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When Veteran Rescue Does Not Go According to Plan

Veterans' ResidenceEvery now and then, a news story appears that promises this or that kind of housing for a certain number of homeless veterans in a certain place. The project is announced with great fanfare, but the inevitable snags and push-backs get less publicity. Sometimes, the public is lulled by reports that action will be taken on an issue, and forgets to follow up to see if anything actually got done.

In St. Louis, Missouri, in January, the local point-in-time count identified 1,328 people experiencing homelessness, of whom 151 were military veterans. Among them, 100 were already in transitional housing. In July, the remaining 51 moved into apartments thanks to Operation:Reveille. A contemporary news report said,

Based on the veteran’s needs, he or she will receive services that include housing assistance, employment opportunities, intense case management, substance abuse treatment, health and mental health treatment, transportation, food, financial counseling and related social services.

Each vet would have a list of community resources, a bus pass, a peer-support member, and a case manager to tie it all together. It all sounds great, right? St. Louis congratulated itself in glowing terms:

The City’s Department of Human Services will develop a system of service that ensures a veteran never again sleeps on the streets in the City of St. Louis or in an emergency shelter….The City of St. Louis is positioned to become the first city in the country to end homelessness among military veterans.

A few months later, in October, Jesse Bogan reported for Stripes on the outcome of the program. The veterans had moved in to their new apartments believing that all their needs would be met for up to a year, if necessary. The ultimate goal, of course, was self-sufficiency, and by this time 13 residents had jobs and others were interviewing with prospective employers.

The Letdown

But there were problems. The power was turned off in three vets’ apartments, and five more had received final warnings of imminent disconnection. They were under the impression that the nonprofit agency providing case management, Gateway 180, would pay the electricity bills, but this turned out not to be so. Gateway 180 said it passed the bills along to the city, which was supposed to pay out of the federal funding. According to the city government website,

Operation:Reveille is funded primarily with $750,000 of existing Emergency Solutions Grants Program funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Additional funds from other local, private and federal sources will also be used.

But somehow the bills were not paid. Operation:Reveille lists 21 partner organizations, which is almost one organization for every 2 individuals receiving help. Maybe the broth was spoiled by the multiplicity of chefs in the kitchen, but apparently the city reneged on its financial responsibility agreements and, in the words of Gateway 180’s executive director Kathleen Heinz Beach, the collaboration became “a contractual nightmare.” Bogan reported:

Gateway wasn’t responsible to pay bills for the veterans, rather provide mental health assessments and case management. But the first month’s rent wasn’t being paid. Landlords were getting antsy, Beach said, so Gateway 180 finally stepped in to pay it. She said the city later reimbursed her agency for August and September rent.

One particular Operation:Reveille tenant had moved in already owing the electric company $500 from non-payment of services in the past, and the rule for such a contingency was either non-existent or misunderstood by the case workers. Why wasn’t the protocol for this and many other situations clearly spelled out? And why, right from the start, did the city drag its feet on meeting its obligations?

Gateway 180 said it would continue to pay some bills, but that doing so would reduce the total benefit for each vet, so its financial duty to the program would run out before year’s end.

The Odd Man Out

Only one of the 51 Operation:Reveille veterans had actually seen combat, and he was being ejected from the program for falling asleep with food on the stove and starting a fire. Yes, this antisocial behavior endangers others. But isn’t the totally out-of-touch, incompetent individual exactly the person who needs help most? There is no word on whether he returned to the street or was placed in some institution with more supervision.

There is, however, news of a 44-unit apartment building involved in Operation:Reveille, which is currently on the real estate market. Would it be too cynical to wonder if it was it bought as an investment and fixed up with taxpayers’ money? The notice says:

Great Apartment Complex that has been completely renovated… The owner has begun bringing in a lot of Veterans through multiple subsidized programs, such as VASH, Operation Reveille, St Patrick’s Center, & US Vets. Property is being SOLD “As Is.”


Source: “Operation: Reveille,” stlouis-mo.gov,July 31, 2014
Source: “Highly publicized homeless veterans housing program hits snags,” Stripes.com, October 2, 2014
Image by Paul Sableman

 

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Helping Veterans With PTSD

PTSD can derail veterans

PTSD can derail veterans

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) often results from or is associated with traumatic brain injury. Among people experiencing homelessness, head injuries are common, sometimes inflicted in childhood by abusive relatives. Many people who currently experience homelessness also struggle with PTSD, and often express their pain in self-destructive or anti-social ways. A large number of military veterans are homeless, and many of them have brain damage and/or PTSD, either diagnosed or unrecognized.

Two recent House the Homeless posts reviewed Jeremy Schwartz’s shocking story of the VA’s investment in a mobile magnetic resonance imaging scanner that was guaranteed to produce remarkable knowledge and help veterans. It was promised that the big, expensive MRI device would take pictures of brains, and the research was supposed to help heal traumatic brain injuries. This, in turn, was supposed to eventually alleviate PTSD (and indirectly, homelessness) among veterans. As we have seen, it never happened. Here is more information about the fate from which the mobile MRI was supposed to save American military personnel.

Invisible Scars

For the New Statesman, investigative journalist Willard Foxton described the aftermath of his combat reporting assignment, a full-blown case of PTSD, a condition which has been called “battle fatigue,” “combat neurosis,” “operational exhaustion” and many other terms. He still attends support groups and describes such challenges as the social awkwardness of having to say, “Please don’t touch me, I have PTSD.” But that is the least of it. He writes,

You live in a world where suddenly you can be pushed into re-experiencing something awful at a moment’s notice…I was a mess…I didn’t want to talk about it. I knew something was very wrong, but I kept putting off doing something about it. I didn’t want to admit to myself I’d gone mad. I was incredibly embarrassed about the fact I’d often wake up my housemates, screaming.

PTSD causes insomnia, and the absence of restful sleep affects concentration, patience, temper, judgment, intelligence, accident-proneness, mood, and memory. Insufficient sleep can contribute to obesity, irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke. Imagine someone with chronic insomnia trying to sleep in a crowded, noisy shelter or on the street. Now imagine that person trying to hold a job. Even with no additional physical disabilities, sleep deprivation alone can devastate a person’s life.

Another quite vivid account of living with PTSD comes from poet and novelist Robert Graves, who recorded his World War I experience with “shell shock” or “neurasthenia.”

One Man’s Mission

George Taylor of Florida returned from the Vietnam conflict with PTSD and now literally beats the bushes searching for homeless veterans. He brings them the necessities of life along with information about how to apply for VA benefits. He learned that staying busy helping others is therapeutic for him, so much so that he founded an organization, National Veterans Homeless Support, with the motto “Rescuing Veterans Lost in America.” It has sponsored 16 Stand Down events and opened 5 transitional housing units that can hold up to 18 veterans for periods as long as 2 years. Please visit the NVHS site to learn what help is needed.

How do ordinary citizens feel about all this? Consider this excerpt is from an essay by Richard Aberdeen, owner of Freedom Tracks Records:

Regardless of religious, political or other persuasion, there is no excuse for citizens of the United States to allow even one veteran to be homeless…Do Americans who ignore the plight of homeless veterans really support the troops? Can we march in parades, waving flags and pretending to be patriotic, while we continue to ignore our growing homeless population – even when we know that the causes of homelessness can strike almost anyone at any time, no matter their strength of character?

Reactions?

Source: “The scars you don’t see: what it’s like to live with PTSD,” NewStatesman.com, May 2, 2013
Source: “10 Things to Hate About Sleep Loss,” WebMD.com, undated
Source: “This Veteran Literally Searches Through Shrubbery for Homeless Soldiers
Needing Assistance,” NationSwell.com, October 16, 2014
Source: “Article: Why Are There Homeless Veterans in America? | OpEdNews,” OpEdNews.com, December 13, 2013
Image by DVIDSHUB

 

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Vital VA Project Got Off on the Wrong Foot

Phoenix

Phoenix Rises from the Ashes

If there is one state in the union where military veterans might expect to be rendered top-shelf service every time, that state would be Texas. There are two regional benefits offices (Houston is the other) and the Waco office has not been living up to the Lone Star state’s reputation for honoring vets.

Six years ago, the Waco RO (which serves Bell County and central Texas) was one of the epicenters of a scandal that affected an entire federal bureaucracy. Ultimately the Department of Veterans Affairs sent out the order to suspend all document shredding until they could figure out what was going on. Belinda J. Finn, the VA’s Assistant Inspector General for Auditing, testified before a federal House of Representatives subcommittee:

In September of 2008, we were conducting an audit of claim-related mail processing, in the Detroit Regional Office. At the suggestion of a VBA employee, we looked in the shred bins and found claim-related documents. We continued our work in the Waco, St. Louis, and St. Petersburg Regional Offices, finding a total of 132 documents, about 45 of which could have affected benefits.

Jeremy Schwartz of the Austin American-Statesman tirelessly keeps track of what the VA is up to. A couple of years back, the situation was so bad that the Waco RO had the country’s longest waiting time for claims processing.

And then it improved and got the claim processing time down to only 464 days. (Yes, that is sarcasm, and yes, that is more than a year.)

About a year ago, bureaucrats told the reporter that there was no need to hire a full-time county veterans service officer, and that there had been no complaints. A volunteer liaison officer who mostly referred calls to the Texas Veterans Commission said that he only saw five or six veterans each year. Still, the Bell County commissioners promised to improve their website by adding referral information for vets, and to hire a veterans service officer before 2014.

The latest

More recently, Schwartz has been looking into a promising and costly medical research program that somehow went off the rails and into the woods. A decade ago, the Veterans Administration okayed the spending of $6.3 million for a brain imaging center to study physical changes in the brains of soldiers before and after their tours of duty in the combat zones of Afghanistan and Iraq. Previous wars produced a lot of gunshot wounds, but in these more recent conflicts, traumatic brain injury (TMI) has been the “signature wound” which could with dark humor be called “the gift that keeps on giving.” The result of such injury is often Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which can affect an individual for the remainder of his or her life, or lead to suicide, whichever comes first.

The center originally opened at UT Austin, but didn’t work out at that location. It was re-established at the Center of Excellence in Waco, where subjects would be available from both Fort Hood (before going overseas) and the VA hospitals in Waco and Temple (after returning). In 2007 a director was hired, but Dr. Robert Van Boven’s first move was to declare that already, $2.1 million had been spent on a project unrelated to traumatic brain injury.

His claims of financial misappropriation did not interest the VA, which at first declined to investigate, although later a report from the office of the agency’s inspector general partially confirmed the allegations of mismanagement. At any rate, the director was fired in 2009. He sued because he had been wrongfully terminated and retaliated against for being a whistleblower. In 2010 the case was settled for an unpublicized amount of money. For the new and much-needed project of learning more about brain damage, this was not an auspicious start.

(…more next time…)

Reactions?

Source: “Document Tampering and Mishandling at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs,” gpo.gov, 03/03/09
Source: “Troubled beginnings,” Statesman.com, 09/07/14
Source: “Gaps in research,” Statesman.com, 09/07/14
Image: Prairie Kittin

 

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How to Become Homeless: Be a Single Parent

Riding shotgun

Transportation to and from work, and child care, are major obstacles for many single parents.

Brooke McLay met a mother experiencing homelessness (given the pseudonym of Tori) and treated her to a grocery shopping spree, with the understanding that photos would be taken and an article written. When published, it garnered well over 1,000 online comments. Since they lived in a shelter, Tori had to bring along not only her 4- and 6-year-old daughters, but the wagon containing all their belongings, because Crisis Housing has no provision for locking anything up.

While it would have been more economical to buy a lot of cheap processed food with a long shelf life, Tori also selected fruits and vegetables because neither she nor the girls ever got enough fresh produce. But not too much, because without a refrigerator or stove, how could the perishable items be stored or cooked? There is a lot more to this fascinating piece of journalism. McLay writes,

Today, nearly one in six Americans reports running out of food at least once a year. Government food assistance requests are at an all-time high, and funding for these programs is being cut. The need for food and access to affordable fresh fruits and vegetables is no longer just something affecting the guys holding signs on the street corner. Food insecurity affects millions of suburban families. Working folks. Maybe even your neighbors.

Most single parents are female, though many single fathers face equally daunting challenges. Among other feats, the single parent has to fulfill mutually impossible imperatives and be in two places at the same time. The inability to keep up with a constant barrage of conflicting demands can knock a single parent out of the workforce and into public assistance — not a desirable outcome for anyone, including the taxpayers.

Walk a mile in their shoes

Recently, House the Homeless discussed the havoc caused by arbitrary work schedules set up for the convenience of the company. Imagine this double whammy: you hire someone for childcare, and go to work. The boss sends you home because business is slow. So now, you have to go back and do the same rotten thing to another person, and take away expected income from your child minder. Sure, you can negotiate with the sitter to accept less, because you got bumped — but however it plays out, the person may never work for you again. And as a single mom, you cannot afford to lose even one trustworthy friend.

Sometimes, a single parent is forced to make a devil’s bargain with a relative. Family togetherness and mutual help are the most wonderful things in the world, but often have a toxic side. What if the only relative you can really count on for child care, is the one who lets your already-obese child eat anything and everything? Which imperative do you follow? Answer: the one that keeps you earning a paycheck, so your kid will at least be under a roof.

When you deal in the favor bank, you must expect to put aside a certain amount of time to repay favors – more stress. And let’s face it, relatives have their own problems. Ultimately, family members can only do so much, and it’s not as if a single mom can leave her child with just anybody. Look what happened to Relisha Rudd.

Getting around

For people who don’t own cars, transportation is problematic almost everywhere. An adult with a baby or small child can, in theory, bicycle. Conveyances and modified bikes are made for every age group, but they feel risky, and are not useful in all weathers, and so on. In cities, single moms are likely to be dependent on public transportation. Imagine getting your kid up at 4 AM for a bus trip to day care, then you take another bus, and make yet another transfer, and hopefully arrive on time for your 8 AM shift.

Single mothers are tempting targets for violent criminals and con artists, and live in constant fear that the authorities will take away their kids. They belong to the “one missed paycheck” subculture, with one foot in a grim situation and the other on a banana peel. The domino effect can be brilliantly demonstrated by the biographies of thousands upon thousands of single parents and their children. This is how families become homeless.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “What I Learned After Taking a Homeless Mother Grocery Shopping,” Babble.com, 08/01/14
Image by Comrade Foot

 

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Austin’s Community First Village

Alan Graham

Alan Graham of Community First Village

This post is in essence a continuation of last week’s “Exciting Development in Austin,” so a reader who missed that one might want to catch up.

What will go on there

Disabled, chronically homeless people are at a great disadvantage in many ways. In most places, the local taxpayers are also affected by the medical bills that result from so many people living in insalubrious conditions, with untreated physical maladies. Community First Village will help everyone – the residents, by enabling their improved health; and the larger community, by reducing the hospital bills that result from life in the rough.

Located outside Austin, CFV will be a serene and health-positive environment where a great deal of healing and strengthening will take place. Adequate nutrition, nights of unbroken sleep, and an on-site medical facility will help the residents regain levels of vitality and functionality they have not felt for years. Most will be able to actively take part and contribute to the village’s success. We mentioned many activities last time, and people are already making furniture and growing crops.

A strong recycling program is planned. In the carpentry and welding workshops, skills will be taught and learned. The place will have WiFi, so a motivated person could conceivably sell crafts and other products online. The literature speaks of “micro-business opportunities for employment for residents interested in finding a job with employers assisting within this program,” and also suggests possibilities for occasional work at the nearby Travis Exposition Center.

Vision and hard work

The project’s first phase is expected to be done by the spring of 2015. It was kicked off by a groundbreaking ceremony in late August, with some of the prospective residents turning over symbolic shovelfuls of earth.

On that occasion, House Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin) received heartfelt thanks, because he sponsored a bill that exempts CFV from property taxes. Passing that bill will no doubt turn out to be one of the smartest moves the legislature ever made. As far as other people and entities who deserve thanks, please forgive any omissions, and post a comment at the end to set things straight!


The development firm Bury Inc. is involved with the community’s design and MileStone Community Builders LLC with the actualization. H-E-B is helping to start up the commissary, and the local nonprofit organization Caritas will provide caseworkers. Students from the University of Texas School of Architecture designed many of the structures. At Lake Travis High School, the student council and cheerleaders spearheaded a fund drive called “Bring the Homeless Home” which raised $10,000. And of course thousands of volunteers have pitched in and will be donating even more time and energy going forward.

Paying for their stay

Dealing with a hardcore bureaucracy like Social Security is a daunting task even for a housed person with access to all the needed papers and a fully-operational consciousness. For someone who doesn’t own a file cabinet and suffers from physical limitations, pain, and disorientation, these challenges can seem insurmountable. House the Homeless does an amazing job of helping individuals apply for SSI disability status so they can use their benefits to pay the very reasonable rent.

The main driving force is Alan Graham, whose outreach ministry Mobile Loaves and Fishes has been working toward the project for years. Graham, described by journalist Marty Toohey as “a devout man with a sly sense of humor,” sees Community First Village Community as a “promised land” for people who have experienced some of the worst aspects of life on earth. After a recent tour of the property, Toohey wrote:

Graham was careful to note the place is intended to serve the chronically homeless — the portion of the homeless population that, due to mental illness or substance abuse or other issues, cannot keep a home under typical circumstances. For chronically homeless people, said Graham, who is considered one of the nation’s experts on the subject, halfway houses and other “transitional housing” are ultimately ineffective.

One of the most exciting results so far is how Graham and the rest of the CFV support system have inspired other municipalities to step up. A recent OregonLive.com headline reads,

Tiny houses as affordable housing? Austin beats Portland to punch, Eugene follows suit

Is that impressive, or what? Closer to home, a local blogger known as “The Lone Spanger” wrote,

It seems to me that with the continued support of volunteers, donors, and the city, CFV will surely be a success story in the history of homeless housing developments and provide a progressive model for future housing coordinators to follow. I’m looking forward to watching the program blossom and hope it makes a positive impact on the city’s morale towards encouraging more communities like this.

Please visit the Community First Village website to see how you can help!

Reactions?

Source: “Westbanker inspires homeless village,” Statesman.com, 09/03/14
Source: “LTHS students work together to help homeless,” Statesman.com, 09/24/14
Source: “Austin project takes new approach in aiding homeless by avoiding ‘transitional housing’,” TheRepublic.com, 09/18/14
Source: “Tiny houses as affordable housing? Austin beats Portland to punch, Eugene follows suit,” OregonLive.com, 08/22/12
Source: “Hope For the Homeless At Community First Village,” ChallengerNewspaper.org, 08/19/14
Source: “Lake Travis HS Cavaliers – Bring the Homeless Home,” YouTube
Image by mlfnow

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Exciting Development in Austin

Community First Village

Part of the Community First! Village Plan

In Austin, Texas, something is happening that will unavoidably become a subject of great interest to communities across the nation. The new thing is called Community First Village (CFV), and it is happening because many of the town’s officials and citizens believe that ending homelessness is more economical than dealing with the consequences of allowing it to continue.

Both planning and financial preparation for CFV have been underway for about ten years. By July of this year, the nonprofit group Mobile Loaves & Fishes had raised $6.5 million, completing the first fundraising phase of the project whose cost is estimated to come in at between $10 and $12 million. Compare the price tag for providing this safe haven of “permanent, affordable and sustainable housing and caring support for disabled chronically homeless individuals.” Because the residents will have preventative care, protection from the weather, and a nourishing diet, it is expected that the city’s taxpayers will be spared about $10 million each year in medical bills alone.

The place

Soon, roads will be built and water and sewer lines installed on the 27-acre property. The goal is to erect 225 units – an “innovative mix of affordable housing options” – divided between 100 RV trailers, 100 micro-houses, and 25 canvas-walled tent-cottages. Regarding the number of residents, various news reports are confusing, because 240 is the number most often given. On the other hand, one article mentions two-bedroom units, which seems to imply a certain amount of double occupancy. But then another source says “single residents only.” At any rate, this short piece of video reportage should help to visualize the project.

CFV  will be a gated community, not only to keep out troublesome unwanted visitors, but to allow the inhabitants a sense of privacy they have rarely known on the streets and in emergency shelters. The community will have its own clinic, “a medical facility for physical and mental health screenings and support services including hospice and respite care.” Since this will be a final home for many, a memorial garden and columbarium are also among the amenities. Also, McCoy’s Building Supply is putting up a 5500-square-foot structure:

The building will house a 700 sq. ft. art studio and a workshop where residents can be creative. Part of the operations building will also house offices and a community maintenance shop. 

The Alamo Drafthouse is contributing an outdoor theater. Much healthy food will come from “Genesis Gardens,” where 500 fruit trees and a vegetable plot will be cared for by the residents, who will also tend bees and take care of chickens, rabbits, and aquaponically-raised fish that are destined for the dinner table. 

The people

There will be an application process, and prospective residents must pass a background check and have provable income. The rent will be on a sliding scale, with amounts cited by various sources as “between $120 and $250,” “$120-450/month,” and “as little as $90.” The facility’s operating budget is estimated at $1 million per year.

The rules will be similar to those that apply in homeowners’ associations, with expulsion as the penalty for messing up. On-site staff members will help out and keep things running smoothly. Guests will be required to register, and can be kept out. There are even plans for a new city bus stop.

For more about the innovative Community First Village project and the people making it possible, please visit again next week.

 


Source: “Local Austin Homebuilder MileStone Community Builders Part of Community
First!,” BusinessWire,com, 08/26/14
Source: “27 Acre Community First Village Ends Austin Homelessness,” Austinot,com, 09/26/14
Image by Mobile Loaves and Fishes

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How to Become Homeless: Work for the Wrong Company

Starbucks -- better than some

Starbucks — better than some

Jodi Kantor wrote a story for The New York Times that is epic, empathetic, and closely related to homelessness.

One of her sources and subjects was a 22-year-old barista, Jannette Navarro, who supports herself and her 4-year-old son. Kantor describes the situation:

Newly off public assistance, she was just a few credits shy of an associate degree in business and talked of getting a master’s degree…. Her take-home pay rarely topped $400 to $500 every two weeks; since starting in November, she had set aside $900 toward a car….

Along with virtually every major retail and restaurant chain, Starbucks relies on software that choreographs workers in precise, intricate ballets, using sales patterns and other data to determine which of its 130,000 baristas are needed in its thousands of locations and exactly when…. Scheduling is now a powerful tool to bolster profits, allowing businesses to cut labor costs with a few keystrokes.

This Kronos program does not have a humane bone in its body, and Navarro was unable to make any plans more than three days ahead — a dire situation when child care is a constant preoccupation. A worker could speak up, of course, and ask for special treatment, and be a pain in the manager’s posterior. This happens not just at Starbucks but everywhere: a low-level employee who makes waves by asking for a schedule change might reap unexpected consequences, like having her overall hours cut. Whether intentionally punitive or not, stuff happens.

The poor are always being admonished to better themselves via education, but even one night of school per week is impossible if you never know when you will have to work. Uncertain, unpredictable hours can play hell with a family’s budget. It can affect access to preschool and day care opportunities. It gets worse, as Kantor points out:

Child care and policy experts worry that the entire apparatus for helping poor families is being strained by unpredictable work schedules, preventing parents from committing to regular drop-off times or answering standard questions on subsidy forms and applications for aid: ‘How many hours do you work?’ and ‘What do you earn?’

To give credit where it’s due, Starbucks provides health care and other benefits that count for a lot, setting an example that more companies should imitate. In response to the publicity, Starbucks says it will try to do better in the area of erratic and capricious scheduling. Other media noticed this story. On Slate’s DoubleX Gabfest podcast, Jessica Winter said:

These businesses … have offloaded a lot of the natural risk of doing business onto families. So instead of Starbucks, this enormous and rich and incredibly successful enterprise, absorbing the risk of occasionally having an extra barista or two on duty, you have Jannette Navarro risking her child care arrangements, and her relationships, and her home, and her sanity, in order to keep a $9-an-hour job.

Here is Winter’s message for companies that strive to do better:

You create happy, healthy consumers who have more time to go to the mall and have more time to use their disposable income…. I have never understood that divide of how you’re almost destroying part of your consumer base in order to chase maximum profits.

Most single mothers are in such unstable circumstances, one wrong move can bring the whole house of cards tumbling down. When life is so precarious, a seemingly little thing like a schedule change can be the pebble in the pond, with effects that radiate outward in every direction. A lucky family will wind up camping in a relative’s basement, a friend’s dining room, a camper parked in somebody’s driveway, or a garage with no water or electricity. An unlucky family will find itself in a shelter or on the street.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Working Anything but 9 to 5,” NYTimes.com, 08/13/14
Source: “DoubleX Gabfest: The Daddy’s Little Princess Edition,” Slate.com, 08/21/14
Image by Nick Richards

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Robin Williams, Paul Walker, and Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin

Let’s talk about something nice for a change — like how a beloved show business figure quietly carried out his own plan for making the world a better place. When comedian and actor Robin Williams died last month, some of the media coverage concerned his activism on behalf of people experiencing homelessness.

Many still remember Comic Relief, a 12-year series of concerts that raised $50 million for programs benefitting people in dire need. In 1986, Whoopi Goldberg, Billy Crystal, and Robin Williams were the original hosts. Brian Lord wrote about Williams:

He actually had a requirement that for every single event or film he did, the company hiring him also had to hire a certain number of homeless people and put them to work…. I’m sure that on his own time and with his own money, he was working with these people in need, but he’d also decided to use his clout as an entertainer to make sure that production companies and event planners also learned the value of giving people a chance to work their way back.

The journalist also expressed the hope that the companies concerned had continued to hire people experiencing homelessness to work on other projects after their connection with Williams ended.

Documentary

Actor Paul Walker, who died last winter, is said to have received hate mail because of a 2009 film project called Shelter. The documentary was a collaboration between Walker, his old friend Brandon Birtell, and social worker Ken Williams. During their college years in California, Walker and Birtell both were homeless for periods of time, actually sleeping in cars and living on the streets. Regarding Shelter, Nick Manai explains:

They centered their efforts on detailing the daily lives of four homeless people they befriended…. three women and one old blind man. All four were being helped by Ken Williams’ social service team, but were still sleeping in tough places that were tortuously rugged.

The very wealthy coastal town of Santa Barbara was ideal for an exploration of homelessness, not only because Walker and Birtell had been homeless students there, but because of the extreme income gap between the richest residents and the poorest. While making Shelter, Walker was also shooting a major motion picture called Fast & Furious, on location in Brazil. His dedication to the indie project was such that he commuted back and forth by plane. Reporter Ivy Jacobson says of Shelter, “The film wasn’t large enough to make it to big screen, but it’s still being shown in classrooms all over the country and making an impact.”

Happy Birthday, Little Tramp

A hundred years ago, in 1914, Charlie Chaplin created the Little Tramp, the cinema’s quintessential homeless character, not from artistic fantasy but from his own life experience. When this amazing actor and director was only 2 years old, he and his mother and brother were abandoned by the elder Chaplin. As a young lad, Charlie spent time in the workhouse. After their overstressed mother was committed to an insane asylum, the boys became street performers. Paul Whitington writes:

Until Chaplin came along, homeless people were almost invariably portrayed in film as vagabonds, drunks and villains…. [The Tramp was] the most beloved cultural icon on the planet for more than a decade: the plucky loser who refuses to believe that the world is as cruel a place as it seems.

Reactions?

Source: “Robin Williams Required Everyone Who Hired Him to Put Homeless People to Work,” aattp.org, 08/23/14
Source: “A Little Known Robin Williams Story,” BrianLord.org, 08/12/14
Source: “Paul Walker Was Homeless in College: Sent Hate Mail for ‘Shelter’ Movie,” guardianlv.com,12/09/13
Source: “Paul Walker Was Once Homeless: How He Learned Compassion,” HollywoodLife.com, 12/09/13
Source: “Charlie Chaplin stumbled on his most famous creation, the Tramp, a week after making his Hollywood debut,” independent.ie, 08/31/14
Image by Insomnia Cured Here

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Fear of Foster Care Threat Is Not Illogical

Sleeping Child

House the Homeless has been considering, with dismay, the brisk back-and-forth exchange between the foster care system and the ranks of people experiencing homelessness. An untethered, chaotic lifestyle leads to more of the same in the next generation. Any young person whose past includes periods of homelessness is more likely to face homelessness in the future. Kids who age out of the foster care system are more likely to become homeless. In a vicious cycle, kids from homeless families are often at risk of winding up in the foster care system.

Writer Annie Gowen interviewed the executive director of the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare, Ruth Anne White, who said “about half of states list a caregiver’s inability to provide shelter as part of their definition of abuse and neglect.” In mid-2012, news came from Washington, D.C., that homeless parents were not signing up with agencies that existed to help them because they feared losing their children.

The Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless learned that clients avoided seeking help because intake workers had threatened, if the clients really had nowhere to live, to report them to the child welfare authorities. According to rumor, the city purposely created this climate of fear to scare families away from applying for services in an overburdened system. The Washington Post quoted a Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) spokesperson who said:

[W]hile homelessness alone is not sufficient reason under D.C. law to remove a child from a parents’ care, the agency has investigated families seeking shelter to see if there were other issues of abuse and neglect.… So far, 32 families have been reported … but no children have yet been removed from their parents’ care.

Also in our nation’s capital, the disappearance and probable death of 8-year-old Relisha Rudd caused consternation. Relisha went missing from D.C.’s former General Hospital, now a massive homeless shelter where she and three younger brothers were among some 600 children in residence. They stayed with their mother, Shamika Young (who, incidentally, entered the foster-care system at age 6). Relisha was allowed to leave the facility with her “god-daddy,” a man Young trusted as a longtime friend who had taken Relisha to his family’s home many times before. She was last seen on March 1, and shortly afterward the man killed his wife and then was found dead himself.

Real fear

When questioned about why she had not reported her daughter missing, Young said she was afraid that if she went to the police, the authorities would take her other kids. Apparently, this fear was not unfounded. Records showed that some type of report had been generated three times before that could have led to the four children being placed in the foster care system. Nothing ever happened, but the possibility was perceived by their mother as a real threat.

When Relisha Rudd was in the news daily, some online commenters expressed very sentimental opinions about the superiority of foster care over shelter life or, even worse, street life. How, they wondered, could anyone possibly hesitate to recommend foster care? The sad truth is, it’s all too easy to find foster care horror stories, and all too easy to meet unaccompanied youth who ran away from foster placements to become street people.

The mutability of circumstance presents child welfare agencies with chronic uncertainty. A crisis focuses official attention on the family, but then their situation stabilizes. Then turmoil comes again, followed by relative calm. The rationale for placing kids in foster care is rarely cut-and-dried. Case workers have to make judgment calls all the time. On behalf of Washington’s CFSA, Mindy Good spoke to a reporter who wrote this account:

[I]n 2012, the District had one of the nation’s highest removal rates and one of the lowest in placing children with relatives once they were taken from the home, Good said. A year earlier, the city’s Citizen Review Panel, which is charged with monitoring the agency, issued a report that called for “significant reforms to prevent unnecessary removals — and to prevent the unnecessary harm they cause to children and families.”

In other words, the child protection authorities are criticized and attacked for two opposite reasons — for interfering too much and taking too many kids; and for not removing Relisha and her brothers from their mother’s care. The city’s health and human services, the official bodies in charge of Relisha’s life and well-being, promised a review of their procedures, but no report has yet been issued. At any rate, it is clear that homeless parents are not paranoid, because a very real possibility exists that their children can be taken from them. Sometimes it is necessary; other times it is not in the best interests of anyone.

Reactions?

Source: “Homeless D.C. families, who turn to the city for help, risk triggering a child welfare investigation,” WashingtonPost.com, 06/23/12
Source: “Before Relisha Rudd went missing, the 8-year-old longed to escape D.C.’s homeless shelter,” WashingtonPost.com, 04/05/14
Source: “Body in park tentatively identified as Relisha Tatum’s alleged abductor, police chief says,” WashingtonPost.com, 03/31/14
Image by Lyman Erskine

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Foster Care System Increases Homeless Totals

homeless (poles)

Every now and then a scandal arises from the foster care system. Earlier this year, Americans were horrified by a story from North Carolina that broke when a law enforcement officer observed an 11-year old boy handcuffed to the porch of a house. The weather was cold, and someone had tied a dead chicken around his neck. It turned out that, along with this foster child, four adopted children lived in the house. The adults in residence were a medical professional — a male who worked as a hospital nurse — and a female Department of Social Services employee who happened to be the county’s child protective services supervisor.

Had no one noticed the abuse and neglect? Some faculty members did, where the kids used to go to school. But the couple who fostered and/or adopted them had unenrolled them in favor of home-schooling. The publicity surrounding this story pointed up the fact that North Carolina has more than 53,000 registered home schools, many of them populated by foster children — some of whom were taken on just for the sake of earning subsistence payments from the government. Since there is no legal requirement to inspect home schools, this means a lot of foster kids are being raised in sequestered environments, ignored and forgotten. The potential is huge for every kind of abuse.

The case made enough of a splash to get several other social services workers fired, and to stimulate a review of the process by which foster-care licenses are granted. Meanwhile, investigators looked for approximately 36 children who had been fostered by the couple in the past.

California

Those former foster kids must be scattered all over the map. Maybe some of them ended up in the Morongo Basin, an area of Southern California whose population includes about 800 people experiencing homelessness. On leaving the area, longtime advocate Rae Packard told an audience,

In my experience working at Morongo Basin Unity Home, women who choose to leave their abuser and go into a shelter most often lose custody of their children. Judges nationwide consider shelter housing to be ‘homeless’ and give custody of the children to the abuser, who is stable in the home.

Remember the House the Homeless post titled “Are Homeless Parents Paranoid?” If paranoia represents an unreasonable or unlikely fear, homeless parents apparently are not paranoid. All kinds of heart-rending scenarios take place every day in offices and courtrooms. A homeless mother faces the real possibility that her kids can be turned over to the violent non-provider who caused all the trouble, or taken by the state and placed in foster situations. Or she can try to stay under the radar and avoid government agencies altogether. This involves teaching kids to lie to authorities, and other habits that can get them in trouble.

Elsewhere in California, journalist Greg Lee interviewed the CEO of the Riverside County branch of Court Appointed Foster Children (CASA). In that county, some 4,000 foster children reside, with another 1,500 in the nearby Coachella Valley. CASA is a volunteer organization with not nearly enough volunteers for its mission, which is to assign each child an advocate to help them deal with the court system. Deborah Sutton-Weiss made a startling statement:

The foster system is broke. We have more homeless children on the streets now than we have vets and that’s a big deal…. What does happen to them is that they either end up homeless, prostituting, in jail or dead.

The authorities take kids from their parents for reasons that are sometimes excellent and sometimes wrong or pointless. Those children grow up in foster homes, age out of the system, and all too often find themselves on the streets. Vulnerable and unprotected, girls get pregnant and have children who either have no place to live or are removed to foster placements. (Either way, they grow up with a greater chance of being chronically homeless.) There is far too much two-way traffic between the foster care system and homelessness, and plenty more about it to discuss.

Reactions?

Source: “Two growing NC student populations: homeless and homeschooled,” BlueNC.com, 11/24/13
Source: “About 800 homeless in Hi-Desert, speaker tells advisers,” HiDesertStar.com, 04/18/14
Source: “Homelessness among foster children on the rise in California,” KESQ.com, 07/22/14
Image by Martin Belam

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