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Dollars and Sense in Salt Lake City

Where We Sleep

Salt Lake City, Utah, has boarded the Housing First train in a very promising way. To calculate how economical the solution is, the founders contrasted the cost of housing people in apartments with the cost of incarcerating them and the cost of emergency room treatment for all the various illnesses and injuries that can befall a person who lives on the streets. Cory Doctorow writes:

The “Housing First” program’s goal was to end chronic homelessness in Utah within 10 years. Through 2012, it had helped reduce the 2,000 people in that category when it began by 74 percent. Lloyd Pendleton, director of Utah’s Homeless Task Force, said the state is on track to meet its goal by 2015, and become the first state in the nation to do so.

2015! That’s next year! Salt Lake’s commitment to the Housing First ideal began to flower back in 2005, when research showed that the state spent $16,670 a year on jailing and/or providing emergency medical services for each chronically homeless individual. These were people who had experienced homelessness for an average of 25 years.

On the other hand, it would cost the taxpayers only $11,000 per capita and per annum to provide not only an apartment but the attention of a caseworker. We couldn’t find a suitable graphic for Salt Lake City, but the chart on this page illustrates the same type of comparison for Los Angeles in a 2008 study. The revolutionary part of the Housing First plan is to attach no strings. People are offered the resources and encouragement to make positive changes, but the deal is unconditional.

Mayor Ralph Becker announced in January that Salt Lake City had “ended veterans’ homelessness” except for eight individuals who did not want homes but who were still being contacted by social workers in hopes that they would change their minds.

There may be some confusion, however. Not all homeless vets are in the “chronic homeless” category, which is defined as experiencing homelessness for at least a year or four times within three years while coping with a disability. Indeed, some online comments reacting to an MSNBC story indicate that either miscommunication or misunderstanding is in effect.

One commenter’s veteran son ended up living in a truck because he did not receive the help he was entitled to, a situation the commenter blamed on caseworker incompetence. A cab driver wrote in to offer a specialized tour of the city to “anyone who wants to see the real situation.” Another commenter served up a description that by no means resembles “no strings attached”:

Salt Lake & Phoenix have thousands of homeless veterans on the streets; and the veterans they are calling ‘HOUSED’ are in prison-like & all-controlling insane asylum complexes, where the veterans are baby-sat 24/7 & threatened with being thrown to the streets if they have ONE BEER while watching a football game!

Still, there is no doubt that many, many people experiencing homelessness have been helped. But despite all the good news, conditions are not idyllic in Utah’s capital city.

Only a few weeks before the mayor’s speech, Marjorie Cortez, writing for Deseret News, reported that in the previous year only five new units of permanent supportive housing had been added, and no transitional housing units. She interviewed Matt Minkevitch, who serves as executive director of private nonprofit social service agency The Road Home, about food insecurity and learned that during that year emergency food requests had increased by 15%.

In December, the city bureaucracy flexed its muscles and reminded distributors of food to the homeless of the necessity for papers, including a “free expression” permit, a waste management permit, and a food-safety temporary event permit from the Health Department, which must be in hand at least a couple weeks before the event. On the surface, they seem easy enough to get and not outlandishly expensive. Yet this has created big problems for The Road Home. After interviewing the organization’s community relations director, Celeste Eggert, journalist Amy McDonald reported:

A bill that passed the House and awaits final action in the Senate would exempt volunteers from the requirement to have a food handler’s permit to dish out meals to the homeless…. When the homeless shelter and aid organization learned of the health rules and informed volunteer groups, it lost 39 volunteer groups. As a result, the organization missed out on an estimated 5,850 donated meals…. Eggert says the organization’s winter-overflow shelter in Midvale received no donated meals in January and February.

The ironic thing is, 30 years of volunteer food preparation have not resulted in one instance of food poisoning or the finding of foreign objects in any meals.

Reactions?

Source: “Fighting homelessness by giving homeless people houses,” BoingBoing.net, 01/22/14
Source: “Second American City Ends Chronic Homelessness Among Veterans,” ThinkProgress.org, 01/06/14
Source: “Salt Lake City joins Phoenix in ending veteran homelessness,” MSNBC.com, 01/06/14
Source: “Report: Salt Lake City’s homelessness efforts making gains but food needs still unmet,” DeseretNews.com, 12/12/13
Source: “SLC city officials: Must have a permit to hand out food to the homeless,” 4Utah.com, 12/24/2013
Source: “Food safety rules block thousands of meals to homeless in SLC,” SLTrib.com, 03/11/14
Image by Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority

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The Cost of Outlawing Homelessness

Police action

House the Homeless has looked at the costs involved in putting homeless people through the court system and warehousing them in jails, hospitals, and shelters. When pointing out the logic and fiscal responsibility that characterize the Housing First philosophy, those institutional expenses are the easiest to tally up.

It also costs money to run the ambulances and fire department vehicles that so often respond to emergencies involving people experiencing homelessness. Many more seldom-mentioned expenses pull tax money away from places in our society where it is desperately needed. For instance, how much does the federal government pay the contractor in charge of counting the homeless? How much money would it save if there were no homeless to count? How much is it costing society to disqualify so many people from future employment possibilities because of petty charges connected with homelessness? Journalist Barbara Ehrenreich puts the criminalization of the homeless in perspective:

Once you have been deemed a criminal, you can pretty much kiss your remaining assets goodbye. Not only will you face the aforementioned court costs, but you’ll have a hard time ever finding a job again once you’ve acquired a criminal record. And then of course, the poorer you become, the more likely you are to get in fresh trouble with the law, making this less like a “cycle” and more like the waterslide to hell.

There is a whole constellation of crimes that we, with dark humor, call “breathing while homeless.” Here are a few headlines illustrating the often-overlooked ways in which cities and counties hemorrhage money while prosecuting those crimes and waging a de facto war on the poor.

‘City to pay homeless man $200,000 in police beating’

Michael Allen Mallicoat suffered broken ribs and a punctured lung after being handcuffed and beaten by three police officers. Three cops pleaded guilty to felony official misconduct and resigned. Four other cops were suspended, and three supervisors reprimanded. The $200,000 is a settlement, in return for which the victim agreed not to sue Knoxville, Tenn., for a much larger amount.

‘LA ordered to pay $700K to lawyers for homeless in lawsuit’

A U.S. appeals court ordered Los Angeles to pay $700,000 to lawyers for homeless people in a lawsuit resulting in overturning a ban on sleeping in the streets…. A 2006 court ruling held clearing people from streets without providing beds is cruel and unusual punishment.

‘Innocent Homeless Family’s Wooden Shack Raided By Police’

In the fall of 2010, two L.A. County sheriff’s deputies, unequipped with a warrant and without identifying themselves as police — indeed, with no verbal exchange or warning at all — broke into a wooden shack where Angel and Jennifer Mendez slept. Apparently police opened fire before even seeing the BB gun rifle which was all Angel Mendez had to protect his pregnant wife from ill-intentioned intruders. The deputies fired 15 times, hitting the husband 10 times and the wife once.

Mendez ended up losing a leg. The sheriff’s department conducted an internal review which found, of course, that the shooting was justified. But a federal judge decided that the cops had violated the couple’s Fourth Amendment rights, and awarded the husband $3.8 million and the wife $222,000. Writer Bobby Caselnova asked, quite reasonably:

Why is it that if an ordinary citizen had broken into a home and started firing at the occupants, they would be thrown in prison, but when law enforcement officers do the same thing — and are found by a judge to be wrong — only the taxpayers are punished, not the officers themselves?

‘Homeless food case costs Albuquerque $120,000′

In Albuquerque, N.M., three people were arrested and charged with “inciting a riot, refusing to obey an officer, resisting arrest and failure to have a required permit.” What on earth were they doing? Giving food to people experiencing homelessness. A lengthy legal battle ensued, and eventually the charges were dismissed. But the three men filed civil rights lawsuits against the city, claiming that their First and Fourth Amendment rights had been violated. The settlement they were awarded cost the city more than $120,000.

‘City must pay $134K for targeting the homeless’

Ninety-nine criminal citations were dismissed thanks to the intervention of the San Luis Obispo Homeless Alliance. Dozens of people in the California city had been accused of the crime of sleeping in their cars, but a judge found the city’s law against vehicular sleeping to be unconstitutional, and awarded a payout of $134,000, which all went to the lawyers.

Sgt. Theresa Skinner, a senior lead officer in the Venice, Calif., police force, said in a recent interview that about 75% of the complaints she deals with concern transients, which is a rather rude term for people experiencing homelessness. Sgt. Skinner is quoted as saying, “Sometimes I wish I had crime that was more police-related. We’ll never make enough arrests or write enough tickets to get rid of homelessness.”

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The bronze sculpture “Home Coming” is closer to becoming reality. See the three short videos about its creation.
Home Coming
I Used to Be Your Neighbor
What’s the Buzz?

Reactions?

Source: “Tomgram: Barbara Ehrenreich, Looting the Lives of the Poor,” TomDispatch.com, 05/17/12
Source: “City to pay homeless man $200,000 in police beating,” KnoxNews.com, 01/22/14
Source: “LA ordered to pay $700K to lawyers for homeless in lawsuit,” UPI.com, 01/31/14
Source: “Innocent Homeless Family’s Wooden Shack Raided By Police,” PoliceStateUSA.com, 08/20/13
Source: “Homeless food case costs Albuquerque $120,000,” ABQJournal.com. 08/12/13
Source: “City must pay $134K for targeting homeless,” MercuryNews.com, 01/18/13
Source: “Venice’s famed tolerance is being tested by the homeless,” LATimes.com, 02/03/14
Image by Steve Lyon

 

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A Viewpoint of Austin

A viewpoint of Austin

These posts often focus on Austin for two reasons, the more obvious of which is that House the Homeless is located there. The other is that Austin’s display of leadership is always worth watching. Now it’s time to catch up again, because a lot has happened in the capital city of Texas, including the distribution of a white paper titled “Prevent Homelessness at Its Core: 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness, Restore Human Dignity and Save Business and Taxpayers $ Millions!”

This document was sent to 1,424 mayors of American cities, along with a Resolution they are urged to sign and send to the U.S. Congress. According to the trim tab metaphor, the application of just a little bit of leverage can have an enormous effect. For those who like their information in e-book form, please follow the link to Livable Incomes: Real Solutions That Stimulate the Economy.  The plan just might be the trim tab that nudges the rudder that turns the whole ship onto a new course. It calls for changes to the Federal Minimum Wage and the Supplemental Security Income stipend.

Two things

One adjustment would affect the lowest level of employees, potentially preventing millions of people from falling into homelessness, and allowing millions more to escape the homeless condition. For Americans who can work, businesses need to take responsibility for paying them enough that a person working a 40-hour week can afford a place to live (i.e., an efficiency apartment), utilities, food, and the other necessities of life. What a lot of people don’t realize is that many homeless people do work. How can you hold a well-paying job when there’s no place to iron a shirt or get a good night’s sleep? Housed people are much more effective workers.

For those who can’t work due to disability, the rest of us need to continue to help them with shelter, food, clothing, etc. The issue has nothing to do with political party affiliation — Democrat-vs.-Republican doesn’t enter into it. This is about getting America back on its feet, dusted off, and back in the role of the greatest country in the world.

The local scene

In January, Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless presented Hill Country Middle School with the Curtis Ray Wilson Compassion Award. The school raised just over $6,000 to donate to the Thermal Underwear Drive and New Year’s Day lunch, warming and feeding a lot of people experiencing homelessness.

The Austin American-Statesman is incredibly fortunate to have Andrea Ball on staff, a reporter who has written knowledgeably about homeless issues for years. Recently she reported on the homeless count, which officially has decreased for the fourth consecutive year. Starting from 2011, the numbers show a 16% decrease, and House the Homeless has already extensively discussed the problems with obtaining accuracy in these counts. Ball writes:

Regardless of whether the count captures the true number of people living on the streets, most can agree that the city has made strides in increasing the number of housing units for homeless and low-income people funded with federal, city and private money….

Over the past six years, the city’s supply of permanent supported housing units — low-rent homes that include support services such as job training or mental health care — has jumped from 374 in 2008 to 1,035 in 2013…. The city is likely to have more than 1,300 permanent supportive housing units by the end of the year.

Texas is particularly fond of its veterans, and in Austin federally funded housing vouchers currently make housed life possible for 355 veterans. Ball also mentions Walter Moreau, executive director of Foundation Communities, which has been responsible for developing 3,400 low-income housing units over the past half-decade or so. (Richard calls Moreau a “great guy.”) Austin, keep on being a dynamic, fair-minded, sane and compassionate place, a great example, and a beacon of hope.

Reactions?

Source: “House the Homeless Nonprofit Releases 10-Year Plan to End and Prevent Economic Homelessness,” Yahoo.com, 01/30/14
Source: “The Power of Trim Tabs – How Small Changes Create Big Results,” ThoughtMedicine.com, July 2010
Source: “Subject: Hill Country raises over $6,000 for homeless,” Statesman.com, 01/22/14
Source: “Austin’s homeless population is down 16 percent since 2011,” Foundcom.org, 02/16/14
Image by Matthew Rutledge

 

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The Cost of Prosecuting Homelessness

osceola_fl

Sometimes people have the most inane knee-jerk reactions to ideas. For instance, the idea of housing the homeless elicits howls of resistance — “Think how much money that would cost! It would be so expensive!” Well, O.K., let’s start by thinking about how much money goes into doing things the way they are currently done. This enlightening quote is from Elizabeth Dillard, executive director of the Homeless Resource Network in Columbus, Ohio:

Homelessness is about what happens in our emergency rooms. It’s about what happens in our jails, what happens with our fire and rescue, what happens when a building burns down because a person built a fire because he was cold.

Homelessness is about what happens in our libraries. A disgruntled San Franciscan recently warned his fellow citizens that since the Internet has made public libraries less relevant, the bureaucrats “scrambled around” to figure out what to do with libraries and decided to turn them into homeless outreach centers.

We live in a society that levies fines on people who obviously have no money, for the crime of having nowhere to live, and punishes them by providing a place to “live” that’s temporary, dangerous, and locked. Then we punish them further by putting marks on their record to guarantee they will never become employed, productive members of the community. Could anything be more absurd than the street-jail-street merry-go-round?

It’s worse than bad, it’s useless

Upon learning how Eureka, Calif., spent $13,000 to prosecute one person for sleeping in public, Arnie Klein, a retired deputy district attorney, called the judicial system a travesty. He elaborates:

The maximum penalty of six months in county jail or a $1,000 fine is a farce…. In no way will this prosecution prevent homeless people from camping on our public lands. Having 40 years’ experience on both sides of the table in the arena of criminal law, I would have recommended a more humane and cost-saving solution.

I do know for a fact … that money was expended to pay the judge, the bailiff, the court reporter, the jury, the defense attorney, and the prosecutor, as well as for the use of the courtroom, to pursue this fool’s errand.

On the other side of the country, in Orlando, Fla., public defender Bob Wesley had this to say:

Any time you have a court case, you’re going to have judge with a graduate degree, two lawyers there, bailiffs in the courtroom, court reporters — you’ve got to have a court, all to solve the problem.

From just south of Orlando, in Osceola County, Scott Keyes reported that, over the past 10 years, a grand total of $5 million has been spent on 37 individuals. Did this $5 million buy them houses fitted out with all the mod cons, and perhaps a swimming pool and a couple of servants? No, all it paid for was to put them in jail a bunch of times.

The charges were what are called “quality-of-life” offenses, which basically means it bums everybody out and ruins their day to see people snoring on the sidewalk. Never mind how the people experiencing homelessness feel about it — their lives don’t have any quality, and aren’t supposed to, because they screwed up by taking a wrong turn in life’s journey.

Some of the “bad choices” that have rendered people homeless include joining the military and coming back with a head injury; needing to escape from a spouse who turned abusive; working for a company that fires loyal employees the day before their pensions kick in; and accruing ruinous medical bills from being hit by an uninsured driver. Babies make the stupid choice of being born to homeless parents!

It’s worse than useless, it’s bad, and it’s costly!

Those 37 Osceola County homeless people piled up 1,230 arrests, resulting in 61,896 jail days at $80 per day, resulting in a cumulative price tag of $5,081,680. Keyes weighs the costs:

A far cheaper option than criminalizing and jailing the homeless is to provide them with permanent supportive housing. An average permanent supportive housing unit in Osceola County costs $9,602 per year, which includes $8,244 for rent and utility subsidies and $1,358 for a case manager (with a case load of 30 clients). In other words, each supported housing unit costs the county 40 percent less than what they’re currently paying to put homeless residents in jail.

For more on this question of costs, please see Richard R. Troxell’s Looking Up at the Bottom Line, pages 102 and 131.

Reactions?

Source: “Homelessness organizations look to house 100,000 by July,” Ledger-Enquirer.com, 01/12/14
Source: “Surprise! San Francisco Public Library Now a Homeless Shelter,” DailyPundit.com, 01/17/14
Source: “Hauling homeless into court a waste,” Times-Standard.com, 01/08/14
Source: “Arresting homeless people for sleeping outside costs taxpayers,” WFTV.com, 12/25/13
Source: “One County Spent Over $5 Million Jailing Homeless People Instead Of Giving
Them Homes,” ThinkProgress.org, 02/05/14
Image by ThinkProgress

 

 

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Counting the Homeless Not So Simple

Homeless in IndyIn the realm of homelessness, there is always more than plenty of regrettable news to talk about. For instance, the newest fad is people thinking it’s cute to take a “selfie” photo with somebody in the background sleeping on the sidewalk. Let’s just dismiss that trend as beneath contempt and get back to the count of people experiencing homelessness in America. House the Homeless has looked at several different aspects of it.

Confusion arises from the fact that there are really two different counts. Responsible for both is the local Continuum of Care, comprising the state and local governments and other government agencies concerned with housing, as well as private nonprofits and community mental health associations (i.e., public nonprofits). From them, every year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development demands an annual Point-in-Time count
of everybody in emergency shelters, transitional housing and Safe Havens on a single night.

In addition, every other (odd-numbered) year, the Continuum of Care in each place is responsible for counting the unsheltered. Confusion arises over who is sheltered and who is not. Ivy Farguheson, reporting on the situation in Indiana, puts it like this:

The count defines homelessness in a different manner than school corporations or social service agencies. That definition also changes from time to time. In the past, those sleeping on couches or staying temporarily in rooms of friends and family members could be counted as homeless and still are by Indiana’s school corporations and almost all local nonprofits. Now, those individuals and families are not counted as homeless under the HUD definition. Those court-ordered to substance abuse programs such as some men at the Muncie Mission or others paying small fees for housing, including many women at the YWCA of Muncie, can no longer be included in the numbers.

It seems like this could cause a lot of logistical problems. For instance, the CoC administrators also have to report to the appropriate federal agencies how many rooms or beds their facilities contain, so the government knows what resources there already are in a geographical area that’s asking for more money. So the bed has to be reported as existing. And the person occupying it is counted as “sheltered” even though it’s meant to be the most temporary of accommodations. Meanwhile, that person is not being counted amount the unsheltered, or true homeless. Depending on how the numbers are presented, it can look like more beds are available than actually are, or it can look like fewer people are totally unsheltered than actually are.

So much depends on this job being done accurately and conscientiously. Taking a census is, after all, the vital first step toward directing federal funds to the right places. But social policy reporter Mikel Livingston brings to light something most people have probably never thought about:

The number of homeless as determined by the count is not directly related to the federal dollars an agency or community receives. In other words, it’s nothing like public school funding, in which a certain number of students translates into a certain number of dollars. Instead, the count is one of many requirements for those entities to be eligible to apply for funding.

Livingston writes about Tippecanoe County, also coincidentally in Indiana, and about federal policy, which results in the homeless being “severely” undercounted. He mentions some of the many glaring contradictions. In his own state, the 2013 homeless total was down slightly from the 2012 number. But he gives examples to show that “the number of homeless clients who went through just one local shelter hints at a much larger population,” concluding:

There are several things the Point-in-Time survey is good for…. But judging the overall size of Tippecanoe County’s homeless population isn’t one of them.

[I]n Indianapolis and surrounding Marion County, 1,599 homeless people were identified during the 2013 Point-in-Time survey. But an accompanying study from the Indiana University Policy Institute and the Coalition for Homelessness Intervention & Prevention estimated that between 4,800 and 8,000 people experienced homelessness during the year.

The sad fact is that House the Homeless could fill its pages with anomalies and discrepancies related to the Point-in-Time count until the next one rolls around. We remember the great advocate Mitch Snyder, who once made the suggestion that the homeless could be counted just fine, once they had been brought inside. What a great solution! Meanwhile we look forward to the day when the phrase “homeless count” causes people to scratch their heads with incomprehension, because there will be no people experiencing homelessness.

Reactions?

Source: “ ‘Counting’ the homeless: Official numbers don’t tell the story,” TheStarPress.com, 01/30/14
Source: “Homeless ‘Point-In-Time’ snapshot falls short,” jconline.com, 02/02/14
Image by Valerie Everett

 

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Long Island Counts Its Homeless

Marines March in 2011ABT, the company hired by the government to count the homeless, collects data from the winter Point in Time surveys and puts it through a process called “imputing,” which basically means making a wild-ass guess with the assistance of some electronic device. ABT has developed at least 10 different ways of “imputing,” but no matter how it’s done, the company needs reliable numbers to start with, and that commodity seems to be in short supply. The methodology is far from being an exact science.

In regard to last year’s reported decrease in veteran homelessness, journalist Joe Pappalardo got some answers from ABT project director Alvaro Cortes and highlighted the part that critics had trouble with:

Even though HUD used different methods to tally homeless vets in 2010 and 2011, it compared the two years to produce the 12 percent drop.

That decrease might have been what Cortes calls “an artifact of changing methodologies.” Or was it what Pappalardo calls “an artifact of murky statistics”? For the purpose of receiving federal aid, how are the people experiencing homelessness counted? Statistician David Marker was designated by the American Statistical Association to answer questions from the press, and Pappalardo reported on their communication:

‘The biggest weakness of the 2010 numbers is that almost half of the localities didn’t collect any information, so in these communities the 2009 numbers were reused,’ Marker says. For this reason he prefers to use more reliable statistics generated in 2009. Comparing 2009 stats with those of 2011, Marker sees an 11 percent drop in veteran homelessness, with overall homelessness going down only 1 percent over the same time.

The journalist also contacted Greta Guarton, executive director of the Nassau-Suffolk Coalition for the Homeless, which covers Long Island. At the time, it seemed to Guarton that ending veteran homelessness was at the top of a lot of people’s lists in Washington but, she said, “no one really knows how many homeless veterans there even are.” At the time of that interview, in January of 2012, she had not seen any decrease, getting more calls from homeless veterans than ever.

Last month in Nassau and Suffolk counties, as in many other parts of the nation, volunteers braved sub-freezing temperatures as they searched for non-sheltered people. Because more than a foot of snow fell in the area, only half the expected volunteers came out. On the other hand, midwinter counting has one advantage — the visibility of footprints leading to buildings where people take refuge. Timothy Bolger learned this by following Guarton around as she shouted questions at various abandoned houses.

But when footprints are evident, the people inside often decline to make their presence known, for any number of reasons. If they happen to be undocumented immigrants, there is no upside for them. They are not eligible for emergency housing or anything else, and could end up being deported. As the reporter eloquently phrases it, “the margin of error for polling such a transient group is incalculable.”

As for Long Island’s homeless veteran population, Bolger learned that mental illness and substance abuse are still significant problems. But help has arrived in the form of Services for the Underserved, a New York-based nonprofit vet group that set up a branch on Long Island this year and formed alliances with local veteran groups.

This may or may not enhance the accuracy of the next count. People who live in their cars, for instance, are very hard to keep track of. People in jail or in psychiatric or rehab facilities are not counted, even though many of them would have no place to call home if released — and despite the fact that these people are under government supervision, their statistics are not made available to the curious. Bolger goes on to say:

Suffolk officials report a more than 62-percent increase in individuals seeking temporary housing assistance over the past five years….

LI’s homeless coalition reports a 42-percent hike in sheltered people in the county from ’09 to ’12….

The population of people who are homeless on LI is by estimates up 18 percent in the five years following the 2008 Wall Street crash that caused the Great Recession….

Guarton expects the stats for LI’s unsheltered to be lower than reality.

Reactions?

Source: “How Does Washington D.C. Count America’s Homeless Vets?” PopularMechanics.com, 01/19/12
Source: “Homeless: More People Live on the Streets Amid Arctic Blasts than Stats Show,” LongIslandPress.com, 02/01/14
Image by MarineCorps NewYork

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Homelessness: Doing the Math

Hwy 87 Trail surveyTwo years ago, when the previous national Point in Time survey was done, Popular Mechanics magazine went back to the survey before that one in order to take a close look at how homeless veterans were counted. The first answer was that the Department of Housing and Urban Development had contracted with ABT Associates to count the people experiencing homelessness in America, including veterans.

ABT project director Alvaro Cortes explained how the numbers are massaged. This is called “imputing,” and it must be done because HUD knows how sketchy those reported numbers really are. For instance, volunteer population counters didn’t ask street people if they were veterans. And for some reason, HUD wasn’t counting any vets staying in VA shelters as homeless.

The official count is made every two years over a single 24-hour period. Some people are not found. Some don’t want to be enumerated. Joe Pappalardo describes the situation as it stood when he started researching the story:

In 2010, the actual head count of homeless veterans registered 61,011 people…. To reflect the homeless veterans the PIT count missed, HUD “imputed”– that is, they estimated — the number and added 15,318 homeless veterans to the official 2010 statistic.

In 2010 (and before), HUD’s imputations determined the number of unsheltered homeless vets by taking the percentage of the homeless vets reported in CoC shelters and applying that to the total number of unsheltered homeless tallied in the PIT. This added thousands of presumed homeless veterans to the statistic. The unadjusted 2010 PIT determined that 36,389 vets were in shelters and 24,728 were on the street; the adjusted 2010 count gives 43,437 sheltered and 32,892 unsheltered.

As of 2010, ABT had developed at least 10 different ways to “impute.” This imputing, Cortes told the writer, is to “reach the most accurate count.” Here is a basic question: How can they possibly determine which imputing algorithm produces the most accurate count, without knowing the actual number as a basis for comparison? And if they knew the actual number, there would be no need to impute. It all seems very arbitrary.

Start with the less confusing part, the numbers of street people reported by volunteers. It’s understandable why some adjustment might be needed. Take the number from the actual count and hypothesize possible scenarios that would augment that number. Apply an “imputing” formula and extrapolate a new number.

But why?

But. Why did the number of veterans in shelters need to be “imputed”? You’d think those numbers would be accurate. How many veterans are in temporary quarters under the jurisdiction of the VA? Isn’t the military famously meticulous about record-keeping? Were accurate records of shelter visits not being kept? And if not, why not? Those figures are of immense importance to the well-being of so many Americans.

Another question. Are patients in VA hospitals, with no place to be discharged to, counted among the homeless? Because they quite possibly might be, the moment they get out of there. Counting homeless veterans isn’t easy, and it seems at times that the underlying reason for the project is not “how can we get an accurate count?” but “how can we fiddle with the statistics to get a number we can convincingly brand as accurate?”

Pappalardo asked some of the same questions and pursued the answers. A lot of places do yearly counts of the homeless, and in 2011, volunteers were told to ask each interviewee if they were “a member or a former member of the U.S. armed services.” He wrote:

The way HUD counted veterans living in VA-run homeless shelters changed from 2010 to 2011 too. Veterans Affairs runs about 6000 emergency shelter beds in the nation; before 2011, CoCs were adjusting their counts to include these VA programs by taking the average number of beds that were occupied on any given night — about 86 percent in 2010 — and applying that across the board to get an estimate for the whole country. But those numbers didn’t match up to the VA’s statistics, and so in 2011, HUD instructed the CoCs and VA groups to reconcile the list and give a full inventory of beds for homeless veterans.

Okay, reconciling two sets of numbers is a good first step. Next: the part that critics had trouble with.

Reactions?

Source: “How Does Washington D.C. Count America’s Homeless Vets?” PopularMechanics.com, 01/19/12
Image by Richard Masoner

 

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The Biennial Homeless Tally

Homeless Person - Sunny UmbrellaThe Department of Housing and Urban Development requires a biennial census of people experiencing homelessness. How is it carried out? Last time around, Popular Mechanics magazine offered this explanation:

In the third week of January every other year, thousands of volunteers across the country fan out for one night to count the homeless on the streets. These snapshots, called Point in Time (PIT) counts, are the only nationwide metric available to gauge the country’s homeless people living outside of shelters. Homeless aid groups, called Continuums of Care (CoC) in federal lingo, are responsible for these counts.

The object is to tally up, within a 24-hour period, both the sheltered and the rough sleepers. The unsheltered condition also includes living in an abandoned building, tent or car. Volunteers come from churches, agencies, organizations, temporary shelters, bad-weather shelters and other aid groups. The volunteers are out there slogging around in below-zero weather, concentrating on areas where the homeless are known to congregate. Ironically, these gathering places are called “hot spots.”

But it seems that on a winter night, any homeless person with access to a shed, culvert, stairwell, or any other possible hidey-hole would be there, and pretty much undetectable. This counting method has been questioned for other reasons, too. A family of six might be crammed into a relative’s unheated garage, which is certainly not a home, but the count would miss them. It would also miss a teenager sleeping on some adult’s fold-out sofa.

Training

In Stroudsburg, Penn., churches have been facilitating “first experiences” where volunteers are urged to mingle with the homeless people who are there to eat. It’s a warm-up exercise to help volunteers get over the awkwardness of meeting people they might be nervous about. In practice sessions, volunteers ask one another survey questions; in theory, each survey takes about five minutes.

Out on the actual streets, nobody has to answer any questions. But it’s important for more than one reason. The information can help to procure funds, and it can also influence how society perceives the unhoused. For instance, the last count of Monroe County’s homeless indicated that “[m]ore than half were disabled, one in three were U.S. military veterans and less than one out of 10 had ever been incarcerated.”

So, with at least half of those individuals, there is no point in hissing “just get a job.” They probably can’t — they’re disabled. Of course, some disabled people are capable of doing some jobs with total competence. But with so many able-bodied workers unable to find jobs, what chance do the disabled have?

At any rate, the various jurisdictions can’t apply for HUD funds unless they turn in the numbers. The problem is, what with one thing and another, counting is far from an exact science. In 2013, HUD said homelessness was down by 3.7%, while the Conference of Mayors said it had risen 4% — a nearly 8% difference, amounting to a significant margin of error. We hear that homelessness has decreased in the nation or in a state, but reports keep coming in from various cities that show worrisome local increases.

Many municipalities also count the homeless in the off-years that are not federally required, and many encounter unpleasant surprises. To pick a random example, the area encompassed by Escambia and Santa Rosa counties in northwest Florida found that its 2013 school year ended with more than 3,000 students homeless. In the same territory, 168 homeless military veterans were counted.

And this is where things get interesting. More next time.

Reactions?

Source: “How Does Washington D.C. Count America’s Homeless Vets?” PopularMechanics.com, 01/19/12
Source: “Homeless count of unsheltered sets fed. funding,” PoconoRecord.com, 01/22/14
Source: “2014 Point-In-Time Homeless Survey Underway,” WUWF.org, 01/22/14
Image by Colin Davis

 

 

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Money Talks — About Homelessness

Hopeless“Money talks, and bull**** walks.” Everybody knows that old saying. Hard cash can get you anything; a mouthful of hot air, not so much. If you believe in something, place your bet — otherwise, hit the road, Jack.

The maxim has another, more subtle layer of meaning. Sometimes the numbers add up to irrefutable fiscal facts, to the point where any sane person or society will see that money obviously must be spent on things like Housing First programs. Sometimes the arguments against spending it in such a way are a mixture of outdated, unsubstantiated ideas and emotional objections. In other words, BS.

As things stand, a lot of money is spent in counterproductive ways, which means wasted. Look at Orlando, Fla., where the Healthcare Center for the Homeless started keeping track of how many people are brought up on charges that might as well read “Breathing While Homeless.” Six months’ research by outreach specialist Brad Sefter found at least 465 such arrests. Then a local television station made inquiries:

WFTV found out Orlando police and the Orange County Jail don’t track the number of arrests for sleeping outside, so there’s no way to tell how much it’s costing taxpayers.

Wait, what? Shouldn’t the reasons for all arrests be part of the public record? Is it now acceptable in America to jail large numbers of people and not even note the reason for posterity? The reporter sought out an individual case:

Ronald Hines, a homeless man living in Orlando, said his crime of sleeping in the wrong place sent him on a downward spiral. “I got arrested for sleeping on the streets,” he said. “I went to jail, they gave me a court cost. A court cost I could not pay because I wasn’t working.” Hines was arrested again a short time later for the unpaid fine.

Eventually, it took a county judge’s access and willingness to do a records search, to find that “homeless arrests are costing that county millions.” This is typical of many cities throughout the land, and an example of how money talks — and it’s saying, This is stupid. There has to be a better way.

This doesn’t even touch on the disturbing subject of people who break the law on purpose, in order to have a place to stay, even if that place has steel bars. What does money say? Find another way. Because this way doesn’t only hurt the individual and mess up his chance to ever pull it together. It harms Mr. and Mrs. Taxpayer. Aren’t there better uses for public funds? Schools? Recreational facilities to prevent childhood obesity? Libraries?

Speaking of which, House the Homeless has focused before on the impact of homelessness absorbed by public libraries. Here is an update from the current issue of The Atlantic, specifically an excerpt from American Psychosis: How the Federal Government Destroyed the Mental Illness Treatment System, by E. Fuller Torrey, MD:

Many libraries have become day centers for mentally ill people who are homeless or living in board-and-care homes. A 2009 survey of 124 public libraries, randomly selected from all parts of the United States, asked about “patrons who appear to have serious psychiatric disorders.” The librarians reported that such individuals had “disturbed or otherwise affected the use of the library” in 92 percent of the libraries and “assaulted library staff members” in 28 percent. Eighty-five percent of the libraries had had to call the police because of the behavior of such patrons.

All that law enforcement costs a bundle of cash. The vicious cycle of jail-street-jail may be an effective employment program for cops, guards and court clerks, but it is the worst solution yet. It becomes more clear every day that communities can save an enormous amount by facing homelessness head-on and creating places for people to live. There is no room for feelings about the people who need to be housed, or judgment about why they need to be housed, or any of that noise. All that stuff is BS that needs to take a walk. When it becomes apparent that a pervasive problem can be handled better, with fewer tax dollars spent, money is talking at the top of its lungs, and money is the voice that needs to be heard.

Reactions?

Source: “Arresting homeless people for sleeping outside costs taxpayers,” WFTV.com, 12/25/13
Source: “Libraries Are the New Homeless Shelters,” TheAtlantic.com, 12/22/13
Image by Just Add Light

 

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Let’s Talk Dollars

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

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

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

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

O Canada

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The southern hemisphere

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

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

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

Reactions?

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

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