Two Exemplary Advocates for People Experiencing Homelessness

Frances Fitzpatrick

Francis “Pat” Fitzpatrick, photographed by Jenny O’Donnell

Last year, Gene Estess died at the age of 78. His story was an unusual one. After a privileged upbringing and a college education, he spent 20 years working on Wall Street. His family had everything they needed and more, but something about the lifestyle didn’t set right with him. The malaise, according to his surviving wife, stemmed from a feeling that his time and talents had not served any philosophically or morally significant purpose.

In 1984 his attention was caught by a mentally ill homeless addict who hung out with her poodle in Grand Central Terminal. Taking on the project of finding a place for her to live, he connected with the practically brand-new Jericho Project. He was invited to join the nonprofit’s board, and ended up being its director for 18 years. In addition, he was the motivating force behind the establishment of many residences. Helping formerly homeless women get their children back was a particular interest of his.

Estess Left Wall Street Behind

In the summer of 1987, the world of high finance was thriving, but Estess was done with it. He walked away, and a few months later, as if to vindicate his choice, the stock market collapsed. Shortly afterward, he took the post of director at Jericho and worked his first year for no salary.

Imagine writing a movie script about his life. The temptation would be great to invent a scene in which a ruined speculator turns up seeking shelter, and encounters the man he had mocked for abandoning the soulless financial district—who is now running the organization designed to help the homeless. Douglas Martin said in the New York Times:

Today the Jericho Project serves 1,500 adults and children, including more than 500 military veterans, with housing and services. It says it spends $12,000 a year for each adult client—less than half the cost of a cot in a New York City shelter.

Fitzpatrick’s Work in Florida

In Gainesville, Florida, Cleveland Tinker published a tribute to Frances Fitzpatrick on the occasion of his election to the Hall of Fame by Florida’s Martin Luther King Jr. Commission. Perhaps Fitzpatrick’s destiny was shaped by his undergraduate years as a history major, from which he went on to earn a degree in rehabilitation counseling. His career included time in the military, a period of living in his car and catching fish to eat, and a couple of years as a Vista volunteer helping migrant workers in what he calls the “brutal poverty” of the Everglades.

He was hired by the United Farm Workers to handle, in his words:

…slave and peonage cases where they had this curator system where the curator is hired by the grower, and he exploits the hell out of these people. There were people in slavery, and there was actually a crew that got paid only in wine.

He worked for the Florida Coalition Against Hunger, and as a drug counselor in the prison system until privatization put an end to that. Living by the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi, in the 1990s he served on the board of directors of a shelter and soup kitchen named after the saint. Unlike his fellow directors, who only showed up for meetings, Fitzpatrick stuck around to mingle with the residents.

In 2002 he was part of the group that founded the Home Van, Alachua County’s mobile soup kitchen and clothing distributor. The principled troublemaker has picketed City Hall, and been arrested for giving people food. When Gainesville passed an ordinance that put an arbitrary limit of 130 on the number of meals the soup kitchen could serve in a single day, Fitzpatrick’s spirited objections cause him to be ejected from City Commission meetings numerous times. But in the end, the restriction was repealed. A highly regarded documentary film, Civil Indigent, http://civilindigent.com/was made about that chapter of his life.

In 2013 he was interviewed for the University of Florida’s Samuel Proctor Oral History Program. Among other matters, he spoke of his fondness for the Food Not Bombs organization:

They’re not only into charity but also into justice—getting rid of the reason people have to stand in soup lines… We’re really good at charity but we’ve got to get better at justice.


Source: “Gene Estess, Who Left Wall Street to Aid the Poor, Dies at 78,”
NYTimes.com, 04/19/14
Source: “A Champion for the Homeless,” Gainesville.com, 01/13/12
Source: “Civil Indigent,” civilindigent.com, undated
Source: “History and the People Who Make It: Pat Fitzpatrick,” Gainesvilleiguana.org, 03/08/13
Image by Jenny O’Donnell


The Denver VA Hospital Debacle

Caring for a vet at the VA Hospital in Portland

Caring for a vet at the VA Hospital in Portland

America engages in constant military activity and pays lip service to the honor and respect owed to the troops on the ground. But actions speak louder than words and, sad to say, once the veterans are back in the USA, the country does a lax job of taking care of them. House the Homeless has been looking at examples of both individual and institutional wrongdoing that end up being detrimental to veterans who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.

It isn’t just the government. Other entities have plenty of opportunity for wrongdoing. And it isn’t just homeless vets who get shortchanged. Having a place to live doesn’t guarantee timely attention or good care. The thing is, every adverse event that happens to a vet makes it more likely that she or he will at some point end up on the street. Once there, the climb back to conventional life is so much more difficult.

One of Four Troubled VA Projects

In mid-December, construction of a new Veterans Administration hospital ground to a halt, and a panel of three federal judges ruled that the VA was in breach of contract. The contractor Kiewit-Turner, which had kept working until $100 million of its own money was sunk into the project, was allowed to quit.

Only 62% completed, the new hospital was already over budget by hundreds of millions of dollars. It was supposed to replace the existing Denver VA hospital, in business since 1951 and described in a comment appended to this Wall Street Journal article as a “gilded rat hole.” If it is ever finished, it will serve over 80,000 vets, or nearly 500,000, depending on which news source you look at.

The original contract said Kiewit-Turner would complete 10 hospital buildings, a research and treatment center, a 30-bed rehab center, and three parking garages for $600 million. It required that construction begin even though plans had not been finalized. This backwards approach led the contractor to warn that the whole thing, as conceptualized, would cost over a billion dollars. Apparently the VA told the company to go ahead and keep on building, or else it would be in breach of contract. Reporter Ben Kesling wrote:

VA management problems led James Lynn, a top employee at the VA’s construction manager for the project, to describe it as having “the least effective and most dysfunctional staff on any project that he had ever seen.”

Then in January it was double-whammy time, as a VA whistleblower revealed how the existing Denver VA hospital had lied about its secret waiting lists that kept hundreds of veterans from getting timely care. Senator Jerry Moran of Kansas started a movement to cure the “system that rewards mediocrity and failure” by giving the VA secretary more power to discipline the high-ranking executives responsible for messes.

In 2012, Eric Shinseki had created a Construction Review Council to oversee VA projects and put some accountability in place, but it was too late to help the Denver project. And by the time Sen. Moran got on the case, after the nationwide scandal over waiting times in the VA medical system, Shinseki was no longer Secretary.

A New Start for VA Hospital Projects

Earlier this month, in the wake of hearings held by the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, more details of the Denver hospital project emerged, like how multi-million dollar machines could not fit into the rooms designed for them, because nobody had taken correct measurements. It was determined that the final cost for the facility will work out to about $9.5 million for each of its 182 beds. Normal is, at most, $2 million per bed.

Meanwhile, the General Accounting Office added the Denver project to a growing list of other VA hospital projects—in Orlando, New Orleans, and Las Vegas—where similar bungling and a total disconnect with reality had run up hundreds of millions of dollars of cost overruns. Representative Mike Coffman of Colorado was quoted as saying:

The VA couldn’t lead starving troops to a chow hall when it comes to managing a construction project. They need to get out of the construction business.

Reporter Emily Wax-Thibodeaux of The Washington Post added:

Internal VA e-mails dating to 2010 show that VA contracting officials were ignored when they warned their supervisors about mounting cost overruns.

They were not only ignored, but fired, like the unfortunate whistleblower Adelino R. Gorospe, Jr., who was let go by Glenn Haggstrom, executive director of the Office of Acquisition, Logistics and Construction. Haggstorm is the same VA bigwig who was awarded more than $50,000 in performance bonuses for unexplained reasons, before retiring in the face of investigation of the Denver project.

As it stands, the Army Corps of Engineers has been given responsibility, and Kiewit-Turner is back on the job, and aside from a paltry emergency $56 million that was allotted, nobody knows where the rest of the funding will come from.

Let the Punishment Fit the Paycheck

Often, the people who cheat veterans work directly for the government, and are even high officials, but the public only learns about a small fraction of what goes on. The workings of the military bureaucracy keep the threat of retribution active. It is possible to make a case against anyone, so almost no one dares to report anybody, because they can be made to appear equally bad, even if they never did anything wrong. The threat hangs over every whistleblower that he or she will be next on the chopping block.

Apparently, there isn’t a lot of oversight, and the old question of “Who watches the watchdogs?” is appropriate. On the rare occasion when someone is caught doing something criminally culpable on the job, it might help if the punishment were proportionate to pay grade. If a top administrator steals, the sentence should be many times longer than it would be for an Army private.


Source: “VA Hospital Project Grinds to a Halt Amid Budget Overruns
WSJ.com, 12/10/14
Source: “Video: Denver VA reverses denials, admits using secret wait lists
Hotair.com, 01/30/15
Source: “VA building projects riddled with mistakes and cost overruns
WashingtonPost.com, 04/13/15
Image by Parker Knight


Veterans are Being Shortchanged

Fighter JetIn my hometown, we often saw a “character” who, according to local legend, was a World War II veteran with shell shock. He lived in a shack by the railroad tracks and all he did was walk, all over town, all day, every day. Because there was only one of him, he was locally famous. Now, thousands of versions of “Joe Walk” live all over America.

When people are inducted into the military, the contract is supposed to be mutually enforceable. When an enlisted member or an officer violates the agreement, the consequences of military justice can be dire. But who is to stop the other party from breaking the trust? When the U.S. government misbehaves, who can call it to account? Who can make it meet its obligations to homeless veterans, veterans at risk of becoming homeless, and homeless civilians?

VA Administrator Behaving Badly

DeWayne Hamlin was arrested in Florida for sitting in a car drunk in the middle of the night, refusing a breathalyzer, and not having a prescription for his oxycodone. Leaving aside the question of why the police bothered someone who was merely sitting in a car and not, apparently, breaking any law, it happened.

A mug shot is not a good look for the chief administrator of a Veterans Administration hospital, a man who had achieved the highest rank bestowed upon career civil service employees, with a paycheck of nearly $180,000 a year. But we all make mistakes. The worrisome thing is that when the Washington Examiner looked into Hamlin’s attendance records, they discovered that he was in the habit of only showing up for two out of three work days. In a one-year period he was absent 80 days. That is a lot of downtime for someone in charge of the health of a large number of America’s vets. Reporter Luke Rosiak notes:

Veterans Affairs leadership has seldom fired or disciplined its own. Under severe scrutiny recently from Congress and the news media, department leaders occasionally accept retirements by employees… instead of pursuing disciplinary action.

Hamlin is alleged to have done his share to maintain a culture of intimidation and retaliation. When a lower-level employee reported his arrest to VA headquarters, he tried to get the whistleblower fired, and when an investigator didn’t agree, he tried to get the investigator fired. Even before this incident, he had sent around a memo warning everyone who worked for the VA Caribbean Health Care System that any and all complaints must be kept inside the organization, and no outside snitching would be tolerated.

Gambling Away VA Funds

Right around the same time, in Nashville, Birdie Anderson was sentenced to two years in prison for defrauding the Veterans Administration. She had received grants to buy a house for veterans, then a specially fitted van and another house. The first building was actually purchased, but was foreclosed on two years later. The veterans housed there, who according to the contract were to have stayed at least seven years, had to leave after being there less than three years.

The second residence and the van were never purchased, and Anderson is said to have gambled away $364,000 that was supposed to have brought some homeless veterans in off the street. Maranda Faris reported for the Tennessean that the convicted woman is a retired Army Reservist. An even more interesting detail is that she…

…also made false statements that she was a CEO of an organization within the Veterans Administration as well as having spent time in covert operations in Afghanistan during Operation Desert Storm. Anderson never did a tour of duty in Afghanistan, but remained at Fort Bragg, N.C., as a desk clerk during that time.

The VA has all the might and power of the U.S. government at its disposal, but in this case it could have performed due diligence without even going outside the agency. All it had to do was look inside its own database. But the VA failed to determine that this person did not really run an organization within the VA itself. It couldn’t even figure out whether or not a member of the military had ever been in Afghanistan.

Who is in charge of verifying the information on grant proposals? Who blithely hands out taxpayers’ money without doing the most rudimentary background checks on the applicants? Who gave away more than a third of a million dollars to someone who should not have gotten a penny? Who was asleep at the wheel? Who colluded in robbing homeless veterans? Why are they not Ms. Anderson’s cellmates?


Source: “Veterans Affairs hospital chief draws $179k salary despite missing 80 days a year,” WashingtonExaminer.com, 03/30/15
Source: “Woman gets 2 years for misusing $364K for homeless vets,” Tennessean.com, 04/18/14
Image by OccupyDemocrats.com


Raw Deals for Homeless Vets

A Veteran's SaluteCompared to some other countries, America cares well for its military veterans—which is similar to being the prettiest corpse in the morgue, because any illusion of superiority is only relative. In absolute terms however, vets often find that service in the armed forces is a ticket to oblivion. Some can never get their lives back on track, the suicide rate is alarming, and an astonishing number of veterans also become part of the homeless demographic.

This is not to say that all veterans should be given free everything, forever. But what they are entitled to, they should not be cheated out of. A veteran should be returned to civilian society in a condition as close as possible to the state of well-being and functionality that he or she enjoyed before signing up. David Finkel wrote for The New Yorker:

If the studies prove correct, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have created roughly five hundred thousand mentally wounded American veterans.

Two causative factors are blamed: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which is said to affect between 20 and 30 percent of returning vets; and Traumatic Brain Injury. Dr. Mark Gordon believes that it’s all of a piece, and all traceable to TBI. Small, unrecognized, repeated concussions disrupt the body’s production of hormones, and the results are “depression, anxiety, nightmares, memory problems, personality changes, [and] suicidal thoughts.” For these patients, it very much looks like interventional endocrinology should be the VA’s main focus, rather than narcotics, anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, and other drugs of that kind.

It seems like pharmaceutical corporations, not veterans, are the main beneficiaries of VA policy. The trend is even more pronounced among active duty personnel, who appear to be insanely over-prescribed. For the New York Times, Richard A. Friedman wrote:

The number of prescriptions written for potentially habit-forming anti-anxiety medications—like Valium and Klonopin—rose 713 percent between 2005 and 2011. The use of sedating anticonvulsants—Topamax, Neurontin and Lyrica—increased 996 percent during this period.

There is an analogy, perhaps, between the military’s use of psychoactive drugs and the practice of pumping athletes full of steroids so they can continue to compete despite physical pain; athletes—and also soldiers—whose performance is chemically enhanced in this way may, however, unwittingly sustain more serious injuries as a result.

The last few words of that sentence are a big part of the problem. A soldier needs to be alert, not sedated. A soldier is in an environment where anxiety is entirely appropriate, and medicating it away can create a dangerous degree of relaxation that leads to more and worse injuries.

Mental illness is often tied to homelessness, and we know by now that the number of homeless vets is staggering:

Although flawless counts are impossible to come by… the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimates that 49,933 veterans are homeless on any given night… About 1.4 million other veterans, meanwhile, are considered at risk of homelessness due to poverty, lack of support networks, and dismal living conditions in overcrowded or substandard housing.

For some reason the best numbers on incarcerated veterans are about ten years old, and even then, about 140,000 veterans were in state and federal prisons. Here is an interesting piece of information:

Combat service was not related to prevalence of recent mental health problems. Just over half of both combat and non-combat veterans reported any history of mental health problems.

There seems to be a revolving door between the military, the prison system, and homelessness. Kids who grow up homeless are attracted to the military life because it provides a living wage, structure, and a place to belong. For a long time, it was traditional for judges to give youthful offenders the choice between jail and enlistment. Some discharged veterans do crime because their brains are too messed up to have good judgment, or because poverty seems to offer no other alternative. Homeless vets wind up in jail. Vets who get out of jail wind up on the streets. Here are more details:

Veterans between the ages of 18 and 30 are twice as likely as adults in the general population to be homeless, and the risk of homelessness increases significantly among young veterans who are poor.

About 53% of individual homeless veterans have disabilities, compared with 41% of homeless non-veteran individuals.

Homeless veterans tend to experience homelessness longer than their non-veteran peers: Veterans spend an average of nearly six years homeless, compared to four years reported among non-veterans.

The average wait to get a disability claim processed is now eight months. Payments range from $127/month for a 10% disability to $2,769 for a full disability.

All these factors contribute to paint a very unflattering picture of the human misery behind America’s military might. Vets have the right to expect the help they need, and we can do better.

Source: “The Return,” NewYorker.com, 09/09/13
Source: “Wars on Drugs,” NYTimes.com, 04/06/13
Source: “Background and Statistics,” NCHY.org
Source: “Veteran Homelessness Facts,” Greendoors.org
Image by The U.S. Army



Some Housing Solutions

shutteredAmerica is full of empty houses, a circumstance that House the Homeless
has been exploring to figure out why people can’t live in them. A Cleveland, Ohio, man took that question from theory to reality when he began to practice urban homesteading six years ago. Mr. Hayes is, by all reports, a model neighbor who maintains the small abandoned house in which he lives as well as possible, considering that he is not allowed either water or power.

He gets around these strictures by paying a neighbor to use some electricity via an extension cord, and collects rainwater to filter for drinking and to fill the toilet tank. A disability check covers his modest living expenses and those of his two dogs. The building’s owner is not even a real person, but a corporate entity of whom reporter Mark Naymik says:

The company, whose leaders are nearly impossible to track down, owes tens of thousands in back taxes and penalties on its properties. The company owes $27,000 alone on the house Mr. Hayes is living in.

But Mr. Hayes pays property taxes, and keeps the place neat, and helps an elderly neighbor. He asked a city council member:

Would you, please, introduce an amendment to the ordinance so that qualified people may put to good use properties that are verifiably abandoned?

Why is there not such a law in every city across the country? Curious journalist Matt Lemas took the question a step farther and explored the notion of letting people live in the 77,000 empty buildings owned by the U.S. Government. In contrast to Mr. Hayes’s minimalist dwelling, many of these places even have electrical service. That’s right—regulations keep the power on to satisfy “safety requirements” for the structures, while actual humans live unsafely outside in the dark and cold. In fact, the upkeep for empty government-owned buildings costs taxpayers $1.7 billion per year.

The Philadelphia Stabilization Program

House the Homeless is not Richard R. Troxell’s first project. He has been involved in many other programs and initiatives to improve the lives of people experiencing homelessness. In the 1980s he lived in a Philadelphia neighborhood where a 55-block area held 110 abandoned houses, the overwhelming majority of which were built from stone or brick.

The first step of his group’s master plan was to prevent further deterioration by securing doors and windows with plywood to keep the weather out. They negotiated a deal with the union to have the roofs repaired, and put sturdy Lexan in the windows. Crews gutted the interiors, businesses donated paint, and kids recruited from the anti-graffiti program painted the exterior trim. The result would be a sturdy structure with the soft parts stripped down and prepped. Richard recalls:

A local bank agreed to offer a mortgage with rehab and wrap-around loans so the buyers could purchase the shells and have money to rehabilitate them.

His group kept the lawns mowed and transformed vacant lots into community gardens. They opened talks with city authorities and HUD, looking for support from the Community Development Block Grant program so potential homeowners with the fixer-upper mindset could afford mortgages and rehabilitation loans.

Progress was moving along nicely when the drug epidemic hit. The Philadelphia neighborhood, like many others all across the country, became a war zone, and the group realized that it had to move quickly to stabilize the neighborhood as it was rapidly being turned into fortified crack houses. Charged with the impossible responsibility to fully, completely, and permanently pacify the neighborhood, the rehabilitation group found that financial government support was about to be pulled. A further response by the fast-thinking neighbors enabled them to go forward with their stabilization plan.

Absent the crack epidemic, the basic plan was solid. At the time, the United Nations was researching best practices as part of the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless. Richard was urged to submit the plan, under the name of “Permanent Housing of Homeless People in Philadelphia,” and received special recognition for it.

The whole story is in his book, Looking Up at the Bottom Line, along with many other fascinating and instructive episodes.

Source: “Homeless man pays property taxes after moving into abandoned Cleveland home to fulfill homesteading dream,” Cleveland.com, 02/20/14
Source: “Could We House the Homeless in America’s 77000 Empty Government Buildings?,” RYOT.org, 2014
Image by w.marsh


All the Empty Houses

vacant homesThe illustration on this page is, like so many internet memes, an oversimplification. Socially conscious commentators like to point out that there are enough empty properties that each homeless person in America could have anywhere between 6 and 22 of them. Of course an exact number would be impossible to obtain, because it all depends on how you define “available” and “homeless” and a whole bunch of other variables. But the stark truth is that while hundreds of thousands of people have no place to call home, an astonishing amount of livable indoor space is empty.

About a year and a half ago, a website asked for comments on this particular 6-to-22 house claim, and collected some numbers and some sources (or possible sources) from which the numbers were derived. Those behind the site didn’t reach a definitive answer.

Philadelphia contains about 40,000 abandoned houses, lots and commercial buildings, and Detroit between 50,000 and 60,000. Why can’t at least some of those empty buildings have people in them? Why are perfectly viable buildings torn down? Why can’t people be allowed to squat or homestead in abandoned spaces? What kind of twisted logic says they are better off with no shelter than with substandard, even code-violating shelter?

Using Abandoned Housing Fairly

But then you have to look at the basic fairness of the thing. Say there’s a house where the people had to give up and move out because although they tried hard, they couldn’t pay the mortgage. If this house could somehow be used to house the homeless, is it fair that someone should get to live there who never even tried to pay a mortgage? Obviously, something is wrong with that picture.

And what about the family who originally tried to buy the house? Do they move into a different place that was foreclosed on because they are now homeless and it’s empty? Does the whole society turn into a vast game of musical chairs? We have to find a way to cope with the basic insanity of so many empty buildings and so many unhoused humans. In August of 2013, Daniel G. J. of StoryLeak.com wrote:

There are still over 14 million homes sitting empty in the United States…The worst-hit city is Las Vegas, which still has 40,481 vacant single family homes, 5,137 empty townhomes, and 16,542 empty condominiums.

In the same year, the point-in-time count found 7,355 people experiencing homelessness in Southern Nevada. And don’t forget, Las Vegas is the place with hundreds of miles of flood tunnels underneath it, where at least 300 people are said to live.

Less than 6 months ago, Alana Semuels reported for The Atlantic that Baltimore, Md., held 16,000 vacant homes, and that a group had formed to try and make them into affordable, permanent housing for the city’s currently homeless residents. She wrote:

A minimum-wage worker in Maryland would have to work 138 hours a week to afford a two-bedroom unit…Baltimore closed the waiting list for Section 8 Housing vouchers eleven years ago.

Housing Our Neighbors, part of the Housing Is a Human Right Roundtable, is made up of labor activists, homeowners, and homeless people…They say the data will show there are far more vacant homes in Baltimore than the city has previously acknowledged, and they argue that those homes should be turned into affordable housing.

The goal here is to create a nonprofit community land trust, a legal construct that “takes the “market” part out of the housing market, allowing people to buy homes but restricting their resale value in order to make them affordable for the next buyer.” Hopefully, it shouldn’t be hard to get started, since “out of the 300 homes the Roundtable has surveyed, about 80 are owned by the city.” Semuels says this method has worked in Austin, Texas; Albany, Georgia; and Albuquerque, New Mexico.


Source: “Are there enough unused houses in America for each homeless person to have six?,” Stackexchange.com, 11/10/13
Source: “Philadelphia Raises Stakes With Plan to Reverse Blight.” NYTimes.com, 08/22/13
Source: “Recovery? US Has Enough Empty Houses to Hold Population of Britain.” StoryLeak.com, 08/06/13
Source: “Inside Las Vegas’ Underground Homeless Community,” PhoenixNewTimes.com, 04/07/14
Source: “Can Homeless People Move Into Baltimore’s Abandoned Houses?,” TheAtlantic.com, 10/20/14
Image by the Internet



Homelessness and Houses

Abandoned houseDozens of news stories show up daily in answer to the alert term “homeless.” Every now and then, one comes along that incorporates such classic elements that it would make the perfect case study for interstellar sociologists to puzzle over. Visualize a teacher from another planet, standing in front of a class full of students, trying to explain the strange ways of Earth.

Suppose that teacher picks a random a news story originating in Washington Township, a 23-square mile area that encompasses 7 communities in Gloucester County in southern New Jersey. Conscientiously, the teacher has looked up some background information. Last year, Gloucester County’s point-in-time count found 585 homeless people (and these counts are generally understood to be on the low side because of the “hidden homeless” factor). Strangely, entering the word “homeless” into the search box at Washington Township’s official website fails to return any result.

Make no mistake, Gloucester County seems to have quite a lot going on in the way of food pantries and so forth. But life is hard for the unemployed and the underemployed. Preparing for class, the teacher finds an article written by Samantha Melamed, who quotes an official saying that the county gets about 1,900 Section 8 vouchers from the federal government, while 8,000 people are on the waiting list for them. In temporal terms, that usually works out to a wait of about 4 years for affordable housing. In other words, a family that applied for subsidized housing back in 2011 when Melamed’s piece was published might just now be accepted. She notes:

Part of the problem is that cheap housing in our region is staggeringly hard to come by.

Yet, throughout that same region, houses sit empty—which is the subject of the current news item chosen by the alien teacher to make some points about human illogic on our weird planet. Its title is “Gloucester County cracks down on abandoned homes.” Zeroing in on a typical property, the reporter writes:

Weeks’ worth of wet newspapers are piled in the driveway…Trash cans and debris are stacked along a fence, and vines hang from the empty brown house’s gutters…The dwelling is among more than 370 vacant properties in the municipality and 3,000 in Gloucester County…

In other words, here’s a county with an official homeless count of 585 bodies, and 3,000 empty dwellings. What is wrong with the Earth inhabitants that they can’t figure something out? Even a neighboring “fast-growing” community called Woolwich holds 51 abandoned properties within its borders, and the news piece says:

Last year, the township experienced a “big uptick” in foreclosures and homeowners walking away from houses.

Here, the teacher from another planet might point out how the Earthlings keep saying their latest financial crisis happened in 2008, while evidence like this shows it is obviously still going on. Who do they think they’re kidding? Residents are upset because the banks don’t take care of foreclosed properties, so the grass grows hip-high and the buildings decay, lowering the market value of inhabited houses. One question the alien students might ask is, “Obviously, these Earthlings planned to establish long-term residence in this place. Since their intent is to stay, why do they care about the current market value? In fact, if the property is valued lower, doesn’t that mean they pay a lower tax?”

Meanwhile, an official notes that neglect and the resulting blight create “a significant quality-of-life impact.” But at the same time, the Earthlings are totally oblivious to the “quality-of-life impact” on the people who have no roof over their heads, while perfectly usable buildings sit empty. How can they sit back and be comfortable with this ridiculous waste of resources?

Registries are created with databases to keep track of who owns “abandoned” buildings, so the owners can (theoretically) be forced to pay for upkeep. More often, the best outcome is that a house will decay quickly, so it can be labeled “unsafe for human occupancy” and demolished, which is cheaper than paying for a landscaping crew year after year. Across America, how many houses are truly unsafe and unsalvageable, and how many viable buildings are arbitrarily labeled that way because it is the necessary bureaucratic step toward forcing the owner to tear them down?

Of course there is more to be said on this subject, and House the Homeless will be back to say more next time.


Source: “Far From Home,” SouthJerseyMagazine.com, March 2011
Source: “Gloucester County cracks down on abandoned homes,” TheDailyJournal.com, 03/21/15
Image by David Berry


Lame Rationalizations Criminalize Homelessness

Camp of Harry the HomelessThe important thing about this news story is not its timeliness, or the people’s race, or age, or which American state, or any other mundane detail. This story is a stand-in for scenarios taking place all over the country every day. It goes beyond generic into classic, because of the assumptions behind it. As journalists are taught to do, Zack McDonald sums up the facts in the first sentence of his article:

A homeless couple has been arrested on charges of child neglect after police found them camping in the woods with their 2-year-old child exposed to the elements…

Wait a minute. What’s wrong with that? Aspen and Vail are full of 2-year-olds  exposed to the elements. Those ski slopes are cold! Whereas this story happened in a place with a subtropical climate and an average temperature of 74 degrees, this time of year.

Both parents were charged with placing the child in danger of physical and mental injury when officers investigated the conditions of the camp, and the child was taken into protective custody.

The first question that springs to mind is whether the child was ever left alone in the woodsy camp, or always in the presence of an adult. This important information was not given. McDonald reports the facts from the police department’s documentation, which covers only part of the situation, because at the time the story was published, more criminal charges were expected.

On a higher level, what kind of a catch-all criminal charge is that anyway? Every person on earth is in danger of physical or mental injury, at every moment, including those kids on skis. Here is another messed-up angle. Apparently, the police find the crime of living in the woods particularly heinous because, in their estimation, these people didn’t really have to live there.

It would be different if they were just down on their luck, but… they had the means to help themselves.

So claims Sgt. Aaron Wilson, in an example of cop logic at its most ludicrous. He says the mother had “enough U.S. currency on her, which she could have rented a motel room.” Really? For how long? One night, before the family would be back out in the woods again with nothing left for food or diapers? What if the only motel in the area requires that guests have a car, and they don’t? What if they can’t reach a motel without walking for miles along a busy highway, exposing their child to massive air pollution and the danger of being hit by a truck? What if the motel requires picture I.D., and for one of any number of possible reasons, they don’t have it? If they spend their money on exorbitantly-priced temporary accommodation, how are they supposed to save up the first and last month’s rent, plus security deposit, that they will need to move into an apartment, provided that anyone will rent them one?

Law Enforcement and Cash

Whatever amount the mother had, the officer characterized it as “more money than most people carry around.” For starters, a lot of people these days never carry cash, because they have credit cards and debit cards and pay their bills online with direct bank transfers. Nowadays, having cash is proof of belonging to the lower class.

However much the woman had, maybe it was earmarked for something—like a vaccination for the kid, or to buy a bus ticket out of town. The point is, we don’t know, and neither did the police, and it’s none of their business anyway.

Though the couple did not have a permanent residence…Parker Police were hesitant to call them “homeless.”… After further investigation, officers also found that the couple had been paying rent on a storage unit and were paying two cellphone bills…

The implication seems to be that according to the police, to truly deserve the status of homeless, people are supposed to own absolutely nothing. It’s also disturbing how the police don’t seem to be aware that even the cost of a storage unit and two phones is still only a small fraction of what it takes to actually live under a roof.

Police reported that witnesses had seen the couple and child coming and going from the camp site for weeks. The site had several blankets, but no tent or shelter.

To call the observers “witnesses” instead of neighbors really reinforces the idea that people experiencing homelessness are criminals. And what about these witnesses? During all these weeks of seeing the couple and child, how many of them came forward to offer a tent or sleeping bag, or the room above their garage, or a hot meal?

The child was turned over to the care of the…Department of Children and Families after immediate family…declined to take custody.

The public is supposed to assume that if relatives won’t help by taking in the child, these must be incredibly bad people. But maybe the only living relative is a grandparent with one leg, who has kidney dialysis five times a week, and can’t possibly care for a child. Or what if the mother’s side won’t take the child because they disapprove of the father’s religious affiliation? We don’t have a clue about what’s going on, but are all too ready to judge.

And speaking of prejudicial language, when authorities approached, the father “fled on foot” (only to be rounded up later.) Well, what was he supposed to do, stick around and volunteer to be arrested and locked up too? From that helpless position, how could he ever rescue his woman and child from custody?

Now, there may be reasons why this particular couple deserves jail time. But none of the reasons cited in the article actually qualifies—not in a decent society. There may be reasons why the child should be taken away and the parents incarcerated—but they have not yet been heard. What about “family values?” What about sticking together and trying to make it on their own? Obviously these parents did not want to hand their child over to the state, and for that, on a heart level, can they really be blamed?


Source: “Homeless couple charged with child neglect
NewsHerald.com, 03/12/15
Image by Daniel R. Blume


Homelessness and Pointless Identity Theft

Occupy Austin ArrestsPaperwork has never been more important. Identification is necessary to open a bank account, cash a check, apply for a job, get a mailbox, rent a room, get food stamps and other benefits, sleep in a shelter, or even to board the Greyhound and leave town. In a city where the public library has computers, the privilege of using one to check email or search job listings will probably require I.D.

Almost everyone has had some kind of I.D. at one time or another, but on the streets, material objects come and go. Possessions are all too easily lost or stolen. Many of the people experiencing homelessness also struggle with mental health issues, PTSD, symptoms of head trauma, advanced age, and/or chronic pain. They are constantly being uprooted and “moved on.” Many facilities that serve the homeless do not allow belongings to be brought inside. Backpacks fall into rivers or are swept away by flash floods.

A Treacherous World for the Homeless

A person might stash a few belongings in a seemingly safe place, like the rough sleeper who left his blanket and pack in the electricity cupboard behind a church. He returned to find that another street person had dragged his things out and set them on fire— the sixth time in just a year that similar destruction had happened to him. Or it might be an over-zealous municipal crew, enforcing a city ordinance, that burns a homeless person’s possessions or pitches them into a truck bound for the landfill. Cleanup missions and “sweeps” carried out at camps can affect the inhabitants’ lives with apocalyptic fury.

To replace a birth certificate costs money and requires an address where the hard copy can be sent. Even a successful request can take as long as four months to be fulfilled, and that is only the first step. Acquiring a Social Security card can take weeks, and the Department of Motor Vehicles, where even non-driving I.D. cards originate, can present additional difficulties and delays. To acquire I.D. requires proof of residency and a legal address—the very things a person needs the I.D. in order to get. The process can be so Kafkaesque that some advocates spend all their volunteer time helping people with just that one problem.

Protect and Serve

Then, after jumping through all the bureaucratic hoops, imagine having your I.D. confiscated by an officer of the law—a person who has sworn to serve and protect citizens, including people experiencing homelessness. Richard R. Troxell, president of House the Homeless in Austin, Texas says:

All social services in Austin require photo identification. To be left without photo identification only acts as an additional barrier to escaping homelessness.

That is a polite understatement. Stealing and deliberately destroying a person’s identification does not only cause massive inconvenience and hardship, it can be a de facto death sentence. This terrifying act of personal annihilation can and does happen much too frequently, all across the country. It can result from a casual police encounter, and there are reports—even from such beautiful and smiling states as Hawaii—of I.D. being thrown away when a homeless person goes to jail.

In Austin, House the Homeless held its 14th Annual Thermal Underwear Distribution Party on January 1, 2015. As always, the attendees were invited to participate in a survey, which this year 277 people did. The average age of survey respondents was 45; their average time spent homeless was about 9.5 years; their average time in Austin just over 6 years. This year’s topic was interactions with the police.

Have you ever had your ID taken by police and not returned?

Yes: 92 No: 183
Approximately 1/3rd of all people surveyed had their identification permanently taken from them by the police.

A similar question concerned other possessions, such as backpacks, bags, bedrolls, clothing items, and so forth, any of which might hold papers and other personal valuables:

Have you ever had your things taken by police without giving you a receipt and the name of a contact person to get your things back?

Yes: 125 No: 152
Almost half the folks answering the question reported improper impounding practices conducted by officers of the Austin Police department.

Is it even necessary to point out how wrong thievery is when perpetrated by the very people who are supposed to be better than average, who are held up as examples of (as the old saying had it) Truth, Justice, and the American Way? We leave with a few words from Lisa Burrell, a social worker who helps the homeless:

It’s not uncommon for people to lose their possessions…The reaction I see in them is very similar to people who have been burgled and had their possessions taken. The loss is hard and it’s very deep.


Source: “Homeless man’s bag torched near Horsham church,” WSCountyTimes,co.uk, 07/21/14
Image by Ann Harkness



Homelessness and the Obliteration of Personhood

Fun With I.D. Badges, Part 2Emily Topper, writing for The Gargoyle at Flagler College, examined the process of obtaining an I.D. in Florida, and found a system rigged against people experiencing homelessness

This rigged system is repeated in many localities throughout the U.S. Topper spoke with Mark Samson, a Community Resource Officer, who said:

In order to get a Social Security card, they need to have some type of ID card. But in order to get that, they must have the Social Security card.

This is a classic Catch-22 situation, and the damage it does can not be overstated. There may be scattered exceptions, but in most places a person needs I.D. to open a bank account, cash a check, apply for a job, or rent a Post Office box. The laws have even been tightened to prevent someone with no proof of a permanent physical address from using a private mailbox facility. Is the insanity of that sinking in? The person who most needs it, because of having no place to actually live, cannot obtain a mailing address.

The days of anonymous Greyhound Bus journeys are over, because a photo I.D. must be presented even if the ticket is paid for in cash. Without I.D., a person can’t rent a hotel or motel room (or even, as a recent widely publicized case demonstrated, occupy a room paid for by kind strangers.)

A person in need of any kind of government assistance, whether it be food stamps, medical treatment, or disability benefits, is ineligible without I.D. And good luck getting into a temporary shelter. Sure, whoever runs the shelter needs to protect guests from violent criminals and sexual predators. But the policy, as it stands, also puts vulnerable people at risk by leaving them on the streets with the violent criminals and sexual predators.

A Typical Story

Topper relates the story of Vincent Youngberg of St. Augustine. During a recent incarceration, his vehicle registration had expired and a ticket went unpaid, so the car was impounded. After being released from prison, Youngberg learned that getting the car back would require I.D., which in turn would require a Social Security card, birth certificate, and two proofs of residency. And money for the towing and storage fees, of course. Before he could get any of this together, the impoundment contractor sold the car along with its contents—including the birth certificate that Youngberg needed to prove his existence.

Requesting a replacement birth certificate is a red-tape-intensive job that involves the ability to fill out forms, a payment to the bureaucracy, a usable mailing address, and a long, long wait while the state in question takes weeks or months to process the application. It amounts to such a grueling ordeal that some specialist agency workers and volunteers do nothing but help people acquire the paperwork to validate their lives. Homeless advocates in St. Augustine work with a couple of substitutes which, though inadequate, are “better than nothing.” Beth Kuhn, a caseworker at the St. Francis House, told the reporter:

If [the homeless] were treated at Flagler Hospital, they can ask for a face-sheet from the records office there. This sheet is accepted at the Social Security office, and they will give you a printout… valid enough to get a real state ID. Once you have that, you can go back and get a real Social Security card.

Not exactly a miracle of accommodation, but better than the alternative. Topper says a person leaving prison receives a practically useless paper with a picture and booking information, and quotes Vincent Youngberg:

It never expires, but no one except law enforcement accepts it. I don’t understand it. I was fingerprinted when I was released from prison. Why can’t they use those fingerprints? Why can’t they just give me a photo I.D.? Even if it was a temporary one for 90 days, just so I could get something.

Is the irony sufficiently glaring? The fingerprints of former inmates are in the system, along with their complete histories, their facial biometrics, and probably their DNA. The government was sufficiently convinced of their identities, letting them serve the sentences. Shouldn’t they at least come out of prison with viable identification?


Source: “Homeless struggle to obtain IDs, Social Security cards in Florida,” Flagler.edu, 10/25/13
Image by brykmantra


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