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

MLK Day Parade, Austin

House the Homeless marches in the 2013 MLK Day Parade

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

Why We Can’t Wait

Wages As a Civil Rights Issue 

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

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

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

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

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

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

All of this comes at a time when the federal government sets a national federal minimum wage that affects tens of millions of our poorest citizens, both black and white. Remarkably, the last several U.S. Conference of Mayors Reports point out that this standard is so low that even while working 40 hours in a week, at this wage rate, no one can get into and keep basic rental housing anywhere in this country.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They sought:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DrKing

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

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

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

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

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

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

Civil Rights Memorial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Universal Living Wage

Join us in the fight for a Universal Living Wage!

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

 

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Living on the Shifting Sands of Affordability

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

A Census Bureau report says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reactions?

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

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Download the Free HtH Pet Calendar for 2013

Jerrol and Frank, photographed by Austin's Sigma Chi

Jerrol and Frank, photographed by Austin’s Sigma Chi

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

CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD

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!

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Hundreds of Austin Homeless Receive Clothing

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

Thermal Underwear Drive

Thermal Underwear Drive by HtH

 

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

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

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

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

Read more.

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

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Austin Photographer Chronicles Homelessness

The DollarA friend of House the Homeless recommended looking up street photographer Pachi Tamer, who takes pictures of people experiencing homelessness and publishes them via Instagram, under the name of Cachafaz. The finest ones resemble the works of old European masters that hang in museums. It was inevitable to form that impression, even before looking up the next online source, which voiced a similar opinion:

These are portraits, some very powerful and with the dignity and grace of Renaissance religious paintings.

That was said by Josh Q, who also believes that Tamer ought to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize, and said so just last month. A little farther back in time, Tamer was interviewed by Derek Shanks, who ascertained that the photographer was born in Argentina and works at an advertising agency in Austin, TX, and asked about his history. Tamer answered:

I went to high school at ‘Hermanos Maristas,’ a Catholic private school in Pergamino. We used to go to very poor neighborhoods with our teachers to help people. We even built a school for them once. And also I learned to help people from my parents. My father was a doctor and he used to take care of people in need for free. My mom is a psychiatrist and at 72 years old she’s still helping people with their problems.

Hidden behind that simple biographical description is a powerful truth about the future and what needs to be done. Obviously, as a society, we need to provide a good education for as many children as possible. We need to promote as many living-wage-paying jobs as possible for parents, so their kids have the support system they need, to do well in school, so that when the time comes they in turn will find jobs that pay at least a living wage.

But this is not, as we commonly and superficially assume, only so these kids can live adequately themselves and not be a drain on the public budget. There is much more to it. Some of them will also be active in helping other people, and they need to acquire the skills and talents and motivation to do it.

Here is another quotation that Shanks captured from Pachi Tamer about the subjects of his photos:

I approach them with respect. I shake their hands. I sit on the street besides them. I share a cigarette with them. I ask them how they’re doing. Then I explain my project and sometimes show them a couple of other pictures. I listen to them. They trust me because I trust them.

Tamer has a side project, a crowdfunding effort called “One Dollar Dreams,” whose object is to get at least a few people something to make life worthwhile. One of the portraits that Shanks chose to show, as illustrative of the artist’s work, is the 18th of the series, where the subject was photographed at the Austin Resource Cen­ter for the Homeless (ARCH). This institution’s fate has has been a bone of contention lately. Many businesses and civic leaders would like to see all the services like ARCH and Caritas and the Salvation Army and Angel House and Austin Travis County Integral Care, moved right out of downtown.

If done properly and for the right reasons, it could be a good idea, and House the Homeless president Richard R. Troxell is willing to entertain it. One of the factors he mentioned to journalist Josh Rosenblatt is the Public Order Initiative, which along with the movement to move services out of town, proves how anxious the civic authorities are to relocate the people experiencing homelessness to somewhere else. The huge Waller Creek project aims to remake downtown Austin, and housed citizens don’t enjoy their celebratory nights out partying when they have to see destitute people in public places.

Reactions?

Source: “Pick of the Day: Pachi Tamer on Instagram,Inside Flipboard, 12/21/12
Source: ““I Just Want Everyone To Look Into Their Eyes And See Their Souls,” We Are JUXT, 12/16/11
Source: “Latest Homeless Initiative: Bust ‘Em?,” The Austin Chronicle, 10/12/12
Image by Pachi Tamer.

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The Hate Crime Report

sad truth of mean streetsIn Van Nuys, CA, a 67-year-old woman was purposely set on fire as she slept on a bus bench — one of those unfriendly pieces of public furniture specifically designed to be uncomfortable, with rigid dividers between each designated seat. But maybe, through the layers of clothing she habitually wears, Violet Phillips didn’t even feel the bumps. To be soaked with flammable liquid and then lit on fire causes pain of a different order of magnitude. Undoubtedly, Violet feels the serious burns.

Violet is what people call her at the local churches, where she is acquainted with many parishioners. But she likes to keep to herself. Journalist Mike Szymanski spoke with a representative of the intensive care unit of the University of Southern California Burn Unit and learned that:

… [S]he would only say ‘God bless you’ in reply to people’s questions.

This abominable attack happened two days after Christmas, too late to be referenced in stories about the release of the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) report on hate crimes of 2011, but just in time to be included in the 2012 total. The individual who has been arrested, on suspicion of attempted murder, is 24-year-old male. Let’s see how this fits in with the NCH report, which says:

… [N]early all of the attacks were carried out by teenagers and young men.

A lot of these young so-called men reportedly do these things just for fun. On behalf of The Huffington Post, Saki Knafo spoke with NCH executive director Neil Donovan, who feels that one of the big problems is the desensitization caused by electronic games that cast people experiencing homelessness in the role of targets. Also contributing to the stigmatization and degradation are video productions like “Bag Lady Fights” and “BumFights.” Donovan calls it a “campaign of dehumanization.”

But how many attacks, or anti-homeless hate crimes, are we talking about? Here’s the breakdown:

… [A]t least 32 homeless people in the United States died as a result of violent attacks in 2011, as compared with 24 the year before. The report also tallied 73 non-lethal attacks against the homeless, a drop from the previous year’s count of 89.

Despite a serious lack of funding, since 1999, the NCH has taken on the mission and challenge of filling the informational void. Their latest report is titled “Hate Crimes against the Homeless: The Brutality of Violence Unveiled” and the 94-page PDF file can be downloaded from the top of the NCH homepage. The FBI does not define the homeless as a protected group, and is not interested in keeping track of anti-homeless hate crimes. But it does tally up other hate crimes in America, and here is the alarming thing, as Knafo puts it:

… [T]he number of lethal anti-homeless hate crimes counted by the group exceeds the government’s tally of deadly hate crimes in all other categories.

In other words, for several years now, the number of homeless people murdered because of who they are has exceeded the number of victims of fatal hate crimes from all other (racial, religious, etc.) motivations, added together.

It’s a terrifyingly stringent economy where they can’t even place a foot on the first rung of the ladder to success, or even modest prosperity. In the late ’70s, the “deinstitutionalization” trend started, and was supported by many factions, for reasons that seemed good at the time. Unfortunately, psychiatric institutions were not replaced by other support systems. The combination of these national changes with other factors resulted in the current crisis where people are getting killed simply because they don’t have a place to live. Another aspect of this situation is, the elderly and confused are not the whole population of people experiencing homelessness. An enormous number of young people are out there trying to make it on their own.

Susan Saulny’s “After Recession, More Young Adults Are Living on Street,” is a companion piece to her earlier video reportage “Young and Homeless: The Recession’s Impact on Young Americans.” She talks about Los Angeles, where in 2011, there were about 3,600 unfamilied kids on the streets. The city’s shelter could sleep less than one-fifth of them. Boston is bad, all cities are bad, but the suburbs or country are nearly impossible.

The young do have one advantage. They are not so likely to be victims of the anti-homeless hate crimes per se, being better able to blend into the population. Kids like to look scruffy, and sometimes it’s hard to determine who is rich and who is destitute, on the evidence of clothes and hygiene. Plus, the young are more easily able to run away. But in shelters, it’s a different story. Saulny says the young:

[...] tend to shy away from ordinary shelters out of fear of being victimized by an older, chronically homeless population.

What is the answer? One of answers is to make sure there are jobs, both for homeless youth, so they can afford to live someplace, and for the aimless young men who victimize the homeless for kicks. Richard R. Troxell, as we know, is co-founder of House the Homeless in Austin, TX, and author of Looking Up at the Bottom Line. He recently wrote:

I sit on the Board of the National Coalition for the Homeless that produced this report. I also sit on the Civil Rights Committee and we actually generated this report. The young need to be engaged in living-wage jobs. So we need to promote our stimulus recommendations to President Obama, in order to create jobs, and then those jobs need to pay living wages.

Please learn more about the Universal Living Wage.

Reactions?

Source: “Homeless Burn Victim, Violet Phillips, Remains in Critical Condition,” Sherman Oaks Patch, 12/28/12
Source: “Anti-Homeless Hate Crimes Detailed In New Report,” The Huffington Post, 12/21/12
Source: “After Recession, More Young Adults Are Living on Street,” The New York Times, 12/18/12
Image by danieljordahl.

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Celebrities and Homelessness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reactions?

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

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Wal-Mart’s Untrammeled Greed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reactions?

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

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Major Reversal: Economists Agree Minimum Wage Works!

Model T Ford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Some Things About Housing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reactions?

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

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