Austin’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.
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.
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
Let’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!
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.
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…)
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.
In April, the Associated Press reported that Operation Stand Down Rhode Island opened six service-enriched homes for veterans. In May, Fran Daniel reported on the plans in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to rehabilitate a set of apartments, mostly for military veterans. In Forsyth County, there was already a 24-bed transitional housing program that allowed up to two years residency for homeless vets working to get back on their feet.
The apartment remodeling project represented a branching-out on the part of Whole Man Ministries, which maintained a church, a food bank, a clothing bank, a computer lab, an after-school program for kids, and a mentoring programs for prisoners, but had never before attempted to house the homeless. The organization bought two duplexes that had been scheduled for demolition and began fixing them up to create four apartments, one equipped for handicap access.
Help was solicited from local carpenters, plumbers, and businesses. The city’s director of community and business development, Ritchie Brooks, voiced to the press concerns felt by many local residents:
Generally if you can get volunteers and have some good supervision or a good contractor, you can make it through the rehab pretty successfully. But after that rehab, it’s the management portion that would still be of a concern — being able to adequately do that so that it’s not going to be a burden or have some negative impact on the community.
In June, Habitat for Humanity began an initiative called Veterans Build and took over the National Mall in the nation’s capital to build seven house frames which would later be moved to local sites and finished. The same week, C. Andrew McCawley, CEO of Boston’s New England Center for Homeless Veterans, wrote for publication about his own state, which contained an estimated 1,200 homeless vets at any give time, and the national scene:
The country is now more than halfway into a dedicated five-year campaign to end veterans’ homelessness, and a 20 percent reduction has been achieved nationwide, with select states, such as Massachusetts, demonstrating even greater progress. The state’s plan is a comprehensive strategy and course of action with the explicit goal of ending veterans’ homelessness in Massachusetts by the end of 2015.
Massachusetts has broken its goal down into four main areas:
Implement a housing strategy to re-house and stabilize veterans who become homeless
Ensure veterans who are most at risk of homelessness remain housed to prevent homelessness
Increase access to benefits and resources for veterans through greater intervention
Align and integrate federal, state, and community resources to support veterans through effective partnerships.
In the same month, news came from Florida that the Lee County Homeless Coalition got together with other agencies to do something about chronically homeless veterans, in other words, the individuals who had been on the streets for the longest time, chalking up bills in emergency rooms because of their medical conditions including addiction. First, the needlessly complicated local housing voucher system was streamlined. But here is the important part:
Coalition members are referring all veteran clients to Veteran Affairs outreach. Permanent housing options are being identified using a Housing First approach centered on providing people experiencing homelessness with housing as quickly as possible, then providing services as needed.
Housing First a winning idea
In city after city, the idea is slowly catching on that plenty of taxpayer money can be saved by identifying the most needy and service-intensive people and getting them help. With “housing first,” expenses are markedly reduced, and there is more money left over to distribute among other housing efforts.
Perhaps the most egregious example was seen in Fresno, California, where a man died in January who had called for an ambulance on a daily or sometimes twice-daily basis for almost a year, accruing hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of charges. If he had been placed in services-enriched housing, the taxpayers and the hospital would both be in better financial shape.
The “housing first” principle was illustrated to the citizens of Saskatoon, in Canada’s Saskatchewan Province, where a study concentrating on 23 chronically homeless individuals showed that their care was costing $2.8 million per year, divided between emergency room visits, psychiatric hospital visits, ambulance trips, overnight detox visits, and jail stays. Knowledge that $2 million could be saved by providing services-enriched housing for just this small number inspired United Way to turn its efforts in the “housing first” direction.
(To be continued…)
Source: “Local nonprofit organization to rehab apartments for homeless veterans,” Winston-Salem Journal, 05/12/13
Source: “Habitat for Humanity building homes for homeless vets on National Mall,” MyFoxDC.com, 06/02/13
Source: “Ending homelessness for veterans,” Boston.com, 06/03/13
Source: “Help for homeless veterans : 50 homes in 100 days,” WinkNews.com, 06/12/13
Source: “Housing 23 homeless saves taxpayers $2M,” TheStarPhoenix.com, 06/14/13
Image by unknown.