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Counting the Homeless Not So Simple

Homeless in IndyIn the realm of homelessness, there is always more than plenty of regrettable news to talk about. For instance, the newest fad is people thinking it’s cute to take a “selfie” photo with somebody in the background sleeping on the sidewalk. Let’s just dismiss that trend as beneath contempt and get back to the count of people experiencing homelessness in America. House the Homeless has looked at several different aspects of it.

Confusion arises from the fact that there are really two different counts. Responsible for both is the local Continuum of Care, comprising the state and local governments and other government agencies concerned with housing, as well as private nonprofits and community mental health associations (i.e., public nonprofits). From them, every year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development demands an annual Point-in-Time count
of everybody in emergency shelters, transitional housing and Safe Havens on a single night.

In addition, every other (odd-numbered) year, the Continuum of Care in each place is responsible for counting the unsheltered. Confusion arises over who is sheltered and who is not. Ivy Farguheson, reporting on the situation in Indiana, puts it like this:

The count defines homelessness in a different manner than school corporations or social service agencies. That definition also changes from time to time. In the past, those sleeping on couches or staying temporarily in rooms of friends and family members could be counted as homeless and still are by Indiana’s school corporations and almost all local nonprofits. Now, those individuals and families are not counted as homeless under the HUD definition. Those court-ordered to substance abuse programs such as some men at the Muncie Mission or others paying small fees for housing, including many women at the YWCA of Muncie, can no longer be included in the numbers.

It seems like this could cause a lot of logistical problems. For instance, the CoC administrators also have to report to the appropriate federal agencies how many rooms or beds their facilities contain, so the government knows what resources there already are in a geographical area that’s asking for more money. So the bed has to be reported as existing. And the person occupying it is counted as “sheltered” even though it’s meant to be the most temporary of accommodations. Meanwhile, that person is not being counted amount the unsheltered, or true homeless. Depending on how the numbers are presented, it can look like more beds are available than actually are, or it can look like fewer people are totally unsheltered than actually are.

So much depends on this job being done accurately and conscientiously. Taking a census is, after all, the vital first step toward directing federal funds to the right places. But social policy reporter Mikel Livingston brings to light something most people have probably never thought about:

The number of homeless as determined by the count is not directly related to the federal dollars an agency or community receives. In other words, it’s nothing like public school funding, in which a certain number of students translates into a certain number of dollars. Instead, the count is one of many requirements for those entities to be eligible to apply for funding.

Livingston writes about Tippecanoe County, also coincidentally in Indiana, and about federal policy, which results in the homeless being “severely” undercounted. He mentions some of the many glaring contradictions. In his own state, the 2013 homeless total was down slightly from the 2012 number. But he gives examples to show that “the number of homeless clients who went through just one local shelter hints at a much larger population,” concluding:

There are several things the Point-in-Time survey is good for…. But judging the overall size of Tippecanoe County’s homeless population isn’t one of them.

[I]n Indianapolis and surrounding Marion County, 1,599 homeless people were identified during the 2013 Point-in-Time survey. But an accompanying study from the Indiana University Policy Institute and the Coalition for Homelessness Intervention & Prevention estimated that between 4,800 and 8,000 people experienced homelessness during the year.

The sad fact is that House the Homeless could fill its pages with anomalies and discrepancies related to the Point-in-Time count until the next one rolls around. We remember the great advocate Mitch Snyder, who once made the suggestion that the homeless could be counted just fine, once they had been brought inside. What a great solution! Meanwhile we look forward to the day when the phrase “homeless count” causes people to scratch their heads with incomprehension, because there will be no people experiencing homelessness.

Reactions?

Source: “ ‘Counting’ the homeless: Official numbers don’t tell the story,” TheStarPress.com, 01/30/14
Source: “Homeless ‘Point-In-Time’ snapshot falls short,” jconline.com, 02/02/14
Image by Valerie Everett

 

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Long Island Counts Its Homeless

Marines March in 2011ABT, the company hired by the government to count the homeless, collects data from the winter Point in Time surveys and puts it through a process called “imputing,” which basically means making a wild-ass guess with the assistance of some electronic device. ABT has developed at least 10 different ways of “imputing,” but no matter how it’s done, the company needs reliable numbers to start with, and that commodity seems to be in short supply. The methodology is far from being an exact science.

In regard to last year’s reported decrease in veteran homelessness, journalist Joe Pappalardo got some answers from ABT project director Alvaro Cortes and highlighted the part that critics had trouble with:

Even though HUD used different methods to tally homeless vets in 2010 and 2011, it compared the two years to produce the 12 percent drop.

That decrease might have been what Cortes calls “an artifact of changing methodologies.” Or was it what Pappalardo calls “an artifact of murky statistics”? For the purpose of receiving federal aid, how are the people experiencing homelessness counted? Statistician David Marker was designated by the American Statistical Association to answer questions from the press, and Pappalardo reported on their communication:

‘The biggest weakness of the 2010 numbers is that almost half of the localities didn’t collect any information, so in these communities the 2009 numbers were reused,’ Marker says. For this reason he prefers to use more reliable statistics generated in 2009. Comparing 2009 stats with those of 2011, Marker sees an 11 percent drop in veteran homelessness, with overall homelessness going down only 1 percent over the same time.

The journalist also contacted Greta Guarton, executive director of the Nassau-Suffolk Coalition for the Homeless, which covers Long Island. At the time, it seemed to Guarton that ending veteran homelessness was at the top of a lot of people’s lists in Washington but, she said, “no one really knows how many homeless veterans there even are.” At the time of that interview, in January of 2012, she had not seen any decrease, getting more calls from homeless veterans than ever.

Last month in Nassau and Suffolk counties, as in many other parts of the nation, volunteers braved sub-freezing temperatures as they searched for non-sheltered people. Because more than a foot of snow fell in the area, only half the expected volunteers came out. On the other hand, midwinter counting has one advantage — the visibility of footprints leading to buildings where people take refuge. Timothy Bolger learned this by following Guarton around as she shouted questions at various abandoned houses.

But when footprints are evident, the people inside often decline to make their presence known, for any number of reasons. If they happen to be undocumented immigrants, there is no upside for them. They are not eligible for emergency housing or anything else, and could end up being deported. As the reporter eloquently phrases it, “the margin of error for polling such a transient group is incalculable.”

As for Long Island’s homeless veteran population, Bolger learned that mental illness and substance abuse are still significant problems. But help has arrived in the form of Services for the Underserved, a New York-based nonprofit vet group that set up a branch on Long Island this year and formed alliances with local veteran groups.

This may or may not enhance the accuracy of the next count. People who live in their cars, for instance, are very hard to keep track of. People in jail or in psychiatric or rehab facilities are not counted, even though many of them would have no place to call home if released — and despite the fact that these people are under government supervision, their statistics are not made available to the curious. Bolger goes on to say:

Suffolk officials report a more than 62-percent increase in individuals seeking temporary housing assistance over the past five years….

LI’s homeless coalition reports a 42-percent hike in sheltered people in the county from ’09 to ’12….

The population of people who are homeless on LI is by estimates up 18 percent in the five years following the 2008 Wall Street crash that caused the Great Recession….

Guarton expects the stats for LI’s unsheltered to be lower than reality.

Reactions?

Source: “How Does Washington D.C. Count America’s Homeless Vets?” PopularMechanics.com, 01/19/12
Source: “Homeless: More People Live on the Streets Amid Arctic Blasts than Stats Show,” LongIslandPress.com, 02/01/14
Image by MarineCorps NewYork

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Homelessness: Doing the Math

Hwy 87 Trail surveyTwo years ago, when the previous national Point in Time survey was done, Popular Mechanics magazine went back to the survey before that one in order to take a close look at how homeless veterans were counted. The first answer was that the Department of Housing and Urban Development had contracted with ABT Associates to count the people experiencing homelessness in America, including veterans.

ABT project director Alvaro Cortes explained how the numbers are massaged. This is called “imputing,” and it must be done because HUD knows how sketchy those reported numbers really are. For instance, volunteer population counters didn’t ask street people if they were veterans. And for some reason, HUD wasn’t counting any vets staying in VA shelters as homeless.

The official count is made every two years over a single 24-hour period. Some people are not found. Some don’t want to be enumerated. Joe Pappalardo describes the situation as it stood when he started researching the story:

In 2010, the actual head count of homeless veterans registered 61,011 people…. To reflect the homeless veterans the PIT count missed, HUD “imputed”– that is, they estimated — the number and added 15,318 homeless veterans to the official 2010 statistic.

In 2010 (and before), HUD’s imputations determined the number of unsheltered homeless vets by taking the percentage of the homeless vets reported in CoC shelters and applying that to the total number of unsheltered homeless tallied in the PIT. This added thousands of presumed homeless veterans to the statistic. The unadjusted 2010 PIT determined that 36,389 vets were in shelters and 24,728 were on the street; the adjusted 2010 count gives 43,437 sheltered and 32,892 unsheltered.

As of 2010, ABT had developed at least 10 different ways to “impute.” This imputing, Cortes told the writer, is to “reach the most accurate count.” Here is a basic question: How can they possibly determine which imputing algorithm produces the most accurate count, without knowing the actual number as a basis for comparison? And if they knew the actual number, there would be no need to impute. It all seems very arbitrary.

Start with the less confusing part, the numbers of street people reported by volunteers. It’s understandable why some adjustment might be needed. Take the number from the actual count and hypothesize possible scenarios that would augment that number. Apply an “imputing” formula and extrapolate a new number.

But why?

But. Why did the number of veterans in shelters need to be “imputed”? You’d think those numbers would be accurate. How many veterans are in temporary quarters under the jurisdiction of the VA? Isn’t the military famously meticulous about record-keeping? Were accurate records of shelter visits not being kept? And if not, why not? Those figures are of immense importance to the well-being of so many Americans.

Another question. Are patients in VA hospitals, with no place to be discharged to, counted among the homeless? Because they quite possibly might be, the moment they get out of there. Counting homeless veterans isn’t easy, and it seems at times that the underlying reason for the project is not “how can we get an accurate count?” but “how can we fiddle with the statistics to get a number we can convincingly brand as accurate?”

Pappalardo asked some of the same questions and pursued the answers. A lot of places do yearly counts of the homeless, and in 2011, volunteers were told to ask each interviewee if they were “a member or a former member of the U.S. armed services.” He wrote:

The way HUD counted veterans living in VA-run homeless shelters changed from 2010 to 2011 too. Veterans Affairs runs about 6000 emergency shelter beds in the nation; before 2011, CoCs were adjusting their counts to include these VA programs by taking the average number of beds that were occupied on any given night — about 86 percent in 2010 — and applying that across the board to get an estimate for the whole country. But those numbers didn’t match up to the VA’s statistics, and so in 2011, HUD instructed the CoCs and VA groups to reconcile the list and give a full inventory of beds for homeless veterans.

Okay, reconciling two sets of numbers is a good first step. Next: the part that critics had trouble with.

Reactions?

Source: “How Does Washington D.C. Count America’s Homeless Vets?” PopularMechanics.com, 01/19/12
Image by Richard Masoner

 

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The Biennial Homeless Tally

Homeless Person - Sunny UmbrellaThe Department of Housing and Urban Development requires a biennial census of people experiencing homelessness. How is it carried out? Last time around, Popular Mechanics magazine offered this explanation:

In the third week of January every other year, thousands of volunteers across the country fan out for one night to count the homeless on the streets. These snapshots, called Point in Time (PIT) counts, are the only nationwide metric available to gauge the country’s homeless people living outside of shelters. Homeless aid groups, called Continuums of Care (CoC) in federal lingo, are responsible for these counts.

The object is to tally up, within a 24-hour period, both the sheltered and the rough sleepers. The unsheltered condition also includes living in an abandoned building, tent or car. Volunteers come from churches, agencies, organizations, temporary shelters, bad-weather shelters and other aid groups. The volunteers are out there slogging around in below-zero weather, concentrating on areas where the homeless are known to congregate. Ironically, these gathering places are called “hot spots.”

But it seems that on a winter night, any homeless person with access to a shed, culvert, stairwell, or any other possible hidey-hole would be there, and pretty much undetectable. This counting method has been questioned for other reasons, too. A family of six might be crammed into a relative’s unheated garage, which is certainly not a home, but the count would miss them. It would also miss a teenager sleeping on some adult’s fold-out sofa.

Training

In Stroudsburg, Penn., churches have been facilitating “first experiences” where volunteers are urged to mingle with the homeless people who are there to eat. It’s a warm-up exercise to help volunteers get over the awkwardness of meeting people they might be nervous about. In practice sessions, volunteers ask one another survey questions; in theory, each survey takes about five minutes.

Out on the actual streets, nobody has to answer any questions. But it’s important for more than one reason. The information can help to procure funds, and it can also influence how society perceives the unhoused. For instance, the last count of Monroe County’s homeless indicated that “[m]ore than half were disabled, one in three were U.S. military veterans and less than one out of 10 had ever been incarcerated.”

So, with at least half of those individuals, there is no point in hissing “just get a job.” They probably can’t — they’re disabled. Of course, some disabled people are capable of doing some jobs with total competence. But with so many able-bodied workers unable to find jobs, what chance do the disabled have?

At any rate, the various jurisdictions can’t apply for HUD funds unless they turn in the numbers. The problem is, what with one thing and another, counting is far from an exact science. In 2013, HUD said homelessness was down by 3.7%, while the Conference of Mayors said it had risen 4% — a nearly 8% difference, amounting to a significant margin of error. We hear that homelessness has decreased in the nation or in a state, but reports keep coming in from various cities that show worrisome local increases.

Many municipalities also count the homeless in the off-years that are not federally required, and many encounter unpleasant surprises. To pick a random example, the area encompassed by Escambia and Santa Rosa counties in northwest Florida found that its 2013 school year ended with more than 3,000 students homeless. In the same territory, 168 homeless military veterans were counted.

And this is where things get interesting. More next time.

Reactions?

Source: “How Does Washington D.C. Count America’s Homeless Vets?” PopularMechanics.com, 01/19/12
Source: “Homeless count of unsheltered sets fed. funding,” PoconoRecord.com, 01/22/14
Source: “2014 Point-In-Time Homeless Survey Underway,” WUWF.org, 01/22/14
Image by Colin Davis

 

 

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Veteran Abuse

Audie L MurphyIt’s perfectly possible to be anti-war, or against a particular war, and still be pro-veteran. The government made a contract with these Americans. Yet a lot of returning veterans have not received and are not receiving what they are entitled to, because the government does not live up to its contractual obligation. It’s that simple.

In many cases, the federal government is not doing its job. In others, a state government falls short of fulfilling its purpose. On October 26, Jeremy Schwartz of the Austin American-Statesman blew the lid off a situation that affects more than 43,000 veterans in Bell County, Texas, which incidentally is the location of Fort Hood. A state law enacted in 1985 says that in any county where the population is over 200,000, there should be a full-time veterans service officer. Schwartz explains how the system is supposed to work:

While federal VA workers process claims, state, county and local veterans service officers play a crucial role in preparing what are increasingly complex disability claims for conditions such as traumatic brain injury. Officials say well-trained service officers can speed the process by submitting what they call “fully developed” claims, which include all the necessary medical and military records, making them easier to process.

Yet in Bell County, there is no full-time veterans service officer.

Of the 23 counties over 200,000, only Bell and Lubbock counties do not employ such officers, though Lubbock funds clerical staff to support a state officer, according to the Texas Veterans Commission.

The requirement is voluntary for smaller counties, but many have also hired at least part-time county veterans service officers, especially in recent years as service members have flooded home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Since 1996, Schwartz writes, the task of liaising with veterans in Bell County has fallen on a volunteer, Jim Endicott. Although he is a former Veterans Administration general counsel, he only works part-time. Other volunteers and state employees help with the workload, but they can’t keep up, and volunteers are not required to take the annual training that the state requires for veterans services officers hired by counties. This is important, the writer points out, because the VA rules change constantly. If the workers are not familiar with the rules, how can they help vets successfully submit “fully developed” claims?

The troops on the ground

The veterans line up as early as 2 o’clock in the morning in hopes of being seen. (The question springs to mind, why not use an appointment system?) Frustrated by the inefficiency in their own locality, some journey to the designated offices in adjoining counties. Schwartz learned that in the past two years, more than a thousand local veterans who had signed in at the Temple office gave up and left before being seen. Bell County has issued 12,000 disabled-veteran license plates, a figure that hints at the extent of the problem.

Nevertheless, according to unnamed Bell County bureaucrats, complaints are few, even from veterans’ groups which presumably wield some influence. Jon Burrows, a Bell County judge, told the reporter that “there hasn’t been a need to hire a full-time county veterans service officer.” But he may be mistaken. The people on the job struggle under heavy caseloads. Schwartz says:

At one point last year, the VA’s Waco Regional Office, which serves veterans in Bell County and Central Texas, had the nation’s longest wait time for claims processing. Today, the average wait time to process a claim is 464 days in Waco — and 14,605 of the more than 26,000 pending cases have been sitting at least 125 days.

At last

Finally, in mid-November, the Bell County commissioners decided at their weekly meeting to add to their website a section containing information for veterans, to open up a phone line for questions from veterans, and to find office space for the veterans service officer who will be hired before the new year.

Issues still exist: a shortage of trained personnel, and of training for existing personnel, as well as the perceived need for a “one-stop shop” to make life a bit easier for disabled veterans and for people with other socioeconomic problems, such as being denied food stamps. Judge Burrows still maintains that the commissioners never even knew there were any unmet needs.

Jim Endicott, the volunteer liaison officer mentioned above, made the astonishing statement that he only sees “five or six veterans a year,” reports Alex Wukman of FME News Service. Mostly, Endicott just provides “referral and outreach” — in other words, connecting veterans with personnel at the Texas Veterans Commission.

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Note: War Hero Audie Murphy, though a Texan, was neither born nor buried in Bell County. Still, his story is very much worth knowing.

Reactions?

Source: “Despite state law, Bell County doesn’t employ veteran service officer“, Mystatesman.com, 10/26/13
Source: “Bell County to hire veterans service officer,” KDHNews.com, 11/13/13
Image by dbking

 

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Memorial – Why Do the Homeless Die?

House the Homeless Memorial TreeAustin’s annual Homeless Memorial Sunrise Service is coming up on the 17th at 6:57 a.m. It will be held at Auditorium Shores, at South First and Riverside Drive (on the south side of Lady Bird Lake). For people anywhere in the area, that’s the important thing to know, so it’s right here at the top. The custom is for someone to read the names of all the homeless people who died in Austin in the past year. Last year 156 names were read.

Other cities with hearts hold similar events, of course, and there are poverty-related deaths in every large city. People who live on the streets, in makeshift camps and even in official shelters are vulnerable in so many ways. Malnutrition is almost a certainty, and starvation a possibility. Lack of food is considered the least newsworthy cause of death and suffering on the streets, with violent deaths and assaults attracting far more attention. For instance, Young Lee, co-founder of the Pinkberry frozen yogurt company, could be sentenced to as many as seven years for brutally beating a homeless man with a tire iron in Los Angeles. Allegedly, Lee also tried to intimidate witnesses. Depending on who tells the story, there may have been provocation, but the violence was certainly not unavoidable.

A recent headline reads, “It Is Illegal To Feed The Homeless In Cities All Over The United States.” What happened in Raleigh, N.C., this August when members of the Love Wins organization attempted to continue their years-long practice of bringing breakfast sandwiches and coffee to hungry people? An uncredited author relates the story:

On that morning three officers from Raleigh Police Department prevented us from doing our work, for the first time ever. An officer said, quite bluntly, that if we attempted to distribute food, we would be arrested.

Our partnering church brought 100 sausage biscuits and large amounts of coffee. We asked the officers for permission to disperse the biscuits to the over 70 people who had lined up, waiting to eat. They said no. I had to face those who were waiting and tell them that I could not feed them, or I would be arrested.

In Denver, a charming law “makes it illegal for anyone to sleep or sit and cover themselves against the elements with anything except their clothing.” The presence of a blanket turns the offense into unauthorized camping, punishable by a fine or up to a year in jail. Flagstaff, Ariz., made news when an undercover police officer with nothing better to do than harass the homeless arrested a 77-year-old woman who asked for bus money. As the Love Wins writer points out, more than 50 large cities in America now have anti-camping and/or anti-food sharing laws.

Sometimes the goal appears to be to get the homeless people to go away. Apparently the heartless politicians that are passing these laws believe that if the homeless can’t get any more free food and if they keep getting thrown into prison for “illegal camping” they will eventually decide to go somewhere else where they won’t be hassled so much.

In Boise, Idaho, the American Civil Liberties Union is engaged in a federal lawsuit, “arguing that the city’s recently-passed anti-panhandling ordinance was in violation of the First Amendment…” While the the mayor’s office characterizes the law as “carefully crafted to prevent aggressive solicitation while still ensuring the protection of all citizens’ right to free speech,” ACLU board member Erika Birch disagrees:

The ordinance criminalizes certain speech and expression and specifically restricts words that a person can use in the City of Boise, particularly in the downtown core area. It goes too far and violates constitutionally [protected] speech.

The venerable organization has also succeeded in having Michigan’s anti-begging law, which has been in place for 85 years, declared unconstitutional. TakePart.com adds:

Just this year, the ACLU sued on behalf of homeless men and women opposing begging bans in Indianapolis, Indiana and Worcester, Massachusetts, among other cities, also as violations of free speech and peacefully soliciting money in public. The ACLU of Colorado sued the city of Colorado Springs last November, and an injunction was granted to stop their downtown panhandling ban until it was repealed in March.

The city council of Columbia, S.C., got off on the wrong foot earlier this fall by unanimously voting that people experiencing homelessness should be collected and sequestered in a 240-bed camp outside of town. They would be unable to leave without permission, and the place didn’t even have cooking facilities when this ambitious plan was set to begin. If they didn’t want to go there, the alternative would be jail. But even the police, who would be responsible for the rounding up and guarding, backed away from implementation. The interim police chief, Ruben Santiago, stated:

Homelessness is not a crime. We can’t just take people to somewhere they don’t want to go. I can’t do that. I won’t do that.

So the new plan is to give people a van ride to the shelter and let them stay as long as a week, voluntarily, while workers try to sort out how they can best be helped. The city also promises to install public restrooms and trash cans, and to institute a homeless court.

Hart Island

Bonus Homeless Death Trivia

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan, writing for Gizmodo, reported on a place whose existence is little known: a tiny island in New York City called Hart Island, “the largest publicly funded cemetery in the world.” In this modern-day potter’s field, there is one deceased person for every eight currently living New Yorkers. Their number is pretty darn close to a million, and a lot of them died homeless.

Currently run by the Department of Corrections, the mass graveyard is closed to the public and infamous for lousy record-keeping. If you were wondering whether prisoners bury the dead, the answer is yes. They do the final honors, presumably with the awareness that they will likely end up in this very same mass grave. A criminal record is practically a guarantee of lifelong unemployment. Furthermore, even working stiffs can’t afford places to live. A lot of both kinds of people end up homeless, so you do the math.

As a warning, the grim assignment is ineffective. No matter how sincerely a prisoner might intend to change his ways, the topography of society rarely permits a new start down a different path. Everyone chosen for this work detail has an excellent chance of winding up at the other end of a Hart Island shovel.

Reactions?

Source: “Pinkberry Co-Founder Convicted of Beating Homeless Man With Tire Iron,” Gawker.com, 11/08/13
Source: “It Is Illegal To Feed The Homeless In Cities All Over The United States,” JewsNews.co.il, 11/08/13
Source: “Urban Camping Ticket Issued to Woman for Trying to Stay Warm,” denverhomelessoutloud.org, 11/02/13
Source: “ACLU Sues City of Boise Over Anti-Panhandling Ordinance,” BoiseWeekly.com, 11/04/13
Source: “The Crime of Poverty: Some Homeless People Face Arrest for Asking for Help,” TakePart.com, 10/09/13
Source: “Columbia, South Carolina Rescinds Decision To Criminalize Homelessness,” HuffingtonPost.com, 09/09/13
Source: “What We Found at Hart Island, The Largest Mass Grave Site In the U.S.,” Gizmodo.com, 11/07/13
Image by David Trawin

 

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More on Homeless Veterans and Corruption, Cont.

Pills and boozeWe left off with how the Veterans Administration dragged its feet — in the face of scientific evidence, dire need, and special legislation — on the issue of damage done to U.S. Military personnel by Agent Orange. If thousands of disability claims had to be honored, the health care costs would be enormous. Subsequent to Senator Daschle’s exposure of fraud in the investigation, such groups as the Vietnam Veterans of America and the American Legion accused the government of a massive coverup.

In 1990, the House Government Operations Committee released a report charging that the Reagan administration had purposely controlled and obstructed the Agent Orange study three years earlier. According to the U.S. Veteran Dispatch:

The White House compromised the independence of the CDC [Centers for Disease Control] and undermined the study by controlling crucial decisions and guiding the course of research at the same time it had secretly taken a legal position to resist demands to compensate victims of Agent Orange exposure…

To veterans with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, or their surviving dependents, the VA was ordered to pay compensation. This financial liability is on the U.S. taxpayers, rather than the war profiteers who made the defoliant. And even if the government had admitted to using the wrong sort of chemical, or to not using it in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendations, so what? The only money the government has comes from the taxpayers, who would still end up footing the bill.

An interesting question

Between the end of the Vietnam war in 1975, and the 2010 “automatic funding” of Agent Orange claims, 35 years elapsed. During those years, how many homeless veterans were created or affected by illnesses that Agent Orange caused? With a sickness they couldn’t get treatment for, how many tried to cope on their own with pain and stress, and developed addictions? Impossible to know, but any number would be too many.

And, speaking of addiction, before judging a homeless vet for being a junkie, we might take a minute to think about how the monkey got onto that person’s back, and who put it there. Earlier this year, a very disturbing piece of investigative journalism by Richard A. Friedman appeared in The New York Times. He says frontline troops in Iraq and Afghanistan were fed generous amounts of “sedatives, stimulants and mood stabilizers.” He points out that, although combat troop levels in those places were reduced since 2008, the years from 2005 to 2011 saw a nearly 700% increase in pharmaceutical prescriptions.

In other words, for every service member in a combat zone who was given psychoactive drugs in, say, 2006, more than six times as many were on these meds in, say, 2010. In addition to the aforementioned categories, the pills include plenty of antipsychotics, which are the treatment of choice for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, even though knowledgeable experts are not convinced of their effectiveness against that condition. But the military prescribes these substances to service members, not only post-trauma, but literally in the midst of the trauma, i.e., in combat. Friedman writes:

We have no idea whether it’s effective — or safe — to use antipsychotic drugs on a continuing basis to treat war-related stress or to numb or sedate those affected by it.

As if that weren’t bad enough, one of the possible side effects is tardive dyskinesia, which is not a disease in itself, but a movement disorder with many possible causes. Alan Wilson worked as a laborer for 25 years, and his doctor believes he got tardive dyskinesia from a flu shot. His daughter’s “About” narrative and updates are horrifying, and Ashley Wilson makes the point that if she had not been there to take him in, her father would now be homeless.

What, you may ask, is our point? Here it is: An excellent reason for familiarizing oneself with tardive dyskinesia is to stretch the compassion muscle. On the street or at the soup kitchen, that weirdly behaving person might not be a shiftless drunk or a burned-out crackhead. He or she might be a regular American with a solid work history, who was struck by a terrifying medical crisis. He or she might be a veteran who was overdosed with anti-psychotic meds. Just a thought.

Source: “The Story of Agent Orange,” November 1990
Source: “Wars on Drugs,” The New York Times, 04/06/13
Source: “Alan Wilson — Tardive Dyskinesia,” YouTube.com, 09/22/09
Image by Thunderchild7.

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More on Homeless Veterans and Corruption

The Vietnam Veterans MemorialWith several posts already covering corruption as it impacts homeless veterans,  wouldn’t you think the subject would be exhausted? Apparently not. Let’s recap and then catch up.

In 1962, in Southeast Asia, the U.S. Military implemented Operation Ranch Hand, which sprayed herbicides to defoliate the area so there would be fewer places for the enemy to hide. Nobody even knows how much herbicide was involved. For Agent Orange alone, somewhere between 12 and 20 million gallons is the best guess.

Damaged veterans who tried to sue Monsanto were out of luck, partly because the company claimed that the military used the defoliant in Vietnam at “six to 25 times the rate suggested by the manufacturer,” so it wasn’t their fault. The military claimed it didn’t know how damaging the chemicals would be, either to the people of Vietnam whose hearts and minds they were supposedly trying to win, or to the American servicemen and servicewomen deployed there, and nothing can lessen the infamy of that untruth.

This information comes from a very long and detailed report published by the U.S. Veteran Dispatch, which says:

There are strong indications that not only were military officials aware as early as 1967 of the limited effectiveness of chemical defoliation, they knew of potential long-term health risks of frequent spraying and sought to keep that information from the public by managing news reports.

What’s the point of all this history? Tonight, there are Vietnam veterans in alleys and shelter beds who never were able to hold a job or pull themselves together, because of health conditions resulting from Agent Orange exposure for which they were unable to get any help.

Task force

In 1979 the National Veterans Task Force on Agent Orange was created, and charged with discovering just how many vets had been exposed. The Centers for Disease Control spent $43 million tax dollars on that project and ended up with results that the Institute of Medicine characterized as either “monumentally bungled” or “politically rigged.” All along, the occasional veteran had tried to sue the government for medical problems resulting from Agent Orange, but they were always blocked by something called the Feres Doctrine, which basically says no one can sue the government for anything that happens to them in the service.

In 1984, a new law required the Veterans Administration to get to work on establishing compensation standards for both soft tissue sarcoma (frequently associated with Agent Orange exposure) and atomic radiation damage. The VA did not, as the saying goes, get the memo. The agency that was created to help veterans continued to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to Agent Orange exposure claims.

Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Jr. was among the officers whose direct orders had caused Agent Orange to be sprayed. His son, also a Vietnam veteran, became fatally ill with Hodgkin’s disease and lymphoma and Zumwalt got on the case. He said the government “intentionally manipulated or withheld compelling information on the adverse health effects.” When this grieving, high-ranking father charged the government with denying justice to veterans, things began to happen.

Authority speaks

Military scientist Dr. James Clary was one of the team that initially green-lighted Agent Orange. These lines are from a letter he wrote in 1988 to answer congressional questions:

We were aware of the potential for damage due to dioxin contamination in the herbicide. We were even aware that the ‘military’ formulation had a higher dioxin concentration than the ‘civilian’ version… However, because the material was to be used on the ‘enemy,’ none of us were overly concerned. We never considered a scenario in which our own personnel would become contaminated with the herbicide.

Wait, what? Hel-lo! Duh! And every other colloquial expression of utter dumbfoundment. Say that again? How could they not have noticed that the grunts — tens of thousands of them — were crawling around down on the ground, just like the Viet Cong? Here is what else Dr. Clary said:

And, if we had, we would have expected our own government to give assistance to veterans so contaminated.

Hah! Might as well expect assistance from the Tooth Fairy or a genie in a bottle. And then along came Tom Daschle, a senator from South Dakota, who cast all kinds of aspersions on the 1984 report about Operation Ranch Hand and the birth defects afflicting the children of service members who had encountered Agent Orange. An earlier version of the document showed certain results, but then there was monkey business, and Sen. Daschle said:

The Air Force deleted these findings from the final report at the suggestion of a Ranch Hand Advisory Committee set up by the White House Agent Orange Working Group.

Plus, there were two different versions of the minutes of the meeting in which that pressure was applied. Daschle called foul. The U.S. Veteran Dispatch says:

Part of the fraud appears to have been perpetrated by the Monsanto Corp., which produces a number of chemicals containing dioxin. Monsanto knowingly rigged test results of employees who had been exposed to dioxin to make the effects of it appear far less than it actually was… This type of fraud appears to have been perpetrated regularly in connection with Agent Orange research…

(To be continued…)

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Source: “The Story of Agent Orange,” November 1990
Image by Ben Schumin.

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The Year in Homeless Veteran Housing, Part 3

Homeless Vet @ Ferry BuildingLet’s see, where did we leave off? With the Veterans Administration finally fixing up some derelict buildings on bitterly-contested land in the middle of Los Angeles. Elsewhere in the sprawling metropolis, an apartment complex is under construction, meant to house chronically homeless disabled vets age 62 and over.

This is happening in Boyle Heights, a heavily ethnic and very low-income area bordered by Chinatown, Downtown, and East LA. Astonishingly, the neighborhood contains “opponents of affordable housing” who stalled the project in the typical ways and for the typical reasons.

Gloria Angelina Castillo described the objectors’ point of view:

They oppose such projects because they do not give priority to local residents and because they exclude undocumented immigrants in the mostly Latino community, while bringing in the homeless from other parts of the city. They in turn draw their homeless associates to loiter in the area. Residents worry that the chronically homeless suffer from mental illness…

We’re only talking about 32 one-bedroom units, and tenants probably too tired and broken to get up to much mischief, or even to entertain much company. Besides, there will be support, such as on-site case management and mental health services. The two main groups involved are the East LA Community Corporation (ELACC) and New Directions for Veterans, Inc., with additional help from the LA County Department of Military Affairs, Department of Veteran Affairs, the East L YMCA, and Behavioral Health Services.

The intentions are honorable, but this is not quite yet a success story, because the facility is expected to be complete in a year, and who knows what could happen between now and then. As this is being written, the government is in paralysis, and quite a few projects and people are suffering already.

As House the Homeless has mentioned before, a homeless woman veteran can be a special problematic case. For instance, one or more dependent children may be experiencing homelessness along with her. But there are other, less obvious reasons. Reporter Susan Abram learned from Michelle Wildy of the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System:

Many women, when we initially outreach to them, may not even identify themselves as veterans. They still think of that stereotype of a man coming back from war.

There are also vets of both sexes who assume that to be eligible for any benefits at all, they would have to be a “lifer” with a 20-year career behind them. Wildy is part of an outreach team that spends time in Hollywood and the beach communities of Venice and Santa Monica looking for female veterans in danger of being left behind, who need to know they have earned the same care and benefits as men. A typical team consists of a social worker, a psychiatrist, a nurse practitioner, and a formerly homeless veteran.

The formation of such teams was spurred by the realization that the greater Los Angeles area contained around 1,000 homeless women vets. Since their inception, 3,000 homeless veterans have been housed, of whom 10% were women, which means roughly 300 out of the identified 1,000. Of the national scene, Abram says:

With some federal funds from the Obama administration’s ‘Opening Doors’ initiative, the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) Program has given projects like Wildy’s a boost in finding housing and assistance to homeless veterans.

This year, the HUD-VASH program received $75 million in federal funding to continue to offer rental assistance from HUD with case management and clinical services provided by the VA.

In all, 58,140 vouchers have been awarded since 2008 and 43,371 formerly homeless veterans are in homes of their own across the country because of HUD-VASH, federal officials have said.

Last month, a Los Angeles Daily News editorial brought up what they call a “national embarrassment”and characterize as the government’s ineffectiveness in the face of such extensive veteran homelessness. It’s not so much a general criticism as a problem with one particular matter. The newspaper wants the governor, Jerry Brown, to sign something called AB 639. The result would be an opportunity in the upcoming June 2014 elections for voters to signify approval of redirecting and repurposing $600 million in funds that are just sitting around doing nothing.

From where did this money come? According to LA Daily News:

In 2008, California voters passed a $900 million bond for veterans’ home loans. Those funds, administered by the state’s Veterans Affairs Department, have gone practically untouched because would-be veteran homeowners picked up loans with better interest rates on the open market. Meantime, nearly half of $500 million from a similar 2000 voter-approved bond measure is still unspent. That’s more than a billion dollars meant to help homeless vets but sitting idle.

Never mind reserving it for mortgages, let’s use it to build or create or find housing for homeless veterans who need places to live right now, along with health services and job services — supportive care — to help them get back on their feet. This is what the authors of the piece want. To bolster their argument, they reference:

[...] a report by the Economic Roundtable and the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority that estimates a homeless person living in a place where they can access supportive services costs the public 79 percent less than they do on the streets.

Okay, ready for some good news? Jaime Henry-White has some from Atlanta, Georgia, a city that appears to have figured out a few things, inspired by the federal “Opening Doors” initiative. The most recent survey counted some 6,000 people experiencing homelessness in metro Atalanta, and since the state ranked second in homeless veterans, an program that helps the homeless will include a lot of vets.

Better yet, the city’s “Unsheltered No More” program is also on board with the “housing first” concept. Check this out:

The city is well on its way to meeting its goal of finding homes for 800 people this year, with already more than 700 in homes… Atlanta housed more homeless veterans than any other city participating in the nationwide challenge while also speeding up placement process by one-third… The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing voucher program provides rental assistance, case management and clinical services for homeless veterans through the departments and community-based outreach… Recent analysis from Atlanta’s local housing authority found that veterans permanently housed through the HUD-VASH voucher program had an average retention rate of 95 percent.

Way to go, Atlanta! May you continue to excel, and may other cities benefit from your fine example!

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Source: “Chronically Homeless Vets to Get Homes in Boyle Heights,” EGPNews, 10/03/13
Source: “LA program targets homeless women vets,” LA Daily News, 09/29/13
Source: “A billion in unspent aid isn’t helping homeless vets: Editorial,” LA Daily News, 09/24/13
Source: “Atlanta logs dramatic turnaround in homelessness,” TwinCities.com, 09/29/13
Image by Vera Yu and David Lee.

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The Year in Homeless Veteran Housing, Part 2

The Year in Homeless Veteran Housing, Part 2

The Department of Veterans Affairs aims to end veteran homelessness by 2015, and one of the tools to do this job is the voucher system administered by the Veterans Affairs Supporting Housing Program (VASH) and Housing and Urban Development (HUD). California journalist Debra Gruszecki writes:

Riverside County Supervisors Jeff Stone and John Tavaglione challenged housing staff though a ‘Valor Initiative’ to find permanent homes for 135 veterans within 100 days… ‘We ended up housing 140,’ said Carrie Harmon, a specialist with the Housing Authority of Riverside County… Within the pool of 140 veterans, 110 are in apartments or single-family homes. The rest are in permanent supportive housing centers.

In and around Los Angeles, landlords are collecting $4.2 million per year in rental subsidies. The tenants themselves pay reduced amounts. For instance, a Navy vet featured in Gruszecki’s story is only liable for $286 of his own rent per month. A military aircraft mechanic, he had intended to make a career of it, but suffered a knee injury and combat PTSD during a tour of duty in Iraq.

Back in the States, he lost the woman he had been in a relationship with, and was prevented from contacting his kids. He met up with street drugs, and lost the car he had been living in. After attaining sobriety and maintaining it for seven months, he was chosen by the program for housing and help with the rent.

But it’s not just about money. Gruszecki says the program is:

[...] in partnership with agencies that include US Vets, Roy’s Desert Resource Center, Jewish Family Services, Coachella Valley Rescue Mission, Department of Mental Health, Valley Restart Center, Lighthouse Social Service Centers and the Southern California Veterans Alliance…

One result of this social-service backup system is that, in case of problems, a landlord has someone besides a possibly unstable tenant to deal with.

For better or worse, California is a thought leader. Things start there and spread. What happens in California is important because it’s huge, with around 16,500 homeless veterans, about half of them in the southern part of the state where Los Angeles is. Over the years there has been fierce debate over the land and facilities in the middle of LA, that are supposed to belong to America’s veterans.

One of the contested issues has been the fate of some 60-year-old buildings belonging to the Sepulveda Ambulatory Care Center, that were damaged in a 1994 earthquake and closed down. Christina Villacorte writes:

Over the last decade, several community organizations, neighborhood councils, and government officials opposed the project, including Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Sherman Oaks, because developers did not initially plan to offer the units exclusively to homeless veterans, and were also open to having tenants that were not yet clean or sober…

The 400-square-foot units are designated for veterans who had lived on the streets and tried to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder and other injuries by abusing drugs or alcohol, but have since embraced sobriety.

So the “housing first” principle lost out in this project. Anyway, the properties have been rehabilitated by the nonprofit housing developer A Community of Friends and another nonprofit, New Directions for Veterans. The complex, which opened a few weeks ago, is described as a “permanent supportive housing facility for formerly homeless, disabled and low-income military veterans.” Residents pay no more than 30% of their income, or up to $435 monthly, and the tax funds allotted to veterans take care of the rest.

The development includes 147 studio apartments, each of which cost $320,000 to create. It seems like a lot of money for 400 square feet, which is, like, 20′ by 20′. Many homes in Los Angeles have closets bigger than that. Of course there are also common areas, the price of which must be averaged in, but it still seems like quite a price tag. There are places where $320,000 could buy a decent house with a yard and garage. Maybe the necessity for earthquake-proofing explains the extraordinary cost per unit.

(To be continued…)

Reactions?

Source: “Homeless Veterans: 140 housed in 100 days,” pe.com, 09/25/13
Source: “Once homeless vets now have a place to call their own,” DailyNews.com, 09/27/13
Image by Boston Public Library.

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