“If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair,” went the refrain of a once-popular song. California was Shangri-la, a land of magic and hope, the preferred destination for the abandoned and disaffected youth of our entire nation.
These days, it’s a good place for homeless teens and young adults to steer clear of. With facilities stretched to their limits, helping organizations work harder than before, trying to accomplish more with ever-shrinking budgets. Housed people fall prey to compassion fatigue, and there is a steady increase in laws designed to make life unpleasant for the peasant.
Currently, the golden state contains more homeless youth than any other state, and they are more likely to be unsheltered than in most other states. Among the nation’s cities as rated by their “mean streets,” California has three of the top ten spots.
The last two decades have seen the creation of numerous restrictive ordinances, and over the past five years, the pace of anti-homeless legislation has picked up, according to Shahera Hyatt and Jessica Reed, the credited authors of “Adding Insult to Injury: The Criminalization of Homelessness and Its Effects on Youth.” Though only two names are on the cover, this 16-page report utilized all the resources of the California Homeless Youth Project, with help from the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.
Things Are Tough for Unaccompanied Youth
Many of the offenses that people experiencing homelessness are charged with have nothing to do with age. They may be forbidden to sit, stand, rest, or sleep in public places; or to set up a tent or lean-to shack anywhere. They may not be allowed to ask for contributions or sort through trash receptacles for food or recyclable materials. Organizations that want to serve them food may be told they are not allowed to give away so much as a sandwich.
Then there is another layer of legal difficulty known as selective enforcement, when homeless people are not allowed to do things that are apparently okay for others. The most well-known example is sidewalk camping. People who wait in line all night to buy concert tickets or the latest model phone are allowed to set up tents or sack out in sleeping bags while homeless people, of course, would be breaking the law.
The things that unaccompanied youth most often get in trouble for are, the report says, “sleeping in public or private spaces at night, or sitting in public space during the day.” The other big problem is traveling to places where help is available. Kids often sneak rides on public transportation and get nailed for theft of services.
Then there is the problem of “status offenses,” or things that are illegal for a person under 18 to do unless a court has previously deemed her or him an “emancipated minor.” Curfew violations get kids in trouble while not affecting adults. Kids are supposed to be enrolled in school until a certain age, and not showing up makes them truant. Truancy is a crime even for the homeless. Young people have been locked up for that crime, which makes no sense whatsoever. Incarcerating a kid for skipping school has got to be one of the most irrational government actions ever. The report says:
Homeless students are much better served by community-based organizations, which have been shown to be more developmentally appropriate, cost effective, and humane than the juvenile justice system.
For an adult, running away from home may not always be the wisest choice, and can even cause problems to multiply, but at least it isn’t illegal in and of itself. But for a minor (which in California means under 18), mere existence is a status offense, because kids that age are not supposed to be anywhere else except under their family roof. Here is what the authors say:
Youth who run away do so for their own survival, often fleeing their homes due to abuse, extreme poverty, and/or rejection of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity and expression. Yet in many jurisdictions, runaway youth may be apprehended by law enforcement and returned to their home of origin, even if that home is dysfunctional and/or abusive.
Source: “Adding Insult to Injury: The Criminalization of Homelessness and Its Effects on Youth.
Image by Senia L
There were rumblings and inklings of this for months—of actor Richard Gere feeling his way into a movie role by going out incognito and blending in with people experiencing homelessness in their daily pursuits. For instance, a French tourist gave him some pizza but remained clueless until a picture of the two of them showed up in a newspaper.
Last month the film, Time Out of Mind, was released. It’s about a man trying to survive in New York, a tough city in which to be homeless (not that anyplace is easy). For those accustomed to appreciating Gere playing romantic leads or “shifty power mongers,” this performance is unsettling. National Public Radio’s Ella Taylor says:
George scrambles to keep body and soul together, shuttling between welfare offices, an overwhelmed homeless shelter in Bellevue hospital, and the streets. There, enraged and frustrated at being alternately ignored and ringed around with rules and red tape, he conducts himself like a man trying to bargain without chips.
From Taylor’s review, it sounds like a movie worth seeing, with several great characters, like other street people played by Ben Vereen and Kyra Sedgwick. For aficionados of cinematic technique, the writer mentions how the 66-year old Gere is in every scene, but hardly ever at the center of the action. She says director Oren Moverman…
…shoots Gere in very long shots through wire fences and glass doors and windows, down hallways, up and down the streets he roams aimlessly, into the shelter where he retires to bed down for the night…a man for whom the simple business of feeding himself and finding a bed for the night requires constant, unrelenting effort.
This review makes the film seem very layered and nuanced, with plenty of psychological and emotional kinks, just like real life. It ends by saying, “it’s the finest portrait of homelessness I’ve ever seen.” The comments garnered by the piece are interesting too, like the one from a person who credits the Salvation Army for—true to its name—making a save.
HuffingtonPost.com offers a 25-minute video segment in which Gere discusses his connection with the Coalition for the Homeless and his longtime determination to make this film whose script he first read in 1988. He discusses the history of how the movie came to be made, and many aspects of the homeless scene including the crucial difference between housing and warehousing.
Gere also references Land of the Lost Souls: My Life on the Streets, a book by a fellow known as Cadillac Man, who at one time was the most famous homeless person in Northern Queens. It made a deep impression on Gere and greatly influenced the contributions that he made to the Time Out of Mind script.
Source: “Richard Gere Plays homeless Man Convincingly
Source: “Richard Gere Shines In The Bleak ‘Time Out Of Mind’
Source: “’Time Out Of Mind’ Star Richard Gere LIVE
Image by arincrumley
When Pope Francis visited Washington, D.C., recently, there had been a tentative plan for him to stop by the sculpture installed on a bench outside the headquarters of Catholic Charities. Sadly, this viewing of “Jesus the Homeless” did not fit into the schedule—but the Pope had, of course, already seen a smaller version of Timothy P. Schmalz’s touching work of art last year when it was brought to the Vatican to receive his blessing
At St. Patrick’s Church, the Pope spoke to about 250 people experiencing homelessness who currently depend on Catholic Charities. One does not need to be the least bit religious to grasp the basic idea behind his strong words:
We can find no social or moral justification, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing. The Son of God came into this world as a homeless person. The Son of God knew what it was to start life without a roof over his head.
Outside, a tent had been set up where 300 lunch guests waited. They included residents of the Catholic Charities shelter and the Harriet Tubman Women’s Shelter, all of whom had signed up and then been vetted by the shelter managers. Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times reported:
A few minutes later Francis came out the church doors to cheers and applause from the lunch guests. He gave a brief blessing, then said “Buen apetito,” to loud laughter. He himself did not eat, but he waded through the tables, stopping to lay his hand on the heads of children…
The Pope’s next stop was New York, where custom-designed metal spikes were installed to prevent homeless people from lingering or sleeping within the pitiful shelter of alcoves in the walls of buildings near Madison Square Garden. At the same time, 18 “seating pods” disappeared from a nearby pedestrian plaza, and the property management company responsible for their removal told a reporter that these “homeless magnets” would not be replaced.
Hiding the Homeless in Philadelphia
In the City of Brotherly Love, preparations for the papal visit included the displacement of people experiencing homelessness from any chance of encountering him. According to Amy S. Rosenberg, all was peaceful in the Parkway area as authorities established the Secure Pope Perimeter. She provides many heart-warming anecdotes to illustrate how incident-free the process was, as the people who usually sleep in the park simply made alternate arrangements. But other reports differ, relating how the police threw everyone’s belongings in the trash. The city’s local CBS affiliate quoted outreach worker Amir Robertson:
If you’re homeless, the best thing I can suggest you do is stay off the streets because you’re either going to go to jail or they’re going to put you in the worst part of the neighborhood where you’re going to end up getting killed.
Nearly two weeks before the Pope’s arrival, six families who were unable to obtain either emergency housing vouchers or shelter beds set up housekeeping in an empty lot. Photos went out via social media, and next thing you know, television crews showed up. While the city spent millions of dollars to prepare for the pontiff’s visit, the homeless continued to suffer. Organizers pointed out the bitter irony of this, especially in the face of the Pope’s demonstrable affinity for the homeless.
The protestors challenged the city to figure out how to turn unused buildings into livable places and put people into them. At last count, there were something like 40,000 abandoned houses, commercial structures, and empty lots in Philadelphia. (As House the Homeless has discussed, HtH President Richard R. Troxell initiated the Philadelphia Stabilization Program here back in the 1980s.) Coverage of the campsite proved that poverty is no respecter of race, and that the public cared enough to bring food donations to the “pantry” tent. It also proved that public shaming can be effective. The Philadelphia Housing Authority stepped up and found public housing vouchers for the six families.
Source: “Pope Francis to See Statue of Homeless Jesus During Visit to DC,” CBSLocal.com, 09/18/15
Source: “Pope Francis’ Most Welcome Words to Homeless: ‘Buon Appetito’,” NYTimes.com, 09/24/15
Source: “Photos: Sharp Anti-Homeless Spikes Have Been Installed Near Pope’s Route,” Gothamist.com, 09/25/15
Source: “Outreach workers get homeless to leave the Parkway.” Philly.com, 09/25/15
Source: “Homeless People Being Relocated In Preparation For Papal Visit,” CBSLocal.com, 09/25/15
Source: “Six Homeless Families Living in Tents in Philly Lot,” NBCPhiladelphia.com, 09/16/15
Image by Mike Maguire
Are anti-camping ordinances constitutional? This question has lain dormant with occasional ominous tremors like those that precede an earthquake. It is a question with the potential to change the landscape literally, figuratively, and extensively. There was a big rumble in 2006, when Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Kim M. Wardlaw made what seemed like a groundbreaking legal decision that turned out not to be. We discussed why Jones v. City of Los Angeles kind of fizzled out.
But recently, the Ninth Circuit case became a factor to be reckoned with when the federal government turned its attention to Bell v. City of Boise, a case brought by Idaho Legal Aid Services and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. The Justice Department’s “statement of interest” quoted Judge Wardlaw, who said:
The Eighth Amendment prohibits the City from punishing involuntary sitting, lying, or sleeping on public sidewalks that is an unavoidable consequence of being human and homeless without shelter in the City of Los Angeles.
Here is the same news event, presented from the vantage point of a different mindset. The NY Post‘s Betsy McCaughey believes that living on the street is not acceptable. About that, we agree—but the meaning we assign to the words is vastly different. We would like clean, safe and affordable living conditions for all humans. McCaughey seems to wish that large segments of the population could somehow magically be made to disappear.
When a homeless advocate says that people should not be punished for their status, McCaughey characterizes that basic human decency as a “wacky ideology.” In our view, if people have no choice but to live on the streets, they should at least be legally protected.
McCaughey, on the other hand, is all about criminalizing survival, and sees the Justice Department’s interest in the Iowa case as the Obama administration “siding with vagrants against local governments.” We wish we could tell you the upcoming quotation was found in The Onion or some other satirical publication, but alas, we cannot. The outraged McCaughey says of people experiencing homelessness:
Their insistence on street living punishes the rest of us. We have to endure the heart-wrenching sights of human beings in rags lying on sidewalks.
Jones v. City of Los Angeles was vacated because of a compromise deal, but the analysis provided by Judge Kim M. Wardlaw was solid, which is why it is being called upon in Bell v. City of Boise. Writing for Slate.com, Mark Joseph Stern mentions other cases that influence the judiciary’s thinking in this matter. Robinson v. California and Powell v. Texas were both ruled on by the nation’s Supreme Court. Stern says:
In Robinson the court struck down a California statute that criminalized addiction—not just use or possession—of narcotics. California, the justices explained, could outlaw the conduct of drug use, but it could not criminalize the status of being addicted to drugs. Powell dealt with a similar law, one that criminalized public intoxication in Texas.
Since homelessness is a status, not a conduct, it seems reasonable to assume that the Supreme Court would also say that the Constitution forbids cities to arrest people for sleeping rough when shelters are full. Stern doubts that Bell v. City of Boise will reach that far, but it might slow down or partially reverse the criminalization of homelessness. Even if it doesn’t go to the Supreme Court, the lower-level resolution of Bell v. City of Boise will create a precedent that can be called upon in similar cases elsewhere, for better or worse. Stern adds:
It’s quite depressing to see the DOJ defend homeless people’s right to sleep by analogizing them to drug addicts and alcoholics. But its brief is really an indication of just how profoundly America has failed its homeless communities.
Source: “Team Obama’s fight to keep the homeless living on the streets,” NYPost.com, 08/18/15
Source: “Justice Department Tells Cities to Stop Criminalizing Homelessness,” slate.com, 08/14/15
Image by Albert Ter Harmsel
The Weingart Center is a venerable Skid Row institution that offers shelter, job training and counseling. Los Angeles Times writer Sandy Banks interviewed Maxene Johnston, who was in charge of it for 10 years, and learned this:
Her time in the trenches taught her that most people with nowhere to live fell into one of three groups: the derailed, the disabled or the dysfunctional. The derailed are ordinary people hobbled by bad luck…The disabled have mental or physical issues that make it hard to live on their own…The dysfunctional are chronic street dwellers, with limitations that can’t be addressed with short-term help… There are as many back stories as there are broken and desperate people.
The point Johnston makes is that all the people in these subdivisions are still part of the public, the citizenry whose safety and wellbeing the civic authorities are charged with protecting. The derailed, of course, are the easiest to help, and also the easiest to become one of. Life is so precarious that just about everyone is at some degree of risk for becoming homeless. Today we look at a few random ways in which this can happen.
A Davenport, Iowa, mother of five was shown a rental house by “the most wonderful man I ever met in my life” and gave him a $1,300 deposit—all the money she had. Then he disappeared, and even a local news station was unable to help her trace the thief.
An article by Senior Advocate Liza Horvath outlines some of the many ways in which the elderly can be scammed out of their homes and savings, and prefaces the list with strong words:
A rapacious, marauding predator is taking hold in America and it is growing stronger, smarter, meaner and more aggressive each passing minute… If left unchecked it will take everything they have earned and saved throughout a lifetime and dump them—homeless and destitute into the mean streets.
A Rhode Island couple bought a house, sold their old house, and wound up out in the cold. At the last minute, their Realtor told the would-be buyers that “because [a law firm] had failed to provide proper notification of foreclosure, we’d be unable to obtain title insurance.” The firm’s branches in a nearby state had already been under investigation because their practices looked very much like those of a “foreclosure mill,” a well-known variety of illegal enterprise. Yet the error in this case could so plausibly have been an honest (and still unconscionable) mistake, it gave the Attorney General’s subsequent inquiry very little to work with. And the couple, of course, could not get their old house back.
In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the Andrews family learned the hard way that when the city condemns a building, the tenants have to leave immediately. It wasn’t Robin Andrews’s fault that the balcony of a 4th-floor apartment collapsed, or that everyone in the building had to get out right away. His employer paid for the initial week in a motel room for the couple and their three children. Andrews expected to get his $900 security deposit back from the old landlord, but instead was cheated out of it. The result? No resources and nowhere to go.
Everyone has a story, and listening to too many of them at once can have an impact on the hearer. But now, the theme takes a turn. As we have seen, in Florida many volunteer teams of military veterans search the urban areas and the wilderness for their lost brothers. Last year a survey was taken—and bear in mind, this was just one county, Hillsborough, which includes the city of Tampa.
Of the 236 veterans counted…109 said they didn’t know exactly why they were homeless.
Source: “Garcetti, City Council throw homeless problem to the police,” LATimes.com, 07/03/15
Source: “Davenport mom and kids homeless after internet scam,” WQAD.com, 10/14/13
Source: “Scammers can leave seniors homeless,” MonteryHerald.com, 10/31/14
Source: “I-Team: Law firm mistake leaves couple without home,” turnto10.com, 10/28/13
Source: “Family left homeless after balcony collapse,” 620wtmj, 10/10/13
Source: “Number of homeless veterans in the area spikes,” Tbo.com, 05/11/14
Image by Pedro Ribeiro Simões
Bob Erlenbusch is Executive Director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness and, like House the Homeless founder Richard R. Troxell, he sits on the board of the National Coalition for the Homeless. Currently, in a paper called Homelessness & “Functional Zero:” a Critique, Erlenbusch challenges the validity of the bedrock principles of homelessness policy. (We received the piece from Erlenbusch; it is not, as far as we know, available online.) It appears that some underlying notions seriously need to be re-thought.
The author points out that, lamentably, ten-year plans that started so boldly are now “in their second decade or abandoned altogether.” Strategies that were originally mapped out might need remodeling. For example, when authorities set the triage standards, and prioritized the various arbitrarily-named subgroups, it was decided that the chronically homeless would be dealt with first, then veterans, families, and youth. Of course, any person could belong to more than one of those groups. Anyway, the idea was to eliminate homelessness among one group, then move on to the next. By and large, that plan is not working out as advertised.
Why have things gone so wrong? For one thing, there’s the minimum wage, which Erlenbusch says “keeps people shackled to poverty.” What does poverty do? The stress of it makes people sick. A chronic shortage of money tempts them to a criminal path. Financial distress breaks up families. Grownups wind up in a hospitals, jails and prisons. Kids wind up in foster homes.
Every year, those institutions discharge thousands of people into homelessness—people who are vulnerable because of poor health, youth who are at risk in many ways, and men and women who are perhaps perfectly capable of supporting themselves, except for being unemployable because of their criminal records. All too often, those jackets are acquired in the first place through crimes directly connected with being homeless—sitting on the wrong bench, panhandling, public urination, and so forth. The vicious cycle that connects prison and the streets (and the foster care system) creates a revolving door that rotates so fast it would make your head spin.
Going farther back, the Reagan administration set the stage for all this in 1980 by making three-quarters of the federal affordable housing budget disappear. Also at some point the mental health system took a dive, which can be blamed on either Reagan or the ACLU, depending on who tells the story. (It might have been both.) All these factors, and more, add up to what Erlenbusch describes as:
…systems and policies that have created three decades of mass homelessness.. Prisons and jails have become the housing for people experiencing homelessness, especially people of color and those with mental health issues.
So now, how do we handle the fallout? For starters, we try to “arrest our way out of homelessness,” and one of the results has been the de facto criminalization of mental illness. (It would be a cliché to invoke the name of a certain World War II military dictator, but his thoughts were on the same wavelength.)
Something else happened, too— what Erlenbusch calls “defining our way out of homelessness.” This trick has been used extensively by bureaucracies full of number-massagers with statistics degrees and flexible principles when discussing, for instance, the unemployment rate. Even when well-intentioned (but ill-advised) people set to work on the definition of homelessness, things can really get ugly.
The Fatal Flaw in Functional Zero
The big fallacy is a concept called “functional zero” and Erlenbusch hopes to inspire a major shift in the thinking behind it. Here is the gist of his argument:
Basically, a community can still have 10,000 homeless people, for example, but if that community can say the number of people entering homelessness is equal to the number exiting, they have reached “functional zero”—forget the 10,000 languishing on the streets and in shelters…
An analogy: say a person weighs 800 pounds. If he ingests 2,000 calories worth of food per day, and moves around enough to burn 2,000 calories in a day, you could say his intake/output ratio is at “functional zero.” Yeah, but he still weighs 800 pounds! This falls under no one’s definition of health. Erlenbusch goes on to say:
It is harmful because when politicians and community members hear “zero”—they hear we have ended homelessness… Then when it is time to allocate scarce public resources it would not be unreasonable for the public and/or elected officials to argue we don’t need as many resources for homelessness because we have solved it! Yet we know nothing could be further from the truth.
One excellent point made by the author is that, just like “no means no,” zero should mean zero. In order to grasp the insidious damage done by the “functional zero” doctrine, we relate one of Erlenbusch’s statements to a few other quotations and ideas. He says that because of this convention, “…hundreds of thousands of people experiencing homelessness have remained invisible to our leaders at all levels.” He quotes Marc Uhry:
When people are invisible, you can’t find a solution because you don’t see them.
In The Transformation, George B. Leonard wrote:
One of the most powerful taboo mechanisms is simply not providing a vocabulary for the experience to be tabooed.
The venerable Illuminatus! Trilogy gave us the word “fnord,” which has to do with things that are apparent but indefinite; and the ability to see truths that most people can’t; and being forcibly conditioned to fear that seeing. It might even bear some relationship to what Obi Wan Kenobi famously said: “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.” It’s about mental judo. Community Solutions defines functional zero like this:
At any point in time, the number of people experiencing sheltered or unsheltered homelessness will be no greater than the current monthly housing placement rate for people experiencing homelessness.
Our minds can be clouded to think that makes sense. But it doesn’t. That definition merely describes homeostasis, or maintenance of the status quo. In any case, those things are not necessarily good, and in this case, they are definitely bad. The definition is, at best, meaningless jargon, and at worse an evil gimmick. It signifies no more than treading water, or running in a hamster wheel—with the appearance of activity but no real progress.
Of course, that’s not entirely fair either. Even when the math is from Alice in Wonderland, every time an individual or family receives help from any agency, it’s a step in the right direction. As in the oft-repeated starfish story, “It made a difference for that one.”
Source: “Topic: Reagan kicked people out of institutions,” Snopes.com, 02/05/06
Image by Bill Maher