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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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How Are the Homeless Veterans Doing?

Seven years ago, the Veterans Administration announced an ambitious plan to end veteran homelessness within a certain time frame. Reality has forced the goalpost to be moved, and total elimination appears to be an impossible dream.

Amazingly, about half the homeless veterans out there are left over from the Vietnam era. Among veterans experiencing homelessness, none out of 10 are male, and any black or Latinx vet is three times as likely to be homeless as the white comrade-in-arms. Most are single and live in cities, and most are afflicted by physical disability, mental illness, or substance abuse.

The authorities don’t say it in so many words, but surely one problem is that the supply of veterans deserving of care does not seem to be drying up. At the same time, a certain number of psychologically wounded vets will remove themselves, via suicide, from the need for any further help. But the current thinking is that an irreducible minimum number, either too far gone into post-traumatic stress disorder, or simply possessed of loner personalities, will remain on the streets and in wooded enclaves, no matter what.

This summer, VA Secretary David Shulkin addressed the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. He said:

There is going to be a functional zero, essentially somewhere around 12,000 to 15,000 that despite being offered options for housing and getting them off the street, there are a number of reasons why people may not choose to do that.

This seems to suggest that the day will come when, if any vets remain unhoused, it’s on them. Which may be true, up to a point. There will always be individuals who simply do not want to get with the program, for their own reasons which may or may not be valid according to other people. But is something more going on here? Is the public manipulated into blaming the victims, when other entities may be at fault?

Congressional non-action

What is the government doing? In 2017, according to Congress.gov, six pieces of legislation pertaining to veterans were introduced in the House of Representatives, of which three have been referred to the Subcommittee on Health, two to the House Committee on Ways and Means, and one to the Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity.

In the Senate, four bills have been proposed, of which two were referred to the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, one to the Committee on Finance, and one to the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs. None of the measures has been thoroughly picked over and analyzed, much less voted on, and where any of them will end up is an open question.

Here and there in America

The Veterans Resource Center is a nonprofit organization with more than a dozen branches in three states, with most of its funding coming from the federal government. Counselors help with employment, healthcare and other benefits — plus the biggie — which is housing. Without a stable environment in which to sleep and keep their belongings safe, a person is ill-equipped to progress in the areas of health, work, or school. Among the group’s nine areas of concentration are homeless prevention and re-housing, transitional housing, and permanent supportive housing.

Homeless vet populations are concentrated in seven states: California, Texas, Florida, New York, Colorado, Washington, and Oregon. Of course, need exists in every state. In Phoenix, Central Arizona Shelter Services will probably lose a half-million dollar VA grant it has relied on for at least ten years.

In March, southwest Minnesota announced that all its waiting lists were cleared, and all its homeless veterans were currently sheltered. The “how” is worth reading about, as well as the situation’s roots. Journalist Susan Du writes:

Part of the problem was the vilification that arose in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan, who pushed the caricature of the welfare queen who drove a Cadillac and ate steaks for every dinner on Uncle Sam’s dime. It allowed Reagan to make massive cuts to HUD. Ever since, low-income Americans have been fighting a housing shortage that keeps basic shelter out of reach even to those who work multiple jobs.

Meanwhile, celebrities are selling “Once in a lifetime experiences, luxury items, and autographed memorabilia” on eBay to help fund Homes For Our Troops, an organization that focuses on building “specially adapted custom homes for severely injured Post 9/11 Veterans.” The event runs through November 14.

Reactions?

Source: “Shelter: America’s Homeless Veterans,” AlJazeera.com, 11/03/17
Source: “VA drops goal of zero homeless veterans,” MilitaryTimes.com, 06/02/17
Source: “Programs and Services,” VetsResource.org
Source: “In southwest Minnesota, all homeless veterans finally have shelter,” CityPages.com, 03/23/17
Photo credit: mark6mauno via Visualhunt/CC BY

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The Somewhat Discouraging Universe of Tiny Homes

House the Homeless recently mentioned a very bare-bones type of individual housing unit, containing only bed, desk, and shelves, that costs $25,000 apiece. (Coincidentally, this is the same amount that American taxpayers shelled out for a “privacy booth” to be built inside the office of the head of the Environmental Protection Agency.) But if that sounds excessive, prepare for worse to come.

A British entrepreneur has come up the iKozie, a pod “designed to provide temporary accommodation for the homeless.” In this transitional scenario, the tenant will pay the rent and water bills and buy their own food, as training to become a fully functional member of society.

The pod contains a bedroom, full kitchen, bathroom “module,” and entertainment zone, all within 186 square feet. It is said to comply with planning and building regulations, “and has an A rating for energy efficiency.” A crane had to be rented to install the prototype in a volunteer’s backyard, which must add considerably to the tiny unit’s cost — close to $53,000 American.

Even that is an amazing deal, compared with Portland’s pods, whose cost is projected to be a jaw-dropping $75,000 each, paid for by public and private funds. (Wouldn’t a used RV set up on blocks be more economical?)

Leanna Garfield reports:

Each 200-square-foot pod will have a unique design… The pods will be able to house one adult and two children — inside, there will be a bed (some have bunk beds), shelves, a toilet, and a desk. They’ll all come with heat and full plumbing.

In Portland, some 200 homeowners have indicated preliminary willingness to host a pod in their backyard. The people who move in are meant to pay a certain amount of rent, while receiving the same social services as the city’s other sheltered homeless citizens.

This summer the program started with four families. Multnomah County is home to an estimated 4,000 unhoused people, so pricey mini-homes in backyards will not be the whole solution.

HGTV, which hosts a lot of tiny-house shows, defines a tiny house as anything up to 600 square feet. This is actually capacious, compared to similar products, being for example three times the size of the iKozie. Sadly, the production company seems coy about price information, and the general impression is that their designs are more for the wealthy retiree than the struggling former homeless person.

It gets better

Is there a lower end to this spectrum? Yes. In the spring of 1915, an audacious experiment was underway in Wisconsin. After months of struggle, a group called Occupy Madison (OM) oversaw the building of three tiny houses by their prospective tenants. Even equipped with electric heaters, the structures only cost $4,000 apiece. A pre-existing commercial building holds bathrooms, a minimalist kitchen, dining room, workshop, and greenhouse.

The city considered allowing six more tiny houses to be built, if certain improvements were made. Apparently, bathrooms are the concern. Authorities often have a strange perspective on things. They tend to act as if, rather than live where several people share a bathroom, a human being is better off in the wild with no bathroom.

In this particular community, the homes are meant to be permanent, not transitional. OM is situated on private land and funded by private donations. One school of thought says the government should save tax dollars by encouraging this sort of project, but governments often find many reasons not to.

In Seattle, an organization built 14 tiny houses at a cost of about $2,200 apiece. Their size, 8×12 feet, or 76 square feet, is really minuscule, but each unit has insulation, electricity, and heat. Toilets and showers are in a central building. These are meant to be temporary places to regroup while attempting to make more permanent arrangements, and residents pay $90 a month toward the utility bills.

Maybe the federal housing authorities could encourage cities to be more inventive and adventurous about creating housing for people with very low incomes. The problem is not a shortage of know-how. Every day, some college student wins an award for designing an inexpensive small dwelling with basic amenities.

The problem is not a lack of materials that can be recycled and repurposed. The problem is not a shortage of volunteers eager to build something. The problem is not a lack of participation from the people who will live in tiny houses.

The problem is, very few settled people are willing to have a tiny-house village anywhere near them. Or a single tiny house in a neighbor’s backyard. Or in their own backyard. And often, even if the property owners who are directly concerned, and their neighbors, are on board, the housed people from other parts of the city will feel threatened, and throw a monkey wrench into the machinery.

Reactions?

Source: “Micro-house costing just £40,000 is unveiled,” DailyMail.co.uk, 08/30/17
Source: “Portland will start housing the homeless in tiny pods in people’s backyards,” BusinessInsider.com, 03/22/17
Source: “Tiny houses in Madison, Wis., offer affordable, cozy alternative to homelessness,” StarTribune.com, 03/16/15
Source: “Tiny-house villages: An innovative solution to homelessness?,” CSMonitor.com, 01/21/16
Photo credit: Tomas Quinones via Visualhunt/CC BY-SA

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Tiny Homes: The Problem Beneath the Problem

How many kinds of small, self-contained dwellings are there? Dozens, at least. Every day smart and compassionate people figure out how to transform just about anything into minimalist living quarters.

There are miniature geodesic domes, Conestoga huts, and Cardborigami collapsible, transportable shade structures. There are tiny houses made of hempcrete, which repels mold, rodents and insects; and hemp grows quickly and economically almost anywhere. There are not-so-tiny houses made from shipping containers.

A design website relates how University of Southern California architecture students invented shelters, including a combined shopping cart and tent. In response to one assignment, students…

[…] conceived a village consisting of modular units measuring 92 square feet (8.5 square metres). Some contain bedrooms, while others are combined to form bathroom facilities and communal rooms. The complex also is designed to have outdoor terraces and courtyards.

However, a report from a different publication brings up some troubling questions. For MercuryNews.com, Susan Abram describes one Homes for Hope unit as a “mini-modular home” that includes only bed, desk, and shelves. In other words, toilets, showers, and kitchens belong in other units, to be communally shared.

The writer comments on the highly portable rectangles:

Made of a steel frame with structural insulated panels and aluminum cladding, the units resemble camper shells, with sliding windows. They can be heated and cooled, and stacked to create a community on vacant lots for 30 people or less. Social services, a community space and bathroom facilities also could be provided with additional funding.

Let’s just pause for a moment and reflect on that sentence. “Bathroom facilities could also be provided.” Ya think? Abram explains the state law under which “emergency housing of no more than 30 beds can be opened in certain districts within a community” with no conditional use permit required.

Sounds like a stroll in the park, right? Wrong. She quotes some facts learned from project mentor Sofia Borges:

The next step is to get the units state certified so that the teams can begin mass production, Borges said. “If we get the unit itself pre-certified we don’t have to go through the permitting process each time we want to make more.”

That certification process, along other fees and licensing will cost $100,000. Individual units would cost about $25,000.

In what universe should the state be demanding a $100,000 bribe to okay such a simple item that could help so many people? The government presumably has a stake in housing the homeless. Why can’t it just give the green light? And $25,000 apiece, to make a cube with a bed, desk, and shelves in it? Really?

Endless creativity and originality are expended on turning out structures that are, in some cases, only a grade above cardboard boxes. Which is fine, because on a cold night, even a sheet of aluminum between you and the wind can make all the difference.

Based on rationales that range from baffling to incomprehensible, very few locales allow these minimalist solutions. The whole “tiny house” genre is riddled with restrictions, sanctions, ordinances, contradictions, and highly idiosyncratic rules — depending on the jurisdiction the project happens to lie in. In some places, a distinction is made between an actual dwelling and a “pod,” which might be a basic, no-frills box, and as long as it stays beneath a certain size, it’s allowed.

Dream pods

Two Januaries ago, Tucson, Arizona, was all in a tizzy over “dream pods,” basically plywood crates not much bigger than coffins, that activists constructed and brought downtown for people to live in. In March, after much controversy, orders were issued that they all had to go, along with every tent, lean-to, etc. Some of the dream pods were moved to the grounds of a church where they continued to be inhabited.

The problem beneath the problem is, literally, the rock-solid dilemma on which everything rests. It’s not that there aren’t enough housing units to live in, because there easily could be. There is plenty of encouragement for the recycling and repurposing of parts and materials. An enormous amount of ingenuity has been spent in designing units.

Among people experiencing homelessness and caring citizens, there is a great potential pool of volunteer labor. There is government money and private charity money — never as much as we might wish — but it is there, and obtainable by determined individuals and groups willing to do the work. But there is virtually nowhere to put tiny homes. Nobody wants shipping containers, or even storybook-cute mini-houses, anywhere near where they are.

Reactions?

Source: “California architecture students design shelters for LA’s growing homeless population,” Dezeen.com, 02/22/17
Source: “Can these small pods bring a big solution for California cities’ homeless crisis?,” MercuryNews.com, 10/13/17
Source: “‘Dream pods’ removed from Tucson homeless camp,” Tucson.com, 03/13/15
Photo credit: Laura LaVoie (wheezinggirl) via Visualhunt/CC BY

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How to Become Homeless: Get Burned Out

For The New York Times, Kirk Johnson and Conor Dougherty interviewed people experiencing homelessness for the first time in the California city of Santa Rosa. Some consider themselves lucky to have grabbed cell phones, passports and a few clothes before fleeing the deadly blazes. (If you don’t have time to read the whole article, look for the story of a man named John Page.)

Most of the fire refugees who gathered at a donation center did not even have “the paper trail of their lives: deeds and marriage licenses, tax files and social security cards.” Formerly secure Americans are learning the hell of being without documents, a condition all too familiar to both the chronically and temporarily homeless people of America.

Of the estimated 100,000 Northern California evacuees, some travelled as far as 70 miles to take refuge in San Francisco and Oakland, which were pretty crowded already, and expensive. A lot of those folks have nothing left to go back to. The cost in human lives is terrible with 40 people already known to have died.

NIMBY all over again

An old joke goes, “What’s the difference between a developer and an environmentalist? The developer wants to build a house in the woods; the environmentalist already has one.” This has been part of the problem in the state’s counties of Napa and Sonoma, where new housing starts come nowhere near to matching the number of new residents.

The people who work in San Francisco and Silicon Valley have to live somewhere, but there is resistance to building in rural areas. The reporters also cite…

[…] the complexities of California’s housing, zoning and building regulations, and the environmental problems involved in cleaning up home sites made toxic by the ash from the fire.

Climate change increasingly plays a part in the likelihood of more fires. Tribune News Service describes the recent past and the probable future:

Six years of drought was followed by record winter snow and rain, followed by record heat from April through September. Santa Rosa hit 110 degrees Sept. 1, a record high for the date. Five weeks later parts of the city caught fire, destroying hundreds of homes and businesses. Worse extremes can be expected in coming decades.

Some Santa Rosa evacuees are sleeping at the Sonoma Fairgrounds on Red Cross cots. Others are 20 miles away at a shelter manned by the National Guard. What will change in the aftermath of the current fire disaster? Housing prices were already ridiculously high and can only get worse, now that nearly 6,000 buildings have been destroyed. There will be many things to consider, in future housing plans, including better escape routes.

No one is exempt

Recent events make it very clear that people experiencing homelessness are not a different species. A fire can happen to anybody. Almost everyone knows someone whose life was changed irrevocably by a fire. Fire plays no favorites, and some of the narratives contain painful irony. For instance, a 2012 story (that has not been archived on the Internet) described how a Syracuse, New York, couple who had devoted their lives to helping the homeless, were themselves made homeless by a fire.

Seemingly senseless accidents happen, like when a toaster jammed and burned a house leaving an Iowa family of five homeless. In 2015, in Minnesota, a family that had been doubling up with relatives for three months finally completed the formalities and complied with the regulations to move into a house they were buying. The were in residence for only two weeks when a fire made them homeless again.

Sometimes it’s nature, and sometimes human malice is to blame. In January of this year, an apartment fire left 18 people homeless. The man arrested and charged with arson had a grudge against one of the tenants, and had made a previous attempt to burn the building. All kinds of things can happen.

House the Homeless has mentioned T.C. Boyle, whose novel The Tortilla Curtain sketched a heartbreaking picture of the existence of undocumented workers living in a ravine on less than nothing. His newer book, A Friend of the Earth, projects the bleak outlook for the California of the future. When a reporter asked for a remark on the current fires, Boyle said:

People say I was prescient by what I predicted for 2025. The sad joke is I should have said 2015. It is frightening how quickly we got here.

Reactions?

Source: “Fires Leave Many Homeless Where Housing Was Already Scarce,” NYTimes.com, 10/15/17
Source: “Wildfires and weather: Doom fiction called California reality,” WatertownDailyTimes.com, 10/16/17
Source: “Unattended Toaster Sparks Fire, Leaving Family of Five Homeless,” SiouxlandProud.com, 07/26/15
Source: “Previously homeless Winona family loses new home in fire,” KTTC.com, 10/11/15
Source: “Arrest In Buffalo Fire That Left 18 Homeless,” WGRZ.com, 01/22/17
Photo credit: Orin Zebest via Visualhunt/CC BY

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Resistance, Advocacy, and Ambivalence in Maspeth

In Maspeth, which is part of Queens in New York City, a Holiday Inn became a homeless shelter. In April, some locals sued the mayor on technical grounds related to the building’s certificate of occupancy, but apparently an uneasy truce is now in effect.

But the permanent residents are vigilant. A woman filed a FOIA request (subsequently denied) for information on the shelter residents, particularly “employment information, last known addresses, reasons for their homelessness, drug use and length of stay.” In August, a headline read, “Cops say this couple has been breaking into Maspeth homes in broad daylight.” (Not the couple pictured on our page, by the way.)

According to the article on QNS.com:

Police have released images of a man and a woman responsible for a burglary pattern in Maspeth, hitting two homes within a span of three days in broad daylight…

In other words, the pair tried but failed to break into one house, and successfully broke into another and stole things, if that can be called a pattern. Obviously, some journalistic sensationalizing is in play, but, surprisingly, the local news sources are reticent about connecting crimes to the formerly homeless population. Strangely, a blog about local affairs never mentions the shelter at all.

Outside friction

A story from Gothamist is titled, “Ask A Native New Yorker: Is It Wrong To Hate Homeless People?” It quotes lively discussions between journalists, members of the affected community, and people who are neither. It illustrates, among other things, the proneness of trolls to deploy “straw man” arguments.

A person known as “Maspeth Sympathizer” wrote:

No one wants some 20 year old baby breeder and her litter of kids scrubbing off the good hardworking taxpayers.

However, the original Maspeth plan was to create a 110-bed shelter for adult families, defined as couples and families with children older than 18. Using rude and crude language, the same New Yorker voiced the frustrations felt by people who work hard to buy a piece of property with a house on it, and then find their communities playing host to people experiencing homelessness.

Nice middle-class neighborhoods are rare in the metropolis. They are populated by workers who “clean the streets, run the public transportation system, enforce the law, put out the fires, pick up the trash, teach our future and hold the doors open for the snobs who can’t be bothered.”

Clash of cultures

Critics say that people who live in shelters mess up their neighborhoods, and this is an understandable complaint. Parents whose kids play in the local park don’t want broken glass to suddenly start showing up. The obvious retort is that not all people experiencing homelessness are poorly socialized semi-barbarians who were raised in dumpsters with rats for pets.

The families in the shelter might have been traumatically transplanted from a nice middle-class community just like Maspeth. These days, almost no one in America is immune to the threat of homelessness.

A knee-jerk reaction would be to fence the park, limit the hours, convince the police to make a strong presence, or hire security guards. But it doesn’t have to be like that. What if community members went a bit out of their way for a while, and put in a little extra effort?

Local parents could spend more time at the park with their kids, getting healthy exercise and demonstrating by example how to treat a shared public space. Churches could create a welcoming atmosphere. A good-hearted intention to enfold newcomers, rather than repel them, could probably make a considerable difference in many instances.

Some kind of humane approach would certainly accomplish more good than the random pronouncement of blanket generalizations, like the following:

This homeless shelter in Maspeth, like all homeless shelters, is going ruin the neighborhood. There isn’t a neighborhood with a homeless shelter that hasn’t been ruined.

Gothamist publisher Jake Dobkin begs to differ, citing peaceful assimilation in several areas of NYC, both rich and poor. He suggests that what’s really going on is simple fear. Housed people live in terror of the prospect of homelessness, as well they should, because then they might be treated with the same scorn they pour on others now.

Dobkin diagnoses, and advises:

It’s much easier to believe that these people are sub-human trash, rather than just normal people who had the bad luck of being poor in an expensive city—because if you believed that, there’s nothing that could guarantee you’d never end up facing the same problem. Rather than pointing at the poor shelter residents, who are mainly the victims of bad luck and stratospherically-priced housing, you’d be better off directing your anger at the people who really have power in our city’s real estate market: the rich developers and the politicians whom they control.

A bigger picture

It is characteristic of the NIMBY mindset to believe that homeless shelters should only be for people who were rendered homeless in that exact locale. The woman who petitioned the government for personal information was hung up on a 2014 statistic that claimed only four homeless families in Maspeth, and wanted to prove that most of the shelter residents came from other places.

That is an absurdly local perspective. Looked at on a larger scale, out of 12,000 families in the NYC “system” only 135 families (or less than 2%) are from places other than New York City.

The disgruntled “Maspeth Sympathizer” notes that homeless families tend to consist of women and children, with the fathers always missing. Deeper thought and more compassion would promote the understanding that often these families are homeless precisely because the father was taken from them — often by legal action.

It is no secret that minority-group males are accused, convicted, and incarcerated in numbers that do not line up with statistical probability. In city and county jails and state and federal prisons, the black and Hispanic inmate count is wildly disproportionate to the corresponding demographics of the population as a whole. And besides, people in places like Maspeth resent being called racist, when they are merely anti-homeless.

Reactions?

Source: “‘Homeless Holiday Inn’ sparks lawsuit against mayor,” NYPost.com, 04/24/17
Source: “Cops say this couple has been breaking into Maspeth homes in broad daylight,” QNS.com, 08/22/17
Source: “Ask A Native New Yorker: Is It Wrong To Hate Homeless People?,” Gothamist.com, 09/09/16
Photo credit: Steve Baker via Visualhunt/CC BY-ND

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How to Become Homeless — Be Flooded Out

On September 25, the president tweeted, “Texas & Florida are doing great.” However, it seems that some areas are experiencing and expecting even more flooding. And desolation is widespread.

Many people are experiencing homelessness for the first time. For some it is only temporary (though not at all easy), but others will never be housed again. Among those who were already homeless, conditions are worse than ever.

In Austin, Nacodoches and Dallas, people are still taking shelter. The City of Orange set up a headquarters able to hold 250 cots.

Only three days ago, I overheard in real time a conversation about trying to help a young couple with children in Texas. In their normal living space, wet building materials were being removed, while new drywall and other necessary supplies were eagerly awaited. The family was living in their van parked outside, and dared not venture far.

If funds were to be sent to the bank, getting to the bank would be a problem for them, and besides, they were not even sure if the bank was open. And there was no mail service in their part of the city.

The flood drowned 80% of the Gulf Coast town of Dickinson, and half the homes were totaled. To give just one small example of the struggles documented by reporter Quint Forgey:

Many trash haulers have abandoned this community to work in Houston, 30 miles north, where the pay is better… “That’s our biggest challenge — getting the debris trucks in here and keeping them here,” said Ron Morales, Dickinson’s emergency management coordinator…

In 2015, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority interviewed more than 3,000 people experiencing homelessness (out of the estimated 44,300 in the entire county.) The agency was interested in what caused people to be unhoused. According to Authority:

For a fifth of those interviewed, it was primarily a matter of unemployment or finances. Seventy-nine said they were released from jail. Nearly 200 blamed a breakup or separation. Many cited multiple reasons from the list that interviewers read to them.

[…] Lost employment, lost everything by theft, lost Section 8 (federal housing assistance). Hurricane Katrina, fire and “God’s calling” were all cited too.

Often, disaster is one of the reasons, either alone or in conjunction with another misfortune. Ashlea Surles related the story of Jack, a 53-year-old man who lived in the woods in Mississippi. Once a wealthy businessman, he ran out of money paying for his wife’s cancer treatments, and she died anyway. Hurricane Katrina destroyed his house. He told the reporter, with confusing syntax, “Basically people that are homeless sometimes you’re just in the mold where they just don’t care.”

A year ago, Connellsville, Pennsylvania, and a neighboring town suffered severe damage, and it only took five inches of rain in a two-hour spell to cause the nightmare. “Flood leaves more than 50 families homeless in western Pa.,” the headline read. In a place with a population of around 7,500, that’s a pretty big slice of the demographic pie.

Around the same time, Louisiana was slammed with a “1,000-year flood,” in other words, the kind of freakish disaster that is statistically predicted to strike only once per millennium. (Obviously, someone didn’t get the memo.)

In some communities — Denham Springs, for instance — 90% of houses flooded, leaving their owners homeless.

According to FEMA rules, wrote reporter Andrea Gallo, “people in shelters who owned or rented property before the floods qualify for the agency’s transitional shelter assistance, which includes rental assistance, the shelter-at-home program and temporary mobile homes as a last resort.”

Even though people are entitled to help, you can’t rent a hotel room that doesn’t exist, and how many hotels are in rural Louisiana? Without transportation, how do you even go and look for a place to live?

For The Advocate, Gallo profiled a couple who had lived in Walker until their house was inundated by over five feet of water. Gerald and Cris Burkins were placed in one shelter, then another, unable to meet with family members including their daughter whose boyfriend had just died in an auto accident. They were left with nothing, and needed, at the very least, a car and an apartment.

At the height of the emergency, over 11,000 people were taken into Louisiana shelters, among them many who hadn’t been living in any particular place. While a lot of the people in this group may have received the benefit of a more gradual learning curve, flood victims have to very quickly come to terms with their calamitous displacement.

It must be interesting, for experienced homeless people, to see formerly housed neighbors hit with the reality of what having nothing is all about. Gallo says:

If there was ever novelty in living alongside strangers and not having control over what to eat, what to wear and where to go, it has long since worn off.

The reporter also interviewed a woman who had been only two years away from having her house mortgage paid off, suddenly made homeless with nothing but her two cats. Another woman hinted that individuals, such as landlords, could lapse into compassion fatigue:

When people did things for you in the beginning, it was “We want to help.” Now, it’s changed. We didn’t ask to be homeless.

*****

NOTE: Readers who missed the most recent post, “Flooding and Its Aftermath,” might wish to check out the part that begins, “What to do?”

Reactions?

Source: “Tent City offers temporary housing for evacuees,” OrangeLeader.com, 09/28/17
Source: “Texas Towns Crushed by Hurricane Harvey Struggle to Clean Up and Rebuild,” WSJ.com, 09/29/17
Source: “LA’s homeless, in their own words, on how it happened,” LATimes.com, 11/26/15
Source: “Hattiesburg men explain how they ended up homeless in a tent city,” WDAM.com, 2012
Source: “Flood leaves more than 50 families homeless in western Pa.,” WIFT.org, 08/31/16
Source: “Louisiana left stunned by damage from ‘1,000-year’ flood: ‘It just kept coming’,” TheGuardian.com, 08/16/16
Source: “‘We didn’t ask to be homeless’: 850 people remain in shelters, worry about being forgotten as others move on,” TheAdvocate.com, 09/09/16
Photo credit: Texas Military Department via Visualhunt/CC BY-ND

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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, 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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