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

Living Wage

What Higher Minimum Wage Does for Workers and the Economy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard R. Troxell

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

Image by Lynn Friedman

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Why Do Some Homeless People Shun Shelters?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Good, the Bad and the Worse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reactions?

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

 

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Veteran Makeover Confuses Homeless Issues

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

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

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

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

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

Smoke and Mirrors

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

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

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

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

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

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

Into the Wayback Machine

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

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

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

This constant whitewashing of our problems is the problem.


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

 

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Veteran Abuse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The troops on the ground

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

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

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

At last

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

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

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

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

Reactions?

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

 

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Memorial – Why Do the Homeless Die?

House the Homeless Memorial TreeAustin’s annual Homeless Memorial Sunrise Service is coming up on the 17th at 6:57 a.m. It will be held at Auditorium Shores, at South First and Riverside Drive (on the south side of Lady Bird Lake). For people anywhere in the area, that’s the important thing to know, so it’s right here at the top. The custom is for someone to read the names of all the homeless people who died in Austin in the past year. Last year 156 names were read.

Other cities with hearts hold similar events, of course, and there are poverty-related deaths in every large city. People who live on the streets, in makeshift camps and even in official shelters are vulnerable in so many ways. Malnutrition is almost a certainty, and starvation a possibility. Lack of food is considered the least newsworthy cause of death and suffering on the streets, with violent deaths and assaults attracting far more attention. For instance, Young Lee, co-founder of the Pinkberry frozen yogurt company, could be sentenced to as many as seven years for brutally beating a homeless man with a tire iron in Los Angeles. Allegedly, Lee also tried to intimidate witnesses. Depending on who tells the story, there may have been provocation, but the violence was certainly not unavoidable.

A recent headline reads, “It Is Illegal To Feed The Homeless In Cities All Over The United States.” What happened in Raleigh, N.C., this August when members of the Love Wins organization attempted to continue their years-long practice of bringing breakfast sandwiches and coffee to hungry people? An uncredited author relates the story:

On that morning three officers from Raleigh Police Department prevented us from doing our work, for the first time ever. An officer said, quite bluntly, that if we attempted to distribute food, we would be arrested.

Our partnering church brought 100 sausage biscuits and large amounts of coffee. We asked the officers for permission to disperse the biscuits to the over 70 people who had lined up, waiting to eat. They said no. I had to face those who were waiting and tell them that I could not feed them, or I would be arrested.

In Denver, a charming law “makes it illegal for anyone to sleep or sit and cover themselves against the elements with anything except their clothing.” The presence of a blanket turns the offense into unauthorized camping, punishable by a fine or up to a year in jail. Flagstaff, Ariz., made news when an undercover police officer with nothing better to do than harass the homeless arrested a 77-year-old woman who asked for bus money. As the Love Wins writer points out, more than 50 large cities in America now have anti-camping and/or anti-food sharing laws.

Sometimes the goal appears to be to get the homeless people to go away. Apparently the heartless politicians that are passing these laws believe that if the homeless can’t get any more free food and if they keep getting thrown into prison for “illegal camping” they will eventually decide to go somewhere else where they won’t be hassled so much.

In Boise, Idaho, the American Civil Liberties Union is engaged in a federal lawsuit, “arguing that the city’s recently-passed anti-panhandling ordinance was in violation of the First Amendment…” While the the mayor’s office characterizes the law as “carefully crafted to prevent aggressive solicitation while still ensuring the protection of all citizens’ right to free speech,” ACLU board member Erika Birch disagrees:

The ordinance criminalizes certain speech and expression and specifically restricts words that a person can use in the City of Boise, particularly in the downtown core area. It goes too far and violates constitutionally [protected] speech.

The venerable organization has also succeeded in having Michigan’s anti-begging law, which has been in place for 85 years, declared unconstitutional. TakePart.com adds:

Just this year, the ACLU sued on behalf of homeless men and women opposing begging bans in Indianapolis, Indiana and Worcester, Massachusetts, among other cities, also as violations of free speech and peacefully soliciting money in public. The ACLU of Colorado sued the city of Colorado Springs last November, and an injunction was granted to stop their downtown panhandling ban until it was repealed in March.

The city council of Columbia, S.C., got off on the wrong foot earlier this fall by unanimously voting that people experiencing homelessness should be collected and sequestered in a 240-bed camp outside of town. They would be unable to leave without permission, and the place didn’t even have cooking facilities when this ambitious plan was set to begin. If they didn’t want to go there, the alternative would be jail. But even the police, who would be responsible for the rounding up and guarding, backed away from implementation. The interim police chief, Ruben Santiago, stated:

Homelessness is not a crime. We can’t just take people to somewhere they don’t want to go. I can’t do that. I won’t do that.

So the new plan is to give people a van ride to the shelter and let them stay as long as a week, voluntarily, while workers try to sort out how they can best be helped. The city also promises to install public restrooms and trash cans, and to institute a homeless court.

Hart Island

Bonus Homeless Death Trivia

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan, writing for Gizmodo, reported on a place whose existence is little known: a tiny island in New York City called Hart Island, “the largest publicly funded cemetery in the world.” In this modern-day potter’s field, there is one deceased person for every eight currently living New Yorkers. Their number is pretty darn close to a million, and a lot of them died homeless.

Currently run by the Department of Corrections, the mass graveyard is closed to the public and infamous for lousy record-keeping. If you were wondering whether prisoners bury the dead, the answer is yes. They do the final honors, presumably with the awareness that they will likely end up in this very same mass grave. A criminal record is practically a guarantee of lifelong unemployment. Furthermore, even working stiffs can’t afford places to live. A lot of both kinds of people end up homeless, so you do the math.

As a warning, the grim assignment is ineffective. No matter how sincerely a prisoner might intend to change his ways, the topography of society rarely permits a new start down a different path. Everyone chosen for this work detail has an excellent chance of winding up at the other end of a Hart Island shovel.

Reactions?

Source: “Pinkberry Co-Founder Convicted of Beating Homeless Man With Tire Iron,” Gawker.com, 11/08/13
Source: “It Is Illegal To Feed The Homeless In Cities All Over The United States,” JewsNews.co.il, 11/08/13
Source: “Urban Camping Ticket Issued to Woman for Trying to Stay Warm,” denverhomelessoutloud.org, 11/02/13
Source: “ACLU Sues City of Boise Over Anti-Panhandling Ordinance,” BoiseWeekly.com, 11/04/13
Source: “The Crime of Poverty: Some Homeless People Face Arrest for Asking for Help,” TakePart.com, 10/09/13
Source: “Columbia, South Carolina Rescinds Decision To Criminalize Homelessness,” HuffingtonPost.com, 09/09/13
Source: “What We Found at Hart Island, The Largest Mass Grave Site In the U.S.,” Gizmodo.com, 11/07/13
Image by David Trawin

 

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Solving Homelessness Faces Two Problems: Awareness and Cost

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Few people are aware that millions of people in this country are facing hard economic times that rival the Great Depression. We see a few people on our street corners with hand written signs like: “Will work for food” or “Anything helps…God Bless”. We quickly write them off as panhandlers. But did you know that US Veterans who have served our nation honorably and valiantly now make up a third of all people experiencing homelessness? Did you know that one of the fastest growing segments of people experiencing homelessness are women with children? This is the result of whole families falling into poverty. Did you also know that the fastest growing segment of the homeless population are female veterans with children? Or did you know that as a result, the age of the average person experiencing homelessness is just nine (9) years old?

Wages Are the Problem

The US Conference of Mayors have released numerous reports explaining that under the existing Federal Minimum Wage standard, a full-time, 40 hour a week worker can’t afford basic rental housing. That’s why there are thousands of full time minimum wage workers with a paycheck in their pocket while they live on the streets of America.

Who among us realizes that the federal government with the Federal Minimum Wage being so deficient ($7.25 per hour) is now the greatest creator of homelessness in this nation?  As a result, minimum wage workers are falling out of the workforce and into homelessness. These workers now comprise half the homeless population. The other half consists of people who cannot work. The Government stipend for the ones who can’t work (disabled workers) who get SSI, is only about half the amount that fails under the Federal Minimum Wage or about $4.22 per hour!

This is why our organization, House the Homeless, supports efforts to implement a National Living Wage and Discharge No One Into Homelessness, both detailed in Prevent Homelessness: The Universal Living Wage Whitepaper.

Costly Solutions

The costs to support people who are homeless are in the billions of dollars.  In Austin, Texas, our municipality (like so many others) spends millions of dollars every year just to deal with the problem on an ongoing basis, such as building emergency shelters. Austin’s Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH) cost $8 million dollars to build and was designed to serve only 100 people. Note: Our homeless population is estimated to be around 4,000+ people. We have separate shelters for men, women and children. Last year people experiencing homelessness used one of our major hospitals and its emergency room to the tune of $3,000,000. We have increased our police force specifically to deal with “Quality of Life” ordinances directed at people experiencing homelessness such as; no sitting, no lying down, no loitering, no camping, no solicitation etc.  As a result, we have now created an entire separate court system to deal specifically with legal problems stemming from people being homeless in our city. These expenses and so much more are directly and indirectly being paid for by the taxpayers of our city.

The mission of House the Homeless Incorporated is Education and Advocacy. Most of the people in America have no idea about the facts listed above.   They see these people on our street corners while on their way to work and angrily ask, “Why don’t they get a job?”  They see them as “bums” and “dole” seekers. They don’t realize that the two financial standards set by the Federal Government has lead to their homelessness and is now destroying their lives and acting like a lead anchor around the neck of the taxpayer.

The Proposed Statues Commemorating Austin’s Homeless

House the Homeless has proposed a statute commemorating the men, women and children, who have lived and died on our streets. Last year, we read the names of 157 people. We want to raise awareness about this correctable situation. The statue depicts three road weary homeless individuals who have a chance encounter on a cold winter’s night. The characters involve a veteran, his daughter and an elderly Afro-American woman. It is entitled: The Homecoming.

The Concept

The Veteran approaches a barrel fire with his young daughter in hand. They stop to warm themselves. He places his backpack down on the ground where he can keep an eye on it. It contains all that’s left of their belongings. He securely tucks his daughter beneath his coat pressed against his outside thigh. He then rubs his cracked hands together feeling the warmth of the fire. He is lost in his own thoughts. Promises of “America the Beautiful” have been betrayed. He sacrificed his youth and in return, only gained the aching hollowness left behind by lost brothers.  He will go on because he has true grit. But he is shop-worn. He is angry but he swallows his anger for his daughter. His anger is suppressed and has been supplanted with the drive to bring his daughter into a better world if he can only find it. His gaze is lost staring into the fire as happens to people late at night at the end of a very, very long day…. or after years of searching for “the promised land.”

There is interaction between the old woman and the child. The old woman ever so slowly comes from out of the darkness lugging her satchels and bags. The child sees her first, because in spite of everything, her young spirit remains alive…vital. The old woman is defeated. She may well have partial cataracts following decades absent of medical care. She has lost everything. She has raised three children. One is now dead and two are blowing in the wind. Her husband just left one day and never returned. She is in the absolute darkness. She trudges. She is coming from nowhere and is going to nowhere. She is coming out of the woods toward the light of the fire. When she first sees the flicker of the fire’s light in her upper vision, she is not sure of the shadowy figures behind it.

The little girl sees her and sees the old woman as a possible companion…perhaps a kindred spirit who may know the secrets to the future and what it holds for her. Together, they are reflections of one another’s past and future.

The old woman now drawn closer to the camp, is still hard pressed to see and understand the intentions of the man and daughter now seen clearly warming themselves by the fire. Haltingly, she closes the gap between them and then she freezes. The man aroused from his reverie focuses on the woman. With his hand on his daughters shoulder, he senses her excitement. Astutely, the father assesses the scene and with his lowered right hand signals to the old woman that indeed she is welcome in their camp and in fact…encouraged. The moment’s essence envelops the old woman. She is being welcomed into their camp…their home. She is being beckoned…welcomed home…no questions…encouraged. She is emotionally and physically overwhelmed. Her satchels… her burdens, drop the last 1-½ feet to the ground. There is a look of awe, wonderment, relief, joy…even tears. The energy release can be seen in her shoulders…her entire being.  The statue is called The Homecoming.

Project Costs

The cost to make this life-size bronze statue was first determined to be $200,000. Since the newspaper articles first ran, two world-class sculptors have come forward asking to sculpt it. One has a foundry and has offered to produce the trio for $100,000, or half the original expected cost.

By not understanding the costs of dealing with homelessness, some people have questioned this expenditure. “Think how many homeless people this money could help?”  Well, as stated, homelessness is a grossly expensive endeavor. For further example, Texas Star Recovery will provide a 5-7 day Detox program for $6,600 coupled with the requisite 30 day Treatment Program for $19,000 for a total of $25,600. So it costs $102,400 just to get four (4) people ready to be housed.

As stated, programs designed to help people experiencing homelessness are grossly expensive. But that said, we will build this statue for about the same as it will take us to help four people to get ready to be housed.

In any event, it takes money to make money. We will build this statue without one dime of taxpayer money. We will generate new, untapped funds because we will place this statute where people live who do not even understand that homelessness exists across our land.

We will place it where people who are busily going on with their daily lives are unaware that 10% of the entire nation are suffering a silent Great Depression of a magnitude never before seen in this country.

They will see the statue and stop. They will ask, “What is that little girl doing in that homeless statue? And they will learn that she represents the age of an average person experiencing homelessness in this country.

They will see that old woman and ask, “Why is she in that homeless statue?” They will learn that it is because she represents the economic disintegration of the poor working family in this country.

They will stop and ask how can there be even one homeless United States Veteran in this nation, especially when we have a Cabinet level Department — The United States Department of Veterans Affairs — funded by billions of taxpayer dollars?

This statue will be a beacon of hope for millions of people experiencing homelessness. It will generate awareness, understanding, conversation, questions, and the compassion necessary to generate the REAL funds necessary to purge us of this attack upon our homeland.

Finally, Austin, Texas fancies itself, “The Live Music Capitol of the World.” This year alone, it generated close to a quarter of a billion dollars in music related revenue. At the same time, the Health Alliance of Austin Musicians (HAAM), the Austin group helping uninsured musicians (another population that lives hand to mouth), provided healthcare for only about 600 musicians who need help. No one has suggested that we melt down the bronze of either the Stevie Ray Vaughn statue or the Willie Nelson statue to cover more musicians with healthcare. Why? Because these statues are symbols, beacons of hope, that will continue in perpetuity to inspire people and make them want to support the music scene and their musical heroes.

Well, veterans, families, and children are my heroes.

 

 

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Happening Now: War on the Poor

War on the Poor

Today, problems aren’t solved, they’re attacked. Like the War on Poverty. Remember that? I’m happy to report that it’s finally over. The poor people have all surrendered.
— Swami Beyondananda

Yes, there used to be a thing called the War on Poverty, declared by a president named Lyndon B. Johnson. Although opinions about it differ, still, the War on Poverty was preferable to what we have now — the War on the Poor.

It’s not even an undeclared war, it’s right out there in the open. In different communities, the authorities come at it in different ways, sometimes direct, but often tangential, which is more difficult for homeless advocates to deal with. House the Homeless blog has reported extensively on the No-Sit, No-Lie Ordinance in its home city of Austin, Texas, and on similar measures in other places.

In a recent article for TakePart.com, Solvej Schou expressed concern that peaceful begging, just asking for food or money with no aggression involved, is increasingly being criminalized by anti-panhandling and anti-solicitation laws now in effect in nearly 200 American cities.

Alley Valkyrie, an activist in Eugene, Oregon, received a criminal trespass citation for touching a planter box outside a restaurant and made national news by publicizing the incident as an example of how selective enforcement can make life miserable for people experiencing homelessness. Also, Eugene has something called an “exclusion law” whereby a judge can ban from the city center people accused, but not even yet convicted, of certain crimes. This prevents folks in need from accessing services, and basically from even existing in the designated area, even though they are not officially guilty of anything.

Things are still hot in Miami, Florida, where just last month a federal judge heard ACLU attorneys argue against modification of the Pottinger Settlement Agreement, a piece of legislation peculiar to Miami. Around 15 years ago, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the city on behalf of all its people experienceing homelessness. The organization’s website says:

The landmark settlement — won after a decade of litigation involving two trials, two appeals, and nearly two years of mediation — protects homeless individuals from being harassed or arrested by law enforcement for the purpose of driving them from public areas.

Law Professor Stephen Schnably, who has been involved with this matter all along, adds:

Transforming downtown into a constitution-free zone for homeless people is a Faustian bargain with no payoff. Eviscerating the Pottinger protections — what the City is effectively seeking — would do nothing to make downtown more vibrant. All it would do is strip homeless people of the basic human and constitutional right not to be arrested or have their property destroyed just for being homeless.

Also last month, Memphis, TN, looked bad when a program called Room in the Inn, which provides one night of shelter for several individuals, was forbidden at a Methodist church in a neighborhood called Evergreen which had planned to participate. In order to have overnight guests, you see, a church must own at least five acres of property. In Spartanburg, SC, a church made itself look bad by refusing help from local atheists who wanted to volunteer at its soup kitchen. The atheists responded by deciding instead to distribute packets of health and grooming aids from a location across the street.

In Anaheim, CA, the city council went full speed ahead with the unanimous passing of an ordinance which “imposes a ban on camping in parks and other public spaces while allowing for the confiscation of property deemed abandoned.” In practical terms this means that the belongings of people experiencing homelessness can be seized and destroyed by the police while the owner is eating, showering, or using a restroom.

That battle has already been fought and won in Los Angeles, where the Ninth Circuit court decided that stealing such property violates the victims’ 4th and 14th Amendment rights, but Anaheim is going for it anyway. Even at the best of times, less than half of the city’s people experiencing homelessness can fit into the local shelter, but that does not stop Anaheim from attempting to make public sleeping a crime.

Learn at a glance

For an instantaneous education in the current state of homelessness, please consult the infographic.”Gimme Shelter: Homeless in America,” curated by Roslyn Willson. As would reasonably be expected in this genre, the facts are presented in visually elegant terms. The presentation format is especially journalist-friendly, with everything repeated in plain text, making it easy for a reporter or blogger to quote something. Well played, Ms. Willson! The same technique is shared by another infographic, “The War Against the Homeless,” so please check out both of them and see what you’ve been missing.

Source: “The Crime of Poverty: Some Homeless People Face Arrest for Asking for Help,” TakePart.com, 10/09/13
Source: “Activists: trespass tickets aimed at homeless,” KVAL.com, 03/10/12
Source: “ACLU of Florida Defends Historic Agreement Protecting Miami’s Homeless from Police Harassment in Federal Court,” ACLUFL.org, 10/23/13
Source: “City code stops certain churches from housing the homeless,” WMCTV.com, 10/25/13
Source: “Christianity makes monsters of people, part two: atheists banned from helping the homeless,” Freethinker.co.uk, 10/27/13
Source: “ACLU: Anaheim’s Anti-Homeless Crackdown Legally “Disingenuous’,” OCWeekly.com, 10/28/13
Image by Occupy.

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More on Homeless Veterans and Corruption, Cont.

Pills and boozeWe left off with how the Veterans Administration dragged its feet — in the face of scientific evidence, dire need, and special legislation — on the issue of damage done to U.S. Military personnel by Agent Orange. If thousands of disability claims had to be honored, the health care costs would be enormous. Subsequent to Senator Daschle’s exposure of fraud in the investigation, such groups as the Vietnam Veterans of America and the American Legion accused the government of a massive coverup.

In 1990, the House Government Operations Committee released a report charging that the Reagan administration had purposely controlled and obstructed the Agent Orange study three years earlier. According to the U.S. Veteran Dispatch:

The White House compromised the independence of the CDC [Centers for Disease Control] and undermined the study by controlling crucial decisions and guiding the course of research at the same time it had secretly taken a legal position to resist demands to compensate victims of Agent Orange exposure…

To veterans with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, or their surviving dependents, the VA was ordered to pay compensation. This financial liability is on the U.S. taxpayers, rather than the war profiteers who made the defoliant. And even if the government had admitted to using the wrong sort of chemical, or to not using it in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendations, so what? The only money the government has comes from the taxpayers, who would still end up footing the bill.

An interesting question

Between the end of the Vietnam war in 1975, and the 2010 “automatic funding” of Agent Orange claims, 35 years elapsed. During those years, how many homeless veterans were created or affected by illnesses that Agent Orange caused? With a sickness they couldn’t get treatment for, how many tried to cope on their own with pain and stress, and developed addictions? Impossible to know, but any number would be too many.

And, speaking of addiction, before judging a homeless vet for being a junkie, we might take a minute to think about how the monkey got onto that person’s back, and who put it there. Earlier this year, a very disturbing piece of investigative journalism by Richard A. Friedman appeared in The New York Times. He says frontline troops in Iraq and Afghanistan were fed generous amounts of “sedatives, stimulants and mood stabilizers.” He points out that, although combat troop levels in those places were reduced since 2008, the years from 2005 to 2011 saw a nearly 700% increase in pharmaceutical prescriptions.

In other words, for every service member in a combat zone who was given psychoactive drugs in, say, 2006, more than six times as many were on these meds in, say, 2010. In addition to the aforementioned categories, the pills include plenty of antipsychotics, which are the treatment of choice for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, even though knowledgeable experts are not convinced of their effectiveness against that condition. But the military prescribes these substances to service members, not only post-trauma, but literally in the midst of the trauma, i.e., in combat. Friedman writes:

We have no idea whether it’s effective — or safe — to use antipsychotic drugs on a continuing basis to treat war-related stress or to numb or sedate those affected by it.

As if that weren’t bad enough, one of the possible side effects is tardive dyskinesia, which is not a disease in itself, but a movement disorder with many possible causes. Alan Wilson worked as a laborer for 25 years, and his doctor believes he got tardive dyskinesia from a flu shot. His daughter’s “About” narrative and updates are horrifying, and Ashley Wilson makes the point that if she had not been there to take him in, her father would now be homeless.

What, you may ask, is our point? Here it is: An excellent reason for familiarizing oneself with tardive dyskinesia is to stretch the compassion muscle. On the street or at the soup kitchen, that weirdly behaving person might not be a shiftless drunk or a burned-out crackhead. He or she might be a regular American with a solid work history, who was struck by a terrifying medical crisis. He or she might be a veteran who was overdosed with anti-psychotic meds. Just a thought.

Source: “The Story of Agent Orange,” November 1990
Source: “Wars on Drugs,” The New York Times, 04/06/13
Source: “Alan Wilson — Tardive Dyskinesia,” YouTube.com, 09/22/09
Image by Thunderchild7.

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More on Homeless Veterans and Corruption

The Vietnam Veterans MemorialWith several posts already covering corruption as it impacts homeless veterans,  wouldn’t you think the subject would be exhausted? Apparently not. Let’s recap and then catch up.

In 1962, in Southeast Asia, the U.S. Military implemented Operation Ranch Hand, which sprayed herbicides to defoliate the area so there would be fewer places for the enemy to hide. Nobody even knows how much herbicide was involved. For Agent Orange alone, somewhere between 12 and 20 million gallons is the best guess.

Damaged veterans who tried to sue Monsanto were out of luck, partly because the company claimed that the military used the defoliant in Vietnam at “six to 25 times the rate suggested by the manufacturer,” so it wasn’t their fault. The military claimed it didn’t know how damaging the chemicals would be, either to the people of Vietnam whose hearts and minds they were supposedly trying to win, or to the American servicemen and servicewomen deployed there, and nothing can lessen the infamy of that untruth.

This information comes from a very long and detailed report published by the U.S. Veteran Dispatch, which says:

There are strong indications that not only were military officials aware as early as 1967 of the limited effectiveness of chemical defoliation, they knew of potential long-term health risks of frequent spraying and sought to keep that information from the public by managing news reports.

What’s the point of all this history? Tonight, there are Vietnam veterans in alleys and shelter beds who never were able to hold a job or pull themselves together, because of health conditions resulting from Agent Orange exposure for which they were unable to get any help.

Task force

In 1979 the National Veterans Task Force on Agent Orange was created, and charged with discovering just how many vets had been exposed. The Centers for Disease Control spent $43 million tax dollars on that project and ended up with results that the Institute of Medicine characterized as either “monumentally bungled” or “politically rigged.” All along, the occasional veteran had tried to sue the government for medical problems resulting from Agent Orange, but they were always blocked by something called the Feres Doctrine, which basically says no one can sue the government for anything that happens to them in the service.

In 1984, a new law required the Veterans Administration to get to work on establishing compensation standards for both soft tissue sarcoma (frequently associated with Agent Orange exposure) and atomic radiation damage. The VA did not, as the saying goes, get the memo. The agency that was created to help veterans continued to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to Agent Orange exposure claims.

Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Jr. was among the officers whose direct orders had caused Agent Orange to be sprayed. His son, also a Vietnam veteran, became fatally ill with Hodgkin’s disease and lymphoma and Zumwalt got on the case. He said the government “intentionally manipulated or withheld compelling information on the adverse health effects.” When this grieving, high-ranking father charged the government with denying justice to veterans, things began to happen.

Authority speaks

Military scientist Dr. James Clary was one of the team that initially green-lighted Agent Orange. These lines are from a letter he wrote in 1988 to answer congressional questions:

We were aware of the potential for damage due to dioxin contamination in the herbicide. We were even aware that the ‘military’ formulation had a higher dioxin concentration than the ‘civilian’ version… However, because the material was to be used on the ‘enemy,’ none of us were overly concerned. We never considered a scenario in which our own personnel would become contaminated with the herbicide.

Wait, what? Hel-lo! Duh! And every other colloquial expression of utter dumbfoundment. Say that again? How could they not have noticed that the grunts — tens of thousands of them — were crawling around down on the ground, just like the Viet Cong? Here is what else Dr. Clary said:

And, if we had, we would have expected our own government to give assistance to veterans so contaminated.

Hah! Might as well expect assistance from the Tooth Fairy or a genie in a bottle. And then along came Tom Daschle, a senator from South Dakota, who cast all kinds of aspersions on the 1984 report about Operation Ranch Hand and the birth defects afflicting the children of service members who had encountered Agent Orange. An earlier version of the document showed certain results, but then there was monkey business, and Sen. Daschle said:

The Air Force deleted these findings from the final report at the suggestion of a Ranch Hand Advisory Committee set up by the White House Agent Orange Working Group.

Plus, there were two different versions of the minutes of the meeting in which that pressure was applied. Daschle called foul. The U.S. Veteran Dispatch says:

Part of the fraud appears to have been perpetrated by the Monsanto Corp., which produces a number of chemicals containing dioxin. Monsanto knowingly rigged test results of employees who had been exposed to dioxin to make the effects of it appear far less than it actually was… This type of fraud appears to have been perpetrated regularly in connection with Agent Orange research…

(To be continued…)

Reactions?

Source: “The Story of Agent Orange,” November 1990
Image by Ben Schumin.

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The Year in Homeless Veteran Housing, Part 3

Homeless Vet @ Ferry BuildingLet’s see, where did we leave off? With the Veterans Administration finally fixing up some derelict buildings on bitterly-contested land in the middle of Los Angeles. Elsewhere in the sprawling metropolis, an apartment complex is under construction, meant to house chronically homeless disabled vets age 62 and over.

This is happening in Boyle Heights, a heavily ethnic and very low-income area bordered by Chinatown, Downtown, and East LA. Astonishingly, the neighborhood contains “opponents of affordable housing” who stalled the project in the typical ways and for the typical reasons.

Gloria Angelina Castillo described the objectors’ point of view:

They oppose such projects because they do not give priority to local residents and because they exclude undocumented immigrants in the mostly Latino community, while bringing in the homeless from other parts of the city. They in turn draw their homeless associates to loiter in the area. Residents worry that the chronically homeless suffer from mental illness…

We’re only talking about 32 one-bedroom units, and tenants probably too tired and broken to get up to much mischief, or even to entertain much company. Besides, there will be support, such as on-site case management and mental health services. The two main groups involved are the East LA Community Corporation (ELACC) and New Directions for Veterans, Inc., with additional help from the LA County Department of Military Affairs, Department of Veteran Affairs, the East L YMCA, and Behavioral Health Services.

The intentions are honorable, but this is not quite yet a success story, because the facility is expected to be complete in a year, and who knows what could happen between now and then. As this is being written, the government is in paralysis, and quite a few projects and people are suffering already.

As House the Homeless has mentioned before, a homeless woman veteran can be a special problematic case. For instance, one or more dependent children may be experiencing homelessness along with her. But there are other, less obvious reasons. Reporter Susan Abram learned from Michelle Wildy of the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System:

Many women, when we initially outreach to them, may not even identify themselves as veterans. They still think of that stereotype of a man coming back from war.

There are also vets of both sexes who assume that to be eligible for any benefits at all, they would have to be a “lifer” with a 20-year career behind them. Wildy is part of an outreach team that spends time in Hollywood and the beach communities of Venice and Santa Monica looking for female veterans in danger of being left behind, who need to know they have earned the same care and benefits as men. A typical team consists of a social worker, a psychiatrist, a nurse practitioner, and a formerly homeless veteran.

The formation of such teams was spurred by the realization that the greater Los Angeles area contained around 1,000 homeless women vets. Since their inception, 3,000 homeless veterans have been housed, of whom 10% were women, which means roughly 300 out of the identified 1,000. Of the national scene, Abram says:

With some federal funds from the Obama administration’s ‘Opening Doors’ initiative, the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) Program has given projects like Wildy’s a boost in finding housing and assistance to homeless veterans.

This year, the HUD-VASH program received $75 million in federal funding to continue to offer rental assistance from HUD with case management and clinical services provided by the VA.

In all, 58,140 vouchers have been awarded since 2008 and 43,371 formerly homeless veterans are in homes of their own across the country because of HUD-VASH, federal officials have said.

Last month, a Los Angeles Daily News editorial brought up what they call a “national embarrassment”and characterize as the government’s ineffectiveness in the face of such extensive veteran homelessness. It’s not so much a general criticism as a problem with one particular matter. The newspaper wants the governor, Jerry Brown, to sign something called AB 639. The result would be an opportunity in the upcoming June 2014 elections for voters to signify approval of redirecting and repurposing $600 million in funds that are just sitting around doing nothing.

From where did this money come? According to LA Daily News:

In 2008, California voters passed a $900 million bond for veterans’ home loans. Those funds, administered by the state’s Veterans Affairs Department, have gone practically untouched because would-be veteran homeowners picked up loans with better interest rates on the open market. Meantime, nearly half of $500 million from a similar 2000 voter-approved bond measure is still unspent. That’s more than a billion dollars meant to help homeless vets but sitting idle.

Never mind reserving it for mortgages, let’s use it to build or create or find housing for homeless veterans who need places to live right now, along with health services and job services — supportive care — to help them get back on their feet. This is what the authors of the piece want. To bolster their argument, they reference:

[...] a report by the Economic Roundtable and the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority that estimates a homeless person living in a place where they can access supportive services costs the public 79 percent less than they do on the streets.

Okay, ready for some good news? Jaime Henry-White has some from Atlanta, Georgia, a city that appears to have figured out a few things, inspired by the federal “Opening Doors” initiative. The most recent survey counted some 6,000 people experiencing homelessness in metro Atalanta, and since the state ranked second in homeless veterans, an program that helps the homeless will include a lot of vets.

Better yet, the city’s “Unsheltered No More” program is also on board with the “housing first” concept. Check this out:

The city is well on its way to meeting its goal of finding homes for 800 people this year, with already more than 700 in homes… Atlanta housed more homeless veterans than any other city participating in the nationwide challenge while also speeding up placement process by one-third… The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing voucher program provides rental assistance, case management and clinical services for homeless veterans through the departments and community-based outreach… Recent analysis from Atlanta’s local housing authority found that veterans permanently housed through the HUD-VASH voucher program had an average retention rate of 95 percent.

Way to go, Atlanta! May you continue to excel, and may other cities benefit from your fine example!

Reactions?

Source: “Chronically Homeless Vets to Get Homes in Boyle Heights,” EGPNews, 10/03/13
Source: “LA program targets homeless women vets,” LA Daily News, 09/29/13
Source: “A billion in unspent aid isn’t helping homeless vets: Editorial,” LA Daily News, 09/24/13
Source: “Atlanta logs dramatic turnaround in homelessness,” TwinCities.com, 09/29/13
Image by Vera Yu and David Lee.

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