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Homeless Tropes and Archetypes

graffiti-and-pile-of-stuffThere are reasons why a reporter chooses a certain individual for the “Face of Homelessness” type of article, just as there are reasons for picking the ideal subject for a “Face of Single Motherhood” story or a “Face of Traumatic Brain Injury” story. Last week, House the Homeless looked at a long profile written by John Flynn and Matt Kramer of Sacramento.

Their subject was Russell Bartholow, a Native American man who had been homeless for 15 years after a series of familial, medical and legal misfortunes. Russell had collected, at that time, 190 citations related to his lack of a permanent abode.

The things that happened to him as a person experiencing homelessness are typical of the experiences of many other homeless people. He had lost all his teeth. On the streets, he had been severely beaten several times, and once was set on fire, which resulted in a long, painful, and expensive (to the taxpayers) hospital stay.

A basic absence of justice

Homeless people are told to get jobs if they expect to eat, and told to stop begging and to quit trying to live off the fat of the land, and to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and so on and so forth. Not only are they blamed for their condition, but when they attempt to better themselves they are punished for it.

For instance, Russell Bartholow decided to feed himself by planting a garden. At a 2015 press conference publicizing the (unsuccessful) Right to Rest Act, he told a crowd at the State Capitol building about this foray into self-reliance. The writers quote him:

I had a beautiful garden, spent two-and-a-half years growing it. They came in and poisoned it with herbicide. Destroyed it.

How have we managed to create a world where growing food is illegal? Aside from all the other obvious and blatant absurdities of this stance, there is the hypocrisy issue. How can society yell about jobs — as if getting one were so easy — and berate people experiencing homelessness, and then prosecute those same people for growing food to feed themselves?

It was not his best-ever decision, but, Bartholow decided to eat the remaining vegetables, and fell sick. He believes the chemicals gave him cancer, though he might have already had it. While hospitalized, he saw his niece’s name in the local newspaper and reached out to her. In February of 2015, they met, and Jessica Bartholow became an advocate.

Flynn and Kramer describe how she turned things around:

Jessica had to overturn official government records declaring Russell deceased. She then got to work securing Russell a birth certificate, an identification card, a cellphone, Supplemental Security Income, health insurance and a spot at a methadone clinic.

There, he met an old friend who needed a roommate, giving Russell a place to live after shelters and hotels had turned him down due to lack of space and/or Russell’s lack of paperwork. He made friends on Facebook and reconnected with his son, Kieran.

“It was a couple months of advocacy, just a couple of hours at a time,” Jessica said of that period. “It didn’t take that much to find somebody a home and dignity and safety.”

She did not stop with helping her uncle, but became an activist for the Right to Rest legislation. Russell Bartholow also became a signature gatherer, but lived his remaining months in fear and uncertainty. There were still dozens of active warrants out on him, mostly for failure to appear in court to face various accusations, such as sleeping in the wrong place.

In this way, he was like many other people experiencing homelessness, who avoid contact with authorities because once they are “in the system,” who knows what negative details might turn up?

Before Bartholow had spent even two years indoors, cancer claimed him. His son came to say goodbye. While the Right to Rest law failed, California had just passed its Right to Die law, and in October of 2016 he took enough pain medication to avoid waking up again.

Reactions?

Source: “Sacramento’s $100,000 homeless man,” NewsReview.com, 02/16/17
Photo credit: Bill Benzon (STC4blues) via Visualhunt/CC BY-SA

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“Face of Homelessness” Journalism

leopard-blanket-homeless-person-sleepingHere is an electrifying sentence from a long-form piece by John Flynn and Matt Kramer:

During overnight storms last month, two homeless people died on City Hall property, elevating Sacramento’s humanitarian debate to a national level.

Later, Courtney Collins, daughter of one of the deceased men, testified before the city council:

I was terrified to find out about the very legal confiscation of blankets, sleeping bags and other sources of warmth and shelter for those living on the streets by the police… I have been unraveling truths so ugly, it feels impossible to go up against such a monstrous system.

This current and ongoing crisis in the state capitol of California was seen by Flynn and Kramer as a fitting occasion to tell the story of another homeless man, an activist who once spoke to a crowd from the steps of the Capitol building. This genre of news story is known as “putting a human face on” a tragedy — in this case, homelessness. The face they chose was that of Russell Bartholow, who is also deceased, although not one of those who died during the storm.

His history, like many others, should be a wake-up call for people who don’t believe that homelessness could ever be their fate. It is no exaggeration to say that millions of Americans are one paycheck away from living on the streets.

Russell Bartholow’s biography

The writers go back to their subject’s childhood, when he was the last of 60 foster children sheltered by Gertrude Bartholow, who legally adopted him. His niece Jessica remembers him as “beyond normally brilliant” in math and science.

In high school, the Native American youth was kicked in the head in a racially motivated incident. As House the Homeless readers well know, an astonishingly high proportion of people experiencing homelessness suffer from traumatic brain injury.

Bartholow spent some years as a single man, then married and had a son, then returned to his childhood home to care for his adopted mother and her husband. “But in 2000,” the writers say, “he was arrested for a drug-related offense.” The particular crime is not specified, but in general, this fact is another proof of the counterproductive nature of the War on Some Drugs and All Adults.

It was only serious enough to put him in jail for a month — during which his parents died and relatives sold the home. Once released, living with his wife and son was apparently no longer an option, and Bartholow began his 15-year residence beneath a bridge.

Flynn and Kramer wrote:

Like thousands of others in Sacramento County, once he found himself on the streets, he entered an alternate reality where the government couldn’t hear him; where those supposed to help instead focused on erasing his existence; and where the only permanent home the county offered him was in jail. It’s a system that feeds on absurdity, in which homelessness can cost more than a Midtown loft and survival is a crime.

Soliciting, panhandling and sleeping are some of the activities forbidden to unhoused citizens of Sacramento. Bartholow was cited 190 times, sometimes twice in one day, for these offenses, with the police often acting like inundating him with legal problems was all a big game. Technically, he owed more than $100,000 in fines.

The taxpayers paid to host him for more than 100 days in jail. His biography continues:

Though a full 132 of Russell’s cases were either dismissed or had their fines waived, there were other costs. Being in jail caused Russell to miss appointments to obtain government assistance, as part of eight attempts over 13 years to get money for which he qualified due to the lingering effects of the brain injury, which he believed contributed to paranoia and drug addiction. To pay for living expenses and fines, Russell turned to panhandling or selling flowers — which only led to more arrests.

The speech Bartholow gave in February of 2015 promoted the adoption of a Right to Rest Act, The No Sit/No Lie Ordinance and the Americans with Disabilities Act. But the effort failed, and many activities associated with homelessness remained criminalized, partly because politicians have a habit of ignoring the most basic truths about what is going on out there.

Reactions?

Source: “Sacramento’s $100,000 homeless man,” NewsReview.com, 02/16/17
Photo credit: Mick Baker via Visualhunt/CC BY-ND

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A Sad Loss — Michael Stoops

Michael-Stoops-headshotThis month of May 2017 began with a much-grieved death on its very first day. Michael Stoops was a legendary figure in the world of anti-homelessness activism and a person of extraordinary commitment.

Megan Hustings, Director of the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH), wrote:

There will never be anyone like Michael, with his dedication to others, his tenacity, his quiet leadership and quirky humor. We all loved Michael as a mentor, a colleague, a brother and a friend.

A Quaker and a product of the fabled 1960s era, Stoops went to Portland, Oregon, to begin using his B.A. in social work to serve others. In the course of working with Vietnam veterans, he became known as a compelling speaker and an inspiring fundraiser. In 1986-87, he participated in a five-month winter campout protest with Mitch Snyder in Washington, D.C., credited with swaying sentiment toward the passing of the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act.

When the National Coalition for the Homeless began, Stoops was one of the board of directors’ founding members. In 1988 he joined the NCH staff, and in 2004 became Acting Director.

He also sat on the board of Street Sense, a street newspaper in Washington, D.C., and was a founding member of the North American Street Newspaper Association. He was called upon to give expert testimony to state and local legislatures trying to alleviate homelessness.

Hustings describes his special talent for seeing the potential in others, and calls him “the rock of NCH,” and even a super hero. She goes on to say:

He made time for each and every student doing research, for every mother crying because she couldn’t find shelter for her family, for every filmmaker wanting to make a difference, for each traveler who happened upon our office looking for help, and for every advocate looking for a way to fight for change.

Stoops recognized the vital importance of inclusiveness and of grassroots recruitment, and his skills as an organizer had the spark of genius. He taught thousands of people how to be troublemakers in the best possible sense of the word.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) states:

Michael developed the “You Don’t Need a Home to Vote Campaign” that won state legislative changes nationwide to ensure that people without a residence could legally vote in elections. And he established NCH’s Speakers Bureau, which provides people experiencing homelessness a platform to share their stories and receive speaking fees while raising public awareness about homelessness.

In 1997, NCH recognized House the Homeless President Richard R. Troxell with an award. He joined the Board of Directors and has worked with Michael Stoops on the Civil Rights Committee since then.

We have mentioned Richard’s book, Looking Up at the Bottom Line, which includes (on page 85) the narrative of how Stoops took on the producers and peddlers of the disgustingly exploitative “Bum Fights” videos. When putting together the first Bridge Action in 2005, Richard looked to his friend for ideas, also described in the book. The NLIHC calls him a giant.

His final days, spent at Washington Adventist Hospital, were full of visits from friends who read to him and played music. In an email to concerned friends everywhere, Julieanne Turner wrote:

Michael’s entire life is about standing in solidarity with people who are poor, their voice, based on their needs. There is something so holy about this. Although, Michael conducted himself with humility, never took up too much personal space on this earth, his foot print is huge.

The Memorial for Michael Stoops will be held in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, May 25, at the Church of the Pilgrims, at noon. Anyone who wants to acknowledge the good done by this exceptional person is asked to donate to the National Coalition for the Homeless.

Reactions?

Source: “Michael Stoops,” NationalHomeless.org, 05/01/17
Source: “In Memoriam: Michael Stoops,” NLIHC.org, 05/08/17
Image by National Coalition for the Homeless

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Spring Happenings

Nat Day of Action Group cheer

The National Day of Action for Housing took place this year on April 1, and was covered for Austin’s American Statesman by Elizabeth Findell on the front page of the Metro section. (The picture on this page is by Sue Watlov Phillips, in Washington DC.)

In Austin, a group of awareness-raisers carried signs and serenaded shoppers and diners along South Congress Avenue, bowing after their chants concerning affordable housing. They shook some hands, and passed out flyers explaining how 25 cities, including Washington, D.C., joined in holding rallies and teach-ins on the day.

Philosophical underpinnings

Speaking of Washington, many concerned people have noticed that among all the verbiage proceeding from the nation’s capital since the new administration moved in, the word “homelessness” has been notably absent. Yet this is a huge and horrible domestic issue. When coupled with other current trends, like defunding health care and de-staffing the VA and releasing police forces from their already scanty restraints, homelessness just might get worse before it gets better.

We tend to naively assume that the taxes we pay will take care of all this stuff. Yes, we are correct in believing that those funds ought to be used to alleviate societal problems like hunger, homelessness, sickness, ignorance, and so forth.

But… We have to face the fact that this is not happening to anywhere near the extent that it should. The dollars we put into the system are not being converted into help for the people in desperate need. The awful truth is that we are all called upon to make more contributions of money, time, attention, self-education, and compassion. It’s the only way we will make it through these times.

Back to Austin

The Statesman website offers a slide show of a dozen photos of the event. Attendees included The Challenger Street Newspaper journalist Jennifer Gesche in a mechanical wheelchair. Many of the participants were individuals suffering from traumatic brain injury (TBI) or chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), and House the Homeless President Richard R. Troxell has been working with them to secure disability benefits, successfully in seven cases so far, with four more still in progress.

Richard says:

I explained to the guys that they were Ambassadors for all the other homeless folks who could not be with us today, and to smile. Before they knew it, they were smiling for real. People could feel our power and sincerity. Everyone had a good old time, with warm feeling all around. They felt appreciated and cared about. Some told me they ended the day with hope…

House the Homeless has many messages, including the suggestion that Austin needs a workers’ hotel, a single-room occupancy establishment with shared facilities to keep the rent really low. A higher minimum wage would help, as well as more reasonable rental options.

Predictably, in the Statesman‘s comment section, someone asked, “Why don’t the homeless get a job?” This person obviously skipped the paragraph that reports, “Troxell said about half of the nation’s homeless people spend at least part of each week working.”

As always, House the Homeless urges people to learn about and support the Universal Living Wage, the idea whose time has come; the concept to prevent homelessness at its core. Call up the page and see how employers actually save money by paying a living wage — how, in fact, a living wage is good for not only for workers, but also for business owners.

How easy it is for an employer to have a team of valuable assets rather than reluctant, resentful workers who feel exploited and unappreciated! “With a long-term crew of capable workers, training costs are reduced, and experienced employees make fewer dangerous and expensive mistakes. There is less unscheduled absenteeism, and appreciably less internal theft,” Richard says, and a great many other eminently sensible things besides.

We also recommend his white paper, “Livable Incomes: Real Solutions that Stimulate the Economy.” For in-depth information about all these topics and more, please see Richard’s book, Looking Up at the Bottom Line. It chronicles an amazing array of activism, explains why many things in America do not work quite as they should, and offers numerous excellent ideas for fixing those things.

Demonstrate on Tuesday, April 18

If employers paid a fair living wage, the taxpayers would not be called upon to share so much of the burden of need. For instance, if employers paid a fair living wage, at least some fraction of people who now need food stamps would not, and, of course, people who are now homeless would be able to get themselves under roofs. Not all of them — but at least some. And that would be a vast improvement over the situation as it now stands.

To get fired up, see Richard’s 2011 Tax Day appeal. Make some signs and banners and get on down to your local post office to make a show, and remember:

Livable Incomes are the Gateway to Affordable Housing. — Richard R. Troxell

Reactions?

Source: “‘Mighty homeless’ serenade South Austin diners in advocacy effort,” MyStatesman.com, 04/01/17
Image: National Day of Action Group Cheer by Sue Watlov Phillips

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The National Day of Action, and Some Myths

homeless-man-on-cornerApril 1 is the National Day of Action for Housing. It is a Saturday, and what a person might very usefully do if at all possible, is travel to the nation’s capitol for a rally and overnight vigil at the National Mall.

Supporters are encouraged to bring tents, signs, families, and friends. The Day of Action is meant to create temporary tent cities, to call attention to the housing crisis, the healthcare situation, the ever-increasing criminalization of poverty and homelessness, and the racial inequality inherent in all of these.

But if a trip to Washington, D.C., is out of the question, do not despair. Many other cities are also observing the event. If one is not near you, consider becoming a local organizer. Now would be a great time to start planning what is called a sister action event for next year, and the National Coalition for the Homeless will help.

Their nine-page pamphlet (PDF) titled “National Day of Action for Housing Media Toolkit” includes Talking Points and Tips; Frequently Asked Questions; Social Media; Press Release; and Contact Information. When framed in terms of goals, the Day of Action objectives include:

Preserving and creating housing funding on local, state and national levels for low to moderate income households in particular… Foreclosures and limited housing assistance contribute to the increase in homelessness among the low-income families in particular.

Stopping ordinances and practices that criminalize the unhoused, promote racial discrimination, and prevent equal treatment of immigrants and the LGBTQ community… These ordinances include criminal penalties that may prevent those in need from receiving housing and social services. The penalties are doled out for violation of such life-sustaining activities as eating, sitting, sleeping in public places, camping, and asking for money.

Promoting access to emergency housing, employment, food assistance, and healthcare for all Americans in need… Poor health is big contributing factor to homelessness, as both a cause and the result. Exposure to elements, violence, stress, addition, mental health conditions, and other serious conditions that require regular treatment are contribute to the problem.

Homelessness Myths

This is a good time to look at the collection of homelessness myths collated by journalist German Lopez for Vox.com.

An Urban Institute survey found that more than 40% of homeless people they questioned were likely to have done some paying work in the month previous to the survey. Homeless adults in families are regarded in some ways as being in a class by themselves, because of the responsibility for others beside themselves. A Housing and Urban Development study found that 17% of homeless adults in families actually had paying jobs at the time of the survey, and that over half of the people questioned had worked during the previous year.

This leads naturally to the existence of another myth, the belief among allegedly sane Americans that having a job means that a person can afford a place to live. Name a state, any state, and the unfortunate truth is that a person with a full-time minimum-wage job can’t afford to rent an apartment. House the Homeless offers plenty of material addressing this problem.

Some housed people think that homelessness is always forever, but in actuality, only one in six people experiencing homelessness are classified as “chronic.” Sometimes this is related to mental illness, and the number of people who turn up with previously undiagnosed and untreated traumatic brain injury is shocking.

One of the big myths is that homelessness exists only in the interiors of large urban environments, which is simply not true. In fact, slightly less than half of America’s homeless people are in big cities. However, the big-city numbers are growing disproportionately. People think that alleviating homelessness is a federal budget-breaker, but compared to a lot of other, less urgent problems, government spending on homelessness is paltry.

Lopez’s last paragraph is the best, and addresses Myth #11, that fighting homelessness is expensive. Not when compared to the alternatives:

Studies show that simply housing people can reduce the number of homeless at a lower cost to society than leaving them without homes. The Central Florida Commission on Homelessness found housing costs $10,000 per person per year, while leaving them homeless costs law enforcement, jails, hospitals, and other community services $31,000 per person per year.

Reactions?

Source: “National Day of Action for Housing Media Toolkit,” NationalHomeless.org, 2017
Source: “11 myths about homelessness in America,” Vox.com, 09/23/15
Photo credit: Doug Waldron via Visualhunt/CC BY-SA

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Individuals Making a Difference

homeless-sleeping-by-bookstoreLast week, House the Homeless considered the activities of Pastor Kelly Boyd of Eugene, Oregon, who brings together givers and people who need things. By running for city council, he combines the faith-based approach with the political approach.

In some states of the union, earnest people have a better chance to thrive among progressive-minded neighbors. In other locales, a different social climate produces different results.

There is a growing tendency to criminalize, or at least seriously impede, grassroots activism and individual efforts. It’s as if the government has a split personality, and wants to both ignore the root causes of homelessness, and at the same time own and control everything about homelessness.

The same mindset prompts humans to murder their domestic partners who want to leave. “If I can’t have you, nobody else can either.” The government seems to be saying, “I can’t or won’t do very much for you, but I’m going to make sure nobody else will, either.”

A great philosopher once said that what every person really wants is to make a difference. All over America, individuals are trying to do that in the area of homeless relief. At the same time, penalizing the helpers has become a thing.

One ongoing story happens in Madison, Wisconsin. Brenda Konkel, executive director of the Tenant Resource Center, used to let as many as six people sleep on the porch of the home she shares with Robert Bloch. The couple also fitted out the porch with a dozen locker-room-style storage units for their guests to use.

The city threatened to fine them $300 a day. Journalist Pat Schneider wrote of Konkel, who used to be a city council member:

She worked with members of Occupy Madison a couple of years ago as they tried without success to get city approval to erect a homeless encampment and was instrumental in the group’s success in getting zoning approval for a village of “tiny houses” now under construction on the city’s east side.

Robert Bloch told the reporter that there had only been one police visit to the porch-sleepers, when an ambulance had to be called for a medical emergency. He also said, “The system is not working.”

The homeowners were granted time extensions, but were warned again two months later to clear the porch. The absence of sleepers was not enough, the city wanted the lockers gone too. This was not the activist’s only battle over storage. Tony Galli wrote:

Konkel says the problem of finding places to store the valuables of people who are homeless was highlighted this week, when county facility staff members removed more two dozen large plastic bags of belongings from Madison city hall. Konkel and other advocates for the homeless returned the bags to city hall, and facility officials say they will allow them to remain stacked on the building’s porch, as long as they are not unattended.

Another Konkel effort is toward establishing a day center to meet the needs of people experiencing homelessness. A location has been proposed but, not surprisingly, someone challenged it in court.

A local blogger uses cruel labels and accuses Konkel of being anti-police.This is apparently because she contradicts the mayor’s claims that the city needs somewhere between 13 and 361 additional police officers. She used to sit on the Police Staffing committee, before the department banned anyone, including City Council members, from collaborating on those decisions. Brenda Konkel is still an activist, advocate, and writer about homelessness in Madison.

Reactions?

Source: “Brenda Konkel could be fined for allowing homeless to sleep on her porch,” Madison.com, 09/18/14
Source: “Advocate’s lockers for the homeless must go,” WKOW.com, 11/14/14
Source: “We need 13-361 New Police Officers?,” ForwardLookout.com, 01/05/17
Source: “Tonight! Evictions & Homelessnes,” ForwardLookout.com, 01/10/17
Photo credit: John Benson (ibm4381) via Visualhunt/ CC BY

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Back to the Grassroots in Eugene, Oregon

eugene-oregonOne school of thought believes that funneling all help, and all the helped, through official channels should be the only permissible route. In some places, that philosophy goes even further, to a conviction that anyone who says, “No, thank you” to a solution the government insists on, becomes totally undeserving of help from any source.

Some, like Kelly Boyd of Eugene, Oregon, want to see the giving spirit flourish at the most grassroots, person-to-person level. Soon after moving to town, he filled the bed of his pickup truck with clothes and blankets, and attached to the tailgate a sign that said, “Get One, Give One.”

It wasn’t long before the Ordinance Enforcement Office left a business card and a warning. Anthony Kustura reported:

The note said Boyd must stop putting things in the back of the truck because he is in violation of city code.

The City says Boyd is creating a “liveability impact” and that neighbors complained about finding trash in the street.

Four months later, Boyd was running (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) for a City Council seat. He told local TV station KMTR that aside from the “Get One, Give One” truck, other individual efforts were being squelched. His number-one issue is homelessness, of which he says city officials take an “archaic view.”

Boyd advocates a more organic approach, encouraging citizens to individually help each other. He is sensitive to the fact that many people experiencing homelessness do not want to call on official resources — for what they consider good and sufficient reasons — and their opinions about the matter ought to be respected.

Also, he wants the city to keep a more careful eye on things like cost overruns for public projects, but is not against taxing or spending:

Instead of having boutique taxes to take care of various needs, go ahead and build a groundswell of increased jobs, increased pay, so that there is a greater tax base in our area so that there is a constant resource and income for our city budget.

This facet of Boyd’s platform is interesting because it resonates with the success story of Oklahoma City, whose mayor convinced it to pass an across-the-board sales tax, and a strong case can be made that this move actually blossomed into citywide revitalization.  As always, things are relative and situational. For instance, while a groundswell of increased jobs might sound attractive, many cities have found to their regret that letting a prison or a pollution-producing industry move in can have its drawbacks.

And yet, there is always a tradeoff. The City of Eugene said that people in the neighborhood complained about the trash left behind after the freebie truck’s visits. This is speculation, but it seems as if a person who provides such a service would, could, and should tidy up the area, and especially, would be able to recruit a helper or two in this task.

Boyd and his wife do their volunteer work inspired by their “greater calling, that the needs of all should be met.” In other words, it is a faith-based effort, and people with church-going backgrounds are well accustomed to the idea of helping out with the setup and the cleanup at communal activities.

Making it official

Presumably, this type of logistical methodology is what a City Council with a Boyd-like mindset could approve. They could make ordinances saying, “Go ahead and have your event, and take video with your cell phone of the cleanup process, and of the pristine area when you’re done. Then, shoot some footage of the volunteer crew dropping off the trash at the City’s designated spot.”

Looked at from another angle, in most cities, neighborhoods have things like block parties and coordinated garage sales. Parades, mob shopping days, sports events, and a lot of other happenings tend to leave behind debris. In some college towns, entire neighborhoods successfully impersonate slums. Depending on who causes it, a certain amount of urban mess is accepted. Somehow, everyone lives to party another day.

Also, it seems like a certain amount of selective reinforcement goes on, regarding outdoor group activities, which is all part of the criminalization of homelessness. For the authorities to suppress and even outlaw grassroots activism is counterproductive on many levels.

Reactions?

Source: “City tells man to stop placing items in truck for homeless to take,” NBC16.com, 01/28/16
Source: “Meet the candidate: Kelly Boyd runs for Eugene City Council Ward 1,” NBC16.com, 04/02/16
Source: “A City Refurbished for Health,” Childhood Obesity News, 01/20/17
Photo credit: eddiecoyote via Visualhunt/ CC BY

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In Praise of Good Works

knit-hats-stacked-on-tableIt feels so good to recognize and celebrate heroes. Let’s keep that momentum going. First of all, right here in Austin, Texas, the 16th annual House the Homeless Thermal Underwear party took place on December 30, hosted by First Baptist Church.

The event supplied somewhere around 600 people with “winterizing” gear including thermal underwear, scarves, hats, gloves, ponchos, and safety whistles. There was a hot meal and a live band.

Fox7 TV news broadcast a segment with particularly interesting words from House the Homeless President Richard R. Troxell and volunteer Sherry Sampson. A second TV station, WKBN27, emphasized another aspect of the winter preparedness event, with the headline and subtitle:

“Advocacy group to examine ‘criminalization of homelessness'”

As House the Homeless prepared homeless individuals for winter, the organization was also surveying them about their interactions with police

They went into the matter in some depth, including an interview with Officer Shelly Borton, who works for the city’s Homelessness Outreach Team, “which is made up of two police officers, behavioral health specialists, a paramedic and a social worker.” Also, Richard discusses the repercussions on people’s lives when homelessness is criminalized, and people are cited for such violations as sitting in a public place:

If you’re an employer and you’ve got to decide who to employ and you’ve got somebody with no tickets here and somebody with 10 tickets that are criminal in nature, you’re going take the person without the tickets. It becomes a barrier for you to escape homelessness, even though you’re making every effort.

San Francisco was the source of a slightly offbeat story where the hero contributed not food or clothing, but an example of principled defiance. Last March a Department of Public Works employee declined to help tear down a makeshift dwelling. Instead, she filmed the sad demolition and added a commentary complete with salty language and encouragement to a co-worker to refuse also.

Her matter-of-fact attitude makes us forget that the Bay Area is a hard place to survive in, and the possibility of being fired is no joking matter. It takes courage to take a stand. A DPW spokesperson confirmed that…

To refuse could be construed as insubordination, and subject the employee to disciplinary action, dependent on the findings of a thorough and fair investigation…

The person who posted the 2:19 video to YouTube wrote:

I’ve been hearing about a number of DPW workers refusing to be a part of the injustice taking place on our streets right now.

This final story is not current, but it is timeless. World-renowned poet W. H. Auden was remembered by friends for his unwillingness to be seen doing a good deed. Edward Mendelson
described it as going out of his way to seem selfish, when in fact he was very generous. For instance, in the 1950s, Auden worked on a TV production where he demanded to be paid early and made a memorably unpleasant scene about it.

Later on, when the canceled paycheck made its way back to the accounting office, someone noticed that Auden had signed it over to a third person. The recipient was Dorothy Day, who ran the Catholic Workers homeless shelter in New York City, which the fire department was trying to close down. Auden’s contribution paid for the necessary repairs and safety updates to keep the shelter open.

Reactions?

Source: “Thermal Giveaway held in Austin to help the homeless get through winter with some warmth,” Fox7Austin.com, 12/30/16
Source: “Advocacy group to examine ‘criminalization of homelessness’,” WKBN.com, 01/01/17
Source: “San Francisco Worker Refuses To Help Tear Down Homeless Man’s Dwelling,” ThinkProgress.org, 03/09/16
Source: “The Secret Auden,” NYBooks.com, 03/20/14
Image by House the Homeless

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Berkeley as Microcosm

bikes-and-busBecause Berkeley, California, is such a quintessentially American city, things that happen there gain resonance. For background, see “A Berkeley Tale” which talks about last year, and “Activism in Berkeley,” which covers the more recent past.

Today’s post mentions several events briefly, so for hard information, please see the linked news sources. Their usefulness here is to highlight typical instances of things that go on wherever people experience homelessness, but particularly in a city that is known for dissent and social ferment.

Last year there was a lot of discussion about things that made housed people anxious, such as the growing number of tents in the camp, and what looked like a bicycle chop shop (where stolen bikes are dismantled for parts). This attitude assumes that anything done by a homeless person must be a criminal enterprise, because homelessness itself is fast becoming a crime.

It is entirely possible that someone with an aptitude for bike repair could have a totally legitimate talent for fixing bikes, and do it in a totally legitimate way. Housed people will throw away a punctured inner tube, but a thrifty and enterprising homeless person will recover it and patch it.

Enough bikes are abandoned or trashed that a supply of parts is available without any need to steal them. Bike repair is a skill that can be traded for money or other commodities, like food. If somebody is doing useful work, voluntarily, why disparage that? (Shown on this page is the legendary Bike Bus of RomTom, aka Thomas Holme, which used to roam the Pacific Northwest, California, and other parts of the country.)

Thanks in part to such stereotypical thinking, it was decided last summer that a big settlement on Gilman Street in West Berkeley would be cleared. It wouldn’t be the first “sweep,” nor the last. The number-one tactic for dealing with people experiencing homelessness is to cause them to move from one location to another.

In this particular case, the target area was an underpass, where Caltrans “needed to access an underground vault in the area to help set up a camera that will be used for its East Bay corridor freeway messaging system,” wrote Emilie Raguso for Berkeleyside.com. And another camera, no doubt, to give early warning if the area starts to become recolonized.

So, city crews and volunteers do a massive cleanup and have their pictures taken wearing biohazard suits and sifting through piles of detritus. Headlines announce the dollar cost of removing the trash. As always, there are snide remarks about “squalid conditions” and the amount of human waste that was found. The whole area is cleaned up, sanitized, and, if possible, defoliated, and the carnival moves on.

What if, instead, a recycling station were set up, with receptacles for cardboard, glass, etc.? What if somebody who lived there took care of that, and got to keep any profit from selling the stuff? What if there were dumpsters, and regular trash removal? What if there were industrial-strength portable toilets and, at the very least, a water source for hand-washing? What if the people just stayed in one place and cleaned up as they went along? But back to reality.

The authorities come in numbers and they bring muscle. According to Raguso:

Jim Hynes, with the Berkeley city manager’s office, said homeless outreach, city maintenance crews, mental health workers and environmental health staff were all on the scene to help out… The city always sends out workers to try to help connect homeless individuals to services that could improve their circumstances…

Oakland-area California Highway Patrol spokesman Officer Sean Wilkenfeld confirmed that officers were on the scene Thursday morning to help monitor the clean-up operation. Berkeley Police officers were also part of the effort.

Raguso also wrote:

Before Caltrans took over the area […] workers from Pacific Steel Casting used to park below the freeway. Hynes said a return to that historic use could help keep the area clear of camps in the future.

In other words, the priority here is to have a place for cars to park, and never mind the people who need a place to live. Hynes also told the reporter “the city plans to look deeper at ways it might keep the area safe and clean in the future.” That statement presupposes that homeless people do not deserve to be in a safe and clean place, because they are the threat and the dirt.

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Source: “Authorities clear out Gilman homeless camp in Berkeley,” Berkeleyside.com, 06/16/16
Image by RomTom

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Activism in Berkeley

berkeley-street-signsBack in the 1960s, Berkeley, California, was the epicenter of the Free Speech Movement, and of vehement objection to the Vietnam war, as well as a mecca for women’s rights activism. The city’s radicals were always marching against things and occupying places, not to mention educating the public at every turn. Causes like People’s Park kept the atmosphere electric for decades.

Recently, Berkeley is having a resurgence of political ferment. (For interested observers in other parts of the country, local participants report on the ongoing hour-by-hour drama of the Berkeley street scene via a Facebook group called “First they came for the homeless.”)

As in so many other American cities, the cost of housing is simply out of reach for a large segment of the population. Homeless activist Mike Lee is running for mayor, on the platform of mutual aid and voluntary cooperation.

Many people experiencing homelessness also want to experience the democratic process, by voting, but they are often unable to. The fact that this is an election year adds greatly to the overall stress, and much energy has been put into voter registration efforts.

For Truthout, David Bacon has written a massive report covering these and other Berkeley issues. He recounts how, in October, a homeless community that had been camping on a grassy medium in the middle of a road were forcibly relocated, and not for the first time. The way the authorities habitually accomplish this is to roll up at 5:00 AM with a contingent of city vehicles, flanked by several police cars. Customarily, they fill their trucks with seized tents, bedrolls and other belongings.

On this particular occasion, some residents had the opportunity to send text messages to allies. The journalist quotes Mike Zint, one of the group’s leaders:

We went into delaying tactics while we got community support mobilized. That doesn’t stop them, but every time this happens we get more support. So they sat there in their trucks for the next six hours — a dozen city workers and a code compliance officer, all on overtime. They took seven cops off patrol. And in the end, after all the arguments, we only moved about 200 feet, across the street. And how much did that cost?

The politically motivated group demonstrates outside Impact HUB, where homeless services are centralized. Their intention is to force public debate and defend rights. One bone of contention is the shabby treatment doled out to the most vulnerable members of the community. From Dan McMullan, of the Disabled People Outside Project, the reporter learned how a wheelchair-bound woman was repeatedly denied help because she “didn’t fit the intake criteria.” How much worse off than homeless in a wheelchair does a person have to be?

This bunch is made up not of random rough sleepers, but of politically savvy people who have formed an intentional community. Bacon quotes Zint’s description of what has come to be known as the Poor Tour:

It’s a mobile occupation that can pop up anywhere. We’re exposing the fact that there is no solution — nothing but exposure for the homeless. And exposure is killing a lot of people.

One such casualty of the War on the Homeless was Roberto Benitas, who in late September was found dead in the doorway where he slept. McMullan, who writes for the newspaper Street Spirit, recruited a city council candidate to help organize a memorial. For additional commentary about that sad event, House the Homeless contacted Dan McMullan, who said:

I was touched the way the community came together to remember this man who went unnoticed amongst us for so long. Even in death it took a while for anyone to notice. A year ago there wouldn’t have been such a cross section of the community. Housing is on everyone’s mind and the wolf is heard in all quarters. Not one but two Native Americans showed up independently to play the flute. The spirit was strong and we all were together… [M]oved together… I went out and put together a protest… My own years of homelessness haunted my every thought and I had to placate the many ghosts that cry out in the bad weather. Do something… [A]nything.

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Source: “‘We’re Homeless and We Vote’: Homeless People Want a Voice in This Election,” Truth-out.org, 10/28/16
Photo credit: Mic V. via Visualhunt/CC BY

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