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Veteran Makeover Confuses Homeless Issues

Jim WolfIn many ways and places, our veterans are being abused, while the public is bamboozled by the old magician’s trick of misdirection. When a major event is scheduled, an entire municipality might play “hide the homeless.” On an individual level, the media get all in a tizzy over whether one homeless New Yorker had boots or didn’t have boots before a police officer gave him some.

The latest cultural hiccup is a video made just in time for Veterans Day, in which homeless Army vet Jim Wolf gets a shave and a haircut. And a dye job. Also, he wears a suit. “Now he looks like someone on the cover of GQ,” filmmaker Rob Bliss told ABC News, and went on to say:

It’s more than just a haircut and clothing. To see yourself look like that is to see that potential. There are things inside implied by the way you look outside — stability and peace of mind.

Really? Males on active duty in the U.S. military are closely trimmed and clean-shaven. Do they all possess stability and peace of mind? If so, why do we hear so much about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? The video is based on the assumption that barbering is a panacea. If this were so, all of the thousands of homeless men who have been given complimentary shaves and haircuts by volunteers would be prosperous citizens by now.

The makeover video racked up 15 million YouTube views and inspired dozens of blog posts full of oohs and aahs. At the end of the slickly produced vignette, two screens of text explain that Wolf has taken control of his life and “is now scheduled to have his own housing and is attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for the first time ever.”

Smoke and Mirrors

As it turns out, “scheduled to have his own housing” was word waffling. When the video was made, Wolf had applied for veteran housing. How long that takes, and what a person does during the wait, is anybody’s guess. Meanwhile, the video raised $30,000 for Degage Ministries. And then a bad thing happened. BarstoolSports.com has its finger on the pulse of America, so let their headline tell the story and their writer Jmac sum it up:

“Dude From That Super Viral Homeless Makeover Video Got Arrested For Causing A Disturbance At Burger King”

Neat idea for sure, but this is the real world, folks. A new suit and haircut doesn’t guarantee that a dude is all of a sudden gonna turn his life around. This seems to happen a lot with stories like this. People only wanna discuss the happy theatrics of the whole thing, but they tend to ignore the facts.

For CNN News, Dorrine Mendoza interviewed Jim Wolf’s sister. Robin Thomas has hoped for many years that her brother would eventually exit the cycle of “depression, alcoholism, unresolved grief and chronic homelessness” in which he has been caught. Mendoza writes:

No one disputes Wolf has been arrested dozens and dozens of times, mostly for misdemeanors such as public intoxication. Thomas says her brother “lives in survival mode”…. She also admits that perhaps the video did not give Wolf the “glimpse into the future” that others had hoped. He did not view it as a life-changing event, Thomas says.

Though Degage Ministries put Jim Wolf and Rob Bliss in touch with each other, it’s not clear whether the film was originally conceptualized by the organization or the filmmaker. Someone made a bad decision when picking the person to be “made over.” Everybody is different, but whatever this particular fellow needs, it isn’t a shower of publicity. Jim Wolf might be a great candidate for a Housing First program — with zero fanfare — but he definitely was not ready for this failed experiment in superficial making-over.

Into the Wayback Machine

Another premise on which this project rests is a throwback to the 1960s, when acrimonious hair-length discussions between fathers and sons obscured the serious issues that activists sought to expose and repair. Is that what is happening here? Before Jim Wolf was arrested, Philip J. Reed — contravening popular opinion — wrote a piece titled, “Why I Hate This ‘Homeless Veteran Makeover’ Video, and Why You Should Too.” He calls it absurd, manipulative, offensive, exploitative, embarrassing and demeaning. Reed says:

What, exactly, is meant to be inspiring about this again? It’s the hollowest possible kind of “inspiration,” and it’s one that only works because it withholds the humanity…. But you shouldn’t feel inspired by anything that takes a serious, profound problem with the very core of the society in which you live, and presents it as trivial and easily overcome.

Wolf has a problem. That problem is the country he lives in. That problem is that country’s approach to dealing with the sick and the poor and the unemployed and the homeless. That problem is emphatically not going to be solved by a haircut, a shave, and a necktie. And yet this makeover video wants you to come away feeling that it is solved that way. Because that’s easy. That’s visual. And, what’s more, it’s easy on the eye.

This constant whitewashing of our problems is the problem.


Source: “Homeless Vet’s Makeover Turns His Life Around,” ABCNews.go.com, 11/08/13
Source: “Dude From That Super Viral Homeless Makeover Video Got Arrested For Causing A Disturbance At Burger King,” BarstoolSports.com, 11/21/13
Source: “Homeless vet in makeover video has long road ahead,” CNN.com, 11/19/13
Source: “Why I Hate This “Homeless Veteran Makeover” Video, and Why You Should Too,” NoiselessChatter.com, 11/09/13
Image by Rob Bliss

 

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Happening Now: War on the Poor

War on the Poor

Today, problems aren’t solved, they’re attacked. Like the War on Poverty. Remember that? I’m happy to report that it’s finally over. The poor people have all surrendered.
— Swami Beyondananda

Yes, there used to be a thing called the War on Poverty, declared by a president named Lyndon B. Johnson. Although opinions about it differ, still, the War on Poverty was preferable to what we have now — the War on the Poor.

It’s not even an undeclared war, it’s right out there in the open. In different communities, the authorities come at it in different ways, sometimes direct, but often tangential, which is more difficult for homeless advocates to deal with. House the Homeless blog has reported extensively on the No-Sit, No-Lie Ordinance in its home city of Austin, Texas, and on similar measures in other places.

In a recent article for TakePart.com, Solvej Schou expressed concern that peaceful begging, just asking for food or money with no aggression involved, is increasingly being criminalized by anti-panhandling and anti-solicitation laws now in effect in nearly 200 American cities.

Alley Valkyrie, an activist in Eugene, Oregon, received a criminal trespass citation for touching a planter box outside a restaurant and made national news by publicizing the incident as an example of how selective enforcement can make life miserable for people experiencing homelessness. Also, Eugene has something called an “exclusion law” whereby a judge can ban from the city center people accused, but not even yet convicted, of certain crimes. This prevents folks in need from accessing services, and basically from even existing in the designated area, even though they are not officially guilty of anything.

Things are still hot in Miami, Florida, where just last month a federal judge heard ACLU attorneys argue against modification of the Pottinger Settlement Agreement, a piece of legislation peculiar to Miami. Around 15 years ago, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the city on behalf of all its people experienceing homelessness. The organization’s website says:

The landmark settlement — won after a decade of litigation involving two trials, two appeals, and nearly two years of mediation — protects homeless individuals from being harassed or arrested by law enforcement for the purpose of driving them from public areas.

Law Professor Stephen Schnably, who has been involved with this matter all along, adds:

Transforming downtown into a constitution-free zone for homeless people is a Faustian bargain with no payoff. Eviscerating the Pottinger protections — what the City is effectively seeking — would do nothing to make downtown more vibrant. All it would do is strip homeless people of the basic human and constitutional right not to be arrested or have their property destroyed just for being homeless.

Also last month, Memphis, TN, looked bad when a program called Room in the Inn, which provides one night of shelter for several individuals, was forbidden at a Methodist church in a neighborhood called Evergreen which had planned to participate. In order to have overnight guests, you see, a church must own at least five acres of property. In Spartanburg, SC, a church made itself look bad by refusing help from local atheists who wanted to volunteer at its soup kitchen. The atheists responded by deciding instead to distribute packets of health and grooming aids from a location across the street.

In Anaheim, CA, the city council went full speed ahead with the unanimous passing of an ordinance which “imposes a ban on camping in parks and other public spaces while allowing for the confiscation of property deemed abandoned.” In practical terms this means that the belongings of people experiencing homelessness can be seized and destroyed by the police while the owner is eating, showering, or using a restroom.

That battle has already been fought and won in Los Angeles, where the Ninth Circuit court decided that stealing such property violates the victims’ 4th and 14th Amendment rights, but Anaheim is going for it anyway. Even at the best of times, less than half of the city’s people experiencing homelessness can fit into the local shelter, but that does not stop Anaheim from attempting to make public sleeping a crime.

Learn at a glance

For an instantaneous education in the current state of homelessness, please consult the infographic.”Gimme Shelter: Homeless in America,” curated by Roslyn Willson. As would reasonably be expected in this genre, the facts are presented in visually elegant terms. The presentation format is especially journalist-friendly, with everything repeated in plain text, making it easy for a reporter or blogger to quote something. Well played, Ms. Willson! The same technique is shared by another infographic, “The War Against the Homeless,” so please check out both of them and see what you’ve been missing.

Source: “The Crime of Poverty: Some Homeless People Face Arrest for Asking for Help,” TakePart.com, 10/09/13
Source: “Activists: trespass tickets aimed at homeless,” KVAL.com, 03/10/12
Source: “ACLU of Florida Defends Historic Agreement Protecting Miami’s Homeless from Police Harassment in Federal Court,” ACLUFL.org, 10/23/13
Source: “City code stops certain churches from housing the homeless,” WMCTV.com, 10/25/13
Source: “Christianity makes monsters of people, part two: atheists banned from helping the homeless,” Freethinker.co.uk, 10/27/13
Source: “ACLU: Anaheim’s Anti-Homeless Crackdown Legally “Disingenuous’,” OCWeekly.com, 10/28/13
Image by Occupy.

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And Still More Ways to Become Homeless

Homeless (green)Songwriters Lou and Peter Berryman wrote a song in 2004 whose message is, unfortunately, still spot-on today. The lyrics suggest an astonishing number of ways to become homeless, and really the best idea would be to go to this page and marvel over the whole list. (It’s the first item in the “Comments” section.)

But here’s a sample:

One runaway truck, one slip in the muck
One stretch of bad luck: Homelessness
One family feud, one litigious old prude
One long bad mood: Homelessness
One toaster too hot, one investment that’s not
One tiny blood clot: Homelessness

Earlier this month, Mark and Sharon Ames and their three daughters moved from a cramped apartment into a rental house they had found via Craigslist, in a community near Los Angeles. They paid the $2,000 move-in stake and signed a lease. Then, wrote Kennedy Ryan of KTLA5:

On Wednesday, a woman identifying herself as the real property manager showed up at the home with a police officer and told them they had to leave immediately because they were trespassing.

The officer gave the Ames family less than an hour to vacate and stood over them while they gathered their possessions. They signed into a motel, and KTLA5 kindly published their electronic contact information in case anyone was inspired to help.

Eleanor Goldberg of The Huffington Post picked up the story and added even more disheartening details. The real landlord gratuitously had the family’s van towed, and as anyone who has ever gone through the hassle and expense of reclaiming a vehicle from the California police knows, that alone can ruin your entire month.

The scam artist found the Ames couple easy to fleece, because they both face extra challenges in dealing with life. Mark is an amputee with a prosthetic leg, and Sharon is a PTSD-disabled veteran. Ironically, Mark has done volunteer service with an organization that helps the homeless. Through their own difficulties and life experience, they understand that things can’t always be done in the conventional way:

They fell for the scam in part, Mark said, because the fake landlord preyed on their vulnerabilities. She told them that a major car accident had left her disabled and unable to talk on the phone. The two dealt with the paperwork completely through email…

… And ended up homeless.

Ready for a laugh?

For comic relief, here is a quote from the archives of writer Heather Murdock:

A Rwandan government program to stop people living in thatched houses as part of a plan to alleviate poverty left hundreds of Batwa Pygmy families homeless…

But that kind of stuff only happens in “developing” third-world countries, not in an enlightened and progressive place like the United States. Right?

Remember Hurricane Katrina, and all the people it made homeless, and how some of them were loaned FEMA trailers to live in? By December of 2010, there were still 221 of these trailers in New Orleans, still occupied by people who as yet, for whatever reasons, had no other place to live. City officials called them a blight, and warned the residents to get out or pay heavy fines amounting to $500 per day. The following month, Julianne Hing reported:

The trailers were never designed to be permanent housing. Many who stayed in them years after the storm stuck around not out of choice; they had nowhere else to go. For many in New Orleans, such remains the case today… With these final FEMA eviction notices, [Mayor] Landrieu sends the message that he’s determined to beautify the city, if not address housing accessibility issues for people who most need help.

Hing quoted Lance Hill of the Southern Institute for Education and Research:

The blight eradication program, if not done correctly, can become a poor-person eradication program.

It wasn’t until a year later that the last trailer left New Orleans. In the meantime, another story came from the beleaguered city, of an employed 58-year-old woman named Barbara Gabriel who had lived in a Housing Authority apartment since 1975. Her errant nephew was arrested for selling drugs, and gave her address to the police. So the Housing Authority prepared to throw her out. Blair S. Walker reported:

‘I did not give him permission to use my address,’ says Gabriel… ‘He doesn’t live with me and he is not on my lease.’ Gabriel had been targeted under a ‘one strike and you’re out’ policy established by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1996. ‘One strike’ allows housing authorities to evict tenants following one drug-related offense.

Even if the legal tenant knew nothing about it and had nothing to do with it. So remember the chilling refrain of the Berrymans’ song:

And don’t forget, it’s sad but true
Next time around it could be you

Reactions?

Source: “A portrait of Connecticut’s homeless,” Courant.com, 02/09/11
Source: “Family of 5 Homeless After Craigslist Rental Scam,” KTLA.com, 09/03/13
Source: “Vet with PTSD, Amputee Husband and Their 3 Kids Homeless,” The Huffington Post, 09/13/13
Source: “Rwandan Government Program to End Thatched Housing Leaves Pygmies Homeless,” Bloomberg.com, 05/31/11
Source: “New Orleans Dumps FEMA Trailers — and Maybe the People in Them,” Truth-Out.org, 01/04/11
Source: “Eviction Threat, for No Reason,” AARP.org, 09/01/10
Image by Bart Everson.

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How to Become Homeless: Age Out of Foster Care, Part 3

please lend a handIn Part 2 of this discussion, House the Homeless blog traced progress in the quality of support offered to youth who “age out” of foster care. Members of this group are very much at risk for experiencing homelessness, and even short-term homelessness can have devastating effects on a young person.

Apparently, unless some kind of intervention scoops a kid up off the streets quickly, the prognosis worsens dramatically. There seems to be an interval of opportunity, a window that, once closed, is very difficult to reopen.

In 2004, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) scrutinized the situation in an attempt to measure the effectiveness of various programs and check up on how vigorously various plans were being carried out. Quoting ourselves:

The accountability agency identified the lack of uniformity in the states’ information-gathering that made them unable to coordinate with each other and with the federal government to combine their numbers and make any sense out of things. Academia supplied some of the missing answers, which involved ‘extremely poor outcomes’ and even ‘dismal outcomes’ for large numbers of young people.

Along with sloppy compliance, the GAO also found “gaps in the availability of mental health services, mentoring services, and securing safe and suitable housing, particularly in rural areas.” In 2008, the states were told to follow up on kids set loose from the system to see what kind of “outcomes” or lives they were having, and to start doing it by October of 2010.

Compliance, of a sort

When did the first National Youth in Transition Database report see the light of day? In late 2012, meaning that so far, there has only been one national annual report on how these programs are working out, and its information is centered on 2011. The basic number the compilers worked with was 98,561 — the total of youth and young adults who received at least one independent living service. About half were in the 14-17 age group, which means they were probably still officially in foster care; and half were in the 18-21 age group, which means they were probably not under the court’s jurisdiction any more.

About 17,000 17-year-olds answered a survey about their “outcomes,” which is kind of a misleading term in this case, because they hadn’t “aged out” yet. A total of 93% of this group were going to school. The same percentage said they had at least one adult available for advice or emotional support. About one in five had some kind of job experience, which is broadly defined to include training programs and unpaid internships. Among the foster kids in this demographic, only 6% had been homeless at some point. And guess what — more than one-third of these still-in-the-system kids had experienced incarceration.

Making their way in the world

The National Resource Center for Youth Development keeps track of every state, so it is worth taking a microscopic look at one state, California, because it has big numbers and is often the pioneer in social movements. This report is less currant than the 2012 federal one — it harks back to 2009 — but it is more detailed and gives some idea of the situation.

Eighteen was the maximum age for youth in foster care to be funded by the state, except in certain particular cases. If they were still in high school and going to graduate before turning 19. Or if they were in college, which might be difficult, because the state provides no waiver of tuition for foster kids. Or if they were incapable of activities or had other barriers to employment, or if, conversely, they were working 80-hour weeks (in other words, holding down two full-time jobs). If any of these conditions were fulfilled, the law allowed them to remain in the system until age 21, and also to continue receiving Medi-Cal benefits.

Sounds pretty good, right? So why, in 2011, in the great progressive state of California, in the city of San Francisco, was there a bitter fight over something called the Cow Hollow housing project? The proposal was to buy a former “boutique tourist hotel” with 30 rooms and turn it into a housing project for 24 young people. Opponents claimed that 24 people was too many, according to the current zoning ordinance. (If so, how did that 30-room hotel operate?)

Matthew S. Bajko reported:

The development is being vehemently opposed by some nearby neighbors and merchants, whose concerns range from seeing property values plummet to whether the site is an appropriate location for at-risk youth. They point to the fact that nearby is the Bridge Hotel, a magnet for criminal activity that the city attorney’s office targeted last year for numerous code violations.

The Supervisor of the district, Mark Farrell, called the area “fraught with a lot of risk.” Meanwhile, a resident of the area wrote an open letter to the city’s politicians:

The Chestnut Street area is and has always been family friendly with little or no drunkenness or rowdiness and any changes to this would be most undesirable.

Do you see what they did? They argued it both ways. The area is both too rowdy for the tender sensibilities of former foster kids at risk of homelessness, AND too civilized to tolerate the presence of former foster kids at risk of homelessness. The area is too dangerous for older teenagers, yet so prime that the plummeting of property values is a dreaded possibility. The young people who need a place to live are characterized as both too threatened, and too threatening, and the whole thing is just a lousy idea, so please go do it in somebody else’s backyard.

Indeed, Supervisor Farrell suggested selling the property and using the money to buy another parcel somewhere outside his district. It’s not clear whether the Cow Hollow project is still in the appeal process, or the organizations gave up. In 2012, a similar establishment for the same clientele opened in the Tenderloin district. The main service providers concerned with the project were the Community Housing Partnership and Larkin Street Youth Services. Bajko quotes Larkin Street’s executive director, Sherilyn Adams, as saying:

I think that likely some of those concerns are based on not knowing or understanding the issues about youth in the foster care system or on the streets who are or were homeless… These are young people we are all responsible for ensuring have opportunities as full members of society.

Reactions?

Source: “First Report from National Youth in Transition Database,” Alliance1.org, 10/26/12
Source: “California,” NRCYD.ou.edu
Source: “Youth housing project causes uproar,” ebar.com, 07/14/11
Image by aprilzosia.

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More Ways to Become Homeless

Collecting BottlesIn connection with the release of the whitepaper “Prevent Homelessness at its Core,” House the Homeless examined several of the more heavily travelled paths to Skid Row, where the embarkation point is release from institutions such as prisons, hospitals, the military, and the foster care system. Those reasons account for hundreds of thousands of people experiencing homelessness. Astonishingly, a plethora of other ways exists for an American to become, overnight, part of an underclass that too many other Americans wish would just disappear.

Fire is an ever-popular way to lose not only possessions but hope, and headlines routinely report the number of newly homeless people caused by any residential conflagration. In one particularly sad instance in Toledo, Ohio, pastor Steve North had rented a big old house that was part church, as journalist Gabrielle Russon described:

LifeLine wasn’t a typical church where people wore their best clothes and worshiped on Sunday morning. Instead, nearly 100 people came to Mr. North’s house on the first Saturday of each month. They stayed up late, eating food, listening to open-mic poetry, and talking. It was a ministry for low-income residents, to help them feel like they belonged somewhere.

North had just been out volunteering at the local tent city when his own family’s house burned, and he and his wife and their two children became as homeless as the people they had lovingly served.

How bad does a situation have to be, for someone to choose homelessness? Every year, ridiculous numbers of teenagers decide to stop enduring abuse from family members or step-parents, and escape to the streets. Sometimes, if the person achieves a measure of fame, the world hears about it later. Tyler Perry, for instance, had to get away from a father “whose answer to everything was to beat it out of you.” The young man dropped out of school, took off, and lived in a car for a time. Thanks to his incredible determination and sterling work ethic, Tyler Perry because an immensely successful filmmaker and performer.

More ways

MSNBC reporter Seamus McGraw related the story of a beauty contest winner who told him, “Anyone can fall victim to this” — “this” being homelessness. Blair Griffith, whose father had died of cancer, was Miss Colorado Teen in 2006. After some time went by, her mother had a heart attack and required $800 worth of meds every month. Griffith won the title of Miss Colorado USA in 2011, and a month later, sheriff’s officers showed up with an eviction notice and removed Griffith and her mother from their home. Around the same time, the young woman also lost her day job. Fortunately, friends took them in and they were able to start rebuilding their lives.

In the public imagination, and to some extent in real life, addiction leads to homelessness. What some critics refuse to take into account is that not every person with a substance abuse problem got there voluntarily. This article from RitalinAbuseHelp.com emphasizes how many children have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and made to take pharmaceuticals. He writes:

… [A]dults who use Ritalin may have been diagnosed with the disorder at very young ages. Over time, doctors increase the dosages to deal with the changes in a patient’s weight and behavior, but somewhere along the way users may abuse the drug and become addicted… [A] drug meant to help now controls the individual, which can lead to losing a job, family and home.

A person can be brought low by one piece of serious bad luck, which often takes the form of a head injury. While researching a column about the organization Common Ground, journalist David Bornstein encountered a detail that brought him a “jolting realization”:

… [A]nybody could become like a homeless person — all it takes is a traumatic brain injury. A bicycle fall, a car accident, a slip on the ice, or if you’re a soldier, a head wound — and your life could become unrecognizable. James O’Connell, a doctor who has been treating the most vulnerable homeless people on the streets of Boston for 25 years, estimates that 40 percent of the long-term homeless people he’s met had such a brain injury.

Bornstein also spoke with Becky Kanis of Common Ground, who described a mindset that perceives the person experiencing homelessness as “almost in their DNA different from someone who has a house.” That is an excellent point. Despite the fact that someone without shelter is likely to be of any race or gender or age, the imagination of Mr. or Ms. J. Q. Public tends to classify the homeless person as somehow “other.” And as we have seen, it isn’t so. Bornstein wraps up the thought:

Many of the errors in our homelessness policies have stemmed from the conception that the homeless are a homogeneous group. It’s only in the past 15 years that organizations [...] have taken a more granular, street-level view of the problem — disaggregating the ‘episodically homeless’ from the ‘chronically homeless’ in order to understand their needs at an individual level.

Reactions?

Source: “Fire damages homeless advocate’s home,” ToledoBlade.com, 11/01/11
Source: “Tyler Perry biography,” Biography.com
Source: “Homeless Miss Colorado: ‘Anyone can fall victim to this’,” TODAY.com, 2012
Source: “The Relationship between Homelessness and Ritalin Addiction,” RitalinAbuseHelp.com
Source: “The Street-Level Solution,” The New York Times, 12/24/10
Image by Ed Yourdon.

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How to Become Homeless: Age Out of Foster Care

Homeless Youth in Dupont Circle, NYCalifornia is one of the biggest states in the union, and a lot of young people are experiencing homelessness there. Thanks to reporters like Bethania Palma Markus in Whittier, word of their plight occasionally reaches the eyes and ears of the public.

When she included the life story of 20-year-old Steven Navarrette in an article, he had “aged out” of the child welfare system two years earlier. Actually, the official Department of Children and Family Services (DCHS) word for it is “terminated,” which has ominous overtones indeed. It should, because at the time, one out of every five “terminated” kids ended up homeless and two out of five tangled with the legal system, and often ended up in prison.

Those ratios are necessarily only estimates, because there was no requirement for the bureaucracy to follow up on the kids once they were “terminated.” A youth fortunate enough to land one of the few transitional housing spots could be kept track of for a while, but most kids were just in the wind, with no way to make a living and no support system, legal adults for whom the state no longer took responsibility.

Markus quoted Navarrette, who told her:

They used to talk about something called emancipated living and I was always really excited about that because I knew I wouldn’t be able to go live with my mom. It all sounded really nice but when it came down to it none of what they told me ever happened.

Around the same time, California passed a law allowing foster children to stay in their “placements” until age 21, presumably with the state paying their way, although at the same time the governor drastically cut the child welfare funds. Presumably, the foster parents would have some say in the arrangements too, and one has to wonder how many of them welcome the continuing presence of young people older than they are accustomed to dealing with.

Also around the same time, a federal regulation came into existence that would require the pertinent departments in every state to keep a record of what kind of “independent living services” they provided for kids aging out.

Elsewhere

In Ohio, a pastor changed his own living quarters to a van and capitalized on the publicity this brought him by pointing out the need for transitional housing for 18-year-old former foster kids. The Salem Church of God has not yet been able to build any transitional housing, but its SOAR ministry persists in helping in other ways.

In Worcester, MA, many residents were distressed to learn that the local Teen Housing Task Force discovered 142 homeless youths in August of 2009, and counted 201 homeless youths in October of 2010, representing a 48% increase. In other words, one town’s population of homeless kids, some as young as 13, almost doubled in just over a year.

Journalist Lee Hammel continued the tradition by writing up the stories of an 18-year-old girl and a 19-year-old boy, in response to public interest in the question of how many unhoused young people were out there, whether because they had been released from the foster care system or thrown out by their parents, or whatever.

The Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts awarded $120,000 to a coalition of 20 state and local agencies. This was a “planning grant” — not to actually do anything about the situation, but to identify the causes of transition-age homelessness, and to analyze the available resources, with the expectation of receiving more funds once those tasks were done.

Maurie R. Bergeron of The Compass Project told the reporter:

There’s no saying how the money will be used here for homeless youths from 17 to 24 until the planning study is completed.

Since foster children were in the news anyway, a reporter took the opportunity to dish up a tidbit about Minnesota politician Michele Bachmann:

Foster children, who automatically qualify for Medicaid benefits, make up a tremendously disproportionate amount of its spending, especially on mental health services. Bachmann likely understands these difficulties better than anyone: all 23 of her foster children were teenage girls suffering from psychiatric disorders. In addition, her husband’s therapy clinic has taken in over $137,000 in Medicaid funds to help treat low-income patients.

Despite whatever agenda might have fueled the research, the important thing to note here is how foster children “make up a tremendously disproportionate amount of its spending, especially on mental health services.” And still… one out of five homeless, two out of five involved with the corrections system. The California solution of changing the emancipation age from 18 to 21 has no doubt benefited some young people, and hopefully will help many more to get their feet solidly under them before venturing forth into the world.

Unfortunately, this solution doesn’t do a darn thing for the taxpayers. With any individual child, it could go either way. For those who experience homelessness, public funds will be involved one way or another, especially if the youth happens to become involved with the legal system. For those who stay in the foster system for another year or two or three, before the court’s jurisdiction over them is terminated, the costs of routine care and medical care are still billed to the taxpayers.

These young people need training and preparation, and when they are turned loose, they — just like everybody else — need jobs that pay a living wage. Let’s work on that.

Reactions?

Source: “Rampant homelessness in former foster children yet to be addressed,” Whittier Daily News, 11/27/10
Source: “Outreach,” Salem Church of God
Source: “Increase in homeless youth in Worcester raises alarm,” Telegram.com, 02/12/11
Source: “Michele Bachmann’s Foster Care Contradiction,” TPM, 07/06/11
Image by Elvert Barnes.

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Homeless Veterans and Corruption

Duty, Honor, Country -- BetrayalWhen contemplating the shabby treatment accorded to America’s veterans, the question is how far back to go. In 2008, Amanda Ruggeri reported for U.S. News & World Report on the shredder scandal, which began with an accidental discovery, when an employee of the Veterans Administration Inspector General’s office found discrepancies in Detroit.

Documents were in the shredder bin that should not have been. Death certificates had not been placed in the service members’ files. Compensation claim forms, and notices filed in disagreement of claim decisions, were also headed for destruction without any action having been taken on them.

At the time, there were 57 VA regional offices, and further investigation revealed that 41 of them had been shredding paperwork inappropriately — without its having been duplicated for the individual veterans’ files. And since the bins of papers intended for shredding are emptied once or twice per week, the 474 questioned documents found during the investigation represented only a small fraction of the potential suspected negligence.

At the time, the VA had a backlog of 800,000 claims waiting to be looked at, and the absence of one crucial document from any one of those files could result in a denial of compensation. Patrick Dunne, the VA Undersecretary for Benefits, told the press:

We can’t tolerate even one veteran’s piece of paper being missing. We’re taking action to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Thanks to the efforts of Rep. Bob Filner, head of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, on March 3, 2009, there was a congressional hearing that involved two VA subcommittees — Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, and Oversight and Investigations. The title of the 104-page PDF report is: “Document Tampering and Mishandling at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Joint Hearing.”

“Shreddergate”

The result was not heartening. Boiled down to the essentials by a blog called Veteranclaims’s Blog, the goings-on at Veterans Affairs regional offices (VAROs) included 16,000 mishandled documents at a single regional office. The writer mentions, and then quotes, the congressional report regarding:

[...] the ‘Amnesty’ programs which the VA has been operating for at least two years, where they offer amnesty to employees that have removed evidence from veterans claims if they return that illegally removed evidence. ‘During an amnesty period in July 2007 at VARO Detroit, VARO employees turned in almost 16,000 pieces of unprocessed mail including 700 claims and 2,700 medical records and/or pieces of medical information. The VARO determined that none of these claims or documents were in VBA information systems or associated claim files.’

The government’s press release outlining the results of the hearings also mentioned that over the previous 12 years, approximately 50,000 surviving spouses of veterans were denied benefits or, worse, billed for supposed overpayment of benefits by the Department of the Treasury, wanting its money back. All these were mistakes caused by the “VA’s mistaken interpretation of the law.”

If the government bureau in charge of these matters doesn’t even understand the rules under which it supposedly operates, how can anything work? No wonder vets have been waiting a year or more to hear about their claims, with the resulting problems leading to homelessness, or in too many cases, suicide.

More recent developments

A new documentary film, titled Duty, Honor, Country — BETRAYAL, was reviewed for NewsWithViews.com by attorney Rees Lloyd. A while back, House the Homeless mentioned the Los Angeles real estate ripoff, but according to filmmaker Bill Dumas, the scandal is a national disgrace. It’s all about “enhanced use” agreements or leases, which allow non-veteran business interests with good political connections to benefit from land that rightfully belongs to American veterans. Lloyd says:

These leases are for as long as 75 years, at prices far below market value, often nominal payments of ‘$1 a year,’ sometimes nothing at all. Worst of all: The Secretary of Veterans Affairs has the authority to give that land to the lessees entirely in the Secretary’s sole discretion, without Congressional action, if the Secretary decides the land is no longer needed for veterans.

This cozy arrangement has been blatantly exploited by people and organizations accused by the film. And in the case of the large tract of land in the middle of LA, it’s even more disgusting:

Many large dormitory-like buildings on the land which could be used for the homeless, are empty, unused, deteriorating because the VA refuses to maintain them, or build adequate new housing, or use the available land for temporary housing as new housing is built…

There are an estimated 20,000 homeless veterans in Los Angeles.

Reactions?

Source: “Military Veterans’ Benefit Claims Records Wrongly Headed for VA Shredders,” U.S. News & World Report, 10/31/08
Source: “VA gives amnesty to employees while Vets suffer,” Veteranclaims’s Blog, 03/06/09
Source: “New Film: VA “Betrays” Homeless Vets,” NewsWithViews.com, 05/14/13
Image by Bill Dumas.

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Possibilities for Homeless Veterans

Veterans Stand Down

Karl Marlantes, author of the Vietnam combat novel Matterhorn, also wrote What It is Like to Go to War. He is interested finding a way to stretch out the period of transition from martial existence to civilian life.

In this respect, things were better in the aftermath of World War II when, because of transportation logistics, the journey home might take weeks or months. Something counterintuitive is at work here. Theoretically, it would seem best for everybody to get home as soon as possible.

But in the old, slow days, even without therapy or indeed any special attention to their psychological conditions, veterans had a chance to adjust. During a literal journey, they had a chance to make a mental journey, and process their memories before being expected to act normal. This probably helped with the re-entry period into civilian life, stateside.

Marlantes would also like to see something along the lines of a disarming ceremony, and other public rituals signifying a person’s change from warrior to everyday citizen.

Rodger Ruge, the crisis intervention counselor previously mentioned by House the Homeless, is interested in starting damage control even sooner — in training. As Teresa Shumaker reported, Ruge sees early preparation as a way to dramatically reduce the effects of PTSD:

If we can give everybody an idea of how to inoculate the body from stress, like the breath work we did in the class, if we did as much training on the front end when preparing them to go into service, they would be able to use the techniques they learned while they are having those experiences… Why are we not front-loading when we know what the result is? We already know; we have known since World War II. It doesn’t take that much time. It might be the extension of a couple of weeks in boot camp, in terms of time and it can be integrated into all the things they already do.

In Washington

At one point, 67 senators of all political persuasions joined in writing a letter to President Obama asking him to do something about the time lag between when a veteran needs help and when she or he gets it, caused by an extreme case load backlog. The website Challenge.gov, in partnership with ChallengePost, is sponsoring the VA Medical Appointment Scheduling Contest.

For the homeless, it’s not easy to hang onto possessions, even vital ones like a DD-214, which documents an honorable discharge from the military. Backpacks get stolen, stuff gets confiscated and burned by the authorities. Sometimes it just plain gets lost.

As things stand, only “lifers” who have completed the time-in-service requirement for retirement, and those who received a medical-related discharge, are issued I.D. Cards. If the bill known as H.R. 1598 passes, a new category of I.D. Card could be purchased by a veteran who did not go all the way to retirement, as long as there is proof of an honorable discharge. It would not entitle the person to any government benefits or services, but would be useful nonetheless.

Here is an excerpt from the congressional findings regarding the Veteran’s I.D. Card Act:

Goods, services, and promotional activities are often offered by public and private institutions to veterans who demonstrate proof of service in the military but it is impractical for a veteran to always carry official DD–214 discharge papers to demonstrate such proof.

Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless notes that a photo ID would be easier to keep possession of, and more likely to be held onto by its owner.

Reactions?

Source: “What It is Like to Go to War Quotes,” GoodReads
Source: “Retired officer shares his knowledge on homelessness and why many veterans,” The Mendocino Beacon, 05/23/13
Source: “VA Medical Appointment Scheduling Contest,” Challenge.gov
Source: “Veteran’s I.D. Card Act,” SunlightFoundation.com
Image by Maryland GovPics.

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Homeless Veterans and Suicide

Sleeping bagIn Florida, at any given time, there are 10 or 12 homeless encampments in the general area of Tampa. The estimated 2,200 inhabitants include an estimated 170 veterans. Reporter Kevin Brady quotes Thomas Brown, who is an outreach coordinator for the organization Tampa Crossroads:

There’s a perception out there that homeless veterans are all drug addicts and alcoholics but that is not the way it is.

Brady also quotes a vet known as Ray, who returned from overseas to find that his second marriage had crumbled and he couldn’t get a job. Here is the part that pertains to suicide:

I volunteered for my second deployment for one reason: to die.

The InterAgency Council on Homelessness says there are more than 62,000 homeless veterans in the country. Depending on whose numbers you accept, between 13% and 25% of people experiencing homelessness in the America are veterans.

Whatever the percentage is now, the Veterans’ Affairs Office foresees that it will rise in the next four years, to where half the homeless will be vets. Among all known suicides, the VA guesses that about 22% of them are veterans. A lot of people are working on solutions to both the homelessness and the suicide rate.

Teresa Shumaker of the Mendocino Beacon interviewed the author of The Warrior’s Mantra, a book whose audience includes emergency services personnel. Roger Ruge is a former law enforcement officer who became a crisis intervention counselor. His method of teaching people to condition their minds and avoid post-traumatic stress involves positive affirmations and mantras.

Shumaker obtained this quotation from Ruge, about veteran suicides:

There is the stigma associated with [seeking help]. There is also this distrust and really long waiting period… Plus, [they] have the warrior mindset. The warrior mindset is, ‘I can take of myself.’ They don’t want to admit that there is a problem, because that is admitting there is a weakness… You have this culture of people who don’t want to seek help in the first place, and then a system that is broken, overwhelmed and can’t really help them… When you are having acute symptoms, you need help right now which is why the suicide rate is so high.

National Survey of Homeless Veterans

Interested parties can download a PDF report compiled by the National Survey of Homeless Veterans. The latest numbers available to work with were from 2011, so there will probably be an updated report soon. The 100,000 Homes campaign added up information gathered by volunteers in 47 communities, from more than 23,000 people experiencing homelessness.

They found that veterans tend to be older and to have been homeless longer than civilians. They are more likely to be sick, and more likely to have traumatic brain injury. This organic physical damage is different from, and may co-exist with, PTSD, which is psychological trauma.

The report compared the situations of homeless veterans who are hooked up with the system, and those who are not. Whatever help people are receiving doesn’t seem to make much difference in regard to their health, except that fewer homeless veterans have Hepatitis C than the non-veterans. The report says:

The data [...] suggest that VA health benefits alone do not improve the health outcomes in question for veterans, nor do they help veterans escape homelessness more quickly.

Interestingly, there was no significant difference in length of time homeless between these two groups. Neither was there any significant difference in the health, jail, prison or other data…

Strangely, the report doesn’t contain the word “suicide.”

Reactions?

Source: “Missing In America – Homeless Veterans,” The Current, 05/30/13
Source: “Retired officer shares his knowledge on homelessness…,The Mendocino Beacon, 05/23/13
Source: “National Survey of Homeless Veterans, ” 100khomes.org
Image by fullyreclined (don toye).

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Veterans and Suicide

H StreetIn The New York Times earlier this month, Tara Parker-Pope summarized the data on suicide in America, as compiled by the Centers for Disease Control, and also sought confirmation from an expert that the number of people taking their own lives is vastly underreported.

What we do know is that “More people now die of suicide than in car accidents.” The first question that comes to mind is, how can statisticians treat those categories as separate? Surely, a proportion of auto accident fatalities are deliberate and successful attempts at self-extinction. There must be an overlap.

Anyway, the suicide rate has risen most among the “baby boomer” generation. A CDC official theorized, “There may be something about that group, and how they think about life issues and their life choices…”

Interestingly, the demographic includes Vietnam veterans and the widows and bereaved girlfriends of Vietnam casualties. Maybe that is the “something” that makes a difference. And the most popular means of suicide, overall, is by gunshot. Active duty military personnel and veterans of all ages are more likely to have access to, and knowledge of, firearms than the general population. Just sayin’.

Speaking of bureaucrats, remember when William Feeley, who was at the time an undersecretary at the Veterans Administration, said:

Suicide occurs just like cancer occurs.

But negligence on the part of the bureaucracy? Never happens, according to him. Still, two veterans’ groups sued the VA, claiming that the Mental Health Strategic Plan, supposedly adopted in 2004, was never implemented. The VA failed to follow through on providing immediate help for vets with PTSD and/or suicide risk. Shockingly, the Justice Department ruled there is “no such expectation” of a suicide prevention program or anything like it.

In the same year, journalist Joshua E. S. Phillips recalled what the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study had found out about post-traumatic stress disorder. The inner conflicts and moral and spiritual trauma experienced by veterans is perhaps worst among those who took part in “abusive violence” — defined as “torturing, wounding, or killing hostages or POWs.” The psychological consequences can be more serious than those resulting from combat violence.

Phillips wrote that informational piece as background for an American RadioWorks project he collaborated on with Michael Montgomery, titled “What Killed Sergeant Gray.” The 23-year-old had been in Iraq for a year, and apparently wanted to return there. But for some reason, he was found dead in the barracks and the event was declared by the Army to be accidental; it happened because the young man was trying to get high off some toxic chemical.

Maybe so. But it is known that Adam Gray had things on his mind. He and a small group of soldiers had opened fire on an Iraqi family, killing one parent and a little girl, to make sure they were not planting any bombs. He had also participated in detainee abuse. So who knows. One thing is for sure, there are an awful lot of equally troubling individual histories.

Around the same time, there was plenty of public attention for the story of James Blake Miller, the so-called “Marlboro Marine,” made world-famous by the photojournalism of Luis Sinco. Miller’s troubled and problematic road back to some semblance of normalcy put a human face on the abstraction of PTSD for many Americans who had previously ignored the problem.

In other news, Bob Ireland, mental health policy program director for the Department of Defense, reassured the public:

… [F]or the person who’s suffering, if they’re coming to the edge of suicide […] they always have a choice to engage in what the real issues are or not. And the support for them is there…

Meanwhile, increasing numbers of vets found that, actually, support was not there. The Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth didn’t give up. In 2011, reporter Jason Leopold tells us, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals declared that:

… [Y]ears of ‘unchecked incompetence’ at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) was directly responsible for an epidemic of suicides and lengthy delays in processing disability benefits for war veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)… Internal VA memos that surfaced during the trial showed VA officials were aware of and attempted to cover-up the fact that 18 veterans per day took their own lives and more than 1,000 veterans had attempted suicide per month…

Two years ago, the federal government settled a wrongful death lawsuit with the family of an Iraq war veteran who hung himself in his parents’ basement in June 2005 after being turned away by doctors at a VA hospital in Massachusetts where he sought help for PTSD.

That one case alone drained the taxpayers of $350,000 plus litigation costs. Wouldn’t it have been more economical to just treat the guy? Now, multiply that by 18 known and admitted veteran suicides per day — all potentially courtroom fodder. And the money is the least of it. What about the lives?

The director of emergency psychiatry at one VA hospital, Dr. Marcus Nemuth, said in a deposition that:

[...] he expected a high volume of post-traumatic stress disorder cases among veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.

That was more than six years ago. How come so few others, even now, have caught on to this obvious fact?

(To be continued…)

Reactions?

Source: “Suicide Rates Rise Sharply in U.S.,” The New York Times, 05/02/13
Source: “VA Official Says veterans’ suicides not reflection of agency negligence,” GovExec.com, 05/05/08
Source: “Inside the Mind of a Torturer,” PublicRadio.org, 10/18/08
Source: “What Killed Sergeant Gray,” PublicRadio.org, 01/10
Source: “Court Demands Mental Health Care Reform for Veterans,” Truth-Out.org, 05/13/11
Image by Daquella manera (Daniel Lobo).

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