Emma Whitford related the harrowing story of a rainy night in East Harlem where several homeless people huddled beneath a protruding section of a building. City Parks Dept. workers showed up, along with some police officers.
According to participants, the people were not even given a chance to go out into the rain before the authorities began to load their belongings into a sanitation truck. In some cases, the police and/or city workers even shoved people to the ground and seized things that they held. The writer described the treatment of Anthony Rainey, a former Marine homeless since 1971:
Rainey says that most of his possessions were taken that morning as well—everything but an electronic benefit transfer card and credit card that happened to be in his pocket. Rainey lost his Veterans ID card, which he uses to ride public transportation free of charge and purchase clothing wholesale, plus family photographs, his birth certificate, hospital records, sweatshirts and jackets, and the CDs and chargers that he sells on the street.
Whitford also quoted Floyd Parks:
I grabbed my cart and was trying to get my stuff out, and the [officer]… just took my stuff and threw it in the [truck], and just crushed it up. And I said, ‘Yo, I got personal property.’ They said, ‘Too bad.’
Apparently, the same kind of gratuitous, random confiscation happens on a regular basis all over America. Of course, no one wants piles of junk everywhere. But reasonable measures can be taken to keep a city looking neat, without seizing people’s documents, or the things they are holding. In that New York incident, there was not even pretense of storing possessions to be picked up later. It went straight to the trash compacter.
Somewhere in Middle America
For a while, some of the people experiencing homelessness in Madison WI had been storing belongings in a supervised area at the Social Justice Center, but more space was needed downtown. The front steps of the City-County building took up some of the slack, an untenable situation that was never meant to last.
Last spring, city workers put up two enclosures across the street from there, out back of the Municipal Building, which took up part of the parking lot and probably annoyed some citizens for that reason alone. The doorless “chain-link boxes” were not equipped with shelves or dividers of any kind, so things were just bundled in there any which way. There were tarps across the top, but the sides were wide open to the weather. There was no supervision or security, so items were stolen and their owners were upset.
The authorities contended that advocates for the homeless had promised to look after the storage area. They charged that people were using the space for illegal and immoral activities, and closed the minimalistic wire shed at the end of July. Dean Mosiman wrote,
Belongings were to be removed from the facility by 2 p.m. Wednesday, with the city considering anything remaining as lost property and collected and bagged by city staff and stored off site for up to 45 days. Items that are worth less than $50, hazardous, perishable or with no sentimental, medical or legal value could be disposed immediately.
That sounds pretty reasonable, but veterans of America’s streets have learned that items do not always arrive at destinations named by city workers. Several other issues arose, and it was pointed out that a firm agreement should have been made, and thoroughly understood by both sides, before the project was undertaken.
A great public relations opportunity was lost in Madison, and a lot of potential good will was squandered, that might otherwise have accrued to both sides. Imagine what might have happened if a capable organizer with a few devoted colleagues had been in the right place at the right time. It could have been a model project, illustrating how responsible people can be, even when they are not housed, and proving that they deserve to have fair treatment and jobs and places to sleep and all that good stuff. Just like, you know, regular people.
Richard R. Troxell, co-founder of House the Homeless, suggests that “The best way to avoid the criminalization of people experiencing homelessness, and these kinds of abuses, is simply to house them.” On the way to that goal, the Wisconsin State Journal‘s Chris Rickert asks,
It’s hard not to wonder: If city officials can’t work with the homeless and their advocates on something so seemingly simple, how are they going to work together on more pressing needs — such as more shelter space, housing and mental health and substance abuse treatment?
Source: “Video: NYPD Destroyed Birth Certificates, Medication, IDs In East Harlem Homeless Raid,” Gothamist.com. 10/13/15
Source: “Madison closes storage area for homeless belongings,” madison.com, 07/22/15
Source: “Chris Rickert: No hindsight needed to identify problems with homeless’ storage space,
Image by bopswave
In the great Northwest, in Washington state, the Seattle University School of Law issued a report about the cost of criminalizing homelessness. Examining the municipal codes of 72 cities, they found twice as many anti-homeless ordinances as were on the books in 2000. Journalists Bryce Covert and Andrew Breiner summed it up like this:
Nearly 80 percent enacted ordinances prohibiting or limiting the ability to sit, stand, or sleep in public. Another three-quarters banned urination or defecation in public, although the report notes that “cities typically fail to provide sufficient access to reasonable alternatives such as 24-hour restrooms and hygiene centers.” And nearly two-thirds outlaw “aggressive panhandling, while 22 percent criminalize storing personal property in public.”
Criminalizing homelessness by outlawing the most unavoidable life functions like sleeping and urinating, has become a trend. In Venice, California, which used to be one of the freest places on earth, homeless people are routinely brutalized by the police for such offenses as “items placed on city beach” and “property outside of designated space.” Samuel Arrington, a mentally ill homeless man who was beaten and tazed by 8 LAPD officers and subsequently hospitalized, had brought a chair and an umbrella out onto the sand.
The plot thickened when Arrington told the press that the cops had assaulted him on multiple occasions because he once warned a prospective heroin customer to stay away from a certain undercover cop, and thwarted a sting operation. Of course Arrington sued the city for violation of his civil rights, as have hundreds of others. In 2012 the L.A. Times published a spreadsheet detailing the settlements the LAPD had been ordered to make over the preceding decade. The yearly totals were $12 million, $16 million, and other numbers in that range. Many cases centered around homeless people, and police brutality is only one of the causes for which a city might be sued.
The illustration on this page shows a homeless street market, a bare-bones operation favored by those who want to hold a garage sale but don’t have a garage. In many places, this is a highly illegal enterprise.
Austin, Texas, is a notable example of pushback against “quality of life” ordinances that do nothing for life’s quality when the accused is a person experiencing homelessness. In response to people being legally punished for just sitting around, Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless said something fraught with unintentional dark humor:
It is my belief that 100% of the people receiving these tickets were perceived to be homeless at the time of ticket issuance. I was only able to verify that 96% were experiencing homelessness at the time of the ticketing.
Getting back to Washington, the 5-year total spent by just two cities, Seattle and Spokane, to enforce homeless-persecuting statutes was almost $4 million. The number is just for civil infractions and doesn’t even begin to cover the criminal violations costs. Covert and Breiner wrote:
On the other hand, the report estimates that if the $3.7 million spent enforcing the ordinances were instead spent on housing for the homeless, it would save $2 million a year and more than $11 million over the course of five years.
Criminalizing Homelessness on the East Coast
To varying degrees, some cities are beginning to see value in the Housing First philosophy. In the opposite corner of America, down in Florida, the Daytona Beach News-Journal published a comprehensive article on that state’s homeless policies.
Volusia County Judge Belle Schumann researched 50 homeless people who have cost the county well over $12 million by being arrested multiple times —as many as 400 in one case, and more than 330 times in another. A jail diversion shelter to keep these individuals off the streets would cost approximately $13 per person, per day, as compared to the $65 per diem cost of keeping them in jail. Currently, the county has fewer than 100 shelter beds to serve its 5,000 homeless residents.
Source: “Washington’s War on the Visibly Poor: A Survey of Criminalizing Ordinances & Their Enforcement ,” SSRN.com, 05/06/15
Source: “Arresting Homeless People For Being Homeless Is Unbelievably Wasteful,” thinkprogress.org, 05/11/15
Source: “Venice homeless man sues LAPD, alleges excessive force during arrest,” LATimes.com, 05/19/15
Source: “Legal payouts in LAPD lawsuits,” LATimes.com, 01/22/12
Source: “Arresting, jailing homeless has cost Volusia taxpayers millions,”
Image by urbansnaps – kennymc
RawStory.com just published a lengthy article titled “Older and sicker: How America’s homeless population has changed.”
The writer is Margot Kushel, Professor of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. California is always worth keeping an eye on, because what happens there tends to spread to the rest of the country. As always, House the Homeless recommends that interested parties read the entire work, but here some key points.
For starters, about 20% (or one in five) of all the people experiencing homelessness in America are in California, a state with an unprecedented water shortage and a proneness to wildfires – not a good combination, especially for people whose only kitchen may be a campfire. The El Niño weather event will have some benefits, but too much water in too short a time can never bring happy results. Mudslides cover the houses of celebrities and CEOs, and torrents drown people who sleep along riverbeds.
On any day of the year about half a million cold, overheated, or rain-soaked Americans have no place to call home. A lot of adrift people go to urban areas if they can, because that is where the services are. In California, housing costs are the highest of any state, and the major cities are frighteningly expensive even at the best of times. Oakland, always on the scruffier side, is where Dr. Kushel’s research team has tracked the lives of 350 homeless subjects since the summer of 2013. About people over 50, she says:
In the United States, more than 30 percent of renters and 23 percent of homeowners aged 50 and older spend more than half of their household income on rent. This makes it hard to pay for food and medicine, and puts them at high risk of becoming homeless.
And a lot of them do become homeless, just at the time of life when all the years of struggle are supposed to pay off. Many of the people in this study worked for decades at “low-skill, low-wage” jobs, barely able to keep up with present needs, but at least they had somewhere to live. Homelessness at any age is traumatic, but when a middle-aged person falls into it for the first time, the psychological trauma is considerable. In present-day America, half the people experiencing homelessness are over 50. What does this mean in practical terms? Kushel says:
When the homeless population was made up of a majority of younger adults, health care providers focused on treating substance use and mental health disorders, traumatic injuries and infections, many of which could be treated with short-term care. Now, with an older homeless population, health care providers have the difficult task of managing chronic diseases like diabetes and heart and lung disease. The point our study highlights is that the systems set up in the 1980s were not designed to serve an aging population.
About half of the older group are not new to homelessness, but have been in the wind for years, shuttling through the well-worn pathways that lead from shelter to jail to hospital to roadside camp to shelter to jail, on and on with endless variations but always the same old story. Their initiating traumas happened long ago, and their health situations have been deteriorating for years. Of the newer middle- and late-middle-aged homeless, Kushel says:
Their lives became derailed by job loss, illness, a new disability, the death of a loved one or an interaction with the criminal justice system.
Someone rooted in a stable lifestyle might be able to handle one of those tragedies, get through the difficulty, and make a recovery. But life-changing events tend to gang up on a person who is already in a vulnerable state. Troubles arrive in bunches, and the domino effect is alive and well. Once they hit the streets, the sick get sicker, and the previously healthy become sick.
A person who has a roof, electricity, and running water finds it difficult to deal with functional and/or cognitive impairments, multiple medications, special treatments like oxygen, strict dietary requirements, frequent medical appointments, and endless piles of hellish paperwork. For a homeless person, existing with an illness or disability is insanely difficult.
Homelessness shortens anyone’s life expectancy, and it’s not surprising that homeless old people “die at a rate four to five times what would be expected in the general population.” Dr. Kushel leaves us with a statement and two questions:
What policymakers and the general public need to recognize is that the homeless are aging faster than the general population in the U.S. This shift in the demographics has major implications for how municipalities and health care providers deal with homeless populations.
How do we adapt existing programs for homeless adults to meet the needs of an aging population?
And possibly even more intractable but fundamental: how do we stop older people from losing their homes?
Source: “Older and sicker: How America’s homeless population has changed
Image by Randy Sloan
All year round, and especially during the annual or biannual count of people experiencing homelessness, outreach workers take on the job of informing people about their options. Maybe some street people don’t know that shelter is available, or what the requirements are. On the other side of the coin, some have had such negative experiences in shelters that they prefer to endure any other accommodations.
One school of thought that some people like to characterize as “tough love” but is more likely just callousness, holds that shelters are not supposed to be nice places. If the place is comfortable, lazy freeloaders will just stay forever. According to this world-view, the necessity to endure discomfort and indignity in a shelter is supposed to provide all the inspiration needed to encourage people to find a job and a home. If only it were that easy! If living under punitive conditions was all it took to turn people’s lives around and set them on the path to success, Skid Row would be full of millionaires.
Rules Are Rules…Which Can Be Bad for the Homeless
For housed people who don’t encounter these problems, it is tempting to go for the easy answer and think that shelter resistance stems from an unwillingness to follow the regulations. Certainly, there are individuals who prefer to live outside and stay inebriated rather than put up with a no-alcohol rule.
Unfortunately, strictures that sound reasonable on paper can be totally counterproductive for those who are fortunate enough to find work. What if the only shelter in the area closes down its sign-in process at 4:30 in the afternoon, and you have a job that ends at 5:00? What if it’s only a part-time gig, or even a full-time job at minimum wage? You still can’t afford to rent a place to live, and thanks to the sign-in time limit, you’re worse off than an unemployed homeless person because you’ll need to sleep outside. That’s “economic homelessness,” a situation in which far too many people find themselves.
A blogger known as “Moondustwriter” wrote about staying with her daughter in an apartment setup shared with another single mother:
This particular shelter didn’t have a soup kitchen. So on the two to maybe three hundred I would have a month, I would struggle to pay for food, basics (like clothes and toiletries) and transportation for two. Don’t get me wrong, I learned how to live on $300 a month but you don’t save any money to get your own place by living in a shelter.
If a person experiencing homelessness is lucky enough to have a job but works night shift, forget about the standard shelter. In some cities, if the weather is unbearably cold or hot, there may be a place where people can hang out during the day. But getting a proper sleep is out of the question.
Often, shelter “beds” are no more than mats on the floor. Sure, that’s probably better than frostbite, but keeping your fingers and toes can come at a high price, like catching tuberculosis from the person on the adjoining mat, or becoming infested with bedbugs, or being stepped on or vomited on by someone on the way to the toilet. There is a psychological price, too. A newly homeless person is in no position to be a snob, but life suddenly becomes full of people you would not consider for the role of bestie. Ted Heistman wrote:
It’s natural to seek rapport with the people you are hanging out with, but you want to avoid having dysfunction rub off on you too much. You don’t want to start thinking its normal to stink and be dirty and drunk or stoned all the time.
Balancing that disadvantage, some experienced people say that the motivated and upwardly bound homeless person will stand out. In a shelter, it’s possible that…
Only about 10 to 20% will be normal middle class type people that have found themselves in a bad situation. This is you. People will go out of their way to help you, even the other hard case homeless people might. So if you swallow your pride and accept the help, you may soon find yourself with a new place to live.
Source: “Homeless in America Creating More Tent Cities,” Financial -Market -News.com, 05/17/14
Source: “Shelters for the Homeless,” Moondustwriter.com, 02/18/14
Source: “How to be “Stealth” Homeless,” Disinfo.com, 10/25/12
Source: “7 Things No One Tells You About Being Homeless,” Cracked.com, 11/12/13
Image by Kenji Nakayama and Christopher Hope
Since 1989, Utah has maintained a Homeless Trust Fund, which raises money through contributions made by checking a box on state income tax forms. Most of the contributions are small—only one or two dollars. But they add up to a significant sum that is divvied up every year among various programs that serve the homeless.
That paragraph from The Deseret News describes a fund whose full name includes that of Pamela Atkinson, a longtime activist for the homeless, and advisor to the last three governors of Utah.
Some other states have similar affordable housing funds, which collect money in the same way, but Utah’s apparently has some extra features, like supporting nutrition and anti-addiction programs and even health care services. Homeless advocates would like to see more money dedicated to early intervention, preferring to help people before they actually lose everything and hit the streets.
Some speculate that publicity about the state’s success in reducing homelessness has actually backfired, and worry that potential donors don’t realize there are still people experiencing homelessness, or at risk. In 1990 the Homeless Trust Fund took in $300,000, but in 2014 it only collected less than one/sixth that amount ($48,000). Still, many people have been helped and are still being helped.
How to Do the Most Good in the World
Of course, Pamela Atkinson does a lot of other things, like organize a yearly Christmas dinner for people experiencing homelessness in Salt Lake City. In 2012, Devin Thorpe interviewed her for Forbes, and came away with what is for all practical purposes, a textbook authored by an effective and respected activist, on how to do the most good in the world. We won’t include all 13 principles, because the source article deserves to be read.
One thing that helps in any endeavor is to keep ego out of it. The idea is not to ride in like a savior on a white horse, but to empower the people whose lives are most affected by the change you are working for. Change needs to be owned by the people in whose daily lives the difference will manifest. This segues into the next principle: collaboration. It takes a whole lot of coordination and cooperation to get the ball rolling, and to gain momentum and bring a community project to the point of sustainability takes even more collaboration.
Of Pamela Atkinson in fundraising mode, Thorpe says:
When she hears “no,” she asks, “What can I do to help change your mind?” She offers to provide tours, introductions, whatever it will take to change a mind. Her approach has made her one of the most successful fundraisers in Utah.
Don’t burn bridges. Relationships need to be respected, and so do volunteers. For the organization that is being built, Atkinson recommends absolute transparency from day one. Anyone who gives time and energy should be able to know anything about the project. Perhaps the most important thing is to speak up, especially about injustice, because you never know how far your influence may reach. Thorpe says:
She’s learned that even when everyone in the room openly opposes her, she’ll often get private indications of support from people who are grateful for her leadership.
Source: “Check it: Pamela Atkinson Homeless Trust Fund donation option on state income tax form,” DeseretNews.com, 02/15/15
Source: “13 Lessons From A Great Social Entrepreneur, Pamela Atkinson,” Forbes.com, 09/23/12
Image by Garrett
Unlike many others to whom the description is sloppily applied, boxing champion Manny Pacquiao truly is a “living legend.” After his father ate his dog, the 12-year-old boy left home to live in the streets and sleep in a cardboard box. He started boxing professionally at 14 and became the only eight-division world champion, “Fighter of the Decade,” and the world’s second highest-paid athlete. He also sings, acts, and plays and coaches basketball.
Earlier this month Pacquiao, who is now also a member of the Philippine House of Representatives, gave 150 houses to people who needed them. He spent well over half a million dollars of his own money to build Pacquiao Village, but this is only one-fourth of the intended scope of the project, which includes 600 new homes. Pacquiao (predicted by many to be future president of the Philippines) told the recipients:
Give thanks to God for what you have received today. It’s a gift from Him. He’s just using me to help you. Take good care of this property and don’t sell it.
Giving to Squatters in the United Kingdom
In the United Kingdom two sports figures, Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs, have been involved in a complicated drama concerning Manchester’s old Stock Exchange, which they bought with the intention of remodeling it into a luxury hotel.
In October, the property was occupied by about 30 squatters, and the new owners agreed that they could stay on the ground floor until the renovation work begins in early 2016. Neville even paid for electricians and plumbers to make the building safely habitable in the meantime, and arranged for full meals to be delivered to the residents three times a week.
But then apparently the original group would not allow other, rowdier homeless activists to join them, and windows were broken, and there were numerous police calls. Things settled down, and Neville and Giggs arranged with local authorities to go in with support services including help for mental health and addiction issues, and aid in finding more permanent accommodations.
Giving in San Bernardino
Kim Carter of San Bernardino, Calif., was elected by CNN viewers as one of the year’s Top 10 Heroes, an honor that comes with a $10,000 award to help further the work of the nonprofit group she started. Journalist Ryan Hagen writes:
Time for Change Foundation has helped close to 800 women since 2002, with a mission to empower disenfranchised low-income women and families by building leadership through evidence-based programs and housing to create self-sufficiency and thriving communities.
It includes case-management services in a drug-free environment, an emergency shelter, transitional housing, financial education and money management classes, independent living skills, family reunification, leadership development and parenting education.
Carter has also been responsible for the creation of a low-income housing project for people who would otherwise probably be homeless.
Meanwhile, Helping the Homeless in Wichita
In Wichita, Kan., Alan Kailer provides help with another of life’s necessities—transportation. After 35 years as a big-city corporate attorney, he retired and pedaled across America with his wife on a bicycle built for two. Out of necessity, he became a competent repairer of bikes, a skill that he now employs one morning a week at the local homeless shelter. Arriving in a minivan stocked with tools and donated parts, he fixes bikes and, more importantly, teaches people to do maintenance and repairs on their own.
Don’t let another year go by without reading Looking Up at the Bottom Line by Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless!
Source: “Manny Pacquiao gives away 150 houses to homeless families in Saranggani,” KickerDaily.com, 12/15/15
Source: “Gary Neville signs deal to offer support to homeless people living in Stock Exchange building,” ManchesterEveningNews.co.uk, 11/03/15
Source: “Kim Carter, of San Bernardino, chosen as top 10 CNN Hero.” SBSun.com, 10/08/15
Source: “Wichita man offers help, tools and a willing ear for homeless cyclists.” kansas.com, 07/05/15
Image by Michael Howard
Earlier this month, two major American cities announced jobs programs. In Los Angeles, city services have been deteriorating since the global economic disaster of 2008. Trees don’t get trimmed, which is not just an aesthetic issue but a safety issue. Streets don’t get cleaned, and in fact many other tasks remain undone, impacting both the appearance and functionality of the city. Public demand for the return of various services has become a sore point.
To alleviate these problems and to provide jobs, the city created the Workforce Restoration Program. Its goal for the 2017-18 fiscal year is to hire 5,000 full-time city workers. Mayor Eric Garcetti has issued a request for all city departments to prepare reports on their hiring needs. Who will be hired? Journalist Dakota Smith quoted Jackie Goldberg, a member of the California Assempbly and former City Councilwoman:
We have targeted groups…which are the homeless, which are veterans, which are people who have had gang affiliations.
The meaning is clear if the context is known, and the administration is certainly wise to concentrate on these underserved groups, but…“targeted”? Surely there must be a more friendly and positive way for agencies to describe their attempts to help certain demographics. Who wants to be a target? Smith includes a couple of sentence that seem to hint that reality might not live up to the hype:
It’s expected those groups will make up just a percentage of the applicants selected to work for the city…While adding 5,000 employees is the goal, it’s unclear how many workers will actually be hired, because the ultimate figure will depend on how many employees leave city jobs.
Albuquerque Turning Around, Perhaps
Albuquerque, New Mexico, has earned a dark reputation because of the extreme brutality of its police force, whose violence often (in the traditional sense of the word) targets people experiencing homelessness and the mentally ill. Proportionately, the city’s police have fatally shot more citizens than the New York City police. Partly because of intervention by the Justice Department, Albuquerque is trying to become kinder and gentler. Writer Fernanda Santos describes one change:
Training in crisis intervention has become a requirement for police cadets, who must try to find their way out of staged real-life scenarios—encounters with distressed drug addicts, rape victims or suicidal war veterans—without pulling out their guns.
The police department says that the “aggressive panhandling” ordinance is rarely enforced. Another innovation is the city’s effort to influence drivers. Money should not be handed out through car windows to supplicants at intersections, but donated instead to the fund for cleaning up the city. Those dollars fund food and shelter for the workers, and equally important, their daily pay.
The concept here is to hire the homeless, but not to imitate the habits of private staffing agencies that exploit day laborers by keeping a large share of their earnings. Of course, temp workers want to keep all the money that comes from the employers. But surely the agency needs to make something, if it is to pay for an office and someone to answer the phone, and especially if it is to vet the employers and make sure they are safe and fair. The only people who can afford to run such an enterprise for free are nonprofits or the government.
Of course if the government runs it, it’s not really free, because it’s on the taxpayers’ dime. Still, aside from HeadStart programs for kids, a temporary employment agency is one of the more benign and useful ways a taxpayers’ dime could be spent. As House the Homeless has said before, many people experiencing homelessness are able and willing to work. (In fact, many of them work full time and are still homeless—but that is another topic.)
Albuquerque’s Plan to Hire the Homeless
Using the same time-honored technique as the crew bosses who roll up and choose day laborers from the group of hopefuls in the Home Depot parking lot, a city employee takes a van out and picks up 10 people and delivers them to the site of a clean-up. The shift is only five or six hours and workers make $9 an hour plus lunch. This happens twice a week, so one person could make about $50 per week, or $100 if fortunate enough to be chosen on both days.
$50,000 has been allocated for this program, in city funds, just about enough to cover the paychecks, if not the lunches and the other city services needed to pick up the gathered trash and so forth. It is slightly grim that these teams clean up homeless campsites that have been broken up, so a person might even be working in a place he formerly called home. Mayor Richard J. Berry is optimistic, telling the reporter:
Fines and jail time don’t solve anything. If we can get your confidence up a little, get a few dollars in your pocket, get you stabilized to the point where you want to reach out for services, whether the mental health services or substance abuse services—that’s the upward spiral that I’m looking for.
Since the program started in September, five workers have reportedly found steady jobs. On the downside, the police department has not yet revised its use-of-force directive.
Source: “LA wants to hire homeless, former gang members, veterans
Source: “Albuquerque, Revising Approach Toward the Homeless, Offers Them Jobs
Image by Aaron Alexander
A state and some cities have declared a state of emergency. Traditionally, such a designation would come after a natural disaster, but this time, the reason is homelessness. It doesn’t mean they get federal money— not unless the federal government itself declared the emergency—but the move does enable the release of local funds and the loosening of rules. For instance, permits for building affordable housing can be issued more quickly—although why this process could not have been expedited all along is a mystery. For PewTrusts.org, Rebecca Beitsch wrote:
Many cities and states, even those that have declared states of emergency, are investing more in long-term affordable housing, whether by constructing new housing or spending more money on existing programs to help people stay in private housing. Those programs offer various types of affordable housing and rapid rehousing, including subsidized units, security deposit assistance and permanent supportive housing. In many cases, tenants pay 30 percent of their income in rent and may even be matched with nearby caseworkers who help them stay in housing and connect to services.
Regarding Hawaii, ThinkProgress.com spun the situation this way: “After Destroying Homeless Camps, Hawaii Declares State of Emergency on Homelessness.” The authorities in Hawaii and elsewhere are notorious for not only raiding camps, but destroying the possessions of people just trying to live.
In October, when the proclamation was made, the state’s 1.4 million people included at least 5,000 people experiencing homelessness, with an estimated 2,000 of them unsheltered. To complicate the situation, Hawaii’s homeless seem particularly reluctant to go into shelters. Nevertheless, the governor’s decision released $1.3 million from the state’s general fund and was said to provide more shelter options for families that want to remain united.
States of Emergency in Northwest Cities
Portland plans to do more than just throw money at the problem. There is talk of adjusting restrictive land-use and zoning rules, which appear to have delayed the deployment of approximately $60 million that was already available from the federal government under other affordable housing programs. Beitsch reports that developers who take part in those building projects “must keep rent at an affordable level for 60 years before charging market rates,” and what entrepreneur wants to sign off on that?
Portland also looks forward to an additional $1 million per year that will be used for affordable housing, with the revenue coming from tax on Airbnb facilities.
In Seattle, 3,000 public school children are known to be homeless, and 45 impoverished people have died in the streets during the past year. The sale of some city property should bring in more than $5 million and King County is kicking in $2 million.
At the very least, Seattle plans to add 150 shelter beds, but there is talk of attacking the root causes of chronic homelessness by providing more PTSD counselors for veterans and more addiction treatment options. The city also plans to press for federal funding via FEMA or any other possible agency.
L.A. Fails to Address Homelessness
Los Angeles is estimated to have nearly 18,000 unsheltered homeless people and again, as in Hawaii, many find life on the streets more bearable than the shelters, particularly if they are administered by religious organizations. Los Angeles plans to spend at least $100 million in the coming year and journalist Bruce Covert says of Mayor Eric Garcetti:
He also called for shelters to stay open 24 hours a day during the rainy season, for winter shelter availability to be extended by two months, and for an increase in access to storage, bathrooms, showers, laundry, and other services.
But more than two months after the idea of declaring a state of emergency was floated, Los Angeles has not yet actually acted on its publicized intention. Some call this stalling; others call it judicious consideration of all the possible remedies. Is the City Council dragging its feet, or are all parties doing their best to plan wisely? Meanwhile, people experiencing homelessness in L.A. are facing more numerous and tougher ordinances than ever before, amounting to the criminalization of homelessness.
Only two weeks ago, Gary Blasi wrote for the LA Times:
Last week, the City Council decided to make it a crime for a homeless person to refuse to break down a tent on a sidewalk at 6 a.m., or to put the same tent up before 9 p.m., even in a pouring rain. If a federal judge does not block that rule, the mayor could [do so]…The mayor could open unused city buildings or enter into short-term leases for private buildings to provide shelter for the homeless to sleep and keep some of their belongings…The mayor could help people stay alive in the shelters they have made for themselves…City agencies could provide pallets or other means of getting them off the ground, and tents and tarps that do not leak in a heavy storm.
Supposedly, the talk of emergency declaration draws attention to the problem and inspires a sense of urgency which will help to obtain resources and lubricate a creaky bureaucracy. So, talk, talk, talk—and then, nothing. Is it any wonder that many critics hear just another variation on the same old political bloviation? But Maria Foscarinis of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty sees hope in the various actions, telling Bruce Covert:
I think the declarations are right. Declaring that homelessness is an emergency is calling a crisis by its rightful name…I think it’s totally appropriate and very important to recognize it as such, and in fact it’s long overdue.
Source: “Cities, States Turn To Emergency Declarations To Tackle Homeless Crisis,” pewtrusts.org, 11/11/15
Source: “After Destroying Homeless Camps, Hawaii Declares State Of Emergency On
Homelessness,” ThinkProgress.org, 10/19/15
Source: “Murray: Loss of life warrants homeless emergency declaration,” MyNorthwest.com, 11/03/15
Source: “The Situation Facing Los Angeles And Portland Homeless Populations Is An
Emergency,” ThinkProgress.org, 09/30/15
Source: “Preparing to declare a ‘local emergency’ could save LA’s homeless people when El Niño rains hit,” LATimes.com, 11/23/15
Image by Tom Fortunato
Out in California’s Coachella Valley desert, about 75 people are about to be evicted from their huts and tents. The California Department of Transportation doesn’t want them on its land. The ostensible reason is a concern for safety because, Paulina Rojas reports:
Those living in the camps often attempt to cross the expressway on foot, creating a hazardous situation for themselves and drivers.
Throughout America, there must be thousands upon thousands of deer crossings and appropriate warnings. They even have solar-powered animal sensors hooked up to signs that let drivers know in real time that a creature is near the road. CalTrans could express its concern by erecting a “human crossing” sign, and leave the squatters alone.
But no, the local government wants those people gone, and want it so sincerely, they plan to surround the area with a “reinforced fence.” That’s not all. CalTrans plans to cut down the trees that provide the area’s shade. Isn’t there an environmental regulation? Something about oxygen? Just build a nice, sturdy fence, fellas. Leave the trees alone.
Criminalizing Homelessness – Again
The destruction of trees to prevent certain people from enjoying their shade is a classic move, like something from a Grimm fairy tale. It recalls the program of chemical defoliation so drastic it left behind uncountable victims both in Vietnam and in the homes and veterans’ hospitals of America. Maybe CalTrans will borrow from an earlier historical era and sow the ground with salt to prevent any vegetation ever growing back.
The upcoming Coachella Tree Slaughter is one of the many instances in which our society seems bent on not only criminalizing homelessness, but on doing it with as vindictive and mean a spirit as possible. It is a perfect metaphor for hysterical over-reaction. It beautifully illustrates the old saying, “He cut off his nose to spite his face.” In its attempt to punish the homeless, America is committing slow suicide.
The intention to massacre trees in a desert comes from the same mindset as the decision to remove all benches from a public area. Sacramento’s Central Library was criticized for replacing several old-style benches with hostile new backless benches, exactly two of them. When 29 benches disappeared from downtown Nashville, this was noticed by people experiencing homelessness. A Public Works spokesperson said only 12 or 13 benches were removed and, as always, the issue was safety. Apparently, these benches were damaged in ways that could injure citizens. Apparently, Nashville Public Works is unaware of the concepts of repair or replacement.
A Different Approach to “Handling” the Homeless
And never mind any progressive ideas about how sleeping on a bench might be safer than sleeping on the ground. A community’s concern with street people’s safety does not extend that far. The mission is to prevent the homeless from sitting or lying on benches. The result is to deny them to everyone. An elderly person with a portable oxygen tank can’t take a rest. A struggling mother doesn’t get to sit with the baby while helping her little twins put their jackets on. For dozens of reasons, benches are welcome and useful things. Only we can’t have them because there are homeless people.
Maybe what a city needs is more benches. Plenty for everyone. Maybe a downtown needs park benches and public restrooms and trash receptacles that are emptied frequently, with the city employee who empties them responsible for picking up any loose trash within a ten-foot radius.
Meanwhile, in the Coachella Valley, the emergency shelters are already full.
Source: “Caltrans to remove homeless camps along Highway 86,” DesertSun.com,11/24/15
Source: “Deer Crossing Signs and Technologies,” DeerCrash.org, undated
Source: “Homeless protest removal of downtown Nashville benches,” KPHO.com, 12/12/13
Image by State Farm