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Remembering the Departed

Sunday, November 19, is the day of this year’s Homeless Memorial Service. If you are in or near Austin, Texas, please go to Auditorium Shores, at South First and Riverside Drive (on the south side of Lady Bird Lake).

There is a story behind the annual event. In 1992, Austin was a smaller and much less cosmopolitan city, and not quite conscious of how many of its citizens were sleeping rough, or just minimally and occasionally sheltered. All that changed with the death of Diane Malloy.

House the Homeless founder Richard R. Troxell helped another man search for and recover her drowned body. In his book, Looking Up at the Bottom Line, Richard recalls how the tragedy led to the yearly Memorial tradition.

Bodies of water attract bodies of people

People experiencing homelessness meet their ends in various ways: fire; exposure to weather; violence; overdose; being hit by a vehicle. Some even have what are called “natural” deaths, although at an unnaturally young age. Considering the close quarters and lack of sanitation in camps and some shelters, it is amazing that there have not been more flareups of contagious diseases.

As it turns out, water is a very popular spot for the corpses of people no longer experiencing homelessness to be found. A person with no fixed address is quite likely to be discovered dead in or near an ocean, lake, river, pond, ditch, arroyo, or flood plain.

There are practical reasons. Many large and/or warm cities are located on coastlines, and they tend to contain a lot of people experiencing homelessness. Inland, wherever a wooded area hosts a lone camper or a settlement, water is likely to be nearby.

Interestingly, a watery death overtakes far fewer women than men, quite out of proportion to their numbers in the total population. A woman’s body found in water attracts media attention and public sympathy in a way that the drownings of men never quite manage to do. Austin is not the only city that was actually changed by one particular fatality.

In East Los Angeles, the faith-based Guadalupe Homeless Project Women’s Shelter exists because the body of 36-year-old Lorenza Arellano was found in the lake at a municipal park. Authorities said an overdose killed her, though how she got into the water was never explained. This was in 2014, and within the whole enormous geography of Los Angeles, there were only two women-only shelters. Arellano’s death was the catalyst that made the third one happen.

Another story

As a young woman with a genius-level IQ, Cara Nurmi showed infinite promise in her teen years. She studied ballet and photography, and was known as a singer and painter. Hurricane Katrina destroyed her home and all her artwork. During rebuilding, an electrical fire wiped out everything. When the man she loved died suddenly, Nurmi told her mother, “If I don’t have anything, I can’t lose anything,” and went off to hide in the world.

Nurmi’s life unraveled to the point of vagabondage in New Orleans, where she was known to everyone, including the police-run Homeless Assistance Unit, as a pleasant, playful woman with “wonderful energy.” Still, the 34-year-old had been through a rough decade. At some point she signed up for an inpatient alcohol detox program, and in August, a spot opened up.

Of course there was a last party with friends, under a wharf, and Nurmi jumped into the Mississippi River. It seems to have been a habit, and whoever else was there didn’t worry. Her body was found a few days later.

Journalist Richard A. Webster quoted Cara Nurmi’s mom:

I think with Katrina, they only counted the dead bodies, but there are other people who took a little longer to die.

Reactions?

Source: “Looking Up at the Bottom Line,” Amazon.com
Source: “A new shelter in East LA provides sanctuary for homeless women,” SCPR.org, 03/31/15
Source: “Homeless woman found in Mississippi River wavered between heaven and hell, friends say,” NOLA.com, 08/31/17
Image by House the Homeless

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Training Wage or Hidden Injustice?

First, before getting into today’s topic, remember that next Tuesday is Bridge the Economic Gap Day, a day for action. Everything there is to say about this yearly tradition is contained in last year’s post, except that this time, it’s Tuesday, September 5, a week from today.

What is commensurate wage?

Since 2009, the federal hourly minimum wage has been $7.25, and the government has designated which workers it applies to. A whole separate area of law describes who can be paid less, and under what circumstances. There are two major exceptions to the requirement to pay minimum wage, and a person may fall under one or the other, or maybe even both.

It seems that the two can be mixed-and-matched, depending on the needs of the company that applies to be certified for the privilege of paying less. This is known as a commensurate wage, which has more dignity than “sub-minimum,” a word that could be termed meaningless, since “minimum” already means “least.”

One affected group are workers under 20 years old, who can be subject to a 90-day training period at $4.25 per hour. This is based on the idea that it will take them a while to get up to speed. During the probationary period, they will not only learn how to do the particular job, but will adapt to the mores of the workplace, such as timely arrival. When the probationary period ends, they will graduate to the ranks of regular employees. But more about this next week.

The federal rules

At the moment, the subject is disability. The Fair Labor Standards Act is enforced by the Wage-Hour Division (WHD) of the U.S. Department of Labor. For detail-oriented readers who want to follow up, the Field Operations Handbook is available online.

This excerpt is from section 64c00:

A subminimum wage is a wage paid a worker with a disability that is commensurate with that worker’s individual productivity as compared to the wage and productivity of experienced workers who do not have disabilities performing essentially the same type, quality, and quantity of work in the vicinity where the worker with a disability is employed.

Some examples of disabilities that may affect a worker’s earning or productive capacity include blindness, intellectual or developmental disability, mental retardation, cerebral palsy, alcoholism, drug addiction, and age.

Age alone is not considered a disability, but it is often concurrent with other disabling conditions. Disabilities range from mild to severe, in one or more of the following areas: “impairments in perception, conceptualization, language, memory, and control of attention, impulse, or motor function.”

The main thing to know is, an employer can pay a sub-minimum wage only when the disability impairs the person for the specific job. In other words, there would be no justification to pay a blind coffee-taster less.

For the employer, several rules apply. There are standards about work measurement and time studies and how the hourly commensurate rate should be calculated, and the company has to promise to reevaluate the job performance every six months or when the actual requirements of the job change.

The WHD civil servants are specially admonished about the importance of their oversight duties “because many of the workers with disabilities paid at sub-minimum wages have little knowledge of their rights under the various acts enforced by the WHD or may be unable to exercise them.”

Potential for mischief

Apparently, the three-months training period exception can be applied to disabled workers as well as those under 20. Some critics feel that, as a Washington state news editorial phrased it, 680 hours might be excessive:

That seems like a long time for a person to get the knack of a minimum-wage job, which by its very nature requires a relatively low level of skill. Would it really take a person 85 days (of eight-hour shifts) to learn a minimum-wage job?

In Seattle, these matters were hotly discussed when state and city minimum wages were adjusted. Washington’s Department of Labor & Industries had designated four sub-minimum wage categories, called “student learners,” “handicapped workers,” “adult learners,” and “student workers.”

Journalist Anna Minard wrote in her 2014 article:

The state has issued only five certificates in the last five years — four for individual handicapped adults, and one for student workers at a boarding school. But while the state program has been small, there’s no telling how many employers would apply for certificates with Seattle’s new higher wages — and how creatively they might try to interpret the existing but rarely used state codes. Opponents of training wages fear this could become a huge loophole for businesses to exploit.

One problem with the training period is that it encourages the unscrupulous employer to engage in an outright scam. Rather than retaining people at full pay, they might let them go when the probationary period is over, and hire a new batch of “trainees” at a discount. Michelle Chen wrote:

Advocates are also campaigning to stop federal subsidies for segregated sheltered workshops and “training” programs, where workers tend to languish indefinitely in jobs with virtually no redeeming educational value.

Please sign this petition!

House the Homeless hopes the reader, now armed with some background information, will take another step. The National Federation of the Blind is petitioning on behalf of all American workers with disabilities to end the Special Wage Certificates that allow the lower pay scale. The petition itself is a model of persuasive eloquence, and the points are worthy of consideration.

Reactions?

Source: “Field Operations Handbook,” DOL.gov, 09/21/16
Source: “Address flaws in bill creating ‘training wage’,” BellinghamHerald.com, 02/04/13
Source: “What’s the Deal with ‘Training Wages’?,” TheStranger.com, 05/28/14
Source: “People With Disabilities Aren’t Entitled to the Minimum Wage,” TheNation.com, 09/07/16
Image courtesy House 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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Austin Is All About HUGGS

huggsLike cars and sprinkler systems, people who live outdoors need to be winterized. For this, they need Hats; Underwear of the thermal variety; Gloves; Scarves, and Socks. (Also, rain ponchos, safety whistles, and 2-oz hand sanitizers, but there were a lot of initials already.)

At the annual HUGGS Thermal Underwear Party the guests are nourished by a hot lunch prepared by volunteers. The signup page specifies the time commitment for each volunteer role, along with a brisk, precise description of the task and its expectations.

Even if you don’t live within volunteering range of Austin, take a look, just to appreciate how a good online HQ for a project can change event organizing from a walk on the wild side to a walk in the park. It might even inspire others to put together similar events in their own local areas.

Another option would be to donate through the Thermal Underwear Drive page, which features a heartening photojournal. Also, some dimensions of the event are less visual. Chiefly, this is a chance for the voices of people experiencing homelessness to be heard in a way that conveys meaningful information to the rest of society.

The guests are offered the opportunity to participate in a brief yet remarkably detailed survey. The House the Homeless survey archive is a valuable resource for professionals and students alike, and at the same time perfectly understandable by casual readers.

The survey has a different topic every year. This time, it is the criminalization of homelessness, as that trend plays out in Austin, Texas. But let’s return to an indispensable item on the wish list, namely, socks. Here is a thought experiment, a virtual reality scenario, in which you have nowhere to go.

A minimalist world

But you do have a new pair of socks, which is a darn good thing because you have worn the current ones day and night for two weeks and they are due for retirement. The first order of business is to find a place to take off the old socks and put on the new ones. Even better would be a chance to wash your feet before making the change.

You know of a park that has a rudimentary restroom for picnickers and disk golfers. Of course right now the temperature is near freezing, and the inside of the restroom is no warmer than outside, but it does block the wind. The single basin gives out an anemic stream of icy water. The thought of sticking your naked foot beneath the faucet is horrifying. Besides, you would be in an awkward position, vulnerable to attack.

You could get something wet — your spare T-shirt, for example — and lean against the wall and take off one shoe and sock and wash that foot. You even have a towel. So you could use it to dry that foot, before putting on a new sock and then repeating the process with the other foot. The vulnerability issue would still apply.

At the end, you’d have a sopping wet T-shirt which, even after rinsing, would be pretty foul. And your towel. Just bundle it up damp, or rinse it, too, in the grudging trickle of water? Two wet items are going to affect the rest of the stuff in your pack, as well as its overall weight. Meanwhile, in the ghastly cold water your hands want to scream.

And what about the old socks? Wash them? You have a sliver of soap tucked away, but might, with any luck, at some point have a chance to use it on your body. So, no. Keep the socks, in hopes of some day stumbling into Laundry Heaven? Could you really consider putting those disgusting, bacteria-laden objects in your pack, along with everything else you own on earth?

Well, you do have a small plastic bag. But it’s a nice one, really clean, suitable to put food in, if you happen run across some. It would be a shame to waste it storing filthy socks. So, in full knowledge that you might regret it, you pitch the repulsive things in the trash.

THE SHORT VERSION: People experiencing homelessness need many socks, please. Not only now, but all year round.

Richard Troxell, President of House the Homeless, serves the ideal of a balanced and just society for all, including the least fortunate among us. He says:

It is all but criminal that in the richest country in the world, our businesses will pay wages (Federal Minimum Wage) and our government provide a stipend (Supplemental Security Income, SSI) for our disabled people, that are both so low, that 3.5 million people will experience homelessness again this winter.

House the Homeless is holding its 16th annual Thermal Underwear Drive on Friday, December 30, from 12:00 to 2:00 p.m., at the First Baptist Church, 901 Trinity Street, Austin, TX 78701.

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Image by House the Homeless

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Next Tuesday Is Bridge Day

bridge-day-hth
That’s short for Bridge the Economic Gap Day, which is September 6, a week from today. Here are words from the President of House the Homeless, Richard R. Troxell:

During his tenure, President Obama said that income inequality is the single most important issue of our time. But the actions of the administration and Congress have created a failed federal minimum wage that still clings to the archaic and pedestrian concept that “one size fits all” in a nation of a thousand-plus economies. Who hasn’t traveled? Who hasn’t found that a meal in Washington, D.C., is at least twice as much as one in Scranton, Pennsylvania, or the rent in Austin, Texas, is almost three times that of Harlington, Texas?

The failure of Congress to reasonably and timely raise the minimum wage even at its one-size- fits-all rate has caused major, heavily populated cities to independently raise their own minimum wage out of desperation. But these $15.00 per hour increases still fall way short of living wages in these major cities, and would put small business out of business in our smaller cities. And, soon enough, time and inflation will again erode the wage.

The answer is simple. We need to index the federal minimum wage to the local cost of housing. In this fashion, if a person puts in their 40 hours of work, they will be able to afford a basic rental property… No matter what that rent escalates to, or where it’s located. This makes sense for business as it stabilizes their minimum-wage workforce. This makes sense for the local construction industry (nationwide) that will get to construct housing for the 3.5 million people experiencing homelessness. And it makes sense for the homeless minimum-wage worker who can finally attain housing.

For these reasons, the theme of the this year’s Bridge the Economic Gap Day (when we get on our nation’s bridges and fly our banners for Living Wages) is: INDEX IT! Index the wage to the local cost of housing so that as a worker, I’m drawn back in off the dole to a life of satisfaction and accomplishment… So that I can again earn a fair wage for a fair day’s pay. INDEX IT! Index it so that as a worker I can experience the true meaning of the word “opportunity.” Then, as an American with a dream, I can combine the two.

For much more information, see Katie McKaskey’s writeup from last year’s Bridge Day. Everything there is to know about the Universal Living Wage can be found in the pages of House the Homeless.

Richard’s book, Looking Up at the Bottom Line, explores the idea of economic homelessness and how we can drastically reduce the level of taxpayer dependence on such supports as food stamps, TANF, general assistance, earned income tax credits, etc. At the same time, the book points the way to stimulate the local housing industry all across America while shoring up new business startups and ending economic homelessness for over 1,000,000 minimum-wage workers.

An interesting resource is this collection of charts, like the one titled, “The last two decades were great… if you were a CEO or owner. Not if you were anyone else.” To spend some minutes musing over them is to experience a disturbing array of revelations and emotions.

Remember how Seattle made big news by raising its minimum wage? The Seattle Minimum Wage Study Team issued a report in July, and Jared Bernstein reviewed it for The Washington Post. It examines the impact of the first stage of Seattle’s wage hike, which went into effect in April of 2015.

This raise was from $9.50 to $11. The second stage will occur in 2017, when businesses with 500 or more employees are scheduled to raise the minimum to $15. Small businesses don’t have to catch up with that until 2021.

There are a lot of details to take into consideration, but the outcomes are said to “fit comfortably into a view well understood by minimum-wage advocates and increasingly accepted by economists: most increases have their intended effect of lifting the pay of low-wage workers with little in the way of job losses.”

Bernstein explains his discomfort with the way in which Seattle’s advance has been covered by the press, and many other matters too. The 120 comments appended to the piece add more layers of nuance.

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Source: “15 Mind-Blowing Facts About Wealth And Inequality In America,” BusinessInsider.com, undated
Source: “So far, the Seattle minimum-wage increase is doing what it’s supposed to do,” WashingtonPost.com, 08/10/16
Image by House the Homeless

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Tax Day Hurts

taxesThere are a thousand different reasons for it, but the bottom line is, income tax is a huge issue for almost everyone. For more than 15 years, House the Homeless has promoted the annual “Tax Day Action!” on April 15.

This year, as always, the HtH family will take part in protests at Post Offices throughout America. Richard R. Troxell, the organization’s president, explains the rationale:

Workers have been forced in ever-increasing numbers to depend on food stamps, general assistance, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Congress intended these to be emergency, stop-gap measures. Instead, many businesses use government support to save on basic payroll. This is creating an ever-increasing burden on the taxpayer.

What happens when businesses take unfair advantage of the tattered few remaining shreds of the social safety net? Children don’t have proper nourishment and are unable to get the most out of their schooling. Families can’t afford rent, and wind up living in garages, basements, vans and, in the worst-case scenarios, in shelters or constantly-harassed homeless camps.

Learn more about the Universal Living Wage concept and what to do about it. Meanwhile, let’s look at some specific issues connected with how the refusal to end homelessness impacts the taxpayer.

Whether a service is paid for by local, state or federal taxes, all taxes come from the same source: us. The government, per se, does not have any money. At the municipal, state, or federal level, the government has no money except what we hand over to it in the form of income tax, property tax, sales tax, and so forth.

Sure, the government takes in a little something from the few remaining corporations that deign to pay taxes, but how do those businesses make up what they consider to be their rightful profits? Again, they get it from us.

What happens when a business, large or small, does not pay employees fairly or adequately? Every taxpayer chips in to pay for food stamps, medical care, and other necessities for those employees and their families. There are all kinds of less obvious costs, especially when people are unable to pay to live under a roof, and experience homelessness. Taxpayers finance the building of shelters or, more likely, the repurposing of old buildings to become shelters.

Police are kept busy chasing unhoused people from one makeshift settlement to another, and arresting them for minor crimes, and who pays to keep them in jail? We all do. The mission of the police, supposedly, is to serve and protect the citizens. That mission has been perverted into serving and protecting only property owners, while making life miserable for those who need protection the most, the people who have lost almost everything and really don’t need to be served any more grief.

Courts systems waste their time and our money assessing fines that will never be paid, for rinky-dink offenses like loitering. Another thing that courts do, occasionally, is to award damages to people who have been harmed by over-zealous policing. People whose possessions have been destroyed by police sometime band together, find willing legal representation, and sue cities for damages.

It’s never an easy battle, but hospitals that dump patients on Skid Row have been fined – and one way or another, the person who ends up paying the bill is the ordinary taxpayer. The families of homeless people killed by the police have been awarded damages. Allowing homelessness to continue in America damages everyone.

Tax Day always hurts, but when the panic and the cussing are over, it is totally worth sitting down to have a good hard think, about exactly who is paying for what, and why.

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Photo credit: efile989 via VisualHunt.com/CC BY-SA

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Bridge the Economic Gap Day

Bridge Action“Bridge” is a loaded word in the homeless community, because for so many people it is the definition of home (as in living beneath a bridge). Sometimes, a communal meal or a church service may take place under a bridge, but the picture is still grim. Several years ago, House the Homeless opened up the meaning of bridge to include the highway overpass, and redefined a bridge as a podium, a pulpit, a stage, a platform, a grandstand. The bridge became the medium through which America learned of the Universal Living Wage.

The economic gap can be bridged, and one of the most practical and sensible ways to begin is through the Universal Living Wage, through recognition that the minimum wage should be tied to local conditions. The dramatic and inspiring story of how Bridge the Economic Gap Day started is all there in Richard R. Troxell’s book, Looking Up at the Bottom Line.

What follows is only a brief summary of a story packed with drama. Someone ought to buy the film rights and make a movie. The picture on this page, taken at one of several Austin action sites, is from the book. Richard is on the left, and the exuberant woman next to him is Eve Adams, who was 100 years old at the time.

For four years, volunteers tirelessly worked to spread the ULW idea and collect endorsements from organizations throughout the country. In 2005, the time seemed right for the first ULW National Day of Action. The chosen date was “Labor Day Plus 1” (which this year falls on September 8—today.) Richard’s goal was to have at least one Bridge Action in every state, so his plan concentrated on width. The Call for Leadership went out. Richard says:

I explained that Bridge the Economic Gap Day would be a great local/national organizing event that would require very little work on their part. We would send our endorsers and participants blank press releases in which they could tout their own organizations and their own local living wage issues. On top of that, we offered to send them the banner for free, and encouraged them to fly their own organizational banner.

Three weeks into the effort, there were commitments from 39 Bridge Captains in 32 states. Donations paid for banners, postage, hardware, and other necessities. The first banner order was optimistic but not splashy. The supplier, J.D. Moore, graciously lowered the price for the second round of banner orders, and lowered it again for the third batch. In the book, Richard discusses his press strategy, and the last-minute need for several hundred dollars for media, and how a more-than-generous donation from his friend and advisor Tom Holmes saved the day. The people who did the phone work each faced unique struggles in their personal lives, but somehow it all got done. The day came when each and every state had at least one Bridge Captain.

Of course, complications emerged, such as the 22,000 refugees from Hurricane Katrina who arrived in Austin, requiring the earnest attention of House the Homeless and every other organization of its kind. Some of those displaced survivors helped to represent the ULW on five of the city’s bridges. Police department guidelines were carefully observed. It was, by the way, 120 degrees in Austin that day. Some participating groups were:

  • Saint Edwards Universal Living Wage Warriors
  • University of Texas School of Social Worker students
  • Americorps VISTA volunteers
  • Gray Panthers
  • NAACP
  • Casa Marienella

The Bridge Actions generated media attention and, more importantly, new allies and connections for House the Homeless and the ULW idea. After that first Bridge the Economic Gap action, the participants gathered at a park where Mobile Loaves and Fishes fed everybody. Richard says:

We shared hot dogs, cold drinks, bridge stories, and our dreams for a kinder, gentler world where economic justice is the norm, not the exception. I closed with a few thoughts and the observation that all across the nation, folks just like us had been on bridges, sharing similar experiences, and the same dream. It felt good.

Bonus Capsulized History of the Universal Living Wage:
Katie McCaskey’s timeline on the House the Homeless News Page

Bonus Atrocity:
Three Rich Treasury Secretaries Laugh It Up Over Income Inequality

 


Source: “Looking Up at the Bottom Line
Image by House the Homeless
Bridge Action

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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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Homeless Memorials — Bring the Numbers Down

MemorialOn Sunday, November 18, an important 20-year tradition continued in Austin, TX, as residents gathered in a park at dawn for prayer and song, and the reading of this year’s homeless casualty list. The annual Homeless Memorial acknowledges the men, women, and children experiencing homelessness who have died in the city throughout the past 12 months.

This year, the list held more than 140 names. Always, “Taps” is played and some years, there is a visual aid, with each deceased person represented by a hat. House the Homeless shares a beautiful album page of photos from previous observances. The touching story of how the Memorial began is recounted in Looking Up at the Bottom Line, written by Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless (100% of the book sales go toward ending homelessness).

This year, three City Council members attended, and the keynote speaker, fiercely committed activist Brigid Shea, expressed regret that the recent election defeated an affordable housing bond. Another speaker specifically commemorated the veterans. House the Homeless co-founder Cecilia Blanford recalled a previous Memorial where a member of the crowd was upset by the Bible quotation about how the poor will always be with us. But, she quickly reminded the angry man, it doesn’t say the rich will always be with us.

The anecdote was presciently ironic, considering the disruption that started a few minutes later and continued through much of the ceremony. As in any city that lives off tourism, arrangements are often made more for the pleasure of affluent visitors than to accommodate the needs of the inhabitants. Auto racing took place at a track near Austin on the same day as the Memorial, and Richard says, “As we were reading the names of the citizens who died in poverty in Travis County, a helicopter stopped over our heads to allow his client to take in the view of the city.”

Surely, no disrespect was intended. The two events just happened to coincide. But how symbolic! While Americans down on the ground took part in a tribute to their fallen friends and neighbors, other Americans hovered over the ceremony in a noisy, expensive toy, sightseeing, or perhaps waiting for clearance to land downtown for a nice breakfast in a classy restaurant.

One of the people lost this year was the charismatic Leslie Cochran, the homeless activist and three-time mayoral candidate whose Wikipedia page characterizes him as “the man who personified ‘Keep Austin Weird.’” Cochran once appeared on Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show,” and his memorial service this spring was attended by hundreds of local residents. By official decree, every March 8 in Austin from now on will be “Leslie Day.”

You can see (and hear) the whole Nov. 18 Homeless Memorial service via Ustream, and there was a march afterward, and a noon gathering at City Hall to focus on the fact that there are about 4,000 Austin citizens experiencing homelessness, competing for 607 shelter beds.

There are of course Homeless Memorials in other American cities. San Francisco’s, organized by Project HOPE and the community-based nonprofit organization Anka, took place on November 9. A press report quotes Anka’s regional director Shayne Kaleo:

Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, ‘Everyone is precious, everyone matters’ — that is the spirit that the Project HOPE Homeless Memorial embraces, and the mentality we want the public to remember when thinking about the hundreds of men and women facing homelessness every year in our community.

Recently, House the Homeless discussed one of the wrinkles in the system that worsens homelessness, the custom of discharging medical patients to the streets. Subsequently, The Huffington Post invited Dr. Kelly Doran to illuminate this problem, which she described with terrifying specificity and deep compassion. Dr. Doran quotes a recent study which found that nearly 70% of homeless patients spend their first night after discharge from the hospital in a shelter, which is at least a place.

Even more alarming, the research shows that 11% of discharged patients don’t even find shelter space, but spend their first night after hospital discharge on the streets. And even if they have a place to sleep, shelter regulations send them onto the streets all day — mothers with newborns; confused elders who forget to take their meds; post-op patients in great pain who are often forbidden from even resting on park benches. Dr. Doran says:

Ignoring the issue simply creates more expensive problems in the future. Patients who leave the hospital and are homeless cycle through a revolving door of costly, inefficient and dangerous care from the hospital to the streets or shelter and then back again… Hospitals could be part of the solution by breaking the cycle of homelessness rather than perpetuating that cycle. Ideally, homeless patients would be discharged to supportive housing rather than back to homelessness. Another option is medical respite programs, which have been started in approximately 50 locales throughout the U.S…

Please sign the petition demanding that we “Discharge No One Into Homelessness,” and have a happy and safe Thanksgiving holiday, keeping in mind the many Americans who don’t have quite so much to be thankful for.

Media Bonus
A classic of a peaceful protest — Thanksgiving at the Bank of America, with Reverend Billy Wirtz, Occupy Wall Street, and Picture the Homeless.

By the way, Looking Up at the Bottom Line is also available for the Kindle and the Nook.

Reactions?

Source: “Memorial Service Honors the 35 Homeless Men and Women Who Passed Away,” In Contra Costa, SFGate.com, 11/09/12
Source: “Hospitals Should Never Discharge Homeless Patients to the Streets,” The Huffington Post, 11/12/12

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