Earlier this month, two major American cities announced jobs programs. In Los Angeles, city services have been deteriorating since the global economic disaster of 2008. Trees don’t get trimmed, which is not just an aesthetic issue but a safety issue. Streets don’t get cleaned, and in fact many other tasks remain undone, impacting both the appearance and functionality of the city. Public demand for the return of various services has become a sore point.
To alleviate these problems and to provide jobs, the city created the Workforce Restoration Program. Its goal for the 2017-18 fiscal year is to hire 5,000 full-time city workers. Mayor Eric Garcetti has issued a request for all city departments to prepare reports on their hiring needs. Who will be hired? Journalist Dakota Smith quoted Jackie Goldberg, a member of the California Assempbly and former City Councilwoman:
We have targeted groups…which are the homeless, which are veterans, which are people who have had gang affiliations.
The meaning is clear if the context is known, and the administration is certainly wise to concentrate on these underserved groups, but…“targeted”? Surely there must be a more friendly and positive way for agencies to describe their attempts to help certain demographics. Who wants to be a target? Smith includes a couple of sentence that seem to hint that reality might not live up to the hype:
It’s expected those groups will make up just a percentage of the applicants selected to work for the city…While adding 5,000 employees is the goal, it’s unclear how many workers will actually be hired, because the ultimate figure will depend on how many employees leave city jobs.
Albuquerque Turning Around, Perhaps
Albuquerque, New Mexico, has earned a dark reputation because of the extreme brutality of its police force, whose violence often (in the traditional sense of the word) targets people experiencing homelessness and the mentally ill. Proportionately, the city’s police have fatally shot more citizens than the New York City police. Partly because of intervention by the Justice Department, Albuquerque is trying to become kinder and gentler. Writer Fernanda Santos describes one change:
Training in crisis intervention has become a requirement for police cadets, who must try to find their way out of staged real-life scenarios—encounters with distressed drug addicts, rape victims or suicidal war veterans—without pulling out their guns.
The police department says that the “aggressive panhandling” ordinance is rarely enforced. Another innovation is the city’s effort to influence drivers. Money should not be handed out through car windows to supplicants at intersections, but donated instead to the fund for cleaning up the city. Those dollars fund food and shelter for the workers, and equally important, their daily pay.
The concept here is to hire the homeless, but not to imitate the habits of private staffing agencies that exploit day laborers by keeping a large share of their earnings. Of course, temp workers want to keep all the money that comes from the employers. But surely the agency needs to make something, if it is to pay for an office and someone to answer the phone, and especially if it is to vet the employers and make sure they are safe and fair. The only people who can afford to run such an enterprise for free are nonprofits or the government.
Of course if the government runs it, it’s not really free, because it’s on the taxpayers’ dime. Still, aside from HeadStart programs for kids, a temporary employment agency is one of the more benign and useful ways a taxpayers’ dime could be spent. As House the Homeless has said before, many people experiencing homelessness are able and willing to work. (In fact, many of them work full time and are still homeless—but that is another topic.)
Albuquerque’s Plan to Hire the Homeless
Using the same time-honored technique as the crew bosses who roll up and choose day laborers from the group of hopefuls in the Home Depot parking lot, a city employee takes a van out and picks up 10 people and delivers them to the site of a clean-up. The shift is only five or six hours and workers make $9 an hour plus lunch. This happens twice a week, so one person could make about $50 per week, or $100 if fortunate enough to be chosen on both days.
$50,000 has been allocated for this program, in city funds, just about enough to cover the paychecks, if not the lunches and the other city services needed to pick up the gathered trash and so forth. It is slightly grim that these teams clean up homeless campsites that have been broken up, so a person might even be working in a place he formerly called home. Mayor Richard J. Berry is optimistic, telling the reporter:
Fines and jail time don’t solve anything. If we can get your confidence up a little, get a few dollars in your pocket, get you stabilized to the point where you want to reach out for services, whether the mental health services or substance abuse services—that’s the upward spiral that I’m looking for.
Since the program started in September, five workers have reportedly found steady jobs. On the downside, the police department has not yet revised its use-of-force directive.
Source: “LA wants to hire homeless, former gang members, veterans
Source: “Albuquerque, Revising Approach Toward the Homeless, Offers Them Jobs
Image by Aaron Alexander
A state and some cities have declared a state of emergency. Traditionally, such a designation would come after a natural disaster, but this time, the reason is homelessness. It doesn’t mean they get federal money— not unless the federal government itself declared the emergency—but the move does enable the release of local funds and the loosening of rules. For instance, permits for building affordable housing can be issued more quickly—although why this process could not have been expedited all along is a mystery. For PewTrusts.org, Rebecca Beitsch wrote:
Many cities and states, even those that have declared states of emergency, are investing more in long-term affordable housing, whether by constructing new housing or spending more money on existing programs to help people stay in private housing. Those programs offer various types of affordable housing and rapid rehousing, including subsidized units, security deposit assistance and permanent supportive housing. In many cases, tenants pay 30 percent of their income in rent and may even be matched with nearby caseworkers who help them stay in housing and connect to services.
Regarding Hawaii, ThinkProgress.com spun the situation this way: “After Destroying Homeless Camps, Hawaii Declares State of Emergency on Homelessness.” The authorities in Hawaii and elsewhere are notorious for not only raiding camps, but destroying the possessions of people just trying to live.
In October, when the proclamation was made, the state’s 1.4 million people included at least 5,000 people experiencing homelessness, with an estimated 2,000 of them unsheltered. To complicate the situation, Hawaii’s homeless seem particularly reluctant to go into shelters. Nevertheless, the governor’s decision released $1.3 million from the state’s general fund and was said to provide more shelter options for families that want to remain united.
States of Emergency in Northwest Cities
Portland plans to do more than just throw money at the problem. There is talk of adjusting restrictive land-use and zoning rules, which appear to have delayed the deployment of approximately $60 million that was already available from the federal government under other affordable housing programs. Beitsch reports that developers who take part in those building projects “must keep rent at an affordable level for 60 years before charging market rates,” and what entrepreneur wants to sign off on that?
Portland also looks forward to an additional $1 million per year that will be used for affordable housing, with the revenue coming from tax on Airbnb facilities.
In Seattle, 3,000 public school children are known to be homeless, and 45 impoverished people have died in the streets during the past year. The sale of some city property should bring in more than $5 million and King County is kicking in $2 million.
At the very least, Seattle plans to add 150 shelter beds, but there is talk of attacking the root causes of chronic homelessness by providing more PTSD counselors for veterans and more addiction treatment options. The city also plans to press for federal funding via FEMA or any other possible agency.
L.A. Fails to Address Homelessness
Los Angeles is estimated to have nearly 18,000 unsheltered homeless people and again, as in Hawaii, many find life on the streets more bearable than the shelters, particularly if they are administered by religious organizations. Los Angeles plans to spend at least $100 million in the coming year and journalist Bruce Covert says of Mayor Eric Garcetti:
He also called for shelters to stay open 24 hours a day during the rainy season, for winter shelter availability to be extended by two months, and for an increase in access to storage, bathrooms, showers, laundry, and other services.
But more than two months after the idea of declaring a state of emergency was floated, Los Angeles has not yet actually acted on its publicized intention. Some call this stalling; others call it judicious consideration of all the possible remedies. Is the City Council dragging its feet, or are all parties doing their best to plan wisely? Meanwhile, people experiencing homelessness in L.A. are facing more numerous and tougher ordinances than ever before, amounting to the criminalization of homelessness.
Only two weeks ago, Gary Blasi wrote for the LA Times:
Last week, the City Council decided to make it a crime for a homeless person to refuse to break down a tent on a sidewalk at 6 a.m., or to put the same tent up before 9 p.m., even in a pouring rain. If a federal judge does not block that rule, the mayor could [do so]…The mayor could open unused city buildings or enter into short-term leases for private buildings to provide shelter for the homeless to sleep and keep some of their belongings…The mayor could help people stay alive in the shelters they have made for themselves…City agencies could provide pallets or other means of getting them off the ground, and tents and tarps that do not leak in a heavy storm.
Supposedly, the talk of emergency declaration draws attention to the problem and inspires a sense of urgency which will help to obtain resources and lubricate a creaky bureaucracy. So, talk, talk, talk—and then, nothing. Is it any wonder that many critics hear just another variation on the same old political bloviation? But Maria Foscarinis of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty sees hope in the various actions, telling Bruce Covert:
I think the declarations are right. Declaring that homelessness is an emergency is calling a crisis by its rightful name…I think it’s totally appropriate and very important to recognize it as such, and in fact it’s long overdue.
Source: “Cities, States Turn To Emergency Declarations To Tackle Homeless Crisis,” pewtrusts.org, 11/11/15
Source: “After Destroying Homeless Camps, Hawaii Declares State Of Emergency On
Homelessness,” ThinkProgress.org, 10/19/15
Source: “Murray: Loss of life warrants homeless emergency declaration,” MyNorthwest.com, 11/03/15
Source: “The Situation Facing Los Angeles And Portland Homeless Populations Is An
Emergency,” ThinkProgress.org, 09/30/15
Source: “Preparing to declare a ‘local emergency’ could save LA’s homeless people when El Niño rains hit,” LATimes.com, 11/23/15
Image by Tom Fortunato
Out in California’s Coachella Valley desert, about 75 people are about to be evicted from their huts and tents. The California Department of Transportation doesn’t want them on its land. The ostensible reason is a concern for safety because, Paulina Rojas reports:
Those living in the camps often attempt to cross the expressway on foot, creating a hazardous situation for themselves and drivers.
Throughout America, there must be thousands upon thousands of deer crossings and appropriate warnings. They even have solar-powered animal sensors hooked up to signs that let drivers know in real time that a creature is near the road. CalTrans could express its concern by erecting a “human crossing” sign, and leave the squatters alone.
But no, the local government wants those people gone, and want it so sincerely, they plan to surround the area with a “reinforced fence.” That’s not all. CalTrans plans to cut down the trees that provide the area’s shade. Isn’t there an environmental regulation? Something about oxygen? Just build a nice, sturdy fence, fellas. Leave the trees alone.
Criminalizing Homelessness – Again
The destruction of trees to prevent certain people from enjoying their shade is a classic move, like something from a Grimm fairy tale. It recalls the program of chemical defoliation so drastic it left behind uncountable victims both in Vietnam and in the homes and veterans’ hospitals of America. Maybe CalTrans will borrow from an earlier historical era and sow the ground with salt to prevent any vegetation ever growing back.
The upcoming Coachella Tree Slaughter is one of the many instances in which our society seems bent on not only criminalizing homelessness, but on doing it with as vindictive and mean a spirit as possible. It is a perfect metaphor for hysterical over-reaction. It beautifully illustrates the old saying, “He cut off his nose to spite his face.” In its attempt to punish the homeless, America is committing slow suicide.
The intention to massacre trees in a desert comes from the same mindset as the decision to remove all benches from a public area. Sacramento’s Central Library was criticized for replacing several old-style benches with hostile new backless benches, exactly two of them. When 29 benches disappeared from downtown Nashville, this was noticed by people experiencing homelessness. A Public Works spokesperson said only 12 or 13 benches were removed and, as always, the issue was safety. Apparently, these benches were damaged in ways that could injure citizens. Apparently, Nashville Public Works is unaware of the concepts of repair or replacement.
A Different Approach to “Handling” the Homeless
And never mind any progressive ideas about how sleeping on a bench might be safer than sleeping on the ground. A community’s concern with street people’s safety does not extend that far. The mission is to prevent the homeless from sitting or lying on benches. The result is to deny them to everyone. An elderly person with a portable oxygen tank can’t take a rest. A struggling mother doesn’t get to sit with the baby while helping her little twins put their jackets on. For dozens of reasons, benches are welcome and useful things. Only we can’t have them because there are homeless people.
Maybe what a city needs is more benches. Plenty for everyone. Maybe a downtown needs park benches and public restrooms and trash receptacles that are emptied frequently, with the city employee who empties them responsible for picking up any loose trash within a ten-foot radius.
Meanwhile, in the Coachella Valley, the emergency shelters are already full.
Source: “Caltrans to remove homeless camps along Highway 86,” DesertSun.com,11/24/15
Source: “Deer Crossing Signs and Technologies,” DeerCrash.org, undated
Source: “Homeless protest removal of downtown Nashville benches,” KPHO.com, 12/12/13
Image by State Farm
On Sunday, November 15, the Homeless Sunrise Memorial Service took place in Austin, TX. It was the 23rd annual service, and 171 names were read, names of people who died in poverty in the city from October 2014 to the same month of this year. Anyone can learn more about it from the House the Homeless homepage, but the most important reason to go to that page now is to find out how to donate to the Thermal Underwear Drive, a major initiative that also takes place every year in Austin.
The annual memorial is perfectly fitting, and so is the annual National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week (this year, it was November 15-21). The downside of annual events, however, is that the space between them lets matters slip from the forefront of our consciousness the rest of the time.
At some point, the realization has to strike: every day, people die in poverty. Every day, people are hungry. Every day, people shiver with cold or gasp from heat stroke. Every day, people know the embarrassment of not having a safe place to take a dump, or having anything to wipe with. Every day, people suffer the humiliation of letting themselves be treated like human garbage, because they know that the smallest increment of assertiveness could have unthinkably terrible consequences.
Baby, It’s a Wild World
Although most people experiencing homelessness are peaceful, their rejection of violence makes their lives on the streets even more dangerous. People who want nothing more than to be left alone are hurt every day by the relatively small number of predators who are also homeless. Or they are hurt by housed people who see them as the enemy. Or they run afoul of the law, with varying degrees of trauma.
Austin American-Statesman writer James Barragan tells the story of a man whose transition into homelessness and eventual premature and needless death began with the death of his mother. Before following the rest of his tragic steps, one is tempted to ask (as someone from another country or another planet might), “Why wasn’t grief counseling available to him? Or if it was, what prevented him from taking the opportunity?” Could our society do a better job of helping people cope with the horrors of life, so the first step on a self-destructive path will not be taken?
In this particular case, the man who wound up homeless and dead had been troubled all his life by the knowledge that he was adopted. Sometimes, even the most loving adoptive parents can’t fill the void that results from a child’s awareness of having been abandoned. So many stressors break up families or prevent them from ever forming in the first place. Could our society do more to alleviate those pressures? The reporter spoke with relatives and friends of other homeless people who had died. A criminal record is a real handicap, and a very easy thing to acquire. Could our society thrive with fewer laws and fewer of its citizens behind bars? It quite probably could.
House the Homeless, since its inception in 1989, has always felt that Housing First is the best approach…hence the organization’s name. Through Housing First, people are able to stop street abuse that includes violence, rape, and quality-of-life ordinances that criminalize homelessness and act as barriers to escaping homelessness.
Barragan talks about the Housing First concept:
Once housed, the theory goes, the groups can help people tackle their other problems. But often, the general public thinks homelessness is an unsolvable problem and that those experiencing it have done it to themselves by not working hard enough or drinking or drugging themselves into ruin.
A brand-new report from the Associated Press does little to change such perceptions, saying:
An examination of deaths among the homeless in the Austin region show they’re dying of homicide, suicide and accidents at a rate much higher than the general population…While 86 percent of Travis County residents die of natural causes, only 29 percent of the homeless included in the analysis did, according to the report.
In 49% of the fatalities, alcohol “played a role” and in 36%, drugs “were a factor”—but some of these were the same people. In other words, in many cases alcohol and other drugs were both contributing factors. But in others, substances played no role.
The AP interviewed House the Homeless founder Richard R. Troxell, who was particularly articulate about the 11% of homeless deaths that occurred within a few days of the deceased being discharged from a jail or hospital. For more about that, see our archived post, “No ‘Discharge to Nowhere’.”
And please, don’t forget the Thermal Underwear Drive!
Source: “A humanizing look behind the numbers of homeless deaths in Austin.” MyStatesman.com, 11/15/15
Source: “Report: Homicide, violence claim high number of homeless.” Star-Telegram.com, 11/15/15
Image by Jobs with Justice
For American cities that want to learn from the success of others, Austin is a place to watch. The Texas capitol tries hard and does a lot of wonderful things, setting a very worthy example. As we noted last week, Mayor Steve Adler is putting tremendous energy into meeting the goal of housing all Austin veterans by the end of the year. Earlier this month he told KVUE how 82 vets have already been housed, with “several dozen additional homes that are lined up at this point that we are in the process of filling.”
The TV station also interviewed Gus Villegas, president of the Austin Apartment Association. He encourages landlords to make units available and let ECHO do the rest. In strictly economic terms, there is not much incentive. The vacancy rate is tiny, with many qualified candidates vying for each space. Austin landlords are accustomed to being choosy, and to commanding high rents.
The federal vouchers available to house homeless veterans are insufficient, and the mayor was happy to announce that $375,000 in donations have been made to help cover the difference. Because everything is in their favor, the landlords who make units available are to be congratulated. All the more so, if they give a break on the rent.
The mayor’s program to house veterans was among several local initiatives mentioned recently by the editorial board of the Austin American-Statesman, which also added:
Last year, social outreach ministry Mobile Loaves & Fishes opened its doors to an innovative concept to take homeless people off of Austin street: a microvillage… And since 2010, the city of Austin’s Roof Over Austin campaign has successfully created 350 units of housing for homeless individuals within existing and new development projects. But more units are needed at a much quicker pace.
Focusing in on House the Homeless! Inc., two of the organization’s most recent activities were marching in the Veterans Day Parade, and hosting the Homeless Memorial. This ceremony of remembrance happens every year right around Veterans Day and the whole city is invited. The advance notice said:
It is always a Sunrise Service to suggest a New Day…This year we will read over 160 names of people who have died in abject poverty in Austin this past year. Mayor Steve Adler will be the Keynote Speaker and Deann Renee will up lift us with song.
Nationally, between 2014 and 2015 the Department of Housing and Urban Development counts about 2,000 veterans as having been removed from the homeless roster. But the big picture is not improving as quickly as everyone had hoped. The administration’s optimistic vision of totally ending veteran homelessness by the start of the new year may instead be “many years away.” However, encouraging signs abound. For MilitaryTimes.com, Leo Shane III wrote:
The annual point-in-time count, conducted in January, shows there are about 48,000 homeless veterans across the country. That’s down from the 50,000 in the January 2014 count, but a smaller drop than the 5,000 veterans taken off the streets in each of the previous three years.
Since the latest count was conducted in January, officials in a number of major metropolitan areas—including Houston, Las Vegas, New Orleans and Salt Lake City—have announced they have “effectively” ended veterans homelessness by putting in place enough assistance programs and shelters to quickly house any veterans in financial distress…On Veterans Day, Virginia officials announced theirs had become the first state to end veterans homelessness statewide.
Uber and Lyft Offer Rides for Veterans
An interesting announcement was made by companies Uber and Lyft. Both companies are aware that veterans attempting to return to the work force might have a hard time getting to job interviews. Even worse, having found employment, they might find it next to impossible to travel to and from their jobs. Few cities have truly great bus systems, and even under the best circumstances, bus lines don’t run everywhere and often don’t take night shift workers into account. According to a government press release:
Both companies have committed to donating free rides to veterans—to be administered by the employment counselors who work with them every week.
Some details of how this will work are not clear. For instance, it is doubtful that all homeless people, even if they are employed veterans, have smartphones with which to summon drivers. The Huffington Post goes into a bit more detail by suggesting that Lyft will donate “thousands of rides” and Uber will be giving away about 10,000 free rides. There was also an opportunity, on Veterans Day, for the public to donate $5 toward the cost of Uber’s program—although it is a mystery why such contributions would only be accepted on one day of the year.
Source: “Austin initiative to end veteran homelessness approaching goal date,” KVUE.com, 11/05/15
Source: “Updated policies, more homes needed to protect Austin’s homeless,” MyStatesman.com, 11/14/15
Source: “Homeless veterans number decreased only slightly last year,” MilitaryTimes,com, 11/13/15
Source: “Joining Forces to Help Veterans Transition,” whitehouse.gov, 11/10/15
Source: “Uber And Lyft Offer Homeless Vets Free Rides To Job Interviews,” huffingtonpost.com, 11/10/15
Image by the Challenger
Back in August, Austin mayor Steve Adler announced an ambitious plan to end veteran homelessness in the city by tomorrow (Veterans Day 2015). The first thing to understand is that finding viable permanent housing for all people in that situation would be impossible. Mostly, the goal here is temporary housing for all. A first step, but by no means a final one.
Donations For Homeless Housing
Before long, the news came out: “Austin Board of REALTORS® donates $15,000 to house Austin’s homeless veterans.” But an attentive reading of the press release discloses that it was actually the National Association of REALTORS® who made the generous grant. What the local Austin Board of REALTORS® Foundation did was donate $5,000 to a fund for such expenses as housing repairs (though it does seem that should be the landlord’s responsibility anyway). The literature says:
The Housing Our Heroes Initiative is part of the national Mayor’s Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness. Austin’s effort involves a coalition of Austin landlords, business leaders and service providers, who are working together to provide stable housing, extensive support services and temporary financial assistance to Austin’s homeless veterans.
It was announced that “seven leases have been executed on REALTOR®-managed properties to date, and additional units have been committed to this purpose.” Although every bit of help is appreciated, seven units doesn’t make much of a dent in the number of homeless vets.
Journalist Kayla Stewart questioned the director of ECHO (Ending Community Homelessness Coalition) who made some cogent points. For one thing, between January and August, the number of homeless veterans in Austin appears to have doubled to around 500. Stewart says:
While about half are housed, property owners tend to be reluctant to rent to veterans.
The reluctance to rent to veterans is saddening. In the past, Texas has been perceived as holding military veterans in high esteem. Maybe the state has changed a lot, or maybe it’s just that Austin is its own place. Maybe it’s simply that a saturation point has been reached.
By ECHO’s count, the percentage of Austin homeless people who are veterans is higher than the national average—around 20%. They add:
Veterans are not only more likely to become homeless, but are also more likely to stay on the streets longer than the average homeless person. And within that group, yet another group is overrepresented: almost 50% of homeless Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans are African-American.
These facts are found in a substantial and impressive Austin Chronicle piece by Kahron Spearman that recapitulates a ton of important backstory and enumerates in exhaustive detail the obstacles faced by many veterans. Another factor in the crisis is that the housing program “ceiling” is $800 per month, which presumably means a landlord cannot ask more. Still, that seems like an awful lot for a single person.
Obstacles to Housing Veterans
But Megan Podowski of Caritas explains: the city’s rental units are 98% occupied, and landlords are in a position to demand that prospective tenants present impeccable credentials. Many veterans, especially those who struggle with personal demons and service-inflicted disabilities, have gaps in their residence histories and may have been late with their rent on occasion. And indeed, Spearman goes on to say:
The majority of homeless veterans are male, suffer from mental illness or recurring disorders, [and] abuse drugs and/or alcohol.
What so many folks really need is supportive housing, with full-bore and hard-core Housing First philosophy behind it. But Austin is doing the best it can with the resources at hand. Also quoted is Tu Giang of Front Steps:
We take veterans based on a vulnerability scale…Once we complete intake, that individual gets with a case manager [and is assessed for current needs]. We’ve really ramped up our resources, with a lot of aggressive and concerted outreach.
As such projects will do, this one ran into problems. As of mid-October, 100 housing units were still being sought, and the goal date was moved to December 31, 2015. Mayor Adler’s three-pronged call to action includes his request to spread the word via social media. At the Housing Heroes website (which still publicizes the old deadline) a person can house a veteran, donate, sign up for the email newsletter, and write to a member of the mayor’s staff.
Finding the Homeless
Other parts of the overall plan continue uninterrupted. On October 16, representing Legal Aid for the Homeless and House the Homeless, Richard R. Troxell participated in a two-hour training session, led by the mayor’s aide Earl Jones. The following day, the various teams spent three morning hours in outreach to veterans experiencing homelessness. Richard says:
As we located homeless folks, we offered Veterans information about Coordinated Assessment and offered them a Pathway out of homelessness. We also offered immediate shelter and a reserved shelter bed at Austin’s Resource Center for the Homeless, ARCH. For uninterested veterans, but those in desperate need, we offered 45 days of transitional housing in a local motel when we would provide other service like health care, supportive housing, Legal Aid, etc.
The volunteers also distributed Plastic Resource Pocket Guides from House the Homeless. Overall, it was a successful outreach effort. Much more information is available from ECHO, a recommended destination for those who want more details and especially for those who want to help. December 31 is approaching fast.
Source: “Austin Board of REALTORS® donates $15,000 to house Austin’s homeless veterans,” NewsRadioKLBJ.com, 09/16/15
Source: “Mayor’s Plans to End Veteran Homelessness Halted,” patch.com, 10/12/15
Source: “Collateral Damage,” AustinChronicle.com, 07/17/15
Image by Sly Majid, Office of the Mayor
Recently, House the Homeless discussed Bell v. City of Boise and its importance. Quick review: More than a decade ago, Los Angeles was sued over its severe anti-homeless ordinances. The outcome was awaited with great interest. If the city lost, then conditions would improve for people on the street.
If the city won, then the case would be appealed to the Supreme Court, which might engender some real fireworks. If it came to challenging the constitutionality of “breathing while homeless” laws, the American landscape could change radically. In due time, Judge Kim M. Wardlaw laid down words that would look good engraved in stone:
The Eighth Amendment prohibits the City from punishing involuntary sitting, lying, or sleeping on public sidewalks that is an unavoidable consequence of being human and homeless without shelter in the City of Los Angeles.
The U.S. Constitution may not be perfect, but it’s the best tool we have for securing liberty and justice for all. Judge Wardlaw coupled that basic fact with the realization that everybody’s got to be someplace, and while they’re there, they just might need to sit down, or even lie down and sleep. For people experiencing homelessness all across America, things were looking up. But the aftermath dragged on, and optimism was quenched when, subsequent to a compromise agreement, the judgment was vacated.
But Judge Wardlaw’s words were not forgotten. More recently, when Boise, Idaho, was sued for similar reasons, the Justice Department stepped in (critics would say “interfered”) by filing a statement of interest. It is the federal bureaucracy’s way of putting the city on notice—“We will be keeping an eye on you.” In its official communication, the Justice Department quoted Judge Wardlaw’s words, and the whole issue started to pick up momentum again.
Boise’s Version of the Truth
Associated Press writer Samantha Wright noted the total number of people charged with public camping in each of four consecutive years, ranging from 12 in 2012 to 293 in 2015. That is more than a 24-fold increase. To put it another way, for every one person cited with public camping in 2012, 24 were cited in 2015. To put it yet another way, that is 24 times as many. Clearly, some kind of escalation has taken place.
Yet, soon after the Justice Department declared its concern, the City of Boise reacted by saying they had gotten the wrong end of the stick. Wright explained:
The Department says it is opposing the Boise law that makes it a crime for homeless people to sleep or camp in public places because it unconstitutionally punishes them for being homeless. But city spokesman Mike Journee says the law was changed and police can no longer give tickets for camping if homeless shelters are full. And if there is room at a shelter, police will try to convince people to go there…The suit was originally brought by seven homeless people in 2009 who were cited under the law, even though there was no room for them at local shelters.
But two months later, it became obvious that the constitutionality of forbidding people to sleep would not see its day in court. Judge Ronald E. Bush of the U.S. District Court dismissed the lawsuit. He and the other Boise officials hold that the only people who have been punished for sleeping outside had refused to procure a shelter bed. In this version of reality, if no shelter space is available, the police don’t bother anybody.
The Future for Anti-Homeless Laws
Eric Tars is an attorney for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, representing the plaintiffs. He told journalist Frankie Barnhill that one reason the suit was dismissed was that “all but two of the plaintiffs are no longer homeless, so they don’t have a fear of being arrested for camping in public.” Which is ridiculous, because what about all the other people who are, currently, homeless? Besides, just letting time go by is a reprehensible way to run a legal case. Stall long enough, and everybody’s dead.
The director of the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project, Sara Rankin, warned other cities not to become over-confident about their own anti-homeless laws, saying:
Cities would be very ill-advised to interpret the Bell v. Boise case as carte blanche to enact broad anti-camping ordinances. The reason for that is the decision in Bell v. Boise was not rendered on the merits.
Clearly, this issue will keep popping up over and over in different cities until somebody makes a definitive ruling that is an irresistible call to action. In the meantime, anyone who cares about housing or otherwise helping the homeless could start by learning just what the laws are in her or his own city. It might be enlightening.
Source: “City Weighs In On DOJ Criticism Of Boise Homeless Camping Law,” boisestatepublicradio.org, 08/07/15
Source: “Advocacy Group Responds To Dismissal Of Boise Homeless Case,” boisestatepublicradio.org, 10/01/15
Source: “Boise Homeless Case Dismissed, What Happens Next?,” boisestatepublicradio.org, 10/02/15
Image by Thomas Quine
Last week we looked at some of the life problems that particularly affect homeless youth, in the cauldron of social unrest known as California. Although these conflicts are more evident in that state because of sheer numbers, they exist in all American cities.
Among the righteously housed folk, anti-homeless laws are known by the politically correct term “quality of life ordinances.” Always the big question is, whose life? For housed people who dislike the chaotic ambiance of urban streets, there is a place to escape to and shut the door on it. “Unaccompanied” young people don’t have the luxury of that alternative.
The California Homeless Youth Project report says:
The use of “quality of life” as a characterization of such policies fundamentally excludes the lives of people surviving on the streets.
Such policies are in fact discriminatory and abusive, and they provide far too many occasions for contact between street kids and law enforcement personnel. This is unfortunate, because the odds are against any one police contact turning out well, and the more contacts, the worse the odds become.
At the very least, officers will probably demand that kids “move along,” and in most cases that involves relocating from populated and relatively safe areas to more isolated and dangerous patches of territory. At best, it’s harassment, and at worst, an invitation to disaster. The same report quoted Ric Declan, an Oregon police sergeant with a maverick spirit, as saying:
We know that homeless youth are more often the ‘victims’ rather than the ‘perpetrators’ of crime and should be treated as such.
The authors of that document also noted that “not one youth interviewed reported ever turning to police for help when they needed it.” What does that say about the often-mythical slogan “Protect and Serve?”
When a community is allowed to enforce rules that violate basic human rights, nobody wins and everybody loses. Tax revenues are used to extend police hours into overtime, open more courtrooms, hire more guards, pay more public defenders, and rent more space in penal institutions for people whose initial crime is having nowhere to live. Laws that criminalize homelessness are so counterproductive they can do nothing but make situations worse—not only for the people convicted, but for society as a whole.
The tragedy of all this is multiplied when young people are the targets. They are already teetering on the edge of oblivion. Even a teen with a full complement of parents, extended family members, teachers, and coaches can have a rough adolescence. Imagine how much more difficult it is to grow up in the middle of nowhere, with no support system, and surrounded by predators. No kid needs a criminal record, which is likely to become Step 1 in a career of recidivism. Maria Foscarinis, Executive Director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, says:
Laws criminalizing homeless youth deprive them of the opportunity to succeed in life, creating additional barriers to housing, employment, and education, and only serve to punish them at a time when they are most vulnerable.
These things (again, according to the California Homeless Youth Project) need to be done:
- Decriminalize necessary human behavior that occurs in the absence of alternatives
- Create a continuum of housing options
- Convene community forums to facilitate dialogue among service providers, law enforcement, business owners and associations, and homeless youth
- Increase resources for homeless youth
- Create Homeless Outreach Teams that are trained to respond to the unique circumstances of homeless residents
- Address need for affordable transportation
Other than mentions of mental health and substance abuse, the list of high-priority policy recommendations does not include physical health care outreach. House the Homeless hopes to see it join the list.
Source: “Adding Insult to Injury: The Criminalization of Homelessness and Its Effects on Youth.” September 2015
Image by urbansnaps – kennymc
“If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair,” went the refrain of a once-popular song. California was Shangri-la, a land of magic and hope, the preferred destination for the abandoned and disaffected youth of our entire nation.
These days, it’s a good place for homeless teens and young adults to steer clear of. With facilities stretched to their limits, helping organizations work harder than before, trying to accomplish more with ever-shrinking budgets. Housed people fall prey to compassion fatigue, and there is a steady increase in laws designed to make life unpleasant for the peasant.
Currently, the golden state contains more homeless youth than any other state, and they are more likely to be unsheltered than in most other states. Among the nation’s cities as rated by their “mean streets,” California has three of the top ten spots.
The last two decades have seen the creation of numerous restrictive ordinances, and over the past five years, the pace of anti-homeless legislation has picked up, according to Shahera Hyatt and Jessica Reed, the credited authors of “Adding Insult to Injury: The Criminalization of Homelessness and Its Effects on Youth.” Though only two names are on the cover, this 16-page report utilized all the resources of the California Homeless Youth Project, with help from the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.
Things Are Tough for Unaccompanied Youth
Many of the offenses that people experiencing homelessness are charged with have nothing to do with age. They may be forbidden to sit, stand, rest, or sleep in public places; or to set up a tent or lean-to shack anywhere. They may not be allowed to ask for contributions or sort through trash receptacles for food or recyclable materials. Organizations that want to serve them food may be told they are not allowed to give away so much as a sandwich.
Then there is another layer of legal difficulty known as selective enforcement, when homeless people are not allowed to do things that are apparently okay for others. The most well-known example is sidewalk camping. People who wait in line all night to buy concert tickets or the latest model phone are allowed to set up tents or sack out in sleeping bags while homeless people, of course, would be breaking the law.
The things that unaccompanied youth most often get in trouble for are, the report says, “sleeping in public or private spaces at night, or sitting in public space during the day.” The other big problem is traveling to places where help is available. Kids often sneak rides on public transportation and get nailed for theft of services.
Then there is the problem of “status offenses,” or things that are illegal for a person under 18 to do unless a court has previously deemed her or him an “emancipated minor.” Curfew violations get kids in trouble while not affecting adults. Kids are supposed to be enrolled in school until a certain age, and not showing up makes them truant. Truancy is a crime even for the homeless. Young people have been locked up for that crime, which makes no sense whatsoever. Incarcerating a kid for skipping school has got to be one of the most irrational government actions ever. The report says:
Homeless students are much better served by community-based organizations, which have been shown to be more developmentally appropriate, cost effective, and humane than the juvenile justice system.
For an adult, running away from home may not always be the wisest choice, and can even cause problems to multiply, but at least it isn’t illegal in and of itself. But for a minor (which in California means under 18), mere existence is a status offense, because kids that age are not supposed to be anywhere else except under their family roof. Here is what the authors say:
Youth who run away do so for their own survival, often fleeing their homes due to abuse, extreme poverty, and/or rejection of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity and expression. Yet in many jurisdictions, runaway youth may be apprehended by law enforcement and returned to their home of origin, even if that home is dysfunctional and/or abusive.
Source: “Adding Insult to Injury: The Criminalization of Homelessness and Its Effects on Youth.
Image by Senia L