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Thermal Underwear Drive Starting Now

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

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

 

 

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High-Profile Homeless Activism

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

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

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

She quotes Steel as saying:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reactions?

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

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Homelessness and Fame

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reactions?

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

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Homeless Memorials — Bring the Numbers Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reactions?

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

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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.

0

“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.

0

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.

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