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Solving Homelessness Faces Two Problems: Awareness and Cost

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

Wages Are the Problem

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

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

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

Costly Solutions

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

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

The Proposed Statues Commemorating Austin’s Homeless

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

The Concept

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

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

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

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

Project Costs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Happening Now: War on the Poor

War on the Poor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learn at a glance

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

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

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More on Homeless Veterans and Corruption, Cont.

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

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

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

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

An interesting question

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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More on Homeless Veterans and Corruption

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

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

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

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

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

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

Task force

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

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

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

Authority speaks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(To be continued…)

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

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The Year in Homeless Veteran Housing, Part 3

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

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

Gloria Angelina Castillo described the objectors’ point of view:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reactions?

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

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The Year in Homeless Veteran Housing, Part 2

The Year in Homeless Veteran Housing, Part 2

The Department of Veterans Affairs aims to end veteran homelessness by 2015, and one of the tools to do this job is the voucher system administered by the Veterans Affairs Supporting Housing Program (VASH) and Housing and Urban Development (HUD). California journalist Debra Gruszecki writes:

Riverside County Supervisors Jeff Stone and John Tavaglione challenged housing staff though a ‘Valor Initiative’ to find permanent homes for 135 veterans within 100 days… ‘We ended up housing 140,’ said Carrie Harmon, a specialist with the Housing Authority of Riverside County… Within the pool of 140 veterans, 110 are in apartments or single-family homes. The rest are in permanent supportive housing centers.

In and around Los Angeles, landlords are collecting $4.2 million per year in rental subsidies. The tenants themselves pay reduced amounts. For instance, a Navy vet featured in Gruszecki’s story is only liable for $286 of his own rent per month. A military aircraft mechanic, he had intended to make a career of it, but suffered a knee injury and combat PTSD during a tour of duty in Iraq.

Back in the States, he lost the woman he had been in a relationship with, and was prevented from contacting his kids. He met up with street drugs, and lost the car he had been living in. After attaining sobriety and maintaining it for seven months, he was chosen by the program for housing and help with the rent.

But it’s not just about money. Gruszecki says the program is:

[...] in partnership with agencies that include US Vets, Roy’s Desert Resource Center, Jewish Family Services, Coachella Valley Rescue Mission, Department of Mental Health, Valley Restart Center, Lighthouse Social Service Centers and the Southern California Veterans Alliance…

One result of this social-service backup system is that, in case of problems, a landlord has someone besides a possibly unstable tenant to deal with.

For better or worse, California is a thought leader. Things start there and spread. What happens in California is important because it’s huge, with around 16,500 homeless veterans, about half of them in the southern part of the state where Los Angeles is. Over the years there has been fierce debate over the land and facilities in the middle of LA, that are supposed to belong to America’s veterans.

One of the contested issues has been the fate of some 60-year-old buildings belonging to the Sepulveda Ambulatory Care Center, that were damaged in a 1994 earthquake and closed down. Christina Villacorte writes:

Over the last decade, several community organizations, neighborhood councils, and government officials opposed the project, including Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Sherman Oaks, because developers did not initially plan to offer the units exclusively to homeless veterans, and were also open to having tenants that were not yet clean or sober…

The 400-square-foot units are designated for veterans who had lived on the streets and tried to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder and other injuries by abusing drugs or alcohol, but have since embraced sobriety.

So the “housing first” principle lost out in this project. Anyway, the properties have been rehabilitated by the nonprofit housing developer A Community of Friends and another nonprofit, New Directions for Veterans. The complex, which opened a few weeks ago, is described as a “permanent supportive housing facility for formerly homeless, disabled and low-income military veterans.” Residents pay no more than 30% of their income, or up to $435 monthly, and the tax funds allotted to veterans take care of the rest.

The development includes 147 studio apartments, each of which cost $320,000 to create. It seems like a lot of money for 400 square feet, which is, like, 20′ by 20′. Many homes in Los Angeles have closets bigger than that. Of course there are also common areas, the price of which must be averaged in, but it still seems like quite a price tag. There are places where $320,000 could buy a decent house with a yard and garage. Maybe the necessity for earthquake-proofing explains the extraordinary cost per unit.

(To be continued…)

Reactions?

Source: “Homeless Veterans: 140 housed in 100 days,” pe.com, 09/25/13
Source: “Once homeless vets now have a place to call their own,” DailyNews.com, 09/27/13
Image by Boston Public Library.

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The Year in Homeless Veteran Housing

vacant housesIn April, the Associated Press reported that Operation Stand Down Rhode Island opened six service-enriched homes for veterans. In May, Fran Daniel reported on the plans in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to rehabilitate a set of apartments, mostly for military veterans. In Forsyth County, there was already a 24-bed transitional housing program that allowed up to two years residency for homeless vets working to get back on their feet.

The apartment remodeling project represented a branching-out on the part of Whole Man Ministries, which maintained a church, a food bank, a clothing bank, a computer lab, an after-school program for kids, and a mentoring programs for prisoners, but had never before attempted to house the homeless. The organization bought two duplexes that had been scheduled for demolition and began fixing them up to create four apartments, one equipped for handicap access.

Help was solicited from local carpenters, plumbers, and businesses. The city’s director of community and business development, Ritchie Brooks, voiced to the press concerns felt by many local residents:

Generally if you can get volunteers and have some good supervision or a good contractor, you can make it through the rehab pretty successfully. But after that rehab, it’s the management portion that would still be of a concern — being able to adequately do that so that it’s not going to be a burden or have some negative impact on the community.

In June, Habitat for Humanity began an initiative called Veterans Build and took over the National Mall in the nation’s capital to build seven house frames which would later be moved to local sites and finished. The same week, C. Andrew McCawley, CEO of Boston’s New England Center for Homeless Veterans, wrote for publication about his own state, which contained an estimated 1,200 homeless vets at any give time, and the national scene:

The country is now more than halfway into a dedicated five-year campaign to end veterans’ homelessness, and a 20 percent reduction has been achieved nationwide, with select states, such as Massachusetts, demonstrating even greater progress. The state’s plan is a comprehensive strategy and course of action with the explicit goal of ending veterans’ homelessness in Massachusetts by the end of 2015.

Massachusetts has broken its goal down into four main areas:

Implement a housing strategy to re-house and stabilize veterans who become homeless
Ensure veterans who are most at risk of homelessness remain housed to prevent homelessness
Increase access to benefits and resources for veterans through greater intervention
Align and integrate federal, state, and community resources to support veterans through effective partnerships.

In the same month, news came from Florida that the Lee County Homeless Coalition got together with other agencies to do something about chronically homeless veterans, in other words, the individuals who had been on the streets for the longest time, chalking up bills in emergency rooms because of their medical conditions including addiction. First, the needlessly complicated local housing voucher system was streamlined. But here is the important part:

Coalition members are referring all veteran clients to Veteran Affairs outreach. Permanent housing options are being identified using a Housing First approach centered on providing people experiencing homelessness with housing as quickly as possible, then providing services as needed.

Housing First a winning idea

In city after city, the idea is slowly catching on that plenty of taxpayer money can be saved by identifying the most needy and service-intensive people and getting them help. With “housing first,” expenses are markedly reduced, and there is more money left over to distribute among other housing efforts.

Perhaps the most egregious example was seen in Fresno, California, where a man died in January who had called for an ambulance on a daily or sometimes twice-daily basis for almost a year, accruing hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of charges. If he had been placed in services-enriched housing, the taxpayers and the hospital would both be in better financial shape.

The “housing first” principle was illustrated to the citizens of Saskatoon, in Canada’s Saskatchewan Province, where a study concentrating on 23 chronically homeless individuals showed that their care was costing $2.8 million per year, divided between emergency room visits, psychiatric hospital visits, ambulance trips, overnight detox visits, and jail stays. Knowledge that $2 million could be saved by providing services-enriched housing for just this small number inspired United Way to turn its efforts in the “housing first” direction.

(To be continued…)

Reactions?

Source: “Local nonprofit organization to rehab apartments for homeless veterans,” Winston-Salem Journal, 05/12/13
Source: “Habitat for Humanity building homes for homeless vets on National Mall,” MyFoxDC.com, 06/02/13
Source: “Ending homelessness for veterans,” Boston.com, 06/03/13
Source: “Help for homeless veterans : 50 homes in 100 days,” WinkNews.com, 06/12/13
Source: “Housing 23 homeless saves taxpayers $2M,” TheStarPhoenix.com, 06/14/13
Image by unknown.

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And Still More Ways to Become Homeless

Homeless (green)Songwriters Lou and Peter Berryman wrote a song in 2004 whose message is, unfortunately, still spot-on today. The lyrics suggest an astonishing number of ways to become homeless, and really the best idea would be to go to this page and marvel over the whole list. (It’s the first item in the “Comments” section.)

But here’s a sample:

One runaway truck, one slip in the muck
One stretch of bad luck: Homelessness
One family feud, one litigious old prude
One long bad mood: Homelessness
One toaster too hot, one investment that’s not
One tiny blood clot: Homelessness

Earlier this month, Mark and Sharon Ames and their three daughters moved from a cramped apartment into a rental house they had found via Craigslist, in a community near Los Angeles. They paid the $2,000 move-in stake and signed a lease. Then, wrote Kennedy Ryan of KTLA5:

On Wednesday, a woman identifying herself as the real property manager showed up at the home with a police officer and told them they had to leave immediately because they were trespassing.

The officer gave the Ames family less than an hour to vacate and stood over them while they gathered their possessions. They signed into a motel, and KTLA5 kindly published their electronic contact information in case anyone was inspired to help.

Eleanor Goldberg of The Huffington Post picked up the story and added even more disheartening details. The real landlord gratuitously had the family’s van towed, and as anyone who has ever gone through the hassle and expense of reclaiming a vehicle from the California police knows, that alone can ruin your entire month.

The scam artist found the Ames couple easy to fleece, because they both face extra challenges in dealing with life. Mark is an amputee with a prosthetic leg, and Sharon is a PTSD-disabled veteran. Ironically, Mark has done volunteer service with an organization that helps the homeless. Through their own difficulties and life experience, they understand that things can’t always be done in the conventional way:

They fell for the scam in part, Mark said, because the fake landlord preyed on their vulnerabilities. She told them that a major car accident had left her disabled and unable to talk on the phone. The two dealt with the paperwork completely through email…

… And ended up homeless.

Ready for a laugh?

For comic relief, here is a quote from the archives of writer Heather Murdock:

A Rwandan government program to stop people living in thatched houses as part of a plan to alleviate poverty left hundreds of Batwa Pygmy families homeless…

But that kind of stuff only happens in “developing” third-world countries, not in an enlightened and progressive place like the United States. Right?

Remember Hurricane Katrina, and all the people it made homeless, and how some of them were loaned FEMA trailers to live in? By December of 2010, there were still 221 of these trailers in New Orleans, still occupied by people who as yet, for whatever reasons, had no other place to live. City officials called them a blight, and warned the residents to get out or pay heavy fines amounting to $500 per day. The following month, Julianne Hing reported:

The trailers were never designed to be permanent housing. Many who stayed in them years after the storm stuck around not out of choice; they had nowhere else to go. For many in New Orleans, such remains the case today… With these final FEMA eviction notices, [Mayor] Landrieu sends the message that he’s determined to beautify the city, if not address housing accessibility issues for people who most need help.

Hing quoted Lance Hill of the Southern Institute for Education and Research:

The blight eradication program, if not done correctly, can become a poor-person eradication program.

It wasn’t until a year later that the last trailer left New Orleans. In the meantime, another story came from the beleaguered city, of an employed 58-year-old woman named Barbara Gabriel who had lived in a Housing Authority apartment since 1975. Her errant nephew was arrested for selling drugs, and gave her address to the police. So the Housing Authority prepared to throw her out. Blair S. Walker reported:

‘I did not give him permission to use my address,’ says Gabriel… ‘He doesn’t live with me and he is not on my lease.’ Gabriel had been targeted under a ‘one strike and you’re out’ policy established by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1996. ‘One strike’ allows housing authorities to evict tenants following one drug-related offense.

Even if the legal tenant knew nothing about it and had nothing to do with it. So remember the chilling refrain of the Berrymans’ song:

And don’t forget, it’s sad but true
Next time around it could be you

Reactions?

Source: “A portrait of Connecticut’s homeless,” Courant.com, 02/09/11
Source: “Family of 5 Homeless After Craigslist Rental Scam,” KTLA.com, 09/03/13
Source: “Vet with PTSD, Amputee Husband and Their 3 Kids Homeless,” The Huffington Post, 09/13/13
Source: “Rwandan Government Program to End Thatched Housing Leaves Pygmies Homeless,” Bloomberg.com, 05/31/11
Source: “New Orleans Dumps FEMA Trailers — and Maybe the People in Them,” Truth-Out.org, 01/04/11
Source: “Eviction Threat, for No Reason,” AARP.org, 09/01/10
Image by Bart Everson.

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How to Become Homeless: Age Out of Foster Care, Part 3

please lend a handIn Part 2 of this discussion, House the Homeless blog traced progress in the quality of support offered to youth who “age out” of foster care. Members of this group are very much at risk for experiencing homelessness, and even short-term homelessness can have devastating effects on a young person.

Apparently, unless some kind of intervention scoops a kid up off the streets quickly, the prognosis worsens dramatically. There seems to be an interval of opportunity, a window that, once closed, is very difficult to reopen.

In 2004, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) scrutinized the situation in an attempt to measure the effectiveness of various programs and check up on how vigorously various plans were being carried out. Quoting ourselves:

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.

Along with sloppy compliance, the GAO also found “gaps in the availability of mental health services, mentoring services, and securing safe and suitable housing, particularly in rural areas.” In 2008, the states were told to follow up on kids set loose from the system to see what kind of “outcomes” or lives they were having, and to start doing it by October of 2010.

Compliance, of a sort

When did the first National Youth in Transition Database report see the light of day? In late 2012, meaning that so far, there has only been one national annual report on how these programs are working out, and its information is centered on 2011. The basic number the compilers worked with was 98,561 — the total of youth and young adults who received at least one independent living service. About half were in the 14-17 age group, which means they were probably still officially in foster care; and half were in the 18-21 age group, which means they were probably not under the court’s jurisdiction any more.

About 17,000 17-year-olds answered a survey about their “outcomes,” which is kind of a misleading term in this case, because they hadn’t “aged out” yet. A total of 93% of this group were going to school. The same percentage said they had at least one adult available for advice or emotional support. About one in five had some kind of job experience, which is broadly defined to include training programs and unpaid internships. Among the foster kids in this demographic, only 6% had been homeless at some point. And guess what — more than one-third of these still-in-the-system kids had experienced incarceration.

Making their way in the world

The National Resource Center for Youth Development keeps track of every state, so it is worth taking a microscopic look at one state, California, because it has big numbers and is often the pioneer in social movements. This report is less currant than the 2012 federal one — it harks back to 2009 — but it is more detailed and gives some idea of the situation.

Eighteen was the maximum age for youth in foster care to be funded by the state, except in certain particular cases. If they were still in high school and going to graduate before turning 19. Or if they were in college, which might be difficult, because the state provides no waiver of tuition for foster kids. Or if they were incapable of activities or had other barriers to employment, or if, conversely, they were working 80-hour weeks (in other words, holding down two full-time jobs). If any of these conditions were fulfilled, the law allowed them to remain in the system until age 21, and also to continue receiving Medi-Cal benefits.

Sounds pretty good, right? So why, in 2011, in the great progressive state of California, in the city of San Francisco, was there a bitter fight over something called the Cow Hollow housing project? The proposal was to buy a former “boutique tourist hotel” with 30 rooms and turn it into a housing project for 24 young people. Opponents claimed that 24 people was too many, according to the current zoning ordinance. (If so, how did that 30-room hotel operate?)

Matthew S. Bajko reported:

The development is being vehemently opposed by some nearby neighbors and merchants, whose concerns range from seeing property values plummet to whether the site is an appropriate location for at-risk youth. They point to the fact that nearby is the Bridge Hotel, a magnet for criminal activity that the city attorney’s office targeted last year for numerous code violations.

The Supervisor of the district, Mark Farrell, called the area “fraught with a lot of risk.” Meanwhile, a resident of the area wrote an open letter to the city’s politicians:

The Chestnut Street area is and has always been family friendly with little or no drunkenness or rowdiness and any changes to this would be most undesirable.

Do you see what they did? They argued it both ways. The area is both too rowdy for the tender sensibilities of former foster kids at risk of homelessness, AND too civilized to tolerate the presence of former foster kids at risk of homelessness. The area is too dangerous for older teenagers, yet so prime that the plummeting of property values is a dreaded possibility. The young people who need a place to live are characterized as both too threatened, and too threatening, and the whole thing is just a lousy idea, so please go do it in somebody else’s backyard.

Indeed, Supervisor Farrell suggested selling the property and using the money to buy another parcel somewhere outside his district. It’s not clear whether the Cow Hollow project is still in the appeal process, or the organizations gave up. In 2012, a similar establishment for the same clientele opened in the Tenderloin district. The main service providers concerned with the project were the Community Housing Partnership and Larkin Street Youth Services. Bajko quotes Larkin Street’s executive director, Sherilyn Adams, as saying:

I think that likely some of those concerns are based on not knowing or understanding the issues about youth in the foster care system or on the streets who are or were homeless… These are young people we are all responsible for ensuring have opportunities as full members of society.

Reactions?

Source: “First Report from National Youth in Transition Database,” Alliance1.org, 10/26/12
Source: “California,” NRCYD.ou.edu
Source: “Youth housing project causes uproar,” ebar.com, 07/14/11
Image by aprilzosia.

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More Ways to Become Homeless

Collecting BottlesIn connection with the release of the whitepaper “Prevent Homelessness at its Core,” House the Homeless examined several of the more heavily travelled paths to Skid Row, where the embarkation point is release from institutions such as prisons, hospitals, the military, and the foster care system. Those reasons account for hundreds of thousands of people experiencing homelessness. Astonishingly, a plethora of other ways exists for an American to become, overnight, part of an underclass that too many other Americans wish would just disappear.

Fire is an ever-popular way to lose not only possessions but hope, and headlines routinely report the number of newly homeless people caused by any residential conflagration. In one particularly sad instance in Toledo, Ohio, pastor Steve North had rented a big old house that was part church, as journalist Gabrielle Russon described:

LifeLine wasn’t a typical church where people wore their best clothes and worshiped on Sunday morning. Instead, nearly 100 people came to Mr. North’s house on the first Saturday of each month. They stayed up late, eating food, listening to open-mic poetry, and talking. It was a ministry for low-income residents, to help them feel like they belonged somewhere.

North had just been out volunteering at the local tent city when his own family’s house burned, and he and his wife and their two children became as homeless as the people they had lovingly served.

How bad does a situation have to be, for someone to choose homelessness? Every year, ridiculous numbers of teenagers decide to stop enduring abuse from family members or step-parents, and escape to the streets. Sometimes, if the person achieves a measure of fame, the world hears about it later. Tyler Perry, for instance, had to get away from a father “whose answer to everything was to beat it out of you.” The young man dropped out of school, took off, and lived in a car for a time. Thanks to his incredible determination and sterling work ethic, Tyler Perry because an immensely successful filmmaker and performer.

More ways

MSNBC reporter Seamus McGraw related the story of a beauty contest winner who told him, “Anyone can fall victim to this” — “this” being homelessness. Blair Griffith, whose father had died of cancer, was Miss Colorado Teen in 2006. After some time went by, her mother had a heart attack and required $800 worth of meds every month. Griffith won the title of Miss Colorado USA in 2011, and a month later, sheriff’s officers showed up with an eviction notice and removed Griffith and her mother from their home. Around the same time, the young woman also lost her day job. Fortunately, friends took them in and they were able to start rebuilding their lives.

In the public imagination, and to some extent in real life, addiction leads to homelessness. What some critics refuse to take into account is that not every person with a substance abuse problem got there voluntarily. This article from RitalinAbuseHelp.com emphasizes how many children have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and made to take pharmaceuticals. He writes:

… [A]dults who use Ritalin may have been diagnosed with the disorder at very young ages. Over time, doctors increase the dosages to deal with the changes in a patient’s weight and behavior, but somewhere along the way users may abuse the drug and become addicted… [A] drug meant to help now controls the individual, which can lead to losing a job, family and home.

A person can be brought low by one piece of serious bad luck, which often takes the form of a head injury. While researching a column about the organization Common Ground, journalist David Bornstein encountered a detail that brought him a “jolting realization”:

… [A]nybody could become like a homeless person — all it takes is a traumatic brain injury. A bicycle fall, a car accident, a slip on the ice, or if you’re a soldier, a head wound — and your life could become unrecognizable. James O’Connell, a doctor who has been treating the most vulnerable homeless people on the streets of Boston for 25 years, estimates that 40 percent of the long-term homeless people he’s met had such a brain injury.

Bornstein also spoke with Becky Kanis of Common Ground, who described a mindset that perceives the person experiencing homelessness as “almost in their DNA different from someone who has a house.” That is an excellent point. Despite the fact that someone without shelter is likely to be of any race or gender or age, the imagination of Mr. or Ms. J. Q. Public tends to classify the homeless person as somehow “other.” And as we have seen, it isn’t so. Bornstein wraps up the thought:

Many of the errors in our homelessness policies have stemmed from the conception that the homeless are a homogeneous group. It’s only in the past 15 years that organizations [...] have taken a more granular, street-level view of the problem — disaggregating the ‘episodically homeless’ from the ‘chronically homeless’ in order to understand their needs at an individual level.

Reactions?

Source: “Fire damages homeless advocate’s home,” ToledoBlade.com, 11/01/11
Source: “Tyler Perry biography,” Biography.com
Source: “Homeless Miss Colorado: ‘Anyone can fall victim to this’,” TODAY.com, 2012
Source: “The Relationship between Homelessness and Ritalin Addiction,” RitalinAbuseHelp.com
Source: “The Street-Level Solution,” The New York Times, 12/24/10
Image by Ed Yourdon.

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