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The White House Summit on Working Families

[Maria Shriver at podium, speaking at Women's Conference]

Maria Shriver on the Women’s Conference stage

Yesterday, the 2014 White House Summit on Working Families was hosted by the Council on Women and Girls, the Department of Labor, and the Center for American Progress. Attendees included economists, business and labor leaders, elected officials, ordinary citizens, legislators and policymakers, the media, and advocates, including Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless.

The Center for American Progress (CAP) is the co-author, with Maria Shriver, of A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink, published earlier this year. One of its subjects is the income gap. The net worth of the average American family is slight. But in the highest 1%, the average family’s net worth is 288 times that much. To put it another way, 288 families could survive on the same amount of money that sustains one family in that lofty 1% bracket.

Not looking good

The book examines the national financial crisis from the viewpoint of American women, and the picture it reveals is dire. Women make up half the workforce. But when primary and co-breadwinners of families are identified, two-thirds of the time, it’s a woman. To put it another way, while occupying half of the jobs, women do considerably more than half of the family-supporting. And of course women, including many mothers of young children, and many who have served our country in the military, are increasingly found among the total number of people experiencing homelessness.

This is by no means Shriver’s first work in the field. In 2009, under CAP auspices, she published “The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything.” As president of House the Homeless, Richard R. Troxell has long appreciated Shriver’s passion and eloquence. Also, he has discussed in detail the need for a better Federal Minimum Wage formula with Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Texas’s 35th District, who was responsible for Richard’s being invited to the summit.

Preparation

In the months leading up to the White House Summit on Working Families, the groups involved reached out to ordinary Americans, asking for their stories and for ideas about what initiatives would be effective in creating a 21st century in which every person working a full-time job can afford rent, utilities, clothing, food, medical insurance, and maybe even send their kid to summer camp. The philosophy is the same simple but powerful idea once articulated by Werner Erhard: “The world doesn’t work unless it works for everyone.”

Working families, American businesses, and the American economy are always linked together throughout the literature describing the summit. To achieve the best possible outcome for all may require some resetting of workplace norms, such as unequal pay for the same work. People need to be able to get jobs, without discrimination or other barriers. They need a living wage and a chance to improve and achieve their full potential.

Several of the issues addressed by the summit are really aspects of one big issue: the fact that workers are complex human beings with loyalties, obligations, and duties outside of the employee role. They are not robots, but people with children to raise and/or elderly parents to care for. Because of those human characteristics, they need workplace flexibility to accommodate unorthodox schedules and emergencies. Sometimes they need paid leave to keep the family or themselves from falling apart. Of course, some conscientious businesses exist, as the CAP website describes:

They know policies that support women and families lead to more productive workers and help business attract and retain their best talent, all while improving their bottom line…. There are concrete steps we can take to give all workers the best chance to succeed at work and at home. These strategies must include making full use of the entire talent pool of workers so that our workplaces are fair, effective, and productive for employers and employees alike.

We can’t wait to see where the inspiration derived from this summit will lead. Meanwhile, please use the “Donate” button over on the right of this page to help defray the $1,051 cost of Richard’s journey to participate in it.

Reactions?

Source: “The White House Summit on Working Families,” WorkingFamiliesSummit.org, undated
Source: “The Shriver Report Executive Summary,” AmericanProgress.org, 01/12/14
Source: “The White House Summit on Working Families,” WorkingFamiliesSummit.org, undated
Source: “The White House Summit on Working Families,” WorkingFamiliesSummit.org, undated
Image by lifescript

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Celebrities and Homelessness

Susan SarandonSomewhere over 630,000 Americans are living on the streets or in shelters, says the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Ordinary people are helping in a lot of ways. They donate to Project Night Night, which distributes blankets, stuffed animals, and bedtime story books. They help out with food and vet bills for the pets of people experiencing homelessness. Starting right here on this page, they sign petitions and donate thermal underwear.

Another thing that people with talent resources do is they help tell the stories. Video blogger Mark Horvath of Invisible People is only one example. A lot of people join organizations like U.S. Vets, which has helped thousands of veterans find housing and jobs.

And what do celebrities do? Some prominent people also adopt homeless veterans as their cause. A rap musician known as T.I. (Clifford Joseph Harris, Jr.) has launched a global campaign called “Give Like a King.” Ruth Manuel-Logan reported that, in conjunction with the Veterans Empowerment Organization, the goal is to provide more in the way of housing, health care, food, counseling, and job training. Their strategy is a media campaign that will encompass print, the Internet, radio, television, and “even billboards.”

Actor and comedian Russell Brand reportedly spends more than $2,000 a month supplying food and clothing to people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles. A believer in individual autonomy, he also directly gives out cash. Sports star David Beckham has made news by visiting the Philippines and touring facilities for homeless children in Manila. Articulating his concern, Beckham said:

All these children have been failed by adults in the crucial early years of their lives. I would not be where I am today without the love and support of my parents — every child deserves that, every child deserves a second chance.

Another sports figure, Kobe Bryant, works with his wife to support their nonprofit organization whose main goal is to end youth homelessness. They think the problem is solvable, and work with such institutions as the already established My Friend’s Place. TV personality Kelly Osbourne is also a supporter of My Friend’s Place, having donated clothes from her own wardrobe. Another Los Angeles institution is the True Colors Residence, started by singer Cyndi Lauper for homeless youth.

Also in LA, the perpetually troubled Lindsay Lohan was at one point ordered to do community service at the Good Shepherd Center for Homeless Women, but they wouldn’t have her. Reassigning her to help at the morgue instead, the judge said of the Center:

They refused to take you because they said you’re a bad example for the women who are trying to get their lives in order.

On the other coast of America, Susan Sarandon has served meals at the New York City Rescue Mission where they also distribute gift bags to mothers and children. ABC News captured this wonderful quotation from the actor:

When you can recognize groups that are helping people through a bad time, it helps you to feel like maybe things aren’t so out of control to give a little. So it’s really very self-serving, you meet fabulous people.

Of course America isn’t the only place where the rich and famous inhabitants of the entertainment world contribute to alleviating homelessness. In her native country of Australia, Cate Blanchett is patron of the Homeless Short Film Competition which, with hefty prize money, encourages secondary school students to engage in citizen journalism and create awareness of homeless issues. In short, anyone, anywhere, can find something useful to do in the holiday season, or any time at all.

Reactions?

Source: “Rapper T.I. To Help Homeless Vets In ‘Give Like a King Campaign,’NewsOne, 12/14/12
Source: “David Beckham Visits Homeless Children: ‘They Risk Horrific Abuse’,” Entertainmentwise, 12/02/11
Source: “Lakers: Kobe, Vanessa help homeless,” OC Register, 06/08/11
Source: “ Susan Sarandon helps homeless mothers,” 7Online.com, 05/07/11
Source: “Cate Blanchett Launches Oasis: Homeless Short Film Competition,Just Jared, 04/06/11
Image by Incase.

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High-Profile Homeless Activism

Lebowski Fest 2011Mega-successful novelist Danielle Steel was recently exposed by Catherine Bigelow as a secret giver, in a profile that is both fascinating and inspiring, especially the part about the teddy bears. Steel, who in her childhood wanted to become a nun, has gone through some rough experiences and developed a lot of empathy. One of her children died, and because he had always been good to people experiencing homelessness, she became a quiet activist.

The novelist not only started the Yo! Angel! Foundation, but went out and did hands-on work herself — not once, and not once a year, but for several hours every month. It was only when other life circumstances led her to quit doing street work, that any of this became known. Bigelow writes:

Almost no one, except for the crew she worked with, her children and two close friends, had any idea that for 11 years, beginning in 1998, Danielle Steel would slip away from her Pacific Heights home under midnight shadows into a van filled with supplies to assist homeless people she sought out in the dark, dingy corners of San Francisco.

She quotes Steel as saying:

This work is totally addictive: Just one more time, just one more trip, just one more bag for one more person. You can never empty that ocean of homelessness. What I found on the street is there’s such a generosity of spirit and heart. It brought out the best in our team. The homeless were so kind to us, and we felt grateful to them. They gave us something every time.

A website called Look to the Stars covers “the world of celebrity giving” and keeps the public informed on the favorite causes that actors and other show business pros donate to, and help raise funds for. A page devoted to the Los Angeles Mission, for instance, lists 27 of that organization’s year-round supporters, as well as those who come out to help serve Thanksgiving dinner to the homeless. From amongst the 3,019 public-spirited entertainment professionals, the site sorts out the “top celebrities” according to their activism — including Angelina Jolie, George Clooney, Annie Lennox, and Bono.

Despite all this, Nadia Gomos, who has herself experienced homelessness, examined Look to the Stars with a critical eye, and wrote for The Huffington Post:

People by and large have no desire or interest in helping the homeless. They do not want to help people who are mentally ill, drug and alcohol addicts and the poor… People want a cause or campaign they can relate to, something that makes them feel good about themselves. That is why the most popular causes are animals and poor children; they are helpless. Because of the stigma associated with homelessness, they are not considered helpless but are considered lazy and irresponsible.

To most of the world homelessness is a problem that needs to be contained and not solved.

Gomos concludes that homelessness is a relatively unpopular cause, and regrets that no celebrity has adopted the cause to the exclusion of all others. There is another side to the story, however. Any celebrity who said, “No, thank you, I only do homelessness,” would be very unpopular among fellow celebrities, who would then be unwilling to help with their events or publicity. It’s only natural that any celeb who helps at all will help in multiple ways.

Jon Bon Jovi’s Soul Kitchen project has registered 20,000 “likes” on Facebook. Located in New Jersey, the restaurant has no set prices, but asks for donation, or people can pay for their meals by working. The singer’s Soul Foundation is also involved in another project, reports Dr. Robin Wulffson, in cooperation with the departments of Veterans Affairs, Health and Human Services, and Housing and Urban Development. It’s a competition called the Project REACH Developer Challenge:

The contest challenges the community to create a free, easy-to-use Web and smartphone app that provides current, real-time information regarding housing, health clinics, and food banks to homeless veterans.

Actors and pop culture heroes offer things for auction via the new “eBay Celebrity” platform, and whatever the highest bidder pays goes straight to a designated charity. One of the early adapters was Brad Pitt’s Make it Right Foundation, which builds houses for people left homeless by the New Orleans disasters.

Jeff Bridges, “The Dude” from The Big Lebowski (shown on this page), is an actor who inspires instinctive trust. A couple of months ago, he made news by manning a donation point outside a supermarket in Santa Barbara, CA. Reportedly, the effort filled up two vans with food and hygiene products for people experiencing homelessness. But that’s not all. Bridges then made a tour of salons asking for, and getting, donations from women who were having their nails done.

Even the First Lady has gotten into the picture. Michelle Obama’s gardening book, American Grown, includes a section on donating garden bounty to those in need. The White House has donated about a third of the crops from Mrs. Obama’s garden to Miriam’s Kitchen, a Washington, D.C., social services agency that provides meals for the homeless.

Reactions?

Source: “Danielle Steel’s secret forays to aid homeless,” SFGate, 11/19/12
Source: “Celebrity Charity News, Events, Organizations & Causes,” LookToTheStars.org
Source: “Homelessness Is Not a Popular Cause,” The Huffington Post, 07/31/12
Source: “Bon Jovi sparks project to help homeless veterans,” Examiner.com, 06/06/12
Source: “Introducing eBay Celebrity,” eBay Stories, 11/12/11
Source: “Jeff Bridges: Kind to The Homeless,” Showbiz Spy, 09/27/12
Image by vidmon (Joe Polletta).

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Homelessness and Fame

Justin TimberlakeThanksgiving dinner at the Los Angeles Mission has attracted show business personalities for many years. They wear distinctive aprons and get their pictures taken, ladling out portions of food for people experiencing homelessness.

This year, under the direction of “Top Chef” winner Michael Voltaggio, the mission served up:

3,000 pounds of smoked turkey, 700 pounds of corn and maple stuffing, 80 gallons of gravy, and 800 pounds of vegetables in addition to twice-baked potatoes, spaghetti squash casserole and pumpkin pie.

Natural disasters always inspire celebrities to help the newly homeless. Large parts of America’s east coast are still struggling with the ruin brought by Hurricane Sandy. Alec Baldwin visited his old school, New York University, to raise the morale of students who were evacuated into a recreation center. Jerry Seinfeld and other comics will donate the proceeds of the Sandy Storm Relief Benefit (December 19) to people made homeless by the flooding.

AFC’s Drop-In Center — where kids living on the street could walk in and receive food, showers, clothing, medical care, housing referrals, employment assistance, HIV testing and treatment, and mental health and substance abuse services — was completely destroyed by Hurricane Sandy.

Those words from Tracie Egan Morrissey describe the fate of the innovative and essential Ali Forney Center, a place where lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth could feel at home. This project was so important to actor Bea Arthur that when she died, her will gave the AFC $300,000.

Bless their publicity-seeking hearts, celebrities are often involved with activism, and quite a few famous people have helped raise funds for many good causes, which is always appreciated. More importantly, celebrities help raise awareness, which is why there is nothing wrong with seeking publicity. Some very nice folks do it.

As an example, House the Homeless wants as many people as possible to wrap their heads around the concept of Discharge No One Into Homelessness, and then proceed to sign the petition, print out the petition, and tell friends, and so forth. That’s just how we roll.

As for the motives of the various celebrities, there is a temptation sometimes to be suspicious and judgmental. When Kim Kardashian shows up to serve meals at the LA Mission, is that exploitation, or what? For an entertainer who is just getting started, the whole public relations game is vital, and it’s always good to be known as a volunteer. At that point in a career, sponsoring a charity might be more beneficial for the calculating striver than for the organization they are helping.

When the person is truly famous, with a high name-recognition score, then the alliance does more good for the helping organization. It might be ambition or pure altruism, but whatever degree of influence a celebrity wields, if they are out there trying to use that influence for good, then more power to them.

Often, the publicity has nothing to do with activism in aid of a cause. For some reason, anytime celebrity connects with homelessness, it’s a story. Like that actor who bumped into a guy’s shopping cart, and the Interwebs can’t stop flapping their jaws about it.

One prominent media tizzy concerned a very famous actor and musician, who probably doesn’t deserve the blame. It looks like he got blindsided by a friend with not much class and too much time on his hands. What happened was, Justin Timberlake and his sweetheart Jessica Biel pitched a big fancy wedding in Italy. A guy who sells real estate went into the streets of Los Angeles and paid people experiencing homelessness to record various greetings to the couple, labeled as messages from “your Hollywood friends who couldn’t make it.”

Gawker got hold of the video and exposed it to the world, and the real estate guy unleashed his lawyers, who said it was a “private joke” and they had better cease and desist. Everybody had something to say about it, and TMZ interviewed one of the “actors,” who was paid $40, which isn’t bad for reading a few lines. But when the man found out that the whole episode had contributed to spoiling someone’s wedding, he felt that a trick had been played on him.

Justin Timberlake handled the situation as responsibly as a celebrity could, under the circumstances, and issued a handsome apology which said, in part:

I was always taught that we as people, no matter what your race, sex, or stature may be, are equal… As it pertains to this silly, unsavory video that was made as a joke and not in any way in mockery… I want to say that, on behalf of my friends, family, and associative knuckleheads, I am deeply sorry to anyone who was offended by the video. Again, it was something that I was not made aware of. But, I do understand the reaction and, by association, I am holding myself accountable.

Another recent apology was sent out into the world by comedian Tracy Morgan after a lot of people got mad at him for saying homophobic things during his standup comedy routine. Many professional entertainers make podcasts, whose archives now contain hours of debate about this particular issue. One side feels that nobody should ever say anything mean, bullying, homophobic, racist, or whatever. The other side says, basically, “You don’t get it. A lot of comics do material in character. Did anyone scold actor Carroll O’Connor for the lines he spoke as Archie Bunker in the classic series ‘All in the Family’? Of course not, because they got it.”

At any rate, Morgan visited the Ali Forney Center (before it was flooded) to raise his consciousness and relate to some homeless kids. He also issued a public statement:

While I am an equal opportunity jokester, and my friends know what is in my heart, even in a comedy club this clearly went too far and was not funny in any context.

TV actor Erin Moran has been in the news lately, not as an activist, but as the exact kind of trainwreck that media consumers hunger for. The former “Happy Days” star suffered foreclosure about a year ago and was evicted from her home a few months later. She and her husband (who is employed) moved to a trailer park, then to a series of down-scale hotels, and the public seems to be waiting, breath held, for the day when this unfortunate couple hits the streets.

Admittedly, Moran seems to have 99 problems in her personal life, but she’s not a veteran with PTSD or a youth who “aged out” of foster care. And neither are a lot of the other people who have no place to stay. This is the point made by Joel John Roberts, CEO of PATH, who also writes for The Huffington Post:

Celebrities who become homeless are an extreme version of the warning that ‘it could happen to anyone.’ Yes, homelessness could happen to you or me. If a celebrity can become homeless, then so can I… Something unexpected could happen — chronic illness with insufficient health insurance, losing a job, or developing mental health issues. Or we might just make foolish decisions. We could turn to substances to cope with depression, break the law in a moment of desperation, or gamble away our savings… I guess the only way to truly end homelessness for people, both rich and poor, is to help them address their personal issues and provide affordable housing.

Reactions?

Source: “LA Mission Serves Up 76th Annual Thanksgiving Dinner,” CBS Los Angeles, 11/21/12
Source: “Bea Arthur’s Favorite Charity, a Shelter for Homeless LGBT Youth … ,Jezebel, 11/05/12
Source: “World’s Worst Wedding Joke,” Salon, 10/26/12
Source: “Tracy Morgan visits homeless gay teenagers on apology tour,” DailyMail.co.uk, 06/18/11
Source: “Homeless Celebrities: ‘Happy Days’ to Homeless Days,” The Huffington Post, 10/03/12
Image by nikkiboom.

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Past Time For a Raise

Paper WorkersThe Catching up to 1968 Act of 2012 (H.R. 5901) is a piece of legislation introduced in the House of Representatives by Congressman Jesse L. Jackson, Jr. Its object is to raise the federal minimum wage to $10 per hour, an amount that may sound frightening to businesses, but apparently they do manage to adjust. Jackson points out that no job loss has been shown to result from reasonable increases in the minimum wage.

The amount is only one of the bill’s four prongs. The raise would happen immediately, or what passes for immediately in public life, two months after the enactment of the legislation. Then, after a year, the minimum wage would be tied to the Consumer Price Index. And there is a special provision for people like restaurant workers:

For workers earning their living on the basis of tips, the cash wage paid to such an employee is to be 70% of the minimum wage when the law takes effect, but in no case less than $5.50 an hour, adjusted annually as necessary thereafter.

Jackson notes that states and communities can always raise the minimum wage in their area, but it doesn’t happen very often. Ten states, he tells us, have exercised their autonomy by indexing the minimum wage to inflation, so that’s a good sign. And 70% of the American people, according to a recent poll, believe the minimum wage needs to be higher.

On the right-hand side of the Time for a Raise page is an impressive list of representatives who are co-sponsors. The information gives specifics on the position of organizations and public figures whose opinions about the minimum wage are often sought out:

The AFL-CIO, National Council of La Raza, civil rights organizations, Ralph Nader, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and many others have all supported raising it and indexing it. Even Rick Santorum (until recently) and Mitt Romney believed in raising the minimum wage and Mr. Romney wanted to index it to inflation.

For encouraging him to introduce the legislation, Jackson extends special appreciation and thanks to Nader. In his argument for the raising the minimum wage, Jackson (like many others) references the unfairness of the huge gap between compensation for executives and workers. CEOs and all those other “Os” could help a lot by taking voluntary pay cuts.

As House the Homeless blog has often discussed, the Universal Living Wage (ULW), as written up by Richard R. Troxell, shares a similar motivation, although it takes a different approach. The ULW accomplishes the same benefits, and adds more. It doesn’t take a sociology professor or an economist to recognize that the cost of living is different in different places around the United States. To speak of “the economy” is misleading, because we are a nation of at least 1,000 economies. One size does not fit all. Richard says:

Raising the FMW to $10.00 an hour will not get one minimum wage worker off the streets of Washington DC the day it becomes law-far from it. At the same time, $10.00 an hour will seriously hurt small business in rural America.

Harm to small businesses can be reduced by costing them money only in communities where the economy can handle it. Harm can also be reduced by planning for change to take place over a 10-year period. If the increase is eased into, businesses will know what to expect and be able to budget for it. Richard asks:

What’s wrong with spreading out the solution of this problem over 10 years if it took 50 years for it to be created? Especially, if in the end, it solves the Wage Issue Problem for all time and ensures that a person working 40 hours in a week will finally be able to afford basic: food, clothing and shelter, (including utilities) wherever that work is done throughout the United States… Remember, minimum wage jobs are the last bastion of purely American jobs. These jobs and these workers cannot be outsourced. Our workers deserve better and our employers deserve to be respected.

By a not-so-strange coincidence, Ralph Nader has also sat down with Richard to discuss the Universal Living Wage. Back in the day, both men worked for economic justice in the streets of Philadelphia, alongside the esteemed Max Weiner, founder of the Consumer Education and Protective Association (CEPA), and the Consumer Party.

Catching up has been the policy behind the federal minimum wage for far too long. “The Catching up to 1968 Act of 2012” is a cute title — one might say a “catchy” title — but, really, is that the best we can aspire to, going backwards nearly half a century? If we always go less than the distance to the goal of exiting poverty, then how long does it take us to reach that goal? The answer is, we never do. The result is a 10,000,000 people pool of economically enslaved full-time workers who remain vulnerable to the disaster of falling into economic homelessness.

And even in the best case, “catching up” would not bring us back to where we were in that golden past. Jackson noted that the proposed increase “doesn’t fully equal the purchasing power of the minimum wage in 1968 — which today would be closer to $11 per hour.” Even if “catching up” becomes law, the American worker will not be able to buy as many loaves of bread with an hour’s pay as could be bought for an hour’s wages back in 1968.

Please visit to learn more about the Universal Living Wage and the ways in which you can participate to make it a reality.

Reactions?

Source: “The Catching up to 1968 Act of 2012,” timeforaraise.org, 06/06/12
Image by cliff1066, used under its Creative Commons license.

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Musicians and the Homeless

16th Street MallEveryone likes celebrity news, especially when it’s good, and House the Homeless has previously taken note of wonderful generosity from stars like Bruce Springsteen. We also mentioned Eminem’s patronage and mentorship of a homeless rapper called Yelawolf. The musician and activist known as Reverend Billy Wirtz supports the organization Picture the Homeless, whose motto is “Don’t talk about us, talk with us.”

Last May, it was announced that Lady Gaga would donate $1 million to homeless youth. Cyndi Lauper began the True Colors Fund in 2008, and the result is a shelter with 30 studio apartments specifically for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth who are experiencing homelessness. Some of them anyway, for as the singer is quoted as saying:

In New York City, a very disproportionate number (up to 40 percent) of homeless youth identify as L.G.B.T. Even more disturbing are reports that these young people often face discrimination and at times physical assault in some of the very places they have to for help. This is shocking and inexcusable!

Back in 2006, Jon Bon Jovi started up the JBJ Soul Foundation, which feeds people and puts families into houses, and does a whole bunch of other stuff in several cities. Now the foundation has teamed up with the Department of Veterans Affairs and other agencies to create Project REACH.

It stands for “Real-time Electronic Access for Caregivers and the Homeless,” and it’s a contest with a financial reward for whoever in the “developer community” can figure out how to make a national platform that can be accessed by the Internet and smartphones. The assignment is to supply complete and current information on shelters, housing services, crisis hotlines, legal assistance, VA services, health clinics, food kitchens, and any other resources, anywhere, anytime.

House the Homeless has often mentioned Austin in relation to its music scene, which has a long and impressive history, and the South by Southwest festival, and a whole lot more going for it. Among other things, the Austin Music Commission was supposedly represented on the Waller Creek Citizen Advisory Committee, but then whatever work that group did was apparently set aside to await the results of an international design competition. The ongoing project will greatly affect what is locally called the Red River music scene, and it will also have a huge impact on the area’s people experiencing homelessness.

Like many other cities, Austin has heard objections to the presence of homeless people downtown because of the trash problem, which in the public mind is inevitably associated with vagrants. But… If Austin is anything like other college towns, a big part of the trash on the streets is contributed by students with an overweening sense of entitlement and not much genuine connection to the city they temporarily inhabit.

Where there are bars and clubs, there is litter, vomit, and urine on the sidewalks and in the neighbors’ azalea bushes. What pulls customers to those clubs is the music. So the blame for urban squalor can’t be solely assigned to the homeless.

In many citizens’ minds, both show business and the homeless are responsible for urban crime. Live music = night life = booze = drunk-rolling = fights = prostitution = stolen cars = hard drugs = police sirens = litter = homeless people. In a downtown area, especially on weekends, they’re all mixed up together. And musicians write songs about the homeless, like “Only a Hobo,” “Tramp and the Young Girl,” and hundreds more. Often, musicians are the homeless, especially in old age — if they make it that far.

Sure, at a certain stage, with the world at your feet, being technically homelessness might be the best career move. If you plan to tour for 10 months, why pay rent for an apartment? The road can also make someone unwittingly callous. A 21-year-old guitarist who sleeps in a band’s tour bus might not understand how the rolling-stone life is not so much fun for a 45-year-old woman veteran with diabetes and PTSD. In many significant ways, musicians are just like everybody else — sometimes uninformed or thoughtless.

The music scene has always been an environment where thinking was a little more enlightened than in the general population. When musicians meet, age, race, creed, economic status, and all those other tiresome barriers are totally irrelevant. Sure, the music subculture has always had its problems, but discrimination generally hasn’t been one of them. That’s how much power the music universe holds, and one of the ways to use power responsibly is by looking after the interests of society’s least fortunate. An outstanding example of this is New Orleans, where in the wake of multiple disasters, the musicians took care of each other and a whole lot of civilians, too.

In Los Angeles, a band called Avenue 52 has a music video project called “Homeless,” whose profits will partly go to local helping organizations. In Berkeley, Ace Backwords, who is himself a homeless musician, organized and produced several compilations showcasing the work of numerous street musicians.

In Denver, David Adebonojo, performing at the 16th Street pedestrian mall, attracted the attention of musician/producer Tyler Ward, who got his career going. In one way, as the son of the Ivy League-educated parents (a doctor and a minister), Adebonojo doesn’t match the homeless stereotype. In another way, he does, with his history of being an auto mechanic, a Deadhead, and an ex-con. After writing a quantity of music in prison, he was released to the streets, where he spent enough years to have half a dozen guitars stolen.

Let’s hope for perfect weather in Springfield, Missouri, on May 12, for the second attempt at raising $10,000 for homeless causes with a concert called “Stomp the Blues Out of the Homeless.” The promoter, Jim Payne, whose day job has something to do with escrow and land titles, tried to launch this idea last year, but the weather was impossibly foul and he ended up losing all the money he had put up to get the thing going. Better luck this time!

Homeless Media Bonus Link
The late comedian Greg Giraldo — “Underwear Goes Inside the Pants” — featuring many of Venice Beach, California’s homeless residents.

Reactions?

Source: “Cyndi Lauper Opens Homeless LGBT Youth Center In NYC,” The New Civil Rights Movement, 08/25/11
Source: “VA Launches “Project REACH” Contest,” VA.gov, 03/19/12
Source: “Los Angeles Based Pop Rock Band Avenue 52 Raises Homeless Awareness,” SFGate.com, 04/12/11
Source: “Denver musician David Adebonojo (Dred Scott) strikes a chord,” DenverPost.com, 08/03/11
Source: “Fresh start desired for blues festival,” News-Leader.com, 05/05/12
Image by bartlec (Chris Bartle), used under its Creative Commons license.

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Austin Music Scene Is a Vital Cultural Force

Austin Guitar TownAustin, Texas, gets a lot of coverage here at House the Homeless. The fact that the House the Homeless organization is located there and devotes a great deal of energy to the city is only a secondary reason. The main thing is, Austin is a city that will be legendary in the future, like Athens and Alexandria are now.

People keep an eye on Austin, just like they pay attention to what goes on in New York or San Francisco, where they don’t even live, and never will. Even though in some ways Austin is in a class by itself, it faces the same issues as any metropolis. The difference between cities is not in their problems, but in their responses. Austin is a beautiful microcosm of everything that’s great about America. It’s almost an ideal melting pot, where cultures do not compete, but embrace and mingle.

One example of true hipness is the music scene, which has been wildly eclectic since the 60s, and probably before. (If anyone would like to say how much farther back the musical precocity really started, please comment!) A mind-boggling number of musicians either came from Austin or migrated to Austin. Michael Martin Murphey’s “Alleys of Austin” is one of the most beautiful songs ever sung. It’s a unique, amazing music town, and the South by Southwest music festival has contributed enormously to that reputation.

During the most recent iteration of the festival, an entrepreneurial venture was launched which involved people experiencing homelessness, and it made international news. Another interesting business idea put into motion more than three years back, we learn from Mark Horvath, in a 3:42 video clip viewable at his Hardly Normal website, and every link on that page is worth following.

Here is Horvath’s brief description of the project he characterizes as “a brilliant idea,” launched by Alan Graham:

I have been telling everyone about his catering trucks and how he rapid houses homeless people in RVs. Well Alan is at it again, this time trying to create ways for our homeless friends to generate income… Mobile Loaves and Fishes new Street Treats program… Basically, Alan empowers a homeless person to make some money, with the intent to save up and restore housing, by selling ice cream around downtown Austin.

But, let’s get back to the music scene, which has a dark side. One of the long, hard struggles taken on by House the Homeless was to defend people against a harsh “No Sit/No Lie” ordinance. The embarrassing connection to the world of music is that the original ordinance, passed in 2005, included an exception for those who rest while in line waiting to pay for concert tickets. Someone hoping to buy a thing not necessary for life was allowed to sit on a sidewalk. Someone in poor health, and homeless, waiting for a medical appointment or a meal, was not allowed to sit on a sidewalk. That was a pretty inhumane situation.

The outcome of the struggle is described by Richard R. Troxell:

After a year, we forced a compromise giving people with disabilities up to 30 minute respites in deference to their medical needs. As a result, in 2011, Austin became the first city in the nation to bring our No Sit/No Lie ordinance in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Perhaps now we can simply install enough benches for folks to sit down in a civilized fashion and thereby inch closer to becoming the world class city that we aspire to be.

There is another unhealthy relationship between the music scene and the homeless scene. Music venues usually feature alcohol, and, by coincidence, alcohol is the downfall of a certain percentage of people who slide into homelessness. Nationally, Richard reminds us, the health care costs resulting from alcoholism run into the trillions. His article also includes many very interesting ideas we won’t attempt to summarize here. To explain them adequately and persuasively is, after all, why he wrote the article in the first place. But one more quote:

In overview, we can see that with clear vision, new perspective and collectively involving the city, the citizens of Austin, federal and state governments and the business community in a fair, equitable, balanced and profitable fashion, we can end homelessness as it exists today.

In Austin, this especially applies to the involvement of citizens and business in the Waller Creek project, which is inextricably related to the area’s thriving music “ecosystem.” The design plan for this massive project has been narrowed down to the suggestions of four semi-finalists. A year ago, Shonda Novak and Marty Toohey wrote for the Austin Statesman that the creek “has become a trash-strewn stream and a hangout for vagrants.” They quoted a property owner who said:

You can have all the dreams in the world of what Waller Creek is to be like, but it’s not going to happen if we don’t deal with the transient population. The City Council needs to step up to the plate and pass stronger laws and insist that the police enforce them and the judges back them up.

Since then, how much has been done to assure that people experiencing homelessness will get some jobs out of this costly project? How much has been said about them in any other context than of a nuisance to be gotten rid of? The answer is, not much. This is the time for musicians and venue owners to make some noise about alleviating homelessness.

Musicians are some of the world’s nicest people, who can be astonishingly effective when they get motivated. When a musician reaches a level of fame, the results can be awesome. When Willie Nelson signed on to sue the Monsanto corporation, that was big news, and there are many other examples of this beneficent wielding of personal power.

Recently, we talked about how author Richard Florida cited Austin as an example of the Creative City, defining the music scene as one of its big three forces. The music universe has so much energy and influence. Look what the New Orleans musicians have accomplished, not only for fellow musicians, but for their city as a whole.

Austin is another such city, the kind of place where magic can happen. This is a blatant request for comments from the Austin music community about its unsung heroes. Please brag here, about the ways in which you have helped the homeless.

Source: “Street Treats: The Other SXSW Homeless Campaign in Downtown,” Hardly Normal, 03/31/12
Source: “How to end homelessness in Austin: A plan,” CultureMap Austin, 02/08/12
Source: “Private conservancy outlines plan to rescue, revive Waller Creek,” Statesman.com, 04/27/11
Image by pixajen, used under its Creative Commons license.

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What Kind of Help Really Helps?

Music is Life @ Djemaa el FnaPeople experiencing homelessness do not always remain adrift. Sometimes they land on a friendly shore. Is it all a matter of luck? Or do their stories contain factors that could be applied more generally? What kind of help was extended to them by nonprofit groups, local businesses, individual benefactors, faith-based organizations, the media, or the government? What kind of help really helps?

Last time, we found that, for veteran Bill Jenkins, the things that made a difference were Alcoholics Anonymous and the nonprofit Veterans First. What helps even more, he told the reporter, is the respect given him by fellow citizens who recognize the contributions he has made to the community.

In the realm of show business, a person’s housing status is less important than whether they make it to the recording studio on time. Of course, it always helps to have a stable residence as a center of operations.

In January, Eminem signed a rapper called Yelawolf, who had been on the streets for about a year, to his record label. Since then, the young musician has been homeless in a whole different way, touring the U.S. and Europe.

Everybody heard about Ted Williams, the widely publicized “Homeless Man with a Golden Voice.” After being “discovered” by a journalist, he was introduced to many opportunities, but was psychologically unable to cope with the sudden changes in his life. This seems to be the theory held by Cord Jefferson, who describes the arc of Williams’s career and reflects,

In the future, it would probably be wise for Americans and the media to remember that people emerging from the depths to which Williams sank need time to recover before they’re thrown in front of cameras and lights and millions of people. Nobody’s saying that it can’t be done, of course, but it shouldn’t be done over night. And when people crash and burn because they weren’t ready for the spotlight, it seems wholly wrong to immediately forget about them.

Vicki Lawrence followed up with a video piece in which she plays a character called “Homeless Mama,” which is seen as either a humorous parody or a mean-spirited attack on the homeless, depending on who you ask.

Country singer Miranda Lambert’s parents were private investigators, a profession which apparently doesn’t pay very well or support a stable domesticity. Journalist Carina Adly MacKenzie titles her article, “Miranda Lambert spent part of childhood homeless bankrupt,” and says,

In fact, her family occasionally sheltered abused women and children at their home. These women inspired one of Lambert’s biggest hits, ‘Gunpowder & Lead.’

In The New Yorker, Dana Goodyear recounted the story of Nathaniel Ayers. This amazingly talented musician suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, and went from the Skid Row streets of Los Angeles to being the subject of a book titled The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music. And then his story was made into a movie that starred Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey, Jr.

In fact, it appears that what turned things around for Ayers was the interest taken in him by Steve Lopez, who first publicized the story of the homeless musical genius in a series of columns, then published the book. Like the golden-voiced homeless man Ted Williams, Ayers and his story captured the imagination of someone with the skill and the platform to make it public.

The other deciding factor was his membership in the Lamp Community, the Los Angeles nonprofit organization that follows the “housing first” principle. For helping people one at a time, there are not enough reporters to go around. Or enough facilities like Lamp.

The good news is that we don’t need to be newspaper journalists or shelter administrators in order to help this situation. There are plenty of different ways to help, and one of them is to learn about, and spread the word about, the Universal Living Wage.

Reactions?

Source: “Eminem signs homeless rapper,” Musicrooms.net, 01/18/11
Source: “A Month Later, ‘Homeless Man with a Golden Voice’ Is Abandoned by His Corporate Friends,” Good, 02/25/11
Source: “Vicki Lawrence as Homeless Mama,” Youtube.com
Source: “Miranda Lambert spent part of childhood homeless, bankrupt,” Zap2it, 11/04/10
Source: “Dana Goodyear, Letter from Los Angeles,” The New Yorker, 05/05/08
Image by Vincent van der Pas, used under its Creative Commons license.

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Homelessness, Foster Kids, and Michele Bachmann

Michele BachmannAccording to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, in September of 2009 (the last date for which statistics have been compiled), 423,773 American children were in foster care. That’s nearly half a million: Not such a large number these days when applied to dollars, but a very large number indeed when it’s children we’re talking about.

Kids in foster care are in an ambiguous situation, not actually homeless (PDF), but not in their own permanent homes, either. For about half of all the foster kids, the stated “case goal” is reunification with their families, a goal much more easily met if their families are lucky enough to have homes.

Although some are placed with relatives, about half of the children in foster care at any given time are with non-relatives. It seems that about half the total number of children remain in foster care for less than a year. Presumably, the family situation improves, and they are able to return.

Of course, a small percentage of kids “age out” of foster care each year, and their circumstances are often dire. Of the system’s graduates, only about half also graduate from high school. Only one in 50 goes on to earn a college degree.

It is estimated that a quarter of the teenagers too old for foster care are now homeless, and a third receive public assistance. Half are unemployed, and more than 4/5ths become parents at an age when they are not equipped for it, and without the means to prevent their children from joining a cycle of poverty, neglect, and even abuse.

Recently, all the members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, all the state governors, and the president received copies of Looking Up at the Bottom Line. An enthusiastic reply came from Michele Bachmann, who represents the 6th congressional district of Minnesota, and hopes to be the next Republican president.

Bachmann’s political activism is said to have originated with her experience as a 23-time foster parent. Sheryl Gay Stolberg explained in The New York Times, saying,

… [I]t was her role as a mother, both to her biological children and to her adolescent foster daughters, that spurred her to seek public office.

The state allowed a family to take care of up to three foster children at a time, and the Bachmanns specialized in teenage girls with eating disorders. The Bachmann biological children were home-schooled or went to private Christian schools, but foster children must attend public schools, and Michele Bachmann became politically active through wanting to influence how the schools are run.

Stolberg says,

By the late 1990s… Mrs. Bachmann was upset by the education her foster children were getting in public school. Teachers gave them ‘little special attention,’ and many were ‘placed in lower-level classes, as if they were not expected to succeed,’ she told a House subcommittee in 2007.

Benjy Sarlin takes the story a bit further, noting that Bachmann, at the same time,

… [P]itched her own legislation that would allow states to use vouchers to move foster children into private or home schools, injecting a hot-button partisan issue into the mix of what had been a mostly apolitical process.

Kathleen Strottman, executive director of the bi-partisan, nonprofit Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, is extremely appreciative of Bachmann’s advocacy for the organization, saying,

She’s been very helpful in speaking about what drew her to become a foster parent and using that for state and local recruiting efforts.

Although many of Bachmann’s ideas are frightening to those who fear the total disintegration of the social safety net, her sincerity and charisma cannot be doubted.

Reactions?

Source: “Foster Care Statistics 2009” (PDF), ChildWelfare.gov, 05/11
Source: “Roots of Bachmann’s Ambition Began at Home,” The New York Times, 06/21/11
Source: “Michele Bachmann’s Foster Care Contradiction,” TPMDC, 07/06/11
Image by Gage Skidmore, used under its Creative Commons license.

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HomeAid Live – a Social Media Event

HomeAid

HomeAid is scheduled for November 11 and 12, during the National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. It is a virtual happening, very Earth-friendly. (And besides, everybody is too broke to travel. If any spare change is lurking between the couch cushions, better to donate it to the cause than spend it on gas.) David Mathison, CEO and co-host of Be The Media, says:

This will be a truly green event. Since everything is online, there is no place to fly or drive, no trees to cut down for posters or tickets, and minimal waste: there’s almost no damage to the environment.

Parts of it will come, courtesy of YouTube live streaming video, from the Apollo Theater in New York and also from Nashville, Tennessee, and many other places. The event’s publicity literature says,

Celebrities, artists, and performers from across the country are contributing exclusive video content that will be streamed on the HomeAid.net website… Many artists plan to hold live ‘house parties’ right from their homes, streamed via webcam… Fans will have many ways to participate, from uploading their own videos to spreading the word on social media sites, and even downloading mobile applications for the iPhone or Android.

And house parties! The whole point here is to share the experience with friends. Participation guarantees a global audience for the performers and the video artists. Regular people can participate just as much by helping spread the word and encourage others to join in. And have a party! In terms of sheer unprecedented numbers, HomeAid will probably become known as the Woodstock of the Internet.

HomeAid is also a national nonprofit organization that has, over the last 20 years, helped 100,000 people get back on their feet. What they do is, build and maintain shelters where homeless families and individuals can regain their dignity and reconstruct their lives. Currently, there are 20 chapters in 14 states.

The most recent addition to the crew is Ken Kragen, who put together the immensely successful We Are the World, as well as Net Aid and Hands Across America. The CEO of HomeAid is Jeffrey Slavin, who is understandably jazzed about the prospect of this event, which is still in the planning stages, and still looking for sponsors and for suggestions on more ways to be even more spectacular. Slavin says,

Because the event takes place online, anyone can watch it from anywhere in the world, and anyone can donate to the cause.

Never has an event been so easy to get involved with, for either an organization or an individual. That’s why the graphic on this page is the first image from their Sponsor Deck, which is pretty much what you’d see if you were in a conference room for a presentation. If you would like a Sponsor Deck of your very own, please go to the Sponsor Page and fill out the form. After receiving the Sponsor Deck, you will be equipped with an immense amount of detail about every aspect of the project and exactly how to become involved.

Here are four more online ways to connect with HomeAid:

The Website
Facebook
Twitter
YouTube
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Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless has been (again) a guest on BlogTalkRadio, interviewed by Zane Safrit. He is the host of a long-running show on small-business success, business innovation, and the economy. Richard and Zane first met in February to discuss Richard’s new book, Looking Up at the Bottom Line: The Struggle for the Living Wage. Zane was so surprised at finding common ground with someone advocating a major increase in the entry-level wages that he has invited Richard back to further discuss the economics of the living wage.

After a brief update on House the Homeless‘ campaign against Austin’s “No Sit/No Lie” ordinance, Richard and Zane talk about the working homeless in the United States: those who hold minimum-wage jobs but can’t afford minimum housing. What would happen if these millions of workers got a raise? A massive economic boom, as the least among us are able to buy the products generated by a consumer society.

For information on how to prevent homelessness before it even happens, please learn more about the Universal Living Wage, the plan that can end homelessness for over 1,000,000 minimum-wage workers and prevent economic homelessness for all of 10.1 million minimum-wage workers.

Reactions?

Source: “HomeAid: A Virtual Event to Benefit America’s Homeless,” HomeAid.net, 01/11/11
Source: “Richard Troxell: Author Looking Up at the Bottomline, Part 2,” BlogTalkRadio.com, 05/04/11
Image from HomeAid, used under Fair Use: Reporting.

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