Back in 2005, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) activated a plan that would attempt to get a handle on the number of Americans experiencing homelessness. Each community would be responsible for counting and reporting their totals. These “point-in-time” surveys would ultimately determine how much federal money would flow to the community to address the problem. There seems to be a fair amount of latitude in how they go about it.
The enumerators might be volunteers or paid. In some places, they go around on foot, but a lot of the counting is done “drive-by” style. The count is supposed to include people who sleep outside; in substandard housing (no toilet, or washing, or cooking facilities); in HUD’s transitional housing programs; and one-night-at-a-time shelters.
Confusingly, on alternate years there is supposed to be a “full count” that includes couch-surfers squeezed in with family members or friends, people scheduled for release from corrective custody or hospitals, and those in permanent supportive housing, although HUD no longer considers them technically homeless.
The first time Los Angeles County did a homeless census, they scheduled it over three days, and used both temporary employees (at $10 per hour) and volunteers, some driving their own vehicles. The 1,200 personnel went out in pairs, into a territory divided into 500 pieces.
Carla Rivera reported in the LA Times that the overall project also included “an in-depth survey of 3,300 homeless people and a telephone survey of households.” It would be interesting to know more about that. Did they just call a random sample and ask, “Is a homeless person sleeping on your couch?”
Since the weather forecast threatened rain, the expenses included a sum for “hundreds of parkas to hand out” — to the enumerators. (Surely the reporter meant ponchos, not parkas.) The bureaucracy also had to rent a bunch of vans.
At any rate, the whole enterprise cost $350,000 out of the funds available to combat homelessness. Could the actual homeless people have used that money? Most certainly, but they must look on it as in investment in their future.
Another thing about the forecast rain, Rivera says:
… [T]he threat of wet weather probably drove some homeless people into hiding places.
There were further difficulties. A lot of homeless people who wanted to apply for the paying jobs were turned away. Enumerators were told by a police officer that Burbank had no homeless people, and to go away.
In Santa Monica, one team was twice challenged by the police, and anyway, they only found about a dozen people experiencing homelessness. To anyone who has ever visited the area where Santa Monica intersects with the ocean, this is an astonishing claim. Also, there were rumors that the local law enforcers had rousted the people experiencing homelessness just a few days before the “point-in-time” census.
In the Antelope Valley, where the government has been quite active in creating homelessness, a whole census tract:
[…] was scrapped after canvassers found the mountainous road washed out… Early morning was chosen because it is easier to locate homeless encampments in the daylight in the rugged rural terrain… [O]ne large census tract in Pacoima was abandoned because teams didn’t have transportation.
More recently, Mary Flynn shared tales how the 2013 count was conducted, in different parts of California:
In Contra Costa, volunteers counted those visible from their vehicles, while more direct interaction with the homeless population is left to the teams of qualified outreach workers who venture to the known encampments of homeless people.
The 120 volunteers went around during the day, though the director contrasted this with the technique used at a previous posting in San Francisco, where the census was done in the middle of the night. The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness is eager to have more accurate numbers on “transitioning youth” between the ages of 14 and 24, but how accurate can the enumerators be about ages, when their observations are based on drive-by sightings?
Santa Clara county took to heart this emphasis on the young, and rather than in the early morning, sent its teams out in the afternoon, when more kids would be readily apparent. This county used homeless youth as enumerators, on the grounds that they would more readily recognize their compatriots. Apparently, young homeless people are not as easy to identify by sight, because they try to avoid the homeless “look.”
According to HUD regulations, the count has to be made during the last 10 days of January. California is one thing, but in most parts of the country, this is not the time of year when you want to be out on the roads trying to catch sight of people who have burrowed as far as possible into the crannies and crevices of the landscape to escape the cold. In midsummer, the picture would be much different, so this the wintertime census is an excellent way to keep the total minimized, on paper anyway. And California is not alone in its erratic methods — there is much more to be said on this subject.
Source: “Homeless Count or Are Counted,” LA Times, 01/27/05
Source: “In annual homeless census, counting youth is a challenge,” HealthyCal.org, 02/21/13
Image by Wonderlane.
In the fall of 2011, New York City’s “Advantage” program was running out of money because the state quit paying, and the city didn’t want to pay, and a judge said okay, the city didn’t have to. It was predicted that the number of homeless families in New York would double, and that the building of at least 70 more shelters would be imperative. Jennifer Peltz wrote for The Huffington Post:
The four-year-old program was designed to move families out of shelters and into permanent housing. It provides rent subsidies for up to two years to homeless people who have secured jobs but can’t pay the rent from their earnings alone.
Let us repeat that, because it might be the most significant phrase on this page. “[…] homeless people who have secured jobs but can’t pay the rent from their earnings alone.”
It is a point that many of the program’s critics ignored, but a very important point nonetheless. That program came into being not for the benefit of the very troubled, messed up, most recalcitrant, and off-putting segment of the homeless population. No. The program was created for people with jobs. In other words, the working poor; fathers and mothers who were employed and doing their best to support their families, and still not making it.
… [T]he federal government sets a national federal minimum wage that affects tens of millions of our poorest citizens, both black and white. Remarkably, the last several U.S. Conference of Mayors Reports point out that this standard is so low that even while working 40 hours in a week, at this wage rate, no one can get into and keep basic rental housing anywhere in this country.
In other words, it is theoretically impossible for just about anyone to live inside of walls beneath a roof. How people manage to do it is a heartbreaking story in itself, of multiple jobs and overcrowding, and a constant shortage of everything.
In February of 2012, the homeless advocates who took it to court lost their case, and the city prepared to cut off rent assistance to around 9,000 of the formerly homeless families who were in the two-year program. Most had known the assistance would end by summertime anyway. That had been a ticking time-bomb all along, something they had to be ready to face. But the early termination would leave everyone even less prepared.
The Associated Press quoted Mary Brosnahan of the Coalition for the Homeless, who mentioned that it would cost the city less to keep the Advantage program going than to finance the existence of the same people in shelters. Of course, nobody listened.
Then, on another front, New York City tackled the problem of single homeless people looking for shelter beds. A policy was suggested whereby the supplicants would have to prove they had no other options. This idea has two outlandish aspects. First, isn’t there something in classical logic about the impossibility of proving a negative? Second, the authorities are making the ridiculous and unbelievable assumption that anyone would choose to stay in a homeless shelter if they had any other option.
Anyway, a judge put a stop to it, but only on procedural grounds, not because the requirement itself would be illegal.
Only a month later, the city’s controversial mayor Michael Bloomberg decided that homeless shelters could no longer accept food that had not been nutritionally assessed. Since New York contains some of the world’s wealthiest people, a lot of what the distribution centers received was rich folks’ food, dropped off by synagogues and churches with long-standing arrangements to donate their surplus leftovers after social events.
But Mayor Bloomberg was concerned that the balance of vitamins and minerals eaten by people experiencing homelessness might not be optimal, and the proportion of fiber in their diets might not be correct, and they might be taking in too much trans fat or too much salt. Therefore, he reasoned, it would be better for them to eat nothing at all. Even Investors.com called the ban “ludicrous” and said:
He would rather see the five boroughs’ downtrodden starve than consume excess cholesterol.
(To be continued…)
Source: “Judge: NYC OK To End Rent Subsidy For Ex-homeless,” The Huffington Post, 09/03/11
Source: “8k formerly homeless NY families to lose rent help,” The Wall Street Journal, 02/03/12
Source: “Court: NYC can’t implement new homeless policy for singles,” USA TODAY, 02/21/12
Source: “New York’s Bloomberg Says Let The Homeless Eat Nothing,” Investors.com, 03/26/12
Image by edkohler.
What 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.’
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!
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.
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.
Richard R. Troxell, founder of House the Homeless, is advocating for a Universal Living Wage as one way to solve the homelessness problem.