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What Can We Expect?

marines-marathonIn “An Open Letter to the Trump Administration,” Richard R. Troxell, President of House the Homeless, asks the incoming group of public servants in Washington how they will help in several specific areas. Here, we elaborate on the areas of focus.

Jobs

One thing that could work is adjusting the minimum wage, but not in a one-size-fits-all way. House the Homeless is an advocate of the Universal Living Wage indexed to local housing costs. Here is a serious question: Where is new housing construction? We have been told that a free market works on the principles of supply and demand; that if a demand exists, someone will step up and supply it. So: Where are the affordable shelters needed desperately by many hundreds of thousands of Americans?

Of course, a detail-oriented skeptic will point out that “demand” consists of two elements: both the desire for something, and the ability to pay for it. And then someone else might say, “Plenty of people out there have government vouchers in their hands, ready to pay for shelter, and they can’t landlords who will rent to them. Why doesn’t this economic system work as advertised? To obtain better results, what needs to be tweaked?”

That person might also ask, “When a ton of jobs are needed, and a ton of housing is needed, why is it so hard to put it all together and get these people jobs — as the builders of housing? Why is it so hard to enable people to pay rent, by creating jobs for them in the construction trades?”

The skeptic: “Are you kidding? Homeless people are not trained to build things.”

The believer: “Neither are the volunteers who turn up to build houses with Habitat for Humanity. They sign on for this charitable effort through their churches, or the companies they work for. Yet somehow they manage to build perfectly habitable houses.”

Taxes

The Open Letter says:

Attack Taxpayer Waste: Address the short-comings of the Supplemental Security Income Stipend, SSI that will result in recipients being able to afford basic rental housing with the disability stipend they already receive.

Speaking of revenues collected by the federal government, last week the IRS announced that about 40 million families will receive their tax refunds late. Are these wealthy people with income streams so vast and complicated that the revenue agency will need several extra weeks to sort it all out, lest billions of dollars be allowed to escape the net?

No, they are low-income families, because imagine the horror if some taxpayer who claims the child tax credit or the earned income credit did their math wrong, and the government missed out on a few bucks. But that isn’t the worst part. IRS Commissioner John Koskinen told the Associated Press:

For most of these people it’s the biggest check they are going to get all year.

That fact should be a gigantic red flag. It suggests that the withholding system extracts too much from “most” of 40 million paychecks. Although the taxpayers eventually get it back, in the meantime, the government reaps the benefit of lots of little interest-free loans. A million here, a million there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.

Meanwhile, families struggle, and they borrow. Then, they pay interest on that debt, while at the same time the government is using their money for nothing. Now that we have all the computers and everything, it shouldn’t be so difficult to arrange for taxpayers to have the freedom to spend their own money when they earn it. It should be possible to fine-tune the science of withholding just a bit, so the tax refund isn’t “the biggest check they are going to get all year.”

Veterans

House the Homeless has an important relationship with Dr. Mark Gordon, who does the most outstanding work in treating Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). What is the tie-in with our stated topic? As it turns out, a large number of people experiencing homelessness are veterans, and many of them suffer from TBI. (Another large number of people experiencing homelessness, who are not veterans, also have TBI.) Bottom line, when a government asks or compels citizens to join the military, it incurs the obligation to help them deal with the personal consequences.


Source: “IRS to delay tax refunds for millions of low-income families,” AP.org, 01/10/17
Image by Marine Corps New York

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In Praise of Good Works

knit-hats-stacked-on-tableIt feels so good to recognize and celebrate heroes. Let’s keep that momentum going. First of all, right here in Austin, Texas, the 16th annual House the Homeless Thermal Underwear party took place on December 30, hosted by First Baptist Church.

The event supplied somewhere around 600 people with “winterizing” gear including thermal underwear, scarves, hats, gloves, ponchos, and safety whistles. There was a hot meal and a live band.

Fox7 TV news broadcast a segment with particularly interesting words from House the Homeless President Richard R. Troxell and volunteer Sherry Sampson. A second TV station, WKBN27, emphasized another aspect of the winter preparedness event, with the headline and subtitle:

“Advocacy group to examine ‘criminalization of homelessness'”

As House the Homeless prepared homeless individuals for winter, the organization was also surveying them about their interactions with police

They went into the matter in some depth, including an interview with Officer Shelly Borton, who works for the city’s Homelessness Outreach Team, “which is made up of two police officers, behavioral health specialists, a paramedic and a social worker.” Also, Richard discusses the repercussions on people’s lives when homelessness is criminalized, and people are cited for such violations as sitting in a public place:

If you’re an employer and you’ve got to decide who to employ and you’ve got somebody with no tickets here and somebody with 10 tickets that are criminal in nature, you’re going take the person without the tickets. It becomes a barrier for you to escape homelessness, even though you’re making every effort.

San Francisco was the source of a slightly offbeat story where the hero contributed not food or clothing, but an example of principled defiance. Last March a Department of Public Works employee declined to help tear down a makeshift dwelling. Instead, she filmed the sad demolition and added a commentary complete with salty language and encouragement to a co-worker to refuse also.

Her matter-of-fact attitude makes us forget that the Bay Area is a hard place to survive in, and the possibility of being fired is no joking matter. It takes courage to take a stand. A DPW spokesperson confirmed that…

To refuse could be construed as insubordination, and subject the employee to disciplinary action, dependent on the findings of a thorough and fair investigation…

The person who posted the 2:19 video to YouTube wrote:

I’ve been hearing about a number of DPW workers refusing to be a part of the injustice taking place on our streets right now.

This final story is not current, but it is timeless. World-renowned poet W. H. Auden was remembered by friends for his unwillingness to be seen doing a good deed. Edward Mendelson
described it as going out of his way to seem selfish, when in fact he was very generous. For instance, in the 1950s, Auden worked on a TV production where he demanded to be paid early and made a memorably unpleasant scene about it.

Later on, when the canceled paycheck made its way back to the accounting office, someone noticed that Auden had signed it over to a third person. The recipient was Dorothy Day, who ran the Catholic Workers homeless shelter in New York City, which the fire department was trying to close down. Auden’s contribution paid for the necessary repairs and safety updates to keep the shelter open.

Reactions?

Source: “Thermal Giveaway held in Austin to help the homeless get through winter with some warmth,” Fox7Austin.com, 12/30/16
Source: “Advocacy group to examine ‘criminalization of homelessness’,” WKBN.com, 01/01/17
Source: “San Francisco Worker Refuses To Help Tear Down Homeless Man’s Dwelling,” ThinkProgress.org, 03/09/16
Source: “The Secret Auden,” NYBooks.com, 03/20/14
Image by House the Homeless

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A School, and a Church, Helping

college-campus

Every now and then a story crosses the screen that is really different. “Why a Seattle Homeless Camp was Invited to University of Washington” — see what we mean? Seattle is that West Coast city where rain falls 150 days a year. On any given rainy night, about 4,500 people are sleeping outside, and not to roast marshmallows and swap ghost stories. (Close to 3,000 are in transitional housing, and more than 3,000 in shelters.)

A bunch of people live in Tent City 3, a community that resettles every three months in a different area (including two previous college campuses). This is not an ideal solution for anyone, but when frequent uprooting is done in an orderly way, it can take a lot of stress off both the housed and the unhoused. One way or another, Tent City 3 has survived as an entity for 15 years.

As described by the reporters, the residents seem hyper-aware of the need to be role models and proud representatives of the homeless population. Shamar Waters and Jon Schuppe wrote:

A large portion of the residents are older and disabled, but many others have regular jobs and help keep the camp running. The camps feature communal areas, including kitchens and showers, depending on the availability of electricity and running water.

The 10,000-square-foot encampment will spend one-fourth of the year in a campus parking lot because the kids asked for it. Students in eight different academic disciplines will be able to claim credit for participating in studies and activities involving people experiencing homelessness. About 100 students pitched in with the move-in chores.

The story doesn’t say whether any students objected, based on the parking space scarcity. But even that would be a learning experience, wouldn’t it? Imagine having to park the car (your parents probably bought) a bit farther from class. Compared to having nowhere to live, that is a negligible inconvenience, and a lot of kids would never admit being bothered by it. Imagine having to walk for a considerable distance, out in the weather, to get where you need to go. That’s the everyday reality for people experiencing homelessness.

In addition to the officially recognized educational benefits of interacting with tent-dwelling nomads, there are bound to be unofficial ones. Like when kids realize that if they don’t actively work toward some kind of reform to the college loan system, they could easily end up living in tents too.

Elsewhere

The state of Texas is often perceived as hostile to any number of diverse populations, but Brownwood disproves the stereotype. Just southwest of Dallas-Fort Worth, the city of about 20,000 is the county seat, and the features in and around it include Howard Payne University, a branch of the Texas State Technical College, a state park, a state juvenile correctional complex, a regional airport, and a U.S. Army training camp.

Actor Bob Denver came from Brownwood, and so did legendary burlesque queen Candy Barr, and an impressive list of other people who have made a mark on the world. Perhaps the biggest celebrity is New Beginnings Church, which for 10 years has functioned as the city’s only shelter.

Pastor Kelly Crenshaw says:

Sometimes people just need a day or two or a week or two to get on their feet. Sometimes they just need a little bit of time, once they get lost, to figure out what their next step is…

There are also long-term guests. From the larger community, food bank donations are received, along with blankets, scarves, and other items, which is generous in a place where the median household income is maybe $33,000.

***

Recommended: “The Year in Review,” from House the Homeless

Also recommended: House the Homeless President Richard R. Troxell is interviewed by KXAN television journalist Kevin Schwaller in “Advocacy group to examine ‘criminalization of homelessness’

Reactions?

Source: “Why a Seattle Homeless Camp was Invited To University of Washington,” NBCNews.com, 12/21/16
Source: “Church Acts as Homeless Shelter in Brownwood,” BigCountryHomepage.com, 12/30/16
Photo credit: Joe Wolf (JoeInSouthernCA) via Visualhunt/CC BY-ND

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Holiday Spirit

frio-fame-homelessToday, in the holiday spirit, we concentrate on some good things. Mainly, there is still time to contribute to this year’s Thermal Underwear Drive sponsored by Austin’s House the Homeless, so please keep it in mind. Other than that, we collected a few stories of people who make a difference to America’s displaced persons.

In New York, the TimesUnion published the story of how a 10-year-old 5th-grader named Elizabeth Floud emptied her savings account to buy pizza for people staying at the Shelters of Saratoga. Reporter Wendy Liberatore relates how Elizabeth’s mother realized that $30 wouldn’t be enough for 40 people, and took it to the next level:

So she started a gofundme page, Pizza for the Less Fortunate. She and Elizabeth aimed for $150, but attracted $585. Bucciero’s Pizza in Mechanicville heard of the drive and decided to donate all the pies.

That left $200 to give to the Shelters of Saratoga for future needs, with the remainder going to the food pantry of the local Community Center.

In Washington, D.C., two months ago, Floyd Carter met a married couple who decided to skip their usual Christmas gifts for each other and help Carter get a place to live after three years of homelessness.

Rachel and Erik Cox are both attorneys who understood the reality that a housing voucher, which Carter had already had for months, was worth nothing unless a landlord would actually rent him an apartment. Somehow they made that happen. Since becoming a housed person, Carter, whose ultimate goal is to become a chef, has received job offers that could be the initial ladder rungs to take him there.

West Coast

On the other side of the country, in Orange County, California, nurse Julia Cross was celebrated by the Orange County Register as one of its 100 most influential people. Cross is a licensed vocational nurse who makes rounds on her bicycle, covering a 40-mile route twice a week to visit homeless camps and give medical aid to those who are unable or unwilling to obtain it from other sources.

Along that stretch of the Santa Ana River, sometimes called “Skid River,” the already high number of people experiencing homelessness has grown by 500 over a very short time. Not surprisingly, veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts are among the residents.

Journalist David Whiting writes:

People here live without running water, electricity, heat. Some are mentally ill. Others are addicts. Many are both.

But listen patiently and you hear wisdom, reminders of how mortal we are; how a twist or turn can send any life on a spiral no one would want and some can’t escape…

Each person Cross treats […] has a unique and telling story filled with caution, struggle and, often, optimism.

Working through the nonprofit Illumination Foundation, the nurse not only dispenses first aid but works toward the end of homelessness. Earlier this year, the newspaper featured a long article about her activities, which include visits to the infamous Skid Row area of nearby Los Angeles.

Whiting quotes Julia Cross, daughter of a doctor who “never billed a patient who couldn’t afford it”:

I think the tide has to turn, that society has to embrace the concept that the healthier we are, the less cost there is to take care of the sick. Without adequate health care, the whole house of cards collapses.

Oh, and did we mention the Thermal Underwear Drive?

Reactions?

Source: “10-year-old gives up savings to feed homeless,” TimesUnion.com, 12/22/16
Source: “Homeless man gets new home thanks to couple who forfeited their own Christmas for him,” KLEWtv.com, 12/23/16
Source: “Most Influential 2016: Julia Cross is a nurse who helps the homeless,” OCRegister.com, 12/24/16
Source: “Nurse makes her rounds at an unusual place — a homeless camp by the Santa Ana River,” OCRegister.com, 05/12/16
Photo credit: fotografar via Visualhunt/CC BY-SA

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Winter Holidays

resting-marinesWe will not attempt to pluck at the reader’s heartstrings with reminders of how many children in America are having a lousy winter holiday season, with no chimney for Santa to descend, or any cultural equivalent of that gift-expectancy concept. Why not make the holidays a big deal? Because the plight of the homeless is not just a seasonal accessory, like nutmeg. Rotten things happen to people every day of the year.

But let’s start with some good news. “It was the right thing to do.” People think that a lot, and sometimes they are correct. John Stewart, San Francisco’s chief judge, explained to the press how it is time to stop locking people up for their inability to pay fines, especially for crimes connected with the fact that they are experiencing homelessness.

Whitney Webb introduces the story by noting that…

In cities around the country, the homeless are frequently criminalized, as are those who offer them food and other forms of human kindness…

Many of these arrest warrants were for so-called “quality of life” crimes, which include sleeping on sidewalks or public places, urinating in public, and public drunkenness…

San Francisco Superior Court judges stopped issuing arrest warrants for these “quality of life” crimes. Not only that, but the judges also threw out over 66,000 arrest warrants…

The police union objected, of course. Without crime they would be out of a job. Lucky for them (if not for us), there is little danger of a crime shortage. The main problem is, fines are assessed against people who do these “quality of life” crimes. If the fines are not paid, the people are jailed, which costs the city money, and what’s the point? In some places, the authorities smarten up and spend the money on portable toilets instead.

Webb says:

Though the city’s judges have shown great compassion in dismissing the cases against the city’s homeless, it will take much more for the problem of the San Francisco’s epidemic of homelessness to disappear.

By way of contrast, here are some brief highlights from a story told in great detail by Emily Green for StreetRoots.org. It took place in Portland, Oregon. Jackie, as she is pseudonymously known, has muscular dystrophy and receives disability checks, and is on several affordable-housing waiting lists.

In the area known as Old Town, she saw a man charging his cellphone from an outlet on a decorative planter, and joined him. They both were accused of third-degree theft, a Class C misdemeanor. Jackie’s Public Defender calls this move “another example of resources wasted for frivolous offenses.” Green writes:

According to the Electrical Research Institute, it costs about 25 cents a year to charge the average mobile phone. If the phone in this scenario had gone from zero charge to full charge, the cost would have amounted to mere fractions of a penny.

But it’s the principle of the thing, right? Stealing is stealing, right?

Do we want to go down that path? Do we want to return to the grotesque days when stealing bread could get your hand cut off? If Jackie were convicted of theft, it would be assumed by anyone who knew about it that she had snatched a purse or shoplifted. Even if a kind person were interested enough to ask what the crime had been, would they really believe anyone could be prosecuted for taking a tiny fraction of a cent’s worth of electricity?

Even worse, Jackie would have to go back and revise all those housing applications and check the “yes” box on the criminal history question. Her case went to Community Court, where she missed her arraignment, which resulted in a bench warrant. When Jackie surrendered, she was briefly booked into jail.

No, she’s not the perfect defendant, but the reader is taken through the unbelievable complications of a situation that just gets worse and worse. Jackie used to work in social services, and even sometimes with the police, but she has a different impression of them now.

One question that comes to mind is, before kindly providing indigent people with cellphones, did any government bureaucrat think for one second about how those indigent people would go about filling their phones with electrical power?

Why doesn’t some altruist figure out how to donate this incredibly cheap service of phone-charging? Does anyone really believe that a few cents worth of free electricity will encourage others to embrace the homeless lifestyle? It’s as if they’re afraid kids would hear about such a generous perk and say, “That’s the life for me!”

Reactions?

Source: “San Francisco Judges Dismiss 66000 Arrest Warrants Against The Homeless,” MintpressNews.com, 12/12/16
Source: “Homeless phone-charging ‘thief’ wanted security,” Streetroots.org, 03/06/15
Photo credit: Randy Robertson via Visualhunt/CC BY

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Austin Is All About HUGGS

huggsLike cars and sprinkler systems, people who live outdoors need to be winterized. For this, they need Hats; Underwear of the thermal variety; Gloves; Scarves, and Socks. (Also, rain ponchos, safety whistles, and 2-oz hand sanitizers, but there were a lot of initials already.)

At the annual HUGGS Thermal Underwear Party the guests are nourished by a hot lunch prepared by volunteers. The signup page specifies the time commitment for each volunteer role, along with a brisk, precise description of the task and its expectations.

Even if you don’t live within volunteering range of Austin, take a look, just to appreciate how a good online HQ for a project can change event organizing from a walk on the wild side to a walk in the park. It might even inspire others to put together similar events in their own local areas.

Another option would be to donate through the Thermal Underwear Drive page, which features a heartening photojournal. Also, some dimensions of the event are less visual. Chiefly, this is a chance for the voices of people experiencing homelessness to be heard in a way that conveys meaningful information to the rest of society.

The guests are offered the opportunity to participate in a brief yet remarkably detailed survey. The House the Homeless survey archive is a valuable resource for professionals and students alike, and at the same time perfectly understandable by casual readers.

The survey has a different topic every year. This time, it is the criminalization of homelessness, as that trend plays out in Austin, Texas. But let’s return to an indispensable item on the wish list, namely, socks. Here is a thought experiment, a virtual reality scenario, in which you have nowhere to go.

A minimalist world

But you do have a new pair of socks, which is a darn good thing because you have worn the current ones day and night for two weeks and they are due for retirement. The first order of business is to find a place to take off the old socks and put on the new ones. Even better would be a chance to wash your feet before making the change.

You know of a park that has a rudimentary restroom for picnickers and disk golfers. Of course right now the temperature is near freezing, and the inside of the restroom is no warmer than outside, but it does block the wind. The single basin gives out an anemic stream of icy water. The thought of sticking your naked foot beneath the faucet is horrifying. Besides, you would be in an awkward position, vulnerable to attack.

You could get something wet — your spare T-shirt, for example — and lean against the wall and take off one shoe and sock and wash that foot. You even have a towel. So you could use it to dry that foot, before putting on a new sock and then repeating the process with the other foot. The vulnerability issue would still apply.

At the end, you’d have a sopping wet T-shirt which, even after rinsing, would be pretty foul. And your towel. Just bundle it up damp, or rinse it, too, in the grudging trickle of water? Two wet items are going to affect the rest of the stuff in your pack, as well as its overall weight. Meanwhile, in the ghastly cold water your hands want to scream.

And what about the old socks? Wash them? You have a sliver of soap tucked away, but might, with any luck, at some point have a chance to use it on your body. So, no. Keep the socks, in hopes of some day stumbling into Laundry Heaven? Could you really consider putting those disgusting, bacteria-laden objects in your pack, along with everything else you own on earth?

Well, you do have a small plastic bag. But it’s a nice one, really clean, suitable to put food in, if you happen run across some. It would be a shame to waste it storing filthy socks. So, in full knowledge that you might regret it, you pitch the repulsive things in the trash.

THE SHORT VERSION: People experiencing homelessness need many socks, please. Not only now, but all year round.

Richard Troxell, President of House the Homeless, serves the ideal of a balanced and just society for all, including the least fortunate among us. He says:

It is all but criminal that in the richest country in the world, our businesses will pay wages (Federal Minimum Wage) and our government provide a stipend (Supplemental Security Income, SSI) for our disabled people, that are both so low, that 3.5 million people will experience homelessness again this winter.

House the Homeless is holding its 16th annual Thermal Underwear Drive on Friday, December 30, from 12:00 to 2:00 p.m., at the First Baptist Church, 901 Trinity Street, Austin, TX 78701.

Reactions?

Image by House the Homeless

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The Anti-Good Samaritan Bill

vintage-photograph-buildingThis spring in St. Louis, Missouri, an alderman proposed a bill that would effectively criminalize the unlicensed giving of anything to homeless people. Such items as blankets and bottled water could only be distributed if the giver had a vending license.

Reverend Larry Rice, of the city’s New Life Evangelical Center (NLEC), called this the Anti-Good Samaritan Bill, saying:

It’s wrong. It’s a fraud the way they’re going at this. People are hurting and they should not penalize, nor criminalize, either the homeless or those who want to help the homeless.

NLEC was founded in 1972, its first home the trailer where Rev. and Mrs. Rice lived. Later, it occupied a Victorian fixer-upper, and featured a coffeehouse, guitar music, and puppet shows. It also nurtured the people Rice called “the hurting and the homeless.” When the couple’s first child was due to be born any day, they learned about adversity firsthand:

When Penny went to the clinic to see about her rash and her swollen legs, they wouldn’t accept her because I didn’t make a regular income.

Before long, the NLEC offered not only emergency housing, but help hotlines, free clothing stores, counseling services, a youth center, classes, a leadership training program, and two publications, and did outreach work with penal institutions, hospitals, and the like. They were able to buy the old YWCA on Locust Street, the five-story building in which the Center still resides (pictured on this page.)

In the ensuing 40 years, increasing downtown gentrification has made the NLEC’s presence undesirable. Apparently a bar called Blood & Sand is particularly resentful. Developers, investors, and speculators see the Mission as standing between them and their own mission of gaining greater wealth. But ironically, for many of the neighbors it would be silly to say “Not in my backyard” because technically the area has been the NLEC’s backyard since 1976.

Generally, 50 or so people would actually live at the center, which presented a problem because the occupancy permit was for only 32 beds. Authorities claim that as many as 300 street people sleep there at night, and Rice admits to around 200. The city tried to close the NLEC in the spring of 2015, with the mission’s attorneys arguing that the city must not be allowed to repress the carrying out of religious duties.

Another attempt

Last month, another effort was made to displace the NLEC. The city’s Department of Human Services spokesperson Eddie Roth explained to reporter Elliott Davis that the institution is close to the public library, a children’s park, and a school attended by least 500 teenagers. Even though police conduct surveillance of the area from parked cars for 16 hours a day, the Mission’s presence is seen as posing unacceptable dangers.

Roth said all the city’s other “dozens of facilities” conduct their affairs in a way that is respectful to their neighbors. What he characterizes as a lack of respect is the way NLEC donors hold up traffic while dropping off loads of clothes and food, especially on Saturday mornings.

Meanwhile, an online petition objecting to Bill 66, the “Anti- Good Samaritan Law,” garnered 1,500 supporters. The measure was supposed to have been voted on in September, but the official government web page mentions no activity beyond the first reading in May.

The attempted November shutdown of NLEC did not happen. Plans were made for the Thanksgiving dinner that feeds around 400 people each year, prepared and served by 100 or so volunteers, who also give out free clothes. The police were ordered to prevent donations from being dropped off for the Thanksgiving dinner and clothing distribution.

City spokesperson Roth also charged that the NLEC acts as a magnet to draw homeless people from the entire region into central St. Louis where they are given shelter for a month and then turned loose on the streets, increasing the burden on the city’s other homeless services.

We close with a few cogent points made by Bill McClellan in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

Officials have asked members of the St. Louis Homeless Services Network if they could pick up the slack if the city were to close Rice’s New Life Evangelistic Center. The answer has been, no, we could not pick up the slack.

Rice […] provides an indispensable service, and he does so without public money.

If you’re a homeless man and you call the city’s Homeless Hotline […] you will likely be directed to New Life. Yes, the city regularly refers people to the shelter it has voted to close.

Reactions?

Source: “Proposed bill would require a permit before giving to homeless,” KMOV.com, 07/06/16
Source: “Chapter 4 — Building the New Community,” NewLifeEvangelisticCenter.org, undated
Source: “Police stop donations in front of St. Louis homeless shelter on Thanksgiving,” Fox2now.com, 11/28/16
Source: “McClellan: City’s Vote to Close Shelter Was a Gift for Rice,” Questia.com, 12/28/14
Image by NLEC

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“Housing Not Handcuffs” Paints a Grim Picture

homeless-campWe recommend our own newsletter’s succinct description of the report on the criminalization of homelessness, recently released by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. Of this effort, House the Homeless President Richard R. Troxell says:

Advocates from around the country are uniting to expose and defeat the criminalization of homelessness that creates devastating barriers preventing people from getting living wage jobs and affordable housing that would enable them to escape homelessness.

The creators of this report, titled “Housing Not Handcuffs,” gathered information from 187 American cities and learned that nearly half of them prohibit sitting or lying down in public. In other words, the person experiencing homelessness is expected to stay on her or his feet at all times.

But that is not sufficient, because standing still is also forbidden, under the verbiage of loitering, loafing, or vagrancy. If one wants to stay legal, a mere upright stance is not enough. For a street person, the only acceptable option is to remain in motion at all times.

And even that is not a satisfactory concession to public demand, because walking can be done only in certain geographical areas. Now, you might think that someone who owns a car or van could escape this problem by spending as much time as possible sitting inside of it, out of everyone’s way. But living in a vehicle is forbidden in 39% of the cities that were surveyed.

Of course there are settlements all over these cities, and the “move along” philosophy applies to groups of people, as well as to individuals. The way that cities choose to deal with camps is to cause them to uproot and relocate with senseless frequency. Maybe the basic logic is fairness to the housed people — to give each neighborhood some relief, for a while, from the unsightly, disturbing, and scary specter of people who not only failed to grab the brass ring, but couldn’t even find the merry-go-round.

Commenting on recent developments in Berkeley, Ace Backwords tells House the Homeless:

The homeless scene is always in a state of flux. It changes day to day, month to month, year to year. But the basic game seems to stay the same. One week the cops will be crunching you for one thing. The next week its OK to do that but they’re crunching you for something else. One week is OK to hang out on one side of the sidewalk. The next week they kick us off that side and say we gotta hang out on the other side. And the next week they reverse it again. Round and round it goes.

The crime of “breathing while homeless” isn’t on the books in those exact words, but it might as well be. By deeming a large segment of the national population to be guilty of it, municipalities have virtually created a huge crime wave.

Here are just three of the many key findings from “Housing Not Handcuffs”:

    Despite a lack of affordable housing and shelter space, many cities have chosen to criminally or civilly punish people living on the street for doing what any human being must do to survive.
    Local governments are engaged in problematic enforcement of these laws.
    Local governments are banishing homeless people from public places through use of “move on” orders and trespass warnings.

At the end of this page is a list of five previous posts on the “breathing while homeless” concept. For NBC in Berkeley, Stephanie Chuang and Shawn Murphy had this to say about California’s particularly aggressive anti-homeless ordinances:

Such an approach ends up being costly, as police and incarceration resources are marshaled to deal with the citations. Simply offering services and housing, on the other hand, has been found to save far more money. The federal government has also taken steps recently that indicates it considers the approach of criminalizing homelessness to be unconstitutional and will withhold federal funding from those places that engage in it. 

It is the local city governments (at the behest of the local businesses) that have passed the criminalization laws. This puts our municipalities in direct conflict with the Federal government. Specifically, the Department of Justice has echoed Mr. Troxell and other homeless advocates starting with Michael Stoops, National Coalition for the Homeless, who decry these laws and tag them as barriers to ending homelessness. At the same time, the Federal government is simultaneously providing our cities millions of dollars to fight a seeming by never ending battle to end homelessness.

“Guilty of Breathing While Homeless”
“Breathing While Homeless — in the News Again”
“Breathing While Homeless — More Illegal Than Ever”
“Breathing While Homeless Still a Crime”
“The Crime of Breathing While Homeless”

Source: “Housing Not Handcuffs: Ending the Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities,” NLCHP.org, November 2016
Source: “Berkeley City Council Approves Crackdown on Homeless, Prohibits Urination in Public,” NBCBayArea.com, 11/18/15
Image credit: Michael Coghlan (mikecogh) via Visualhunt/CC BY-SA

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Berkeley as Microcosm

bikes-and-busBecause Berkeley, California, is such a quintessentially American city, things that happen there gain resonance. For background, see “A Berkeley Tale” which talks about last year, and “Activism in Berkeley,” which covers the more recent past.

Today’s post mentions several events briefly, so for hard information, please see the linked news sources. Their usefulness here is to highlight typical instances of things that go on wherever people experience homelessness, but particularly in a city that is known for dissent and social ferment.

Last year there was a lot of discussion about things that made housed people anxious, such as the growing number of tents in the camp, and what looked like a bicycle chop shop (where stolen bikes are dismantled for parts). This attitude assumes that anything done by a homeless person must be a criminal enterprise, because homelessness itself is fast becoming a crime.

It is entirely possible that someone with an aptitude for bike repair could have a totally legitimate talent for fixing bikes, and do it in a totally legitimate way. Housed people will throw away a punctured inner tube, but a thrifty and enterprising homeless person will recover it and patch it.

Enough bikes are abandoned or trashed that a supply of parts is available without any need to steal them. Bike repair is a skill that can be traded for money or other commodities, like food. If somebody is doing useful work, voluntarily, why disparage that? (Shown on this page is the legendary Bike Bus of RomTom, aka Thomas Holme, which used to roam the Pacific Northwest, California, and other parts of the country.)

Thanks in part to such stereotypical thinking, it was decided last summer that a big settlement on Gilman Street in West Berkeley would be cleared. It wouldn’t be the first “sweep,” nor the last. The number-one tactic for dealing with people experiencing homelessness is to cause them to move from one location to another.

In this particular case, the target area was an underpass, where Caltrans “needed to access an underground vault in the area to help set up a camera that will be used for its East Bay corridor freeway messaging system,” wrote Emilie Raguso for Berkeleyside.com. And another camera, no doubt, to give early warning if the area starts to become recolonized.

So, city crews and volunteers do a massive cleanup and have their pictures taken wearing biohazard suits and sifting through piles of detritus. Headlines announce the dollar cost of removing the trash. As always, there are snide remarks about “squalid conditions” and the amount of human waste that was found. The whole area is cleaned up, sanitized, and, if possible, defoliated, and the carnival moves on.

What if, instead, a recycling station were set up, with receptacles for cardboard, glass, etc.? What if somebody who lived there took care of that, and got to keep any profit from selling the stuff? What if there were dumpsters, and regular trash removal? What if there were industrial-strength portable toilets and, at the very least, a water source for hand-washing? What if the people just stayed in one place and cleaned up as they went along? But back to reality.

The authorities come in numbers and they bring muscle. According to Raguso:

Jim Hynes, with the Berkeley city manager’s office, said homeless outreach, city maintenance crews, mental health workers and environmental health staff were all on the scene to help out… The city always sends out workers to try to help connect homeless individuals to services that could improve their circumstances…

Oakland-area California Highway Patrol spokesman Officer Sean Wilkenfeld confirmed that officers were on the scene Thursday morning to help monitor the clean-up operation. Berkeley Police officers were also part of the effort.

Raguso also wrote:

Before Caltrans took over the area […] workers from Pacific Steel Casting used to park below the freeway. Hynes said a return to that historic use could help keep the area clear of camps in the future.

In other words, the priority here is to have a place for cars to park, and never mind the people who need a place to live. Hynes also told the reporter “the city plans to look deeper at ways it might keep the area safe and clean in the future.” That statement presupposes that homeless people do not deserve to be in a safe and clean place, because they are the threat and the dirt.

Reactions?

Source: “Authorities clear out Gilman homeless camp in Berkeley,” Berkeleyside.com, 06/16/16
Image by RomTom

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A Berkeley Tale

house-in-berkeleyBerkeley, California, is one of the most progressive, ornery, and distinctive cities in the USA. This time last year, City Councilwoman Linda Maio faced some conflict over Ohlone Park, a three-block-long urban oasis that she helped create 42 years before.

In recent times, however, Ohlone had become a temporary haven for people experiencing homelessness. Maio followed the lead of her constituency and promoted the introduction of new, stricter city ordinances against camping in parks, and against placing personal property on public sidewalks.

Also included was the old favorite, “urinating and defecating in the parks.” When will municipal officials figure it out? Their refusal to provide restrooms does not discourage homelessness, but only punishes individuals. What that refusal does, however, is threaten public health in very real and scary ways.

To Maio’s credit, she did encourage the city to deploy mobile showers, and devote some storage facilities to people’s stuff. Still, she found herself accused by a fellow council member (and a portion of the public) of criminalizing poverty and homelessness.

Rachel Swan wrote this for SFGate.com:

“We want people to get a little more connected with social mores,” Maio said, emphasizing that the laws are small, and so are the city responses for breaking them: an initial warning followed by a citation…

Nonetheless, the new laws prompted strong opposition in Berkeley, where housing activists camped out in front of City Hall the night before the council meeting…

The new laws will take effect Jan. 1 but will not be enforced until after Berkeley installs public storage bins, and there are no plans set for that yet.

Councilman Kriss Worthington objected to prosecuting, fining or jailing people who have no money anyway, for minor offenses. But the new ordinances were approved. Swan wrote of a local sympathy protester:

One woman who camped outside City Hall told the council that she woke up with a stark realization of what it means to be homeless. “There is no restroom,” she said at the meeting.

At the same time in West Berkeley, a lot of people were living in campers and RVs parked along city streets. Again, human waste was a problem. But rather than handle this in a mature, adult way, cities all over America continue their attempts to criminalize natural functions. It always comes back to the essentials.

Meanwhile tension buillt in other areas, because the Super Bowl tourist influx into San Francisco was on the horizon, and the mayor promised the corporate suits that the Embarcadero district would be purged of unsightly beggars. Some of the displaced people could reasonably be expected to relocate across the Bay.

House the Homeless asked longtime Berkeley resident Ace Backwords how the past year has been. Here’s what he said:

The homeless scene is always in a state of flux. It changes day to day, month to month, year to year. But the basic game seems to stay the same. One week the cops will be crunching you for one thing. The next week its OK to do that but they’re crunching you for something else. One week is OK to hang out on one side of the sidewalk. The next week they kick us off that side and say we gotta hang out on the other side. And the next week they reverse it again. Round and round it goes.

Getting back to Ohlone Park, and a last quotation from Swan:

One resident, Lynn Barrow, wrote that her dog had gotten sick after walking through one of the Ohlone Park encampments and had to be taken to the emergency room. “They tested his urine, and it contained marijuana and meth,” Barrow’s letter said.

Ms. Barrow does not appear to have divulged why her dog was running, loose and out of control, through the public park where homeless people were settled. It would be unfair to speculate on the reason, but fair enough to hope that no local person would do something like that for the purpose of intimidation, to alarm and threaten the people in the tents.

Reactions?

Source: “Berkeley’s homeless feel squeezed as neighbors seek clampdown,” SFGate.com, 11/21/15

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