Back in August, Austin mayor Steve Adler announced an ambitious plan to end veteran homelessness in the city by tomorrow (Veterans Day 2015). The first thing to understand is that finding viable permanent housing for all people in that situation would be impossible. Mostly, the goal here is temporary housing for all. A first step, but by no means a final one.
Donations For Homeless Housing
Before long, the news came out: “Austin Board of REALTORS® donates $15,000 to house Austin’s homeless veterans.” But an attentive reading of the press release discloses that it was actually the National Association of REALTORS® who made the generous grant. What the local Austin Board of REALTORS® Foundation did was donate $5,000 to a fund for such expenses as housing repairs (though it does seem that should be the landlord’s responsibility anyway). The literature says:
The Housing Our Heroes Initiative is part of the national Mayor’s Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness. Austin’s effort involves a coalition of Austin landlords, business leaders and service providers, who are working together to provide stable housing, extensive support services and temporary financial assistance to Austin’s homeless veterans.
It was announced that “seven leases have been executed on REALTOR®-managed properties to date, and additional units have been committed to this purpose.” Although every bit of help is appreciated, seven units doesn’t make much of a dent in the number of homeless vets.
Journalist Kayla Stewart questioned the director of ECHO (Ending Community Homelessness Coalition) who made some cogent points. For one thing, between January and August, the number of homeless veterans in Austin appears to have doubled to around 500. Stewart says:
While about half are housed, property owners tend to be reluctant to rent to veterans.
The reluctance to rent to veterans is saddening. In the past, Texas has been perceived as holding military veterans in high esteem. Maybe the state has changed a lot, or maybe it’s just that Austin is its own place. Maybe it’s simply that a saturation point has been reached.
By ECHO’s count, the percentage of Austin homeless people who are veterans is higher than the national average—around 20%. They add:
Veterans are not only more likely to become homeless, but are also more likely to stay on the streets longer than the average homeless person. And within that group, yet another group is overrepresented: almost 50% of homeless Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans are African-American.
These facts are found in a substantial and impressive Austin Chronicle piece by Kahron Spearman that recapitulates a ton of important backstory and enumerates in exhaustive detail the obstacles faced by many veterans. Another factor in the crisis is that the housing program “ceiling” is $800 per month, which presumably means a landlord cannot ask more. Still, that seems like an awful lot for a single person.
Obstacles to Housing Veterans
But Megan Podowski of Caritas explains: the city’s rental units are 98% occupied, and landlords are in a position to demand that prospective tenants present impeccable credentials. Many veterans, especially those who struggle with personal demons and service-inflicted disabilities, have gaps in their residence histories and may have been late with their rent on occasion. And indeed, Spearman goes on to say:
The majority of homeless veterans are male, suffer from mental illness or recurring disorders, [and] abuse drugs and/or alcohol.
What so many folks really need is supportive housing, with full-bore and hard-core Housing First philosophy behind it. But Austin is doing the best it can with the resources at hand. Also quoted is Tu Giang of Front Steps:
We take veterans based on a vulnerability scale…Once we complete intake, that individual gets with a case manager [and is assessed for current needs]. We’ve really ramped up our resources, with a lot of aggressive and concerted outreach.
As such projects will do, this one ran into problems. As of mid-October, 100 housing units were still being sought, and the goal date was moved to December 31, 2015. Mayor Adler’s three-pronged call to action includes his request to spread the word via social media. At the Housing Heroes website (which still publicizes the old deadline) a person can house a veteran, donate, sign up for the email newsletter, and write to a member of the mayor’s staff.
Finding the Homeless
Other parts of the overall plan continue uninterrupted. On October 16, representing Legal Aid for the Homeless and House the Homeless, Richard R. Troxell participated in a two-hour training session, led by the mayor’s aide Earl Jones. The following day, the various teams spent three morning hours in outreach to veterans experiencing homelessness. Richard says:
As we located homeless folks, we offered Veterans information about Coordinated Assessment and offered them a Pathway out of homelessness. We also offered immediate shelter and a reserved shelter bed at Austin’s Resource Center for the Homeless, ARCH. For uninterested veterans, but those in desperate need, we offered 45 days of transitional housing in a local motel when we would provide other service like health care, supportive housing, Legal Aid, etc.
The volunteers also distributed Plastic Resource Pocket Guides from House the Homeless. Overall, it was a successful outreach effort. Much more information is available from ECHO, a recommended destination for those who want more details and especially for those who want to help. December 31 is approaching fast.
Source: “Austin Board of REALTORS® donates $15,000 to house Austin’s homeless veterans,” NewsRadioKLBJ.com, 09/16/15
Source: “Mayor’s Plans to End Veteran Homelessness Halted,” patch.com, 10/12/15
Source: “Collateral Damage,” AustinChronicle.com, 07/17/15
Image by Sly Majid, Office of the Mayor
Recently, House the Homeless discussed Bell v. City of Boise and its importance. Quick review: More than a decade ago, Los Angeles was sued over its severe anti-homeless ordinances. The outcome was awaited with great interest. If the city lost, then conditions would improve for people on the street.
If the city won, then the case would be appealed to the Supreme Court, which might engender some real fireworks. If it came to challenging the constitutionality of “breathing while homeless” laws, the American landscape could change radically. In due time, Judge Kim M. Wardlaw laid down words that would look good engraved in stone:
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.
The U.S. Constitution may not be perfect, but it’s the best tool we have for securing liberty and justice for all. Judge Wardlaw coupled that basic fact with the realization that everybody’s got to be someplace, and while they’re there, they just might need to sit down, or even lie down and sleep. For people experiencing homelessness all across America, things were looking up. But the aftermath dragged on, and optimism was quenched when, subsequent to a compromise agreement, the judgment was vacated.
But Judge Wardlaw’s words were not forgotten. More recently, when Boise, Idaho, was sued for similar reasons, the Justice Department stepped in (critics would say “interfered”) by filing a statement of interest. It is the federal bureaucracy’s way of putting the city on notice—“We will be keeping an eye on you.” In its official communication, the Justice Department quoted Judge Wardlaw’s words, and the whole issue started to pick up momentum again.
Boise’s Version of the Truth
Associated Press writer Samantha Wright noted the total number of people charged with public camping in each of four consecutive years, ranging from 12 in 2012 to 293 in 2015. That is more than a 24-fold increase. To put it another way, for every one person cited with public camping in 2012, 24 were cited in 2015. To put it yet another way, that is 24 times as many. Clearly, some kind of escalation has taken place.
Yet, soon after the Justice Department declared its concern, the City of Boise reacted by saying they had gotten the wrong end of the stick. Wright explained:
The Department says it is opposing the Boise law that makes it a crime for homeless people to sleep or camp in public places because it unconstitutionally punishes them for being homeless. But city spokesman Mike Journee says the law was changed and police can no longer give tickets for camping if homeless shelters are full. And if there is room at a shelter, police will try to convince people to go there…The suit was originally brought by seven homeless people in 2009 who were cited under the law, even though there was no room for them at local shelters.
But two months later, it became obvious that the constitutionality of forbidding people to sleep would not see its day in court. Judge Ronald E. Bush of the U.S. District Court dismissed the lawsuit. He and the other Boise officials hold that the only people who have been punished for sleeping outside had refused to procure a shelter bed. In this version of reality, if no shelter space is available, the police don’t bother anybody.
The Future for Anti-Homeless Laws
Eric Tars is an attorney for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, representing the plaintiffs. He told journalist Frankie Barnhill that one reason the suit was dismissed was that “all but two of the plaintiffs are no longer homeless, so they don’t have a fear of being arrested for camping in public.” Which is ridiculous, because what about all the other people who are, currently, homeless? Besides, just letting time go by is a reprehensible way to run a legal case. Stall long enough, and everybody’s dead.
The director of the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project, Sara Rankin, warned other cities not to become over-confident about their own anti-homeless laws, saying:
Cities would be very ill-advised to interpret the Bell v. Boise case as carte blanche to enact broad anti-camping ordinances. The reason for that is the decision in Bell v. Boise was not rendered on the merits.
Clearly, this issue will keep popping up over and over in different cities until somebody makes a definitive ruling that is an irresistible call to action. In the meantime, anyone who cares about housing or otherwise helping the homeless could start by learning just what the laws are in her or his own city. It might be enlightening.
Source: “City Weighs In On DOJ Criticism Of Boise Homeless Camping Law,” boisestatepublicradio.org, 08/07/15
Source: “Advocacy Group Responds To Dismissal Of Boise Homeless Case,” boisestatepublicradio.org, 10/01/15
Source: “Boise Homeless Case Dismissed, What Happens Next?,” boisestatepublicradio.org, 10/02/15
Image by Thomas Quine
Last week we looked at some of the life problems that particularly affect homeless youth, in the cauldron of social unrest known as California. Although these conflicts are more evident in that state because of sheer numbers, they exist in all American cities.
Among the righteously housed folk, anti-homeless laws are known by the politically correct term “quality of life ordinances.” Always the big question is, whose life? For housed people who dislike the chaotic ambiance of urban streets, there is a place to escape to and shut the door on it. “Unaccompanied” young people don’t have the luxury of that alternative.
The California Homeless Youth Project report says:
The use of “quality of life” as a characterization of such policies fundamentally excludes the lives of people surviving on the streets.
Such policies are in fact discriminatory and abusive, and they provide far too many occasions for contact between street kids and law enforcement personnel. This is unfortunate, because the odds are against any one police contact turning out well, and the more contacts, the worse the odds become.
At the very least, officers will probably demand that kids “move along,” and in most cases that involves relocating from populated and relatively safe areas to more isolated and dangerous patches of territory. At best, it’s harassment, and at worst, an invitation to disaster. The same report quoted Ric Declan, an Oregon police sergeant with a maverick spirit, as saying:
We know that homeless youth are more often the ‘victims’ rather than the ‘perpetrators’ of crime and should be treated as such.
The authors of that document also noted that “not one youth interviewed reported ever turning to police for help when they needed it.” What does that say about the often-mythical slogan “Protect and Serve?”
When a community is allowed to enforce rules that violate basic human rights, nobody wins and everybody loses. Tax revenues are used to extend police hours into overtime, open more courtrooms, hire more guards, pay more public defenders, and rent more space in penal institutions for people whose initial crime is having nowhere to live. Laws that criminalize homelessness are so counterproductive they can do nothing but make situations worse—not only for the people convicted, but for society as a whole.
The tragedy of all this is multiplied when young people are the targets. They are already teetering on the edge of oblivion. Even a teen with a full complement of parents, extended family members, teachers, and coaches can have a rough adolescence. Imagine how much more difficult it is to grow up in the middle of nowhere, with no support system, and surrounded by predators. No kid needs a criminal record, which is likely to become Step 1 in a career of recidivism. Maria Foscarinis, Executive Director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, says:
Laws criminalizing homeless youth deprive them of the opportunity to succeed in life, creating additional barriers to housing, employment, and education, and only serve to punish them at a time when they are most vulnerable.
These things (again, according to the California Homeless Youth Project) need to be done:
- Decriminalize necessary human behavior that occurs in the absence of alternatives
- Create a continuum of housing options
- Convene community forums to facilitate dialogue among service providers, law enforcement, business owners and associations, and homeless youth
- Increase resources for homeless youth
- Create Homeless Outreach Teams that are trained to respond to the unique circumstances of homeless residents
- Address need for affordable transportation
Other than mentions of mental health and substance abuse, the list of high-priority policy recommendations does not include physical health care outreach. House the Homeless hopes to see it join the list.
Source: “Adding Insult to Injury: The Criminalization of Homelessness and Its Effects on Youth.” September 2015
Image by urbansnaps – kennymc
“If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair,” went the refrain of a once-popular song. California was Shangri-la, a land of magic and hope, the preferred destination for the abandoned and disaffected youth of our entire nation.
These days, it’s a good place for homeless teens and young adults to steer clear of. With facilities stretched to their limits, helping organizations work harder than before, trying to accomplish more with ever-shrinking budgets. Housed people fall prey to compassion fatigue, and there is a steady increase in laws designed to make life unpleasant for the peasant.
Currently, the golden state contains more homeless youth than any other state, and they are more likely to be unsheltered than in most other states. Among the nation’s cities as rated by their “mean streets,” California has three of the top ten spots.
The last two decades have seen the creation of numerous restrictive ordinances, and over the past five years, the pace of anti-homeless legislation has picked up, according to Shahera Hyatt and Jessica Reed, the credited authors of “Adding Insult to Injury: The Criminalization of Homelessness and Its Effects on Youth.” Though only two names are on the cover, this 16-page report utilized all the resources of the California Homeless Youth Project, with help from the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.
Things Are Tough for Unaccompanied Youth
Many of the offenses that people experiencing homelessness are charged with have nothing to do with age. They may be forbidden to sit, stand, rest, or sleep in public places; or to set up a tent or lean-to shack anywhere. They may not be allowed to ask for contributions or sort through trash receptacles for food or recyclable materials. Organizations that want to serve them food may be told they are not allowed to give away so much as a sandwich.
Then there is another layer of legal difficulty known as selective enforcement, when homeless people are not allowed to do things that are apparently okay for others. The most well-known example is sidewalk camping. People who wait in line all night to buy concert tickets or the latest model phone are allowed to set up tents or sack out in sleeping bags while homeless people, of course, would be breaking the law.
The things that unaccompanied youth most often get in trouble for are, the report says, “sleeping in public or private spaces at night, or sitting in public space during the day.” The other big problem is traveling to places where help is available. Kids often sneak rides on public transportation and get nailed for theft of services.
Then there is the problem of “status offenses,” or things that are illegal for a person under 18 to do unless a court has previously deemed her or him an “emancipated minor.” Curfew violations get kids in trouble while not affecting adults. Kids are supposed to be enrolled in school until a certain age, and not showing up makes them truant. Truancy is a crime even for the homeless. Young people have been locked up for that crime, which makes no sense whatsoever. Incarcerating a kid for skipping school has got to be one of the most irrational government actions ever. The report says:
Homeless students are much better served by community-based organizations, which have been shown to be more developmentally appropriate, cost effective, and humane than the juvenile justice system.
For an adult, running away from home may not always be the wisest choice, and can even cause problems to multiply, but at least it isn’t illegal in and of itself. But for a minor (which in California means under 18), mere existence is a status offense, because kids that age are not supposed to be anywhere else except under their family roof. Here is what the authors say:
Youth who run away do so for their own survival, often fleeing their homes due to abuse, extreme poverty, and/or rejection of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity and expression. Yet in many jurisdictions, runaway youth may be apprehended by law enforcement and returned to their home of origin, even if that home is dysfunctional and/or abusive.
Source: “Adding Insult to Injury: The Criminalization of Homelessness and Its Effects on Youth.
Image by Senia L
There were rumblings and inklings of this for months—of actor Richard Gere feeling his way into a movie role by going out incognito and blending in with people experiencing homelessness in their daily pursuits. For instance, a French tourist gave him some pizza but remained clueless until a picture of the two of them showed up in a newspaper.
Last month the film, Time Out of Mind, was released. It’s about a man trying to survive in New York, a tough city in which to be homeless (not that anyplace is easy). For those accustomed to appreciating Gere playing romantic leads or “shifty power mongers,” this performance is unsettling. National Public Radio’s Ella Taylor says:
George scrambles to keep body and soul together, shuttling between welfare offices, an overwhelmed homeless shelter in Bellevue hospital, and the streets. There, enraged and frustrated at being alternately ignored and ringed around with rules and red tape, he conducts himself like a man trying to bargain without chips.
From Taylor’s review, it sounds like a movie worth seeing, with several great characters, like other street people played by Ben Vereen and Kyra Sedgwick. For aficionados of cinematic technique, the writer mentions how the 66-year old Gere is in every scene, but hardly ever at the center of the action. She says director Oren Moverman…
…shoots Gere in very long shots through wire fences and glass doors and windows, down hallways, up and down the streets he roams aimlessly, into the shelter where he retires to bed down for the night…a man for whom the simple business of feeding himself and finding a bed for the night requires constant, unrelenting effort.
This review makes the film seem very layered and nuanced, with plenty of psychological and emotional kinks, just like real life. It ends by saying, “it’s the finest portrait of homelessness I’ve ever seen.” The comments garnered by the piece are interesting too, like the one from a person who credits the Salvation Army for—true to its name—making a save.
HuffingtonPost.com offers a 25-minute video segment in which Gere discusses his connection with the Coalition for the Homeless and his longtime determination to make this film whose script he first read in 1988. He discusses the history of how the movie came to be made, and many aspects of the homeless scene including the crucial difference between housing and warehousing.
Gere also references Land of the Lost Souls: My Life on the Streets, a book by a fellow known as Cadillac Man, who at one time was the most famous homeless person in Northern Queens. It made a deep impression on Gere and greatly influenced the contributions that he made to the Time Out of Mind script.
Source: “Richard Gere Plays homeless Man Convincingly
Source: “Richard Gere Shines In The Bleak ‘Time Out Of Mind’
Source: “’Time Out Of Mind’ Star Richard Gere LIVE
Image by arincrumley
When Pope Francis visited Washington, D.C., recently, there had been a tentative plan for him to stop by the sculpture installed on a bench outside the headquarters of Catholic Charities. Sadly, this viewing of “Jesus the Homeless” did not fit into the schedule—but the Pope had, of course, already seen a smaller version of Timothy P. Schmalz’s touching work of art last year when it was brought to the Vatican to receive his blessing
At St. Patrick’s Church, the Pope spoke to about 250 people experiencing homelessness who currently depend on Catholic Charities. One does not need to be the least bit religious to grasp the basic idea behind his strong words:
We can find no social or moral justification, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing. The Son of God came into this world as a homeless person. The Son of God knew what it was to start life without a roof over his head.
Outside, a tent had been set up where 300 lunch guests waited. They included residents of the Catholic Charities shelter and the Harriet Tubman Women’s Shelter, all of whom had signed up and then been vetted by the shelter managers. Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times reported:
A few minutes later Francis came out the church doors to cheers and applause from the lunch guests. He gave a brief blessing, then said “Buen apetito,” to loud laughter. He himself did not eat, but he waded through the tables, stopping to lay his hand on the heads of children…
The Pope’s next stop was New York, where custom-designed metal spikes were installed to prevent homeless people from lingering or sleeping within the pitiful shelter of alcoves in the walls of buildings near Madison Square Garden. At the same time, 18 “seating pods” disappeared from a nearby pedestrian plaza, and the property management company responsible for their removal told a reporter that these “homeless magnets” would not be replaced.
Hiding the Homeless in Philadelphia
In the City of Brotherly Love, preparations for the papal visit included the displacement of people experiencing homelessness from any chance of encountering him. According to Amy S. Rosenberg, all was peaceful in the Parkway area as authorities established the Secure Pope Perimeter. She provides many heart-warming anecdotes to illustrate how incident-free the process was, as the people who usually sleep in the park simply made alternate arrangements. But other reports differ, relating how the police threw everyone’s belongings in the trash. The city’s local CBS affiliate quoted outreach worker Amir Robertson:
If you’re homeless, the best thing I can suggest you do is stay off the streets because you’re either going to go to jail or they’re going to put you in the worst part of the neighborhood where you’re going to end up getting killed.
Nearly two weeks before the Pope’s arrival, six families who were unable to obtain either emergency housing vouchers or shelter beds set up housekeeping in an empty lot. Photos went out via social media, and next thing you know, television crews showed up. While the city spent millions of dollars to prepare for the pontiff’s visit, the homeless continued to suffer. Organizers pointed out the bitter irony of this, especially in the face of the Pope’s demonstrable affinity for the homeless.
The protestors challenged the city to figure out how to turn unused buildings into livable places and put people into them. At last count, there were something like 40,000 abandoned houses, commercial structures, and empty lots in Philadelphia. (As House the Homeless has discussed, HtH President Richard R. Troxell initiated the Philadelphia Stabilization Program here back in the 1980s.) Coverage of the campsite proved that poverty is no respecter of race, and that the public cared enough to bring food donations to the “pantry” tent. It also proved that public shaming can be effective. The Philadelphia Housing Authority stepped up and found public housing vouchers for the six families.
Source: “Pope Francis to See Statue of Homeless Jesus During Visit to DC,” CBSLocal.com, 09/18/15
Source: “Pope Francis’ Most Welcome Words to Homeless: ‘Buon Appetito’,” NYTimes.com, 09/24/15
Source: “Photos: Sharp Anti-Homeless Spikes Have Been Installed Near Pope’s Route,” Gothamist.com, 09/25/15
Source: “Outreach workers get homeless to leave the Parkway.” Philly.com, 09/25/15
Source: “Homeless People Being Relocated In Preparation For Papal Visit,” CBSLocal.com, 09/25/15
Source: “Six Homeless Families Living in Tents in Philly Lot,” NBCPhiladelphia.com, 09/16/15
Image by Mike Maguire
Are anti-camping ordinances constitutional? This question has lain dormant with occasional ominous tremors like those that precede an earthquake. It is a question with the potential to change the landscape literally, figuratively, and extensively. There was a big rumble in 2006, when Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Kim M. Wardlaw made what seemed like a groundbreaking legal decision that turned out not to be. We discussed why Jones v. City of Los Angeles kind of fizzled out.
But recently, the Ninth Circuit case became a factor to be reckoned with when the federal government turned its attention to Bell v. City of Boise, a case brought by Idaho Legal Aid Services and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. The Justice Department’s “statement of interest” quoted Judge Wardlaw, who said:
The Eighth Amendment prohibits the City from punishing involuntary sitting, lying, or sleeping on public sidewalks that is an unavoidable consequence of being human and homeless without shelter in the City of Los Angeles.
Here is the same news event, presented from the vantage point of a different mindset. The NY Post‘s Betsy McCaughey believes that living on the street is not acceptable. About that, we agree—but the meaning we assign to the words is vastly different. We would like clean, safe and affordable living conditions for all humans. McCaughey seems to wish that large segments of the population could somehow magically be made to disappear.
When a homeless advocate says that people should not be punished for their status, McCaughey characterizes that basic human decency as a “wacky ideology.” In our view, if people have no choice but to live on the streets, they should at least be legally protected.
McCaughey, on the other hand, is all about criminalizing survival, and sees the Justice Department’s interest in the Iowa case as the Obama administration “siding with vagrants against local governments.” We wish we could tell you the upcoming quotation was found in The Onion or some other satirical publication, but alas, we cannot. The outraged McCaughey says of people experiencing homelessness:
Their insistence on street living punishes the rest of us. We have to endure the heart-wrenching sights of human beings in rags lying on sidewalks.
Jones v. City of Los Angeles was vacated because of a compromise deal, but the analysis provided by Judge Kim M. Wardlaw was solid, which is why it is being called upon in Bell v. City of Boise. Writing for Slate.com, Mark Joseph Stern mentions other cases that influence the judiciary’s thinking in this matter. Robinson v. California and Powell v. Texas were both ruled on by the nation’s Supreme Court. Stern says:
In Robinson the court struck down a California statute that criminalized addiction—not just use or possession—of narcotics. California, the justices explained, could outlaw the conduct of drug use, but it could not criminalize the status of being addicted to drugs. Powell dealt with a similar law, one that criminalized public intoxication in Texas.
Since homelessness is a status, not a conduct, it seems reasonable to assume that the Supreme Court would also say that the Constitution forbids cities to arrest people for sleeping rough when shelters are full. Stern doubts that Bell v. City of Boise will reach that far, but it might slow down or partially reverse the criminalization of homelessness. Even if it doesn’t go to the Supreme Court, the lower-level resolution of Bell v. City of Boise will create a precedent that can be called upon in similar cases elsewhere, for better or worse. Stern adds:
It’s quite depressing to see the DOJ defend homeless people’s right to sleep by analogizing them to drug addicts and alcoholics. But its brief is really an indication of just how profoundly America has failed its homeless communities.
Source: “Team Obama’s fight to keep the homeless living on the streets,” NYPost.com, 08/18/15
Source: “Justice Department Tells Cities to Stop Criminalizing Homelessness,” slate.com, 08/14/15
Image by Albert Ter Harmsel