“Bridge” is a loaded word in the homeless community, because for so many people it is the definition of home (as in living beneath a bridge). Sometimes, a communal meal or a church service may take place under a bridge, but the picture is still grim. Several years ago, House the Homeless opened up the meaning of bridge to include the highway overpass, and redefined a bridge as a podium, a pulpit, a stage, a platform, a grandstand. The bridge became the medium through which America learned of the Universal Living Wage.
The economic gap can be bridged, and one of the most practical and sensible ways to begin is through the Universal Living Wage, through recognition that the minimum wage should be tied to local conditions. The dramatic and inspiring story of how Bridge the Economic Gap Day started is all there in Richard R. Troxell’s book, Looking Up at the Bottom Line.
What follows is only a brief summary of a story packed with drama. Someone ought to buy the film rights and make a movie. The picture on this page, taken at one of several Austin action sites, is from the book. Richard is on the left, and the exuberant woman next to him is Eve Adams, who was 100 years old at the time.
For four years, volunteers tirelessly worked to spread the ULW idea and collect endorsements from organizations throughout the country. In 2005, the time seemed right for the first ULW National Day of Action. The chosen date was “Labor Day Plus 1” (which this year falls on September 8—today.) Richard’s goal was to have at least one Bridge Action in every state, so his plan concentrated on width. The Call for Leadership went out. Richard says:
I explained that Bridge the Economic Gap Day would be a great local/national organizing event that would require very little work on their part. We would send our endorsers and participants blank press releases in which they could tout their own organizations and their own local living wage issues. On top of that, we offered to send them the banner for free, and encouraged them to fly their own organizational banner.
Three weeks into the effort, there were commitments from 39 Bridge Captains in 32 states. Donations paid for banners, postage, hardware, and other necessities. The first banner order was optimistic but not splashy. The supplier, J.D. Moore, graciously lowered the price for the second round of banner orders, and lowered it again for the third batch. In the book, Richard discusses his press strategy, and the last-minute need for several hundred dollars for media, and how a more-than-generous donation from his friend and advisor Tom Holmes saved the day. The people who did the phone work each faced unique struggles in their personal lives, but somehow it all got done. The day came when each and every state had at least one Bridge Captain.
Of course, complications emerged, such as the 22,000 refugees from Hurricane Katrina who arrived in Austin, requiring the earnest attention of House the Homeless and every other organization of its kind. Some of those displaced survivors helped to represent the ULW on five of the city’s bridges. Police department guidelines were carefully observed. It was, by the way, 120 degrees in Austin that day. Some participating groups were:
- Saint Edwards Universal Living Wage Warriors
- University of Texas School of Social Worker students
- Americorps VISTA volunteers
- Gray Panthers
- Casa Marienella
The Bridge Actions generated media attention and, more importantly, new allies and connections for House the Homeless and the ULW idea. After that first Bridge the Economic Gap action, the participants gathered at a park where Mobile Loaves and Fishes fed everybody. Richard says:
We shared hot dogs, cold drinks, bridge stories, and our dreams for a kinder, gentler world where economic justice is the norm, not the exception. I closed with a few thoughts and the observation that all across the nation, folks just like us had been on bridges, sharing similar experiences, and the same dream. It felt good.
Bonus Capsulized History of the Universal Living Wage:
Katie McCaskey’s timeline on the House the Homeless News Page
“Three Rich Treasury Secretaries Laugh It Up Over Income Inequality”
Source: “Looking Up at the Bottom Line
Image by House the Homeless
The Weingart Center is a venerable Skid Row institution that offers shelter, job training and counseling. Los Angeles Times writer Sandy Banks interviewed Maxene Johnston, who was in charge of it for 10 years, and learned this:
Her time in the trenches taught her that most people with nowhere to live fell into one of three groups: the derailed, the disabled or the dysfunctional. The derailed are ordinary people hobbled by bad luck…The disabled have mental or physical issues that make it hard to live on their own…The dysfunctional are chronic street dwellers, with limitations that can’t be addressed with short-term help… There are as many back stories as there are broken and desperate people.
The point Johnston makes is that all the people in these subdivisions are still part of the public, the citizenry whose safety and wellbeing the civic authorities are charged with protecting. The derailed, of course, are the easiest to help, and also the easiest to become one of. Life is so precarious that just about everyone is at some degree of risk for becoming homeless. Today we look at a few random ways in which this can happen.
A Davenport, Iowa, mother of five was shown a rental house by “the most wonderful man I ever met in my life” and gave him a $1,300 deposit—all the money she had. Then he disappeared, and even a local news station was unable to help her trace the thief.
An article by Senior Advocate Liza Horvath outlines some of the many ways in which the elderly can be scammed out of their homes and savings, and prefaces the list with strong words:
A rapacious, marauding predator is taking hold in America and it is growing stronger, smarter, meaner and more aggressive each passing minute… If left unchecked it will take everything they have earned and saved throughout a lifetime and dump them—homeless and destitute into the mean streets.
A Rhode Island couple bought a house, sold their old house, and wound up out in the cold. At the last minute, their Realtor told the would-be buyers that “because [a law firm] had failed to provide proper notification of foreclosure, we’d be unable to obtain title insurance.” The firm’s branches in a nearby state had already been under investigation because their practices looked very much like those of a “foreclosure mill,” a well-known variety of illegal enterprise. Yet the error in this case could so plausibly have been an honest (and still unconscionable) mistake, it gave the Attorney General’s subsequent inquiry very little to work with. And the couple, of course, could not get their old house back.
In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the Andrews family learned the hard way that when the city condemns a building, the tenants have to leave immediately. It wasn’t Robin Andrews’s fault that the balcony of a 4th-floor apartment collapsed, or that everyone in the building had to get out right away. His employer paid for the initial week in a motel room for the couple and their three children. Andrews expected to get his $900 security deposit back from the old landlord, but instead was cheated out of it. The result? No resources and nowhere to go.
Everyone has a story, and listening to too many of them at once can have an impact on the hearer. But now, the theme takes a turn. As we have seen, in Florida many volunteer teams of military veterans search the urban areas and the wilderness for their lost brothers. Last year a survey was taken—and bear in mind, this was just one county, Hillsborough, which includes the city of Tampa.
Of the 236 veterans counted…109 said they didn’t know exactly why they were homeless.
Source: “Garcetti, City Council throw homeless problem to the police,” LATimes.com, 07/03/15
Source: “Davenport mom and kids homeless after internet scam,” WQAD.com, 10/14/13
Source: “Scammers can leave seniors homeless,” MonteryHerald.com, 10/31/14
Source: “I-Team: Law firm mistake leaves couple without home,” turnto10.com, 10/28/13
Source: “Family left homeless after balcony collapse,” 620wtmj, 10/10/13
Source: “Number of homeless veterans in the area spikes,” Tbo.com, 05/11/14
Image by Pedro Ribeiro Simões
Fight for $15! This is the battle cry for higher wages. Seemingly awesome. It is now taking hold on both sides of the nation. At this point, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Berkley, Oakland, Seattle, and now New York, have wage agreements that when eased in over time (3-6 years) will result in higher minimum wages!
For a decade, between 1997 and 2007, Congress failed to raise the Federal Minimum Wage at all. This set workers’ wages (coupled with normal inflation) on a trajectory that was so negative and so severe it resulted in putting the basics of life, including housing, beyond the reach of millions. In fact, the ever shrinking minimum wage relative to the cost of daily necessities has become so extreme that even such things as basic rental housing have moved beyond the reach of full time, 40 hour a week, minimum wage workers. Inaction on the part of Congress has only added to the 3.5 million people now experiencing homelessness in this nation. When the federal government failed to act, the people in desperation, jumped into the fray pushing for higher wages in their areas.
This is the very core of our American Dream…a fair wage for a fair day’s work! If you work hard, keep your head down, eventually you can get ahead, get married, and raise a family.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has indicated his support for recent economic changes. In fact, at a recent rally celebrating the NY wage proposal, he was noted as saying, “This is just the beginning. We will not stop until we reach true economic justice.” Awesome! Finally, we will acknowledge that the minimum wage worker, the janitor, construction laborer, hotel worker, bank teller, fast food worker, theater attendant, farm worker, receptionist, nurse’s aide, maid, poultry processor, child care worker, home care aid, garage attendant, etc. make up the socio-economic base of our society and that they all need living wages.
But wait a minute! Did we just mention farm workers? These are strictly rural workers. What about all the other minimum wage rural workers? While 80% of Americans live in urban areas according to the 2010 census, 20% of all workers are scattered throughout rural America. How will they and others in their situation, ever attain income-equity if they aren’t unionized and are too few in concentrated numbers to affect change? And by the way, ten states have passed laws that prevent local minimum wages to rise about the Federal Minimum Wage (currently set at $7.25 per hour or $2.13 per hour for agricultural workers).
And while we’re at it, when we examine the $15.00 for those who are organized and in states where it is OK to have a minimum wage above the federal minimum wage, we find that even $15 per hour falls significantly short of what is needed to become housed and to get by on a daily basis. Then we examine the common sense of the Universal Living Wage (ULW) formula, we see that it is based on three existing government guidelines:
- spend no more than 30% of your income on housing,
- work a full 40 hours per week,
- index the wage to the local cost of housing.
We calculate that the wage required to afford a one bedroom apartment using the HUD Fair Market Rents in a few notably cities with high costs of living-
|City/State||Hourly wage for an efficiency apartment||Hourly wage for a one-bedroom apartment|
|New York, NY||$23.00||$24.02|
|Los Angeles, CA||$17.56||$21.21|
|San Francisco, CA||$24.15||$31.44|
$15 per hour is a far cry from any of these basic requirements, and as we have seen in the past, when some of these $15 amounts go into effect as much as six years away, their value will be highly degraded due to inflation and we will be right back where we started. At the same time, currently in rural America we see that in areas such as found in a few sample cities in the table below-
|City/State||Hourly wage for an efficiency apartment||Hourly wage for a one-bedroom apartment|
|Little Rock, AR||$10.31||$11.90|
This again is a significant distance from the $15 per hour bench mark in the opposite direction. We cannot destabilize small business throughout rural America as we work to stabilize our minimum wage workers.
What we need to do is act smart and address these two major concerns right up front. First, we have all learned by now that one size (or one wage amount) does not fit all. In fact, we have learned that we are a nation of 1,000 plus economies. Each population area throughout the nation has its own cost of living. We’ve all traveled; we know this to be true. We all know it costs much more to visit/live in Washington DC than it does to visit/live in Rapid City, South Dakota. The ULW formula takes this very real concern into account. We realize that by simply ascribing $15/ hour in an area that only requires $10 per hour would seriously hurt small business in that area. We must not saddle them with a one size fits all $15 per hour wage when it’s unnecessary and destructive to small business. Instead, we can use the HUD Fair Market Rent values to determine what a person should reasonably expect to pay for an apartment and other living necessities throughout the nation in areas about the size of counties. Then by simply making the wage relate to the cost of housing by indexing it to the local cost of housing, we ensure that no matter what that housing cost rises to, if we put in our 40 units of work per week, we’ll be able to afford basic housing and the core necessities of life without hurting small business. This is also a reason for people to be drawn away from welfare and back into work.
We need to keep the federal standard created in 1938 after the Great Depression that established The Federal Minimum Wage, in play for the entire nation. We need to be able to afford the basics in life: food, clothing and shelter (now transportation is added with the ULW formula) but we must tweak The Federal Minimum Wage so it is based locally. By using the same principle throughout the nation, but by indexing it locally, we find that over time, we are able to make the wage relate to even the most costly of housing markets in urban America without hurting small businesses in rural America.
This approach finally solves the problem of wage inequality at the minimum wage level while ensuring that a full time minimum wage worker is able to afford a roof over their head, (other than a bridge), and without adding to the existing homeless population. Finally, it gives businesses the opportunity to plan ahead by knowing exactly what the wage of employees will be now and in the future.
Photo: Steve Rhodes
How much food goes to waste each year? One source gives the global figure as 200,000 tons, another source claims the same amount is wasted each year in the United Kingdom alone. Obviously, we’re dealing with a lot of educated guesses. In the United States, a somewhere from 30 to 40 percent is wasted, depending on which authority is speaking. Allegedly, 30 million tons of food wind up in American landfills each year.
Komal Ahmad asks us to imagine a football stadium filled to the top like a gigantic bowl—because that’s how much food goes to waste in America in a single day. While a student at UC Berkeley in California, she forged a connection between the school’s dining halls and local homeless shelters, initiating a program that, within three years, spread to 140 colleges across the country.
Now, Ahmad is CEO of Feeding Forward, a nonprofit organization that uses a website and a mobile app to connect all kinds of businesses with shelters in their area. When a company hosts a big event, it can summon volunteers to come and package the leftovers, and deliver them to food banks and venues that feed people experiencing homelessness. Since its inception in 2013, Feeding Forward has recovered more than 600,000 pounds of food and provided almost that number of meals.
A similar program was started by Jean-François Archambault in Montreal, Canada back in 2005, and has spread to other Canadian cities and even taken a leap down to Mexico City. As a hotel management student, Archambault was appalled by the waste his classes generated, and told reporter Karon Liu:
We were preparing so much food and they threw away a lot of it because there were only 20 students, but we were practicing to cook for 80 to 100 people.
Later, working in major hotels, he observed that between a quarter and a third of the food prepared for banquets and buffets would be thrown away. Now, La Tablée Des Chefs matches the places that have food with the places that need it, and provides aluminum and plastic containers and bags. When the Montreal Canadiens play at the city’s Bell Centre, between 700 and 900 homeless people are fed the following day.
From one major hotel alone, as many as 10,000 meals can be recovered in a year. With more than 60 food distribution organizations and 50 hospitality establishments involved, La Tablée Des Chefs has been responsible for serving a total of about half a million meals.
Plan Zheroes, which feeds thousands of people experiencing homelessness in the United Kingdom, aims to expand into Wales and Portugal. Volunteers remember how it was in the old days, before Plan Zheroes was founded in 2009. Each potential donation triggered a confusing flurry of phone calls to discover the place where food was needed most and to gather people and vehicles to move it from Point A to Point B.
Determined to make better use of time, food, and all other resources, a consulting firm called Keytree developed the new social network as a pro bono project. In this case, the donors are not hotels but retail grocery outlets whose products have reached their mandated “sell-by” date.
Often, change is met with resistance, because people who are used to doing things a certain way rarely welcome change. But continuing advances in technology promise that such compassionate sharing systems will continue to improve and spread.
Source: “Surplus food for the homeless is just an app away.” CNET.com, 06/21/15
Source: “Your Uneaten Hotel Breakfast Is Now Feeding the Homeless,” vice.com, 05/12/15
Source: “This Homeless Charity Got Smart And Built Own Social Network,” forbes.com, 05/22/15
Image by Kurman Communications, Inc.
Bob Erlenbusch is Executive Director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness and, like House the Homeless founder Richard R. Troxell, he sits on the board of the National Coalition for the Homeless. Currently, in a paper called Homelessness & “Functional Zero:” a Critique, Erlenbusch challenges the validity of the bedrock principles of homelessness policy. (We received the piece from Erlenbusch; it is not, as far as we know, available online.) It appears that some underlying notions seriously need to be re-thought.
The author points out that, lamentably, ten-year plans that started so boldly are now “in their second decade or abandoned altogether.” Strategies that were originally mapped out might need remodeling. For example, when authorities set the triage standards, and prioritized the various arbitrarily-named subgroups, it was decided that the chronically homeless would be dealt with first, then veterans, families, and youth. Of course, any person could belong to more than one of those groups. Anyway, the idea was to eliminate homelessness among one group, then move on to the next. By and large, that plan is not working out as advertised.
Why have things gone so wrong? For one thing, there’s the minimum wage, which Erlenbusch says “keeps people shackled to poverty.” What does poverty do? The stress of it makes people sick. A chronic shortage of money tempts them to a criminal path. Financial distress breaks up families. Grownups wind up in a hospitals, jails and prisons. Kids wind up in foster homes.
Every year, those institutions discharge thousands of people into homelessness—people who are vulnerable because of poor health, youth who are at risk in many ways, and men and women who are perhaps perfectly capable of supporting themselves, except for being unemployable because of their criminal records. All too often, those jackets are acquired in the first place through crimes directly connected with being homeless—sitting on the wrong bench, panhandling, public urination, and so forth. The vicious cycle that connects prison and the streets (and the foster care system) creates a revolving door that rotates so fast it would make your head spin.
Going farther back, the Reagan administration set the stage for all this in 1980 by making three-quarters of the federal affordable housing budget disappear. Also at some point the mental health system took a dive, which can be blamed on either Reagan or the ACLU, depending on who tells the story. (It might have been both.) All these factors, and more, add up to what Erlenbusch describes as:
…systems and policies that have created three decades of mass homelessness.. Prisons and jails have become the housing for people experiencing homelessness, especially people of color and those with mental health issues.
So now, how do we handle the fallout? For starters, we try to “arrest our way out of homelessness,” and one of the results has been the de facto criminalization of mental illness. (It would be a cliché to invoke the name of a certain World War II military dictator, but his thoughts were on the same wavelength.)
Something else happened, too— what Erlenbusch calls “defining our way out of homelessness.” This trick has been used extensively by bureaucracies full of number-massagers with statistics degrees and flexible principles when discussing, for instance, the unemployment rate. Even when well-intentioned (but ill-advised) people set to work on the definition of homelessness, things can really get ugly.
The Fatal Flaw in Functional Zero
The big fallacy is a concept called “functional zero” and Erlenbusch hopes to inspire a major shift in the thinking behind it. Here is the gist of his argument:
Basically, a community can still have 10,000 homeless people, for example, but if that community can say the number of people entering homelessness is equal to the number exiting, they have reached “functional zero”—forget the 10,000 languishing on the streets and in shelters…
An analogy: say a person weighs 800 pounds. If he ingests 2,000 calories worth of food per day, and moves around enough to burn 2,000 calories in a day, you could say his intake/output ratio is at “functional zero.” Yeah, but he still weighs 800 pounds! This falls under no one’s definition of health. Erlenbusch goes on to say:
It is harmful because when politicians and community members hear “zero”—they hear we have ended homelessness… Then when it is time to allocate scarce public resources it would not be unreasonable for the public and/or elected officials to argue we don’t need as many resources for homelessness because we have solved it! Yet we know nothing could be further from the truth.
One excellent point made by the author is that, just like “no means no,” zero should mean zero. In order to grasp the insidious damage done by the “functional zero” doctrine, we relate one of Erlenbusch’s statements to a few other quotations and ideas. He says that because of this convention, “…hundreds of thousands of people experiencing homelessness have remained invisible to our leaders at all levels.” He quotes Marc Uhry:
When people are invisible, you can’t find a solution because you don’t see them.
In The Transformation, George B. Leonard wrote:
One of the most powerful taboo mechanisms is simply not providing a vocabulary for the experience to be tabooed.
The venerable Illuminatus! Trilogy gave us the word “fnord,” which has to do with things that are apparent but indefinite; and the ability to see truths that most people can’t; and being forcibly conditioned to fear that seeing. It might even bear some relationship to what Obi Wan Kenobi famously said: “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.” It’s about mental judo. Community Solutions defines functional zero like this:
At any point in time, the number of people experiencing sheltered or unsheltered homelessness will be no greater than the current monthly housing placement rate for people experiencing homelessness.
Our minds can be clouded to think that makes sense. But it doesn’t. That definition merely describes homeostasis, or maintenance of the status quo. In any case, those things are not necessarily good, and in this case, they are definitely bad. The definition is, at best, meaningless jargon, and at worse an evil gimmick. It signifies no more than treading water, or running in a hamster wheel—with the appearance of activity but no real progress.
Of course, that’s not entirely fair either. Even when the math is from Alice in Wonderland, every time an individual or family receives help from any agency, it’s a step in the right direction. As in the oft-repeated starfish story, “It made a difference for that one.”
Source: “Topic: Reagan kicked people out of institutions,” Snopes.com, 02/05/06
Image by Bill Maher
People often wonder, “What can one person do?” House the Homeless is in the process of saluting a number of one-person operations that have collectively fed thousands of hungry people in many places.
In London’s fabled East End, the Crisis Cafe teaches culinary skills to people experiencing homelessness, and to recently re-housed people who are getting back on their feet. Of course many dedicated volunteers are behind this project, but the program received some well-deserved publicity when Sophie Thompson, who had a role in one of the Harry Potter movies, stopped by. In addition to cinematic star power, Thompson brought her reputation as the 2014 Celebrity MasterChef winner and her recipe for pumpkin soup.
In Hail, Saudi Arabia, a man set up a commercial-sized, glass-fronted refrigerator outside his home, where he and his neighbors place food for hungry people to come and get. Of course, probably anywhere in America such a gesture would be forbidden by zoning laws, anti-litter ordinances, “eyesore” abatement programs, and health department rules. It is a nice idea, though.
Feeding the Hungry in the U.S.
Every Thursday, a woman who works in Chicago’s business district spends her lunch hour distributing sandwiches purchased from a fast food outlet, whose owner also contributes a few freebies. Kasonja Holley is often accompanied by her friend Darlene Green, and the pair sometimes carry along toiletries and blankets. Holley started a nonprofit called Love in Motion, whose volunteers recently celebrated its third anniversary by serving 300 meals.
Mason Wartman quit his lucrative Wall Street career to make a difference in the city he loves, Philadelphia, by opening a pizza parlor. The restaurant’s unique meal-sharing system is based on sticky notes. A paying customer can choose to give a dollar, write a friendly message, and post it on the wall, and somebody who needs it can take one of those sticky notes and redeem it for a free meal. In a one-year period, Wartman’s business served 14,000 partially subsidized pizza slices.
Moved by a similar sentiment for his home town, Baltimore, restaurant owner Michael Tabrizi is skipping the annual promotional week during which restaurants offer great deals to attract customers who can afford to eat out. Instead, he is setting aside five days to serve three meals a day to the homeless.
In Allan Law’s Minneapolis apartment, 17 freezers run at all times. Over the course of a year, about 800 groups (business, civic and faith-based) take turns stocking them with food. A retired teacher, Law now works nights for free, driving a van through dark streets to distribute the necessities of life. Boyd Huppert reports that in one year, Law handed out “more than 700,000 sandwiches, 7,000 pairs of socks and 75,000 bus tokens.” He also makes the rounds of local businesses to pick up food that would otherwise go to waste.
In Hartford, Conn., Sister Patricia McKeon recently let go of the executive director reins after 50 years of feeding the homeless via Mercy Housing and Shelter. Edible calories are only one of the blessings dispensed by the organization, which also is instrumental in finding homes for around 250 people every year. Sister Pat told a reporter:
This wasn’t just a job, it was a ministry to help people….You know, it’s been a wonderful ride. It really, really has.
Feeding People in The Golden State
California keeps up its reputation as a forerunner in societal improvement, thanks to such caring citizens as Donna Dolgovin, the retired nurse from Pomona who one day gave a cup of soup to a homeless man and went on to found a nonprofit called Helping Hands, Caring Hearts, which feeds as many as 150 people every Sunday.
In Monterey, Sarah Luiz Chandler was homeless for more than a year before receiving a sizeable inheritance that allows her to do things like host community meals. She describes helping others as “the greatest, most satisfying, electric experience you can ever imagine,” and says:
Homelessness doesn’t have to be a lifestyle. It can be just a moment in time.
Source: “Harry Potter star Sophie Thompson weaves her magic to help homeless people,” Mirror.co.uk, 01/31/15
Source: “Saudi Man Finds Innovative Way To Feed Homeless,” Ecorazzi.com, 05/12/14
Source: “Kasonja Holley is feeding the Loop’s homeless on her lunch break,” ChicagoReader.com, 12/09/14
Source: “How to Quit Wall Street and Crowdfund Pizza for the Homeless,” HuffingtonPost.com, 07/02/15
Source: “Baltimore Restaurant Owner Opts Out Of Restaurant Week To Feed The Homeless
Instead,” HuffingtonPost.com, 07/06/15
Source: “700,000 sandwiches later, this man is still helping the homeless,” USAToday.com, 04/20/15
Source: “After 50 years, Sister Pat passing the baton on feeding homeless,” WFSB.com, 03/09/15
Source: “Everyday Heroes: Pomona woman feeds homeless with regular Sunday meals,” DailyBulletin.com, 12/20/13
Source: “Homeless-woman-turned millionaire gives back,” KSBW.com, 07/07/14
Image by Mills Baker