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How Are the Homeless Veterans Doing?

Seven years ago, the Veterans Administration announced an ambitious plan to end veteran homelessness within a certain time frame. Reality has forced the goalpost to be moved, and total elimination appears to be an impossible dream.

Amazingly, about half the homeless veterans out there are left over from the Vietnam era. Among veterans experiencing homelessness, none out of 10 are male, and any black or Latinx vet is three times as likely to be homeless as the white comrade-in-arms. Most are single and live in cities, and most are afflicted by physical disability, mental illness, or substance abuse.

The authorities don’t say it in so many words, but surely one problem is that the supply of veterans deserving of care does not seem to be drying up. At the same time, a certain number of psychologically wounded vets will remove themselves, via suicide, from the need for any further help. But the current thinking is that an irreducible minimum number, either too far gone into post-traumatic stress disorder, or simply possessed of loner personalities, will remain on the streets and in wooded enclaves, no matter what.

This summer, VA Secretary David Shulkin addressed the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. He said:

There is going to be a functional zero, essentially somewhere around 12,000 to 15,000 that despite being offered options for housing and getting them off the street, there are a number of reasons why people may not choose to do that.

This seems to suggest that the day will come when, if any vets remain unhoused, it’s on them. Which may be true, up to a point. There will always be individuals who simply do not want to get with the program, for their own reasons which may or may not be valid according to other people. But is something more going on here? Is the public manipulated into blaming the victims, when other entities may be at fault?

Congressional non-action

What is the government doing? In 2017, according to Congress.gov, six pieces of legislation pertaining to veterans were introduced in the House of Representatives, of which three have been referred to the Subcommittee on Health, two to the House Committee on Ways and Means, and one to the Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity.

In the Senate, four bills have been proposed, of which two were referred to the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, one to the Committee on Finance, and one to the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs. None of the measures has been thoroughly picked over and analyzed, much less voted on, and where any of them will end up is an open question.

Here and there in America

The Veterans Resource Center is a nonprofit organization with more than a dozen branches in three states, with most of its funding coming from the federal government. Counselors help with employment, healthcare and other benefits — plus the biggie — which is housing. Without a stable environment in which to sleep and keep their belongings safe, a person is ill-equipped to progress in the areas of health, work, or school. Among the group’s nine areas of concentration are homeless prevention and re-housing, transitional housing, and permanent supportive housing.

Homeless vet populations are concentrated in seven states: California, Texas, Florida, New York, Colorado, Washington, and Oregon. Of course, need exists in every state. In Phoenix, Central Arizona Shelter Services will probably lose a half-million dollar VA grant it has relied on for at least ten years.

In March, southwest Minnesota announced that all its waiting lists were cleared, and all its homeless veterans were currently sheltered. The “how” is worth reading about, as well as the situation’s roots. Journalist Susan Du writes:

Part of the problem was the vilification that arose in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan, who pushed the caricature of the welfare queen who drove a Cadillac and ate steaks for every dinner on Uncle Sam’s dime. It allowed Reagan to make massive cuts to HUD. Ever since, low-income Americans have been fighting a housing shortage that keeps basic shelter out of reach even to those who work multiple jobs.

Meanwhile, celebrities are selling “Once in a lifetime experiences, luxury items, and autographed memorabilia” on eBay to help fund Homes For Our Troops, an organization that focuses on building “specially adapted custom homes for severely injured Post 9/11 Veterans.” The event runs through November 14.

Reactions?

Source: “Shelter: America’s Homeless Veterans,” AlJazeera.com, 11/03/17
Source: “VA drops goal of zero homeless veterans,” MilitaryTimes.com, 06/02/17
Source: “Programs and Services,” VetsResource.org
Source: “In southwest Minnesota, all homeless veterans finally have shelter,” CityPages.com, 03/23/17
Photo credit: mark6mauno via Visualhunt/CC BY

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The Somewhat Discouraging Universe of Tiny Homes

House the Homeless recently mentioned a very bare-bones type of individual housing unit, containing only bed, desk, and shelves, that costs $25,000 apiece. (Coincidentally, this is the same amount that American taxpayers shelled out for a “privacy booth” to be built inside the office of the head of the Environmental Protection Agency.) But if that sounds excessive, prepare for worse to come.

A British entrepreneur has come up the iKozie, a pod “designed to provide temporary accommodation for the homeless.” In this transitional scenario, the tenant will pay the rent and water bills and buy their own food, as training to become a fully functional member of society.

The pod contains a bedroom, full kitchen, bathroom “module,” and entertainment zone, all within 186 square feet. It is said to comply with planning and building regulations, “and has an A rating for energy efficiency.” A crane had to be rented to install the prototype in a volunteer’s backyard, which must add considerably to the tiny unit’s cost — close to $53,000 American.

Even that is an amazing deal, compared with Portland’s pods, whose cost is projected to be a jaw-dropping $75,000 each, paid for by public and private funds. (Wouldn’t a used RV set up on blocks be more economical?)

Leanna Garfield reports:

Each 200-square-foot pod will have a unique design… The pods will be able to house one adult and two children — inside, there will be a bed (some have bunk beds), shelves, a toilet, and a desk. They’ll all come with heat and full plumbing.

In Portland, some 200 homeowners have indicated preliminary willingness to host a pod in their backyard. The people who move in are meant to pay a certain amount of rent, while receiving the same social services as the city’s other sheltered homeless citizens.

This summer the program started with four families. Multnomah County is home to an estimated 4,000 unhoused people, so pricey mini-homes in backyards will not be the whole solution.

HGTV, which hosts a lot of tiny-house shows, defines a tiny house as anything up to 600 square feet. This is actually capacious, compared to similar products, being for example three times the size of the iKozie. Sadly, the production company seems coy about price information, and the general impression is that their designs are more for the wealthy retiree than the struggling former homeless person.

It gets better

Is there a lower end to this spectrum? Yes. In the spring of 1915, an audacious experiment was underway in Wisconsin. After months of struggle, a group called Occupy Madison (OM) oversaw the building of three tiny houses by their prospective tenants. Even equipped with electric heaters, the structures only cost $4,000 apiece. A pre-existing commercial building holds bathrooms, a minimalist kitchen, dining room, workshop, and greenhouse.

The city considered allowing six more tiny houses to be built, if certain improvements were made. Apparently, bathrooms are the concern. Authorities often have a strange perspective on things. They tend to act as if, rather than live where several people share a bathroom, a human being is better off in the wild with no bathroom.

In this particular community, the homes are meant to be permanent, not transitional. OM is situated on private land and funded by private donations. One school of thought says the government should save tax dollars by encouraging this sort of project, but governments often find many reasons not to.

In Seattle, an organization built 14 tiny houses at a cost of about $2,200 apiece. Their size, 8×12 feet, or 76 square feet, is really minuscule, but each unit has insulation, electricity, and heat. Toilets and showers are in a central building. These are meant to be temporary places to regroup while attempting to make more permanent arrangements, and residents pay $90 a month toward the utility bills.

Maybe the federal housing authorities could encourage cities to be more inventive and adventurous about creating housing for people with very low incomes. The problem is not a shortage of know-how. Every day, some college student wins an award for designing an inexpensive small dwelling with basic amenities.

The problem is not a lack of materials that can be recycled and repurposed. The problem is not a shortage of volunteers eager to build something. The problem is not a lack of participation from the people who will live in tiny houses.

The problem is, very few settled people are willing to have a tiny-house village anywhere near them. Or a single tiny house in a neighbor’s backyard. Or in their own backyard. And often, even if the property owners who are directly concerned, and their neighbors, are on board, the housed people from other parts of the city will feel threatened, and throw a monkey wrench into the machinery.

Reactions?

Source: “Micro-house costing just £40,000 is unveiled,” DailyMail.co.uk, 08/30/17
Source: “Portland will start housing the homeless in tiny pods in people’s backyards,” BusinessInsider.com, 03/22/17
Source: “Tiny houses in Madison, Wis., offer affordable, cozy alternative to homelessness,” StarTribune.com, 03/16/15
Source: “Tiny-house villages: An innovative solution to homelessness?,” CSMonitor.com, 01/21/16
Photo credit: Tomas Quinones via Visualhunt/CC BY-SA

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Tiny Homes: The Problem Beneath the Problem

How many kinds of small, self-contained dwellings are there? Dozens, at least. Every day smart and compassionate people figure out how to transform just about anything into minimalist living quarters.

There are miniature geodesic domes, Conestoga huts, and Cardborigami collapsible, transportable shade structures. There are tiny houses made of hempcrete, which repels mold, rodents and insects; and hemp grows quickly and economically almost anywhere. There are not-so-tiny houses made from shipping containers.

A design website relates how University of Southern California architecture students invented shelters, including a combined shopping cart and tent. In response to one assignment, students…

[…] conceived a village consisting of modular units measuring 92 square feet (8.5 square metres). Some contain bedrooms, while others are combined to form bathroom facilities and communal rooms. The complex also is designed to have outdoor terraces and courtyards.

However, a report from a different publication brings up some troubling questions. For MercuryNews.com, Susan Abram describes one Homes for Hope unit as a “mini-modular home” that includes only bed, desk, and shelves. In other words, toilets, showers, and kitchens belong in other units, to be communally shared.

The writer comments on the highly portable rectangles:

Made of a steel frame with structural insulated panels and aluminum cladding, the units resemble camper shells, with sliding windows. They can be heated and cooled, and stacked to create a community on vacant lots for 30 people or less. Social services, a community space and bathroom facilities also could be provided with additional funding.

Let’s just pause for a moment and reflect on that sentence. “Bathroom facilities could also be provided.” Ya think? Abram explains the state law under which “emergency housing of no more than 30 beds can be opened in certain districts within a community” with no conditional use permit required.

Sounds like a stroll in the park, right? Wrong. She quotes some facts learned from project mentor Sofia Borges:

The next step is to get the units state certified so that the teams can begin mass production, Borges said. “If we get the unit itself pre-certified we don’t have to go through the permitting process each time we want to make more.”

That certification process, along other fees and licensing will cost $100,000. Individual units would cost about $25,000.

In what universe should the state be demanding a $100,000 bribe to okay such a simple item that could help so many people? The government presumably has a stake in housing the homeless. Why can’t it just give the green light? And $25,000 apiece, to make a cube with a bed, desk, and shelves in it? Really?

Endless creativity and originality are expended on turning out structures that are, in some cases, only a grade above cardboard boxes. Which is fine, because on a cold night, even a sheet of aluminum between you and the wind can make all the difference.

Based on rationales that range from baffling to incomprehensible, very few locales allow these minimalist solutions. The whole “tiny house” genre is riddled with restrictions, sanctions, ordinances, contradictions, and highly idiosyncratic rules — depending on the jurisdiction the project happens to lie in. In some places, a distinction is made between an actual dwelling and a “pod,” which might be a basic, no-frills box, and as long as it stays beneath a certain size, it’s allowed.

Dream pods

Two Januaries ago, Tucson, Arizona, was all in a tizzy over “dream pods,” basically plywood crates not much bigger than coffins, that activists constructed and brought downtown for people to live in. In March, after much controversy, orders were issued that they all had to go, along with every tent, lean-to, etc. Some of the dream pods were moved to the grounds of a church where they continued to be inhabited.

The problem beneath the problem is, literally, the rock-solid dilemma on which everything rests. It’s not that there aren’t enough housing units to live in, because there easily could be. There is plenty of encouragement for the recycling and repurposing of parts and materials. An enormous amount of ingenuity has been spent in designing units.

Among people experiencing homelessness and caring citizens, there is a great potential pool of volunteer labor. There is government money and private charity money — never as much as we might wish — but it is there, and obtainable by determined individuals and groups willing to do the work. But there is virtually nowhere to put tiny homes. Nobody wants shipping containers, or even storybook-cute mini-houses, anywhere near where they are.

Reactions?

Source: “California architecture students design shelters for LA’s growing homeless population,” Dezeen.com, 02/22/17
Source: “Can these small pods bring a big solution for California cities’ homeless crisis?,” MercuryNews.com, 10/13/17
Source: “‘Dream pods’ removed from Tucson homeless camp,” Tucson.com, 03/13/15
Photo credit: Laura LaVoie (wheezinggirl) via Visualhunt/CC BY

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How to Become Homeless: Get Burned Out

For The New York Times, Kirk Johnson and Conor Dougherty interviewed people experiencing homelessness for the first time in the California city of Santa Rosa. Some consider themselves lucky to have grabbed cell phones, passports and a few clothes before fleeing the deadly blazes. (If you don’t have time to read the whole article, look for the story of a man named John Page.)

Most of the fire refugees who gathered at a donation center did not even have “the paper trail of their lives: deeds and marriage licenses, tax files and social security cards.” Formerly secure Americans are learning the hell of being without documents, a condition all too familiar to both the chronically and temporarily homeless people of America.

Of the estimated 100,000 Northern California evacuees, some travelled as far as 70 miles to take refuge in San Francisco and Oakland, which were pretty crowded already, and expensive. A lot of those folks have nothing left to go back to. The cost in human lives is terrible with 40 people already known to have died.

NIMBY all over again

An old joke goes, “What’s the difference between a developer and an environmentalist? The developer wants to build a house in the woods; the environmentalist already has one.” This has been part of the problem in the state’s counties of Napa and Sonoma, where new housing starts come nowhere near to matching the number of new residents.

The people who work in San Francisco and Silicon Valley have to live somewhere, but there is resistance to building in rural areas. The reporters also cite…

[…] the complexities of California’s housing, zoning and building regulations, and the environmental problems involved in cleaning up home sites made toxic by the ash from the fire.

Climate change increasingly plays a part in the likelihood of more fires. Tribune News Service describes the recent past and the probable future:

Six years of drought was followed by record winter snow and rain, followed by record heat from April through September. Santa Rosa hit 110 degrees Sept. 1, a record high for the date. Five weeks later parts of the city caught fire, destroying hundreds of homes and businesses. Worse extremes can be expected in coming decades.

Some Santa Rosa evacuees are sleeping at the Sonoma Fairgrounds on Red Cross cots. Others are 20 miles away at a shelter manned by the National Guard. What will change in the aftermath of the current fire disaster? Housing prices were already ridiculously high and can only get worse, now that nearly 6,000 buildings have been destroyed. There will be many things to consider, in future housing plans, including better escape routes.

No one is exempt

Recent events make it very clear that people experiencing homelessness are not a different species. A fire can happen to anybody. Almost everyone knows someone whose life was changed irrevocably by a fire. Fire plays no favorites, and some of the narratives contain painful irony. For instance, a 2012 story (that has not been archived on the Internet) described how a Syracuse, New York, couple who had devoted their lives to helping the homeless, were themselves made homeless by a fire.

Seemingly senseless accidents happen, like when a toaster jammed and burned a house leaving an Iowa family of five homeless. In 2015, in Minnesota, a family that had been doubling up with relatives for three months finally completed the formalities and complied with the regulations to move into a house they were buying. The were in residence for only two weeks when a fire made them homeless again.

Sometimes it’s nature, and sometimes human malice is to blame. In January of this year, an apartment fire left 18 people homeless. The man arrested and charged with arson had a grudge against one of the tenants, and had made a previous attempt to burn the building. All kinds of things can happen.

House the Homeless has mentioned T.C. Boyle, whose novel The Tortilla Curtain sketched a heartbreaking picture of the existence of undocumented workers living in a ravine on less than nothing. His newer book, A Friend of the Earth, projects the bleak outlook for the California of the future. When a reporter asked for a remark on the current fires, Boyle said:

People say I was prescient by what I predicted for 2025. The sad joke is I should have said 2015. It is frightening how quickly we got here.

Reactions?

Source: “Fires Leave Many Homeless Where Housing Was Already Scarce,” NYTimes.com, 10/15/17
Source: “Wildfires and weather: Doom fiction called California reality,” WatertownDailyTimes.com, 10/16/17
Source: “Unattended Toaster Sparks Fire, Leaving Family of Five Homeless,” SiouxlandProud.com, 07/26/15
Source: “Previously homeless Winona family loses new home in fire,” KTTC.com, 10/11/15
Source: “Arrest In Buffalo Fire That Left 18 Homeless,” WGRZ.com, 01/22/17
Photo credit: Orin Zebest via Visualhunt/CC BY

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Resistance, Advocacy, and Ambivalence in Maspeth

In Maspeth, which is part of Queens in New York City, a Holiday Inn became a homeless shelter. In April, some locals sued the mayor on technical grounds related to the building’s certificate of occupancy, but apparently an uneasy truce is now in effect.

But the permanent residents are vigilant. A woman filed a FOIA request (subsequently denied) for information on the shelter residents, particularly “employment information, last known addresses, reasons for their homelessness, drug use and length of stay.” In August, a headline read, “Cops say this couple has been breaking into Maspeth homes in broad daylight.” (Not the couple pictured on our page, by the way.)

According to the article on QNS.com:

Police have released images of a man and a woman responsible for a burglary pattern in Maspeth, hitting two homes within a span of three days in broad daylight…

In other words, the pair tried but failed to break into one house, and successfully broke into another and stole things, if that can be called a pattern. Obviously, some journalistic sensationalizing is in play, but, surprisingly, the local news sources are reticent about connecting crimes to the formerly homeless population. Strangely, a blog about local affairs never mentions the shelter at all.

Outside friction

A story from Gothamist is titled, “Ask A Native New Yorker: Is It Wrong To Hate Homeless People?” It quotes lively discussions between journalists, members of the affected community, and people who are neither. It illustrates, among other things, the proneness of trolls to deploy “straw man” arguments.

A person known as “Maspeth Sympathizer” wrote:

No one wants some 20 year old baby breeder and her litter of kids scrubbing off the good hardworking taxpayers.

However, the original Maspeth plan was to create a 110-bed shelter for adult families, defined as couples and families with children older than 18. Using rude and crude language, the same New Yorker voiced the frustrations felt by people who work hard to buy a piece of property with a house on it, and then find their communities playing host to people experiencing homelessness.

Nice middle-class neighborhoods are rare in the metropolis. They are populated by workers who “clean the streets, run the public transportation system, enforce the law, put out the fires, pick up the trash, teach our future and hold the doors open for the snobs who can’t be bothered.”

Clash of cultures

Critics say that people who live in shelters mess up their neighborhoods, and this is an understandable complaint. Parents whose kids play in the local park don’t want broken glass to suddenly start showing up. The obvious retort is that not all people experiencing homelessness are poorly socialized semi-barbarians who were raised in dumpsters with rats for pets.

The families in the shelter might have been traumatically transplanted from a nice middle-class community just like Maspeth. These days, almost no one in America is immune to the threat of homelessness.

A knee-jerk reaction would be to fence the park, limit the hours, convince the police to make a strong presence, or hire security guards. But it doesn’t have to be like that. What if community members went a bit out of their way for a while, and put in a little extra effort?

Local parents could spend more time at the park with their kids, getting healthy exercise and demonstrating by example how to treat a shared public space. Churches could create a welcoming atmosphere. A good-hearted intention to enfold newcomers, rather than repel them, could probably make a considerable difference in many instances.

Some kind of humane approach would certainly accomplish more good than the random pronouncement of blanket generalizations, like the following:

This homeless shelter in Maspeth, like all homeless shelters, is going ruin the neighborhood. There isn’t a neighborhood with a homeless shelter that hasn’t been ruined.

Gothamist publisher Jake Dobkin begs to differ, citing peaceful assimilation in several areas of NYC, both rich and poor. He suggests that what’s really going on is simple fear. Housed people live in terror of the prospect of homelessness, as well they should, because then they might be treated with the same scorn they pour on others now.

Dobkin diagnoses, and advises:

It’s much easier to believe that these people are sub-human trash, rather than just normal people who had the bad luck of being poor in an expensive city—because if you believed that, there’s nothing that could guarantee you’d never end up facing the same problem. Rather than pointing at the poor shelter residents, who are mainly the victims of bad luck and stratospherically-priced housing, you’d be better off directing your anger at the people who really have power in our city’s real estate market: the rich developers and the politicians whom they control.

A bigger picture

It is characteristic of the NIMBY mindset to believe that homeless shelters should only be for people who were rendered homeless in that exact locale. The woman who petitioned the government for personal information was hung up on a 2014 statistic that claimed only four homeless families in Maspeth, and wanted to prove that most of the shelter residents came from other places.

That is an absurdly local perspective. Looked at on a larger scale, out of 12,000 families in the NYC “system” only 135 families (or less than 2%) are from places other than New York City.

The disgruntled “Maspeth Sympathizer” notes that homeless families tend to consist of women and children, with the fathers always missing. Deeper thought and more compassion would promote the understanding that often these families are homeless precisely because the father was taken from them — often by legal action.

It is no secret that minority-group males are accused, convicted, and incarcerated in numbers that do not line up with statistical probability. In city and county jails and state and federal prisons, the black and Hispanic inmate count is wildly disproportionate to the corresponding demographics of the population as a whole. And besides, people in places like Maspeth resent being called racist, when they are merely anti-homeless.

Reactions?

Source: “‘Homeless Holiday Inn’ sparks lawsuit against mayor,” NYPost.com, 04/24/17
Source: “Cops say this couple has been breaking into Maspeth homes in broad daylight,” QNS.com, 08/22/17
Source: “Ask A Native New Yorker: Is It Wrong To Hate Homeless People?,” Gothamist.com, 09/09/16
Photo credit: Steve Baker via Visualhunt/CC BY-ND

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How to Become Homeless — Be Flooded Out

On September 25, the president tweeted, “Texas & Florida are doing great.” However, it seems that some areas are experiencing and expecting even more flooding. And desolation is widespread.

Many people are experiencing homelessness for the first time. For some it is only temporary (though not at all easy), but others will never be housed again. Among those who were already homeless, conditions are worse than ever.

In Austin, Nacodoches and Dallas, people are still taking shelter. The City of Orange set up a headquarters able to hold 250 cots.

Only three days ago, I overheard in real time a conversation about trying to help a young couple with children in Texas. In their normal living space, wet building materials were being removed, while new drywall and other necessary supplies were eagerly awaited. The family was living in their van parked outside, and dared not venture far.

If funds were to be sent to the bank, getting to the bank would be a problem for them, and besides, they were not even sure if the bank was open. And there was no mail service in their part of the city.

The flood drowned 80% of the Gulf Coast town of Dickinson, and half the homes were totaled. To give just one small example of the struggles documented by reporter Quint Forgey:

Many trash haulers have abandoned this community to work in Houston, 30 miles north, where the pay is better… “That’s our biggest challenge — getting the debris trucks in here and keeping them here,” said Ron Morales, Dickinson’s emergency management coordinator…

In 2015, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority interviewed more than 3,000 people experiencing homelessness (out of the estimated 44,300 in the entire county.) The agency was interested in what caused people to be unhoused. According to Authority:

For a fifth of those interviewed, it was primarily a matter of unemployment or finances. Seventy-nine said they were released from jail. Nearly 200 blamed a breakup or separation. Many cited multiple reasons from the list that interviewers read to them.

[…] Lost employment, lost everything by theft, lost Section 8 (federal housing assistance). Hurricane Katrina, fire and “God’s calling” were all cited too.

Often, disaster is one of the reasons, either alone or in conjunction with another misfortune. Ashlea Surles related the story of Jack, a 53-year-old man who lived in the woods in Mississippi. Once a wealthy businessman, he ran out of money paying for his wife’s cancer treatments, and she died anyway. Hurricane Katrina destroyed his house. He told the reporter, with confusing syntax, “Basically people that are homeless sometimes you’re just in the mold where they just don’t care.”

A year ago, Connellsville, Pennsylvania, and a neighboring town suffered severe damage, and it only took five inches of rain in a two-hour spell to cause the nightmare. “Flood leaves more than 50 families homeless in western Pa.,” the headline read. In a place with a population of around 7,500, that’s a pretty big slice of the demographic pie.

Around the same time, Louisiana was slammed with a “1,000-year flood,” in other words, the kind of freakish disaster that is statistically predicted to strike only once per millennium. (Obviously, someone didn’t get the memo.)

In some communities — Denham Springs, for instance — 90% of houses flooded, leaving their owners homeless.

According to FEMA rules, wrote reporter Andrea Gallo, “people in shelters who owned or rented property before the floods qualify for the agency’s transitional shelter assistance, which includes rental assistance, the shelter-at-home program and temporary mobile homes as a last resort.”

Even though people are entitled to help, you can’t rent a hotel room that doesn’t exist, and how many hotels are in rural Louisiana? Without transportation, how do you even go and look for a place to live?

For The Advocate, Gallo profiled a couple who had lived in Walker until their house was inundated by over five feet of water. Gerald and Cris Burkins were placed in one shelter, then another, unable to meet with family members including their daughter whose boyfriend had just died in an auto accident. They were left with nothing, and needed, at the very least, a car and an apartment.

At the height of the emergency, over 11,000 people were taken into Louisiana shelters, among them many who hadn’t been living in any particular place. While a lot of the people in this group may have received the benefit of a more gradual learning curve, flood victims have to very quickly come to terms with their calamitous displacement.

It must be interesting, for experienced homeless people, to see formerly housed neighbors hit with the reality of what having nothing is all about. Gallo says:

If there was ever novelty in living alongside strangers and not having control over what to eat, what to wear and where to go, it has long since worn off.

The reporter also interviewed a woman who had been only two years away from having her house mortgage paid off, suddenly made homeless with nothing but her two cats. Another woman hinted that individuals, such as landlords, could lapse into compassion fatigue:

When people did things for you in the beginning, it was “We want to help.” Now, it’s changed. We didn’t ask to be homeless.

*****

NOTE: Readers who missed the most recent post, “Flooding and Its Aftermath,” might wish to check out the part that begins, “What to do?”

Reactions?

Source: “Tent City offers temporary housing for evacuees,” OrangeLeader.com, 09/28/17
Source: “Texas Towns Crushed by Hurricane Harvey Struggle to Clean Up and Rebuild,” WSJ.com, 09/29/17
Source: “LA’s homeless, in their own words, on how it happened,” LATimes.com, 11/26/15
Source: “Hattiesburg men explain how they ended up homeless in a tent city,” WDAM.com, 2012
Source: “Flood leaves more than 50 families homeless in western Pa.,” WIFT.org, 08/31/16
Source: “Louisiana left stunned by damage from ‘1,000-year’ flood: ‘It just kept coming’,” TheGuardian.com, 08/16/16
Source: “‘We didn’t ask to be homeless’: 850 people remain in shelters, worry about being forgotten as others move on,” TheAdvocate.com, 09/09/16
Photo credit: Texas Military Department via Visualhunt/CC BY-ND

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Flooding and Its Aftermath

Late in May 2015, frequent Huffington Post contributor Arlene Nisson Lassin wrote about the Memorial Day flood in her area of Houston that affected about 4,000 houses, one of which belonged to her family. A series of posts described 99 varieties of pain — from the uncertainty of even being able to stay in the very community-oriented neighborhood, to leaving beloved objects by the curb to be hauled away.

For almost a year, the Lassins “flamped” (flood camped) in the bleak wreckage of their partially-deconstructed house, assessing the damage, studying the laws about rebuilding, filling out tons of paperwork, and not knowing the next step. Ultimately, word came down that the place would have to be bulldozed. They decided to keep the property and build a smaller, and more high-off-the-ground house.

During the construction, they rented a house elsewhere. In the midst of all this, the columnist gently suggested that sympathetic friends and readers might want to cool it with the bubbly consolation talk about a “blessing in disguise” and a “new adventure.”

It is an adventure through nightmarish expenses…
… red tape, documentation, and tireless sorting, packing, hauling and cleaning…
… living in a house that is broken down to studs, with some drywall dust, bleach, and musty odors thrown in…
… a weakened and compromised immune system due to multiple severe stressors coming all at once…
… only being able to sleep with the aid of sleeping pills…
… not having your brain fully attached and worrying you may get into a car accident because you are so zoned out with so many pressing details…
… the care taking and well being of my elderly parents…
… stepping out your front door and being hit in the face with piles and piles of remnants of all of your neighbors and friends homes, knowing that they are going through this same grief and trauma too.

By January of this year, the Lassins were settled in the newly built home. And then, only a few months later, at the end of August, came hurricane Harvey and water even more voluminous than last time. Thanks to the judiciously flood-conscious architecture, this particular family sustained little damage; but the neighborhood streets were again piled high with furniture and other material goods.

It sounds hellish, and bear in mind, these were wealthy people, with apparently fabulous insurance, who were never displaced all the way off the grid. They had the means to always be housed. They had copious amounts of possessions to start with, and were able to salvage some and replace others. For other Houston residents, the outcome was nowhere near so fortunate.

Renters, for instance. Many previous tenants will in future find it “virtually impossible” to rent, because they will have an eviction on their record. Red Painter wrote:

Sadly, under Texas law, rent must be paid on dwellings that are only deemed “damaged” and not completely uninhabitable. And you better believe landlords are going to fight tooth and nail to get a judge to agree that their units are just damaged, thereby ensuring that they can collect that rent… Some greedy landlords in the Houston area are demanding that their tenants pay September rent, even as most of them are homeless, living at shelters or with friends/family and after they have lost literally everything except what they could throw in a bag as they fled their homes.

In mid-September, reporter Grace White wrote:

There are 1,300 people in the George R. Brown Convention Center and 2,058 at NRG Center. However, there’s also a number you don’t see, the number of homeless who are blending in with flood evacuees.

In addition, the NRG center was preparing to receive 400 people who had been evacuated to Dallas and now needed to return to Houston. White interviewed Kristy Bell, mother of three children and already homeless before the flood, who said it was her impression that housed people who were flooded out were the top priority, while those who had previously been homeless were “being left hung out.”

A U.S. News headline summed up the situation: “Storm Pits Houston’s Homeless Against Newly Displaced.” Marilyn Brown of the Coalition for the Homeless described it as “People from above moving down into the apartments we were using to move up.” During the past five years, Houston had succeeded in finding housing for 11,000 people experiencing homelessness. Now, a huge number of them are back to square one.

What to do?

These words are from Richard R. Troxell, 20-year board member of the National Coalition for the Homeless, Director/Founder of House the Homeless, and CEO of the Universal Living Wage campaign:

In 1988, the U.S. Congress passed the McKinney Act (later known as the McKinney-Vento Act.) In that historic moment the U.S. Congress declared that homelessness was/is a crisis in this nation. It is estimated that at least three million people are experiencing homelessness every year. The federal/local government will not allow existing homeless folks (some who have been on the streets of America for up to two decades), to access the Harvey Hurricane shelters or get in line with them to get housing now. This is in spite of the fact that they have been homeless for years. This seems to be a case of the deserving vs the undeserving poor. This seems to be preferential treatment for the recently traumatized vs the long term, repeatedly traumatized. Look, even a third-grader knows you don’t line butt. Let our people in. House all God’s children!

Richard was asked to explore developing legislation on the very pressing issue of homelessness and disasters, and wrote down these ideas:

Whereas, in 1988, the U.S. Congress passed the McKinney Act to help people experiencing homelessness declaring that homelessness had reached a crisis level in this nation, and

Whereas, tens of thousands of people and families end up homeless on the streets of America every year, and

Whereas, due to the lack of affordable housing through traditional means, people continue to remain un-housed for many years, and

Whereas, periodic catastrophes and all forms of disasters render many families and individuals without housing, and

Whereas, the Federal Government through the Federal Emergency Management Agency FEMA, already activates tremendous amounts of resources to help people during these declared disasters,

Therefore be it resolved, that anyone, or any family, that presents themselves to be homeless within the impacted area should be able to avail themselves to all resources offered in all forms, including housing.

Reactions?

Source: “Post-Flood And Homeless — An Adventure Through Hell,” HuffingtonPost.com, 06/27/2015
Source: “Heartless Landlords In Houston Demand Rent From Homeless Evacuees,” CrooksAndLiars.com, 09/05/17
Source: “Thousands of evacuees, including homeless, still in shelters,” KHOU.com, 09/11/17
Source: “Storm Pits Houston’s Homeless Against Newly Displaced,” USNews.com, 09/02/17
Photo credit: (top) Chabad Lubavitch/Chabad.org; (bottom) Chabad Lubavitch/Chabad.org via Visualhunt/CC BY

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The Livelihood of People with Disabilities

Let’s talk some more about the history and implications of the minimum wage and the sub-minimum wage. What we’re after here is to encourage people to sign the Petition to Support Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities.

The TIME Act (H.R. 1377, short for Transitioning to Integrated and Meaningful Employment Act), has been around for a while and has bipartisan backing. A factsheet packed with details can be found on the National Federation of the Blind website, along with a description of the kind of future we are looking for:

The EmploymentFirst Movement promotes new concepts such as “supported” or “customized” employment that are successful at producing competitive integrated employment outcomes for individuals with significant disabilities that were previously thought to be unemployable.

National philosophy

Hamilton Nolan suggests that we are all hypocrites, “enjoying the low consumer prices that come with ultra-low wages being paid to workers abroad.”

Our own purchasing habits reward companies for paying wages that are sure to keep their workers in poverty for life. We soothe ourselves by saying that these desperately poor workers are still better off than they would be without a job; yet we would reject that argument if an employer here tried to use it to pay us less than the minimum wage.

“Count your blessings! You are better off with any job at all, no matter how unsatisfactory, than with no job.” That does sound exactly like the attitude of the government and employers toward Americans who are expected to work for a sub-minimum wage because they fall under the specially tailored group of exceptions spelled out in Section 14(c) of the The Fair Labor Standards Act.

As Richard R. Troxell, cofounder and President of House the Homeless, and CEO of the Universal Living Wage campaign, says:

If that work is important enough to get done, then certainly the person doing it whether they are 16 or 60, or brown or green or tall or short or blind or sighted, etc., should be paid for the work they produce. If you, as an employer, are using the work of an individual to run your business then you, as a compassionate human being, should pay them for a 40-hour week an amount that affords them a roof (other then a bridge) over their head. If you, as a member of our compassionate capitalistic society, are unable to include a commensurate number of physically/mentally challenged individuals into your work force, then perhaps you should lose your business license.

At any given time, there may be several pieces of legislation floating around that all address the same problem with varying degrees of sincerity. The proposed Raise the Wage Act (June 2017) is more backed by Democrats and wants to increase the federal minimum wage for everyone to $15 by 2024. (The only way some things can become law is by assuring the moneyed class that nothing needs to change just yet. Also, a lot can happen in six years.)

A nice feature of this legislation, should it ever pass, is that it would also get rid of the sub-minimum wage provision. This would affect not only people with disabilities but workers in restaurants and other service industries, and the teenagers.

Not all employers continue to get away with chicanery. Michelle Chen reported from West Virginia last year:

This summer, federal regulators revoked the wage exemption of a West Virginia–based nonprofit “Work Adjustment Center” purporting to provide rehabilitation services, which owed about $48,000 in back wages to 12 workers doing assembly production jobs, after falsifying prevailing wage assessments.

While there has been limited action at the federal level, three states — Vermont, New Hampshire and Maryland — have passed legislation that phase out use of the sub-minimum wage in their respective states. In several states, sheltered workshops are being shut down.

In her extensive and very accessible article, Chen quotes David Hutt of the National Disability Rights Network:

The payment of sub-minimum wages is often the result of a failure to recognize the tremendous advances in services and supports created since the 1930’s that allow individuals with disabilities to be fully inclusive members of the workforce, as well as the unique abilities of each individual.

Reactions?

Source: “Transitioning to Integrated and Meaningful Employment Act, (TIME Act) (HR1377),” NFB.org, undated
Source: “We Need an International Minimum Wage,” Gawker.com, 05/22/13
Source: “A new bill could boost pay for the disabled–to at least the minimum wage,” WashingtonPost.com, 06/06/17
Source: “People With Disabilities Aren’t Entitled to the Minimum Wage,” TheNation.com, 09/07/16
Photo credit: Kheel Center, Cornell University Library via Visualhunt/CC BY

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How Toxic is the Sub-Minimum?

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), enacted in 1938, allowed for the granting of Special Wage Certificates, so that both companies and nonprofits could pay disabled people less, because of being less productive. Recently, House the Homeless urged readers to consider signing the Petition to Support Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities, which aims to repeal Section 14(c) of the FLSA.

Compensation is definitely an issue. 14(c) provides for no floor, no bottom level of pay. People were found to be working for 2 cents per hour, and similar absurd amounts. Several persuasive arguments are contained within the petition. They boil down to, in the words of Kimie Beverly, Government Affairs Specialist at the National Federation for the Blind (NFB), “If there is going to be a minimum, it should be for everyone.”

Employers who favor retaining the sub-minimum will point out that some folks truly are so disabled, it just doesn’t make any sense to pay them more than a pittance. But… the individuals derive from the earning experience a self-esteem that is priceless. Or so the spin goes.

In a substantive overview of the various pro and con arguments, Sarah Blahovec, the author of The Huffington Post article and an advocate for people with disabilities, has this to say about that:

However, is that satisfaction considered more important than the fair treatment of hundreds of thousands of workers who could be fully productive with the right training, and who need their jobs for meeting living expenses, as opposed to just providing a sense of pride?

Companies can get individual certificates, and overall, they employ far fewer people on the sub-minimum level than the nonprofits do. If they didn’t hire people with disabilities they would not have acquired their juicy government contracts in the first place, and big companies can certainly afford to pay minimum wage at least.

But despite rules about productivity testing and other aspects of the relationship, the amount that a person can be paid is pretty much arbitrary. The chance for advancement is slim, on account of an interesting wrinkle in the law, which excludes supervisory and managerial positions. If a sub-minimum wage employee were to be promoted, they would have to be paid the going rate, and the company obviously would not gain as much profit.

It doesn’t get any easier

Even in the circumscribed world of sheltered workplaces, it is difficult to rise. Non Profit Associates, or NPAs, also get an exemption under the requirement that “75% of total direct labor hours must be performed by people who are blind or have other significant disabilities.” (This does not mean that three-fourths of the employees have to be disabled, but that three-fourths of the billable hours of work is done by them.) Problem is, if people were promoted in rank, it would take them out of that pool, which would affect the bottom line, and less money would be available for the top executives.

Unintended consequence or not, the law does the opposite of what it set out to do. Rather than bring the perceived outsiders into the society’s mainstream, it cordons them off in segregated employment ghettos. The original goal was to achieve the “most integrated setting” that would promote the mingling of non-disabled people and those with disabilities. As things stand, the instances of anyone transitioning from sheltered employment into the larger world, are few and far between.

How it evolved

In 1971, the Javits-Wagner-O’Day Act required that all federal agencies should buy various supplies and services from nonprofit agencies that employed people with disabilities. It defined who could do what, and under what circumstances.

After many years, in 2006, the program that potentiates the law was renamed AbilityOne. It’s administered by the Committee for Purchase from People Who Are Blind or Severely Disabled, which decides what commodities and services the government should purchase.

Interestingly, its biggest customer is the Department of Defense, and it is under the authority of Homeland Security. AbilityOne coordinates the activities of 550 NPAs in more than 1,000 locations, and helps to employ 46,000 people including wounded veterans.

Still, critics, believe that AbilityOne abets in the maintenance of barriers to integration in the workforce. Because the pay scale is based on performance, there has been litigation over how performance is measured. The feeling in many sectors is that AbilityOne basically does not do what Congress intended, and that it needs to be retooled to reach consistency with the intentions of the Rehabilitation Act.

Not the first try

Many attempts have been made to relegislate the provisions of 14(c), but so far without success. In 2014, President Obama issued an executive order setting the hourly minimum at $10.10, which is a big improvement over 2 cents. But as long as that minimum was met, it still allowed workers with disabilities to be paid less than others. And it only applied to companies with federal contracts, which are not that many. According to Kimie Beverly, only 7,000 people are in that category, out of 194,000 currently affected by the sub-minimum wage.

In 2014 the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) tried to beef up the provisions for paying disabled youth in particular. A letter sent last month by the NFB to the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education said:

This 75 percent direct labor requirement, as stated in the current statute and in the letter, is inherently incompatible with WIOA because the work settings are disproportionately filled with employees with disabilities. These settings cannot be considered integrated. Rather than incentivize work in the community, the direct labor ratio requires large-scale retention of employees with disabilities in majority-disability workplaces.

Under Congress’s new definition of “supported employment,” people with disabilities cannot be paid subminimum wages unless the employer is integrated.

But if the workplace is thoroughly integrated, how can it fulfill the rule that 75% of the hours will be worked by people with disabilities? It seems to be an instance of dueling, mutually incompatible laws.

(To be continued… but meanwhile, please sign the Petition to Support Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities.)

Reactions?

Source: “It’s About TIME: Ending Subminimum Wages for Workers with Disabilities,” HuffingtonPost.com, 06/10/15
Source: “U.S. AbilityOne Commission,” undated
Photo credit: Commercial Cleaning Maryland via Visualhunt/CC BY-SA

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Work, the Minimum Wage, and the Young

The minimum wage was created in 1938 immediately following the Great Depression. It is set by the federal government, although a state or city can adjust it upward, but not downward. The whole point of the minimum wage was to ensure that if a person put in 40 units (hours) of work, they’d be able to afford the basics: food, clothing and shelter.

It was also seen as a way to alleviate the financial harm suffered by employers having to put up with workers who didn’t know jack. It was intended to be an entry-level amount paid to brand-new employees, until they learned the necessary skills and gained enough experience to be worth holding on to. It was meant to be a status or stage of development that a person might occupy for a limited time.

Yet somehow minimum wage transmogrified into a category of job; and rather than being a temporary circumstance, it became type of person, expected to exist on the same low pay no matter how long they stayed. Meanwhile, so the newbies would still make less than the longer-term workers, a new class was created — the sub-minimum wage.

As we have seen, employers come up with all kinds of reasons to avoid paying a higher minimum. There is the “wage compression” problem, which means “Then everybody else in the company will want a raise too.” Regarding the youth, there are two schools of thought. One is expressed by Erin Shannon:

The overwhelming majority of economic studies shows that a high minimum wage has the greatest negative impact on people with low-skills, such as teen workers entering the workforce.

Those who favor a low minimum, and even a sub-minimum wage, claim that the teenagers who are affected don’t really need the money, and just want to buy fancy sneakers. (They ignore the fact that only about a quarter of minimum wage earners are teens — the rest are adults with adult responsibilities.) The scrooges say that a higher minimum — or any minimum at all — is harmful to the very people it purports to care about most, because it will cause jobs for kids, and especially for dark-skinned kids, to disappear, period.

Last year, the National Employment Law Project (NELP) announced that “the research does not back up those claims,” and the references can be found in a fact sheet compiled by that organization. About the kids, NELP says this:

Teen workers are likely to be from struggling households that depend on the teens’ additional income to make ends meet. Moreover, significant numbers of employed teens are students working their way through two or four year colleges — in fact, nearly half of college students today work full time while going to school.

The scrooges want us to believe that when the minimum wage is raised, this shocking intrusion reverberates throughout all businesses at every level, and horrible things happen, and it’s all the fault of young people — especially teens of color — who have the nerve to expect to make enough money to live on. Yes, this sounds like asking a lot, when we hear that nobody any anywhere in the U.S. can afford a one-bedroom apartment on the minimum wage.

But there are kids aging out of foster care who would happily live in a commune, or a car, or share a single room with someone working the opposite shift. There really are teenagers who have to take care of themselves, and to help them do it benefits everyone.

More nonsense

Minimum-wage scrooges claim that small businesses are already so stressed they can’t possibly afford to pay anybody enough to live on. However, when Chicago was in the midst of its “Fight for $15,” John Arensmeyer, founder of Small Business Majority, said the following:

The vast majority of small business owners already pay their workers more than the minimum wage in order to attract and retain quality workers. By raising it across the board, more Americans will have more money to spend at small businesses. This will help them create jobs, which strengthens the economy overall.

Nice! But here is how ornery and perverse the scrooges are. A writer named Michael Saltsman labeled that Small Business Majority survey a scam, saying:

Were SBM actually interested in the impact of a higher minimum wage on small businesses, the majority of employers they surveyed would have employees earning the minimum wage. Instead, a full 85 percent of the businesses polled by SBM had no employees earning the minimum.

Read that paragraph a few times and see if it makes any more sense the last time than the first. And why are the scrooges so worried about small businesses, anyhow? About two-third of minimum wage earners work for places that have over 100 employees — like corporate welfare queen Walmart where, as Robyn Pennacchia points out, “the CEO makes more in an hour than most of his employees will make in a year.”

The scrooges practice what may or may not be willful blindness, for instance by taking it for granted that certain things are immutable. James Dorn wrote for Forbes:

Moreover, if the minimum wage cuts into profits, there will be less capital investment and job growth will slow.

But maybe profits don’t always have to remain at the obscene level that corporations have become used to. Maybe the system could change in ways that would accommodate the workers as much as the shareholders.

Dorn gets all sniffy about Costo:

The company’s CEO made waves when he endorsed a higher minimum wage in March of this year. Yet the membership warehouse giant has a unique retail business model (you pay to be a customer) that allows them to pay above the minimum wage and earn nearly $10,000 in profit per employee.

Well… maybe, since that is such a successful model, more businesses should adopt it! Which is exactly how “the market” is supposed to work. Somebody figures out a profitable angle, and the competitors take a cue and get a clue, and do likewise. You’d think a bunch of hardcore conservative capitalists would realize that, but they seem to suffer from a brand of selective cognitive dissonance on certain topics.

Again, Dorn says, “In order to remain profitable, businesses must either dramatically raise prices… or find ways to maintain their business operation with manageable costs.” By which he means, keep the pay down. So in all the big, wide world, those are the only two choices. But hey, boys, how about cutting those executive salaries and bonuses? The only reply is silence.

Erin Shannon, defender of low minimums and sub-minimum training wages, says, “The lower wage justifies the extra work employers must put in to teach that 16-year-old how to be a productive employee.”

Or — never mind that. Maybe we could do things a different way. A boss could forget about that sub-minimum stuff, and maybe even start people at better than minimum! The company could let prospects know that on-the-job training is one of the perks. As an employer, you don’t have to do it, but you’re doing it.

You could look at it the way mixed martial arts trainers do. If aspirants come without experience, there are no bad habits for you, the employer, to train them out of. You can mold them into the exact right kind of employees for your business. And if you pay them the minimum or better, instead of some insulting training wage, maybe they will be more willing to pay attention and respond favorably to your employee-forming efforts.

Reactions?

Source: “Give teens a leg up — expand the training wage,” SeattleTimes.com, 01/18/17
Source: “A ‘Training Wage’ for Teens or New Hires Would Hurt New York’s Workers and Undermine Responsible Employers,” NELP.org, March 2016
Source: “Chicago Minimum Wage Workers ‘Fight for $15’,” HispanicBusiness.com, 04/24/13
Source: “Minimum Wage Legislation, And The Small Business ‘Survey’ Scam,” Forbes.com, 05/09/13
Source: “Most minimum wage workers are adults who work for large corporations,” DeathAndTaxesMag.com, 05/10/13
Source: “The Minimum Wage Delusion, And The Death Of Common Sense,” Forbes.com, 05/07/13
Photo via VisualHunt

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