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Flooding and its Aftermath

Late in May 2015, frequent Huffington Post contributor Arlene Nisson Lassin wrote about the Memorial Day flood in her area of Houston that affected about 4,000 houses, one of which belonged to her family. A series of posts described 99 varieties of pain — from the uncertainty of even being able to stay in the very community-oriented neighborhood community, to leaving beloved objects by the curb to be hauled away.

For almost a year, the Lassins “flamped” (flood camped) in the bleak wreckage of their partially-deconstructed house, assessing the damage, studying the laws about rebuilding, filling out tons of paperwork, and not knowing the next step. Ultimately, word came down that the place would have to be bulldozed. They decided to keep the property and build a smaller, and more high-off-the-ground house.

During the construction, they rented a house elsewhere. In the midst of all this, the columnist gently suggested that sympathetic friends and readers might want to cool it with the bubbly consolation talk about a “blessing in disguise” and a “new adventure.”

It is an adventure through nightmarish expenses…
… red tape, documentation, and tireless sorting, packing, hauling and cleaning…
… living in a house that is broken down to studs, with some drywall dust, bleach, and musty odors thrown in…
… a weakened and compromised immune system due to multiple severe stressors coming all at once…
… only being able to sleep with the aid of sleeping pills…
… not having your brain fully attached and worrying you may get into a car accident because you are so zoned out with so many pressing details…
… the care taking and well being of my elderly parents…
… stepping out your front door and being hit in the face with piles and piles of remnants of all of your neighbors and friends homes, knowing that they are going through this same grief and trauma too.

By January of this year, the Lassins were settled in the newly built home. And then, only a few months later, at the end of August, came hurricane Harvey and water even more voluminous than last time. Thanks to the judiciously flood-conscious architecture, this particular family sustained little damage; but the neighborhood streets were again piled high with furniture and other material goods.

It sounds hellish, and bear in mind, these were wealthy people, with apparently fabulous insurance, who were never displaced all the way off the grid. They had the means to always be housed. They had copious amounts of possessions to start with, and were able to salvage some and replace others. For other Houston residents, the outcome was nowhere near so fortunate.

Renters, for instance. Many previous tenants will in future find it “virtually impossible” to rent, because they will have an eviction on their record. Red Painter wrote:

Sadly, under Texas law, rent must be paid on dwellings that are only deemed “damaged” and not completely uninhabitable. And you better believe landlords are going to fight tooth and nail to get a judge to agree that their units are just damaged, thereby ensuring that they can collect that rent… Some greedy landlords in the Houston area are demanding that their tenants pay September rent, even as most of them are homeless, living at shelters or with friends/family and after they have lost literally everything except what they could throw in a bag as they fled their homes.

In mid-September, reporter Grace White wrote:

There are 1,300 people in the George R. Brown Convention Center and 2,058 at NRG Center. However, there’s also a number you don’t see, the number of homeless who are blending in with flood evacuees.

In addition, the NRG center was preparing to receive 400 people who had been evacuated to Dallas and now needed to return to Houston. White interviewed Kristy Bell, mother of three children and already homeless before the flood, who said it was her impression that housed people who were flooded out were the top priority, while those who had previously been homeless were “being left hung out.”

A U.S. News headline summed up the situation: “Storm Pits Houston’s Homeless Against Newly Displaced.” Marilyn Brown of the Coalition for the Homeless described it as “People from above moving down into the apartments we were using to move up.” During the past five years, Houston had succeeded in finding housing for 11,000 people experiencing homelessness. Now, a huge number of them are back to square one.

What to do?

These words are from Richard R. Troxell, 20-year board member of the National Coalition for the Homeless, Director/Founder of House the Homeless, and CEO of the Universal Living Wage campaign:

In 1988, the U.S. Congress passed the McKinney Act (later known as the McKinney-Vento Act.) In that historic moment the U.S. Congress declared that homelessness was/is a crisis in this nation. It is estimated that at least three million people are experiencing homelessness every year. The federal/local government will not allow existing homeless folks (some who have been on the streets of America for up to two decades), to access the Harvey Hurricane shelters or get in line with them to get housing now. This is in spite of the fact that they have been homeless for years. This seems to be a case of the deserving vs the undeserving poor. This seems to be preferential treatment for the recently traumatized vs the long term, repeatedly traumatized. Look, even a third-grader knows you don’t line butt. Let our people in. House all God’s children!

Richard was asked to explore developing legislation on the very pressing issue of homelessness and disasters, and wrote down these ideas:

Whereas, in 1988, the U.S. Congress passed the McKinney Act to help people experiencing homelessness declaring that homelessness had reached a crisis level in this nation, and

Whereas, tens of thousands of people and families end up homeless on the streets of America every year, and

Whereas, due to the lack of affordable housing through traditional means, people continue to remain un-housed for many years, and

Whereas, periodic catastrophes and all forms of disasters render many families and individuals without housing, and

Whereas, the Federal Government through the Federal Emergency Management Agency FEMA, already activates tremendous amounts of resources to help people during these declared disasters,

Therefore be it resolved, that anyone, or any family, that presents themselves to be homeless within the impacted area should be able to avail themselves to all resources offered in all forms, including housing.

Reactions?

Source: “Post-Flood And Homeless — An Adventure Through Hell,” HuffingtonPost.com, 06/27/2015
Source: “Heartless Landlords In Houston Demand Rent From Homeless Evacuees,” CrooksAndLiars.com, 09/05/17
Source: “Thousands of evacuees, including homeless, still in shelters,” KHOU.com, 09/11/17
Source: “Storm Pits Houston’s Homeless Against Newly Displaced,” USNews.com, 09/02/17
Photo credit: (top) Chabad Lubavitch/Chabad.org; (bottom) Chabad Lubavitch/Chabad.org via Visualhunt/CC BY

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People, Robots and Minimum Wage

One of the most interesting aspects of the ongoing minimum wage debate is a warning that we will all be replaced by mechanical substitutes. An article from the Cornell Roosevelt Institute echoes a point that House the Homeless has made many times: that a person who works full-time ought to be able to support himself or herself without needing to apply for food stamps or other government assistance to get by.

There are pro and con arguments: If workers are better paid, they can buy more stuff and boost the economy in general. Human misery is ameliorated, because people don’t need to work multiple jobs just to survive. When people are happier at their jobs, they don’t engage in slacking, sabotage, embezzlement, or other acts harmful to the business. They stay in place, and employers are not faced with the expenses associated with hiring and training.

Jack Robbins quotes experts who do not foresee a higher minimum wage as leading inevitably to a catastrophic result:

According to economist Arindrajit Dube, a relatively small increase in the minimum wage could lift 4.6 million laborers out of poverty. Longer-term effects could reduce the number of people living below the poverty line by 6.8 million. Sarah Lemos of the University of Leicester finds that a 25% increase in the minimum wage would only increase aggregate prices by .4%.

On the other hand, raising the minimum wage is said to increase inflation and unemployment. When the cost to businesses is raised, business fires people, so rather than X number of workers struggling along, you get Y number of workers doing okay, and Z number of workers back out on the streets without any job.

But then comes the most devastating possibility of all: When human employees cost too much, businesses respond by installing robots. An Oxford University economist theorized that 47% of American workers are at risk of having their jobs automated — in other words, taken over by robots of one type or another, even if they don’t appear humanoid.

A counterargument to that is, whenever possible, businesses are going to go ahead and install automation anyway, regardless of whether or not they are being entreated to raise the minimum wage. So, either way, human workers are out of the picture.

On a global scale

Historically, there has been another devastating argument against even trying for a higher minimum wage in America: We had best not annoy manufacturers with further requests for decent pay, because it will only encourage them to send jobs overseas.

Today, that point is almost moot. So many manufacturing jobs have already been shipped overseas, what else can industry do to us? And if workers in one country decide to demand reasonable pay, business will just pull up stakes and move to another country that is even more deeply sunk in poverty, where workers will be satisfied with even less.

As writer Hamilton Nolan says it:

The global economy is the delightful playground of multinational corporations. They’re able to drastically lower their labor costs by outsourcing work to the world’s poorest and most desperate people. And they’re able to escape paying taxes… The global economy is extremely advantageous to corporations, who owe no loyalty to anyone or anything except their stock price…

Nolan characterizes the concept of a minimum wage as society’s assertion of its moral grounding, a “statement of our belief that the economically powerful should not have a free hand to exploit the powerless.” One answer would be to initiate a worldwide standard, a universal minimum wage that would confound businesses engaged in the race to the bottom.

Of course, getting the whole world to agree on anything is not an easy task. The writer mentions how the rich tend to scoff at proponents of a living wage, and accuse us of being naive dummies who just don’t understand the inherent and immutable rules of capitalism.

He writes:

Not true. We understand them all too well. We understand that, as history has amply demonstrated and continues to demonstrate, absent regulation, economic power imbalances will drive worker wages and working conditions down to outrageous and intolerable levels…

The system that we have — in which the vast bulk of profit flows to corporate shareholders, rather than workers and governments — is not a state of nature. It is a choice.

Nolan makes the point that we no longer tolerate outright slavery where people are paid nothing at all. (Except that we do, with prison labor — but that is a whole separate discussion.) He says:

We would never countenance buying goods produced with slave labor, just because they were cheap… Today we only tolerate economic slavery. Today’s workers are free to quit their jobs at any time, and starve to death.

Reflections from House the Homeless President Richard R. Troxell:

The remaining minimum wage jobs cannot be outsourced. For example: You cannot outsource digging a ditch to China. You must be on site to take tickets at the movie or show theaters. Babysitters must be present to kiss, hold and care for our babies as do childcare workers. Restaurant workers including servers, hostesses, busboys, and pot-shack workers must also be on site.

Construction laborers must be on the job to pick up the scraps of lumber and sweep and bag or barrel the trash. Dry clean workers must be present to take our shirts and skirts, and circle the areas of special cleaning concern. America’s retail workers must be on site to service us and restock the shelves. Farm workers must be on site to pick our cotton, tomatoes, corn, etc.

Receptionists must be on site to attend our front desk phones, to field questions and redirect calls. Nurse’s aides who clean hospital rooms, clean up vomit, empty bed pans, and even give us bed baths must be on site to care for us. Hotel and motel maids clean our rooms, change our sheets, and turn our beds to welcome us here in America. Janitors clean entire buildings including sweeping, mopping and waxing floors in schools all across our homeland.

Fast food workers who work at Bob’s Big Boy restaurant, Wendy’s, What-a-Burger, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Stub’s Bar-B- Q must be present. The Texas Chili Parlor, TGIFs, Marconi Grills, Olive Gardens, a bazillion Chinese restaurants, etc., and of course McDonald’s workers must be present, on sites all across our nation to serve our people. And they deserve to be paid a minimum amount sufficient so that they won’t require a subsidy from you and me, when it is the employer who benefits from their labor.

Also recommended: Writings by Richard R. Troxell

Higher Minimum Wage Won’t Cure Homelessness. This Will.

Open Letter to the Presidential Candidates

Livable Incomes: Real Solutions that Stimulate the Economy: A call to action to create economic stability and growth (Kindle Edition)

Reactions?

Source: “Rise of the Automaton: How Robots Change the Minimum Wage Debate,” undated
Source: “We Need an International Minimum Wage,” Gawker.com, 05/22/13
Image: Internet meme, fair use

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The Future of Diabetes and Homelessness

turmeric

Note: This post is part two of our discussion of diabetes and homelessness. Part one, “Background on Diabetes and Homelessness,” was published last week, 6/11/17.

The possibilities

A brand new, hot-off-the-presses story describes the upcoming tests of a drug called GK831, which may turn out to be the answer to Type 1 diabetes and diabetic kidney disease. But even if it turns out to be effective, trials and the approval process take a long time, and, of course, pharmaceuticals are expensive.

Meanwhile, other interesting developments are happening in diabetes research, and many of them are based on the ancient wisdom of food as medicine.

Are you ready for broccoli pills? Or, better yet, fresh broccoli sprouts, which contain very concentrated amounts of the “miracle compound” sulforaphane. It works by suppressing liver enzymes that would otherwise stimulate glucose production.

Alex Pietrowski explains:

Sulforaphane is a precursor nutrient. Meaning, when it enters the body, it starts out as something else and is processed into the super beneficial compound which can stop cancerous tumors from doubling, and help diabetics to balance their blood sugar levels, among hundreds of other clinically-proven health benefits…

In recent years, concentrated broccoli has also been researched as a treatment for high blood pressure, damaged lungs, some cancers, and even seen as a possible preventive measure against strokes.

An individual with one glass mason jar can grow enough broccoli sprouts to eat some every day. On a bigger scale, sprout production is incredibly easy, and requires no investment except for the seeds and some clean water. It would be the ideal business for a homeless entrepreneur, even working from a van; or as a group project in a transitional housing facility.

Monk fruit, or lo han guo, whose juice is from one to 200 times sweeter than sugar, might be a hit as a diabetes intervention. The fruit contains plenty of Vitamin C, protein and amino acids.

Sandeep Godiyal writes:

Even though it is an incredibly sweet fruit, monk fruit is able to lower the blood sugar levels of diabetics (and their cholesterol and triglyceride levels as well) and can even support healthy liver function, which is very important for diabetics to maintain.

The idea of natural blood sugar control is quite alluring. In addition to that, animal experiments indicate that monk fruit can help to protect the vulnerable kidneys of the diabetic.

The spice known as turmeric (pictured) has inspired at least 10,000 scientific papers. For instance:

A study published in the journal Diabetology & Metabolic Syndrome showed that turmeric may even help reverse type 1 diabetes. The study found that diabetic rats who received curcumin for 40 days showed an improvement in blood sugar levels and insulin. The improvement began after 4 months, and continued to improve at the 10 month mark when all levels almost normalized, and regeneration of the pancreas was observed.

Pancreatic regeneration sounds like the stuff of miracles, but how great would it be if the curse of chronic, Type 1 diabetes could be lifted? Even in a less optimistic scenario, the substance seems capable of mitigating high blood sugar, improving insulin sensitivity, and even of reversing the foreboding diagnosis of pre-diabetes. And it works through oral administration, not hypodermic injections.

Ayahuasca has gained the reputation of a life-changing psychedelic which could turn out to be the “silver bullet” for both addiction and PTSD. Thanks to one of its chemical components, harmine, the plant has another side. When the pancreas does not produce insulin, it is because an auto-immune process has destroyed the beta cells.

It now seems likely that harmine can regenerate beta cells, the Holy Grail outcome of diabetes research. Scientists from the Icahn School of medicine have found that…

[…] harmine is able to induce beta cell proliferation, increase islet mass and improve glycemic control. These observations suggest that harmine analogs may have unique therapeutic promise for human diabetes therapy.

These are not a bunch of kooks. This work was funded by Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, which leads the world in Type 1 diabetes research, and the National Institutes of Health. Meanwhile, the Harvard Stem Cell Institute has discovered how to make insulin-producing cells in large quantities.

Someone needs to create a methodology to standardize the delivery of healthful anti-diabetes based foods for people experiencing homelessness. Some organizations, such as National Health Care for the Homeless, the Worldwide Health Organization, and the Centers for Disease Control, have the necessary influence and resources to make this a priority. Additionally, mini-pharmacies need to be accessible in all health care clinics in all shelters. Finally,

The homeless food services community needs to let the food banks and all food contributors know that foods such as white bread, white rice, fruit juice, cookies, sodas etc. will not be accepted for distribution. ‘Acceptable food lists’ should constantly be distributed to everyone experiencing homelessness and presented with a positive message, e.g. ‘We all deserve healthy food.’
                                           Richard R. Troxell, President,
                                           House the Homeless

Reactions?

Source: “New drug trial scheduled to combat kidney disease in type 1 diabetes,” Diabetes.co.uk, 07/03/17
Source: “Prescription Broccoli in a Pill Seen as the Potential Future of Diabetes Treatment,” WakingTimes.com, 06/19/17
Source: “Monk Fruit — A Power Food For Diabetes,” NaturalNews.com, 07/21/15
Source: “Can turmeric reverse type 1 diabetes?,” Stepin2mygreenworld.com, 06/02/17
Source: “Chemical Found In Ayahuasca May Be Able To Completely Reverse Diabetes,” OrganicAndHealthy.org, June 2017
Photo credit: Steven Jackson Photography via Visualhunt/CC BY

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Background on Diabetes and Homelessness

vietnam-war-vet-in-wheelchairIn both medicine and the societal disgrace of homelessness, one maxim is true: Preventive care is always less expensive than end-stage care. This is why smart cities go with the Housing First philosophy — because supportive housing is less expensive in the long run than a decades-long succession of stays in shelters, hospitals and jails.

It goes without saying, that Housing First also greatly reduces the toll of human suffering, but that is not the argument that holds the most sway when presented to the government and other entities responsible for doling out dollars. In the medical arena, everyone agrees that preventing or aggressively treating diabetes is much preferable to letting it run its course — better for the patient, and infinitely better for the budget.

Thirty million Americans have diabetes. 17% of people experiencing homelessness, according to the House the Homeless Health Survey, are either diabetic or pre-diabetic. Adding to this unsolicited, self reporting statistic, it was coupled with solicited, self-reporting with 40% declaring high blood pressure,thus exacerbating the problem in that these negative health conditions often go hand in hand. House the Homeless President Richard R. Troxell says,

A large number of these people can positively affect their situation through dietary response; however, no one has thus far devised a methodology for consistently providing a good diet.

Diabetes is disordered insulin. Insulin helps glucose (sugar) to get into the body’s cells so they can use it for fuel. If the pancreas doesn’t make any insulin, a person has Type 1 diabetes. Usually, they’re born this way. They need multiple injections per day, and may even wear a high-tech (and very costly) computerized pump that analyzes the blood and automatically delivers the right amount of insulin.

Type 2 diabetes is probably preventable, but a lot of people get it anyway, from less than optimal eating habits or other precipitating causes. Sometimes it can be handled with oral medication, but if it’s serious enough to require insulin, there are no pills, only shots.

It isn’t always easy to keep thing in balance. Either too much blood sugar (hyperglycemia) or not enough of it (hypoglycemia) can put a person into a coma. When insulin is called for, the need is urgent. Diabetes can spawn other expensive and medical problems, including the amputation of a foot or leg.

The grim reality

Managing this disease is difficult enough for a housed, insured person. Imagine being on the street, confined to a wheelchair, with no choice but to eat food you know will make you sicker. An amputee who still has one foot is supposed to take very good care of it, and inspect it carefully every day for signs of trouble. Not so easy to do when you live under a bridge in an artificial cave. Picture being non-ambulatory, in constant need of injections, having to prick your finger and then stick a needle into yourself in filthy conditions.

Picture needing to get back and forth to a pharmacy with tedious frequency. Or to and from a medical facility for dialysis. The plight of a wheelchair-bound person experiencing homelessness is dire. Where and how do you wash your clothes and yourself? Even in cities with some sense of decency, how many handicap-accessible porta-potties have been set up?

Diabetes can also affect the eyes. Imagine being blind, with or without the amputation. To look at this situation is to see a lot of human suffering, and premature death, and unnecessary expense to the taxpayer. Creative innovation could make a big difference.

This has been the introduction to a difficult and complicated topic. Next week, we shine a light on some of the potential pathways toward getting this diabetes thing handled.

Reactions?

Source: “Diabetes Latest,” CDC.gov, 06/17/14
Photo credit: expertinfantry via Visualhunt/CC BY

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Homeless Tropes and Archetypes

graffiti-and-pile-of-stuffThere are reasons why a reporter chooses a certain individual for the “Face of Homelessness” type of article, just as there are reasons for picking the ideal subject for a “Face of Single Motherhood” story or a “Face of Traumatic Brain Injury” story. Last week, House the Homeless looked at a long profile written by John Flynn and Matt Kramer of Sacramento.

Their subject was Russell Bartholow, a Native American man who had been homeless for 15 years after a series of familial, medical and legal misfortunes. Russell had collected, at that time, 190 citations related to his lack of a permanent abode.

The things that happened to him as a person experiencing homelessness are typical of the experiences of many other homeless people. He had lost all his teeth. On the streets, he had been severely beaten several times, and once was set on fire, which resulted in a long, painful, and expensive (to the taxpayers) hospital stay.

A basic absence of justice

Homeless people are told to get jobs if they expect to eat, and told to stop begging and to quit trying to live off the fat of the land, and to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and so on and so forth. Not only are they blamed for their condition, but when they attempt to better themselves they are punished for it.

For instance, Russell Bartholow decided to feed himself by planting a garden. At a 2015 press conference publicizing the (unsuccessful) Right to Rest Act, he told a crowd at the State Capitol building about this foray into self-reliance. The writers quote him:

I had a beautiful garden, spent two-and-a-half years growing it. They came in and poisoned it with herbicide. Destroyed it.

How have we managed to create a world where growing food is illegal? Aside from all the other obvious and blatant absurdities of this stance, there is the hypocrisy issue. How can society yell about jobs — as if getting one were so easy — and berate people experiencing homelessness, and then prosecute those same people for growing food to feed themselves?

It was not his best-ever decision, but, Bartholow decided to eat the remaining vegetables, and fell sick. He believes the chemicals gave him cancer, though he might have already had it. While hospitalized, he saw his niece’s name in the local newspaper and reached out to her. In February of 2015, they met, and Jessica Bartholow became an advocate.

Flynn and Kramer describe how she turned things around:

Jessica had to overturn official government records declaring Russell deceased. She then got to work securing Russell a birth certificate, an identification card, a cellphone, Supplemental Security Income, health insurance and a spot at a methadone clinic.

There, he met an old friend who needed a roommate, giving Russell a place to live after shelters and hotels had turned him down due to lack of space and/or Russell’s lack of paperwork. He made friends on Facebook and reconnected with his son, Kieran.

“It was a couple months of advocacy, just a couple of hours at a time,” Jessica said of that period. “It didn’t take that much to find somebody a home and dignity and safety.”

She did not stop with helping her uncle, but became an activist for the Right to Rest legislation. Russell Bartholow also became a signature gatherer, but lived his remaining months in fear and uncertainty. There were still dozens of active warrants out on him, mostly for failure to appear in court to face various accusations, such as sleeping in the wrong place.

In this way, he was like many other people experiencing homelessness, who avoid contact with authorities because once they are “in the system,” who knows what negative details might turn up?

Before Bartholow had spent even two years indoors, cancer claimed him. His son came to say goodbye. While the Right to Rest law failed, California had just passed its Right to Die law, and in October of 2016 he took enough pain medication to avoid waking up again.

Reactions?

Source: “Sacramento’s $100,000 homeless man,” NewsReview.com, 02/16/17
Photo credit: Bill Benzon (STC4blues) via Visualhunt/CC BY-SA

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“Face of Homelessness” Journalism

leopard-blanket-homeless-person-sleepingHere is an electrifying sentence from a long-form piece by John Flynn and Matt Kramer:

During overnight storms last month, two homeless people died on City Hall property, elevating Sacramento’s humanitarian debate to a national level.

Later, Courtney Collins, daughter of one of the deceased men, testified before the city council:

I was terrified to find out about the very legal confiscation of blankets, sleeping bags and other sources of warmth and shelter for those living on the streets by the police… I have been unraveling truths so ugly, it feels impossible to go up against such a monstrous system.

This current and ongoing crisis in the state capitol of California was seen by Flynn and Kramer as a fitting occasion to tell the story of another homeless man, an activist who once spoke to a crowd from the steps of the Capitol building. This genre of news story is known as “putting a human face on” a tragedy — in this case, homelessness. The face they chose was that of Russell Bartholow, who is also deceased, although not one of those who died during the storm.

His history, like many others, should be a wake-up call for people who don’t believe that homelessness could ever be their fate. It is no exaggeration to say that millions of Americans are one paycheck away from living on the streets.

Russell Bartholow’s biography

The writers go back to their subject’s childhood, when he was the last of 60 foster children sheltered by Gertrude Bartholow, who legally adopted him. His niece Jessica remembers him as “beyond normally brilliant” in math and science.

In high school, the Native American youth was kicked in the head in a racially motivated incident. As House the Homeless readers well know, an astonishingly high proportion of people experiencing homelessness suffer from traumatic brain injury.

Bartholow spent some years as a single man, then married and had a son, then returned to his childhood home to care for his adopted mother and her husband. “But in 2000,” the writers say, “he was arrested for a drug-related offense.” The particular crime is not specified, but in general, this fact is another proof of the counterproductive nature of the War on Some Drugs and All Adults.

It was only serious enough to put him in jail for a month — during which his parents died and relatives sold the home. Once released, living with his wife and son was apparently no longer an option, and Bartholow began his 15-year residence beneath a bridge.

Flynn and Kramer wrote:

Like thousands of others in Sacramento County, once he found himself on the streets, he entered an alternate reality where the government couldn’t hear him; where those supposed to help instead focused on erasing his existence; and where the only permanent home the county offered him was in jail. It’s a system that feeds on absurdity, in which homelessness can cost more than a Midtown loft and survival is a crime.

Soliciting, panhandling and sleeping are some of the activities forbidden to unhoused citizens of Sacramento. Bartholow was cited 190 times, sometimes twice in one day, for these offenses, with the police often acting like inundating him with legal problems was all a big game. Technically, he owed more than $100,000 in fines.

The taxpayers paid to host him for more than 100 days in jail. His biography continues:

Though a full 132 of Russell’s cases were either dismissed or had their fines waived, there were other costs. Being in jail caused Russell to miss appointments to obtain government assistance, as part of eight attempts over 13 years to get money for which he qualified due to the lingering effects of the brain injury, which he believed contributed to paranoia and drug addiction. To pay for living expenses and fines, Russell turned to panhandling or selling flowers — which only led to more arrests.

The speech Bartholow gave in February of 2015 promoted the adoption of a Right to Rest Act, The No Sit/No Lie Ordinance and the Americans with Disabilities Act. But the effort failed, and many activities associated with homelessness remained criminalized, partly because politicians have a habit of ignoring the most basic truths about what is going on out there.

Reactions?

Source: “Sacramento’s $100,000 homeless man,” NewsReview.com, 02/16/17
Photo credit: Mick Baker via Visualhunt/CC BY-ND

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The War Against Ourselves

austin-police-departmentNot long ago, Thomas Johnson of MimesisLaw.com published a piece called “How Does it Feel Winning the War Against the Homeless?” He sees an ongoing assault against the poor, waged by cops who increasingly act as private security forces for the wealthy elite class.

This is especially offensive because a myth, vigorously promoted in certain parts of the culture, portrays the police as victims. To them Johnson says:

When you spend your time kicking the homeless around and arresting people for trying to serve them some food, you’ve gone far off your mission of fighting crime. You’re no hero.

As House the Homeless has also done, Johnson mentions cities where folks have been arrested and/or fined for feeding people experiencing homelessness. He admits that members of the police force don’t make the laws — although evidence shows that, in a sense, they do.

Word on the street has it that police unions and prison guard unions wield far more lobbying power than they ought to, in areas that directly affect the creation and enforcement of laws (like mandatory minimum sentencing). In particular, they work hard to escalate the War on Some Drugs and Most Adults.

The thought experiment

The writer takes his readers on an imaginary journey reminiscent of two different Michael Douglas movies. In Falling Down, a tie-wearing professional abandons his car on the freeway and walks through Los Angeles, quickly devolving into a one-man death squad. In The Game, a man is drawn into a mysterious live-action role-playing game in which he believes he has lost everything, with equally homicidal results.

Those are fictitious characters, but Johnson asserts that any mayor, city councilperson, banker, real estate developer, or law enforcement officer (stripped of uniform and equipment) would be similarly unhinged. The writer posits:

You are on the street, with only the possessions on your back. You have nothing, you are nobody. Maybe it’s your own fault. Maybe you’re innocent. Either way, you are sleeping outdoors tonight.

It is all too easy to imagine. A newly homeless person soon learns that sleeping is easier said than done. At the same time, there is little else to do. Few commercial establishments are open at night, and those that are do not want scruffy penniless bums hanging around.

After four or five days, your odor is decidedly pungent. Nobody cares about your sad story, especially not the police, of whom who you quickly learn to steer clear.

Taking the final step into degradation, you stake out a panhandling spot. The ruffian who claims that patch of sidewalk pushes you into an alley and hurts you badly. Soon, you’re digging through dumpsters for food that may or may not give you a case of salmonella poisoning, and you still haven’t hit bottom yet.

It is easy to agree with Johnson that an upper-class American, if dropped into the bad part of town with empty pockets and no resources, would soon go feral. He gives a description and a warning:

Welcome to your new mental state: A hazy mix of terror, stress and sleeplessness that will guide you to desperate acts and many poor decisions.

Smugly thinking it could never happen to you is wrong. Fortunes change.

Realize that it could be you out there and declaring war on those less fortunate will not make them go away…

Inspired by such thought experiments, many complacent Americans are able to experience a shift in consciousness. Attitudes adjust and activism amplifies. They come to believe that “Conditions need to change, because if not, the bad thing could happen to me some day.”

It is a start. But we should demand from ourselves something better than that — something a bit more akin to, “Conditions need to change because, in millions of lives, the bad thing has already happened.”

Reactions?

Source: “How Does it Feel Winning the War Against the Homeless?,” MimesisLaw.com, 01/11/17
Image by Richard R. Troxell

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Mental Illness and Homelessness

homeless-person-sleepingRemember State Representative Tom Brower of Hawaii, who got headlines by destroying a bunch of shopping carts? In a followup story, Brower expressed only one regret: that some people had interpreted his berserker sledge-hammer rampage as an “attack on the homeless.” 

Apparently still puzzled about why anyone would think that, a couple of years later he was filming residents of a homeless camp without their permission, and some teenage boys asked him to delete the pictures he had taken, and he refused, and they roughed him up.

A short time later Brower told the press he was not angry, and would continue to stay “in touch with the community” in the same way. Two weeks after that, he decided to press charges against at least one of the youths. Apparently, voters are content with all this, as Brower was reelected again just three months ago.

Speaking of mental instability…

In a Nation of Change opinion piece, Prof. Carol Caton, whose expertise is in the sociomedical sciences, addressed the issue of Americans with severe mental illness. She proposed that the government would be foolish to defund what has proven to be “a cost-effective intervention that provides a solution to homelessness.”

What is this intervention? According to Caton:

Supportive housing, funded and coordinated by several different federal agencies and nonprofits, provides homeless people who have severe mental illness with housing coupled with treatment and support services.

Unlike the temporary respite provided by crisis shelters, it provides access to permanent housing, mental health treatment and support from mental health professionals to guide the adjustment from homelessness to stable residence in the community.

There is no increase in net public cost compared to street and shelter living… Cutting funds to house the homeless would cost us more money than it would save.

Those last two sentences are important. When something needs to be done about a harmful situation, humane reasons are very often insufficient. Several federal agencies provide funding to aid those who are both mentally ill and experiencing homelessness, and the taxpaying public needs to be reassured that the bottom line will not suffer. Fortunately, dedicated people and organizations keep close track of the numbers, and can verify the savings to the public wallet.

Supportive housing means less use of homeless shelters, psychiatric hospitals, or community hospital emergency rooms; less expenditure for legal aid and other costly public services; and certainly less criminal incarceration. The movement took hold in the early 1980s, and the journey has never been easy. Over a nine-year period ending in 2016, it helped reduce the particular category of homelessness known as “chronic” by 35%.

Still, there is a great shortage of supportive housing units, not nearly enough to fill the need, and the threat of losing the existing facilities is appalling. Significant funding comes from the departments of Housing and Urban Development, and Health and Human Services — or did, anyway, up until the next round of budget cuts. Four states pitch in some dollars, and so does the occasional county or city government. There are even charitable donations and a modicum of support from private foundations. Still, the prognosis is not good.

What next?

An estimated one-third of homeless people suffer from mental illness, “often compounded by multiple health problems and substance abuse.” At the mention of substance abuse, a segment of the public has the knee-jerk reaction of “Let them go, it’s no loss.” But moral judgments are not productive. The only difference between a rich alcoholic and a poor alcoholic is that one of them can afford rehab in Malibu.

Leaving aside the question of bad lifestyle choices, there actually are people who are too disabled to work for reasons they had nothing to do with causing. A person with shaken baby syndrome never had a chance. A veteran is very likely to suffer from traumatic brain injury. Do we want soldiers thinking they made a bad lifestyle choice?

Reactions?

Source: “Hawaii politician opens up about assault near homeless encampment: ‘I have no ill will to anyone’,” NYDailyNews.com, 07/03/15
Source: “How funding to house mentally ill, homeless is a financial gain, not drain,” NationOfChange.org, 05/10/17
Photo credit: J.RISTANIEMI via Visualhunt/CC BY-ND

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Possessions Inspire Strong Emotions

carts-stacked-in-supermarketIn May of 2015, there were two remarkably similar incidents, one in Fort Collins, Colorado, at the nonprofit Sister Mary Alice Murphy Center for Hope. On the premises was a storage pod filled with the belongings of 58 people experiencing homelessness. Also operating from the Center was an organization called Serve 6.8, whose director one day gave the staff the afternoon off, and had the contents of the storage pod taken to the landfill.

As it turned out, some of the belongings had apparently been permanently abandoned by their owners. But 22 people had signed storage agreements that should have still been in force, and their losses included medical documents, family photos, and other irreplaceable items. The local newspaper was unable to shed much light on what happened and why. “Internal miscommunication” was the cited cause.

Journalist Sarah Jane Kyle reported that “Serve 6.8 and Murphy Center staff are drafting a written procedure for handling homeless persons’ property.” It was a classic case of closing the barn door after the horse had already bolted. Apparently, no one said why such a procedure did not already exist or why, if it did, it was not followed.

Meanwhile, in another state

A week later in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, four men who had been staying at the Water Street Mission were very upset because their belongings, along with the property of “dozens of other people,” were allegedly thrown into a dumpster. They announced their intention of going through the dumpster to get their stuff back, but were threatened with arrest. Among the items were a winter coat given to one of the men by his mother, boots needed for a construction job, prescription antibiotics, and a winter jacket.

But the story has another side. Colleen Elmer, the Mission’s vice president of programs, told a reporter that the four men had been asked to leave the Mission because of (unspecified) misbehavior, and furthermore their bags had not been placed in a dumpster but were still on the premises. The men were given the opportunity to return the following day to recover their belongings, which two of the four actually did.

The actual events may never have been truly sorted out, but the news story stimulated a batch of lively online comments. A particularly interesting one, signed Dan Pate, said:

I lived and worked there for almost a year and they do (or did in the past) just toss belongings of residence of the shelter with or with out warning not caring who it belong to or what is in the bags. I’ve been ordered to throw away peoples belonging into the dumpster and many of those times i wasnt allowed to mention it to any 1 and to call for a intern if people went into the dumpsters and the police have come to deal with them diving into them its messed up…

… And another state

Hawaii’s media once carried a photograph of a man attacking, with a sledgehammer, the possessions of people experiencing homelessness. Journalist Scott Keyes identified this rash individual as five-term State Representative Tom Brower and added:

Noting that he’s “disgusted” with homeless people, Brower told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser about his own personal brand of “justice”: “If I see shopping carts that I can’t identify, I will destroy them so they can’t be pushed on the streets.”

The paragraph contains a red flag or two. Those shopping carts are not actually the property of homeless people, but of the grocery stores from which they were borrowed. Such carts generally are clearly branded, and the claim that none could be identified is ludicrous.

To recap: An elected official did not arrange for the return of these items to their rightful owners, the supermarket chains. Instead, he destroyed (by his own count) approximately 30 carts. Whether or not the wreckage was left lying around on the streets was not reported.

Reactions?

Source: “Fort Collins nonprofit dumps homeless people’s property,” Coloradoan.com, 05/06/15
Source: “Homeless men said Water Street tossed their belongings; Mission denies claim,” LancasterOnline.com, 05/15/15
Source: “State Rep. Uses Sledgehammer To Destroy Homeless People’s Possessions,” ThinkProgress.org, 11/19/13
Photo credit: Polycart via Visualhunt/CC BY

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Fourth Amendment Still in Effect

homeless-camp-near-highwayDifficult as it often is to believe, the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has not yet been annulled and is still in effect. It goes like this:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated…

Some professionals make entires careers out of debating such questions as whether this only applies to people who have houses. In the street (or as we now say, on the ground, as if America were a vast battlefield), people experiencing homelessness may technically be protected by the law, but have few de facto rights. The term “property” itself is more often used with reference to real estate, and who does or does not have a right to be present within borders of that territory.

Much less often does anyone contemplate the meaning of “property” when it applies to the personal belongings of people who only have what they can carry. Yet authorities relish the chance to confiscate and destroy these possessions. 

Some cities have a policy that seized possessions must be stored for a certain amount of time, but it rarely happens. Often, the stolen items are very difficult or impossible to replace.

Enterprising reporters find the individual tales of victimization, and each one describes things that just shouldn’t be happening in America. For Mother Jones, Laura Smith collected such stories from around the country.

Regrettable examples

A Los Angeles woman whose tent and blanket were seized contracted pneumonia, was hospitalized, and sued the city. In Denver, police were told not to take bedding and camping gear during the cold months, but when April 1 rolled around, it was open season again. Seattle has been the scene of much contention because when “sweeps” are planned people are not given proper notice and their personal property is not respected.

In San Francisco, the storage rules are ignored and the California Department of Transportation has been sued for stealing tents, bedding, stoves, and other items. It is even tough to survive in Honolulu. Smith writes:

In a survey of homeless residents by the Department of Urban Planning at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, nearly 60 percent reported losing personal identification, 40 percent lost tents, and 21 percent lost medicine in sweeps.

Any housed citizen who has ever lost a wallet or purse, or experienced a burglary or fire, knows what a hassle it is to replace documents. For a person experiencing homelessness, without a phone, address, or checking account, the loss of ID is catastrophic.

Smith spoke with Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, and learned that seizure and destruction of personal property happens all over the country. Smith writes:

Belongings are often seized under anti-camping laws or laws that prohibit sleeping in public — part of a larger trend of what Foscarinis calls “the criminalization of homelessness.” Earlier this year, her organization released a study tracking the phenomenon in 187 cities.

In Reno, Nevada, the local shelters were full, and Robert Wynters lived under a bridge. He carefully stashed his few extra clothes, hygiene supplies, personal papers, and bicycle to go out and look for work, and returned to find everything gone. This happened not once, but three times in a six-month period.

In each case, inquiries at the sheriff’s office the very next day were futile, because each time he was told that his property had been destroyed. In April of 2015, he filed a civil rights lawsuit against the sheriff’s department.

In July, the Washoe County Board of Commissioners approved a $14,000 settlement for Wynters and his attorney, and resolved to adopt some better procedures for the removal and storage of personal property from campsites. Every now and then, somebody wins.

With the help of organizations or lawyers willing to do pro bono work, once in a while a plaintiff is heard and compensated. Of course in these cases, society loses, because the monetary awards are paid for by the taxpayers, who would probably much prefer that good practices had been in effect sooner.

Reactions?

Source: “Denver Isn’t the Only City Seizing Homeless People’s Gear,” MotherJones.com, 12/16/16
Source: “Reno accused of illegally seizing property of homeless,” NevadaAppeal.com, 04/17/15
Source: “Board of County Commissioners Washoe County, Nevada,” WashoeCounty.us, 07/28/15
Photo credit: Joe Green (Divine in the Daily) via Visualhunt/CC BY-ND

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