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The Unauthorized Dwellers

Especially in the wake of recent climate disasters, the nation’s highways, bridges, and overpasses are in sorry shape. It follows that the renovation of the antiquated infrastructure must be a good thing, right?

Of course it is — for all but about 100,000 Americans. That is the estimated number of people experiencing homelessness who will be displaced and traumatized if every needed project in those categories actually gets done. Nationally, on average, it appears that each bridge or overpass provides a “roof” for between three and five individuals who make their homes beneath it.

In Austin, Texas, for instance, the renovation of the IH35 (Interstate Highway 35) corridor alone comprises more than 50 major projects. To accomplish this massive, multi-million dollar undertaking, an estimated 200 people will be forced to evacuate their humble dwellings, with nowhere to go. (If better accommodations were available, wouldn’t they already be there?)

These Americans are likely to be physically disabled, mentally unstable, and yes, even addicted. They may have zero money.

Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless says:

I know that it takes 12-18 months to get disabled folks a disability check ($735 per month, which houses no one but can be coupled with subsidy dollars to house people when and if there is housing stock).

The folks we are talking about may not even have the all-important “papers” that are required before a person is even recognized as existing. The details are daunting, and as local Director of Legal Aid for the Homeless, Richard is very conscious of all the roadblocks, and especially of a sore point that very much affects the homeless advocacy community.

He says:

Our housing stock has been depleted with 15,000 Katrina survivors, the veteran’s push (which only housed the mentally stable vets) and another 5,000 Harvey survivors. Note that these people all line-butted in front of other homeless people who have been waiting for housing and wage relief for years.

Imagine the city as a gigantic air mattress. When a person sits on it, air is squashed out from under them, and moves to another part of the mattress, which bulges more. If another person sits on the other side, the air inside moves around again. But the mattress still contains the same amount of air.

What we are saying here is, when people experiencing homelessness are dislodged from their locations, they inevitably wind up somewhere else — perhaps the hospital. The average unhoused individual might have enough funds to pay for three to five minutes in a hospital, if that.

Or they might commit a crime for the deliberate purpose of being incarcerated. The bills will mount up, and this pointless, costly game of musical chairs is paid for by the population at large. It takes money from everyone’s pockets — more, in the long run, than actually housing the tiny percentage of Americans who are not in tip-top condition. The forgotten people need a way back into society that is not just another temporary fix.

Austin as exemplar

In this, as in so many ways, Austin is a leader. What happens there is predictive of how things will go in other places — the civilized and caring places, anyway. It will take extensive collaboration between local, state, and federal bureaucracies, but if Austin can figure it out, that will be a great benefit for people experiencing homelessness throughout America.

Richard is working with TxDOT (Texas Department of Transportation) to create a model project that will set the standard and be emulated by other American cities that embark on much-needed renovations. A financial commitment for “Displacement” needs to be figured into the equation.

He calls for the housing of people to be included in every highway budget under a specific line item, saying:

It should cover all temporary transitional housing costs while surrounding communities can create the needed housing.

In the best-case scenario, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development would simply house the displaced people, rather than continue to shuffle them around from pillar to post, as the old expression goes. There were public meetings, attended by representatives of TxDOT who initially labored under the misapprehension that a bunch of folks could be housed with the snap of a finger or the wave of a baton.

Again, if this were so easily done, seems like it would have happened already. If there was another place for the unauthorized dwellers to be, either temporary or long-term, they would probably already be there, and the issue would not even arise now. So to ignore that significant fact is rather disingenuous, to say the least.

Still, TxDOT has been instrumental in bringing together key organizations and elected officials to figure this thing out. This blog will follow along to observe, cheerlead, and encourage the people of Austin to aspire to make this a model project.

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Photo credit: born1945 via Visualhunt/CC BY

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Anything for a Roof in America

House the Homeless looked at the worldwide dilemma of people who commit crimes for the specific purpose of being locked up. Jail or prison may be just as dangerous as the streets, but at least there are laws requiring that inmates be fed.

Then, we zeroed in on the U.S.A. But the subject is not finished with. Last week’s post only highlighted some of the less serious crimes done in the name of finding refuge. Purposeful incarceration is sometimes a tactic with higher stakes, or at least with more considered long-range planning.

In Illinois, David Potchen told authorities he would plead guilty to a bank robbery only if he received the maximum sentence of eight years. He had been released from an earlier bank robbery sentence after serving more than 12 years, and was able to find a job.

But then Potchen was laid off, and could find no other work within walking distance of the motel where he lived, and was evicted. After spending one night in the woods, he took a little over a thousand dollars from a bank teller and then sat outside on a chunk of concrete to await the police.

In Oregon, a man asked people to call 911, and used other means of trying to annoy the local police enough to lock him up, including a false report of being hit by a car. Finally he handed a bank teller a note that said, “This is a holdup. Give me a dollar,” and sat on the bank lobby floor awaiting arrest. He told the authorities and the press that he needed medical care.

In Washington, Naina Bajekal reported on a man who gave a bank teller a note demanding one dollar. She writes:

The note explained that Gorton, 64, had no weapons and didn’t want to hurt anyone. After being handed the dollar, he waited outside for police to arrest him…

Six months earlier […] Gorton walked into a bank and handed over a note saying: “This is a robbery.” He asked for $1,400 and waited for police to arrive and arrest him. He told police he would soon be homeless because he hadn’t paid his rent. Until that incident, Gorton had no criminal history.

In Wyoming, a 59-year-old woman passed a demand note to a bank teller and accepted several thousand dollars. Outside, she offered some of the cash to passing strangers, threw some of it in the air, and sat down to wait for the police. “I want to go back to prison,” she told them plainly. She had been there before, and found it preferable to being assaulted on the streets. Liz Miller’s report, which describes the challenges faced by former inmates, is recommended in its entirety.

A Nevada man who wanted to return to prison brandished a steak knife to rob a bank. He had been convicted of at least five previous robbery charges. Despite having stayed free for eight years, he just couldn’t manage life on the outside. At age 78, what else was he going to do? Although his public defender inexplicably asked for a shorter term, the geriatric thief was sentenced to 15 years, which will probably solve his housing problem for the rest of his life.

A Tennessee woman stabbed herself in the shoulders, stomach, and leg, and filed a false domestic violence complaint, alleging assault by an ex-girlfriend. She had hoped to be admitted to a women’s shelter, but went to jail instead.

Also in Tennessee, a man recently released from prison was arrested on charges of vandalism, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. Just to insure that he would be re-incarcerated, he also confessed to an invented murder and threatened to “kill everyone and himself.” A sheriff’s department captain said:

It’s really sad to see someone that gets in such shape that he had rather be in jail than anywhere else.

Reactions?

Source: “Homeless ex-con tells judge he robbed bank to get caught,” ChicagoTribune.com, 02/25/15
Source: “Homeless Man Robs Bank for One Dollar to Get Free Health Care,” Gawker.com, 08/26/13
Source: “Washington Man Robs Banks to Avoid Being Homeless,” TIME.com, 04/15/15
Source: “Homeless Woman Robs WY Bank, Throws Money in Air, & Waits for Police,” SmObserved.com, 08/01/16
Source: “Homeless guy robs bank so he can return to prison,” NYPost.com, 08/02/17
Source: “False Allegation of DV: Self-Inflicted Stab Wounds Land Suspect In Jail,” SaveServices.org, 05/17/12
Source: “Homeless man admits to murder so he can go to jail,” TimesDaily.com, 10/18/16
Photo by miss_millions on Visualhunt/CC BY

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Prison As Shelter in the U.S.A.

In Wisconsin Death Trip, Michael Lesy retrieves true news about America in the late 1800s. Even then, an arsonist who didn’t get caught might have to turn himself in, because the whole point of the crime was to get in out of the weather and be fed.

House the Homeless recently took a world tour of news stories about people who prefer jail to the streets or shelters. Today, the focus is on the United States.

In Michigan, Michael Morgan was arrested for minor offenses 105 times in 18 years, and managed to stay locked up for about half of those years. Journalist Anthony Bartkewicz wrote:

Morgan admitted to getting arrested on purpose at times so he could have “three meals a day and roof over my head when it’s cold outside,” but he hopes to break the cycle one day.

In Texas, Jonathan Harrison repeatedly called the police emergency line asking for baby aspirin and a place to stay. When an officer arrived to talk with him, Harrison was found to be holding marijuana, which the officer confiscated. So Harrison called 911 again, demanding that his marijuana be returned and threatening to call the media. He did finally manage to get arrested and jailed that night.

An Ohio woman asked pharmacy personnel to call the police to give her a ride to a homeless shelter. The police arrived, but said that giving her a ride was not their job. The local newspaper reported:

The woman then demanded to be taken to jail, but officers said she had committed no crime. She then approached the store pharmacy counter and yelled that she was going to rob the pharmacist. She then refused to leave the store unless she was under arrest…

It worked, as she was charged with disorderly conduct and taken to jail.

In Montana, a 27-year-old man stole a bottle of beer, drank it while waiting outside for the authorities to arrive, and told the sheriff’s people that he wanted to go to jail. The local newspaper reported:

Matauaina, who was born in American Samoa, has been in Butte for several months, and apparently continues to commit petty crimes to get out of the cold, authorities said.

In Illinois, a man broke a drug store window on purpose. His written statement included the information that he was careful to wait until no customers were within range, before throwing bricks through the glass. He also told the police that he had run out of money to rent motel rooms. Journalist Lorraine Swanson wrote, “He wanted to get arrested to so he could go back to jail and get home, according to the charges.”

Bricks are very popular. In Missouri, a man described as “desperate to go back to jail” pursued his goal by using bricks to bash police cars. Officer Michael Herschberger, told a reporter:

A lot of the homeless have problems where they’ve been banned or they’re no longer permitted in shelters that can house them in times that are cold. Some of them take measures of getting arrested so they can have a place to get out of the cold.

Police told the man to just come into the station, next time, and report himself for trespassing on police property.

A Georgia man, recently released from prison, wanted to go back because he was homeless and hungry, and did not intend to spend another night on the streets. The Lance Brown story is rather complicated, and is best understood from the original reportage, but one detail stands out. Brown first tried threatening to kill the president, but was not taken seriously.

Only then did the hurl his brick through the window of the U.S. Post Office and Federal Court Building. After a great deal of inconvenience for everyone, he was sentenced to a month in jail and six months in a halfway house, which is not much of a win.

In Boise, Idaho, the penalty for sleeping outside was $1,000 and/or a six-month jail sentence. And $150 for court costs. Richard Morgan wrote:

Most of those ticketed spend time in jail, which in my opinion has better facilities and room per person than the shelters and you are not kicked out all day, no matter what the weather.

Volusia County, Florida, eventually figured out that a pool of about 50 people experiencing homelessness had cost the taxpayers $12 million over the past few decades, but…

The $12 million only covers basic expenses to get a suspect in the back of a police car and inside a courtroom for the first time. The tally would climb by millions if it was combined with the $65 per day it costs to incarcerate someone in Volusia County and cover their medical bills.

James Purdy, a former prosecutor turned Public Defender, told the press that between five and 10 homeless people every month purposely try to get into jail, and it seems to correlate with when their social security checks run out, and this ruse has been an “open secret” all along.

Reactions?

Source: “Wisconsin Death Trip,” WordPress.com, 06/19/08
Source: “Homeless Michigan man arrested 105 times in two decades: ‘It’s a way of life…,” NYDailyNews.com, 10/15/12
Source: “Homeless Man Arrested After Repeatedly Calling 9-1-1,” KBTX.com, 02/17/14
Source: “Homeless woman causes disturbance so she could spend night in jail,” CantonRep.com, 02/17/14
Source: “Police: Homeless man on crime spree to escape cold,” Mtstandard.com, 02/11/14
Source: “Homeless man damages police car so he can stay in warm jail, police say,” KMBC.com, 02/16/16
Source: “Homeless Man Broke Windows So He Could Go Back to Jail: Cops,” Patch.com, 08/07/15
Source: “Homeless Man Commits Crime Just To Go Back To Prison,” BlackNews.com, 05/02/12
Source: “Stop Treating the Homeless like Criminals for Camping on Public Lands,” Change.org, undated
Source: “Arresting, jailing homeless has cost Volusia taxpayers millions,” News-JournalOnline.com, 11/23/13
Photo by Ricardo Liberato on Visualhunt/CC BY-SA

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Prison As Shelter — A Worldwide Problem

Recently, Kathryn Phelan wrote about the tragedy that brought so many immigrants to America:

Forty percent of Ireland’s population died in the mid-1800s, in the Great Famine. Men stole food, either to feed their families or in the hope of going to jail, where they were guaranteed bread and porridge every day. The jail was overrun with petty thieves who all had the same idea.

This problem still exists there. For one example, an Irish Examiner headline read, “Homeless man asked to be arrested.” But a simple request was not enough to accomplish that goal, so the man told the authorities he would do something stupid, and did. In a pharmacy, he went behind the counter to rummage through boxes of pills, and this got him a five-month jail sentence.

A month later, in Hereford, England, a man asked the police to lock him up, was refused, and had to break the window of a pharmacy and grab the closest item from it, in order to accomplish his ambition. Around the same time, another Englishman, who had narrowly escaped serious injury or death when the dumpster he slept in was picked up, nicked two cans of beer in an effort to be arrested, but suffered disappointment when the judge only sentenced him to one day in jail.

Another British subject, who had been our of prison for less than a month, stole a bottle of vodka as his ticket back to four more weeks of shelter and food. In yet another part of England, this headline and subtitle told pretty much the whole story:

Homeless Teesside man commits hundreds of drink-related crimes to get a bed in jail: Michael Patrick Williams in court after wandering into local police station clutching an open can of cider a fortnight after doing exact same thing.

Although Williams’ record included almost 400 similar offenses, sometimes the magistrate would thwart his purpose by sentencing him to only one day, and then declaring that the time had been served by his showing up in court.

More recently, a nearby British town produced this news item:

Bradley Grimes had been given a four-month suspended prison sentence for breaching anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs) by sleeping in shop doorways. The 23-year-old asked the court to activate the sentence and take him off the streets.

Grimes, suffering from autism and a brain tumor, had been a ward of the government since the age of seven. On this occasion, he asked to be jailed because of his upcoming birthday, when he wanted to wake up somewhere warm with food to eat.

In Durham (also England), a homeless man walked into a chain store armed with a pool cue in one hand and a machete in the other, in a successful attempt to be arrested. But just in case those weapons were not provocation enough, he also carried two billiard balls in a sock.

In the Australian city of Waterford, the manager of a shelter told the press:

This time of year is always berserk. We either have homeless people trying to injure themselves to get a warm hospital bed or committing petty crimes to get a jail cell for the night.

In Perth, a 33-year-old man who had been thrown out of his lodging that day, entered a police station and turned himself in, asking for a five-year sentence. There were no outstanding warrants, but the six-inch knife in his backpack was enough to get him housed in a jail cell for four months.

How cold is Iceland? Cold enough so that police will occasionally let people voluntarily inhabit jail cells without being charged with a crime. Emilia S. Olafsdottir Kaaber wrote:

Demand for space at the homeless shelter on Lindargata has been unusually high as of late. “We’re full night after night and have at times had to turn people away…” said Sveinn Allan Morthens, manager of the shelter.

For The Guardian, the manager of a small independent charity in Britain wrote about the difficulty of finding shelter for a convicted arsonist, which is for various reasons more difficult than finding a place for sex offender. It is especially futile to send the “single, non-priority homeless” to the government for help.

The anonymous social worker wrote:

We are supporting more and more people who, just five years ago, would have received help via the Adult Social Care budget. This has been pared back so far that a choice is made on who is worthy enough to be supported.we quickly fall into the trap of using “in” terms such as complex need and high risk almost as an excuse…
Labels are so easy to throw about. They land conveniently on the shoulders of those we want to keep in a box. Challenging, attention-seeking and damaged are common labels and we stop seeing the person and instead see a problem which we feel the need to contain.

All over the world, many people accept the sad fact that prison is their social welfare safety net of last resort.

Reactions?

Source: “Lost,” TheSunMagazine.org, June 2017
Source: “Homeless man asked to be arrested,” IrishExaminer.com, 06/05/14
Source: “Homeless man pleads with police to lock him up,” HerefordTimes.com, 07/21/14
Source: “Homeless man who slept in a skip gets arrested as ‘life in prison is better’,” BriefReport.co.uk, 03/08/14
Source: “Homeless thief stole so he could go back behind bars,” BriefReport.co.uk, 02/07/14
Source: “Homeless Teesside man commits hundreds of drink-related crimes to get a bed in jail,” GazetteLive.co.uk, 01/20/14
Source: “Homeless man asks judge to send him to prison for birthday ‘so he can wake up somewhere warm’,” Independent.co.uk, 10/13/17
Source: “Homeless man wielded machete in Durham Tesco in act of desperation,” TheNorthernEcho.co.uk, 03/10/12
Source: “Homeless people committing illegal offences and injuring themselves after being turned away from shelters,” CourierMail.com, 06/15/13
Source: “Homeless man pulled knife at police station in bid to stay overnight,” STV.tv, 05/22/13
Source: “Homeless Request Overnight Stay in Prison,” IcelandReview.com, 05/27/15
Source: “With winter coming, would my homeless clients be better off back in prison?,” TheGuardian.com, 10/22/16
Photo by Daniel Lobo (Daquella manera) on Visualhunt/CC BY

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State of the Year

Last month, at Austin’s 25th Homeless Memorial, participants read the names of 187 poverty-stricken people who died in Austin this year. Earlier this month, the Austin American-Statesman published a commentary by House the Homeless president Richard R. Troxell.

He discussed three city ordinances that harm thousands of people for no good reason, and needlessly create conditions that act as barriers to people trying to escape homelessness. There seems to be a belief among law enforcement professionals that the criminal justice system should be wielded as a tool to compel people to seek treatment.

But the resources to treat them don’t exist, so now they still have no treatment, plus a criminal record. Richard says:

It is the responsibility of every municipality to provide for the welfare of every citizen and to protect every citizen. While most cities are making serious efforts to house people who find themselves experiencing homelessness, almost all of those same cities are failing to protect those who they do not house from the winter elements. This is unacceptable.

An oldie but goodie

We take this opportunity to remind readers about a publication by the National Coalition for the Homeless, “Resolve to Fight Poverty,” which is available as a downloadable PDF file. A person might say, “Wait a minute — this thing is dated 2012!” But nobody is steering you wrong. That document is not obsolete — far from it. The unfortunate truth is, everything in there is still relevant.

An enormous amount of poverty needs to be combatted by any means necessary. People need opportunities and encouragement toward education. Activities need to be organized. The media needs to be alerted about events and informed about issues. Public energy needs to be organized and channeled.

January 1, 2018
First Baptist Church at 901 Trinity Street
12:00 noon – 2:00 p.m.

There is still time to participate in the Thermal Underwear Drive and Annual Survey. If you are in Austin, Texas, be a volunteer. One of the perks is a live performance by PJ Lyles and the South Austin Rockin Gospel Project Band. Please donate to the cause of “winterizing” people who find this winter a particularly tough one.

Thoughts for the holidays

Housed people have some strange ideas about people experiencing homelessness. For instance, they might think every homeless person is some kind of trainwreck. Unenlightened citizens might think, “If they were decent people, they would have friends and relatives. Someone they know would take them in.”

Let’s unpack that assumption. For starters, family might be the problem. You can’t imagine the kinds of abusive situations that people are compelled to escape. Or a natural disaster might be the precipitating incident. Fires and floods are not picky, they devour everyone. Friends and relatives might have been hit by the same disaster, and be looking for help too.

A person might want to help, but if they receive government assistance they can’t take in extra people. Visiting rules exist, and if company stays too long, the tenant can be evicted. Once someone is off Section 8, there’s no getting back on.

Even for independently employed people, renting an apartment can come with very strict rules on the lease, and if you break the rules, for instance by sheltering a friend or two, you get thrown out and are homeless also. It may be that the only people who can really help are those who own their homes — unless they are bound by some kind of homeowners’ organization agreement.

Unceasing disadvantage

We hear that intergenerational wealth accumulation is one of the main markers that betray inequity in a society. This is especially true with minorities, who are notoriously prevented by multiple barriers from accumulating and passing along wealth. Intergenerational wealth equals intergenerational help, and at least some members of the lower middle class used to have it to give.

In many families, a solid homestead was maintained by grandparents, where there was always room for a nephew who just got out of jail, or a granddaughter whose husband wanted to kill the baby. Nowadays, Grandma and Grandpa lost the house in the 2008 debacle; he’s probably dead and she’s a bag lady. Support systems have dissolved.

Put yourself in the shoes of a homeless person. A relative or friend might be willing to take you in, but their husband or wife, not so much. People can’t afford that kind of a risk, to break up their marriage and maybe wind up on the streets themselves.

There are a lot of possible reasons why a person has nobody to stay with. The fact that they can’t find a couch to sleep on is not an indictment of the person.

Reactions?

Source: “Commentary: How Austin could atone for policies that harm the homeless,” MyStatesman.com, 12/15/17
Image by House the Homeless

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The Very Best Way to Spend New Year’s Day

In case you were wondering if the Thermal Underwear Drive will take place again this year, the answer is, of course! The date is January 1, that’s New Year’s Day, and the place is First Baptist Church, 901 Trinity Street, Austin, TX 78701. Guests will attend from 12 noon to 2 p.m.

House the Homeless invites anyone in or near Austin to take part by donating money or by showing up to help share the HUGSS. (That stands for hats, thermals, gloves, socks, and scarves. Oh, and rain ponchos and safety whistles.) Another way to help is by serving the hot lunch. To see many heartwarming photos from last year’s event, check out the Thermal Underwear Drive page.

Also, the page has a donation button. It’s a golden oval that says “Donate.” You can’t miss it. The donation of $35 will equip one person with the winter necessities, but please give whatever you can. Winter is no joke when most of it is spent outdoors — and a hatless, gloveless winter is almost unimaginable.

We’re going to add a special note here about socks. They are vital, and people experiencing homelessness need a lot of them in every season of the year. We’re not saying a new pair every day, but a lot, and here’s why: It is almost impossible to find a way to wash and dry socks. It’s difficult enough just to find a toilet. Keeping clothes clean is, too often, a luxury. Along with pay phones and single room occupancy buildings, laundromats have almost disappeared, and the few that remain are quite expensive.

In that situation, where do you take off your dirty clothes? And what do you wear while they wash and dry? Socks, consequently, are often worn until they are fit for nothing but disposal. A new pair of socks makes a difference that, hopefully, no one reading this page will ever be forced to understand. So please take our word for it. Socks!

Two kinds of history-making

This collection of essays known as the blog has often mentioned the annual surveys that House the Homeless conducts along with the HUGSS event. (That page has a donation button, too.) The survey topics have included work, health, sleep, use of resources, and police interactions. The results are widely shared with the press and other organizations nationwide.

House the Homeless also welcomes volunteers to help with the survey! It is an eye-opening opportunity to take part in a much-needed and truly significant feat of documentation.

Across the nation, many journalists have contributed to the valuable archive of “The Face of Homelessness” type stories. They are personal, subjective, empathic, and vital. The surveys contrast with and complement those narratives with a wider, more encompassing and objective picture. It is one thing to tell the story of a lost person with PTSD or traumatic brain injury, and another thing entirely to grasp the staggering percentages of unhoused Americans who suffer from those debilities and many others.

This is kind of mind-blowing

HtH President and co-founder Richard R. Troxell points out a detail that does not occur to very many safe and comfortable Americans:

These are the homeless for whom there is no housing, although many of them have stood in line since before Hurricane Katrina, who have lost everything and will continue to be stuck on those streets because evacuees from the endless wars (the push to house our veterans), and then more evacuees from Hurricane Harvey, were given the housing that was to have been theirs.

In other words, contrary to the fairness principle of “First come, first served,” what we see happening is “Last come, first served,” as people who have struggled for years to escape homelessness are again pushed to the end of the line. This in no way implies that any human should be left roofless and destitute. If the government would get its priorities straight, and allocate resources toward life rather than death, there could be room, and rooms, for everyone. The problem is not a lack of wherewithal, but a lack of will.

It couldn’t be easier to participate

But let’s get back to the Thermal Underwear shindig. Through the miracle of technology, all the volunteer options are spelled out on the sign-up page, where a volunteer can specify a task and a time slot somewhere between 10 in the morning and three in the afternoon. Overall, the public event is bracketed by two hours of prep time and one hour of cleanup, and not everyone needs to be there for the whole time.

One-hour, two-hour, and three-hour shifts are available. Understandably, many people are not able to volunteer, especially when they live outside the local area. But that doesn’t mean you can’t participate! Did we mention that every page of the House the Homeless website has a donation button?

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Image by House the Homeless

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The SRO — a Much-Needed Housing Solution

The constant shrinkage of the SRO stock (the number of Single Room Occupancy rooms) in America is shameful, and for various historical reasons San Francisco has been particularly hard hit. Recently, Frances Saux wrote:

A 1979 study counted 26,884 SRO units in San Francisco, and those numbers were diminishing. By 2011, the number of residential units stood at 18,910. Those numbers have gone up slightly; in 2015, the city reported a total of 19,166 units, but that includes units that are no longer affordable to low-income residents. Of the Mission’s nearly 1,000 SRO units, 75 — or 8 percent — had become unaffordable for low-income residents by 2015.

Another source says that since the 1970s, more than a third of the city’s SRO stock has disappeared. Many bad things have happened to these buildings, like arson fires set by landlords who wanted to get rid of indigent tenants and build something new and expensive. The Mission SRO Collaborative formed to raise tenant awareness about that danger.

In 2012, a survey carried out buy a coalition of nonprofit agencies learned that “as many as half of SRO residents lived in buildings where there was no elevator, or one that wasn’t always accessible because it wasn’t always working.” Thousands of elderly and disabled tenants were stuck having to walk up and down many flights of stairs, or stay marooned in their rooms.

In 2014, an estimated 30,000 people lived in San Francisco’s SRO dwellings. In that same year a tourist guide, TripAdvisor.com, spoke quite frankly:

In many cities today, SROs are often associated with the homeless, sometimes with just plain bums. Local government, social service agencies, and parole authorities use these, quite frankly, to dump people who aren’t placeable elsewhere. Poor retired law-abiding people who can’t afford apartments may live near chronic street people, criminals, felony parolees, people recovering (either genuinely or supposedly) from substance abuse, the mentally ill, and others who can’t quite fit into the mainstream.

The literature went on to lament that families who can’t find other shelter often live with several people to a room in SRO establishments, and strongly implied that tourists would really be better off somewhere else. Which actually is a great idea. Stay away, tourists, and leave the poor people’s housing alone.

Elderly, low-income, and disabled tenants have always needed protection from rapacious property owners. In more recent years, SROs have been important for undocumented people. Landlords know how difficult it is to find a place. Tenants are unlikely to complain about leaks or bugs, or otherwise “make trouble” for a landlord when they face a very real risk of winding up homeless or worse.

It is hard to keep track of all the political and financial maneuvering that affects housing. In 1981, San Francisco passed Ordinance 41, whose object was to stop the loss of single residential units via conversion or demolition. Apparently the local ordinances around housing have loopholes that allow an SRO to renovate a room and raise the rent to whatever the market will bear.

And SROs have been renting out rooms via Airbnb, which has in fact been class-action sued by a group of tenants in the Tenderloin district. Obviously, when a property owner has access to wealthy tourists and visiting executives with expense accounts, why should they waste their time with tenants who receive government assistance?

Why indeed? Except for the crazy notion that humans should let human needs triumph over greed.

Reactions?

Source: “SF Mission residential hotels renovated for wealthier tenants,” MissionLocal.org, 08/19/17
Source: “San Francisco lawmakers pass SRO rental cap,” Curbed.com, 02/01/17
Source: “When is a ‘hotel’ not a HOTEL? — TA Guide to SROs,” Tripadvisor.com, 08/08/14
Photo by Daniel X. O’Neil on Visualhunt/CC BY

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Housing Solutions Shunned and Ignored

Ace Backwords, who has written extensively on homeless issues, used to live in a single-room occupancy building (SRO) in Berkeley, California. Although he employs an inelegant synonym, that’s what he’s talking about here:

If they want to solve the homeless problem, one of the first things they need to do is start building thousands and thousands of flophouses. Cheap, little rooms with a bed and a sink in them, and a bathroom down the hall. Unfortunately, they’re a dying breed: flophouses. In fact, a couple months after I moved out of the one on 2nd Street, the phone company bought the building, paid off all the tenants a thousand bucks each to “re-locate” and then turned it into one more bland corporate office building.

In his book Looking Up at the Bottom Line, House the Homeless co-founder and President Richard R. Troxell fondly remembers SROs, of which the country used to have several million. Sometimes, in special cases, a collection of units in a hotel-like structure can be more than just a place to live. Richard describes Garden Terrace, Austin’s last SRO facility with supportive housing, where 85 residents lived semi-independently, with food and case management provided, for a nominal amount of rent. At the time, he said, “It is considered transitional housing, but no one can afford the housing to transition into.”

Richard reminisces about the YMCA, which still rents out rooms in some cities, but they all seem to have different rules. In one place, the nightly fee is $50; in another, a year’s minimum lease is required; and so on. But in the old days, says Richard:

On a nightly basis, you could lay down your $5 or $10 and get a decent, clean room with a place to stash your things, get up to an alarm clock, go down the hall in the morning to a shared bathroom, and then head off to work — showered, shaved, refreshed and ready to put in a full day’s work. You could chase the American Dream… Today, the YMCAs do not exist in any significant number.

One after another, SRO buildings fall, sometimes with a great deal of commotion. Truth-out writers Toshio Meronek and Andrew Szeto interviewed long-time activist Charlie Fredrick about the tumultuous events in San Francisco in the 1970s:

As the city closed and demolished many of its SROs, the International Hotel — which housed almost 150 low-income Chinese and Filipino seniors — became a symbol for the war between real estate interests and activists. Years of protest eventually sparked a court battle over whether city funds should go to buying the “I”-Hotel and handing it over to tenants groups, with the seniors being publicly supported by a range of high-profile left activist groups… Ultimately, the tenants of the “I”-Hotel lost the fight.

In 2014, there were still more than 500 SROs in San Francisco. Meronek and Szeto wrote about the Altamont, a hotel in the Mission District. Most of its rooms were rented long-term by people helped financially by HUD. The rooms (normally 11’x14′) were described as “barely larger than the size of a prison cell” with shared bathrooms and kitchens.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. A very large number of people do not want to own houses or condos. They don’t want to shovel snow, mow a lawn, redecorate the foyer, or even cook meals from scratch. They just want to carry out the basic activities of life in a clean and no-hassle space where all the utilities function. Unfortunately, housing developers only want to build more McMansions and fancy condominiums with fireplaces and hand-clap light switches.

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Source: “Don’t Look Back,” WordPress.com, 07/19/14
Source: “Looking Up at the Bottom Line,” Amazon.com
Source: “Single-Room Occupancy Buildings: Last Bastion of Affordable Housing in San Francisco?,” Truth-out.org, 11/15/14
Photo by WalterPro on Visualhunt/CC BY

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Fining the Destitute, and Other Crazy Notions

Currently, the House the Homeless home page shows a letter by founder and President Richard R. Troxell, explaining why he wrote an Amicus Brief with the intention of helping the situation in Austin. Many cities throughout the United States currently operate under rules that can only make homelessness worse.

As Richard points out, one factor that helped turn Ferguson, Missouri, into a battle zone in 2014 was a local economy based on money extorted from the people by hyper-zealous law enforcement. Americans who are the least able to afford additional debt are overcharged and over-convicted every day, to the detriment of honest and stable civic peace.

National Public Radio’s Joseph Shapiro recommends his network’s series, titled “Guilty and Charged“:

The series reported that nationwide, the costs of the justice system are billed increasingly to defendants and offenders, and that this creates harsher treatment of the poor. Because people with money can pay their hundreds or thousands of dollars in fines and fees right away they are usually done with the court system.

But in many places, people who live on the edge of solvency are subject to a daily effort to extract a constant flow of dollars from them. Shapiro wrote in another piece:

In 2013, the municipal court in Ferguson — a city of 21,135 people — issued 32,975 arrest warrants for nonviolent offenses, mostly driving violations.

Do we have rulings and protections in place to prevent what is, to all intents and purposes, the return of the medieval debtors prison? Of course we do, but when people are ordered to show up physically to make their monthly installment payments judges can do crazy stuff like order the courtroom locked, and then issue an arrest warrant for a person who was barred from entering.

Or maybe the person just lives too far away and can’t get a ride. Additionally, in Ferguson and places like it, the insanity is mixed in with a huge propensity toward racial profiling.

Land of the unfree

Throughout the U.S. there are many pockets like St. Louis County, with courts notorious for charging outrageous fines and fees. The more petty the crime, the better, because legal defense requires even more expenditure. Unless a person is charged with rape or murder putting up a defense is just added punishment.

Even an employed person can sink under the weight of even a small fine. When finances are precarious, the slightest extra demand can start a spiral of consequences, a vicious cycle of poverty and incarceration that eventually culminates in full-on homelessness.

Jails are full of citizens in pre-trial detention for all sorts of reasons, who are unable to raise bail. If they were employed before, they may not be when they get out, because meanwhile they have been fired for not showing up at work. If they were housed before, same deal. This crazy way of doing things creates homelessness.

Imagine the mulishly stubborn and mindless greed that a municipality must operate by, to take the extraordinary step of laying fines on people experiencing homelessness, who are quite likely to be destitute. They can’t pay, so they go to jail at the taxpayers’ expense, which negates the entire alleged reason for levying fines in the first place, which is to raise money to run the local government. It soon becomes glaringly obvious that the entire point of the exercise is only to punish Americans for being poor.

Criminal justice reform

The very obvious result of incarceration is that any family left on the outside might meanwhile disintegrate before the imprisoned member is released. With not much to live for, a person is likely to get in trouble again, and then politicians rant about the high recidivism rate.

This all plays into the related problem of people who are accused of crimes being coerced into pleading guilty just so they can get out. Statistically speaking, defendants who are held by the system before their trials are more likely to be sentenced, and apt to be handed a longer sentence. Whether a person shows up for court in a suit or a jumpsuit makes a big difference.

The Criminal Justice Reform Blog tells why current practices are so stupid:

For far too many poor people, bail is simply not an option and this plays into the hands of prosecutors who know that they have yet another bargaining chip to hold against the defendant. Court is far far from an even playing field in these situations.

People are stuck in jail before they’re even convicted of a crime all because they cannot afford to make bail. These people are not only costing states billions of dollars each year, but their plight wages lasting destruction upon the communities from which they come.

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Source: “In Ferguson, Court Fines And Fees Fuel Anger,” NPR.org, 08/25/14
Source: “Bail Reform — No Get Out of Jail Free Cards — Beware Quick Fixes,” CJReform.info, 11/17/17
Photo credit: Johnny Silvercloud via Visualhunt/CC BY-SA

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Remembering the Departed

Sunday, November 19, is the day of this year’s Homeless Memorial Service. If you are in or near Austin, Texas, please go to Auditorium Shores, at South First and Riverside Drive (on the south side of Lady Bird Lake).

There is a story behind the annual event. In 1992, Austin was a smaller and much less cosmopolitan city, and not quite conscious of how many of its citizens were sleeping rough, or just minimally and occasionally sheltered. All that changed with the death of Diane Malloy.

House the Homeless founder Richard R. Troxell helped another man search for and recover her drowned body. In his book, Looking Up at the Bottom Line, Richard recalls how the tragedy led to the yearly Memorial tradition.

Bodies of water attract bodies of people

People experiencing homelessness meet their ends in various ways: fire; exposure to weather; violence; overdose; being hit by a vehicle. Some even have what are called “natural” deaths, although at an unnaturally young age. Considering the close quarters and lack of sanitation in camps and some shelters, it is amazing that there have not been more flareups of contagious diseases.

As it turns out, water is a very popular spot for the corpses of people no longer experiencing homelessness to be found. A person with no fixed address is quite likely to be discovered dead in or near an ocean, lake, river, pond, ditch, arroyo, or flood plain.

There are practical reasons. Many large and/or warm cities are located on coastlines, and they tend to contain a lot of people experiencing homelessness. Inland, wherever a wooded area hosts a lone camper or a settlement, water is likely to be nearby.

Interestingly, a watery death overtakes far fewer women than men, quite out of proportion to their numbers in the total population. A woman’s body found in water attracts media attention and public sympathy in a way that the drownings of men never quite manage to do. Austin is not the only city that was actually changed by one particular fatality.

In East Los Angeles, the faith-based Guadalupe Homeless Project Women’s Shelter exists because the body of 36-year-old Lorenza Arellano was found in the lake at a municipal park. Authorities said an overdose killed her, though how she got into the water was never explained. This was in 2014, and within the whole enormous geography of Los Angeles, there were only two women-only shelters. Arellano’s death was the catalyst that made the third one happen.

Another story

As a young woman with a genius-level IQ, Cara Nurmi showed infinite promise in her teen years. She studied ballet and photography, and was known as a singer and painter. Hurricane Katrina destroyed her home and all her artwork. During rebuilding, an electrical fire wiped out everything. When the man she loved died suddenly, Nurmi told her mother, “If I don’t have anything, I can’t lose anything,” and went off to hide in the world.

Nurmi’s life unraveled to the point of vagabondage in New Orleans, where she was known to everyone, including the police-run Homeless Assistance Unit, as a pleasant, playful woman with “wonderful energy.” Still, the 34-year-old had been through a rough decade. At some point she signed up for an inpatient alcohol detox program, and in August, a spot opened up.

Of course there was a last party with friends, under a wharf, and Nurmi jumped into the Mississippi River. It seems to have been a habit, and whoever else was there didn’t worry. Her body was found a few days later.

Journalist Richard A. Webster quoted Cara Nurmi’s mom:

I think with Katrina, they only counted the dead bodies, but there are other people who took a little longer to die.

Reactions?

Source: “Looking Up at the Bottom Line,” Amazon.com
Source: “A new shelter in East LA provides sanctuary for homeless women,” SCPR.org, 03/31/15
Source: “Homeless woman found in Mississippi River wavered between heaven and hell, friends say,” NOLA.com, 08/31/17
Image by House the Homeless

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