and strict rules. They are assigned a caseworker whom the landlord can contact at any time… The program [...] pays part or all of the rent on a decreasing basis, depending on the case… Case workers slowly ratchet up the expectations for addressing their problems and becoming self sufficient.

In January, The Christian Science Monitor‘s Andrew Mach reported that in the previous year,

[...] the number of so-called permanent supportive housing units in the United States exceeded the number of emergency shelters for the first time. The reason is simple, advocates say: Permanent supportive housing not only removes the stigma of homelessness but is also cheaper than other alternatives, studies show.

Yes, cheaper. In Los Angeles County, Project 50 saved $238,700 over two years by locating Skid Row’s 50 most long-term, substance-abusing individuals and housing them without requiring that they sober up first. The program then went on to help many more.

In 2009, a study called “Where We Sleep: The Costs of Housing and Homelessness in Los Angeles” looked at more than 10,000 people and arrived at these numbers:

– Cost of a homeless person on the streets: $2,897 per month
– Cost of a person in supportive housing: $605 per month.

In Denver, CO, a “housing first” program brought down jail costs by 76%. In other words, to only one-quarter of the previous high. In Seattle, a similar project saved nearly $30,000 per year per tenant. A study by the University of Pennsylvania showed the yearly cost to the taxpayers of one homeless person with severe mental illness on the street: $40,451. Placement in supportive housing saved an impressive $16K per capita.

CBS’s Phil Hirschkorn recently reported on a shelter called “Safe Harbor” in Tampa, FL. Its founder, Sheriff Bob Gaultieri, told the reporter that while jail costs $106 a day, the shelter costs $13 a day for each resident. Cowlitz County, WA, decided to try “housing first” in 2011, and there are many more examples. According to the Na­tion­al Alliance to End Home­less­ness, four American cities have achieved stardom in this area — Chicago, IL, Norfolk, VA, Quincy, MA, and Witchita, KS.

Philip Mangano was in charge of homelessness policy under President George W. Bush, and he helped to pioneer “housing first.” Eventually, Mangano was able to gather figures from 65 cities where the concept was being tried. He found that the annual cost of keeping one person on the street is between $35,000 and $150,000, whereas the yearly bill for supportive housing is more like $13,000 to $25,000. In other words, supportive housing at the high end is still cheaper than street homelessness at the low end.

This spring, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan came out in favor of “housing first,” saying:

The thing we finally figured out is that it’s actually, not only better for people, but cheaper to solve homelessness than it is to put a band-aid on it. Because, at the end of the day… it costs about $40,000 a year for a homeless person to be on the streets.

It’s a shame that more taxpayers in more cities can’t see their own long-term good staring them in the face. Of course, there is always the NIMBY, or “Not In My Back Yard” factor, when the feeling is, “Sure, help the homeless — just don’t do it near me.” This works against society’s need help people off the street-hospital-jail-street merry-go-round.

Reactions?

Source: “Middle Class Denial of Privileges is Offensive to the Poor,” Portland IMC, 05/21/10
Source: “Housing First: County poised for major shift in dealing with homelessness,” TDN.com, 05/14/11
Source: “How to curb chronic homelessness? First, a home!,” The Christian Science Monitor, 01/25/12
Source: “Building Housing For Homeless People Saves L.A. County Money, Study Shows,” North Hollywood-Toluca Lake, CA, Patch, 06/07/12
Source: “Tampa area has nation’s highest homelessness rate,” CBS News, 08/26/12
Source: “HUD secretary says a homeless person costs taxpayers $40,000 a year,” PolitiFact.com, 05/05/12
Image by Elvert Barnes.

2

People Experiencing Homelessness Are Easy Targets

Homeless dudeAustin, TX, needs more shelter space for homeless women, and a petition gained enough signatures to have the idea added to a health and human services bond package that will soon be voted on. Journalist Jazmine Ulloa wrote:

Richard Troxell, founder of the advocacy group House the Homeless, said that list reached 3,700 names last month. In conjunction with an ad-hoc women’s task force, the group has presented a proposal to City Council to expand the women and children’s shelter in East Austin.

The need for additional facilities has been apparent for a many years, but what brought it to the forefront was the murder of Valerie Godoy in June. She was found in a park, beaten and unconscious, and died soon afterward. On October 1, the police announced that a 41-year-old man, Jeffrey Lee Howard, had been arrested and was being held on bail amounting to half a million dollars. They’re not saying much about either the motive or the evidence. Ulloa says:

Howard was not homeless but would utilize resources and frequent areas used by homeless people… Howard seemed to be new to the park and might have known Godoy but did not have a relationship with her…

With all the other problems that confront people experiencing homelessness, that’s another one — members of the larger community who hang around looking for prey, whether it’s a woman to rape or a man to hire for a “bum-fight” video or worse. In addition to Valerie Godoy, murder has been the goal of Austin predators at least two other times this year. In both those cases the victims were men. Every year there are homicides, and, in a larger sense, the deaths of many more homeless people might be viewed as slow murder performed by an uncaring society. Richard was also interviewed by Morgan Chesky of KVUR television news.

Here are a few random examples from the last couple of years in America. In Texas, a sex offender wanted to convince the police that he was dead, so he shot a homeless man in the head, put the body in the trunk of his car, and set it on fire. In California, Henrietta Sholl was found dead in a budget motel, forcibly smothered by a pillow. In Nebraska, three 17-year-olds punched and kicked William Morgan to death in a park. In Hawaii, Gordon Lindberg was beaten to death.

In San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, after two homicides and several different kind of attacks on people experiencing homelessness, the best solution the authorities could come up with was to toughen enforcement of the no-sleeping rule, and consider totally closing the park at night. That’s supposed to encourage homeless people to stop offering themselves up as tempting objects to be killed. Oddly enough, when someone is murdered inside a house, the city fathers don’t pass a law forbidding people to sleep in houses.

In Mississippi, James Anderson (who was black) was beaten by a gang of white kids who then ran over him with a pickup truck. In Florida, somebody killed Angel Gonzalez with an ax and claimed to have eaten his brain and an eyeball. In Colorado, John Carlos Martinez died soon after being found beaten in a park. In Illinois, Richard Gibbons was killed by a fire extinguisher that was dropped on him from the top of a parking structure. In New York, an attack on a homeless man was reported by Barry Paddock and Bill Hutchinson:

The violent lunchtime knifing […] was captured on a witness’s iPhone video camera and shows the incredible restraint cops took not blow the armed suspect away. About a dozen cops from the nearby 23rd Precinct station house rushed to the scene, drawing their weapons and ordered the suspect to drop his knife even as he continued to stab the victim… One cop eventually ended the standoff by grabbing the suspect by the back of his pants and dragging him off the victim.

Another newspaper reported this with a totally different slant, implying that the police were hoping the attacker would go ahead and finish off the homeless man. Reporters and members of the public all have their reasons for suspicion. Sometimes it seems to be open season on the homeless.

In November of last year, at a Chicago subway station, a youth attacked a homeless man and brought a friend along to videotape it for showing on a sleazy website. Last January, after homeless men were killed in the California cities of Placentia, Anaheim, and Yorba Linda, volunteer Guardian Angels from other parts of the state converged on Orange County to make night patrols. It’s insane, and the worst part is that so many of these hate crimes against the homeless are done by teenagers. In Fort Worth, TX, Robert Bradley was stabbed to death. Nearly a year later, three youths and two underage kids were taken into custody.

The day after that announcement made the news, two Indiana teens old enough to be named, along with two juveniles, were arrested for the strangling death of Marcus Golike. All four killer kids came from the same foster home. And how did they wind up there? If we look into their pasts, what desperate situations did their birth parents face? Why were they not able to house or hold onto their families?

Reactions?

Source: “Man arrested in death of homeless woman in June,” Statesman.com, 10/01/12
Source: “Latest Attack Re-Ignites Night Hours Debate For GG Park,” KTVU, 04/22/11
Source: “Horrific Harlem stabbing caught on video,” NYDailyNews.com, 10/17/11
Source: “Teens arrested in strangulation of homeless man,” SFGate.com, 06/29/12
Image by Kai Hendry.

0

Everybody’s Gotta Be Someplace, Part 2

man sleeping on park benchFrom Costa Mesa, Orange County, CA, an online commentator known as Ladya Oo writes:

I have a friend who is temporarily living in his SUV while he desperately looks for housing that he can afford. Costa Mesa police just gave him a $1,000 ticket for sleeping in his SUV.

Not long ago, the Homeless Task Force — which was only established last January and has already been disbanded — recommended demolishing a picnic shelter in Lions Park. The reason, of course, was that homeless people congregated around it. Housed people visiting the community center, rec center, and library were inconvenienced and discomfited by their encounters with the unhoused. Journalist Sean Greene quotes Councilman Gary Monahan:

That picnic shelter, it needs to go [...] as fast as we can get it done.

Way to problem-solve! Unbelievably, the city could not find a better use for $60,000 than the demolition of a picnic shelter. Lions Park will be revamped with “family-size” picnic shelters, a running track, and a playground. They’re going to spend over a million on that project. They hired two rangers for the park, tightened up bicycle parking regulations, and closed the library for four months worth of renovation.

The city’s latest count only found 60 “street” or “out of care” homeless people, but claimed there were at least 18 encampments, “some of them large.” So the math has got to be off, somehow. Only two years ago, one of the local soup kitchens reported feeding 300 people per day. There are about 120 “sober-living homes” and a number of motels for temporary housing, including a dozen that are defined as “problematic,” and the rules governing them have been tightened.

Whatever the number of homeless people in Costa Mesa, 28 of them have been branded as chronic offenders who commit major nuisances like public drunkenness, public excretion (and/or indecent exposure), smoking in a public park, and illegal camping. In the first six months of this year, the 28 chronic offenders racked up 112 citations and 24 arrests.

The city developed “partnerships with local residents and business owners to collaborate and reduce the impacts associated with chronic individuals,” and an “ongoing integrated law enforcement/legal strategy to ensure that chronic offenders are prosecuted to the greatest extent of the law,” all of which sounds a bit ominous. But that’s nothing compared to this classic quotation from Costa Mesa’s Assistant CEO, which makes the homeless sound like an infestation of cockroaches:

Unless you are reducing the numbers, they are scattering to other places.

And how are things working out? Well, the tickets for smoking and other infractions, and the cessation of programs distributing food there, have encouraged the homeless to abandon Lions Park. People with nowhere to go started turning up around the historical society and a nearby condominium complex. A recent report says:

Administrators at Tuesday’s City Council meeting blamed the homeless population’s dispersion for the recent increases in burglary, drug use, vandalism and other crimes on Ford Road.

To be fair, Costa Mesa also made some positive plans for actually alleviating the homelessness situation, which can be found in the “City Council Staff Report” (PDF).

In August, merchants in Austin, TX, felt buyer’s remorse over the installation of many benches during a multi-million dollar downtown beautification project. Problem is, homeless people insisted on sitting on the benches. Seven police officers patrol the area during the day and, Jessica Holloway reports:

They say enforcing the no-sit, no-lie ordinance is a never-ending cycle.

A park was shut for remodeling, and the homeless, it is said, have increasingly penetrated the downtown area. Businesses want all the services in central Austin to move away and take the homeless with them. And the benches were removed at the end of August. Is the city cutting off its nose to spite its face? No doubt. Throwing out the baby with the bath water? Absolutely.

An amazing, exuberant book, called Street Reclaiming: Creating Livable Streets and Vibrant Communities, rests on an important philosophical basis. Author David Engwicht reminds us that public streets and squares were the birthplace of democracy and the central stage for the democratic process. The city, he says, ought to be a collective enterprise with the street as its lifeblood. The streets ought to be a place of socio-diversity, a marketplace of ideas and bastion of free speech, a feeder of creativity. Public places should be everybody’s outdoor living room, the “social and cultural epicenter of neighborhood life.” This is why in its glory days, Venice, CA, was visited by sociologists from all over the world.

Reclaiming the streets does not mean kicking out the homeless, but including them. Healthy street life supports informal support mechanisms, human-to-human interactions. When this is taken away, people must rely on government agencies or charitable organizations, and help is depersonalized. Marginalized people, who may or may not be homeless, include senior citizens, eccentrics, children, the disabled, the “ethnic.”

Engwicht writes:

As a person with paraplegia reminded me one day: ‘There is an old person or disabled person in every one of us just waiting to get out.’

How do those on the margin get to contribute their invaluable gifts to society? Or, to change the question, how does mainstream society access this diversity of life experience held in store by those on the margins? Almost exclusively through spontaneous encounters… To destroy the spontaneous encounter realm of the city is therefore to rob ourselves and the city of the contribution these people on the margin have to make.

The greatness of any city can be judged by how well it integrates those on the margins into community life.

Media Bonus: “Everything Must Change
The actual song starts about 3 minutes in. If you can ignore the background noise, the guy has a voice so rich you can imagine the whole orchestral arrangement behind it instead.

Reactions?

Source: “Costa Mesa to demolish picnic shelter that attracts homeless,” The Orange County Register, 05/02/12
Source: “Homeless blamed for crime increase,” Daily Pilot, 09/06/12
Source: “City considers removing benches at new homeless hotspot,” KVUE.com, 08/23/12
Source: “Street Reclaiming,” Amazon.com
Image by grendelkahn.

0

How Libraries Cope With Homelessness

campLast week, House the Homeless looked at public libraries and the difficulties that arise when the library becomes the default day shelter for people experiencing homelessness in a community.
Well, where are the homeless supposed to exist all day? As we have mentioned before, “Everybody’s gotta be someplace.”

Libraries have been stepping up to meet the challenge. From various parts of the country, we hear of public libraries that teach homeless people how to use computers, or print up cards with information on whatever services are available throughout the city. Some libraries respond by sending out a bookmobile, or providing a story hour at the local shelter. Some even let shelter addresses be used to get library cards. They start book clubs, show movies, or devote space to a social-services information center. In San Francisco, the library put a full-time social worker on the staff.

On the other hand, some libraries have taken extreme steps to change their physical environment in such a way as to discourage lingering. In one place, where people had been sitting or sleeping on the deep windowsills, they put up spiky iron railings.

A community might think it very important to educate library personnel in how to educate the homeless in the proper uses of library restrooms. Of course, no one wants their child to go in there and find some unfortunate street person stripped down and taking a sponge bath. But people do need to wash. That might be something that cities could devote more attention to.

Ironically, in the District of Columbia, from which our nation is governed, the public library’s “offensive body odor” policy was declared unconstitutional. Any such rule has to be enforced across the board, not just against people who appear to be homeless. Otherwise, it’s “poverty profiling.”

A couple of years back, plans for the renovation of the Madison, WI, Central Library sounded welcoming. Judy Keen wrote:

Accommodating the homeless is a key part of a $29.5 million redevelopment… Architect Jeffrey Scherer, who devised the Madison renovation plan, says incorporating the needs of the homeless is a recent trend. In Madison, seating will be rearranged to suit varying preferences of homeless patrons and restrooms will be moved within staff sightlines.

It wasn’t really explained how moving the restrooms so the staff can watch more closely is really an accommodation to the homeless. Anyway, the library’s brand new FAQ page asks, “Will the homeless still hang out at the new library?” The answer includes these items:

1. The architectural design for the new library eliminates the current outside open space by the main entrance on the northeast corner of the library (at N. Fairchild and W. Mifflin) where many homeless are known to congregate. That entire corner will be reclaimed by the new library.

2. The library will provide inside space for a variety of social service agencies that will help the homeless find more permanent housing, treatment, and work, making them less likely to remain homeless.

3. The library will offer programming for the homeless, such as book clubs and movie matinees, and require codes of conduct to address issues such as hygiene and behavior to prevent their presence from distracting or intimidating other patrons.

The Public Library Association maintains that libraries have a moral duty to help everyone participate fully in our democratic society, even the homeless and poor. They offer a wonderful educational page covering the legal implications of library rules, along with the ethical obligations that go along with a free society.

Amy Mars explains that it’s acceptable to regulate behavior and appearance, when those factors interfere with the rights of other patrons, and their ability to use the library. But the rule must be against the behavior, not the person, and equal enforcement is the key. Mars writes:

This means that if sleeping is prohibited, it cannot be enforced only against the homeless; it must be enforced against all patrons, including children, teenagers, the elderly, prominent community members, and so on.

And this brings up another point. Disruptive behavior is not always caused by inebriated miscreants. People suffering from epilepsy, schizophrenia, autism, Tourette syndrome, and other medical conditions can cause disruption, and so can the library’s most generous private donor, if she happens to have a heart attack while at a board meeting. Library staff members need to be trained to, at the very least, tell the difference between a situation needing an ambulance call and one needing a police call.

Mars quotes attorney Mary Minow, who drew up the handy “FEND” “best practices” guidelines:

First Amendment: Libraries must protect the right of free speech.
Equal Enforcement: Policies must be applied consistently.
Notice: All policies should be clearly posted or distributed.
Due Process: A well-defined appeals process must be available to patrons who challenge library policies.

Reactions?

Source: “Libraries welcome homeless to ‘community living rooms,’” USA TODAY, 12/13/10
Source: “Library Service to the Homeless,” PublicLibrariesOnline.org
Image by Internet Meme.

1

Homelessness and Public Libraries

Seattle Public LibraryWhen the Democratic convention took over Charlotte, NC, one of the preparations was the closing of the downtown public library for a week. The public library is one of the great American institutions. The library has also turned out, in many cities, to be a focal point for the conflict between homeless and housed citizens. In Madison, WI, the main library is such a popular hangout, people experiencing homelessness always know where to find their friends.

This summer, in Gloucester, MA, exasperated library employees told Nancy Gaines about the problems they experienced with homeless patrons — not all, but maybe 10%-15%. The staff faced an ever-changing stream of challenges, and two or three police visits a day, interspersed with the occasional ambulance. The city’s homeless shelter was, of course, only open at night. Several churches stepped up, on a rotating basis, to provide a space for people to exist during the daylight hours.

Bethlehem, PA, instituted new policies last year to strictly prohibit many activities, such as washing up in the restrooms and sleeping. In fact, it’s even against the rules to bring a sleeping bag inside. The situation had been dicey for some time, but reached critical mass when a van started dropping off a group of homeless people every day. The library maintains that its function is not to be an adult day care center, and it is correct in that. But everybody’s got to be somewhere.

Last winter, word came from Atlanta, GA, that not dozens, but hundreds of people experiencing homelessness were hanging out at the libraries every day. In Lubbock, TX, the architecture of the main library became a problem because people were using the partially protected space as a shelter, an urban cave dwelling.

The same thing happened in Fort Collins, CO. A new main public library was built in 1974, with overhanging sections all around, that were originally filled with substantial bushes. When the economy started to slide, people stored their belongings, and sometimes themselves, among the foliage. Eventually, all the big bushes were uprooted and much skimpier and lower plants were installed.

Seattle, WA, made news in 2009 when it became the first library system to hire an outreach worker. At one point, the library was spending over $300,000 a year on services and security relating to homelessness. Last month, when the Seattle’s public library system ran out of money and shut down for more than a week, journalist Matt Driscoll asked, “Where Do the Homeless Go When the Library Is Closed?” More people showed up at the Urban Rest Stop, a center with shower and laundry facilities, which was already operating at peak capacity.

Another agency, Compass Housing, which offers a number of amenities, also had increased traffic. Normally, Driscoll says:

While there are rules and security measures in place designed to keep the Central Library from becoming a full-on shelter, it’s commonplace for the homeless to seek refuge at computer terminals and amidst the stacks during foul weather – or even just to pass the time until real homeless shelters open in the evening.

At one point, the satirical publication The Onion ran an article stating:

In addition to the destitute citizens who have long sought shelter here, the ongoing recession has forced hundreds of newly homeless Americans to seek refuge among the library’s shelves.

The headline read, “Census Finds Enough Homeless People Living In Public Library To Warrant Congressional District.” When you can’t tell the difference between satire and reality, a society is in real trouble. On the other hand, what an opportunity this central gathering place offers, for engaging people and bringing them into the community, rather than pushing them farther into the margins. Where political activism is concerned, the popularity of the public library among people experiencing homelessness has a definite upside. It’s a great place to register voters, and put a dent in the disenfranchisement that is spreading through America like a plague. In fact, why not designate all libraries as polling places?

In Petaluma, CA, the situation improved in the spring when the town’s soup kitchen was relocated. E. A Barrera interviewed librarian Doug Cisney, who described problems like drunkenness and fighting which have now decreased. In all fairness, the librarian also said most of the homeless library users are well-behaved and considerate, even helping clean up the surrounding landscape. Cisney is quoted:

I can ban an individual from the library if it is determined that person is disturbing others. We have very clear policies that make soliciting, begging, dressing inappropriately — as in bare feet, bare chests, disturbing outfits — and excessive problems with body odor or decorum unacceptable. But you have to use that power with good judgment. A person’s excessive use of cologne or perfume can be as unpleasant as someone who has not showered in a week.

Good point.

Reactions?

Source: “’Homeless’ visitors posing issues for library,” GloucesterTimes.com, 06/18/12
Source: “Homeless patrons prompt Bethlehem Area Public Library’s behavior policy,” LehighValleyLive.com
Source: “Where Do the Homeless Go When the Library Is Closed?,” SeattleWeekly.com, 08/31/12
Source: “Census Finds Enough Homeless People Living In Public Library To Warrant Congressional District,The Onion, 12/22/10
Source: “Homeless no longer a problem at library,” Petaluma360.com, 04/06/12
Image by moyix (Brendan Dolan-Gavitt).

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