Nobody wants to flush dollars down the toilet. Here is a sentence from “An Open Letter to the Trump Administration”; written by House the Homeless:
Attack Taxpayer Waste: Address the shortcomings of the Supplemental Security Income Stipend, SSI that will result in recipients being able to afford basic rental housing with the disability stipend they already receive.
But in the legislative environs of Washington, D.C., there are many who believe that Social Security, housing assistance, and disability stipends are the taxpayer waste. Similarly, House the Homeless would like to see the minimum wage raised, preferably in the form of the carefully designed Universal Living Wage.
However, a lot of politicians want to see no minimum wage, period.
According to the organizations that keep track of these matters, basic housing has become even less affordable in recent years. All kinds of crazy talk is going around, about messing with Social Security and other safety-net programs. There will be tax cuts, but not for those who need them. Veterans will have to struggle to get their due.
What else will the new administration mean for the half-million Americans who are experiencing homelessness? According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, 47,000 of them live in the entertainment capitol, which is where ABC’s Antony Funnell learned that:
The homeless of LA don’t fit an easy stereotype — they’re young, old, male, female, black, white, Asian and Hispanic. Some clearly have mental health issues.
Some work during the day and live on the streets at night. Some are shabbily attired, others well dressed.
Not all of them sleep on the streets. Some find accommodation in homeless shelters. But there are too many people for the services available and nowhere near enough beds for everyone.
Anyone who follows the news will have noticed stories originating from many cities, about plans to end homelessness; and a lot fewer stories announcing the end of homelessness in any actual place. LA Mayor Eric Garcetti has a plan to eradicate homelessness.
Last year the city’s minimum wage went up to $15, and voters passed a $1.2 billion bond issue that will pay for the building of 1,000 apartment units per year over a 10-year period. So, that’s a bright spot. But nationally, the big picture does not look promising.
To lead HUD (Housing and Urban Development), the new president chose a multimillionaire doctor who is of course fully on board with the tax-cut concept, and who begrudges the expenditure of federal money on anything except armaments. He is known to be “philosophically opposed” to welfare programs of all kinds, and criticizes anti-discrimination rules as “social engineering,” so this does not bode well. The department employs around 8,300 people to keep the wheels turning and, hopefully, compensate for Ben Carson’s lack of field experience other than having lived in public housing as a child.
Health care and La Migra
On the medical front, the prognosis is quite grim, since the administration plans to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. Substance abuse treatment programs are threatened. As we have seen, a large number of street people have histories of traumatic brain injury.
When less urgent levels of care are denied, hospital emergency rooms bear the brunt of the resulting acute illnesses. It goes without saying, that many unhoused people will suffer and die, and a great many currently housed people will experience homelessness for the first time after they go broke from medical bills.
As if all this were not ominous enough, Caroline Spivack reports that Brooklyn is coping with an increase in the number of people who would rather live on the streets of New York than be deported. They are afraid to go near any shelters, and with ICE agents haunting schools and churches to nab undocumented residents, this is a reasonable fear.
Admittedly, some individuals genuinely need to be taken into custody. New York is a sanctuary city and technically, there are well-defined criteria around whom to punish and eject from the country. Supposedly, “officials will not blow the whistle on non-violent undocumented immigrants who enter the shelter system.” In theory, an innocent person, even if undocumented, would have nothing to fear. But nobody is willing to take a chance, so the alleys and doorways overflow.
Source: “What will Donald Trump mean for America’s half a million homeless people?,” ABC.net, 02/08/17
Source: “Undocumented street homeless rises after Trump’s deportation order,” BrooklynPaper.com, 02/07/17
Image by Really American
In “An Open Letter to the Trump Administration,” Richard R. Troxell, President of House the Homeless, asks the incoming group of public servants in Washington how they will help in several specific areas. Here, we elaborate on the areas of focus.
One thing that could work is adjusting the minimum wage, but not in a one-size-fits-all way. House the Homeless is an advocate of the Universal Living Wage indexed to local housing costs. Here is a serious question: Where is new housing construction? We have been told that a free market works on the principles of supply and demand; that if a demand exists, someone will step up and supply it. So: Where are the affordable shelters needed desperately by many hundreds of thousands of Americans?
Of course, a detail-oriented skeptic will point out that “demand” consists of two elements: both the desire for something, and the ability to pay for it. And then someone else might say, “Plenty of people out there have government vouchers in their hands, ready to pay for shelter, and they can’t landlords who will rent to them. Why doesn’t this economic system work as advertised? To obtain better results, what needs to be tweaked?”
That person might also ask, “When a ton of jobs are needed, and a ton of housing is needed, why is it so hard to put it all together and get these people jobs — as the builders of housing? Why is it so hard to enable people to pay rent, by creating jobs for them in the construction trades?”
The skeptic: “Are you kidding? Homeless people are not trained to build things.”
The believer: “Neither are the volunteers who turn up to build houses with Habitat for Humanity. They sign on for this charitable effort through their churches, or the companies they work for. Yet somehow they manage to build perfectly habitable houses.”
The Open Letter says:
Attack Taxpayer Waste: Address the short-comings of the Supplemental Security Income Stipend, SSI that will result in recipients being able to afford basic rental housing with the disability stipend they already receive.
Speaking of revenues collected by the federal government, last week the IRS announced that about 40 million families will receive their tax refunds late. Are these wealthy people with income streams so vast and complicated that the revenue agency will need several extra weeks to sort it all out, lest billions of dollars be allowed to escape the net?
No, they are low-income families, because imagine the horror if some taxpayer who claims the child tax credit or the earned income credit did their math wrong, and the government missed out on a few bucks. But that isn’t the worst part. IRS Commissioner John Koskinen told the Associated Press:
For most of these people it’s the biggest check they are going to get all year.
That fact should be a gigantic red flag. It suggests that the withholding system extracts too much from “most” of 40 million paychecks. Although the taxpayers eventually get it back, in the meantime, the government reaps the benefit of lots of little interest-free loans. A million here, a million there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.
Meanwhile, families struggle, and they borrow. Then, they pay interest on that debt, while at the same time the government is using their money for nothing. Now that we have all the computers and everything, it shouldn’t be so difficult to arrange for taxpayers to have the freedom to spend their own money when they earn it. It should be possible to fine-tune the science of withholding just a bit, so the tax refund isn’t “the biggest check they are going to get all year.”
House the Homeless has an important relationship with Dr. Mark Gordon, who does the most outstanding work in treating Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). What is the tie-in with our stated topic? As it turns out, a large number of people experiencing homelessness are veterans, and many of them suffer from TBI. (Another large number of people experiencing homelessness, who are not veterans, also have TBI.) Bottom line, when a government asks or compels citizens to join the military, it incurs the obligation to help them deal with the personal consequences.
Source: “IRS to delay tax refunds for millions of low-income families,” AP.org, 01/10/17
Image by Marine Corps New York
The number of public school students experiencing homelessness has doubled since the recession, over a number that was already too large. Now, an estimated 3% of public school kids are homeless, which is of course an average. Depending on the city and state, it varies wildly.
These words are from Lyndsey Layton and Emma Brown:
The impact is profound on public schools, which struggle to try to address the needs of homeless children. Teachers often find themselves working not only to help children learn but also to clothe them, keep them clean and counsel them through problems — including stress and trauma — that interfere with classroom progress.
Transportation is another issue that teachers find themselves dealing with. School districts have different rules about who has to be taken where, and when and how. The parents of homeless children may not have a car, and anyway they are expected to be either working or looking for work. Kids need school supplies. They need a table somewhere to do their homework on. Mostly, they need stability and peace of mind.
The Homeless Children and Youth Act was introduced in January of 2015. Its point was to expand the official Dept. of Housing and Urban Development’s definition of homelessness on behalf of an estimated million kids and their families, whose lives would be affected. The website of California Senator Dianne Feinstein describes the proposed legislation in detail.
Access to federal housing programs is complicated by confusion among governmental entities over what constitutes homelessness. Sen. Feinstein gives two examples of the results, applicable to her own state and another:
In California, 259,656 children experienced homelessness last year, while HUD counted only 25,094 households that included at least one child as homeless. Due to the narrow HUD definition, only one in 10 homeless children in California is eligible for federal housing programs.
In Ohio, 23,748 children experienced homelessness last year, while HUD counted only 4,714 households that includes at least one child as homeless. Due to the narrow HUD definition, only one in five homeless children in Ohio is eligible for federal housing programs.
One in five is a best-case scenario? That’s crazy. And it doesn’t even mean the family will find housing — only that it is eligible to apply. The National Network for Youth website is a trove of information about the Homeless Children and Youth Act, and their page includes simple instructions for writing to the appropriate members of congress.
One interesting bullet point states that the HCYA…
Prohibits HUD from overriding local communities. Local service providers are the best equipped to evaluate which homeless populations have the greatest unmet needs.
Basically, one aim of the bill is to encourage the federal government to trust local agencies and take their word for it that someone is homeless. Briefly, some of the other sections concern data collection, reporting requirements, and transparency; and simplification of documentation needed to prove eligibility for housing programs.
That documentation requirement is frightening. Imagine a woman going back to the violent husband she escaped from at great risk. “Excuse me, would you mind writing a letter stating that we left because you brutalized me and two of our three children?” Good luck with that.
To learn exactly and in detail why the current rules are problematic, this page explains it fully. We learn from the U.S. Congress website that, despite the fact that 400 organizations are on board with support of the bill, the last action taken was its referral to the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs in January of last year.
In April of 2015 the U.S. Senate Appropriations Transportation, Housing & Urban Development Subcommittee held a hearing on HUD’s Efforts to Prevent & End Youth Homelessness, at which singer Cyndi Lauper related how she was a homeless teen who found a doorway back into society through a youth hostel that helped her earn a high school diploma.
She also said:
We can end youth homelessness in America, but we have to get to the root of the problem. Our country must invest in preventing kids from becoming homeless in the first place, and this is an area of focus that has largely been ignored. That means helping families. It means fixing our broken child welfare system, our flawed juvenile justice system, and our schools. Each one of those places can be a doorway to homelessness or to a better future.
The “Kids 4 Kids Sake” video
House the Homeless urges everyone to watch the video “Kids 4 Kids Sake” and share it with the candidates who are running for president! In fact, please do what you can to bring it to the attention of all candidates for everything, anywhere. Tweet it, share on via social media, contact the candidates directly, and ask your friends to do the same.
Source: “Number of US homeless students has doubled since before the recession,” WashingtonPost.com, 09/14/15
Source: “Homeless Children and Youth Act: A Couch is Not a Home,” NN4yYouth.org, undated
Source: “Bill Introduced to Expand Housing Programs to 1 Million Children, Families,” Senate.gov, 01/27/15
Source: “Current Law and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Regulations Deny Homeless Children and Youth the Help They Need Now,” HelpHomelessKidsNow.org, 02/03/15
Source: “Homeless Children and Youth Act of 2015,” Congress.gov, 01/27/15
Source: “Written Testimony of Cyndi Lauper,” Senate.gov, 04/29/15
Photo credit: Maryland GovPics via Visualhunt/CC BY
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