0

The Roots of Bell v. City of Boise

iPhone 5cIn Colorado Springs, the mayor is working hard to change an existing ordinance (which forbids anyone to lie down anywhere) so it will criminalize sitting down anywhere in the city. In San Francisco, the mayor doesn’t care whether people experiencing homelessness are sitting, lying, standing straight up, or kneeling in prayer. Whatever their posture, he vows to chase them all out of there before the Super Bowl. Currently, one-third of American cities have laws against sleeping outside. Last week, House the Homeless talked about the “statement of interest” filed by the Department of Justice regarding a current case brought by Idaho Legal Aid Services and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

At the core of this topic is the question of whether anti-camping ordinances are constitutional or not. It is a “currently unsettled area of the law” about which various courts disagree. That is what Bell v. City of Boise is about, and the outcome will have massive policy implications throughout the system.

This started 9 years ago, with a Los Angeles ordinance under which people experiencing homelessness could be arrested for sleeping on the street even when no shelter beds were available. Since there were twice as many homeless people as shelter beds, this meant that, on any given night, half the homeless population of LA was vulnerable to arrest.

Jones v. City of Los Angeles

The ACLU and the National Lawyers Guild filed suit against the City of Los Angeles. Judge Kim M. Wardlaw of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered that the draconian ordinance should no longer be enforced, stating:

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.

At the time, there was great rejoicing. Mark Rosenbaum, the ACLU attorney who had argued the case, called Judge Wardlaw’s decision “the most significant judicial opinion involving homelessness in the history of the nation.” Sadly, it didn’t turn out that way. But thanks to more recent developments such as Bell v. City of Boise, that bold prediction might still come true.

A year and a half after Judge Wardlaw’s ruling, Los Angeles and the ACLU finally quit arguing about what would happen next, and reached an agreement that no one was really happy with—in other words, a workable compromise. As long as they stayed 10 feet away from entrances and driveways, homeless people could sleep on city streets between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. But the police could start enforcing the no-lying ordinance again as soon as the city built 1,250 units of supportive housing. Not shelter beds, but actual places where a person could settle in and get help to set her or his life on track.

And, says journalist Evan George, they went on to quibble about whether housing units that were already in the process of construction would count. The police department complained about “shelter-resistant” street people who refused to claim available beds. A law professor did a study and found “a median of just four shelter beds available on a given night when the LAPD was counting more than 1,000 people sleeping on the street.” Homeless advocates pointed out that, even if there had been enough shelter beds, it’s not the same thing as supportive permanent housing.

Several years later, when street people were allowed to return to a physically cleaned-up Skid Row, Councilman Bill Rosendahl was called upon by his constituents to explain the situation:

On October 15, 2007, the City entered into a legally binding settlement, agreeing not to enforce the law prohibiting sleeping on the streets, between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. until it builds 1,250 units of permanent supportive housing. The City entered this agreement after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals…found that the law against sleeping on the streets amounted to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the 8th Amendment…,

In the words of Evan George, these were the consequences:

By agreeing to the settlement, the ACLU has given up any claim of using the Ninth Circuit court ruling as precedent for future lawsuits. However…attorneys for the homeless may still cite the decision in future lawsuits.

In other words, even though Judge Wardlaw’s ruling was vacated, the reasoning behind it was sound, and valid enough to use in Bell v. City of Boise, which is why the Justice Department recently wrote:

The statement of interest advocates for the application of the analysis set forth in Jones v. City of Los Angeles, a Ninth Circuit decision that was subsequently vacated pursuant to a settlement. In Jones, the court considered whether the city of Los Angeles provided sufficient shelter space to accommodate the homeless population. The court found that, on nights when individuals are unable to secure shelter space, enforcement of anti-camping ordinances violated their constitutional rights.

Reactions?

Source: “ACLU of Southern California Wins Historic Victory in Homeless Rights Case,” ACLU.org, 04/14/06
Source: “City, ACLU Settle Street Sleeping Case,” LADowntownNews.com, 10/15/07
Source: “Skid Row Homeless Say LAPD Is Trying to Bully Them off Their Freshly Cleaned Turf,” LAWeekly.com, 06/22/12
Source: “Justice Department Files Brief to Address the Criminalization of Homelessness.” Justice.gov, 08/06/15
Image by Sascha Kohlmann

 

0

Will Nationwide Change Start in Idaho?

APD 2

Faceless force: police officers strut between Austin’s homeless shelter and Salvation Army building.

On August 6, something interesting and potentially very significant happened. A federal court case filed in the District of Idaho in 2009 is just now being considered, and the Department of Justice filed a “statement of interest” based on the premise that people experiencing homelessness are being unconstitutionally punished for sleeping in public places, even when no shelter beds or any other alternatives are available to them.

The case, titled Bell v. City of Boise et al., was brought by several homeless plaintiffs who were convicted of violating a Boise ordinance that forbids “camping” in public. In this instance, camping does not mean setting up a tent and a barbecue pit and a gravity shower and a volleyball net. It means sleeping, an activity that every human being has to engage in, which means the law makes as much sense as convicting people for breathing.

The Justice Department calls sleeping “conduct that is a universal and unavoidable consequence of being human,” and references the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which says that Americans should not be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. In effect, anti-camping ordinances criminalize people for being homeless. These days, it is certainly not unusual, but it is undeniably cruel.

Who Are the Criminals?

The parties responsible for the economic meltdown have not spent a single night in jail, or for that matter, a single night sleeping behind a dumpster. The parties responsible for starting and perpetuating wars for the further obscene enrichment of billionaires have not attended a single Veterans Stand Down looking for a toothbrush or a pair of socks. Yet thousands of Americans have acquired criminal records because they have to sleep someplace, and thousands more live in daily fear of being punished as criminals because of the human physiological imperative known as sleep. Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, wrote:

Criminally prosecuting those individuals for something as innocent as sleeping, when they have no safe, legal place to go, violates their constitutional rights…Needlessly pushing homeless individuals into the criminal justice system does nothing to break the cycle of poverty or prevent homelessness in the future. Instead, it imposes further burdens on scarce judicial and correctional resources, and it can have long-lasting and devastating effects on individuals’ lives.

The lawsuit that is finally getting its day in court was originally filed by Idaho Legal Aid Services and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP), which issued a report last year announcing the result of a three-year survey that gathered information from 187 American cities. They found that 34 percent (a solid one-third) of these municipalities have laws that ban public camping (also known as sleeping). Almost half—43 percent—prohibit sleeping in vehicles, which is about as senseless as a law can be. Who in their right mind believes that sleeping in a vehicle is worse, for either the homeless person or the general public, than the other alternatives?

Criminalizing Homelessness

As of last year, the agencies responsible for counting people experiencing homelessness came up with 153,000 to represent the number of unsheltered homeless people in the United States on any night of the year. In the main, these unsheltered sleepers are Americans. Some are very young children, whose chances of actually learning anything in school are gravely reduced. Some are teens, who are at risk for more kinds of damage than the average housed person can even imagine. Some are fathers with intense and undeserved feelings of personal failure. Some are mothers whose desperation occasionally makes sordid headlines.

Some are women escaped from domestic situations so violently abusive that even the streets seem like a better deal. Some are mentally ill people for whom the world is a vast unrelenting puzzle. Some are sick and disabled people who would barely be able to take care of themselves even indoors, much less out in the wild. Some are veterans who made a good-faith bargain with the government that was only kept on one side. Some are elderly people who worked hard all their lives and ended up with less than nothing.

And we call ourselves the greatest country on earth.

(…more on this court case next time…)


Source: “Justice Department Files Brief to Address the Criminalization of Homelessness,” Justice.gov, 08/06/15
Source: “It’s unconstitutional to ban the homeless from sleeping outside, the federal government says,” WashingtonPost.com, 08/13/15
Image by Richard R. Troxell

 

0

How to Become Homeless—Yes, Even You

JoyThe 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.

Reactions?

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

0

Hidden Costs of Homelessness

Day 3When calculating the civic price of homelessness, communities think about how much it costs to build and maintain shelters; to staff agencies that match available housing and jobs with people experiencing homelessness; and to pay landlords and motel owners for housing that is meant to be transitional. If the community is enlightened, it even factors in the costs of hospitalizing and jailing people who would not need to be in either facility in the first place, if they had somewhere to live.

But there are other, seldom-mentioned categories of expense that taxpayers often don’t even realize have become part of their financial liability. Less than a year ago in Denver, Amy Goodman reported on what has been called an “historic police brutality case”:

Marvin Booker was a homeless street preacher from a prominent family of Southern preachers. In 2010, he was killed by deputies in the booking room of the Denver jail.

It was all on video. The coroner ruled a homicide, the sheriff’s department personnel went totally unpunished, and the citizens of Colorado were handed a bill for $4.65 million to pay compensation and damages to Booker’s family. On the other side of the country, a court told New York City to pay $2.25 million to the mother of a man who was left to die in an oven-like cell at Riker’s Island.

When a hospital does something wrong, the cost of making it right may not come from the tax coffers, but community members pay just the same, as every subsequent patient contributes to cover the deficit. In Southern California, local reporter Sarah Parvini noted:

Over the course of a decade, former patients have been found on Skid Row in hospital gowns or wearing hospital ID bracelets around their wrists. A case of a paraplegic man found crawling with a colostomy bag spurred public outrage and led to investigations as well as criminal charges.

One Los Angeles hospital was fined $200,000 in civil penalties for discharging a patient to nowhere. Sure, they kindly gave the sick homeless person a ride downtown, but still a court took a dim view of such heartless “dumping.” Another local hospital that habitually dropped off patients on Skid Row was ordered to pay $500,000 to homeless service providers, and one suspects that money will not come from the hospital’s profits, but on the backs of future patients.

Also in Los Angeles, the County-USC Medical Center mishandled a homeless woman’s labor and delivery process, resulting in the birth of a severely disabled child who needs institutional care. The story is full of heartbreaking details, not the least of which is a $7.5 million settlement that will come from the pockets of other Californians.

LA’s Skid Row has become less convenient for “patient dumping” for another reason. The city would like to push everyone out of the area, and attempted to start a diaspora by implementing a very aggressive policing program. When a lawsuit was filed by several long-term street people, the power structure agreed to suspend the overnight police sweeps until the city could build 1,250 permanent housing units, which are a long way from becoming reality. Meanwhile, the city (taxpayers) paid for $725,000 worth of the civil rights attorneys’ professional time.

In Dallas, eight years of litigation ended with the city agreeing to pay a quarter million dollars to two organizations with whose feeding of homeless people it had interfered. The story says:

Of the settlement, $166,666.66 will go to Big Heart Ministries and Rip Parker Memorial Homeless Ministry and $83,333.34 will go to the lawyers from National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty who represented the plaintiffs.

Legal representation costs an awful lot, and cities are paying for prosecutors to go after the violent criminals who beat and kill homeless people, and for their public defenders. The bills for hate crimes land in everyone’s mailboxes. Another incidental budget item is the cost of constantly re-arresting offenders for not reporting to the authorities where they live, because they don’t live anywhere. And the cost of putting out fires that are started accidentally by homeless people trying to cook or just to avoid freezing. Really, listing all these miscellaneous expenses could become a full-time job, and they are all expenses that would not exist if everyone had a place to live.

Reactions?

Source: “In Historic Police Brutality Case, Family of Homeless Denver Pastor Killed
in Custody Awarded $4.6M,” Democracynow.org, 10/17/14
Source: “L.A.’s Homeless Patient Dumping Law Leads to $500,000 Settlement With Hospital,” KCET.org, 05/29/14
Source: “Formerly Homeless Woman Awarded Medical Malpractice Settlement Against L.A. Hospital,” LegalExaminer.com, 11/07/13
Source: “City to Pay $250000 Settlement to Homeless Support Groups,” DallasObserver.com,12/08/14
Image by David Shankbone

0

The “Functional Zero” Fallacy

Maher min wageBob 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.

Philosophical Background

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

 

0

Random Acts of Nourishment

St. Michael's CreesloughAmerica is full of people who feel called to feed others, whether sporadically or on a regular basis, and they do it in an astonishing number of ways. Every now and then, a celebrity will perform an impulsive act, as when comedian Russell Brand treated some West Hollywood street people to a café breakfast.

Non-celebrities don’t usually get as much attention. But the world does sometimes find out about people like Mary Younkin, who typically carries around a dozen or so sack lunches in her car, ready to give away. For others who might want to try it, her blog gave a list of items that work well for this purpose, and included the words:

I hate the empty feeling of seeing someone in need and looking the other way…My children get to see that they can help make a difference in someone else’s day and perhaps life.

Another good Samaritan, Kevin Quinn, has set up a GoFundMe page for his project, “Water for the Homeless.” His most recent updates report temperatures in Boise, Idaho, of over 100 degrees. He keeps contributors informed with reports like this:

I spent the last two days handing out iced waters and apples. Needing water bottles, apples and ice has added up. Sadly, a lot of the homeless do not have teeth and apples are not an option. I need to find a softer item for these people, to provide something to eat during the day.

A few years back, the Texas city of Lubbock planned to shut down a meal-sharing event in a city park. Apparently, the problem lay in some ordinance violations that could easily have been overlooked, but were seized upon by authorities who warned the volunteer cooks to end their weekly picnic.

When local business owner Alex Scarborough heard about this, he developed a feisty attitude and invited a bunch of friends to hold a potluck dinner in that same park, with plates for anyone who cared to show up. A couple of city council members supported him in the press, with one calling the ban a “vast overreach of city authority” and another remarking wryly that the city must have “bigger fish to fry,” meaning, of course, civic matters of higher priority. Scarborough told reporter Adam D. Young:

This surprised the living daylights out of me…I’m just wondering when we started regulating people’s kitchens…When you have to ask the officials for permission or a permit to gather and eat in the park—that’s not the country I grew up in.

Around the same time, in Detroit, Brother Al Mascia of St. Aloysius Outreach Ministries made news with the converted bicycle that helped him answer the daily needs of around 300 people experiencing homelessness. Patricia Montemurri wrote:

The food cart fits over the bicycle’s front end…outfitted with foldable countertops, insulation and a battery for lighting. It holds Thermos bottles of coffee and hot chocolate. Some days, Mascia dispenses muffins and cookies. On really good days, he has hot homemade breakfast sandwiches donated by church groups.

Perhaps inspired by Detroit’s Franciscan friar, the satire website GlossyNews.com published a story by Dan Geddes in which the city of Orlando was disturbed by a fellow who showed up at a local park with 12 friends and made a speech about love, forgiveness, and social justice. Of course critics called him “hippie scum walking around stirring up class warfare” and “domestic terrorist.” The fictional piece goes on to say:

After someone in the crowd shouted out “We’re hungry!” Christos reached into a picnic basket containing two loaves of Wonder Bread and a bag of Long John Silver fish filets. Christos instructed his friends to start sharing the food with the crowd.

In what many eyewitnesses described as a “miracle,” the bread and fish did not run out, and appeared to feed all 5,000 homeless people to their satisfaction.

Reactions?

Source: “Russell Brand Treats Homeless Group To Breakfast,” HuffingtonPost.com, 09/28/12
Source: “Barefeet In The Kitchen: Sack Lunches for the Homeless,” barefeetinthekitchen.com, 01/23/14
Source: “Local man passes out water, food to homeless,” KTVB.com, 07/02/15
Source: “Lubbockite plans public potluck after officials halt homeless picnic,” LubbockOnline.com, 07/20/11
Source: “Meals on bicycle wheels: Franciscan friar feeds, clothes homeless,” tdn.com, 04/15/11
Source: “Jesus Look-alike Arrested for Feeding 5000 Homeless People,” GlossyNewscom, 06/01/14
Image by Steve Cadman

0

People Who Feed People

Near Windward Ave., Venice BeachA few days ago it was announced that in Knoxville, Tenn., a teen group is passing out something that people need even more than food—drinking water. They are participating in the Win Our World program, which only lasts for a week, but, with any luck, plants the seeds of the “pay it forward” notion in young minds.

Feeding the homeless is in the news a lot these days, especially when cities outlaw practice, as many seem to be doing. The results are lawsuits, adverse publicity, and huge expense. And those are only the stories that make the news. A variety of methods are used to discourage generous, caring people from trying to help others. Of course, those methods don’t always work.

Venice, Calif., has had a long and troubled history as a hotbed of homelessness. A couple of years back, an anonymous donor gave money to the Whole Foods store at a major intersection to host a weekly homeless breakfast program. Neighboring homeowners and tenants were not consulted beforehand, and did not want strangers to tromping through their yards on Sunday mornings, leaving trash and worse.

The locals were already burned out on the idea of feeding the homeless because of another food program operating a block away. There was vigorous debate, and after holding the event out back of its store the first time, Whole Foods began setting up its operation near the beach instead. A year later the program was still in effect at the alternate location, with complaints still rolling in for various reasons.

Not long afterward, in Pasadena Calif., Union Station Homeless Services expected to feed 5,000 at its annual Thanksgiving bash. Local residents had been sharing home-cooked meals with the homeless for 37 years—the same dishes they made for their families. Cooks would pop an extra tray of stuffing in the oven, or stir an extra quart of cranberry sauce, and deliver the surplus to a central location. According to the group’s CEO, Rabbi Marvin Gross, nobody had ever been sick.

Nevertheless, over the years, none of the homemade meals had been prepared in approved locations. When November 2013 rolled around, the Health Department stepped in and put its foot down. Going forward, helpers could only donate store-bought food (which in this fairy-tale scenario is totally, dependably safe and wholesome.) Undaunted, the charity took advantage of the opportunity to promote an approved location, and encouraged its supporters to donate pies obtained from a Los Angeles bakery owned by Mental Health America, which employs people with mental illnesses.

Feeding the Homeless Throughout the Country

A few months later, in New Orleans, Sister Beth Mouch delivered food to the St. Jude Community Center to prepare a meal for 200 people experiencing homelessness. She found a towing service preparing to remove her truck, without even a written ticket from the parking police. Though her vehicle was not even hooked up to the tow truck yet, and she was ready to drive away, the nun was not allowed to leave. Her truck was towed, and she had to pay a fine to recover it. Apparently, this was not the first time that Community Center volunteers had suffered such petty harassment in their efforts to nourish the hungry.

Around the same time, in Salem, Mass., a young convenience store clerk (whose own history included half a year of living in her car) gave a homeless man a small cup of coffee and was fired for it.Once word got out, Ava Lins received other job offers and soon posted on Facebook that she was working for Citizens for Adequate Housing. That story had a happy ending, but every time someone is retaliated against for trying to help, even on such a very small scale, it sends a bad message and teaches a bad lesson.

To offset those grim examples, a story appeared in the same week about a New Jersey couple, Mark and Anna Landgrebe, who were in their 23rd year of driving their minibus into Manhattan every Saturday night to deliver food and clothing to people in need. All over the country, alone or working together, good-hearted people are pushing back against the increasingly oppressive legal climate. Let’s hope that more people look for ways to contribute.


Source: “Teens give water to Knoxville homeless,” WATE.com, 06/23/15
Source: “Whole Foods: Free Meals for the Homeless on Sundays!,” Yovenice.com, 03/24/12
Source: “No more home-cooked donations at Thanksgiving meal for Pasadena homeless,” scpr.org, 11/26/13
Source: “Nun’s truck towed while delivering food to homeless,” TheCelebrityCafe.com, 3/23/14
Source: “7-11 Clerk Says She Was Fired For Giving Freezing Homeless Man A $1 Cup Of
Coffee,” ThinkProgress,org, 03/19/14
Source: “This Family Has Been Feeding the Homeless Every Weekend for 22 Years, and
They Have No …,” lansing.shine.fm, 03/24/14
Image by Ryan Vaarsi

0

Homeless Exploitation Comes in All Sizes

George W. Bush found homeless

A Vintage April Fools Day Meme

if u are homeless ill let you stay with me in exchange of helping me run my business.. I have a recording studio in my apartment so i will teach you how

Mature professional gentleman (35) seeks a very mature homeless female for a Serious Makeover. I am going to completely change your life …

I am looking for young homeless bi-sexual or gay guy that needs a place to stay….

Willing to provide housing to a homeless girl. Pregnant or single moms encouraged to reply. I’m a single employed father of 2. No drama no games

Hi I am looking to help a nice single homeless female under 35 with a nice place to live I have a very nice home.

Those quotations are from Craigslist ads, similar to probably hundreds that appear around the country every day. No doubt a certain proportion of them are earnest and sincere, and maybe some people have found a way off the streets through the kindness of strangers. Some ads of this kind are quite sinister, and the desperate person in need of housing must figure out which is which.

Recently, in Michigan, the owner of an auto repair business was arrested for “accosting and soliciting,” because he would let homeless men live in the shop, with video games to play, and an allowance, and even the privilege of borrowing a car—and all he demanded in return was sex.

Stunts Put Homeless in Danger

A different kind of exploitation caused eyebrows to be raised around Skid Row in Los Angeles when stunt bike riders were videotaped “bunny hopping” their vehicles over people asleep on the sidewalk. (It’s probably just a coincidence, but in the summer of 2012, in Austin, the dead body of Valerie Godoy was found along the Ninth Street BMX trail, which was frequented by local bicycle daredevils.) An LAPD officer said for the record, “Often the homeless are targets of stunts that go terribly wrong.”

The Skid Row cowboys displayed their disrespect and bad taste out in public, but gained nothing other than joy of being idiots. Behind closed doors, another level of exploitation goes on all over the country, all the time. Here is how a New Jersey street person was used, according to the Times of Wayne County:

The scam is relatively simple. Find a homeless man, a drug addict, someone expendable, someone who will keep quiet if caught. Give that person a bogus/stolen check and drop them off at a bank. If the person is successful in cashing the check, he/she gets to keep 10% of the ill-gotten money. If the scam keeps working, move to the next bank and repeat the process. If police are called and the scam falls apart, simply drive away leaving the ‘patsy’ to face the legal music.

In Kansas City, a ring of 10 crooks stole over $200,000 by haunting the dumpsters of business parks to retrieve paperwork that held banking information. As Brianne Pfannenstiel reported:

They then used a personal computer to print counterfeit checks before driving to shelters and halfway houses to recruit homeless people to pass the checks at banks.

Great financial gain can be had by bilking the system created to provide medical care for America’s citizens. In Orlando, Florida, a clinic owner and three accomplices recruited people experiencing homelessness to be fake patients in a scheme that defrauded Medicaid of over $200,000.

Similar thievery in New York involved (allegedly thousands of) homeless people who were paid in shoes, while a consortium of nine doctors got away with around $7 million. This cabal hired a guy whose job was to hang around shelters and soup kitchens, roping people into an elaborate hoax. Anybody with a valid Medicaid card could be transported to a clinic and pretend to receive extensive, costly tests and treatment. The New York Times reported:

The doctors, staff members and billing specialists, meanwhile, would rack up hundreds or thousands of dollars per recruit in false Medicaid claims, prosecutors said…The doctors in the group made money by, for instance, seeing a patient for four minutes and billing for 30 minutes, or claiming they had reviewed tests when they had not, or simply billing for procedures they had never done…

George W. Bush Taking Money From the Homeless?

Not long ago, former POTUS George W. Bush gave a speech at a fund-raising gala for a homeless shelter located in McKinney, Texas. Blogger Rob Groce commented:

Bush should be an expert on the topic of homelessness, after all. The number of homeless Americans grew 49 percent in the last two years of his presidency, peaking at 634,000 when he left the White House in 2009. And that surge was certainly aided by a quadrupling in the number of home foreclosures during his last term. Bush doesn’t have a record of compassion regarding the homeless…

But he stood up and talked on their behalf, right? He helped out Samaritan Inn…and also charged his full, customary $100,000 fee. Michael Kruse of Politico.com remarks:

Since 2009…Bush has given at least 200 paid speeches…The part-time work, which rarely requires more than an hour on stage, has earned him tens of millions of dollars.

Tens of millions, and what Kruse implies there is that Bush could afford to donate his fee back to the institution. However, that did not happen, and the shelter’s director expressed tactful joy about raising more than a million dollars. But just think. With a generous gesture from a man whose pockets are already filled to overflowing, the shelter could have had $1,100,000.

House the Homeless’s Experience With George W. Bush

Here is a perfect example of why life can be so confusing and so astonishing. Despite the bad press, it seems that Mr. Bush’s record is not all one-sided. Here is House the Homeless founder Richard R. Troxell:

When George W. Bush was governor of Texas, I designed a continuum of care delivery system to move people out of homelessness for the City of Austin. I pressed for the need for a jobs component and one that paid a living wage. As far as I know, House the Homeless was the only nonprofit to receive funding to aid people experiencing homelessness from Mr. Bush. He gave us $100,000 for my model, Project Fresh Start. Whether he did it for political purposes (I never heard it touted as such) or if he really did get my concept of living wages, I am sure of one thing, that he understood the concept of jobs that paid enough to put a roof over your head other than a bridge.

Read about this exciting episode and more in Richard’s book, Looking Up at the Bottom Line.

Reactions?

Source: “Police: Mich. auto shop owner took in homeless men, then demanded sex,” Newsandtribune.com, 05/22/15
Source: “People aren’t happy about the BMX riders who bunny hopped homeless people,” NetworkA.com, 03/14/14
Source: “Homeless man used as ‘pawn’ in check scheme,” WayneTimes.com, 06/13/15
Source: “Bank scam: homeless men, counterfeit checks, prison,” BizJournals.com, 12/01/14
Source: “4 Charged After Recruiting Homeless To Pose As Patients,” CBSLocal.com, 03/21/15
Source: “9 New York Doctors Are Accused of Defrauding Medicaid Using Homeless People,” NYTimes.com, 03/31/15
Source: “Want George W. Bush To Help Your Homeless Shelter? That’ll Be $100000, Please,” IfYouOnlyNews.com, 06/08/15
Source: “On talk circuit, George W. Bush makes millions but few waves,” Politico.com, 06/07/15
Image by κύριαsity

 

0

How to Become Homeless: Be a Puerto Rican Addict

Winter on My Street“Como Se Dice ‘Not It’?” is a prime example of why the public radio series This American Life is famous. A chance meeting with a street person led Chicago newspaper editor Adriana Cardona to uncover an astonishing story that leaves numerous questions to be considered before rendering judgment. Cardona’s approach to the story is beautifully even-handed, and we hope that our summation of the basic points will inspire the reader to go for the full experience and listen to the episode.

Through her casual conversation with a homeless man, the editor learned that heroin addicts are regularly shipped from Puerto Rico to Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and cities in New Jersey, Florida, South Carolina, and Wisconsin. In each destination they are taken to places that on-air host Ira Glass describes as “flop houses open 24 hours a day with group therapy going till late at night, sometimes 10 or 13 hours straight.”

Cardona found 14 branches of this rehab outfit in Chicago alone, and became most familiar with a branch called Segunda Vida (Second Life). Other facilities have such names as El Grito Desesperado (The Desperate Scream) and El Ultimo Paso (The Last Step). They all operate under the auspices of the Puerto Rican organization De Vuelta a la Vida (Return to Life). In the United States, the organization flies under the banner of Alcoholics Anonymous, but AA disowns them, and indeed their methods are unorthodox. Glass says:

The therapy was really just basically like AA meetings led by former addicts who did very un-AA things like yell at them and berate them. When the guys would go through detox, because there was no medicine or methadone or professional staff, they were sometimes given folk remedies, like an onion to bite on, or alcohol would be poured in their belly buttons.

When Cardona showed up at Segunda Vida, she encountered tough men, allergic to microphones and cameras, who claimed there was nobody in charge and therefore nobody she could speak with. The gatekeepers handled all requests from anyone, about anything, with a recommendation to “come back in a few days.” Her persistence finally won a meeting with one of the group’s founders. Efren Moreno confirmed every negative thing that Cardona had heard about the organization, but he did not seem exploitative or evil. Her impression was of…

… someone who wanted to be part of the solution, that he wanted to bring services to those who were not able to get rehab services out there… But at the same time—and he even said—each group has its own rules. And because there is no oversight, it’s really hard to know what are those other groups doing.

In a Chicago facility, an addict gets free room and board for three months, and then is charged $50 to $75 a week, which still includes meals. At some branches, residents are encouraged to sign up for food stamps and contribute their allotments to the kitchen that feeds everybody. This bit of mandatory socialism, while probably not legal, is far from outrageous. Moreno would prefer to get by with no government assistance at all. A recovering addict himself, he claims to really help junkies kick their habits, and says anyone who quits the program is a weak individual who didn’t really want to get better. Apparently that is a large category, because one of Cardona’s co-researchers found, in Chicago alone, 93 men who had quit the program.

Addicts Off the Grid

When Cardona visited Puerto Rico, she was met with astonishment that anyone should question or doubt this successful narcotics rehabilitation program. De Vuelta a la Vida is no secret to municipal authorities or to Puerto Rico’s governor. Glass says:

It’s run by the state police. They help drug addicts get food, clothing, hygiene, and other services on the island. But also, they arrange for lots of them to fly off the island to these unlicensed programs in the United States.

Of course, none of the Puerto Rican bureaucrats knew that the rehab centers are unlicensed. In every place where De Vuelta a la Vida has established outposts, they seem to operate totally under the radar. According to any city records or public health department or professional registration bureau or licensing agency, officially they don’t exist.

What Does De Vuelta a la Vida Have to Do With Homelessness?

Puerto Rican addicts are recruited dishonestly, lured by a fantasy of gleaming premises, plenty of doctors and nurses, and even a swimming pool. In return for a one-way ticket to a mythical luxury rehab center, they sign a waiver that absolves the Puerto Rican government of any further responsibility for them. If they ever want to return, they have to figure it out for themselves. When the men arrive stateside, they lose what little benefits were available in their homeland, including HIV meds and methadone.

Even a successfully cleaned-up Puerto Rican immigrant is unlikely to find work, and will probably end up on the street or, at best, in a shelter. For those who quit the program, life is grim. Unable to speak the language, and still in need of opiates every day, they have to survive brutal winters in a place very unlike the tropical island of their birth.

For these penniless men, going home is an impossible dream. Family members have suffered already from abuse of their trust, and will ignore any plea for help, even with a fancy story about being stranded in America. Also, Segunda Vida and the other centers tend to hang onto identity documents, as Cardona learned by trying to help a newly-arrived HIV-positive addict who had quit the program almost immediately and lived, like so many others, in Chicago’s streets.

Reactions?

Source: “Not It!,” ThisAmericanLife.org, 04/10/15
Image by BluEyedA73

 

0

The Economics of SNAP

SNAP logoA government website enumerates the SNAP (Food Stamp) Program rights of people experiencing homelessness.(“Food Support” is the term some states use, and others have their own individual monikers like Wisconsin’s FoodShare, Vermont’s 3SquaresVT, and of course CalFresh.) We are told that homeless persons have even more rights than the housed, because they don’t need to give a permanent address to apply. (In the realm of extra-fancy privileges, that one is underwhelming.) Besides, we keep hearing that homeless applicants still need to give a mailing address, even if it is as ephemeral as a drop-in center.

In order to receive SNAP benefits, a person doesn’t need a place to cook or store food (although it sure helps). And even those who live in shelters where meals are served are eligible. While sources seem to agree that $200 per month is the largest SNAP benefit that an individual might be eligible for, information on the standard amount is confusing. One website says that in 2014, the average benefit was $125 per month, and another says that in 2015, the average was $194 per month, which is more, and that seems odd because as time progresses, these payments are constantly cut. (Even the higher number, however, amounts to less than $7 a day.) An online commenter called Goth Farmer states that a homeless person receives $189 per month.

Currently, people fortunate enough to have Section 8 housing are shocked into awareness that a break on the rent is considered to be quite enough in the way of help, because their SNAP allowance is now under $20 a month. This is a stern reminder that SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. In other words, food stamps are not meant to sustain life, merely to complement the acquisition of food by (chiefly) other means.

For people experiencing homelessness, this brings up issues that even the best-intentioned humanitarians disagree on. Should a shelter or a soup kitchen charge the people who eat there by taking part of their Electric Benefit Transfer funds? Well, yes, because the facility needs help acquiring the food, and it might not even be able to stay open if not for these contributions.

As for the diners, people attain dignity by paying for the things they consume. But on the other hand, after the soup kitchen meal is over, they will need other meals on other days, and their “food stamps.” There is no guarantee of finding a free meal on any given day, and the rules page says, “They cannot force you… to pay for food at the shelter. They can only request that you voluntarily use your SNAP/Food Stamps to pay for meals.”

The SNAP Situation Is About to Get Worse

No matter how bad things are, they are about to get worse for about a million unemployed childless adults, many of whom are either homeless or at risk of becoming so. Members of this demographic typically receive between $150 and $200 per month, according to Ed Bolen, writing for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. After this year, it will be tougher to qualify. The rule was already on the books, with each state having the option to petition for a waiver—which many have been doing. In 2016, it appears that almost no states plan to apply for renewal of that waiver. Bolen explains:

Even SNAP recipients whose state operates few or no employment programs for them and fails to offer them a spot in a work or training program—which is the case in most states—have their benefits cut off after three months irrespective of whether they are searching diligently for a job… This leaves it up to individuals who can’t find a job to try to find training or work program openings on their own, which few are able to do, especially since most training programs have insufficient resources to meet demand, resulting in substantial waiting lists.

Getting back to Goth Farmer, he (or she) says:

There you have a massive flaw in the idea all homeless always have the option of SNAP for food. Then, you have the identity issue. You have to prove identity to qualify and fact is many homeless can’t. They have no proof of who they are. No photo ID, no SS card, not birth cert. or voter card. Many homeless are underage and avoid any contact with any agency or shelter due to fear of being returned to what they ran from… The mentally ill are often not capable of far simpler tasks then wading through a ream of paperwork to get SNAP.

So, things are seldom as simple as they appear, and sufficient nourishment is still a problem for many Americans.

Reactions?

Source: “Homeless Persons’ Rights under the SNAP/Food Stamp Program,” frac.org, undated
Source: “Policy Basics: Introduction to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP),” CBPP.com, undated
Source: “”Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP),” USDA.gov
Source: “Approximately 1 Million Unemployed Childless Adults Will Lose SNAP Benefits in 2016 as State Waivers Expire,” CBPP.org, 01/05/15
Image by U.S. Government

Pages ... 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14