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A Sad Loss — Michael Stoops

Michael-Stoops-headshotThis month of May 2017 began with a much-grieved death on its very first day. Michael Stoops was a legendary figure in the world of anti-homelessness activism and a person of extraordinary commitment.

Megan Hustings, Director of the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH), wrote:

There will never be anyone like Michael, with his dedication to others, his tenacity, his quiet leadership and quirky humor. We all loved Michael as a mentor, a colleague, a brother and a friend.

A Quaker and a product of the fabled 1960s era, Stoops went to Portland, Oregon, to begin using his B.A. in social work to serve others. In the course of working with Vietnam veterans, he became known as a compelling speaker and an inspiring fundraiser. In 1986-87, he participated in a five-month winter campout protest with Mitch Snyder in Washington, D.C., credited with swaying sentiment toward the passing of the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act.

When the National Coalition for the Homeless began, Stoops was one of the board of directors’ founding members. In 1988 he joined the NCH staff, and in 2004 became Acting Director.

He also sat on the board of Street Sense, a street newspaper in Washington, D.C., and was a founding member of the North American Street Newspaper Association. He was called upon to give expert testimony to state and local legislatures trying to alleviate homelessness.

Hustings describes his special talent for seeing the potential in others, and calls him “the rock of NCH,” and even a super hero. She goes on to say:

He made time for each and every student doing research, for every mother crying because she couldn’t find shelter for her family, for every filmmaker wanting to make a difference, for each traveler who happened upon our office looking for help, and for every advocate looking for a way to fight for change.

Stoops recognized the vital importance of inclusiveness and of grassroots recruitment, and his skills as an organizer had the spark of genius. He taught thousands of people how to be troublemakers in the best possible sense of the word.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) states:

Michael developed the “You Don’t Need a Home to Vote Campaign” that won state legislative changes nationwide to ensure that people without a residence could legally vote in elections. And he established NCH’s Speakers Bureau, which provides people experiencing homelessness a platform to share their stories and receive speaking fees while raising public awareness about homelessness.

In 1997, NCH recognized House the Homeless President Richard R. Troxell with an award. He joined the Board of Directors and has worked with Michael Stoops on the Civil Rights Committee since then.

We have mentioned Richard’s book, Looking Up at the Bottom Line, which includes (on page 85) the narrative of how Stoops took on the producers and peddlers of the disgustingly exploitative “Bum Fights” videos. When putting together the first Bridge Action in 2005, Richard looked to his friend for ideas, also described in the book. The NLIHC calls him a giant.

His final days, spent at Washington Adventist Hospital, were full of visits from friends who read to him and played music. In an email to concerned friends everywhere, Julieanne Turner wrote:

Michael’s entire life is about standing in solidarity with people who are poor, their voice, based on their needs. There is something so holy about this. Although, Michael conducted himself with humility, never took up too much personal space on this earth, his foot print is huge.

The Memorial for Michael Stoops will be held in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, May 25, at the Church of the Pilgrims, at noon. Anyone who wants to acknowledge the good done by this exceptional person is asked to donate to the National Coalition for the Homeless.

Reactions?

Source: “Michael Stoops,” NationalHomeless.org, 05/01/17
Source: “In Memoriam: Michael Stoops,” NLIHC.org, 05/08/17
Image by National Coalition for the Homeless

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A Tale of Two Parks

sacramento-ca-state-house-buildingThe statehouse in Sacramento, California (pictured), is surrounded by a 40-acre park, one of the luckiest parks in the world because, for over two decades, caring for it was the obsession of a chronically homeless man named Randall Koroush.

Journalist Cynthia Hubert wrote:

He picked up fallen camellia blossoms, oak tree branches and palm fronds. He raked leaves from the steps and sidewalk. He polished iron gates and swept dirt from bathroom floors. No one paid Koroush for his work.

He would arrive first thing in the morning and spend 10 or 12 hours making sure the park stayed free of litter. He always wore a clean white t-shirt tucked into jeans, and never accepted any offer of food or drink. His habitual lunch was a cup of instant ramen noodles.

The park administration allowed him to store his belongings in an old greenhouse, but he slept under a bridge or behind a church. With people, he would respond politely, but not chat. Sometimes he talked to himself or to a person who wasn’t present, but then, don’t we all?

Mike Nielson, a General Services supervisor who knew Koroush for most of his time at the park, said, “He wanted to do right by this place. He wanted it to look good.” A police officer described him as having “dignity and purpose.” Although visitors sometimes reported him as a suspicious person, all the law enforcers who patrol the park on bicycles and horses looked out for him. They knew that Koroush was the son of a California Highway Patrol retiree and brother of a current CHP employee. The family acknowledges how kindly their son was treated.

Escape from history

Not many people knew that, back in the day, Koroush had never been very good at holding a job. He had been a hard drug addict, though at the time of his death at age 56 he hadn’t used in more than 10 years. As a child, Koroush wanted to be a forest ranger. His “poor choices” ruled that out, but dedicating himself to a park was the next best thing. That is his mother’s theory, and it is as good as any other.

Hubert wrote, “Koroush had four siblings and parents who loved him and tried and failed on many occasions to get him inside.” He did laundry and had the occasional meal with his folks, but getting back to the park was his number one priority.

The reporter goes on to say:

According to police and relatives, he walked into Sutter General Hospital on Feb. 1, toting his belongings, struggling to breathe and with cuts and bruises on his face. He died at UC Davis Medical Center a few days later.

There were pre-existing medical problems, but the patient had also had apparently been assaulted. However, with no reliable evidence, the police did not institute a homicide investigation. Although his death was a great loss to Sacramento, Randall Koroush was a rare and special case. In the entire country there are probably very few cities, capitol or otherwise, where a person in his situation would be treated with such leniency.

Los Angeles

The other park story is also from California. “Skid Row” is a term that can send shivers down the spine. In Los Angeles, Skid Row means 10,000 people in tenements and welfare hotels and tents, in about a 50 square block area that is constantly squeezed by encroaching development. This evolving community has little in common with the Downtown and Historic Cultural neighborhood councils that claim it. Activists are trying to break away and form a discrete Skid Row neighborhood council.

A few years back, there were state-level budget cuts, and the area’s only two public parks almost lost their funding. The city took over to provide enough support to pay for the upkeep of San Julian and Gladys. Members of the public also contribute their time and energy, and one of the most noticeable has been A.J. Martin.

For LAWeekly.com, Mindy Farabee told his story, which she casts as an example of “the redemptive power of just showing up for your community everyday.” The journalist wrote:

His gig at the park allows him “to give, to help, to be a part of something,” he explains. “It’s helping me stay solid, it’s helping me stay firm, it’s helping me personally stay secure instead of lost in a lot of misery and a lot of torture and a lot of pain.”

In an unofficial capacity, Martin takes care of Gladys Park. He makes sure the restrooms are in order, and issues brooms to other helpers, who may be marginally functional at best, yet do a conscientious job of sweeping and tidying.

The manager of an adjacent hotel says, “Things run smoothly with him around.” This is no small feat, because a lot goes on there. Health fairs for the local street people and free clinics for their pets set up in the park. A New Orleans-style jazz band makes events festive. There are sports teams for kids and, as might be expected, it is where faith-based groups bring food.
Gladys Park hosts annual two-day art festival organized by the Los Angeles Poverty Department, the collective whose slogan is “Walk the Talk.”

An important function

The journalist follows Martin through an evening as he closes the park to get ready for a meeting of the solidly established local branch of AA. Farabee says:

At 7 p.m., A.J. opens the gates again and the Drifters and their fellow travelers file in, like a walking Bukowski poem… Some come from as far as Malibu, Orange County and Whittier to remind themselves where they came from or where they could end up.

It is AA policy to serve freely, but this group passes the hat to provide Martin with a small stipend. When the meeting ends at 8:30 p.m., he locks up the park again, this time from the outside, and sleeps on a nearby sidewalk.

As of the most recent news mention, less than a year ago, he was still a fixture. Also, last summer, new water fountains were installed outside the gates of both Skid Row parks.

Reactions?

Source: “He cared for a huge park for free while sleeping under a bridge. His death is a mystery,” NewsObserver.com, 02/19/17
Source: “The Homeless Man Who Runs a Park,” LAWeekly.com, 08/14/14
Source: “Skid Row Gets New, Much-Needed Drinking Fountains,” Curbed.com, 06/29/16
Photo credit: Mark Goebel (Sangre-La.com) via Visualhunt/CC BY

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Entering the World of Protected Work

iowa-city-downtown

Downtown Iowa City

In Iowa City, Iowa, Shelter House helps hundreds of people every year, not only with a place to stay, but with job training and placement. Participants in case management have opportunities to work toward job readiness and employability.

The on-premise computer lab offers workshops in basic computer skills, as well as guidance in applying for housing and food assistance. The job and housing databases are packed with information, and help is available to create a resume.

There are two internal employment services. Fresh Starts is the professional janitorial service, whose workers are employed by area businesses. In the Culinary Starts paid internship program, people learn kitchen and culinary vocabulary, recipe manipulation, menu production, how to use kitchen equipment, and much more.

The website says:

Successful participants will become Servsafe certified and equipped to work in a variety of food service and restaurant settings. The proceeds from our contracted and catered meals go directly towards the food production program and Shelter House’s mission of helping people move beyond homelessness.

In the nation’s capitol, the Transitional Housing Programs for Men who are Homeless are administered by the D.C. Coalition for the Homeless. Six houses of different sizes are home to between 12 and 100 men in various stages of readiness to enter the working world. Some concentrate more on basic supportive services and life skills to prepare for self-sufficiency.

One is the Emery Work Bed Program, described as…

[…] specifically tailored to the needs of homeless men who are employed or in job training… The primary objective is to assist men in sustaining employment and moving into permanent housing. Program participants must be willing to accept case management services, meet with case management staff weekly and develop and follow an Individualized Service Plan.

Eastway Behavioral Healthcare is a private nonprofit mental health agency in Montgomery County, Ohio. In an unprecedented partnership with the county’s homeless service providers and their federal HUD funding, Hope Housing was created.

Eastway’s Laura Ferrell says:

You can’t find a job, you can’t become a productive member of society, you can’t make sure you get all of your medications and keep all of your doctor’s appointments if you don’t know which doorway you might be able to sleep in tonight.

Director Kathy Lind told journalist Thomas Gnau that most of the clients have “a lot of barriers, like mental health or substance abuse, criminal records.” Nevertheless, the time between referral and placement has been as short as 45 minutes. When the residents are ready to go out on their own, the Eastway staff reports, remarkably, “no shortage of landlords who have been willing to work with the program.”

The compassion and conviction are rooted in a hard-headed awareness that helping people get on their feet is a bargain compared to the expenses they could potentially rack up in the form of ER visits, hospitalizations, jail rent, or even such contingencies as winning a lawsuit against the city for one of the injuries that people experiencing homelessness often suffer at the hands of law enforcement.

Hope Housing operates under the “Housing First” model, and, in three years, 48 people have gotten their lives on track and found permanent housing, so it must be doing something right.

Reactions?

Source: “Job Training,” ShelterHouseIowa.org, undated
Source: “Transitional Housing Programs for Men who are Homeless,” DCCFH.org, undated
Source: “Program helps get homeless off streets, into jobs,” MyDaytonDailyNews,com,12/26/16
Photo credit: Alan Light via Visualhunt/CC BY

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Does Tyrone Poole Have the Rental Housing Answer?

tyrone-poole-quote

There are always interesting ways to describe a dire situation, especially such a multi-faceted one as the nation’s affordable housing shortage. For example, in America today, more than 11 million households are giving more than half of their incomes for rent. It is an outrageous proportion, but they are among the lucky ones, to even have the opportunity of paying through the nose to keep their families sheltered.

The federal government can allocate funds and give vouchers to people experiencing homelessness, but it can’t make landlords accept those vouchers and rent them apartments. How could Washington alleviate that situation? Can the federal government educate and inspire landlords? This is an area where the “Act Locally” precept really matters.

People are out there trying to provide temporary shelter and permanent housing. A lot of the resistance manifests itself in zoning laws and other ordinances that are definitely a local concern. Activists need education and empowerment to challenge obstructive and regressive practices in their own cities.

February’s House the Homeless newsletter included an assessment of Ben Carson’s intentions as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and we send good wishes his way. Meanwhile, we look at what one individual has accomplished.

A housing hero

Due to a serious injury and devastating medical costs, young Tyrone Poole found himself homeless in Portland, Oregon. He faced a tight rental market, and every application he submitted required a fee of $30 or even $50. (In some places, crooked managers skim even more, or dishonest aggregators of classified ads sell lists of rentals that are weeks out of date.) The application fee is an ugly custom that should never have become established. People in search of housing are vulnerable, possibly new in town, and beset by many expenses. The cost of processing applications should be built into the landlord’s overall cost of doing business.

Poole saw the need for a service that would help people who don’t look like a very good bet as tenants. His goal was to connect them with property owners willing to rent to someone with an eviction history, or who carries the “felon” label, or to someone with nothing but a government rent voucher in their hand. An early attempt at collecting the necessary information and publishing it as a book did not work out because things changed too fast.

Poole started a different business, made it a success, sold it, and returned to the problem of matching needy people with available rental units and whatever assistance they might qualify for. By now, technology had advanced to where it was possible to create a website that could keep up with changes in real time.

A team of like-minded people joined Poole, who told reporter Andrew Scot Bolsinger:

They believe that I have actually created a market-driven solution to address the homeless problem nationwide. This is something that is funded by consumers and companies, that will never need government grants or donations or assistance in any way once launched.

The dream was for NoAppFee.com to became a “one-stop shopping website, where a single fee connects them to a range of landlords who will accept them.” Landlords paid a fee to list their properties, and the creators tried to amass additional funding through crowdsourcing, but that effort didn’t work. Determined to carry on, Poole told the reporter:

If this project is successful, I will be able to give this rental platform to every single nonprofit organization in America that provides housing assistance. Families will be able to get the keys to a new home as fast as the same day they walked into the shelter or housing program. The extent of their homelessness could be as short as a few hours when it used to be months.

Only last month Laura Bliss, a writer for CityLab.com, caught up with Poole’s project, whose ambitions have expanded to serving renters at every income level. Bliss writes:

A lender at a local bank introduced Poole to Portland’s economic development agency, which was launching a funding contest for civic-minded start-ups by entrepreneurs of color. Poole, who is black, entered in 2014 and won, gaining serious financial backing, free office space, and a host of tech-industry connections.

He signed up eight small management companies to beta-test the new version of NoAppFee.com, which keeps the promise implied by its name by refunding to prospective tenants their initial $35 fee (which pays for a credit and background check) once their first month’s rent has been paid. By the time the first month had passed, the site had 1,700 registered users but had run out of rental units and had to refund a lot of sign-up fees.

In Portland, 14,000 affordable housing units are overseen by the Portland Housing Bureau (PHB). The turnover rate is only about 25% per year, so in any given year there may be 3,500 openings. Yet somewhere around 80,000 local households qualify for these affordable housing slots.

PHB looked for a way to streamline its operations. Policy manager Matthew Tschabold told the reporter:

Someone seeking housing would regularly have to contact 10 to 20 organizations on a weekly basis to find out about vacancies. It was a big burden for people who are already low-income and struggling to live and work in our community.

The Housing Bureau won a cash grant that enabled it to hire Poole’s company, and they are working together to build a .gov website around NoAppFee’s software. Hopefully, it will launch within the year, and, at the same time, the general market version is being retooled. There is much more to know about this innovative program, which can be found on its Facebook page.

Reactions?

Source: “Once Homeless Entrepreneur Now Pairs High Risk Renters With Landlords,” YourBlackWorld.net, 04/10/14
Source: “A Portland Start-Up Is Smashing Barriers to Affordable Housing,” CityLab.com, 01/27/17
Image by Oregon Entrepreneurs Network

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Back to the Grassroots in Eugene, Oregon

eugene-oregonOne school of thought believes that funneling all help, and all the helped, through official channels should be the only permissible route. In some places, that philosophy goes even further, to a conviction that anyone who says, “No, thank you” to a solution the government insists on, becomes totally undeserving of help from any source.

Some, like Kelly Boyd of Eugene, Oregon, want to see the giving spirit flourish at the most grassroots, person-to-person level. Soon after moving to town, he filled the bed of his pickup truck with clothes and blankets, and attached to the tailgate a sign that said, “Get One, Give One.”

It wasn’t long before the Ordinance Enforcement Office left a business card and a warning. Anthony Kustura reported:

The note said Boyd must stop putting things in the back of the truck because he is in violation of city code.

The City says Boyd is creating a “liveability impact” and that neighbors complained about finding trash in the street.

Four months later, Boyd was running (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) for a City Council seat. He told local TV station KMTR that aside from the “Get One, Give One” truck, other individual efforts were being squelched. His number-one issue is homelessness, of which he says city officials take an “archaic view.”

Boyd advocates a more organic approach, encouraging citizens to individually help each other. He is sensitive to the fact that many people experiencing homelessness do not want to call on official resources — for what they consider good and sufficient reasons — and their opinions about the matter ought to be respected.

Also, he wants the city to keep a more careful eye on things like cost overruns for public projects, but is not against taxing or spending:

Instead of having boutique taxes to take care of various needs, go ahead and build a groundswell of increased jobs, increased pay, so that there is a greater tax base in our area so that there is a constant resource and income for our city budget.

This facet of Boyd’s platform is interesting because it resonates with the success story of Oklahoma City, whose mayor convinced it to pass an across-the-board sales tax, and a strong case can be made that this move actually blossomed into citywide revitalization.  As always, things are relative and situational. For instance, while a groundswell of increased jobs might sound attractive, many cities have found to their regret that letting a prison or a pollution-producing industry move in can have its drawbacks.

And yet, there is always a tradeoff. The City of Eugene said that people in the neighborhood complained about the trash left behind after the freebie truck’s visits. This is speculation, but it seems as if a person who provides such a service would, could, and should tidy up the area, and especially, would be able to recruit a helper or two in this task.

Boyd and his wife do their volunteer work inspired by their “greater calling, that the needs of all should be met.” In other words, it is a faith-based effort, and people with church-going backgrounds are well accustomed to the idea of helping out with the setup and the cleanup at communal activities.

Making it official

Presumably, this type of logistical methodology is what a City Council with a Boyd-like mindset could approve. They could make ordinances saying, “Go ahead and have your event, and take video with your cell phone of the cleanup process, and of the pristine area when you’re done. Then, shoot some footage of the volunteer crew dropping off the trash at the City’s designated spot.”

Looked at from another angle, in most cities, neighborhoods have things like block parties and coordinated garage sales. Parades, mob shopping days, sports events, and a lot of other happenings tend to leave behind debris. In some college towns, entire neighborhoods successfully impersonate slums. Depending on who causes it, a certain amount of urban mess is accepted. Somehow, everyone lives to party another day.

Also, it seems like a certain amount of selective reinforcement goes on, regarding outdoor group activities, which is all part of the criminalization of homelessness. For the authorities to suppress and even outlaw grassroots activism is counterproductive on many levels.

Reactions?

Source: “City tells man to stop placing items in truck for homeless to take,” NBC16.com, 01/28/16
Source: “Meet the candidate: Kelly Boyd runs for Eugene City Council Ward 1,” NBC16.com, 04/02/16
Source: “A City Refurbished for Health,” Childhood Obesity News, 01/20/17
Photo credit: eddiecoyote via Visualhunt/ CC BY

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In Praise of Good Works

knit-hats-stacked-on-tableIt feels so good to recognize and celebrate heroes. Let’s keep that momentum going. First of all, right here in Austin, Texas, the 16th annual House the Homeless Thermal Underwear party took place on December 30, hosted by First Baptist Church.

The event supplied somewhere around 600 people with “winterizing” gear including thermal underwear, scarves, hats, gloves, ponchos, and safety whistles. There was a hot meal and a live band.

Fox7 TV news broadcast a segment with particularly interesting words from House the Homeless President Richard R. Troxell and volunteer Sherry Sampson. A second TV station, WKBN27, emphasized another aspect of the winter preparedness event, with the headline and subtitle:

“Advocacy group to examine ‘criminalization of homelessness'”

As House the Homeless prepared homeless individuals for winter, the organization was also surveying them about their interactions with police

They went into the matter in some depth, including an interview with Officer Shelly Borton, who works for the city’s Homelessness Outreach Team, “which is made up of two police officers, behavioral health specialists, a paramedic and a social worker.” Also, Richard discusses the repercussions on people’s lives when homelessness is criminalized, and people are cited for such violations as sitting in a public place:

If you’re an employer and you’ve got to decide who to employ and you’ve got somebody with no tickets here and somebody with 10 tickets that are criminal in nature, you’re going take the person without the tickets. It becomes a barrier for you to escape homelessness, even though you’re making every effort.

San Francisco was the source of a slightly offbeat story where the hero contributed not food or clothing, but an example of principled defiance. Last March a Department of Public Works employee declined to help tear down a makeshift dwelling. Instead, she filmed the sad demolition and added a commentary complete with salty language and encouragement to a co-worker to refuse also.

Her matter-of-fact attitude makes us forget that the Bay Area is a hard place to survive in, and the possibility of being fired is no joking matter. It takes courage to take a stand. A DPW spokesperson confirmed that…

To refuse could be construed as insubordination, and subject the employee to disciplinary action, dependent on the findings of a thorough and fair investigation…

The person who posted the 2:19 video to YouTube wrote:

I’ve been hearing about a number of DPW workers refusing to be a part of the injustice taking place on our streets right now.

This final story is not current, but it is timeless. World-renowned poet W. H. Auden was remembered by friends for his unwillingness to be seen doing a good deed. Edward Mendelson
described it as going out of his way to seem selfish, when in fact he was very generous. For instance, in the 1950s, Auden worked on a TV production where he demanded to be paid early and made a memorably unpleasant scene about it.

Later on, when the canceled paycheck made its way back to the accounting office, someone noticed that Auden had signed it over to a third person. The recipient was Dorothy Day, who ran the Catholic Workers homeless shelter in New York City, which the fire department was trying to close down. Auden’s contribution paid for the necessary repairs and safety updates to keep the shelter open.

Reactions?

Source: “Thermal Giveaway held in Austin to help the homeless get through winter with some warmth,” Fox7Austin.com, 12/30/16
Source: “Advocacy group to examine ‘criminalization of homelessness’,” WKBN.com, 01/01/17
Source: “San Francisco Worker Refuses To Help Tear Down Homeless Man’s Dwelling,” ThinkProgress.org, 03/09/16
Source: “The Secret Auden,” NYBooks.com, 03/20/14
Image by House the Homeless

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Holiday Spirit

frio-fame-homelessToday, in the holiday spirit, we concentrate on some good things. Mainly, there is still time to contribute to this year’s Thermal Underwear Drive sponsored by Austin’s House the Homeless, so please keep it in mind. Other than that, we collected a few stories of people who make a difference to America’s displaced persons.

In New York, the TimesUnion published the story of how a 10-year-old 5th-grader named Elizabeth Floud emptied her savings account to buy pizza for people staying at the Shelters of Saratoga. Reporter Wendy Liberatore relates how Elizabeth’s mother realized that $30 wouldn’t be enough for 40 people, and took it to the next level:

So she started a gofundme page, Pizza for the Less Fortunate. She and Elizabeth aimed for $150, but attracted $585. Bucciero’s Pizza in Mechanicville heard of the drive and decided to donate all the pies.

That left $200 to give to the Shelters of Saratoga for future needs, with the remainder going to the food pantry of the local Community Center.

In Washington, D.C., two months ago, Floyd Carter met a married couple who decided to skip their usual Christmas gifts for each other and help Carter get a place to live after three years of homelessness.

Rachel and Erik Cox are both attorneys who understood the reality that a housing voucher, which Carter had already had for months, was worth nothing unless a landlord would actually rent him an apartment. Somehow they made that happen. Since becoming a housed person, Carter, whose ultimate goal is to become a chef, has received job offers that could be the initial ladder rungs to take him there.

West Coast

On the other side of the country, in Orange County, California, nurse Julia Cross was celebrated by the Orange County Register as one of its 100 most influential people. Cross is a licensed vocational nurse who makes rounds on her bicycle, covering a 40-mile route twice a week to visit homeless camps and give medical aid to those who are unable or unwilling to obtain it from other sources.

Along that stretch of the Santa Ana River, sometimes called “Skid River,” the already high number of people experiencing homelessness has grown by 500 over a very short time. Not surprisingly, veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts are among the residents.

Journalist David Whiting writes:

People here live without running water, electricity, heat. Some are mentally ill. Others are addicts. Many are both.

But listen patiently and you hear wisdom, reminders of how mortal we are; how a twist or turn can send any life on a spiral no one would want and some can’t escape…

Each person Cross treats […] has a unique and telling story filled with caution, struggle and, often, optimism.

Working through the nonprofit Illumination Foundation, the nurse not only dispenses first aid but works toward the end of homelessness. Earlier this year, the newspaper featured a long article about her activities, which include visits to the infamous Skid Row area of nearby Los Angeles.

Whiting quotes Julia Cross, daughter of a doctor who “never billed a patient who couldn’t afford it”:

I think the tide has to turn, that society has to embrace the concept that the healthier we are, the less cost there is to take care of the sick. Without adequate health care, the whole house of cards collapses.

Oh, and did we mention the Thermal Underwear Drive?

Reactions?

Source: “10-year-old gives up savings to feed homeless,” TimesUnion.com, 12/22/16
Source: “Homeless man gets new home thanks to couple who forfeited their own Christmas for him,” KLEWtv.com, 12/23/16
Source: “Most Influential 2016: Julia Cross is a nurse who helps the homeless,” OCRegister.com, 12/24/16
Source: “Nurse makes her rounds at an unusual place — a homeless camp by the Santa Ana River,” OCRegister.com, 05/12/16
Photo credit: fotografar via Visualhunt/CC BY-SA

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Austin Is All About HUGGS

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

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

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

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

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

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

A minimalist world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Image by House the Homeless

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The Anti-Good Samaritan Bill

vintage-photograph-buildingThis spring in St. Louis, Missouri, an alderman proposed a bill that would effectively criminalize the unlicensed giving of anything to homeless people. Such items as blankets and bottled water could only be distributed if the giver had a vending license.

Reverend Larry Rice, of the city’s New Life Evangelical Center (NLEC), called this the Anti-Good Samaritan Bill, saying:

It’s wrong. It’s a fraud the way they’re going at this. People are hurting and they should not penalize, nor criminalize, either the homeless or those who want to help the homeless.

NLEC was founded in 1972, its first home the trailer where Rev. and Mrs. Rice lived. Later, it occupied a Victorian fixer-upper, and featured a coffeehouse, guitar music, and puppet shows. It also nurtured the people Rice called “the hurting and the homeless.” When the couple’s first child was due to be born any day, they learned about adversity firsthand:

When Penny went to the clinic to see about her rash and her swollen legs, they wouldn’t accept her because I didn’t make a regular income.

Before long, the NLEC offered not only emergency housing, but help hotlines, free clothing stores, counseling services, a youth center, classes, a leadership training program, and two publications, and did outreach work with penal institutions, hospitals, and the like. They were able to buy the old YWCA on Locust Street, the five-story building in which the Center still resides (pictured on this page.)

In the ensuing 40 years, increasing downtown gentrification has made the NLEC’s presence undesirable. Apparently a bar called Blood & Sand is particularly resentful. Developers, investors, and speculators see the Mission as standing between them and their own mission of gaining greater wealth. But ironically, for many of the neighbors it would be silly to say “Not in my backyard” because technically the area has been the NLEC’s backyard since 1976.

Generally, 50 or so people would actually live at the center, which presented a problem because the occupancy permit was for only 32 beds. Authorities claim that as many as 300 street people sleep there at night, and Rice admits to around 200. The city tried to close the NLEC in the spring of 2015, with the mission’s attorneys arguing that the city must not be allowed to repress the carrying out of religious duties.

Another attempt

Last month, another effort was made to displace the NLEC. The city’s Department of Human Services spokesperson Eddie Roth explained to reporter Elliott Davis that the institution is close to the public library, a children’s park, and a school attended by least 500 teenagers. Even though police conduct surveillance of the area from parked cars for 16 hours a day, the Mission’s presence is seen as posing unacceptable dangers.

Roth said all the city’s other “dozens of facilities” conduct their affairs in a way that is respectful to their neighbors. What he characterizes as a lack of respect is the way NLEC donors hold up traffic while dropping off loads of clothes and food, especially on Saturday mornings.

Meanwhile, an online petition objecting to Bill 66, the “Anti- Good Samaritan Law,” garnered 1,500 supporters. The measure was supposed to have been voted on in September, but the official government web page mentions no activity beyond the first reading in May.

The attempted November shutdown of NLEC did not happen. Plans were made for the Thanksgiving dinner that feeds around 400 people each year, prepared and served by 100 or so volunteers, who also give out free clothes. The police were ordered to prevent donations from being dropped off for the Thanksgiving dinner and clothing distribution.

City spokesperson Roth also charged that the NLEC acts as a magnet to draw homeless people from the entire region into central St. Louis where they are given shelter for a month and then turned loose on the streets, increasing the burden on the city’s other homeless services.

We close with a few cogent points made by Bill McClellan in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

Officials have asked members of the St. Louis Homeless Services Network if they could pick up the slack if the city were to close Rice’s New Life Evangelistic Center. The answer has been, no, we could not pick up the slack.

Rice […] provides an indispensable service, and he does so without public money.

If you’re a homeless man and you call the city’s Homeless Hotline […] you will likely be directed to New Life. Yes, the city regularly refers people to the shelter it has voted to close.

Reactions?

Source: “Proposed bill would require a permit before giving to homeless,” KMOV.com, 07/06/16
Source: “Chapter 4 — Building the New Community,” NewLifeEvangelisticCenter.org, undated
Source: “Police stop donations in front of St. Louis homeless shelter on Thanksgiving,” Fox2now.com, 11/28/16
Source: “McClellan: City’s Vote to Close Shelter Was a Gift for Rice,” Questia.com, 12/28/14
Image by NLEC

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Ultimate Sacrifices

weaponsEvery now and then, House the Homeless explores the difficulties encountered by people who help the unhoused. “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished” related the story of how David Henderson, editor of Poverty Insights, bought a Greyhound bus ticket for someone else and encountered what he calls the Samaritan Tax, an $18 “gift ticket fee,” which can only be waived under very annoying and inconvenient circumstances.

Last summer we considered some “People Who Feed People” and their struggles with police, neighborhood organizations, zoning laws, and local health departments. Food trucks may be towed and fines may be levied. Municipal administrations have numerous ways to make the lives of givers miserable.

Last week, we looked at some of the pushback against tiny houses and the people who generously build and donate them.

All across America, volunteers give a whole lot of time and energy, and money they could be spending on themselves. Sometimes they work obsessively to keep old vehicles moving, so breakfasts can be delivered. They deprive themselves of sleep or even food, and go out in all kinds of weather.

Over the years, this kind of dedication takes its toll. But we’re not talking about gradual attrition of health. We’re talking about helpers of people experiencing homelessness, who have been deliberately killed.

Shoeless in Georgia, Clueless in New York

In April of 2014 Donnie Reed, the 40-year-old father of three children, was stabbed to death in Rancho Cucamonga parking lot. The California man was with some friends at a sports bar, and when it closed they ran into where some strangers were harassing a homeless man.

After Reed suggested that the antagonists knock it off, one of them stabbed him in the chest and stabbed Reed’s friend in the neck. (The friend survived.) Apparently the murder remains unsolved. Reed’s wife told journalist Melissa MacBride:

He’s not a fighter. He was trying to help somebody, and this is what happened to him for doing something he would have done for anybody.

Last fall in Atlanta, a 24-year-old National Guard sergeant who had served three tours of duty in Afghanistan was was shot to death near a homeless shelter where he had gone on a Sunday morning to donate shoes — something that he had done without incident on other occasions.

Attig Eminue, whose family relocated to the United States from Nigeria 15 years ago, was killed for no apparent reason. Crime Stoppers offered a reward, which was increased in the following month. The police believed that the shooter was a 21-year-old named Harold Dodson, who had already accumulated five felony convictions, but didn’t know where he was. Toward the end of October, Dodson was arrested, charged, and denied bail.

In June of this year, only a block from his home in the Bronx, a high school senior was stabbed in the chest several times. Carl Ducasse, who planned to become an attorney, will not be joining any profession, because someone begrudged the teenager’s donation of $2 to a shelter resident.

As the 17-year-old bled to death, the killer stole his phone and fled the scene. Eventually, another 17-year-old was arrested and held without bail while 500 people attended funeral masses for Ducasse.

Only two months ago, in another part of New York, the driver of a van belonging to an organization that helps homeless women and children was shot to death while a client (en route to fill out a housing application) was also in the vehicle. The tragedy caused the nonprofit Women in Need, Inc. (WIN) to keep its vehicles off the road for a while.

For reasons undisclosed to the public, police characterized the driver’s murder as the denouement of a “personal feud.” But since WIN provides, among other things, shelter for women who are fleeing domestic violence, the killing could certainly have been an act of revenge against a system that dares to steal a man’s chosen victim.

Reactions?

Source: “Good Samaritan dies trying to help homeless man in Rancho Cucamonga,” ABC7.com, 04/13/14
Source: “Police arrest Harold Dodson in murder of Army sergeant who was helping homeless shelter,” GeorgiaNewsday.com, 10/27/15
Source: “Teen Stabbed To Death After Someone Saw ‘Gift’ They Gave Homeless Man,” MadWorldNews.com, 06/20/16
Source: “Borough Park shooting: Driver of homeless service van killed, NYPD says,” amNY.com, 08/30/16
Photo credit: Hakon Siguroarson via Visualhunt/CC BY-SA

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