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Let’s Talk Dollars

Sydney LightsIf Taxpayer is your middle name, and if your city or state contains any people experiencing homelessness, you might want to know about some interesting strategies that have been tried over the past couple of years. The stories originate in different places, but they have two things in common: saving tax dollars and improving the lives of the homeless.

The beauty of it is, the steps these cities have taken and the gains they have reaped are outcomes that anyone can get on board with. No matter where a taxpayer resides on the political spectrum, or what opinions might be privately held about the ultimate causes and cures of homelessness, every dues-paying citizen in her or his right mind wants to reduce municipal expenses and save tax dollars.

Let’s pause for a brief disclaimer. The taxpayer addressed here is the homeowner, the apartment tenant, the business owner — anyone whose life is stable and who feels proprietary about the area’s future. It’s a convenient label for the purposes of this discussion.

But we don’t mean to imply that homeless people don’t pay taxes. No, no, no. Everyone pays sales tax for items they buy. More significantly, an astonishing number of homeless people are actually employed and still can’t afford a place to live. Imagine that! It’s called economic homelessness. Yet taxes are withheld from their paychecks, just like anybody else’s.

O Canada

In 2012, Benjamin Gillies published an online piece about a Canadian Homelessness Research Network report. The story was titled “Giving the homeless a place to live costs less than providing shelters and emergency services.” The title could not have been more explicit, and the bottom line is this:

There is now hard data to show funding emergency services, shelters, and day programs is just not as cost-effective as providing homeless citizens with a place to live and the social supports to help them stay there.

Gillies goes on to give a streamlined version of the report:

What author Stephen Gaetz makes clear is that calculating the cost of homelessness must not only account for shelters or soup kitchens, but also peripheral services, such as health care and the justice system, that homeless people come into contact with more frequently than society at large. As they are often poorly nourished, unable to engage in adequate sanitation practices, and live in settings where exposure to communicable disease is high…

In addition, 40 per cent of this population suffers from mental health issues. As a result, they are hospitalized five times more often than the general public during any given year, usually for longer periods.

In Toronto, how much did a month in a hospital cost? Almost $11,000. How much did a month in a shelter bed cost? Almost $2,000. Now, brace yourself for the knockout punch:

Putting a roof over that same person’s head, either with rent supplements or social housing, would require just $701 or $199.92, respectively. In fact, a similar study conducted in British Columbia discovered that province’s homeless population currently costs the public system $55,000 per person per year, but if every homeless person were instead provided with adequate housing and supports, they would require just $37,000 — saving the province $211 million annually.

What American state would not like to save a couple hundred million a year? Plus, being housed has the semi-magical power of keeping people pretty much out of the hands of the criminal justice system. At the very least, they’re not being arrested for public sleeping!

The southern hemisphere

From Australia, news came of the Michael Project, “a three-year initiative to provide homeless men with quick access to a range of support, including dental and mental health services, personal grooming and hygiene, education and personal fitness.”

In hard-cash terms, even after the Michael Project costs were paid, this initiative saved the public purse $3,600 a year for each homeless person it helped. The project actually aided several thousand men during that time, but in the city of Sydney, 106 individuals were carefully tracked and followed up on, to see how their lives worked out. The findings?

Over the course of the year the money spent by governments on services such as ambulances, emergency department care, court and police costs dropped by an average of $8446 for each person…. [O]ver that period they were far less likely to go to hospital for emergency help, relied less on government-funded emergency accommodation, were more likely to find work and were much more likely to find long-term housing.

Reactions?

Source: “Giving the homeless a place to live costs less than providing shelters and emergency services,” TheStar.com, 10/15/12
Source: “Helping homeless ‘saves $3600 per person’ ,”HeraldSun.com, 04/17/12
Image by Flying Cloud

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The Thing About Heroes

my ex wife had a better lawyerHere’s the thing about heroes in the struggle to end homelessness. They are everywhere. It seems as if more and more people are stepping up to do a little something. And as for long-term committers, people who have devoted their entire lives to helping the homeless, it seems like they are more generously recognized than ever before, thanks to a vigilant press.

The paradox is that for many people who are oriented toward humanitarian service, recognition is at the very bottom of their personal priority list. Here are brief descriptions of just a few of the people who are changing America, one generous deed at a time.

Phoenix, Ariz. – “Formerly homeless salon owner gives back with sleeping bag drive” — the headline says it all. Now in its seventh year, the sleeping bag drive is run by Tad Caldwell on behalf of Central Arizona Shelter Services, which each year serves 10,000 people experiencing homelessness.

Pasco, Fla. – 5th-grader Caileigh Sheldon won a singing contest and a $1000 prize. She and her mom bought duffel bags and survival items to put inside them. Reporter Daylina Miller captured this quotation from Caileigh:

‘There’s a lady always by herself, and she pushes this stroller around all day and is always getting sunburned, so I felt really bad for her. There’s a son and his mom, and the mom has no legs, and the son pushes two wheelchairs around, one full of stuff and the one with his mom in it. I feel really bad for them because they don’t have much, and I feel like I do have stuff — so why not give to others?’

San Bernardino, Calif. — Ana Perez is known as the “Green-Eyed Angel.” She picks up donated items for people experiencing homelessness and drops them off where needed. Once a week, Perez and her friend Christine Vasquez make breakfast burritos to distribute, and they’ve been doing this for five years. She recently won an award that will allow her to set up a mobile shower truck, because this is something her street friends really, really want.

Hoover, Ala. – More than 20 years ago, Ronald Sellers lived in a Birmingham mission. He later became a successful businessman and with his wife (now deceased) started a Christmas giveaway about 10 years ago. In his garage, a volunteer team helps prepare gifts of hats, socks and even toys. Sellers himself makes the rounds, only instead going down chimneys, he goes under bridges to where the recipients are. One of his sayings is, “If we could just change one person’s life, it makes all the difference in the world.”

Palo Alto, Calif. – Recently, House the Homeless honored some of the helpers who died in the past year, but that post didn’t include Gloria Bush, another selfless giver. During her productive years, Bush was a Head Start teacher, hospice volunteer and home-health nursing aide who worked tirelessly on behalf of the mentally ill and developmentally disabled.

Tragically, in her 50s, Bush was struck by a mental illness whose nature caused her to shun her daughter and avoid others who wanted to help. Unable to work, she became a resident of the streets. Food Closet volunteer Martha Shirk relates a small but telling detail of her daily life:

We tried repeatedly to interest her in a variety of shoes that would have provided more protection than the flip flops she wore year-round. A couple of weeks ago, one of her flip flops broke, and she walked around on one bare foot for awhile until some of us brought in new flip flops for her.

The story is well worth close study. The authorities no longer capture people with mental illness and force treatment upon them, and the lack of facilities and resources wouldn’t allow for so much institutionalization anyway. But when people are not competent, their untrammeled freedom poses a threat to themselves and to society in general.

At any rate, Gloria Bush died at age 72, of exposure to cold, in a public park in the extremely wealthy part of the country known as Silicon Valley. One online commenter noted that the area’s well-known philanthropists have been pretty good about doing things for “the young and able, smart and chic” and asked if they could find a way to extend a helping hand to the mentally ill destitute. Another commenter wrote angrily:

What actually killed Ms Bush, aside from California’s choice to cut taxes by closing the state hospital system that sheltered unfortunates like her, is the no-nap bar… Our city government has been installing these on public benches for the past decade to prevent homeless from sleeping lying down on our precious outdoor benches. This bar forced Ms Bush to sleep on the ground, which pulled the warmth from her body far more efficiently than the layer of air under that bench could have.

Dallas – Willie Baronet teaches creative advertising at Southern Methodist University and buys signs from people experiencing homelessness. Kelly Gilliland reported for the campus newspaper:

While driving, if Baronet sees a homeless person on the side of the road, he will offer to buy his or her sign, letting them name their price. In return, he will also replenish them with a blank cardboard slate and a marker to create a new advertisement…. Baronet has videotaped and saved recordings of 70-75 of these interactions…. [T]he more he’s interacted with people and the more signs he’s collected, he has had so many interesting conversations with these people, and heard so many great stories.

Most interesting is the part about Baronet’s own personal reasons for initiating this highly individualistic form of activism.

Reactions?

Source: “Formerly homeless salon owner gives back with sleeping bag drive,” AZFamily.com, 12/06/13
Source: “Pasco 11-year-old spends prize money on homeless ,” TBO.com, 06/15/13
Source: “Ana Perez – Story #24,” 5hourenergy.com, 12/18/13
Source: “Once homeless, now donating and volunteering,” ABC3340.com, 12/23/13
Source: “Deceased homeless woman devoted herself to others’ care,” PaloAltoOnline.com, 12/24/13
Source: “SMU professor turns homeless sign collection into creative project,” SMUDailyCampus, 03/23/13
Image by Kulfoto.com

 

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More Heroes

birthdaycrowdLast time, House the Homeless paid respect to several people who made life better for people experiencing homelessness, and who passed away recently. Fortunately, many such heroes are still alive and at work among us.

In mid-2012, Ray Castellani served his one millionth sandwich to residents of Skid Row in Los Angeles, under the auspices of the nonprofit group he founded in 1987. For many years, Castellani was tethered to this life mission by empathy cultivated by three aspects of his own earlier years: as a military veteran, a recovering alcoholic and an occasional Skid Row homeless person himself. When the former Marine started to make a good living from painting houses and from the occasional acting job, he was prompted by spiritual convictions to give back.

During the years when the Frontline Foundation operated at its peak, it made and served more than 6,000 meals every month. In 1990, when the group’s truck was stolen, that well-publicized crime brought an outpouring of generosity from the community. In 1995, Castellani was summoned to Washington to receive the President’s Service Award, which is the most significant prize a volunteer can get.

Ups and downs

With the economic recession, donors cut down their giving significantly, and the foundation had to close its Van Nuys facility. But the day was saved by a generous donation from a storage company, so despite financial setbacks (and two heart attacks), Castellani continued to deliver as much food as he could, as often as he could, to the inhabitants of L.A.’s scruffiest district.

As recently as March of 2013, he was still active at age 80, and friends organized a celebrity golf tournament to raise money for Frontline Foundation. The photo depicts one of the birthdays he celebrated, with a little help from his friends, on Skid Row. Daily News writer Susan Abram describes another occasion when the longtime activist was interviewed:

On a recent day at his home, Castellani said he was awaiting a volunteer to bring him some ingredients for the sandwiches, likely hundreds of them, he’ll serve on Skid Row today. He’ll have tuna fish, peanut butter, and egg salad sandwiches, along with some chips and candies. He likes to give the homeless a choice, he said, because they have so few.

In Dallas, David “the SoupMan” Timothy has been serving the homeless for ten years. An interview with KERA News reporters Courtney Collins and Rick Holter revealed that Timothy’s own childhood was blighted by food insecurity. He pointed out that hunger is hard enough to deal with, but the really painful part is when a person doesn’t know when or if there will ever be anything to eat again.

Normally the SoupMobile sets up near a city park, but on Christmas Eve, Timothy hosts a gala at a downtown hotel. For this special occasion, as many as 2,500 volunteers help out with an event that creates a special holiday for 500 people experiencing homelessness. There is a huge banquet, with gifts of new clothes and other necessities, and the guests stay overnight so that “when they wake up on Christmas morning, it’s in a warm, safe bed.” Of course this haven is only temporary, but the following week Timothy and the SoupMobile are back on the streets again along with the disenfranchised poor. He told the news team:

Every day when we feed the homeless, not just feeding their stomachs, but we feel like in a very powerful way that we’re feeding their souls with some hope and some caring and some love and compassion. And we just think that makes a real long-lasting difference.

Tomy Bewick, a man with a reputation as one of Toronto’s best slam poets, demonstrates that Canadians also have compassion. Several years ago he established an annual grassroots initiative called Straight to the Streets, which collects winter clothing for distribution to people experiencing homelessness. Workers also buy or put together “survival kits” containing socks, gloves, scarves, hygiene products, water bottles and other useful items. Writer KJ Mullins makes an interesting point about the event:

Giving to others may seem like the main focus of Straight to the Streets but it’s not. It’s taking the time to interact with another person. For many of the volunteers it was the first time that they had a true respectful conversation with someone living on the streets. Those conversations help to change lives. The lives changed are those of the volunteers who finish the day wanting to do more.

Straight to the Streets shows that one man’s decision to make a difference does just that… Once a person can see that they, a single person, can make a difference in the world they want to continue helping others. It’s a never ending circle of good.

Reactions?

Source: “Ray Castellani serves up his one millionth sandwich to homeless,” DailyNews.com, 05/12/12
Source: “The SoupMan On Making Christmas Bright For 500 Homeless Men, Women and Children,” KERANews.org, 12/24/13
Source: “Op-Ed: One man’s vision — Straight to the homeless of Toronto,” DigitalJournal.com, 12/16/12
Image by Frontline Foundation

 

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Some Heroes Gone

Soup KitchenAt this time of year we hear about memorials being held in more than 150 American cities for the people experiencing homelessness who died during the year. Equally sad is the loss of people who spent their lives helping. For the first person mentioned here, it’s necessary to go back a little farther to the fall of the previous year when a humble nun from the Daughters of Charity died in Albany, N.Y., at the age of 84. She was Sister Mary Rose McGeady, former president of Covenant House.

The organization’s current president and CEO, Kevin M. Ryan, took on the task of writing about his predecessor, calling her “our greatest leader and champion.” At the age of 19, she had started her career by working in a home for destitute and abandoned children. In 1990, her Covenant House assignment began with the difficult task of restoring the reputation and efficacy of an organization disgraced by inept management.

Sister Mary Rose spent 13 years as Covenant House president, starting new programs and persuading powerful secular leaders to see things her way, to the point where six countries served lost young people through crisis centers, outreach programs and long-term residences. By the time she died, Covenant House was affecting the lives of 57,000 children per year.

Ryan describes how Sister Mary Rose’s deathbed was surrounded by pictures of the kids she had helped, as well as letters from them. Ryan says:

She was the Mother Teresa of street children, a Holy tornado of determination and compassion. She lived and died every day with the successes and failures of our kids … and she saw God in the tired faces of beautiful, forgotten kids.

Because she was so good at dispensing love and respect, personally and through the charity she ran, thousands of children were able to thrive, and to learn what for many were extremely difficult skills — how to trust, how to accept care and kindness, how to respect and value themselves…. There can be no greater legacy of love.

January of 2013 was brutal, with news of the deaths of two major figures published on the same day, and then a third only two days later.

Carol Walter, executive director of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, died at the age of 53. Described as relentless, fearless, unwavering and “one of a kind,” she always stayed focused on the importance of getting people housed as soon as possible. Since her teen years, when she insisted on attending an alternative high school that gave her activism more scope, Walter had been tuned in to the rights of minority groups. After college she worked in New York City and acquired a crack cocaine habit, and then dealt with it by attending a rehab program. Anne M. Hamilton, writing for The Courant, says:

Back in Connecticut, Walter lived in a halfway house for a while, and worked at Columbus House in New Haven, then as associate executive director at the Shelter for the Homeless in Stamford. She became director of the Stewart B. McKinney Shelter in Hartford, where she dealt with the myriad of problems that cause and perpetuate homelessness.

Needless to say, the background of personal experience was of great value to Carol Walter’s interactions with street people. Professor Dennis Culhane wrote of her, “She was certainly one of the most effective and creative advocates in this country, whose loss will be felt for many years to come.”

In Port Orange, Fla., Sue Benton died at 67 after a long career of teaching Sunday School and collecting from fellow parishioners the items needed by people experiencing homelessness. The First United Methodist Church has a cold-weather shelter called Room at the Inn, where Benton made sure guests got more than rest and food. She began modestly by suggesting that parishioners bring back bars of soap and bottles of shampoo from hotels where they stayed on vacation. Eventually the collection of toiletries and hygiene items was so successful that a Daytona Beach shelter could also be supplied.

Another sad loss was the death of Ann Marie Tarinelli, the Connecticut woman who spent many years caring for people experiencing homelessness. She started a nonprofit foundation, recruited other volunteers, and collected clothing and other items that strangers would leave in bins outside her home. Food was the big donation item, and Ms. Tarinelli made home-cooked meals, then traveled on Sundays to parts of Bridgeport where the young and healthy feared to venture, and fed hundreds of hungry people. The cook, who lived to be 75, was especially known for her Thanksgiving dinners.

In March, we lost Dr. Daniel H. Dietrich, who was named Physician of the Year by the Nebraska Medical Association a dozen years ago. In 1988 he helped found a mobile medical clinic, an 18-foot motor home called the Hopemobile that served the disadvantaged and homeless people of the Omaha area. Dr. Dietrich’s area of expertise was in recruiting other health care professionals as volunteers.

Earlier this month, a memorial was held in Boulder, Colo., to remember not only the 15 homeless people who died there in the past year, but three activists who provided support and service — Rev. Deacon Donald Burt, Dr. Peg Rider and Bruce A. Enstad. Such events, expressing a community’s love for people who serve others, are beautiful and meaningful. But we look forward to the day when they are no longer even necessary.

Reactions?

Source: “Homeless Kids Lose a Mighty Advocate,” HuffingtonPost.com, 10/16/12
Source: “Carol Walter: A Relentless Advocate For Poor, Homeless In Connecticut ,” Courant.com, 01/14/13
Source: “Sue Benton had a passion for children, homeless,” News-JournalOnline.com, 01/14/13
Source: “Trumbull woman who fed the homeless dies,” CTPost.com, 01/16/13
Source: “Dr Daniel H. Dietrich,” FindaGrave.com, 03/30/13
Source: “Ceremony to mark Boulder County’s 2013 homeless deaths,” DailyCamera.com, 12/20/13
Image by Bill McChesney

 

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More on Austin’s 2013

Austin (mural)The capital of Texas is such a happening place, and exemplary in so many ways, and of course the home of House the Homeless. Though the organization’s concerns are national in scope, it’s only natural for this blog to concentrate on Austin now and then, and not everything would fit in last week’s edition. In fact it won’t all fit here either, but what a year it’s been! 2013 started out with the traditional HtH Thermal Underwear Drive, which reminds us that another one is underway!

The South by Southwest festival is huge in Austin, and in 2012 a marketing ploy involving homeless people stirred up a lot of controversy. An ad agency hired people from ARCH (Austin Resource Center for the Homeless) to walk around and sell access to mobile wifi hotspots. According to a spokesperson from Front Steps, the group which currently administers ARCH, 11 of the 13 participants are now housed.

What SXSW offered homeless workers in 2013 was the expansion of a small but ambitious program from one ice cream vending cart last year to four vending carts this year. Mark Horvath reported:

Today I was invited to a training and started to talk to a few of the homeless vendors. To my surprise, they are not living in a shelter. All of them are sleeping outside. To me, that makes this program even so much cooler. See, often opportunities like this go to sheltered homeless. Providing a social enterprise for street homeless people takes a lot of trust on everyone’s part. That trust alone may be better at restoring a life than the money these vending carts will generate.

The spring saw a return of Austin’s Public Order initiative, whose stated object is to curb violent crime in the downtown area using the services of undercover police officers. When interviewed by Fox News, House the Homeless founder Richard R. Troxell said:

It’s clearly a coincidence, but it’s a coincidence that keeps occurring every time we have another event, whether it’s South by Southwest or we have Formula 1 or whatever…. It’s ludicrous to even suggest that there’s even a connection between public solicitation and violent crime.

The Austin police have been breaking up an average of two temporary settlements per week in the Barton Creek Greenbelt, cheered on by headlines such as “Homeless Camps Lurking in Austin Parks” (from KEYETV) and promising, “One camp at a time, APD will continue to keep the parks safe making sure your hike is just that.”

In September, upwards of 400 homeless advocates gathered in Austin for the Texas Conference on Ending Homelessness. In conjunction with the event, Pat LaMarche wrote about an interesting organization called Art from the Streets, through which homeless artists have been selling artwork for 20 years. Here is an interesting side note on how obstacles are constantly erected on the path to getting everybody housed:

HUD regulations changed this year. They now require that agencies prove their clients don’t have anywhere to live. Luckily, Art on the Streets doesn’t receive HUD funding and the participating artists don’t have to jump the often out of reach administrative hoop of proving a negative in order to participate.

The group Mobile Loaves and Fishes is in the process of creating what one local business owner called “the very first ‘yes, in my backyard’ project!” although, being 10 miles outside Austin, it’s technically in Webberville’s backyard. At any rate, the backyard “sits on a 27-acre master-planned community and will provide affordable, sustainable housing for approximately 200 chronically homeless disabled people in Central Texas.”

The plan is for a gated community made up of tiny storybook houses and tents and mobile homes, each with a garden around it. There will also be a community garden, a medical facility, an interfaith chapel, an outdoor movie theater and a woodworking shop. The residents will pay low rent from their disability benefits, and House the Homeless is poised to help them through the red tape of the system. Meanwhile both agencies, and others, are concerned with helping homeless Austinites through yet another unexpectedly cold winter.

In March, Richard R. Troxell announced an ambitious project. Andrea Ball wrote:

Troxell, 62, is crafting a piece he calls “The Homecoming,” a life-sized statue depicting a scene between a homeless Vietnam veteran, his young daughter and a “bag lady,” as Troxell calls her. The idea, he said, is to present an emotional snapshot of life on the streets. Ultimately, he’d like to see the work displayed somewhere in Austin…. It will take a lot of money to make the project happen, probably $200,000, Troxell said. He hopes to raise the cash through donations and sales of 12-inch replicas of the sculpture.

If realized, the sculpture will take up a 17-by-8-foot space in the park near the Lady Bird Hike and Bike Trail, where the Homeless Memorial service is held each autumn. In the ensuing months, there was controversy. Ed Morrissey wrote:

Art, however, has a lasting impact and message, one that might well provoke enough attention and concern to prompt more public but hopefully private efforts to reduce homelessness and poverty for a much longer time. That is why art and culture matters, why it is … upstream of politics, and why engagement with it is crucial for public policy and development. If Austin has the cash to do this without soaking taxpayers or shorting services (which is a big if), it’s not an irrational option.

Sculptor Timothy P. Schmalz has taken an interest in the project and believes it can be completed for around half the original estimate, or about $100,000. In November, Schmalz visited Rome, where he presented to Pope Francis his sculpture depicting Jesus as a figure asleep on a park bench.

Two weeks ago, Pope Francis blessed another statue by Schmalz at about the same time Schmalz and Richard signed a contract to sculpt Troxell’s statue of homelessness. And one last thing: the Pope was named Time‘s Man of the Year in part for his efforts to shape thinking about the world’s poor.

Reactions?

Source: “Homeless Who Participated in SXSW Wi-Fi Stunt Now Have Housing ,” ABCNews.go.com, 03/13/13
Source: “At SXSW Helping Homeless People Is Delicious With Street Treats,” HuffingtonPost,com, 03/10/13
Source: “Is APD’s initiative targeting crime or the homeless?,” MyFoxAustin.com, 03/04/13
Source: “Homeless Advocates Cooperating: It’s an Art Form,” HuffingtonPost,com, 09/27/13
Source: “Homeless To Be Housed In Tiny House Village In Austin,” Samuel-Warde.com, 11/20/13
Source: “Homelessness memorialized: Advocate making statue to depict life …,” Statesman.com, 03/02/13
Source: “Should Austin spend $175K on statue honoring homeless … or on the homeless?,” Hotair.com, 08/29/13
Source: “’Homeless Jesus’ sculpture presented to Pope Francis,” News.va, 11.20/13
Image by Woody Hibbard

 

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Austin and the Homeless in 2013

AustinHouse the Homeless is a powerful presence in Austin, Texas. The nonprofit organization and its president, Richard R. Troxell, are constantly at the forefront of the effort to help everyone have a good and productive life. Richard holds the invincible belief that America could end homelessness within its borders, and the only thing standing in the way is the lack of political will to do so.

As always, at the top of the list is the need for a living wage indexed to the local cost of housing, one that covers (at very least) the necessities of shelter, food and clothing. He is convinced of the necessity to change two federal standards, the minimum wage and Supplemental Security Income — which means businesses taking care of the people who work, and SSI taking care of people who can’t work.

On the local level, plenty of progress could be made right now by adopting the policy of “Discharge No One into Homelessness,” which would apply to every institution — the military, hospitals, the foster care system, the prison system and so on — and ensure that no one leaving any of those places would be ejected into the streets.

House the Homeless released the report entitled “Prevent Homelessness at Its Core: 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness, Restore Human Dignity and Save Business and Taxpayers $ Millions!” This White Paper was sent to the President and First Lady, all the members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, and many governors, Cabinet members and other influential people.

Additionally, when funding is acquired, the plan is to send it to every mayor in the country. They are the ones responsible for building shelters in their towns, and making laws that apply to people experiencing homelessness. They are the ones who have to deal with their local hospital emergency rooms being filled with homeless people who have no health care alternative. Hopefully, individual mayors will petition the Conference of Mayors to do something, and the Conference of Mayors will petition Congress for relief in the cities. If only 14 mayors (just 1% of their number) would speak up, that would make a significant difference.

Speaking up

Richard has been a staunch voice every time a journalist needs perspective on such things as an apparent hate crime or a renewed effort by the city to make the lives of homeless  people more miserable. Recently, he wrote:

Our nation is relying on an all-volunteer military to protect the people of this nation and maintain the stability of the entire planet. We have failed to protect the protectors. In so doing, we have disgraced our nation and failed our Veterans who have selflessly sacrificed everything to ensure our freedom. House the Homeless calls for a full scale Congressional investigation into all allegations of mismanagement, abuse and neglect. The entire VA Disability program needs to be investigated by the United States Attorney General and placed in Special Receivership.

Strong words! Why would he say that? Among other things, remember the gigantic backlog in processing all veterans’ disability claims? If not, please review “Homelessness and the Disabled American Veterans Agenda.” Recently, we looked at the situation in Austin, thanks in part to the journalistic enterprise of Jeremy Schwartz of the Austin American-Statesman, which resulted in Bell County hiring a veterans services officer decades after the law required it. Why did it take a national scandal to implement this?

Reactions?

Image by Señor Codo

 

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Higher Minimum Wage Won’t Cure Homelessness. This Will.

Living Wage

What Higher Minimum Wage Does for Workers and the Economy

Honest economists such as Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke have haltingly told the truth on the question of whether raising the minimum wage adversely affects the employment rate: “My response is that I think it doesn’t lower employment.”

Additionally, study after study has shown that 98% or more of all minimum wage  increases have been directly spent back into the local economy, thus acting as a local economic stimulant.

Unfortunately, the “Fair” Minimum Wage Act falls short, would hurt small businesses in rural America, and maintains a repressive wage system that would keep workers in a state of poverty throughout our nation.

First of all, how long would it take a worker to climb out of poverty if every step he or she took was less than the distance to reach that poverty goal line? The answer is FOREVER. They would never get there.  That has been the Congressional response to minimum wage worker needs for decades. The mantra has been, “Well something is better than nothing.” Clearly, that is not true if our path to escape poverty is forever blocked.

The failure of the Federal Minimum Wage (FMW) has manifested itself as 3.5 million workers falling out of work and into homelessness every year  for the last 20 years.  The single most costly item in the budget of every American is housing. That is why the Universal Living Wage campaign, since 1997, has chosen to index the FMW to the local cost of housing across America.

Unfortunately, the “Fair” Minimum Wage Act fails to to recognize that we are a nation of 1000+ separate economies. Everyone else knows the cost to live in Washington, D.C., is different from living in Harlingen, Texas, or Fort Lauderdale, Florida, or Santa Cruz, California. ONE SIZE DOES NOT FIT ALL! Let’s imagine the “Fair” Minimum Wage Act becomes law and the national standard becomes $10.10 per hour.  This will not get one homeless minimum-wage worker off the streets of Washington, D.C.!  At the same time, this will hurt small businesses in rural Fargo, North Dakota, and Cumberland, Maryland, and Erie, Pennsylvania.

By using the formula of the Universal Living Wage — using existing government guidelines to index the FMW to the local cost of housing — we ensure that a person working 40 hours in a week (be it from one job or more) will be able to afford basic food, clothing, shelter (including utilities), public transportation and access to a hospital emergency room.

Richard R. Troxell

Consult Looking Up at the Bottom Line…The Struggle for the Living Wage for supportive documentation.

Image by Lynn Friedman

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Why Do Some Homeless People Shun Shelters?

Homeless ShelterThousands of heroic Americans have worked tirelessly to establish shelters, find the money to keep them going, staff them at the correct level, observe all applicable laws, and perform an unbelievable number of diverse tasks. As a result, some of the people experiencing homelessness are allowed to spend days or nights under a roof, some of the time, in some places. For both its providers and its guests, shelter space is hard-won.

So then, why would street people avoid shelters? Because not everyone shares the same hierarchy of needs, and a homeless person might have priorities that conflict with the seemingly obvious. It’s very hard to tell helpers that what they offer does not solve everything and might even make an individual’s situation worse. Change.org published the views of a person writing under the name SlumJack Homeless, who reminds us that we don’t live in a one-size-fits-all world. As he expresses it, “The ONLY thing that ‘the homeless’ have in common is that we don’t have homes.”

Check-in time might be as early as 5 p.m., and if you leave, someone else gets the bed. Depending on the rules, or the disposition of the staff, it might mean permanent banishment. The rules were established to help people with substance-abuse problems avoid the temptations of the dark streets. But this also eliminates the possibility of, for instance, an evening AA program. In Boulder, Colo., journalist Josie Raymond once interviewed shelter director Joy Eckstine, who said:

I’ve talked to people who literally had to choose between going to their 12-Step meetings and going to the shelter…. A lot of shelters don’t let you use your own alarm clock or provide an early enough wake-up call.

This is an area where one standard definitely is not optimal for everyone. Shelter guests, including the young, the old and the disabled, are ejected back into the streets as early as 5 AM, when nothing is open and there is nothing to do and nowhere to go. But men who walk to some distant day-laborers’ pick-up point might need to get up even earlier.

The “economic homeless” are people who work, maybe even full-time, and still can’t afford housing — but the shelter system can’t accommodate them. If you finish work at 11 PM, the shelter is full and locked down. If you get off work at 7 AM, the place with the beds is closed all day. It’s ironic that the working poor get the worst deal in this respect. Rules that curb the bad habits of the most troublesome guests can be unbearably authoritarian for the productive stranger to this scene, who just wants a normal life back. For SlumJack Homeless, evening is a time to hang in coffeeshops, read the bulletin boards, talk with people who might know of work, and hook up with the free wifi to do research and look for opportunities. He says:

Those of us that show up in the best shape and even with distinct potentials to succeed in getting back OUT of the jam are driven further into it by the shelters existing and their demands and impositions and limitations… while these operations are demonstrably designed to keep the worst cases from their own demise …they also thereby become real liabilities for the more functional among us…

SlumJack compares signing in to a shelter with volunteering for jail, because you’re going to spend a lot of time in close proximity to people you want nothing to do with. When time is a person’s only asset, much better use can be made of it than spending an evening trapped in a shelter, even if it means sleeping outside.

The Good, the Bad and the Worse

The average shelter doesn’t let a person bring in many possessions and lacks secure outdoor space, so if you have a bike or a cart it might disappear overnight. These rules are understandable too. The less stuff that comes through the door, the less opportunity for smuggling in contraband or unintentionally spreading a bedbug infestation. If you didn’t come in with bedbugs, you might leave with some hiding in your clothes. And any belongings you’re allowed to bring in might attract the attention of a thief who makes a mental note to find you alone outside tomorrow.

Everyone is coughing and sneezing, and you will probably catch something. If you prefer to cover your baldness with a hat, you might be yelled at in front of a church group that an employee is leading through on a tour. You might be in line next to a guy carrying a rusty but live hand grenade, as once happened in Santa Cruz, Calif.

ABC40 reporter Dianna Maguire recently visited a women’s shelter in Massachusetts and reported on how they eat dinner, have their bags and personal items searched, do housekeeping chores, take mandatory showers, and finally are issued bedding to make up their bunks. One of the guests told her, “You’ve got to pretty much hold onto your stuff, lock up your stuff, or sleep with it.” At a shelter, you might resent being bossed around by another homeless person who was deputized to maintain order. Kevin Barbieux, a writer on homeless issues, says:

What usually happens is that the “security guard” takes advantage of his position and engages in inappropriate behavior himself…. And the administrators, wishing to be supportive of their “program people” will summarily side with their program people…

In March, the City Rescue Mission in New Castle, Penn., got in trouble for turning away a blind man and his guide dog. Because of the Fair Housing Act, service animals are supposed to be allowed. But not pets. The no-pets rule discourages many street people from ever seeking shelter. Is that fair? On the other hand, is it fair that people who are allergic or phobic should have to spend the night cooped up with other people’s animals?

The Change.org page we mentioned (no longer available with the comments) included in the comments section a long, heartbreakingly detailed description by “K K” who told of the intense horror of living in various shelters with her three children. And yes, very bad things happen to kids in even the most well-intentioned places. But sexual predation is not limited to residents. One man commented about staying at a church shelter where women were “violated by the pastor.” This is depressing enough, but to really see a lid blown off, read Renee Miller’s “I Went Undercover at a Homeless Shelter — You Wouldn’t Believe the Shocking Abuses I Found There.”

A while back, there was a National Transgender Discrimination Survey that covered 6,560 people. The homeless survey participants spoke of being denied access to a shelter, or of being forced to live as the wrong gender — for instance, if legally male, they have to stay in a male shelter no matter what. A quarter of the respondents had been physically attacked and/or sexually assaulted by fellow residents or staff members.

It’s painful to know these things, and to see how the earnest efforts of caring citizens can go awry. But it does help to understand and be compassionate when needy people refuse help. Dennis Culhane, who studied the Philadelphia shelter system, wrote, “Anyone who ever has to stay in a shelter involuntarily knows that all you think about is how to make sure you never come back.”

Reactions?

Source: “Why I Choose Streets Over Shelter,” Change.org, 06/03/09
Source: “Why Many Homeless People Choose Streets Over Shelters,” Tonic.com, 12/02/10
Source: “WWII grenade found at homeless shelter, transient arrested,” MercuryNews.com, 08/01/11
Source: “Homeless: Life in the Shelter,” WGGB.com, 11/27/13
Source: “The Homeless Guy: A Big Problem At Homeless Shelters,” Blogspot.com, 09/24/11
Source: “For Transgender Homeless, Choice Of Shelter Can Prevent Violence …,” CityLimits.org, 12/06/2010
Source: “Theories, Predictions and Diagnoses,” Google Books
Image by Jeremy Miles

 

2

Veteran Makeover Confuses Homeless Issues

Jim WolfIn many ways and places, our veterans are being abused, while the public is bamboozled by the old magician’s trick of misdirection. When a major event is scheduled, an entire municipality might play “hide the homeless.” On an individual level, the media get all in a tizzy over whether one homeless New Yorker had boots or didn’t have boots before a police officer gave him some.

The latest cultural hiccup is a video made just in time for Veterans Day, in which homeless Army vet Jim Wolf gets a shave and a haircut. And a dye job. Also, he wears a suit. “Now he looks like someone on the cover of GQ,” filmmaker Rob Bliss told ABC News, and went on to say:

It’s more than just a haircut and clothing. To see yourself look like that is to see that potential. There are things inside implied by the way you look outside — stability and peace of mind.

Really? Males on active duty in the U.S. military are closely trimmed and clean-shaven. Do they all possess stability and peace of mind? If so, why do we hear so much about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? The video is based on the assumption that barbering is a panacea. If this were so, all of the thousands of homeless men who have been given complimentary shaves and haircuts by volunteers would be prosperous citizens by now.

The makeover video racked up 15 million YouTube views and inspired dozens of blog posts full of oohs and aahs. At the end of the slickly produced vignette, two screens of text explain that Wolf has taken control of his life and “is now scheduled to have his own housing and is attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for the first time ever.”

Smoke and Mirrors

As it turns out, “scheduled to have his own housing” was word waffling. When the video was made, Wolf had applied for veteran housing. How long that takes, and what a person does during the wait, is anybody’s guess. Meanwhile, the video raised $30,000 for Degage Ministries. And then a bad thing happened. BarstoolSports.com has its finger on the pulse of America, so let their headline tell the story and their writer Jmac sum it up:

“Dude From That Super Viral Homeless Makeover Video Got Arrested For Causing A Disturbance At Burger King”

Neat idea for sure, but this is the real world, folks. A new suit and haircut doesn’t guarantee that a dude is all of a sudden gonna turn his life around. This seems to happen a lot with stories like this. People only wanna discuss the happy theatrics of the whole thing, but they tend to ignore the facts.

For CNN News, Dorrine Mendoza interviewed Jim Wolf’s sister. Robin Thomas has hoped for many years that her brother would eventually exit the cycle of “depression, alcoholism, unresolved grief and chronic homelessness” in which he has been caught. Mendoza writes:

No one disputes Wolf has been arrested dozens and dozens of times, mostly for misdemeanors such as public intoxication. Thomas says her brother “lives in survival mode”…. She also admits that perhaps the video did not give Wolf the “glimpse into the future” that others had hoped. He did not view it as a life-changing event, Thomas says.

Though Degage Ministries put Jim Wolf and Rob Bliss in touch with each other, it’s not clear whether the film was originally conceptualized by the organization or the filmmaker. Someone made a bad decision when picking the person to be “made over.” Everybody is different, but whatever this particular fellow needs, it isn’t a shower of publicity. Jim Wolf might be a great candidate for a Housing First program — with zero fanfare — but he definitely was not ready for this failed experiment in superficial making-over.

Into the Wayback Machine

Another premise on which this project rests is a throwback to the 1960s, when acrimonious hair-length discussions between fathers and sons obscured the serious issues that activists sought to expose and repair. Is that what is happening here? Before Jim Wolf was arrested, Philip J. Reed — contravening popular opinion — wrote a piece titled, “Why I Hate This ‘Homeless Veteran Makeover’ Video, and Why You Should Too.” He calls it absurd, manipulative, offensive, exploitative, embarrassing and demeaning. Reed says:

What, exactly, is meant to be inspiring about this again? It’s the hollowest possible kind of “inspiration,” and it’s one that only works because it withholds the humanity…. But you shouldn’t feel inspired by anything that takes a serious, profound problem with the very core of the society in which you live, and presents it as trivial and easily overcome.

Wolf has a problem. That problem is the country he lives in. That problem is that country’s approach to dealing with the sick and the poor and the unemployed and the homeless. That problem is emphatically not going to be solved by a haircut, a shave, and a necktie. And yet this makeover video wants you to come away feeling that it is solved that way. Because that’s easy. That’s visual. And, what’s more, it’s easy on the eye.

This constant whitewashing of our problems is the problem.


Source: “Homeless Vet’s Makeover Turns His Life Around,” ABCNews.go.com, 11/08/13
Source: “Dude From That Super Viral Homeless Makeover Video Got Arrested For Causing A Disturbance At Burger King,” BarstoolSports.com, 11/21/13
Source: “Homeless vet in makeover video has long road ahead,” CNN.com, 11/19/13
Source: “Why I Hate This “Homeless Veteran Makeover” Video, and Why You Should Too,” NoiselessChatter.com, 11/09/13
Image by Rob Bliss

 

0

Veteran Abuse

Audie L MurphyIt’s perfectly possible to be anti-war, or against a particular war, and still be pro-veteran. The government made a contract with these Americans. Yet a lot of returning veterans have not received and are not receiving what they are entitled to, because the government does not live up to its contractual obligation. It’s that simple.

In many cases, the federal government is not doing its job. In others, a state government falls short of fulfilling its purpose. On October 26, Jeremy Schwartz of the Austin American-Statesman blew the lid off a situation that affects more than 43,000 veterans in Bell County, Texas, which incidentally is the location of Fort Hood. A state law enacted in 1985 says that in any county where the population is over 200,000, there should be a full-time veterans service officer. Schwartz explains how the system is supposed to work:

While federal VA workers process claims, state, county and local veterans service officers play a crucial role in preparing what are increasingly complex disability claims for conditions such as traumatic brain injury. Officials say well-trained service officers can speed the process by submitting what they call “fully developed” claims, which include all the necessary medical and military records, making them easier to process.

Yet in Bell County, there is no full-time veterans service officer.

Of the 23 counties over 200,000, only Bell and Lubbock counties do not employ such officers, though Lubbock funds clerical staff to support a state officer, according to the Texas Veterans Commission.

The requirement is voluntary for smaller counties, but many have also hired at least part-time county veterans service officers, especially in recent years as service members have flooded home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Since 1996, Schwartz writes, the task of liaising with veterans in Bell County has fallen on a volunteer, Jim Endicott. Although he is a former Veterans Administration general counsel, he only works part-time. Other volunteers and state employees help with the workload, but they can’t keep up, and volunteers are not required to take the annual training that the state requires for veterans services officers hired by counties. This is important, the writer points out, because the VA rules change constantly. If the workers are not familiar with the rules, how can they help vets successfully submit “fully developed” claims?

The troops on the ground

The veterans line up as early as 2 o’clock in the morning in hopes of being seen. (The question springs to mind, why not use an appointment system?) Frustrated by the inefficiency in their own locality, some journey to the designated offices in adjoining counties. Schwartz learned that in the past two years, more than a thousand local veterans who had signed in at the Temple office gave up and left before being seen. Bell County has issued 12,000 disabled-veteran license plates, a figure that hints at the extent of the problem.

Nevertheless, according to unnamed Bell County bureaucrats, complaints are few, even from veterans’ groups which presumably wield some influence. Jon Burrows, a Bell County judge, told the reporter that “there hasn’t been a need to hire a full-time county veterans service officer.” But he may be mistaken. The people on the job struggle under heavy caseloads. Schwartz says:

At one point last year, the VA’s Waco Regional Office, which serves veterans in Bell County and Central Texas, had the nation’s longest wait time for claims processing. Today, the average wait time to process a claim is 464 days in Waco — and 14,605 of the more than 26,000 pending cases have been sitting at least 125 days.

At last

Finally, in mid-November, the Bell County commissioners decided at their weekly meeting to add to their website a section containing information for veterans, to open up a phone line for questions from veterans, and to find office space for the veterans service officer who will be hired before the new year.

Issues still exist: a shortage of trained personnel, and of training for existing personnel, as well as the perceived need for a “one-stop shop” to make life a bit easier for disabled veterans and for people with other socioeconomic problems, such as being denied food stamps. Judge Burrows still maintains that the commissioners never even knew there were any unmet needs.

Jim Endicott, the volunteer liaison officer mentioned above, made the astonishing statement that he only sees “five or six veterans a year,” reports Alex Wukman of FME News Service. Mostly, Endicott just provides “referral and outreach” — in other words, connecting veterans with personnel at the Texas Veterans Commission.

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Note: War Hero Audie Murphy, though a Texan, was neither born nor buried in Bell County. Still, his story is very much worth knowing.

Reactions?

Source: “Despite state law, Bell County doesn’t employ veteran service officer“, Mystatesman.com, 10/26/13
Source: “Bell County to hire veterans service officer,” KDHNews.com, 11/13/13
Image by dbking

 

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