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How to Become Homeless… or Not

Prevent HomelessnessThis week is full of significant happenings. The whitepaper, “Prevent Homelessness at its Core — The Universal Living Wage (for dramatic business savings)” is available online, and printed copies are being sent out to the President, Vice President, state Governors, and members of Congress. The author is Richard R. Troxell, president of House the Homeless, which is headquartered in Austin, Texas.

One of the basic ideas this document embraces is that homelessness is way beyond just needing to be “dealt with,” it must be prevented. The great American philosopher Henry David Thoreau said, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” Hold that thought, because we will return to it.

Sue Watlov-Phillips, who authored the “Overview” section of the whitepaper, speaks of the media-nourished stereotype in which the lack of a place to live is a problem exclusively owned by the individuals who experience homelessness. This is reminiscent of the bad old days when the racial situation in the United States was characterized as “the Negro problem.”

Eventually, thanks to the actions of countless thousands of courageous people, the so-called Negro problem was correctly identified as a societal problem. Watlov-Phillips writes:

As long as we continue to blame people experiencing homelessness on their individual problems [...] it allows us as a society to not address fundamental structural issues in our society that is creating and maintaining homelessness for millions of our people in this country and allows the general society to identify people experiencing homelessness as ‘those people’ instead of our people.

What are the roots of homelessness?

In other words, what are the roots of homelessness? They are embedded, Richard R. Troxell tells us, in two major trenches. One major crisis is that almost no one makes what could fairly be called a livable income any more. If that is not sufficiently obvious in our own lives, we can look to the media for such spectacles as the recent public relations disaster perpetrated by McDonald’s. The corporation’s suggested employee budget not only contained ridiculous expenditure figures, but took for granted that it’s normal for an American to hold down two jobs, just to live one life.

When a person is able to work, is paying them a living wage such a wild idea? When a person is not able to work because of disability, is improving the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) system such a crazy notion? Richard shows how these two things can happen, and illustrates the benefits to both business and taxpayers.

The other relentless contributor to homeless statistics is the ease with which people slip through the safety net, so thin and frayed as to be nonexistent in places. The whitepaper identifies several ways this rupture of the social fabric could be repaired so people stop falling into the abyss. Richard says:

The paper also looks at the concept/tenet: Discharge No One into Homelessness. This is the idea that at no time do we know as much about an individual as when they enter one of our Institutions… Therefore, we should begin to prepare for their eventual discharge into a safe housing environment, immediately.

In the recent past, House the Homeless has examined these institutions in depth, one by one. In a civilized country, the very notion of anyone being discharged from a hospital back onto the streets could make a grown man cry. Young people who already suffer from multiple disadvantages are released from the foster care system into oblivion. Far too many veterans, quite likely to be physically or mentally disabled, are denied the care that was promised them and that is owed them, and abandoned to their fates.

But that’s not all

Of course, there are many other routes to homelessness. An unbelievable number of Americans have lost their homes to the banks. It is worth noting that Sue Watlov-Phillips co-authored Foreclosure to Homelessness: The Forgotten Victims of the Subprime Crisis. In 1983, she founded Elim, the Minneapolis institution that focused on locating transitional housing in duplexes and apartments, rather than shelters. She is also a practicing psychologist, political activist and Board Member Emeritus of the National Coalition for the Homeless.

The other major participant in the creation of the whitepaper is Professor Edgar Cahn, who wrote the Preface. A very condensed version of his distinguished biography includes these phrases:

A graduate of the Yale law school [...] started his career in government as special counsel and speechwriter for Attorney General Robert Kennedy… [F]ounded the Citizens Advocate Center… [F]ounded the Antioch School of Law… National Legal Services program… Time Dollar Youth Court…

Of the various genres of people experiencing homelessness, former prisoners are most difficult for the average housed American without a criminal record to sympathize with. But it doesn’t matter how anyone feels about it. The cold, hard fact is that America’s prison population has been artificially and outrageously inflated for the sake of corporate profit, and the more people are caught up in it, the worse everything is going to be for everybody.

Read all of  “Prevent Homelessness at its Core – The Universal Living Wage (for dramatic business savings)” or even just the Executive Summary… Tell everyone you meet that we must attack homelessness at its roots by preventing it! You can find the document in its entirety by clicking here or below.

 

Source: “Edgar S.Cahn, Ph.D., Father of Time Banking…,” EthicalMarkets.com

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How to Become Homeless: Get Out of Prison

Intersticio urbanoIn The Evil That Men Do, Stephen G. Michaud and Roy Hazelwood list the “[...] traits of the antisocial personality — lying, substance abuse, promiscuity, disdain for social norms, cruelty, use of aliases, lack of a fixed address…”

They define “lack of a fixed address” — in other words, homelessness —  as an antisocial personality trait, in and of itself. So do very many other authority figures and everyday citizens in our society. Is it any wonder that so often homelessness leads to a criminal record, just as a criminal record leads to homelessness?

It is a vicious cycle that, every year, larger numbers of people now find themselves trapped in. We seem to be heading for some nightmarish amalgam of the immense anarchistic societies that used to inhabit acres of slums in London and Paris, and the strange chaotic configurations of the urban cyberpunk future imagined by speculative fiction novelist William Gibson.

Far too many Americans spend their lives moving from correctional facilities to the streets and back again in an endless loop. Some are homeless because they are released from prison and have nowhere else to go. After a sentence of a year or two, it could happen that a person returns to an intact family situation. Finding a job might be almost impossible, but there is some chance that other family members will give a homecomer a place to stay and provide other forms of support, at least for a while. The save is tenuous, but not impossible.

Homecomers need another chance

How about a person who gets out after serving 25 years? How many friends and relatives have died in the meantime? Does anyone still even write? Are there children who have grown up and established their own lives, and would prefer not to associate with an ex-con?

What place is there for someone who has been incarcerated for a quarter of a century; who comprehends almost nothing about the modern world; who has no job skills; who probably could never get hired anyway because of his record; whose only acquaintances on the outside are likely to be former inmates like himself?

Now add to that scenario the very real possibility that the person might have been innocent in the first place. It happens all the time. We see how many people have gotten as far as death row, or even been executed for crimes they didn’t do. How many lesser sentences have resulted from wrongful convictions? It’s worth thinking about.

What if the person was grossly overcharged and/or over-convicted, for political, racial, or personal reasons, or because of a bad law that was later changed, leaving thousands of people serving time for actions that are no longer even crimes? These things happen often enough that to make any assumptions about any particular ex-con could be horribly unfair and only heap more injustice onto what they have already suffered.

True whether you like it or not

And there’s another thing. In his book The Perpetual Prisoner Machine, Joel Dyer says:

Research has found that the vast majority of Americans, over 70 percent of us, have committed at least one imprisonable offense such as illegal drug use, driving while intoxicated, shoplifting, and so forth at some point in our lives.

Deep in his or her heart, every American adult knows “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” It’s an old saying, and nowhere is it more applicable than when a free person compares himself or herself to a prison inmate. In many cases, the only difference between Joe Ex-Con and Mr. Upstanding Citizen is that Mr. Upstanding Citizen never got caught.

How many kiddie porn connoisseurs are running around loose, relative to the number of locked-up pervs? For each luckless nobody who was apprehended stealing a six-pack of beer, how many criminals in suits, responsible for stealing millions of dollars from hardworking Americans, are enjoying their illegal wealth without a care in the world, and looking down their noses at homeless ex-cons?

White Paper

And, leaving crime entirely aside, consider this:

Our nation’s prisons have become the de facto housing facilities for many of our nation’s mentally ill.

Those words are from “Homelessness Prevention: A National Economic Stimulus,” the white paper written by Richard R. Troxell, President of House the Homeless. People too messed up to stay on the safe side of the law, even when they have no intention of antisocial behavior, are likely to be sentenced and incarcerated. What happens when they get out — still mentally incapacitated, plus with a prison record?

And regular people who made an error in judgment, a bad decision, and got swept up into the corrections system — what happens when they are freed? “Parolees,” Richard reminds us, “are not eligible for federal housing or food stamps.” Plus, a homecomer might have picked up a case of TB or some other condition, courtesy of the abysmal health conditions in penal institutions. There is a lot more to this extremely detailed document, whose overall theme is how to ensure that no one is discharged into homelessness — not from prison or from any institution.

And don’t forget — On Labor Day (Monday, Sept 2) take your Universal Living Wage banner to your picnic, and on Tuesday, unfurl it again from a highway overpass (see example on this page) or in front of City Hall. Or join a protest at a local Walmart on Labor Day or the following Monday.

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Source: “The Evil That Men Do,” Amazon.com
Source: “The Perpetual Prisoner Machine,” Amazon.com
Image by Daquella manera (Daniel Lobo).

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How to Become Homeless: Age Out of Foster Care, Part 2

Homeless KidsLast week, House the Homeless mentioned the time when agencies in Massachusetts received a “planning grant” of $120,000 to “identify the causes of transition-age homelessness.” We would have told them for free. The cause of transition-age homelessness is: A lot of kids, when they leave the foster care system, don’t have livable incomes and, as a result, don’t have any place to live. Bada-bing!

John Chafee was a U.S. Senator from Rhode Island who sponsored legislation to help ex-foster kids. What does the John Chafee Foster Care Independence Program do for youth on their journey to self-sufficiency?

The program is intended to serve youth who are likely to remain in foster care until age 18, youth who, after attaining 16 years of age, have left foster care for kinship guardianship or adoption, and young adults ages 18-21 who have ‘aged out’ of the foster care system.

The Chafee Act also allowed for Medicaid coverage to be extended to age 21, at the discretion of each individual state, for youths emancipated from foster care. If the particular state wants to, it can use up to one-third of its funding to pay for room and board for emancipated youths between 18 and 21. The federal government supplies most of the cost and the state kicks in some.

On paper, this program met various needs on the road to independent adulthood — education, employment, housing, financial management, and “assured connections to caring adults for older youth in foster care.” In reality, some states gave the federal money back, rather than bothering to carry out the Chafee Act requirements. (Incidentally, speaking of money, a later adjustment raised from $1,000 to $10,000 the amount of savings a young person is allowed to have, and still receive help. One wonders how many emancipated foster kids struggle with a too-much-savings problem!)

Accountability

The government agencies in charge needed to know whether their efforts were actually doing any good. They wanted to know the outcomes, including “educational attainment, employment, avoidance of dependency, homelessness, non-marital childbirth, high-risk behaviors, and incarceration.” For several years, little was done to advance toward this goal. Apparently, nobody started keeping track, except the occasional oddball grad student or nonprofit foundation, so we don’t know much about the young lives at stake here. Finally in 2008, the states were ordered to start doing followups by October of 2010.

Meanwhile, the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative started to figure things out by paying attention to various studies of the quality of independent living programs and their results. Its April 2010 report made the excellent point that kids with families have a long grace period before they are expected to be full adults. If a young person is settled and independent by age 25, that’s considered good. Former foster kids, with a lot less going for them, are expected to pull themselves together and function as self-sufficient members of society at 18.

And some do, but this report does not find the success rate impressive:

In general, programs have been found to be ineffective in meeting the needs of young people in the areas of education and employment, economic well-being, housing, delinquency, pregnancy, and receipt of needed documentation.

Independent living programs were found to be “primarily checklists and involved classes for youth in foster care.” The paucity of implementation led the Government Accountability Office to take a peek. Its 2004 report wore a frowny face:

The GAO found gaps in the availability of mental health services, mentoring services, and securing safe and suitable housing, particularly in rural areas.

In response to the GAO survey, 49 states reported increased coordination with federal, state and local programs that could provide or supplement independent living services. In follow-up interviews with child welfare administrators, however, the GAO found that most were unaware of these services.

The accountability agency identified the lack of uniformity in the states’ information-gathering that made them unable to coordinate with each other and with the federal government to combine their numbers and make any sense out of things. Academia supplied some of the missing answers, which involved “extremely poor outcomes” and even “dismal outcomes” for large numbers of young people.

A University of Chicago study of kids in three states said:

In comparison with their peers, they are, on average, less likely to have a high school diploma, less likely to be pursuing higher education, less likely to be earning a living wage, more likely to have experienced economic hardships, more likely to have had a child outside of wedlock, and more likely to become involved with the criminal justice system.

Another study found that only about half of ex-foster kids had a high school diploma or equivalent. At age 21, only about a third had any college experience, and less than 2% of them ever finished college. And get this. If we ever needed proof that foster kids are emotionally deprived:

The Midwest Evaluation found that 71% of females aging out of foster care become pregnant before 21 compared to the 34% of the general population of females. Repeat pregnancies were common among females aging out of foster care… Half of the young men [...] reported having gotten a female pregnant, compared to 19% in the comparison group…

Here’s a statistic that will knock your socks off: Former foster kids are 10 times as likely to have been arrested, since age 18, than young adults their age who were not foster kids. And, by the very nature of street life, and governmental neglect, and ingrained distrust of the establishment in any form, there is no way to even guess how many young people turned loose from the foster system are currently experiencing homelessness. Here comes an even more dizzying number:

… [A]llowing young people to age out of foster care to live on their own also has a significant fiscal impact on society in terms of educational outcomes, unplanned parenthood, and criminal justice system costs… Cutler Consulting has estimated that the cost of the outcome differences between young people aging out of foster care and the general population is nearly $5.7 billion for each annual cohort of young people leaving care.

Reactions?

Source: “Program Description,” HHS.gov, 06/28/12
Source: “Chafee Plus Ten: A Vision for the Next Decade,” Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, April 2010
Image by Todd Van Hoosear.

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How to Become Homeless: Age Out of Foster Care

Homeless Youth in Dupont Circle, NYCalifornia is one of the biggest states in the union, and a lot of young people are experiencing homelessness there. Thanks to reporters like Bethania Palma Markus in Whittier, word of their plight occasionally reaches the eyes and ears of the public.

When she included the life story of 20-year-old Steven Navarrette in an article, he had “aged out” of the child welfare system two years earlier. Actually, the official Department of Children and Family Services (DCHS) word for it is “terminated,” which has ominous overtones indeed. It should, because at the time, one out of every five “terminated” kids ended up homeless and two out of five tangled with the legal system, and often ended up in prison.

Those ratios are necessarily only estimates, because there was no requirement for the bureaucracy to follow up on the kids once they were “terminated.” A youth fortunate enough to land one of the few transitional housing spots could be kept track of for a while, but most kids were just in the wind, with no way to make a living and no support system, legal adults for whom the state no longer took responsibility.

Markus quoted Navarrette, who told her:

They used to talk about something called emancipated living and I was always really excited about that because I knew I wouldn’t be able to go live with my mom. It all sounded really nice but when it came down to it none of what they told me ever happened.

Around the same time, California passed a law allowing foster children to stay in their “placements” until age 21, presumably with the state paying their way, although at the same time the governor drastically cut the child welfare funds. Presumably, the foster parents would have some say in the arrangements too, and one has to wonder how many of them welcome the continuing presence of young people older than they are accustomed to dealing with.

Also around the same time, a federal regulation came into existence that would require the pertinent departments in every state to keep a record of what kind of “independent living services” they provided for kids aging out.

Elsewhere

In Ohio, a pastor changed his own living quarters to a van and capitalized on the publicity this brought him by pointing out the need for transitional housing for 18-year-old former foster kids. The Salem Church of God has not yet been able to build any transitional housing, but its SOAR ministry persists in helping in other ways.

In Worcester, MA, many residents were distressed to learn that the local Teen Housing Task Force discovered 142 homeless youths in August of 2009, and counted 201 homeless youths in October of 2010, representing a 48% increase. In other words, one town’s population of homeless kids, some as young as 13, almost doubled in just over a year.

Journalist Lee Hammel continued the tradition by writing up the stories of an 18-year-old girl and a 19-year-old boy, in response to public interest in the question of how many unhoused young people were out there, whether because they had been released from the foster care system or thrown out by their parents, or whatever.

The Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts awarded $120,000 to a coalition of 20 state and local agencies. This was a “planning grant” — not to actually do anything about the situation, but to identify the causes of transition-age homelessness, and to analyze the available resources, with the expectation of receiving more funds once those tasks were done.

Maurie R. Bergeron of The Compass Project told the reporter:

There’s no saying how the money will be used here for homeless youths from 17 to 24 until the planning study is completed.

Since foster children were in the news anyway, a reporter took the opportunity to dish up a tidbit about Minnesota politician Michele Bachmann:

Foster children, who automatically qualify for Medicaid benefits, make up a tremendously disproportionate amount of its spending, especially on mental health services. Bachmann likely understands these difficulties better than anyone: all 23 of her foster children were teenage girls suffering from psychiatric disorders. In addition, her husband’s therapy clinic has taken in over $137,000 in Medicaid funds to help treat low-income patients.

Despite whatever agenda might have fueled the research, the important thing to note here is how foster children “make up a tremendously disproportionate amount of its spending, especially on mental health services.” And still… one out of five homeless, two out of five involved with the corrections system. The California solution of changing the emancipation age from 18 to 21 has no doubt benefited some young people, and hopefully will help many more to get their feet solidly under them before venturing forth into the world.

Unfortunately, this solution doesn’t do a darn thing for the taxpayers. With any individual child, it could go either way. For those who experience homelessness, public funds will be involved one way or another, especially if the youth happens to become involved with the legal system. For those who stay in the foster system for another year or two or three, before the court’s jurisdiction over them is terminated, the costs of routine care and medical care are still billed to the taxpayers.

These young people need training and preparation, and when they are turned loose, they — just like everybody else — need jobs that pay a living wage. Let’s work on that.

Reactions?

Source: “Rampant homelessness in former foster children yet to be addressed,” Whittier Daily News, 11/27/10
Source: “Outreach,” Salem Church of God
Source: “Increase in homeless youth in Worcester raises alarm,” Telegram.com, 02/12/11
Source: “Michele Bachmann’s Foster Care Contradiction,” TPM, 07/06/11
Image by Elvert Barnes.

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McDonald’s and the Living Wage

McDonald's Imgur

Tony Polombo is a columnist who, like Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless, believes that a living wage is not the same as a minimum wage. They won’t be the same until the minimum wage is such that anybody who puts in a 40-hour workweek can afford food; clothing; safe, decent, basic housing (including utilities); public transportation; and access to the emergency room. A living wage, as its name implies, is one that a family can actually live on, not merely subsist or exist.

Some say that raising the national minimum wage would cause companies to lay off workers, and then unemployment would only increase. To them, Polombo makes this interesting point which is imbued with a dark and terrible humor:

As the many workers who are now doing the work that two or more other workers used to do can tell you — employers in general are already hiring the least number of employees they can get away with.

He brings up arguments of a kind that, due to a shortage of common sense, are not often heard. Check this out:

The US already has de facto living wage laws in the form of government safety net programs such as Food Stamps, the Earned Income Tax Credit and Medicaid… But critics have (rightly, in my view) charged that government programs such as these are little more than corporate welfare…

You would think that the anti-government Tea Party types in Congress would want to eliminate much of the need for these government programs by making corporations pay their full share of a living wage…

Citizens who work for slightly more generous corporations all chip in via their income taxes. Then the government has money to help other workers who labor for the cheapskate corporations, so their employees can afford the necessities that ought to be covered by their paychecks but are not. Voila! Corporate welfare!

You can call it anything you want, but that doesn’t change the fact. Speaking of cheapskate companies, Polombo says:

The award for corporate chutzpah goes to McDonald’s who in a campaign aimed towards its workers, tries to convince them that it is possible to work a minimum wage McJob and still live comfortably — if only they would budget their money properly! They support this by a sample budget that apparently assumes a worker has a second job along with Food Stamps to pay for food and almost no expense for health insurance. Unbelievable!

Polombo is not the only journalist having a good time bashing McDonald’s and wondering, incidentally, what planet those people are from. For ThinkProgress.org, Annie-Rose Strasser gave the sample budget the once-over and called it “laughably inaccurate”:

Not only does the budget leave a spot open for ‘second job,’ it also gives wholly unreasonable estimates for employees’ costs: $20 a month for health care, $0 for heating, and $600 a month for rent. It does not include any budgeted money for food or clothing.

Actually, this would explain why no money is allotted for heating. A person with two jobs is never home to need the heat turned on, and can sleep wrapped in a Mylar space blanket which is available for quite a reasonable price at the surplus store, where they are sold for the convenience of mountain climbers who might get caught in blizzards. Strasser goes on to say:

For an uninsured person to independently buy health care, he or she must shell out on average $215 a month — just for an individual plan… If that person wants to eat, ‘moderate’ spending will run them $32 a week for themselves, and $867 a month to feed a family of four. And if a fast food worker is living in a city? Well, New York City rents just reached an average of $3,000 a month.

And here is a question. Considering that this phantom budget was concocted by McDonald’s with the help of Visa — what about credit card bills? Many Americans pay huge amounts of interest every month to credit card companies, and not always for luxuries and frivolities. And people, yes, even fast-food employees, have student loans to pay back. And where is the item for child care, for which anyone with one or more children and two jobs will at some point have to pay? Even a doting grandma needs a $20 tucked into her apron pocket every now and then.

But there is no point in nitpicking, when the basic assumption of the budget — that everybody should work two jobs — is so blatantly unacceptable. The only upside is that employees can, as comic Stephen Colbert suggests, go to both employers’ Christmas parties and surreptitiously fill their pockets with buffet food. That may get them through the holiday week, but what about the rest of the year? And how many McDonald’s executives work a second job? What planet are these people from, anyway?

Reactions?

Source: “A Living Wage for Americans,” The World According to Tony Polombo, 08/01/13
Source: “McDonalds Tells Workers To Budget By Getting A Second Job And Turning Off Their Heat,” ThinkProgress.org, 07/15/13
Image by Imgur.com.

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Homeless Vets and Corruption, Part 3

Circuits VietnamA couple of weeks ago, House the Homeless blog talked about how the Veterans Administration (VA) arrived at an impasse where it could not even pretend to keep up with compensation claims. Documents were shredded, and requests for help ignored, resulting in immeasurable harm to veterans who are sick, disabled, unemployable, suicidal, potentially homeless, or actually on the streets.

How bad did the scandal get? In Texas, whose ruling politicians are traditionally loath to part with a dollar, the state even kicked in a few bucks to help the federal agency fund its payroll and get some claims processed.

The VA had its excuses, of course. Despite the fact that bosses collected bonuses (another scandal), the overall sluggish economy did not allow for the hiring of staff. Furthermore, the agency claimed that the problem could be traced to one of its very own accomplishments. Veterans were hearing about and applying for the available services in greater numbers, and the reason for this was that outreach programs had become so much more effective. The VA was doing its job too well!

Nice try, boys

Meanwhile, Agent Orange disability claims were mounting up, and the most egregious excuse of all was that the Veterans’ Administration didn’t see it coming. Really? Back in 1962, when the U.S. started dumping more than a dozen toxic defoliants onto Vietnam, the effects on human health were not a mystery. High school kids, if they knew which magazines to subscribe to, could read about what the herbicides used in that war would do to humans, including the troops on the ground in Southeast Asia. And the all-knowing military hierarchy didn’t know? That calls for a sarcastic eye-roll.

Stateside, Agent Orange had for some reason also been used extensively in Oregon, and in the ’70s a lot of dead babies were born there. That it caused liver damage and at least a couple of kinds of cancer was already known, and the Environmental Protection Agency banned the chemical for use in the United States. This information comes from a very thorough uncredited piece published by The U.S. Veteran Dispatch.

It doesn’t stop there. In 1979, Vietnam veteran Rep. Tom Daschle caused the National Veterans Task Force on Agent Orange to be created. Its mandate was to commission an extensive study of veterans who had been exposed. The writer says:

Over the next four years, the VA examined an estimated 200,000 veterans for medical problems they claimed stemmed from Agent Orange and other herbicides used in Vietnam. But many of those examined were dissatisfied with their examinations. They claimed the exams were done poorly and often in haste by unqualified medical personnel. Many veterans also claimed that the VA seemed to have a mind set to ignore or debunk Agent Orange connected [to] disability complaints.

The Centers for Disease Control spent $43 million trying to figure out what was going on, and screwed it up royally (according to the Institute of Medicine) by adopting a research method that excluded those veterans most likely to have been in contact with Agent Orange. A spokesperson for the Institute could imagine only two options — the study was either “monumentally bungled” or “politically rigged.”

Cassandra Anderson, writing for Infowars.com, came out in favor of “politically rigged,” alleging a cover-up in which the Environmental Protection Agency is also involved:

US courts have protected Monsanto and Dow Chemical from liability and criminal prosecution… President Reagans’s administration, in cahoots with the CDC, thwarted a $43 million Congressional Study of Agent Orange in 1987 to protect itself and its corporate pals Monsanto & Dow from accountability…

According to this theory, if the full truth got out it would not only bankrupt the herbicide makers, but would also negatively impact other industries including plastics, paper, and agriculture. And all the while, veterans were showing up with soft tissue sarcomas and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Since the government is pretty much untouchable, litigation must be aimed elsewhere, and vets filed a class-action lawsuit against Monsanto, Dow, and other manufacturers of Agent Orange. Apparently, they could have provided a defoliant that did the job without the horrible effects on humans, if only they had cared to take a little more time in the manufacturing process and relinquish a slight bit of profit.

Red flag disregarded

Now, check out this statement made by the assistant secretary of Health and Human Services, Dr. Edward Brandt, Jr., in the year this legal action started, 1982:

The early warning sign has gone up.

That was more than 30 years ago. Anyone who didn’t see the approaching wave of demand upon the VA system had their head someplace where heads aren’t supposed to be. The only wonder is that the deluge did not hit sooner. That lawsuit, by the way, was settled (for not nearly enough money once it was all divvied up) and the chemical manufacturers didn’t have to take any official blame. Anderson is not a fan of Judge Jack Weinstein, and believes he committed several offenses related to this lawsuit and similar ones:

Weinstein appointed attorneys to represent the veterans and then intimidated the attorneys into agreeing to a ‘nuisance’ settlement of $180 million — nowhere near enough money to cover the medical treatment of hundreds of thousands of injured vets.

In 2010, “automatic funding” of Agent Orange claims was instituted, which effectively transferred the liability to the U.S. taxpayers, who pay for the health care and hospitalization of affected veterans. Meanwhile, says Anderson:

The Veterans Administration claims they have no idea how many vets have been treated for Agent Orange injuries, or how much taxpayer money has been spent.

Reactions?

Source: “The Story of Agent Orange,” The U.S. Veteran Dispatch, Nov. 1990
Source: “White House, US Courts and EPA shaft Veterans to protect Monsanto,” Infowars.com, 02/08/12
Image by dancingqueen27.

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To Prevent Homelessness, Alleviate Veteran PTSD

Dr. PhilHouse the Homeless blog has been looking at the various ways in which veterans are denied their rights, a terrible situation which often results in homelessness and premature death. There are the enormously long waits before a case can be considered and acted upon. As we learned, workers in the Veterans Administration system have done disgraceful actions like shredding files.

Even when troubled vets are able to access the help they were guaranteed by the government, sometimes they sabotage their own treatment by not telling the whole truth about the extent of their symptoms (because they don’t want to be branded crazy) or by refusing to take their meds, for any number of reasons. Often, people who are mentally unbalanced don’t even realize how out of balance they are. This is part of the problem.

Activists put a lot of work into raising awareness, but sometimes the best intentions lead to trouble, as popular TV personality Dr. Phil (Phil McGraw) found out last spring. He aired a program designed to remind Americans that thousands of veterans, not only from Iraq and Afghanistan, but from Desert Storm and even the seemingly forgotten Vietnam conflict, are still suffering the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder on a daily basis.

A member of the public who entered the subsequent debate talked about how family members of PTSD victims “walk on egg shells,” always afraid they might say the wrong thing to the disturbed veteran who is their loved one. Dr. Phil encountered the media version of the same problem, making the very public mistake of titling this particular episode of his show, “From Heroes to Monsters?”

Despite the presence of a question mark, implying that the matter is not decided but is indeed under discussion, the host took heavy fire, with some elements of the veteran community demanding an apology. People called the episode’s title ignorant, unjustifiable, stigmatizing, insulting, and ratings-driven. On the other hand, the old Hollywood saying, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” might apply here. The well-publicized outrage served to get even more people talking about the issue.

Columnist Torrey Shannon, the wife of a 100% PTSD-rated combat veteran, was disappointed not only by the title, but by the advice given by Dr. Phil’s guest expert, Dr. Frank Lawlis, who wrote a book called The PTSD Breakthrough. He recommends chewing gum to relieve stress, though Shannon’s own internet research suggests that gum chewing is more likely to raise the person’s blood pressure and introduce artificial sweeteners of questionable value into the system.

Dr. Lawlis also recommends blue light bulbs, strong mouthwash, and colonic cleansing, none of which might be harmful in themselves, but which Shannon finds trivializing. She has little patience with the idea of yoga breathing exercises or participation in a drum circle, and is very upset by the suggestion of an ancient traditional method of self-healing, saying:

The book continues into dangerous territory by recommending a combat veteran with PTSD go on a vision quest, much like American Indians used to do. Vision quests require spending 7 days alone with no intake but water until a symbol appears in your consciousness.

However… such unconventional methods are also recommended by people who really, really do know what they are talking about, like Karl Marlantes, author of What It Is Like to Go to War, who believes that incorporating ritual and ceremony into a veteran’s return could truly make a difference. Many therapists are extremely impressed with the results obtained when PTSD victims are given the powerful psychedelic compound known as ayahuasca.

For a website called Healing Those Who Serve, Janice Arenofsky writes:

With the rise of psychological ailments among Iraq and Afghanistan War vets, military and VA hospitals have begun to rethink how they deal with this age-old scourge of war. Here is a rundown on six new methods of handling combat-related emotional trauma.

She proceeds to discuss acupuncture, meditation, music therapy, animal therapy, Emotional Freedom Technique, and Virtual Reality Treatment, all of which have been used by professionals. So, there is a lot going on in the PTSD recovery field of which Dr. Phil’s critics might not be aware.

Although Dr. Phil changed the controversial title of the episode before it was aired again, he remained adamant about the outrage he feels about the overall situation. According to the figures he found, for every battlefield death in the recent wars, there have been about 25 veteran suicides. Dr. Phil wrote for his online readers:

Some viewers expressed concern, and even disappointment, with the show’s original title… Our intent was to acknowledge the question so often cited in the media, not to make a statement, and to emphasize the severity of the pain and suffering our guests say they experience. I really wanted you to hear firsthand the effects that PTSD can have on war heroes and their families, and I’m grateful to our guests for being so candid and honest about their experiences.

One of Dr. Phil’s fans, by the way, in the comment section of his page offered information on The Soldiers Project, which the organization’s website describes like this:

We are a group of licensed mental health professionals who offer free psychological treatment to military service members (active duty, National Guard, Reserves and veterans) and their loved ones who have served or who expect to serve in the conflicts in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Source: “Regarding Dr. Phil’s ‘From Heroes to Monsters?’ Episode. Here’s Why America is Outraged, or Should Be!,” TorreyShannon.com, 04/21/12
Source: “Treating PTSD in Non-Traditional Ways,” HealingThoseWhoServe.org, 07/22/13
Source: “Heroes in Pain,” DrPhil.com, 04/25/12
Image by Keegan.

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Homeless Veterans and Corruption, Part 2

iRaqIn “Homeless Veterans and Corruption,” House the Homeless looked at the unauthorized and improper shredding of documents pertinent to compensation cases. Also, there is the land that has been given to America’s veterans, and manipulated to benefit everyone but them.

In 2011, when the Occupy movement was making news, critics complained that they didn’t understand what Occupy stood for. Surprisingly, a major network brought at least one answer to public attention.

ABC quoted an Iraq veteran who had returned to that troubled country after serving his military hitch. Aaron Hughes, of Iraq Veterans Against the War, spoke on behalf of thousands of service members who want real change and not public relations hogwash. Hughes told the news team:

There is a massive disconnect between the larger society and U.S. service members. Right now we have high unemployment, homeless and suicide rates among veterans.

No part of that declaration is difficult to understand, and the situation has not improved since it was made. Typical of the irregularities going on at the time was a problem that overtook a nonprofit group in Charleston, S.C.

Renee Dudley reported on the legal difficulties faced by the head of a nonprofit organization, a homeless shelter for veterans in Charleston. Director Nancy Cook was paid $130,000 per year, and juicy benefits, to run the place, and tax auditors called her remuneration “unreasonable.” The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs told the press:

The audit also found that health insurance coverage for the shelter’s two paid employees [...] was paid entirely by the veterans’ grants… Recently released bank statements show Cook used the account to pay for a hotel stay at Folly Beach, downtown dining and yoga lessons…

You have to wonder how many such scams go undetected, to the detriment of veterans in need. Other shady, sketchy things have been going on. Waco, TX, is a major processing hub for Veterans Administration paperwork. At one point in a vanished glorious past, Texas was processing compensation claims faster than anybody. But somehow, starting around 2007, there were five years when the backlog increased, while the head honcho, one Carl Lowe, collected $53,000 worth of bonuses before his 2011 retirement:

It’s reprehensible that they would even consider bonuses at all. It reflects what I consider a broken culture that doesn’t put the veterans first.

Those words were spoken by U.S. Representative Bill Flores, a Republican who hails from Waco. Ignoring the needs of veterans is not the only sign of a broken culture. The very concept of bonuses for government jobs is messed up. A worker who does a good job gets promoted, and gets a raise. A worker who does a lousy job stays in the same pay grade forever and makes less than the hard workers who are promoted. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to go? Isn’t that why the civil service already has a multi-leveled and finely-tuned seniority scale?

And most importantly, the taxpayers have already paid for the work to be done. The expectation exists that these government employees are going to do their best, for the citizens who are paying their salaries, and for the veterans who need their expertise in shoving paperwork through the pipeline. And because they are Americans. As government employees — just like soldiers, they are duty-bound to give it their all — just like soldiers. How did this creepy bonus idea even get started?

A wealth of bonuses

In the spring of this year, that story still had legs, partly because the Waco office processing time had increased even more drastically. Nearly 45,000 veterans’ claims waited for decisions from the Waco-based bureaucracy, each individual service member facing a wait of an average 440 days, or 150 days longer than the national average; and in case it escapes anyone’s attention, 440 days is substantially more than a year.

A piece by Jeremy Schwartz of the Austin American-Statesman was followed up by one from the newspaper’s Editorial Board. It quickly became clear that the people working on veterans benefits out of Waco were messing up in a noticeably major way. Nationwide, executive bonuses of nearly $3 million were given out in 2011, while the backlog of unprocessed claims increased, along with waiting times in each individual case of a veteran needing medical attention. The Editorial Board pointed out:

In most endeavors, pay bonuses are awarded for efficiency and effort above and beyond the basic requirements of the job…

Overall, nearly a million veteran claims were waiting to be looked at and acted upon, and all anybody knew was that some government desk jockeys were getting giant rewards — and the less work that got done, the bigger the rewards became. Despite the fact that Texas officials had kicked in an extra million and a half dollars of state money to create a “strike force” team to hire more actual claims processors, the 440-day wait time became standard.

Reactions?

Source: “U.S. Vets, Suffering From Unemployment and Homelessness, Support Occupy Protests,” ABCNews.com, 10/29/11
Source: “Nancy Cook focus of Veterans Affairs inquiry,” The Post and Courier, 06/17/11
Source: “VA fix requires more than promises,” MyStatesman.com, 05/02/13
Image by Ayah (Abajooka).

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Homeless Veterans and Corruption

Duty, Honor, Country -- BetrayalWhen contemplating the shabby treatment accorded to America’s veterans, the question is how far back to go. In 2008, Amanda Ruggeri reported for U.S. News & World Report on the shredder scandal, which began with an accidental discovery, when an employee of the Veterans Administration Inspector General’s office found discrepancies in Detroit.

Documents were in the shredder bin that should not have been. Death certificates had not been placed in the service members’ files. Compensation claim forms, and notices filed in disagreement of claim decisions, were also headed for destruction without any action having been taken on them.

At the time, there were 57 VA regional offices, and further investigation revealed that 41 of them had been shredding paperwork inappropriately — without its having been duplicated for the individual veterans’ files. And since the bins of papers intended for shredding are emptied once or twice per week, the 474 questioned documents found during the investigation represented only a small fraction of the potential suspected negligence.

At the time, the VA had a backlog of 800,000 claims waiting to be looked at, and the absence of one crucial document from any one of those files could result in a denial of compensation. Patrick Dunne, the VA Undersecretary for Benefits, told the press:

We can’t tolerate even one veteran’s piece of paper being missing. We’re taking action to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Thanks to the efforts of Rep. Bob Filner, head of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, on March 3, 2009, there was a congressional hearing that involved two VA subcommittees — Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, and Oversight and Investigations. The title of the 104-page PDF report is: “Document Tampering and Mishandling at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Joint Hearing.”

“Shreddergate”

The result was not heartening. Boiled down to the essentials by a blog called Veteranclaims’s Blog, the goings-on at Veterans Affairs regional offices (VAROs) included 16,000 mishandled documents at a single regional office. The writer mentions, and then quotes, the congressional report regarding:

[...] the ‘Amnesty’ programs which the VA has been operating for at least two years, where they offer amnesty to employees that have removed evidence from veterans claims if they return that illegally removed evidence. ‘During an amnesty period in July 2007 at VARO Detroit, VARO employees turned in almost 16,000 pieces of unprocessed mail including 700 claims and 2,700 medical records and/or pieces of medical information. The VARO determined that none of these claims or documents were in VBA information systems or associated claim files.’

The government’s press release outlining the results of the hearings also mentioned that over the previous 12 years, approximately 50,000 surviving spouses of veterans were denied benefits or, worse, billed for supposed overpayment of benefits by the Department of the Treasury, wanting its money back. All these were mistakes caused by the “VA’s mistaken interpretation of the law.”

If the government bureau in charge of these matters doesn’t even understand the rules under which it supposedly operates, how can anything work? No wonder vets have been waiting a year or more to hear about their claims, with the resulting problems leading to homelessness, or in too many cases, suicide.

More recent developments

A new documentary film, titled Duty, Honor, Country — BETRAYAL, was reviewed for NewsWithViews.com by attorney Rees Lloyd. A while back, House the Homeless mentioned the Los Angeles real estate ripoff, but according to filmmaker Bill Dumas, the scandal is a national disgrace. It’s all about “enhanced use” agreements or leases, which allow non-veteran business interests with good political connections to benefit from land that rightfully belongs to American veterans. Lloyd says:

These leases are for as long as 75 years, at prices far below market value, often nominal payments of ‘$1 a year,’ sometimes nothing at all. Worst of all: The Secretary of Veterans Affairs has the authority to give that land to the lessees entirely in the Secretary’s sole discretion, without Congressional action, if the Secretary decides the land is no longer needed for veterans.

This cozy arrangement has been blatantly exploited by people and organizations accused by the film. And in the case of the large tract of land in the middle of LA, it’s even more disgusting:

Many large dormitory-like buildings on the land which could be used for the homeless, are empty, unused, deteriorating because the VA refuses to maintain them, or build adequate new housing, or use the available land for temporary housing as new housing is built…

There are an estimated 20,000 homeless veterans in Los Angeles.

Reactions?

Source: “Military Veterans’ Benefit Claims Records Wrongly Headed for VA Shredders,” U.S. News & World Report, 10/31/08
Source: “VA gives amnesty to employees while Vets suffer,” Veteranclaims’s Blog, 03/06/09
Source: “New Film: VA “Betrays” Homeless Vets,” NewsWithViews.com, 05/14/13
Image by Bill Dumas.

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Lack of Living Wage Contributes to Homelessness

Living WageIf there is one best way to solve the social crisis of homelessness it is this: Our society must pay people a living wage.

Some people balk at this assertion. They try to maintain that paying a living wage is “baloney,” and falsely claim that increasing wages will stifle economic growth. Yet, scores of studies by major economists demonstrates that minimum wage works.

But does the minimum wage in its current form work well enough? Many housing advocates say no. So, too, does a group not generally thought to be supportive of minimum wage hikes: business owners — even giant retailers like Costco.

Forgetting the social and ethical contract of caring for our brothers and sisters in need, let’s consider the economic advantages of switching from a federal, one-size-fits-few approach to minimum wage toward a sliding scale with minimum wages tailored for the local cost-of-living. Let’s review why the concept is gaining a momentum of support.

Why a Living Wage Instead of the Minimum Wage?

The answer is simple: Federal Minimum Wage (FMW) once stabilized incomes sufficiently that working people could afford housing. Not anymore.

The FMW no longer pays workers enough to meet the costs of housing and utilities of minimum-wage earning men, women, and their families in most areas of our country. This conclusion is based on HUD’s review of Fair Market Rents and applies to all housing markets both big and small. The reason? Inflation.

President Obama has proposed that today’s minimum wage be increased from $7.25 an hour to $9.00 an hour. That’s a step in the right direction, but minimum wage should pay a minimum of $9.31 an hour to yield the same purchasing power as minimum wage paid in 1974.

In short, inflation has stolen the present value of minimum wage. Combine that with extremely varied cost-of-living expenses across the country, and simply raising the FMW won’t cut it. Instead, we must adjust hourly wages to the local cost-of-living, rather than a one-size-fits-no-one federal mandate.

“Declining wages, in turn, have put housing out of reach for many workers: a household would need more than one full time minimum wage worker to afford a two-bedroom rental apartment at fair market rent (National Low Income Housing Coalition, 2009),” reports the National Coalition for the Homeless.

Further, with a lack of affordable health care and several states attempting to overturn the Affordable Care Act, medical bills can wipe out a family’s savings and put them on the street. That’s an unwinnable war for someone earning the minimum required by law. To add insult to injury, those earning the least are also the same people plagued with unhealthy diets and multi-generational diseases associated with obesity.

“[M]any apartment complexes run credit checks which can prevent people with poor credit from renting; things like unpaid medical bills can prevent working people from finding a place to rent,” writes Kylyssa Shay, a formerly homeless person now working as freelance writer and homelessness activist.

Once we had a social belief in this country that hard work would be rewarded, at least at a level that permitted the simple dignity of providing for your family. Once it was considered wrong to fire 20% of your staff in order to give yourself a raise, for instance. Not anymore. “Human nature does not change, but social structures can, and they did,” writes George Packer, author of the book, The Unwinding.

This historical shift has brought some seemingly unlikely supporters of a living wage: local business owners.

Local Economies Benefit, Too

One reason for the support of an increased minimum wage to a living wage is that, by default, excludes retailing giants like Wal-Mart whose business model is based on paying the lowest wages possible and allowing the taxpayers to pick up the tab, reports Michael Shuman in the book The Small-Mart Revolution.

Preventing massive players with extractive agendas from entering a local market means that a local economy can stabilize and grow. That is because more money is being retained locally (as opposed to being sent to Arkansas and into the coffer’s of our nation’s best example of wealth inequality). Smaller business owners do not begrudge the success of giants like Wal-Mart.

Instead, they point to the economic destruction caused by companies like Wal-Mart that pass the buck. These companies have no incentive to care for local workers, their environment, or the economic resiliency of the local market to which they and other local business owners contribute.

Paying better wages to employees means that retraining costs are lowered. It also benefits business owners because it builds employee loyalty. What some business owners fear as limiting has been shown to improve the situation for everyone.

“Furthermore, from a historical perspective, every minimum wage increase is spent right back into the economy, so this will stimulate the economy generally too,” says House the Homeless founder Richard R. Troxell.

Raising the minimum wage is necessary to prevent more working people from experiencing homelessness. Implementing a living wage will do even more to prevent homelessness and strengthen our local economies. Learn more about the issue at UniversalLivingWage.org.

Image by STEM Limited.

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