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How to Become Homeless: Age Out of Foster Care

Homeless Youth in Dupont Circle, NYCalifornia is one of the biggest states in the union, and a lot of young people are experiencing homelessness there. Thanks to reporters like Bethania Palma Markus in Whittier, word of their plight occasionally reaches the eyes and ears of the public.

When she included the life story of 20-year-old Steven Navarrette in an article, he had “aged out” of the child welfare system two years earlier. Actually, the official Department of Children and Family Services (DCHS) word for it is “terminated,” which has ominous overtones indeed. It should, because at the time, one out of every five “terminated” kids ended up homeless and two out of five tangled with the legal system, and often ended up in prison.

Those ratios are necessarily only estimates, because there was no requirement for the bureaucracy to follow up on the kids once they were “terminated.” A youth fortunate enough to land one of the few transitional housing spots could be kept track of for a while, but most kids were just in the wind, with no way to make a living and no support system, legal adults for whom the state no longer took responsibility.

Markus quoted Navarrette, who told her:

They used to talk about something called emancipated living and I was always really excited about that because I knew I wouldn’t be able to go live with my mom. It all sounded really nice but when it came down to it none of what they told me ever happened.

Around the same time, California passed a law allowing foster children to stay in their “placements” until age 21, presumably with the state paying their way, although at the same time the governor drastically cut the child welfare funds. Presumably, the foster parents would have some say in the arrangements too, and one has to wonder how many of them welcome the continuing presence of young people older than they are accustomed to dealing with.

Also around the same time, a federal regulation came into existence that would require the pertinent departments in every state to keep a record of what kind of “independent living services” they provided for kids aging out.

Elsewhere

In Ohio, a pastor changed his own living quarters to a van and capitalized on the publicity this brought him by pointing out the need for transitional housing for 18-year-old former foster kids. The Salem Church of God has not yet been able to build any transitional housing, but its SOAR ministry persists in helping in other ways.

In Worcester, MA, many residents were distressed to learn that the local Teen Housing Task Force discovered 142 homeless youths in August of 2009, and counted 201 homeless youths in October of 2010, representing a 48% increase. In other words, one town’s population of homeless kids, some as young as 13, almost doubled in just over a year.

Journalist Lee Hammel continued the tradition by writing up the stories of an 18-year-old girl and a 19-year-old boy, in response to public interest in the question of how many unhoused young people were out there, whether because they had been released from the foster care system or thrown out by their parents, or whatever.

The Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts awarded $120,000 to a coalition of 20 state and local agencies. This was a “planning grant” — not to actually do anything about the situation, but to identify the causes of transition-age homelessness, and to analyze the available resources, with the expectation of receiving more funds once those tasks were done.

Maurie R. Bergeron of The Compass Project told the reporter:

There’s no saying how the money will be used here for homeless youths from 17 to 24 until the planning study is completed.

Since foster children were in the news anyway, a reporter took the opportunity to dish up a tidbit about Minnesota politician Michele Bachmann:

Foster children, who automatically qualify for Medicaid benefits, make up a tremendously disproportionate amount of its spending, especially on mental health services. Bachmann likely understands these difficulties better than anyone: all 23 of her foster children were teenage girls suffering from psychiatric disorders. In addition, her husband’s therapy clinic has taken in over $137,000 in Medicaid funds to help treat low-income patients.

Despite whatever agenda might have fueled the research, the important thing to note here is how foster children “make up a tremendously disproportionate amount of its spending, especially on mental health services.” And still… one out of five homeless, two out of five involved with the corrections system. The California solution of changing the emancipation age from 18 to 21 has no doubt benefited some young people, and hopefully will help many more to get their feet solidly under them before venturing forth into the world.

Unfortunately, this solution doesn’t do a darn thing for the taxpayers. With any individual child, it could go either way. For those who experience homelessness, public funds will be involved one way or another, especially if the youth happens to become involved with the legal system. For those who stay in the foster system for another year or two or three, before the court’s jurisdiction over them is terminated, the costs of routine care and medical care are still billed to the taxpayers.

These young people need training and preparation, and when they are turned loose, they — just like everybody else — need jobs that pay a living wage. Let’s work on that.

Reactions?

Source: “Rampant homelessness in former foster children yet to be addressed,” Whittier Daily News, 11/27/10
Source: “Outreach,” Salem Church of God
Source: “Increase in homeless youth in Worcester raises alarm,” Telegram.com, 02/12/11
Source: “Michele Bachmann’s Foster Care Contradiction,” TPM, 07/06/11
Image by Elvert Barnes.

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McDonald’s and the Living Wage

McDonald's Imgur

Tony Polombo is a columnist who, like Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless, believes that a living wage is not the same as a minimum wage. They won’t be the same until the minimum wage is such that anybody who puts in a 40-hour workweek can afford food; clothing; safe, decent, basic housing (including utilities); public transportation; and access to the emergency room. A living wage, as its name implies, is one that a family can actually live on, not merely subsist or exist.

Some say that raising the national minimum wage would cause companies to lay off workers, and then unemployment would only increase. To them, Polombo makes this interesting point which is imbued with a dark and terrible humor:

As the many workers who are now doing the work that two or more other workers used to do can tell you — employers in general are already hiring the least number of employees they can get away with.

He brings up arguments of a kind that, due to a shortage of common sense, are not often heard. Check this out:

The US already has de facto living wage laws in the form of government safety net programs such as Food Stamps, the Earned Income Tax Credit and Medicaid… But critics have (rightly, in my view) charged that government programs such as these are little more than corporate welfare…

You would think that the anti-government Tea Party types in Congress would want to eliminate much of the need for these government programs by making corporations pay their full share of a living wage…

Citizens who work for slightly more generous corporations all chip in via their income taxes. Then the government has money to help other workers who labor for the cheapskate corporations, so their employees can afford the necessities that ought to be covered by their paychecks but are not. Voila! Corporate welfare!

You can call it anything you want, but that doesn’t change the fact. Speaking of cheapskate companies, Polombo says:

The award for corporate chutzpah goes to McDonald’s who in a campaign aimed towards its workers, tries to convince them that it is possible to work a minimum wage McJob and still live comfortably — if only they would budget their money properly! They support this by a sample budget that apparently assumes a worker has a second job along with Food Stamps to pay for food and almost no expense for health insurance. Unbelievable!

Polombo is not the only journalist having a good time bashing McDonald’s and wondering, incidentally, what planet those people are from. For ThinkProgress.org, Annie-Rose Strasser gave the sample budget the once-over and called it “laughably inaccurate”:

Not only does the budget leave a spot open for ‘second job,’ it also gives wholly unreasonable estimates for employees’ costs: $20 a month for health care, $0 for heating, and $600 a month for rent. It does not include any budgeted money for food or clothing.

Actually, this would explain why no money is allotted for heating. A person with two jobs is never home to need the heat turned on, and can sleep wrapped in a Mylar space blanket which is available for quite a reasonable price at the surplus store, where they are sold for the convenience of mountain climbers who might get caught in blizzards. Strasser goes on to say:

For an uninsured person to independently buy health care, he or she must shell out on average $215 a month — just for an individual plan… If that person wants to eat, ‘moderate’ spending will run them $32 a week for themselves, and $867 a month to feed a family of four. And if a fast food worker is living in a city? Well, New York City rents just reached an average of $3,000 a month.

And here is a question. Considering that this phantom budget was concocted by McDonald’s with the help of Visa — what about credit card bills? Many Americans pay huge amounts of interest every month to credit card companies, and not always for luxuries and frivolities. And people, yes, even fast-food employees, have student loans to pay back. And where is the item for child care, for which anyone with one or more children and two jobs will at some point have to pay? Even a doting grandma needs a $20 tucked into her apron pocket every now and then.

But there is no point in nitpicking, when the basic assumption of the budget — that everybody should work two jobs — is so blatantly unacceptable. The only upside is that employees can, as comic Stephen Colbert suggests, go to both employers’ Christmas parties and surreptitiously fill their pockets with buffet food. That may get them through the holiday week, but what about the rest of the year? And how many McDonald’s executives work a second job? What planet are these people from, anyway?

Reactions?

Source: “A Living Wage for Americans,” The World According to Tony Polombo, 08/01/13
Source: “McDonalds Tells Workers To Budget By Getting A Second Job And Turning Off Their Heat,” ThinkProgress.org, 07/15/13
Image by Imgur.com.

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Homeless Vets and Corruption, Part 3

Circuits VietnamA couple of weeks ago, House the Homeless blog talked about how the Veterans Administration (VA) arrived at an impasse where it could not even pretend to keep up with compensation claims. Documents were shredded, and requests for help ignored, resulting in immeasurable harm to veterans who are sick, disabled, unemployable, suicidal, potentially homeless, or actually on the streets.

How bad did the scandal get? In Texas, whose ruling politicians are traditionally loath to part with a dollar, the state even kicked in a few bucks to help the federal agency fund its payroll and get some claims processed.

The VA had its excuses, of course. Despite the fact that bosses collected bonuses (another scandal), the overall sluggish economy did not allow for the hiring of staff. Furthermore, the agency claimed that the problem could be traced to one of its very own accomplishments. Veterans were hearing about and applying for the available services in greater numbers, and the reason for this was that outreach programs had become so much more effective. The VA was doing its job too well!

Nice try, boys

Meanwhile, Agent Orange disability claims were mounting up, and the most egregious excuse of all was that the Veterans’ Administration didn’t see it coming. Really? Back in 1962, when the U.S. started dumping more than a dozen toxic defoliants onto Vietnam, the effects on human health were not a mystery. High school kids, if they knew which magazines to subscribe to, could read about what the herbicides used in that war would do to humans, including the troops on the ground in Southeast Asia. And the all-knowing military hierarchy didn’t know? That calls for a sarcastic eye-roll.

Stateside, Agent Orange had for some reason also been used extensively in Oregon, and in the ’70s a lot of dead babies were born there. That it caused liver damage and at least a couple of kinds of cancer was already known, and the Environmental Protection Agency banned the chemical for use in the United States. This information comes from a very thorough uncredited piece published by The U.S. Veteran Dispatch.

It doesn’t stop there. In 1979, Vietnam veteran Rep. Tom Daschle caused the National Veterans Task Force on Agent Orange to be created. Its mandate was to commission an extensive study of veterans who had been exposed. The writer says:

Over the next four years, the VA examined an estimated 200,000 veterans for medical problems they claimed stemmed from Agent Orange and other herbicides used in Vietnam. But many of those examined were dissatisfied with their examinations. They claimed the exams were done poorly and often in haste by unqualified medical personnel. Many veterans also claimed that the VA seemed to have a mind set to ignore or debunk Agent Orange connected [to] disability complaints.

The Centers for Disease Control spent $43 million trying to figure out what was going on, and screwed it up royally (according to the Institute of Medicine) by adopting a research method that excluded those veterans most likely to have been in contact with Agent Orange. A spokesperson for the Institute could imagine only two options — the study was either “monumentally bungled” or “politically rigged.”

Cassandra Anderson, writing for Infowars.com, came out in favor of “politically rigged,” alleging a cover-up in which the Environmental Protection Agency is also involved:

US courts have protected Monsanto and Dow Chemical from liability and criminal prosecution… President Reagans’s administration, in cahoots with the CDC, thwarted a $43 million Congressional Study of Agent Orange in 1987 to protect itself and its corporate pals Monsanto & Dow from accountability…

According to this theory, if the full truth got out it would not only bankrupt the herbicide makers, but would also negatively impact other industries including plastics, paper, and agriculture. And all the while, veterans were showing up with soft tissue sarcomas and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Since the government is pretty much untouchable, litigation must be aimed elsewhere, and vets filed a class-action lawsuit against Monsanto, Dow, and other manufacturers of Agent Orange. Apparently, they could have provided a defoliant that did the job without the horrible effects on humans, if only they had cared to take a little more time in the manufacturing process and relinquish a slight bit of profit.

Red flag disregarded

Now, check out this statement made by the assistant secretary of Health and Human Services, Dr. Edward Brandt, Jr., in the year this legal action started, 1982:

The early warning sign has gone up.

That was more than 30 years ago. Anyone who didn’t see the approaching wave of demand upon the VA system had their head someplace where heads aren’t supposed to be. The only wonder is that the deluge did not hit sooner. That lawsuit, by the way, was settled (for not nearly enough money once it was all divvied up) and the chemical manufacturers didn’t have to take any official blame. Anderson is not a fan of Judge Jack Weinstein, and believes he committed several offenses related to this lawsuit and similar ones:

Weinstein appointed attorneys to represent the veterans and then intimidated the attorneys into agreeing to a ‘nuisance’ settlement of $180 million — nowhere near enough money to cover the medical treatment of hundreds of thousands of injured vets.

In 2010, “automatic funding” of Agent Orange claims was instituted, which effectively transferred the liability to the U.S. taxpayers, who pay for the health care and hospitalization of affected veterans. Meanwhile, says Anderson:

The Veterans Administration claims they have no idea how many vets have been treated for Agent Orange injuries, or how much taxpayer money has been spent.

Reactions?

Source: “The Story of Agent Orange,” The U.S. Veteran Dispatch, Nov. 1990
Source: “White House, US Courts and EPA shaft Veterans to protect Monsanto,” Infowars.com, 02/08/12
Image by dancingqueen27.

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To Prevent Homelessness, Alleviate Veteran PTSD

Dr. PhilHouse the Homeless blog has been looking at the various ways in which veterans are denied their rights, a terrible situation which often results in homelessness and premature death. There are the enormously long waits before a case can be considered and acted upon. As we learned, workers in the Veterans Administration system have done disgraceful actions like shredding files.

Even when troubled vets are able to access the help they were guaranteed by the government, sometimes they sabotage their own treatment by not telling the whole truth about the extent of their symptoms (because they don’t want to be branded crazy) or by refusing to take their meds, for any number of reasons. Often, people who are mentally unbalanced don’t even realize how out of balance they are. This is part of the problem.

Activists put a lot of work into raising awareness, but sometimes the best intentions lead to trouble, as popular TV personality Dr. Phil (Phil McGraw) found out last spring. He aired a program designed to remind Americans that thousands of veterans, not only from Iraq and Afghanistan, but from Desert Storm and even the seemingly forgotten Vietnam conflict, are still suffering the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder on a daily basis.

A member of the public who entered the subsequent debate talked about how family members of PTSD victims “walk on egg shells,” always afraid they might say the wrong thing to the disturbed veteran who is their loved one. Dr. Phil encountered the media version of the same problem, making the very public mistake of titling this particular episode of his show, “From Heroes to Monsters?”

Despite the presence of a question mark, implying that the matter is not decided but is indeed under discussion, the host took heavy fire, with some elements of the veteran community demanding an apology. People called the episode’s title ignorant, unjustifiable, stigmatizing, insulting, and ratings-driven. On the other hand, the old Hollywood saying, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” might apply here. The well-publicized outrage served to get even more people talking about the issue.

Columnist Torrey Shannon, the wife of a 100% PTSD-rated combat veteran, was disappointed not only by the title, but by the advice given by Dr. Phil’s guest expert, Dr. Frank Lawlis, who wrote a book called The PTSD Breakthrough. He recommends chewing gum to relieve stress, though Shannon’s own internet research suggests that gum chewing is more likely to raise the person’s blood pressure and introduce artificial sweeteners of questionable value into the system.

Dr. Lawlis also recommends blue light bulbs, strong mouthwash, and colonic cleansing, none of which might be harmful in themselves, but which Shannon finds trivializing. She has little patience with the idea of yoga breathing exercises or participation in a drum circle, and is very upset by the suggestion of an ancient traditional method of self-healing, saying:

The book continues into dangerous territory by recommending a combat veteran with PTSD go on a vision quest, much like American Indians used to do. Vision quests require spending 7 days alone with no intake but water until a symbol appears in your consciousness.

However… such unconventional methods are also recommended by people who really, really do know what they are talking about, like Karl Marlantes, author of What It Is Like to Go to War, who believes that incorporating ritual and ceremony into a veteran’s return could truly make a difference. Many therapists are extremely impressed with the results obtained when PTSD victims are given the powerful psychedelic compound known as ayahuasca.

For a website called Healing Those Who Serve, Janice Arenofsky writes:

With the rise of psychological ailments among Iraq and Afghanistan War vets, military and VA hospitals have begun to rethink how they deal with this age-old scourge of war. Here is a rundown on six new methods of handling combat-related emotional trauma.

She proceeds to discuss acupuncture, meditation, music therapy, animal therapy, Emotional Freedom Technique, and Virtual Reality Treatment, all of which have been used by professionals. So, there is a lot going on in the PTSD recovery field of which Dr. Phil’s critics might not be aware.

Although Dr. Phil changed the controversial title of the episode before it was aired again, he remained adamant about the outrage he feels about the overall situation. According to the figures he found, for every battlefield death in the recent wars, there have been about 25 veteran suicides. Dr. Phil wrote for his online readers:

Some viewers expressed concern, and even disappointment, with the show’s original title… Our intent was to acknowledge the question so often cited in the media, not to make a statement, and to emphasize the severity of the pain and suffering our guests say they experience. I really wanted you to hear firsthand the effects that PTSD can have on war heroes and their families, and I’m grateful to our guests for being so candid and honest about their experiences.

One of Dr. Phil’s fans, by the way, in the comment section of his page offered information on The Soldiers Project, which the organization’s website describes like this:

We are a group of licensed mental health professionals who offer free psychological treatment to military service members (active duty, National Guard, Reserves and veterans) and their loved ones who have served or who expect to serve in the conflicts in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Source: “Regarding Dr. Phil’s ‘From Heroes to Monsters?’ Episode. Here’s Why America is Outraged, or Should Be!,” TorreyShannon.com, 04/21/12
Source: “Treating PTSD in Non-Traditional Ways,” HealingThoseWhoServe.org, 07/22/13
Source: “Heroes in Pain,” DrPhil.com, 04/25/12
Image by Keegan.

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Homeless Veterans and Corruption, Part 2

iRaqIn “Homeless Veterans and Corruption,” House the Homeless looked at the unauthorized and improper shredding of documents pertinent to compensation cases. Also, there is the land that has been given to America’s veterans, and manipulated to benefit everyone but them.

In 2011, when the Occupy movement was making news, critics complained that they didn’t understand what Occupy stood for. Surprisingly, a major network brought at least one answer to public attention.

ABC quoted an Iraq veteran who had returned to that troubled country after serving his military hitch. Aaron Hughes, of Iraq Veterans Against the War, spoke on behalf of thousands of service members who want real change and not public relations hogwash. Hughes told the news team:

There is a massive disconnect between the larger society and U.S. service members. Right now we have high unemployment, homeless and suicide rates among veterans.

No part of that declaration is difficult to understand, and the situation has not improved since it was made. Typical of the irregularities going on at the time was a problem that overtook a nonprofit group in Charleston, S.C.

Renee Dudley reported on the legal difficulties faced by the head of a nonprofit organization, a homeless shelter for veterans in Charleston. Director Nancy Cook was paid $130,000 per year, and juicy benefits, to run the place, and tax auditors called her remuneration “unreasonable.” The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs told the press:

The audit also found that health insurance coverage for the shelter’s two paid employees […] was paid entirely by the veterans’ grants… Recently released bank statements show Cook used the account to pay for a hotel stay at Folly Beach, downtown dining and yoga lessons…

You have to wonder how many such scams go undetected, to the detriment of veterans in need. Other shady, sketchy things have been going on. Waco, TX, is a major processing hub for Veterans Administration paperwork. At one point in a vanished glorious past, Texas was processing compensation claims faster than anybody. But somehow, starting around 2007, there were five years when the backlog increased, while the head honcho, one Carl Lowe, collected $53,000 worth of bonuses before his 2011 retirement:

It’s reprehensible that they would even consider bonuses at all. It reflects what I consider a broken culture that doesn’t put the veterans first.

Those words were spoken by U.S. Representative Bill Flores, a Republican who hails from Waco. Ignoring the needs of veterans is not the only sign of a broken culture. The very concept of bonuses for government jobs is messed up. A worker who does a good job gets promoted, and gets a raise. A worker who does a lousy job stays in the same pay grade forever and makes less than the hard workers who are promoted. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to go? Isn’t that why the civil service already has a multi-leveled and finely-tuned seniority scale?

And most importantly, the taxpayers have already paid for the work to be done. The expectation exists that these government employees are going to do their best, for the citizens who are paying their salaries, and for the veterans who need their expertise in shoving paperwork through the pipeline. And because they are Americans. As government employees — just like soldiers, they are duty-bound to give it their all — just like soldiers. How did this creepy bonus idea even get started?

A wealth of bonuses

In the spring of this year, that story still had legs, partly because the Waco office processing time had increased even more drastically. Nearly 45,000 veterans’ claims waited for decisions from the Waco-based bureaucracy, each individual service member facing a wait of an average 440 days, or 150 days longer than the national average; and in case it escapes anyone’s attention, 440 days is substantially more than a year.

A piece by Jeremy Schwartz of the Austin American-Statesman was followed up by one from the newspaper’s Editorial Board. It quickly became clear that the people working on veterans benefits out of Waco were messing up in a noticeably major way. Nationwide, executive bonuses of nearly $3 million were given out in 2011, while the backlog of unprocessed claims increased, along with waiting times in each individual case of a veteran needing medical attention. The Editorial Board pointed out:

In most endeavors, pay bonuses are awarded for efficiency and effort above and beyond the basic requirements of the job…

Overall, nearly a million veteran claims were waiting to be looked at and acted upon, and all anybody knew was that some government desk jockeys were getting giant rewards — and the less work that got done, the bigger the rewards became. Despite the fact that Texas officials had kicked in an extra million and a half dollars of state money to create a “strike force” team to hire more actual claims processors, the 440-day wait time became standard.

Reactions?

Source: “U.S. Vets, Suffering From Unemployment and Homelessness, Support Occupy Protests,” ABCNews.com, 10/29/11
Source: “Nancy Cook focus of Veterans Affairs inquiry,” The Post and Courier, 06/17/11
Source: “VA fix requires more than promises,” MyStatesman.com, 05/02/13
Image by Ayah (Abajooka).

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Homeless Veterans and Corruption

Duty, Honor, Country -- BetrayalWhen contemplating the shabby treatment accorded to America’s veterans, the question is how far back to go. In 2008, Amanda Ruggeri reported for U.S. News & World Report on the shredder scandal, which began with an accidental discovery, when an employee of the Veterans Administration Inspector General’s office found discrepancies in Detroit.

Documents were in the shredder bin that should not have been. Death certificates had not been placed in the service members’ files. Compensation claim forms, and notices filed in disagreement of claim decisions, were also headed for destruction without any action having been taken on them.

At the time, there were 57 VA regional offices, and further investigation revealed that 41 of them had been shredding paperwork inappropriately — without its having been duplicated for the individual veterans’ files. And since the bins of papers intended for shredding are emptied once or twice per week, the 474 questioned documents found during the investigation represented only a small fraction of the potential suspected negligence.

At the time, the VA had a backlog of 800,000 claims waiting to be looked at, and the absence of one crucial document from any one of those files could result in a denial of compensation. Patrick Dunne, the VA Undersecretary for Benefits, told the press:

We can’t tolerate even one veteran’s piece of paper being missing. We’re taking action to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Thanks to the efforts of Rep. Bob Filner, head of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, on March 3, 2009, there was a congressional hearing that involved two VA subcommittees — Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, and Oversight and Investigations. The title of the 104-page PDF report is: “Document Tampering and Mishandling at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Joint Hearing.”

“Shreddergate”

The result was not heartening. Boiled down to the essentials by a blog called Veteranclaims’s Blog, the goings-on at Veterans Affairs regional offices (VAROs) included 16,000 mishandled documents at a single regional office. The writer mentions, and then quotes, the congressional report regarding:

[…] the ‘Amnesty’ programs which the VA has been operating for at least two years, where they offer amnesty to employees that have removed evidence from veterans claims if they return that illegally removed evidence. ‘During an amnesty period in July 2007 at VARO Detroit, VARO employees turned in almost 16,000 pieces of unprocessed mail including 700 claims and 2,700 medical records and/or pieces of medical information. The VARO determined that none of these claims or documents were in VBA information systems or associated claim files.’

The government’s press release outlining the results of the hearings also mentioned that over the previous 12 years, approximately 50,000 surviving spouses of veterans were denied benefits or, worse, billed for supposed overpayment of benefits by the Department of the Treasury, wanting its money back. All these were mistakes caused by the “VA’s mistaken interpretation of the law.”

If the government bureau in charge of these matters doesn’t even understand the rules under which it supposedly operates, how can anything work? No wonder vets have been waiting a year or more to hear about their claims, with the resulting problems leading to homelessness, or in too many cases, suicide.

More recent developments

A new documentary film, titled Duty, Honor, Country — BETRAYAL, was reviewed for NewsWithViews.com by attorney Rees Lloyd. A while back, House the Homeless mentioned the Los Angeles real estate ripoff, but according to filmmaker Bill Dumas, the scandal is a national disgrace. It’s all about “enhanced use” agreements or leases, which allow non-veteran business interests with good political connections to benefit from land that rightfully belongs to American veterans. Lloyd says:

These leases are for as long as 75 years, at prices far below market value, often nominal payments of ‘$1 a year,’ sometimes nothing at all. Worst of all: The Secretary of Veterans Affairs has the authority to give that land to the lessees entirely in the Secretary’s sole discretion, without Congressional action, if the Secretary decides the land is no longer needed for veterans.

This cozy arrangement has been blatantly exploited by people and organizations accused by the film. And in the case of the large tract of land in the middle of LA, it’s even more disgusting:

Many large dormitory-like buildings on the land which could be used for the homeless, are empty, unused, deteriorating because the VA refuses to maintain them, or build adequate new housing, or use the available land for temporary housing as new housing is built…

There are an estimated 20,000 homeless veterans in Los Angeles.

Reactions?

Source: “Military Veterans’ Benefit Claims Records Wrongly Headed for VA Shredders,” U.S. News & World Report, 10/31/08
Source: “VA gives amnesty to employees while Vets suffer,” Veteranclaims’s Blog, 03/06/09
Source: “New Film: VA “Betrays” Homeless Vets,” NewsWithViews.com, 05/14/13
Image by Bill Dumas.

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Lack of Living Wage Contributes to Homelessness

Living WageIf there is one best way to solve the social crisis of homelessness it is this: Our society must pay people a living wage.

Some people balk at this assertion. They try to maintain that paying a living wage is “baloney,” and falsely claim that increasing wages will stifle economic growth. Yet, scores of studies by major economists demonstrates that minimum wage works.

But does the minimum wage in its current form work well enough? Many housing advocates say no. So, too, does a group not generally thought to be supportive of minimum wage hikes: business owners — even giant retailers like Costco.

Forgetting the social and ethical contract of caring for our brothers and sisters in need, let’s consider the economic advantages of switching from a federal, one-size-fits-few approach to minimum wage toward a sliding scale with minimum wages tailored for the local cost-of-living. Let’s review why the concept is gaining a momentum of support.

Why a Living Wage Instead of the Minimum Wage?

The answer is simple: Federal Minimum Wage (FMW) once stabilized incomes sufficiently that working people could afford housing. Not anymore.

The FMW no longer pays workers enough to meet the costs of housing and utilities of minimum-wage earning men, women, and their families in most areas of our country. This conclusion is based on HUD’s review of Fair Market Rents and applies to all housing markets both big and small. The reason? Inflation.

President Obama has proposed that today’s minimum wage be increased from $7.25 an hour to $9.00 an hour. That’s a step in the right direction, but minimum wage should pay a minimum of $9.31 an hour to yield the same purchasing power as minimum wage paid in 1974.

In short, inflation has stolen the present value of minimum wage. Combine that with extremely varied cost-of-living expenses across the country, and simply raising the FMW won’t cut it. Instead, we must adjust hourly wages to the local cost-of-living, rather than a one-size-fits-no-one federal mandate.

“Declining wages, in turn, have put housing out of reach for many workers: a household would need more than one full time minimum wage worker to afford a two-bedroom rental apartment at fair market rent (National Low Income Housing Coalition, 2009),” reports the National Coalition for the Homeless.

Further, with a lack of affordable health care and several states attempting to overturn the Affordable Care Act, medical bills can wipe out a family’s savings and put them on the street. That’s an unwinnable war for someone earning the minimum required by law. To add insult to injury, those earning the least are also the same people plagued with unhealthy diets and multi-generational diseases associated with obesity.

“[M]any apartment complexes run credit checks which can prevent people with poor credit from renting; things like unpaid medical bills can prevent working people from finding a place to rent,” writes Kylyssa Shay, a formerly homeless person now working as freelance writer and homelessness activist.

Once we had a social belief in this country that hard work would be rewarded, at least at a level that permitted the simple dignity of providing for your family. Once it was considered wrong to fire 20% of your staff in order to give yourself a raise, for instance. Not anymore. “Human nature does not change, but social structures can, and they did,” writes George Packer, author of the book, The Unwinding.

This historical shift has brought some seemingly unlikely supporters of a living wage: local business owners.

Local Economies Benefit, Too

One reason for the support of an increased minimum wage to a living wage is that, by default, excludes retailing giants like Wal-Mart whose business model is based on paying the lowest wages possible and allowing the taxpayers to pick up the tab, reports Michael Shuman in the book The Small-Mart Revolution.

Preventing massive players with extractive agendas from entering a local market means that a local economy can stabilize and grow. That is because more money is being retained locally (as opposed to being sent to Arkansas and into the coffer’s of our nation’s best example of wealth inequality). Smaller business owners do not begrudge the success of giants like Wal-Mart.

Instead, they point to the economic destruction caused by companies like Wal-Mart that pass the buck. These companies have no incentive to care for local workers, their environment, or the economic resiliency of the local market to which they and other local business owners contribute.

Paying better wages to employees means that retraining costs are lowered. It also benefits business owners because it builds employee loyalty. What some business owners fear as limiting has been shown to improve the situation for everyone.

“Furthermore, from a historical perspective, every minimum wage increase is spent right back into the economy, so this will stimulate the economy generally too,” says House the Homeless founder Richard R. Troxell.

Raising the minimum wage is necessary to prevent more working people from experiencing homelessness. Implementing a living wage will do even more to prevent homelessness and strengthen our local economies. Learn more about the issue at UniversalLivingWage.org.

Image by STEM Limited.

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Spotlight on Homeless Women Vets

War Zone Comfort ZoneLike many entertainers, comedian Greg Proops is anti-war but pro-soldier, and believes that a lot of Americans see no choice other than enlistment, because “the economy is so awful and I think that the underclass has to join the service to get three squares and some health care.” And nowadays, the underclass includes just about everybody. Now, what about when the soldiering is over and the person has to reestablish a life at home?

The performer wants his audiences to realize that when veterans are discharged, in many cases their troubles are just beginning. They expect the experience they have gained and the service they have rendered to count for something. Instead, they often find themselves hungry, sick, disabled, mentally confused, emotionally troubled, and experiencing homelessness.

The boring, preachy part

When Proops records shows in front of live audiences, each episode includes a “boring preachy part” where he launches a tirade against whatever current news item has stirred up his indignation. Actually, these rants are far from dull, and in his June 3 podcast he took the opportunity to point out that female veterans are the fastest-growing segment of the American homeless population. Proops was alerted to this dismaying fact by the documentary, War Zone/Comfort Zone, which is now available on YouTube.

For Memorial Day, filmmaker Lizzie Warren described her experience in the pages of Salon:

I followed the story of two women — one of them a Gold Star mother — who fight to establish Connecticut’s first transitional, supportive house for women veterans. The women and their allies faced neighborhood opposition in several towns, and establishing a home with fifteen beds for women veterans and their children took more than four years.

Four years! To get 15 women and kids into a house! There are thousands and thousands of homeless veterans out there, and more arriving every day. This rate of progress is unacceptable. Warren notes that:

Women veterans face a dense constellation of issues: low wages, a lack of childcare and family housing options, inadequate gender-specific services at the Veterans Administration and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from combat and Military Sexual Trauma.

A February New York Times article by Patricia Leigh Brown hit the same theme:

While male returnees become homeless largely because of substance abuse and mental illness, experts say that female veterans face those problems and more, including the search for family housing and an even harder time finding well-paying jobs.

We would add that a great number of vets suffer from the effects of PTSD, which is not the same as mental illness, being more preventable and more treatable. It is an enormous factor just the same.

At least 10% of the homeless veterans who are known to have spent nights in shelters are women. Transitional housing funded by Department of Veterans Affairs grants are mostly designed for single men, and 60% of them don’t allow children. Yet female veterans are much more likely than males to have custody of children.

California, here we come

Brown points out that a quarter of homeless women vets (and men too) are located in California. One out of every four homeless veterans lives there, yet as House the Homeless recently noted, California is a state whose bureaucracy has not yet caught up with the reporting requirements that were put in place to help the VA keep track of veteran suicides. This too is unacceptable.

Texas is another large state that is both rife with homeless veterans and behind in its statistical reporting. Journalists started noticing at least a couple of years ago that expanded services were needed, especially for women, especially for women with dependent children.

Alex Branch interviewed the director of Fort Worth’s nonprofit organization Grace After Fire. Kim Olson, a retired Air Force colonel, is tuned in to every nuance of the situation. Branch quotes Olson:

Almost all the facilities built to help homeless veterans are built around the male model. You don’t find them with child care, and playgrounds and common areas for women. We are going to need those kinds of places.

At the time when Branch did his research, the homeless veterans program administered by the VA in Fort Worth had housed 117 veterans, of which only 12 were women. He also took care to point out that although female veterans might be better educated than their civilian counterparts, their unemployment rate is twice as high because the skills they learned in the military do not carry over well into civilian life.

On this page, the Government Accountability Office offers a downloadable PDF document called “Actions Needed to Ensure Safe and Appropriate Housing” which addresses the needs of women vets.

Reactions?

Source: “No holidays or parades for homeless women veterans,” Salon, 05/27/13
Source: “Trauma Sets Female Veterans Adrift Back Home,” The New York Times, 02/28/13
Source: “Help hard to find for homeless female veterans,” Star-Telegram.com, 03/09/11
Image by Lizzie Warren.

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Possibilities for Homeless Veterans

Veterans Stand Down

Karl Marlantes, author of the Vietnam combat novel Matterhorn, also wrote What It is Like to Go to War. He is interested finding a way to stretch out the period of transition from martial existence to civilian life.

In this respect, things were better in the aftermath of World War II when, because of transportation logistics, the journey home might take weeks or months. Something counterintuitive is at work here. Theoretically, it would seem best for everybody to get home as soon as possible.

But in the old, slow days, even without therapy or indeed any special attention to their psychological conditions, veterans had a chance to adjust. During a literal journey, they had a chance to make a mental journey, and process their memories before being expected to act normal. This probably helped with the re-entry period into civilian life, stateside.

Marlantes would also like to see something along the lines of a disarming ceremony, and other public rituals signifying a person’s change from warrior to everyday citizen.

Rodger Ruge, the crisis intervention counselor previously mentioned by House the Homeless, is interested in starting damage control even sooner — in training. As Teresa Shumaker reported, Ruge sees early preparation as a way to dramatically reduce the effects of PTSD:

If we can give everybody an idea of how to inoculate the body from stress, like the breath work we did in the class, if we did as much training on the front end when preparing them to go into service, they would be able to use the techniques they learned while they are having those experiences… Why are we not front-loading when we know what the result is? We already know; we have known since World War II. It doesn’t take that much time. It might be the extension of a couple of weeks in boot camp, in terms of time and it can be integrated into all the things they already do.

In Washington

At one point, 67 senators of all political persuasions joined in writing a letter to President Obama asking him to do something about the time lag between when a veteran needs help and when she or he gets it, caused by an extreme case load backlog. The website Challenge.gov, in partnership with ChallengePost, is sponsoring the VA Medical Appointment Scheduling Contest.

For the homeless, it’s not easy to hang onto possessions, even vital ones like a DD-214, which documents an honorable discharge from the military. Backpacks get stolen, stuff gets confiscated and burned by the authorities. Sometimes it just plain gets lost.

As things stand, only “lifers” who have completed the time-in-service requirement for retirement, and those who received a medical-related discharge, are issued I.D. Cards. If the bill known as H.R. 1598 passes, a new category of I.D. Card could be purchased by a veteran who did not go all the way to retirement, as long as there is proof of an honorable discharge. It would not entitle the person to any government benefits or services, but would be useful nonetheless.

Here is an excerpt from the congressional findings regarding the Veteran’s I.D. Card Act:

Goods, services, and promotional activities are often offered by public and private institutions to veterans who demonstrate proof of service in the military but it is impractical for a veteran to always carry official DD–214 discharge papers to demonstrate such proof.

Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless notes that a photo ID would be easier to keep possession of, and more likely to be held onto by its owner.

Reactions?

Source: “What It is Like to Go to War Quotes,” GoodReads
Source: “Retired officer shares his knowledge on homelessness and why many veterans,” The Mendocino Beacon, 05/23/13
Source: “VA Medical Appointment Scheduling Contest,” Challenge.gov
Source: “Veteran’s I.D. Card Act,” SunlightFoundation.com
Image by Maryland GovPics.

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Homeless Veterans and Suicide

Sleeping bagIn Florida, at any given time, there are 10 or 12 homeless encampments in the general area of Tampa. The estimated 2,200 inhabitants include an estimated 170 veterans. Reporter Kevin Brady quotes Thomas Brown, who is an outreach coordinator for the organization Tampa Crossroads:

There’s a perception out there that homeless veterans are all drug addicts and alcoholics but that is not the way it is.

Brady also quotes a vet known as Ray, who returned from overseas to find that his second marriage had crumbled and he couldn’t get a job. Here is the part that pertains to suicide:

I volunteered for my second deployment for one reason: to die.

The InterAgency Council on Homelessness says there are more than 62,000 homeless veterans in the country. Depending on whose numbers you accept, between 13% and 25% of people experiencing homelessness in the America are veterans.

Whatever the percentage is now, the Veterans’ Affairs Office foresees that it will rise in the next four years, to where half the homeless will be vets. Among all known suicides, the VA guesses that about 22% of them are veterans. A lot of people are working on solutions to both the homelessness and the suicide rate.

Teresa Shumaker of the Mendocino Beacon interviewed the author of The Warrior’s Mantra, a book whose audience includes emergency services personnel. Roger Ruge is a former law enforcement officer who became a crisis intervention counselor. His method of teaching people to condition their minds and avoid post-traumatic stress involves positive affirmations and mantras.

Shumaker obtained this quotation from Ruge, about veteran suicides:

There is the stigma associated with [seeking help]. There is also this distrust and really long waiting period… Plus, [they] have the warrior mindset. The warrior mindset is, ‘I can take of myself.’ They don’t want to admit that there is a problem, because that is admitting there is a weakness… You have this culture of people who don’t want to seek help in the first place, and then a system that is broken, overwhelmed and can’t really help them… When you are having acute symptoms, you need help right now which is why the suicide rate is so high.

National Survey of Homeless Veterans

Interested parties can download a PDF report compiled by the National Survey of Homeless Veterans. The latest numbers available to work with were from 2011, so there will probably be an updated report soon. The 100,000 Homes campaign added up information gathered by volunteers in 47 communities, from more than 23,000 people experiencing homelessness.

They found that veterans tend to be older and to have been homeless longer than civilians. They are more likely to be sick, and more likely to have traumatic brain injury. This organic physical damage is different from, and may co-exist with, PTSD, which is psychological trauma.

The report compared the situations of homeless veterans who are hooked up with the system, and those who are not. Whatever help people are receiving doesn’t seem to make much difference in regard to their health, except that fewer homeless veterans have Hepatitis C than the non-veterans. The report says:

The data […] suggest that VA health benefits alone do not improve the health outcomes in question for veterans, nor do they help veterans escape homelessness more quickly.

Interestingly, there was no significant difference in length of time homeless between these two groups. Neither was there any significant difference in the health, jail, prison or other data…

Strangely, the report doesn’t contain the word “suicide.”

Reactions?

Source: “Missing In America – Homeless Veterans,” The Current, 05/30/13
Source: “Retired officer shares his knowledge on homelessness…,The Mendocino Beacon, 05/23/13
Source: “National Survey of Homeless Veterans, ” 100khomes.org
Image by fullyreclined (don toye).

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