Recently, House the Homeless discussed Bell v. City of Boise and its importance. Quick review: More than a decade ago, Los Angeles was sued over its severe anti-homeless ordinances. The outcome was awaited with great interest. If the city lost, then conditions would improve for people on the street.
If the city won, then the case would be appealed to the Supreme Court, which might engender some real fireworks. If it came to challenging the constitutionality of “breathing while homeless” laws, the American landscape could change radically. In due time, Judge Kim M. Wardlaw laid down words that would look good engraved in stone:
The Eighth Amendment prohibits the City from punishing involuntary sitting, lying, or sleeping on public sidewalks that is an unavoidable consequence of being human and homeless without shelter in the City of Los Angeles.
The U.S. Constitution may not be perfect, but it’s the best tool we have for securing liberty and justice for all. Judge Wardlaw coupled that basic fact with the realization that everybody’s got to be someplace, and while they’re there, they just might need to sit down, or even lie down and sleep. For people experiencing homelessness all across America, things were looking up. But the aftermath dragged on, and optimism was quenched when, subsequent to a compromise agreement, the judgment was vacated.
But Judge Wardlaw’s words were not forgotten. More recently, when Boise, Idaho, was sued for similar reasons, the Justice Department stepped in (critics would say “interfered”) by filing a statement of interest. It is the federal bureaucracy’s way of putting the city on notice—“We will be keeping an eye on you.” In its official communication, the Justice Department quoted Judge Wardlaw’s words, and the whole issue started to pick up momentum again.
Boise’s Version of the Truth
Associated Press writer Samantha Wright noted the total number of people charged with public camping in each of four consecutive years, ranging from 12 in 2012 to 293 in 2015. That is more than a 24-fold increase. To put it another way, for every one person cited with public camping in 2012, 24 were cited in 2015. To put it yet another way, that is 24 times as many. Clearly, some kind of escalation has taken place.
Yet, soon after the Justice Department declared its concern, the City of Boise reacted by saying they had gotten the wrong end of the stick. Wright explained:
The Department says it is opposing the Boise law that makes it a crime for homeless people to sleep or camp in public places because it unconstitutionally punishes them for being homeless. But city spokesman Mike Journee says the law was changed and police can no longer give tickets for camping if homeless shelters are full. And if there is room at a shelter, police will try to convince people to go there…The suit was originally brought by seven homeless people in 2009 who were cited under the law, even though there was no room for them at local shelters.
But two months later, it became obvious that the constitutionality of forbidding people to sleep would not see its day in court. Judge Ronald E. Bush of the U.S. District Court dismissed the lawsuit. He and the other Boise officials hold that the only people who have been punished for sleeping outside had refused to procure a shelter bed. In this version of reality, if no shelter space is available, the police don’t bother anybody.
The Future for Anti-Homeless Laws
Eric Tars is an attorney for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, representing the plaintiffs. He told journalist Frankie Barnhill that one reason the suit was dismissed was that “all but two of the plaintiffs are no longer homeless, so they don’t have a fear of being arrested for camping in public.” Which is ridiculous, because what about all the other people who are, currently, homeless? Besides, just letting time go by is a reprehensible way to run a legal case. Stall long enough, and everybody’s dead.
The director of the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project, Sara Rankin, warned other cities not to become over-confident about their own anti-homeless laws, saying:
Cities would be very ill-advised to interpret the Bell v. Boise case as carte blanche to enact broad anti-camping ordinances. The reason for that is the decision in Bell v. Boise was not rendered on the merits.
Clearly, this issue will keep popping up over and over in different cities until somebody makes a definitive ruling that is an irresistible call to action. In the meantime, anyone who cares about housing or otherwise helping the homeless could start by learning just what the laws are in her or his own city. It might be enlightening.
Source: “City Weighs In On DOJ Criticism Of Boise Homeless Camping Law,” boisestatepublicradio.org, 08/07/15
Source: “Advocacy Group Responds To Dismissal Of Boise Homeless Case,” boisestatepublicradio.org, 10/01/15
Source: “Boise Homeless Case Dismissed, What Happens Next?,” boisestatepublicradio.org, 10/02/15
Image by Thomas Quine
Are anti-camping ordinances constitutional? This question has lain dormant with occasional ominous tremors like those that precede an earthquake. It is a question with the potential to change the landscape literally, figuratively, and extensively. There was a big rumble in 2006, when Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Kim M. Wardlaw made what seemed like a groundbreaking legal decision that turned out not to be. We discussed why Jones v. City of Los Angeles kind of fizzled out.
But recently, the Ninth Circuit case became a factor to be reckoned with when the federal government turned its attention to Bell v. City of Boise, a case brought by Idaho Legal Aid Services and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. The Justice Department’s “statement of interest” quoted Judge Wardlaw, who said:
The Eighth Amendment prohibits the City from punishing involuntary sitting, lying, or sleeping on public sidewalks that is an unavoidable consequence of being human and homeless without shelter in the City of Los Angeles.
Here is the same news event, presented from the vantage point of a different mindset. The NY Post‘s Betsy McCaughey believes that living on the street is not acceptable. About that, we agree—but the meaning we assign to the words is vastly different. We would like clean, safe and affordable living conditions for all humans. McCaughey seems to wish that large segments of the population could somehow magically be made to disappear.
When a homeless advocate says that people should not be punished for their status, McCaughey characterizes that basic human decency as a “wacky ideology.” In our view, if people have no choice but to live on the streets, they should at least be legally protected.
McCaughey, on the other hand, is all about criminalizing survival, and sees the Justice Department’s interest in the Iowa case as the Obama administration “siding with vagrants against local governments.” We wish we could tell you the upcoming quotation was found in The Onion or some other satirical publication, but alas, we cannot. The outraged McCaughey says of people experiencing homelessness:
Their insistence on street living punishes the rest of us. We have to endure the heart-wrenching sights of human beings in rags lying on sidewalks.
Jones v. City of Los Angeles was vacated because of a compromise deal, but the analysis provided by Judge Kim M. Wardlaw was solid, which is why it is being called upon in Bell v. City of Boise. Writing for Slate.com, Mark Joseph Stern mentions other cases that influence the judiciary’s thinking in this matter. Robinson v. California and Powell v. Texas were both ruled on by the nation’s Supreme Court. Stern says:
In Robinson the court struck down a California statute that criminalized addiction—not just use or possession—of narcotics. California, the justices explained, could outlaw the conduct of drug use, but it could not criminalize the status of being addicted to drugs. Powell dealt with a similar law, one that criminalized public intoxication in Texas.
Since homelessness is a status, not a conduct, it seems reasonable to assume that the Supreme Court would also say that the Constitution forbids cities to arrest people for sleeping rough when shelters are full. Stern doubts that Bell v. City of Boise will reach that far, but it might slow down or partially reverse the criminalization of homelessness. Even if it doesn’t go to the Supreme Court, the lower-level resolution of Bell v. City of Boise will create a precedent that can be called upon in similar cases elsewhere, for better or worse. Stern adds:
It’s quite depressing to see the DOJ defend homeless people’s right to sleep by analogizing them to drug addicts and alcoholics. But its brief is really an indication of just how profoundly America has failed its homeless communities.
Source: “Team Obama’s fight to keep the homeless living on the streets,” NYPost.com, 08/18/15
Source: “Justice Department Tells Cities to Stop Criminalizing Homelessness,” slate.com, 08/14/15
Image by Albert Ter Harmsel
Bob Erlenbusch is Executive Director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness and, like House the Homeless founder Richard R. Troxell, he sits on the board of the National Coalition for the Homeless. Currently, in a paper called Homelessness & “Functional Zero:” a Critique, Erlenbusch challenges the validity of the bedrock principles of homelessness policy. (We received the piece from Erlenbusch; it is not, as far as we know, available online.) It appears that some underlying notions seriously need to be re-thought.
The author points out that, lamentably, ten-year plans that started so boldly are now “in their second decade or abandoned altogether.” Strategies that were originally mapped out might need remodeling. For example, when authorities set the triage standards, and prioritized the various arbitrarily-named subgroups, it was decided that the chronically homeless would be dealt with first, then veterans, families, and youth. Of course, any person could belong to more than one of those groups. Anyway, the idea was to eliminate homelessness among one group, then move on to the next. By and large, that plan is not working out as advertised.
Why have things gone so wrong? For one thing, there’s the minimum wage, which Erlenbusch says “keeps people shackled to poverty.” What does poverty do? The stress of it makes people sick. A chronic shortage of money tempts them to a criminal path. Financial distress breaks up families. Grownups wind up in a hospitals, jails and prisons. Kids wind up in foster homes.
Every year, those institutions discharge thousands of people into homelessness—people who are vulnerable because of poor health, youth who are at risk in many ways, and men and women who are perhaps perfectly capable of supporting themselves, except for being unemployable because of their criminal records. All too often, those jackets are acquired in the first place through crimes directly connected with being homeless—sitting on the wrong bench, panhandling, public urination, and so forth. The vicious cycle that connects prison and the streets (and the foster care system) creates a revolving door that rotates so fast it would make your head spin.
Going farther back, the Reagan administration set the stage for all this in 1980 by making three-quarters of the federal affordable housing budget disappear. Also at some point the mental health system took a dive, which can be blamed on either Reagan or the ACLU, depending on who tells the story. (It might have been both.) All these factors, and more, add up to what Erlenbusch describes as:
…systems and policies that have created three decades of mass homelessness.. Prisons and jails have become the housing for people experiencing homelessness, especially people of color and those with mental health issues.
So now, how do we handle the fallout? For starters, we try to “arrest our way out of homelessness,” and one of the results has been the de facto criminalization of mental illness. (It would be a cliché to invoke the name of a certain World War II military dictator, but his thoughts were on the same wavelength.)
Something else happened, too— what Erlenbusch calls “defining our way out of homelessness.” This trick has been used extensively by bureaucracies full of number-massagers with statistics degrees and flexible principles when discussing, for instance, the unemployment rate. Even when well-intentioned (but ill-advised) people set to work on the definition of homelessness, things can really get ugly.
The Fatal Flaw in Functional Zero
The big fallacy is a concept called “functional zero” and Erlenbusch hopes to inspire a major shift in the thinking behind it. Here is the gist of his argument:
Basically, a community can still have 10,000 homeless people, for example, but if that community can say the number of people entering homelessness is equal to the number exiting, they have reached “functional zero”—forget the 10,000 languishing on the streets and in shelters…
An analogy: say a person weighs 800 pounds. If he ingests 2,000 calories worth of food per day, and moves around enough to burn 2,000 calories in a day, you could say his intake/output ratio is at “functional zero.” Yeah, but he still weighs 800 pounds! This falls under no one’s definition of health. Erlenbusch goes on to say:
It is harmful because when politicians and community members hear “zero”—they hear we have ended homelessness… Then when it is time to allocate scarce public resources it would not be unreasonable for the public and/or elected officials to argue we don’t need as many resources for homelessness because we have solved it! Yet we know nothing could be further from the truth.
One excellent point made by the author is that, just like “no means no,” zero should mean zero. In order to grasp the insidious damage done by the “functional zero” doctrine, we relate one of Erlenbusch’s statements to a few other quotations and ideas. He says that because of this convention, “…hundreds of thousands of people experiencing homelessness have remained invisible to our leaders at all levels.” He quotes Marc Uhry:
When people are invisible, you can’t find a solution because you don’t see them.
In The Transformation, George B. Leonard wrote:
One of the most powerful taboo mechanisms is simply not providing a vocabulary for the experience to be tabooed.
The venerable Illuminatus! Trilogy gave us the word “fnord,” which has to do with things that are apparent but indefinite; and the ability to see truths that most people can’t; and being forcibly conditioned to fear that seeing. It might even bear some relationship to what Obi Wan Kenobi famously said: “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.” It’s about mental judo. Community Solutions defines functional zero like this:
At any point in time, the number of people experiencing sheltered or unsheltered homelessness will be no greater than the current monthly housing placement rate for people experiencing homelessness.
Our minds can be clouded to think that makes sense. But it doesn’t. That definition merely describes homeostasis, or maintenance of the status quo. In any case, those things are not necessarily good, and in this case, they are definitely bad. The definition is, at best, meaningless jargon, and at worse an evil gimmick. It signifies no more than treading water, or running in a hamster wheel—with the appearance of activity but no real progress.
Of course, that’s not entirely fair either. Even when the math is from Alice in Wonderland, every time an individual or family receives help from any agency, it’s a step in the right direction. As in the oft-repeated starfish story, “It made a difference for that one.”
Source: “Topic: Reagan kicked people out of institutions,” Snopes.com, 02/05/06
Image by Bill Maher
A government website enumerates the SNAP (Food Stamp) Program rights of people experiencing homelessness.(“Food Support” is the term some states use, and others have their own individual monikers like Wisconsin’s FoodShare, Vermont’s 3SquaresVT, and of course CalFresh.) We are told that homeless persons have even more rights than the housed, because they don’t need to give a permanent address to apply. (In the realm of extra-fancy privileges, that one is underwhelming.) Besides, we keep hearing that homeless applicants still need to give a mailing address, even if it is as ephemeral as a drop-in center.
In order to receive SNAP benefits, a person doesn’t need a place to cook or store food (although it sure helps). And even those who live in shelters where meals are served are eligible. While sources seem to agree that $200 per month is the largest SNAP benefit that an individual might be eligible for, information on the standard amount is confusing. One website says that in 2014, the average benefit was $125 per month, and another says that in 2015, the average was $194 per month, which is more, and that seems odd because as time progresses, these payments are constantly cut. (Even the higher number, however, amounts to less than $7 a day.) An online commenter called Goth Farmer states that a homeless person receives $189 per month.
Currently, people fortunate enough to have Section 8 housing are shocked into awareness that a break on the rent is considered to be quite enough in the way of help, because their SNAP allowance is now under $20 a month. This is a stern reminder that SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. In other words, food stamps are not meant to sustain life, merely to complement the acquisition of food by (chiefly) other means.
For people experiencing homelessness, this brings up issues that even the best-intentioned humanitarians disagree on. Should a shelter or a soup kitchen charge the people who eat there by taking part of their Electric Benefit Transfer funds? Well, yes, because the facility needs help acquiring the food, and it might not even be able to stay open if not for these contributions.
As for the diners, people attain dignity by paying for the things they consume. But on the other hand, after the soup kitchen meal is over, they will need other meals on other days, and their “food stamps.” There is no guarantee of finding a free meal on any given day, and the rules page says, “They cannot force you… to pay for food at the shelter. They can only request that you voluntarily use your SNAP/Food Stamps to pay for meals.”
The SNAP Situation Is About to Get Worse
No matter how bad things are, they are about to get worse for about a million unemployed childless adults, many of whom are either homeless or at risk of becoming so. Members of this demographic typically receive between $150 and $200 per month, according to Ed Bolen, writing for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. After this year, it will be tougher to qualify. The rule was already on the books, with each state having the option to petition for a waiver—which many have been doing. In 2016, it appears that almost no states plan to apply for renewal of that waiver. Bolen explains:
Even SNAP recipients whose state operates few or no employment programs for them and fails to offer them a spot in a work or training program—which is the case in most states—have their benefits cut off after three months irrespective of whether they are searching diligently for a job… This leaves it up to individuals who can’t find a job to try to find training or work program openings on their own, which few are able to do, especially since most training programs have insufficient resources to meet demand, resulting in substantial waiting lists.
Getting back to Goth Farmer, he (or she) says:
There you have a massive flaw in the idea all homeless always have the option of SNAP for food. Then, you have the identity issue. You have to prove identity to qualify and fact is many homeless can’t. They have no proof of who they are. No photo ID, no SS card, not birth cert. or voter card. Many homeless are underage and avoid any contact with any agency or shelter due to fear of being returned to what they ran from… The mentally ill are often not capable of far simpler tasks then wading through a ream of paperwork to get SNAP.
So, things are seldom as simple as they appear, and sufficient nourishment is still a problem for many Americans.
Source: “Homeless Persons’ Rights under the SNAP/Food Stamp Program,” frac.org, undated
Source: “Policy Basics: Introduction to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP),” CBPP.com, undated
Source: “”Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP),” USDA.gov
Source: “Approximately 1 Million Unemployed Childless Adults Will Lose SNAP Benefits in 2016 as State Waivers Expire,” CBPP.org, 01/05/15
Image by U.S. Government
Critics enjoy suggesting that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program offer courses teaching people how to prepare healthful food from scratch, and maybe they wouldn’t buy so much junky processed stuff. Courses are available here and there, not necessarily under the auspices of SNAP. However, such courses are nothing like a comprehensive answer to junk food issues, because even if food is available, cooking can present a real challenge for people with no kitchens.
Certain things can only be done by those who are housed, however marginally. Even a family living in a single motel room is at a tremendous advantage if there is a refrigerator. Sure, a large tub of yogurt is more economical to buy, and can last all week, but there has to be somewhere to keep it. Certainly, a 10-pound bag of rice or a 50-pound sack of dried beans can save a bunch of money—but you need a cupboard to store it in, and clean water, and a range or even just a hotplate for cooking.
Say you find a sweet deal on ten pounds of chicken thighs. With kitchen appliances, you can cook the meat, separate it into units for separate meals, and refrigerate or even freeze them. Then you can use the stock to make soup. If you can’t eat all the soup, you can stick it in the refrigerator, too, and have it tomorrow. Even with only a sink, a bag of ice can preserve coolness short-term or on special occasions. Millions of Americans take for granted the simple ability to keep food on hand. They don’t know what it’s like to have to eat what is in front of you, right now, or lose it. This reminder comes from a Reddit.com respondent:
Uh, believe it or not, many low income families have no way to actually store perishable food or cook it. When I was homeless, it was boxed, jar, or canned food all of the time. I gained 50 lbs and felt like I was starving most of that time.
We found descriptions of culinary coping written by individuals, like vehicle-dweller William Bonnie of Seattle, who invested about $150 in a decent-quality camp stove and mess kit. Camp stove fuel, of course, is an ever-recurring expense. Bonnie was cautious enough to not park or sleep or start a cooking fire within the municipal borders. Of course gasoline costs money, so that meant a lot of driving back and forth to the woods—“an expensive commute every day.” Imagine having to drive to the kitchen every time you wanted to cook something. Bonnie says:
The food stamps were helpful….but severely hindered by the realities of my situation…With little exception, you can only buy stuff that needs to be prepared at home… If you’re homeless, that means it’s kind of like one of those cruelly ironic wishes granted by a genie.
In a piece called “How to be ‘Stealth’ Homeless,” Ted Heistman related the ease with which an Electronic Benefits Tranfer (EBT) card could be obtained, but that was back in 2012 and things seem to have changed since then. Of course a lot depends on the particular city where a person is experiencing homelessness, and its current political climate. At that time, Heistman wrote:
Most towns have enough free meals for a person to get fat on. If you wanted to, you could eat six times a day if you timed it right, plus load up every few days at a food bank, plus buy food with your EBT.
Jon Mixon, who works with homeless veterans, wrote for Quora about other possibilities. A street person whose relationship with authorities and institutions is problematic may not even have the borrowed address of a shelter to use when applying. On the streets, people with easily stealable EBT cards are subject to predation.
As to what can be purchased, the rules have relaxed in some cities, with some vendors. In the past, you could buy a couple of potatoes and half a pound of ground beef and figure out how to turn them into an edible meal. Now, you can buy a burger and some fries. While fast-food menus might not provide optimal nutrition, at least people can get food that is cooked and hot. For those who do have cooking facilities, a provision in the 2014 Farm Bill allocated funds so SNAP recipients who go to participating farmers’ markets can swipe their EBT cards and get tokens worth twice as much.
Always, too, a great deal depends on luck. Only the young and healthy can thrive by eating whatever comes along. Older and disabled homeless people have other things going on—like teeth that are in no shape to chew that crunchy fresh produce; or meds that need to be taken at certain times, with food; or allergies that severely limit what they may eat. It’s never as easy as it looks.
Source: “SNAP Challenge raises awareness for hunger, can you eat for $4.50 per day?,” Reddit.com, 2014
Source: “7 Things No One Tells You About Being Homeless,” Cracked.com, 11/12/13
Source: “How to be “Stealth” Homeless.” Disinfo.com, 10/25/12
Source: “Why don’t homeless people use food stamps?.” Quora.com, 04/08/13
Image by U.S. Department of Agriculture
Recently, actor Gwyneth Paltrow made news by taking part in a publicity stunt designed to raise awareness and empathy by challenging celebrities and others to live on the $29-per-week food allowance given by SNAP (aka food stamps). Her choices included one lime for every day of the week, which will surely keep scurvy at bay. Also, her menu excluded meat.
Illinois blogger Rebecca Vipond Brink put together a more plausible list, with all amounts and prices noted, comprising the following items: potatoes, eggs, frozen chicken breasts, cheese, milk, apples, oatmeal, celery, peanut butter, raisins, fresh carrots, and rice. Brink points out that she did not have to attempt the challenge in a food desert:
I lived it in a suburb that was safe. I lived it with a car, even if it was a car that was on its last legs.
Let’s imagine a homeless person who follows Brink’s lead. $2 is cheap for 5 pounds of potatoes—except you have to carry them around with you. Chicken at $1 per pound is a screamin’ deal, but after eating part of it, you’re still stuck with a few pounds of meat that needs to be stored in a refrigerator. So do the eggs and cheese; and so does the milk, which may be available for $2.50 per gallon, but who carries a container of souring milk around? Unfortunately, milk in the more practical pint cartons costs more per ounce.
Unrefrigerated celery and carrots tend to go unappealingly limp rather quickly. While 4 pounds of apples may be $3, buying them individually would cost more. At $2, a 16-ounce jar of peanut butter is quite a deal—but then, like a soldier in the field, you have to hump it. Raisins are tasty and need no preparation, but they are one of the fruits most likely to retain hideous amounts of pesticides, and the organic variety costs considerably more.
More Obstacles to Eating Well
A 3-pound bag of dry oatmeal might not be too weighty a burden, but how to prepare it? With a saucepan, and clean water, and a source of heat capable of first boiling the water and then moderating to a simmer. Same goes for the rice, and the pot definitely needs a lid for the steaming process to work correctly. Neither potatoes nor eggs should be eaten raw, and cooking the chicken is another challenge.
Brink did not stock up on dried beans, one of the cheapest foods available, which are often mentioned in connection with food banks and government handouts. They really need to be soaked in water overnight before cooking, and to avoid the flatulent effects, they should be rinsed and the water replaced several times. For this fancy maneuver, a person would need to carry around a strainer or colander. And dried beans have to cook for quite some time before they soften enough to eat. Throw in some catsup pilfered from a fast food joint, and you’ve got yourself a meal. Maybe you are even lucky enough to have a little paper packet of salt, if it didn’t melt when the rain soaked through your backpack.
You’d have to carry around, at bare minimum, a bowl, a fork and/or spoon, and a cooking pot. You’d need a can opener, and luckily the GI model is tiny and lightweight. Also easy to lose, and useless to a homeless person with arthritis in her hands. To cut a melon in half, or cut a free loaf of unsliced bread, or section an apple, you’d need a nice sharp knife. Which is also, technically, a weapon—the possession of which can get a street person into a world of trouble.
Under the rules, SNAP benefits can’t be used to buy alcohol or cigarettes, or non-food items like toilet paper, a toothbrush, or soap. Nor can they be used to buy vitamin supplements, which is puzzling. Most inexplicable of all is the prohibition against hot foods, or even cold foods, if consumable on the spot, like potato salad from the deli counter. If a food stamp recipient wants to enter a convenience store and buy an embalmed hot dog from the rolling grill, why on earth should that be forbidden? It would protect public safety more efficiently than making the customer buy cold wieners to cook over a little blaze in the park. Citizens are always upset to hear that an empty house or a sector of wooded land has burned, but it’s a miracle there are not more runaway fires. And it isn’t just the homeless, as this Reddit commentator points out:
You can have a home but not a stove or other appliances. Where do you think poor urban families are going to get logs and coal from if they can’t afford basic gas and electricity? They’re going to steal it or try to build fire with illegal/dangerous materials in an illegal/dangerous way.
The federal SNAP rules allow restaurant meals for the elderly, disabled, and homeless—but that program is implemented in only two states, and parts of three others. In addition, people themselves have built-in limitations—like an allergy to peanut butter, or one of any number of other edible substances. A person might need to carefully follow an anti-diabetes diet, or might have teeth too damaged and painful to chew with, or no teeth at all. And in many places, people experiencing homelessness have to use up a portion of their SNAP benefits just to obtain drinkable water.
Source: “What $29 A Week For Food Looks Like For Actual Low-Income People (And Not Gwyneth Paltrow),” TheFrisky.com, 04/10/15
Source: “SNAP Challenge raises awareness for hunger, can you eat for $4.50 per day?,” Reddit.com, 2014
Image by Michael Mayer
America engages in constant military activity and pays lip service to the honor and respect owed to the troops on the ground. But actions speak louder than words and, sad to say, once the veterans are back in the USA, the country does a lax job of taking care of them. House the Homeless has been looking at examples of both individual and institutional wrongdoing that end up being detrimental to veterans who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.
It isn’t just the government. Other entities have plenty of opportunity for wrongdoing. And it isn’t just homeless vets who get shortchanged. Having a place to live doesn’t guarantee timely attention or good care. The thing is, every adverse event that happens to a vet makes it more likely that she or he will at some point end up on the street. Once there, the climb back to conventional life is so much more difficult.
One of Four Troubled VA Projects
In mid-December, construction of a new Veterans Administration hospital ground to a halt, and a panel of three federal judges ruled that the VA was in breach of contract. The contractor Kiewit-Turner, which had kept working until $100 million of its own money was sunk into the project, was allowed to quit.
Only 62% completed, the new hospital was already over budget by hundreds of millions of dollars. It was supposed to replace the existing Denver VA hospital, in business since 1951 and described in a comment appended to this Wall Street Journal article as a “gilded rat hole.” If it is ever finished, it will serve over 80,000 vets, or nearly 500,000, depending on which news source you look at.
The original contract said Kiewit-Turner would complete 10 hospital buildings, a research and treatment center, a 30-bed rehab center, and three parking garages for $600 million. It required that construction begin even though plans had not been finalized. This backwards approach led the contractor to warn that the whole thing, as conceptualized, would cost over a billion dollars. Apparently the VA told the company to go ahead and keep on building, or else it would be in breach of contract. Reporter Ben Kesling wrote:
VA management problems led James Lynn, a top employee at the VA’s construction manager for the project, to describe it as having “the least effective and most dysfunctional staff on any project that he had ever seen.”
Then in January it was double-whammy time, as a VA whistleblower revealed how the existing Denver VA hospital had lied about its secret waiting lists that kept hundreds of veterans from getting timely care. Senator Jerry Moran of Kansas started a movement to cure the “system that rewards mediocrity and failure” by giving the VA secretary more power to discipline the high-ranking executives responsible for messes.
In 2012, Eric Shinseki had created a Construction Review Council to oversee VA projects and put some accountability in place, but it was too late to help the Denver project. And by the time Sen. Moran got on the case, after the nationwide scandal over waiting times in the VA medical system, Shinseki was no longer Secretary.
A New Start for VA Hospital Projects
Earlier this month, in the wake of hearings held by the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, more details of the Denver hospital project emerged, like how multi-million dollar machines could not fit into the rooms designed for them, because nobody had taken correct measurements. It was determined that the final cost for the facility will work out to about $9.5 million for each of its 182 beds. Normal is, at most, $2 million per bed.
Meanwhile, the General Accounting Office added the Denver project to a growing list of other VA hospital projects—in Orlando, New Orleans, and Las Vegas—where similar bungling and a total disconnect with reality had run up hundreds of millions of dollars of cost overruns. Representative Mike Coffman of Colorado was quoted as saying:
The VA couldn’t lead starving troops to a chow hall when it comes to managing a construction project. They need to get out of the construction business.
Reporter Emily Wax-Thibodeaux of The Washington Post added:
Internal VA e-mails dating to 2010 show that VA contracting officials were ignored when they warned their supervisors about mounting cost overruns.
They were not only ignored, but fired, like the unfortunate whistleblower Adelino R. Gorospe, Jr., who was let go by Glenn Haggstrom, executive director of the Office of Acquisition, Logistics and Construction. Haggstorm is the same VA bigwig who was awarded more than $50,000 in performance bonuses for unexplained reasons, before retiring in the face of investigation of the Denver project.
As it stands, the Army Corps of Engineers has been given responsibility, and Kiewit-Turner is back on the job, and aside from a paltry emergency $56 million that was allotted, nobody knows where the rest of the funding will come from.
Let the Punishment Fit the Paycheck
Often, the people who cheat veterans work directly for the government, and are even high officials, but the public only learns about a small fraction of what goes on. The workings of the military bureaucracy keep the threat of retribution active. It is possible to make a case against anyone, so almost no one dares to report anybody, because they can be made to appear equally bad, even if they never did anything wrong. The threat hangs over every whistleblower that he or she will be next on the chopping block.
Apparently, there isn’t a lot of oversight, and the old question of “Who watches the watchdogs?” is appropriate. On the rare occasion when someone is caught doing something criminally culpable on the job, it might help if the punishment were proportionate to pay grade. If a top administrator steals, the sentence should be many times longer than it would be for an Army private.
Source: “VA Hospital Project Grinds to a Halt Amid Budget Overruns
Source: “Video: Denver VA reverses denials, admits using secret wait lists
Source: “VA building projects riddled with mistakes and cost overruns
Image by Parker Knight
In my hometown, we often saw a “character” who, according to local legend, was a World War II veteran with shell shock. He lived in a shack by the railroad tracks and all he did was walk, all over town, all day, every day. Because there was only one of him, he was locally famous. Now, thousands of versions of “Joe Walk” live all over America.
When people are inducted into the military, the contract is supposed to be mutually enforceable. When an enlisted member or an officer violates the agreement, the consequences of military justice can be dire. But who is to stop the other party from breaking the trust? When the U.S. government misbehaves, who can call it to account? Who can make it meet its obligations to homeless veterans, veterans at risk of becoming homeless, and homeless civilians?
VA Administrator Behaving Badly
DeWayne Hamlin was arrested in Florida for sitting in a car drunk in the middle of the night, refusing a breathalyzer, and not having a prescription for his oxycodone. Leaving aside the question of why the police bothered someone who was merely sitting in a car and not, apparently, breaking any law, it happened.
A mug shot is not a good look for the chief administrator of a Veterans Administration hospital, a man who had achieved the highest rank bestowed upon career civil service employees, with a paycheck of nearly $180,000 a year. But we all make mistakes. The worrisome thing is that when the Washington Examiner looked into Hamlin’s attendance records, they discovered that he was in the habit of only showing up for two out of three work days. In a one-year period he was absent 80 days. That is a lot of downtime for someone in charge of the health of a large number of America’s vets. Reporter Luke Rosiak notes:
Veterans Affairs leadership has seldom fired or disciplined its own. Under severe scrutiny recently from Congress and the news media, department leaders occasionally accept retirements by employees… instead of pursuing disciplinary action.
Hamlin is alleged to have done his share to maintain a culture of intimidation and retaliation. When a lower-level employee reported his arrest to VA headquarters, he tried to get the whistleblower fired, and when an investigator didn’t agree, he tried to get the investigator fired. Even before this incident, he had sent around a memo warning everyone who worked for the VA Caribbean Health Care System that any and all complaints must be kept inside the organization, and no outside snitching would be tolerated.
Gambling Away VA Funds
Right around the same time, in Nashville, Birdie Anderson was sentenced to two years in prison for defrauding the Veterans Administration. She had received grants to buy a house for veterans, then a specially fitted van and another house. The first building was actually purchased, but was foreclosed on two years later. The veterans housed there, who according to the contract were to have stayed at least seven years, had to leave after being there less than three years.
The second residence and the van were never purchased, and Anderson is said to have gambled away $364,000 that was supposed to have brought some homeless veterans in off the street. Maranda Faris reported for the Tennessean that the convicted woman is a retired Army Reservist. An even more interesting detail is that she…
…also made false statements that she was a CEO of an organization within the Veterans Administration as well as having spent time in covert operations in Afghanistan during Operation Desert Storm. Anderson never did a tour of duty in Afghanistan, but remained at Fort Bragg, N.C., as a desk clerk during that time.
The VA has all the might and power of the U.S. government at its disposal, but in this case it could have performed due diligence without even going outside the agency. All it had to do was look inside its own database. But the VA failed to determine that this person did not really run an organization within the VA itself. It couldn’t even figure out whether or not a member of the military had ever been in Afghanistan.
Who is in charge of verifying the information on grant proposals? Who blithely hands out taxpayers’ money without doing the most rudimentary background checks on the applicants? Who gave away more than a third of a million dollars to someone who should not have gotten a penny? Who was asleep at the wheel? Who colluded in robbing homeless veterans? Why are they not Ms. Anderson’s cellmates?
Source: “Veterans Affairs hospital chief draws $179k salary despite missing 80 days a year,” WashingtonExaminer.com, 03/30/15
Source: “Woman gets 2 years for misusing $364K for homeless vets,” Tennessean.com, 04/18/14
Image by OccupyDemocrats.com
Compared to some other countries, America cares well for its military veterans—which is similar to being the prettiest corpse in the morgue, because any illusion of superiority is only relative. In absolute terms however, vets often find that service in the armed forces is a ticket to oblivion. Some can never get their lives back on track, the suicide rate is alarming, and an astonishing number of veterans also become part of the homeless demographic.
This is not to say that all veterans should be given free everything, forever. But what they are entitled to, they should not be cheated out of. A veteran should be returned to civilian society in a condition as close as possible to the state of well-being and functionality that he or she enjoyed before signing up. David Finkel wrote for The New Yorker:
If the studies prove correct, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have created roughly five hundred thousand mentally wounded American veterans.
Two causative factors are blamed: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which is said to affect between 20 and 30 percent of returning vets; and Traumatic Brain Injury. Dr. Mark Gordon believes that it’s all of a piece, and all traceable to TBI. Small, unrecognized, repeated concussions disrupt the body’s production of hormones, and the results are “depression, anxiety, nightmares, memory problems, personality changes, [and] suicidal thoughts.” For these patients, it very much looks like interventional endocrinology should be the VA’s main focus, rather than narcotics, anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, and other drugs of that kind.
It seems like pharmaceutical corporations, not veterans, are the main beneficiaries of VA policy. The trend is even more pronounced among active duty personnel, who appear to be insanely over-prescribed. For the New York Times, Richard A. Friedman wrote:
The number of prescriptions written for potentially habit-forming anti-anxiety medications—like Valium and Klonopin—rose 713 percent between 2005 and 2011. The use of sedating anticonvulsants—Topamax, Neurontin and Lyrica—increased 996 percent during this period.
There is an analogy, perhaps, between the military’s use of psychoactive drugs and the practice of pumping athletes full of steroids so they can continue to compete despite physical pain; athletes—and also soldiers—whose performance is chemically enhanced in this way may, however, unwittingly sustain more serious injuries as a result.
The last few words of that sentence are a big part of the problem. A soldier needs to be alert, not sedated. A soldier is in an environment where anxiety is entirely appropriate, and medicating it away can create a dangerous degree of relaxation that leads to more and worse injuries.
Mental illness is often tied to homelessness, and we know by now that the number of homeless vets is staggering:
Although flawless counts are impossible to come by… the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimates that 49,933 veterans are homeless on any given night… About 1.4 million other veterans, meanwhile, are considered at risk of homelessness due to poverty, lack of support networks, and dismal living conditions in overcrowded or substandard housing.
For some reason the best numbers on incarcerated veterans are about ten years old, and even then, about 140,000 veterans were in state and federal prisons. Here is an interesting piece of information:
Combat service was not related to prevalence of recent mental health problems. Just over half of both combat and non-combat veterans reported any history of mental health problems.
There seems to be a revolving door between the military, the prison system, and homelessness. Kids who grow up homeless are attracted to the military life because it provides a living wage, structure, and a place to belong. For a long time, it was traditional for judges to give youthful offenders the choice between jail and enlistment. Some discharged veterans do crime because their brains are too messed up to have good judgment, or because poverty seems to offer no other alternative. Homeless vets wind up in jail. Vets who get out of jail wind up on the streets. Here are more details:
Veterans between the ages of 18 and 30 are twice as likely as adults in the general population to be homeless, and the risk of homelessness increases significantly among young veterans who are poor.
About 53% of individual homeless veterans have disabilities, compared with 41% of homeless non-veteran individuals.
Homeless veterans tend to experience homelessness longer than their non-veteran peers: Veterans spend an average of nearly six years homeless, compared to four years reported among non-veterans.
The average wait to get a disability claim processed is now eight months. Payments range from $127/month for a 10% disability to $2,769 for a full disability.
All these factors contribute to paint a very unflattering picture of the human misery behind America’s military might. Vets have the right to expect the help they need, and we can do better.
Source: “The Return,” NewYorker.com, 09/09/13
Source: “Wars on Drugs,” NYTimes.com, 04/06/13
Source: “Background and Statistics,” NCHY.org
Source: “Veteran Homelessness Facts,” Greendoors.org
Image by The U.S. Army