Catching Up With Austin

homeless-person-in-trashbagAustin, Texas, is often our subject because House the Homeless was founded here 27 years ago and has played a major role ever since in reversing the tide of homelessness. Austin is important for other reasons. It is a progressive city inside a state that in many ways lags behind other places, when it comes to addressing social issues. But Austin definitely tries!

Interesting things have happened over the past few years. In the fall of 2012, the police chief publicly expressed his feelings about the importance, in his eyes, of moving organizations like the Austin Resource Center for the homeless, the Salvation Army, and Caritas out of the city center.

In the spring of March 2014, a group called Austin Atheists Helping the Homeless got some media attention when a volunteer known as Angel talked about the 5-year-old organization, which she and her husband had been donating energy to for several months. They had been looking for something useful they could do as a family, and found it there, working with not only adults but kids of all ages who collected and sorted useful items.

Angel told reporter Amy Roth:

We focus solely on distributing basic living items to people experiencing homelessness. Tangible donations are accepted year round then distributed once a month at “giveaways.”

We set up our tables in the same parking lot as faith-based groups… [W]e make it a point not to preach…

I know our efforts won’t eradicate homelessness. It’s a systemic problem that’s too complex to be solved by an hour-long giveaway once a month. If what we do helps someone get through the next few days, that’s success.

Meanwhile, the Affordable Housing Bond had been approved by voters, allowing the city to borrow $65 million for the purpose of increasing both rental and ownership housing, as well as preserving the city’s existing affordable housing. In the fall of 2014, we reported on Austin’s innovative Community First Village.

The new year of 2015 began, and House the Homeless president Richard R. Troxell told the Statesman about the $8,000 raised by Hill Country Middle School for the annual thermal underwear gift party. This was followed by our reportage on the annual House the Homeless survey, which last year concerned relationships with the police.

Last fall, Austin was deeply concerned with completing its self-assigned task of bringing all homeless veterans in off the street, a mission complicated by the fact that the number of local homeless veterans had doubled since the previous year. This may not have been an actual increase in people, but significant of better methods of keeping track of them. House the Homeless observed Veterans Day with its usual attention, and our pages also featured a piece called “Life and Death in Homeless Austin.”

Austin-Travis County Integral Care announced its plan to break ground for the Housing First Oak Springs facility, a 40,000 square foot property that will contain 50 efficiency apartments and a clinic. Nadia Galindo reported:

Austin-Travis County Integral Care began using the Housing First model in 2013. They placed 200 people in apartments across the community, two years later, 88 percent remain housed and used 70 percent less emergency and clinical services.

Last month, local media reported on some of the difficulties that veterans still have even when established in living spaces. A home is more than a roof, and needs working plumbing, up-to-code electricity, smoke detectors and so on. Apparently, some landlords believe it is no longer their responsibility to maintain rental properties in livable condition, but want public money or donations to repair the buildings they own.

Just a few days ago, Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO) announced that the most recent count of people experiencing homelessness revealed a 20% increase,  although again, this may be the result of better canvassing methods or a growing willingness of people to be counted.

Either way, there appear to be 400 more people living in shelters and on the streets of Austin, than there were at the last count. Fox7Austin interviewed Richard R. Troxell,  who pointed to the low minimum wage and the high cost of living, and went on to speak of the newly discovered extensive link between homelessness and Traumatic Brain Injury.

Reporter Jennifer Kendall summed up:

House the Homeless and ECHO both agree the best way to help those experiencing homelessness in Travis County is to find them shelter, but ECHO said during their annual count they found no empty beds at Austin’s shelters.

So, unless more landlords step up to offer affordable housing to homeless people in the city, anyone new who comes to the area will not have a shelter to stay in.


Source: “Austin police chief wants homeless services out of his backyard,” blogspot.com, 09/21/12
Source: “Do Better Challenge: Austin Atheists Helping the Homeless,” skepckick.org, 03/18/14
Source: “Lack of available housing a challenge for advocates of Austin’s homeless,” impactnews.com, 07/23/14
Source: “House the Homeless lends helping hand,” Statesman.com, 01/08/15
Source: “City working to find housing for Austin’s homeless veterans,” FOX7Austin.com, 10/08/15
Source: “New homeless housing complex to be built in East Austin,” KEYETV.com, 11/13/15
Source: “Homeless veteran placed in home teeming with code violations,” KXAN.com, 01/15/16
Source: “Austin sees 20 percent increase in homeless population,” KHOU.com, 03/03/16
Source: “Annual count of homeless in Travis County shows 20 percent increase,” Fox7Austin.com, 03/03/16
Photo credit: elizaIO via Visualhunt/CC BY-SA


How to Become Homeless – Have TBI

colorful-spiralThere are quite a few things the general public does not know about concussion injuries. For instance, the victim does not have to be rendered unconscious. In fact, a knockout occurs in only 10% of concussions, so you can’t go by that. What causes a concussion is any kind of sudden impact to the body that makes the brain change speed or direction.

Think of driving a car. On impact, the car is abruptly halted but the driver’s body is still going at the same speed as before, so it is thrown forward. If the air bag inflates, a cushion is created between the driver and the steering column, dashboard, windshield, and other hard objects that are in front.

The brain doesn’t have an airbag, only a surrounding bath of cerebrospinal fluid, which doesn’t have the same properties as a cushion full of air. On impact, the fluid is pushed aside, and the brain hits the inside of the hard skull bone.

When the impact is severe, the brain can then bounce in the other direction, hitting bone again on the opposite side. Cells stretch, tiny veins break, and chemicals are let loose into areas where they don’t belong.

Two different kinds of blunt-force trauma can cause brain damage — linear acceleration and rotational acceleration. We quote here from the informational material included with the Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) survey conducted by House the Homeless in Austin, Texas:

The medical community now believes that this “rotational acceleration” does more damage than “linear rotation” since the blood vessels can stretch and tear as the brain rotates. In both instances, a chain reaction begins as chemicals in the brain move around in chaos creating disruption.

It gets worse

Another problem is Post-Concussive Syndrome, in which intense symptoms last for along time and the person may never recover the ability to concentrate, remember things, or sleep properly. In Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), the long-term results are poor judgment, dementia, drug-taking, lack of insight, depression, tinnitus, inability to balance, and other symptoms that interfere with the ability to hold down a job or even to manage the details of everyday life. It doesn’t help to write down the address of a soup kitchen if the person forgets the note is in his pocket, or can’t figure out how to get there.

Concussion can’t be diagnosed by a blood test or brain scan or other physical test, only by indicators or symptoms. While there are considered to be 26 indicators, nobody manifests all of them all the time, but only a few at a time. CTE can’t be diagnosed until the person’s body is on an autopsy table. These conditions may be associated with Lou Gehrig’s disease, bipolar disorder, Parkinson’s disease, and others processes in which neurotransmission is disrupted.

There is no good concussion, because they all interfere with the brain’s ability to send and receive messages.

Source of information

Along with being president of House the Homeless, Richard R. Troxell is also Director of Legal Aid for the Homeless at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. He uses the annual House the Homeless Thermal Underwear Party as an opportunity to ask the attendees to take part in various surveys.

The 2010 Health Survey revealed that 49% of people experiencing homelessness are too disabled to work a regular full-time job. That is nearly half, and it it lines up uncannily with the fact that nearly half of all homeless men have suffered a traumatic brain injury. This was discovered by Dr. Wayne Gordon of Mount Sinai Hospital’s Icahn School of Medicine.

The brain injuries mainly happened before his rehabilitation patients became homeless, not as a result of rough street life. Some were the victims of parents and caregivers who see baby-shaking as a non-violent method of quieting a baby or getting its attention. On the contrary, baby-shaking is extremely violent and can cause brain injury that lasts a lifetime.

Other patients with TBI had been hit in the head, or been struck playing contact sports, or fallen from heights. Some had been in car accidents or were injured while on active military duty. House the Homeless has spoken before of the diabolical merry-go-round between the streets, the prisons, the foster care system and (for the lucky) hospitalization.

Dr. Wayne Gordon is very concerned about prisoners, who are in a position to receive massive abuse:

You need to train the correction officers to understand brain injuries so that when somebody may be acting rude or answering back or forgetting what they’re supposed to do, it’s not a sign of maladaptive misbehavior or disrespect, it’s a sign of a brain injury.

The Veterans Administration notes that many returning vets wind up homeless for eight or nine times the length of their deployments. In other words, if a person spent a year in a war zone, it’s not unusual for that to be followed by eight years of homelessness.

In fact, 27% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are known to have TBI. The damage is cumulative, because more health risks show up the longer a person is on the streets. The VA has a chilling term, “tri-morbid,” which means a person concurrently has mental illness, physical illness, and substance abuse.

A different physician with the same last name, Dr. Mark L. Gordon of the Millennium Health Centers, has worked extensively with veterans and achieved a totally new understanding of how TBI and Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome might be treated by correcting hormone deficiencies.

One of the most distressing pieces of general ignorance is that when people hear “hormones” they think “sex,” which is only a small part of a very large picture. Hormones do everything, including keeping the brain on track. If implemented, Dr. Mark L. Gordon’s discoveries could treat a vast number of people at a relatively slight cost.


Source: “TBI Survey 2016,” HousetheHomeless.org, February 2016
Source: “Study: Nearly Half of All Homeless Men Suffered Brain Injury before Losing Homes,” mssm.edu, 04/26/14
Source: “National Survey of Homeless Veterans in 100,000 Homes Campaign Communities,” VA.gov, November 2011
Photo credit: new 1lluminati via Visualhunt/CC BY


The Challenge of Homeless Children


House the Homeless has spoken about the urgency of telling potential presidential candidates what we think is important. Keeping families together is maximally important.

It has long been obvious that one person working a minimum wage job can barely support herself or himself. With kids, the situation becomes desperate. When a person is called upon to do two different things at the same time, like hold a job and be the sole parent, the awful stress of trying to do the impossible has a bad effect on health and mental stability. Even if there are two parents, if one has a low-paying job and the other takes care of the kids, they are teetering on the edge of homelessness if not homeless already.

The number of families living in garages and basements is larger than official statistics would indicate. But in recent years, even if both parents work, or one parent holds two jobs, in many places they still can’t afford a place to live that includes such amenities as running water, electricity, outdoor space for kids to play, or indoor space for them to do school assignments.

The flyover states

Too often, a cruel Catch-22 comes into play. There are plenty of places in the United States where the rent is relatively low. Unfortunately, such a place is unlikely to offer the luxury of employment. Journalist Alexis Rosado quotes experts from Volunteers of America and Homeless Angels, to the effect that, although most people don’t realize it, families with children make up a huge proportion of the homeless population. This is certainly true in middle America.

Just last week, WLNS in Lansing, Michigan, profiled a family that has been experiencing homelessness for about two years since the father lost his job and couldn’t find another. Lansing only has two facilities where families can stay together, and then only for a short time. A lot of other cities don’t even have that much.

Audacious programs

Kids in tumultuous situations are prone to physical, emotional, social, and developmental problems, or all four kinds at once. In Oakland, CA, the Center for the Vulnerable Child (CVC) focuses on children whose lives are impacted by homelessness, family disruption (often a polite way of saying that a parent is locked up), abuse, neglect, violence, poverty, and other chaotic influences. Cheryl Zlotnick published a book titled Children Living in Transition, which describes the organization’s focus:

[…] this text recommends strategies for delivering mental health and intensive case-management services that maintain family integrity and stability.
[…] this volume outlines culturally sensitive practices to engage families that feel disrespected by the assistance of helping professionals or betrayed by their forgotten promises. Chapters discuss the Center’s staffers’ attempt to trace the influence of power, privilege, and beliefs on their education and their approach to treatment.

The CVC offers developmental screening, education in parenting, therapy for both individuals and families, and case management. It is connected with many programs that serve niche demographics, like foster kids who need medical care, or children who seem likely to fail out of kindergarten, so clients can be referred to numerous consulting specialists.

In nearby San Francisco, the Homeless Youth Alliance works with a very different group – youth designated as “unaccompanied,” who are either alienated from their families or who have aged out of foster care and never had families. They are encouraged to be more than the passive recipients of services. There is a neighborhood beautification crew that increases pride and earns good will, and the opportunity is always open to work as an outreach counselor.

Funded mostly by foundations and private donors, the HYA encourages people to accept challenge and be the change they want to see in the world. To potential supporters, executive director Mary Howe issues a refreshingly honest call to action:

We want your money, your talent, your support and, more than anything, your ability to utilize your own voice to educate people of the root causes of poverty, homelessness, drug use and mental health challenges… Don’t just sit on your ass and complain about the state of things—stand up, do something and get involved in your community.

Circling back to our first paragraph, House the Homeless would like to remind everybody that now is an excellent time to get involved by raising our voices about what needs to be done on a national level. Any pubic figure who aspires to leadership should be hearing from us, and not just that we want more and better homeless shelters. No, we want improvement in all the circumstances and conditions that lead to homelessness, which are conveniently listed on the page titled “Mission: School the Candidates.”

Source: “Homeless family sees flaws in the system,” WLNS.com, 02/19/16
Source: “Children Living in Transition,” Columbia.edu, 2014
Source: “Create to Destroy! Homeless Youth Alliance,” MaximumRocknRoll.com, 10/22/13
Photo credit: Blemished Paradise via Visual hunt/CC BY-SA


Why “Kids 4 Kids Sake!” Is Important

one-in-45-graphicLast week, House the Homeless talked about the Kids 4 Kids Sake! campaign, which involves raising the awareness of potential presidential candidates about what needs to be done about children experiencing homelessness, and why. The illustration on today’s page, created by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, is probably outdated. Currently, HomelessChildrenAmerica.org says one in 30 children are homeless in any given year.

A recommended resource on all aspects of homelessness is a “No Safe Place: Advocacy Manual,” a report prepared by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. Here are some facts from it:

  • Family homelessness has been on the rise since the inception of the foreclosure crisis in 2007.
  • The U.S. States Conference of Mayors found that family homelessness increased an average of 4% between 2012 and 2013 in its survey of 25 major American cities.
  • In some areas of the country, the numbers are even higher.
  • From 2011 to 2012, the number of unaccompanied children in shelter increased by 28%.

To rely on the numbers is misleading anyway. Counting people who have nowhere to live is a difficult job. In counting children and youth experiencing homelessness, problems come up.

There are two main types of kids — those attached to a single parent or a set of parents, and those who are on their own. In a way, the ones with parents are easier to count, through the school system, although with irregular attendance and frequent address changes they can be difficult to keep track of.

Elusive numbers

Minors are easier to count if the family stays in a shelter. One of the administrative problems in that field is deciding how long a family can remain. Some helpers believe that authorized stays need to be longer, to give families a better chance to get on their feet.

The choice is between a rock and a hard place: Help more families, short-term, and spit them back out into the world unprepared, so they will probably end up on the waiting list again; or help fewer families for longer periods until they really get solid ground under them.

On the other hand, kids with parents might be harder to identify. Even if two adults and five children are inhabiting a one-car garage with no water or electricity, there may be reasons why a family does not want to be identified as homeless. Some bureaucracies will substitute the gentler word “displaced,” but changing the adjective doesn’t really help.

Older kids, called “unaccompanied,” are harder to count. Rather than officially entering the system by admitting that both parents are in jail, a teenager might prefer any kind of makeshift living arrangement. And she or he just might not bother with school. An accurate census is improbable. Also, different agencies, bureaucracies, and jurisdictions have different ways of defining homelessness.

Locating the lost

For Bridge Magazine, Pat Shellenbarger learned about the work done by Brenda Greenhoe, whose job (under a federal grant) is to find homeless kids and get them into school. Her beat includes four Michigan counties, comprising 2,400 square miles and more than 340,000 destitute kids living in some of the bleakest “poverty pockets” in any state. Overall, Michigan has more than 30,000 homeless students. In the 2013-14 school year, Greenhoe found 1,550 of them.

A couple of years back, Prof. Yvonne Vissing of Salem State College wrote a list titled “Being Ruthless for Homeless Children” that offered several suggestions for people who sincerely care about children. They included:

We must be ruthless against the everyday decisions that force parents to choose between which of their options are the least awful, instead of making decisions about which options are in the best interests of their children.

We must be ruthless against the policies and practices that force children to have no secure place to sleep and no where to call home.


Source: “No Safe Place: Advocacy Manual,” NLCHP.org, 2014
Source: “Along Michigan’s back roads, thousands of homeless children,” BridgeMi.com, 08/12/14
Image by National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty


Mission: School the Candidates


The National Coalition for the Homeless is sending out a call to action:

Join us in asking each candidate what they will do to create affordable and accessible housing for all!

Whoever winds up running for President need to be urgently reminded that nothing is more important than ending the national disgrace of American homelessness. On the NCH’s “2016 Presidential Campaign” page, just hit the “How to contact the candidates” tab to access what looks like a pretty up-to-date list, except that Martin O’Malley has dropped out (which may be updated by the time our page is published).

Bernie Sanders seems to be pretty well informed about all the issues that contribute to homelessness, and he is particularly tuned-in to the urgency of housing homeless veterans. Still, if you are “feeling the Bern,” it can’t hurt to encourage him to actually talk about solving the issue of homelessness for all people while on the campaign trail.

This helpful page supplies snail-mail addresses. Remember, in our electronic age, when someone takes the time to write an actual letter on paper, fold it into an envelope and stick on a stamp, that action is pretty impressive. Sending a physical piece of mail means getting a lot of bang for the half-a-buck.

Also, a lot of these prominent individuals have Twitter accounts and Facebook pages and heaven only knows what else. Speak to them through the social media of your choice. Send them a link to this video, which was produced by House the Homeless at Austin’s beautiful Homeless Memorial.

Send them a series of Tweets, Facebook messages, etc., containing that link and one of the messages read by these children. For your copy-and-paste convenience, here they all are:

  • “Income inequality… Homelessness: worst possible outcome”
  • “School can be hard… Sleeping on a park bench is harder.”
  • “Help them! Don’t arrest them!”
  • “Homes, not handcuffs”
  • “Mommies and daddies need a living wage.”
  • “Kids need a roof over their heads, not a bridge!”
  • “What’s wrong and what’s right? Kids say: housing is a human right!”
  • “My friend’s doggie needs a home — and so does she.”

Also, on that page you have the opportunity to refresh your knowledge of the root causes of homelessness, which will make your communications with public figures more effective.

If you want to say something more substantial than “End homelessness!” — find talking points on the NCH “Issues” page.

The issues fall under several main categories. Pick the one you know or care most about, or read up on the one you’d like to learn more about. Then tell all the potential candidates what you think. Or pick one candidate, and send separate messages regarding all of these issues. What are they?

  • Housing
  • Employment and Income
  • Health
  • Family Homelessness
  • Elder Homelessness
  • Youth Homelessness
  • Veteran Homelessness
  • Criminalization of Homelessness
  • LGBT Homelessness
  • Trauma Informed Care

Also on the “Issues” page are links for anyone who wants to donate, organize, advocate, volunteer, or request a speaker.

Our goal is to use the 2016 presidential election process to make the issue of homelessness a political priority so that the next President will put our nation on track to fixing the affordable housing crisis and ending homelessness in America.

Let’s do this!


The Criminalization of Ownership

Cart and CarsHere we are in America, where private property rights are sacred, except for the people who own the least. The general housed public has a strange double-standard attitude. Upright citizens who are unable to pack for a weekend without incurring baggage overweight charges, are scornful of people experiencing homelessness who dare to keep a few belongings.

People with an overdose of righteousness get all bent out of shape because homeless people have cell phones. Has no one noticed that the pay phones are all gone? How is a person supposed to make appointments with helpful agencies, or contact prospective employers, or even call the police or fire department to report an emergency?

Say you’re a homeless person who was lucky enough to score a good, warm coat that fits and has all its buttons. What do you do when warm weather comes? Keep wearing it, and suffer the discomfort of being too warm? And be branded mentally incompetent, because wearing clothes inappropriate for the weather is a sign of schizophrenia? Or carry the coat around all summer, in addition to your bedroll and backpack?

Not in my back yard

In an online forum, you might find a message from an average homeowner who has discovered a cache of someone’s belongings on his property. He has a certain amount of compassion, and wants to be a good guy. Others reply with warnings that the bundle might contain drugs, a weapon, stolen goods, or something else that could get the homeowner in trouble. It might contain a blanket infested with bedbugs. There is a notion (spread by the firefighters in at least one city) that a homeless person, rather than simply abandoning unwanted belongings, prefers to burn them – and nobody wants a fire out by the garage.

There is another downside. Suppose a kind-hearted property owner allows someone to stash belongings. What about the neighbors or the occasionally patrolling cops? When trying to access his or her own stuff, that homeless person could be arrested for trespassing, or even summarily shot. But stuff needs to be somewhere.

Necessities of life

People have blankets, clothing, maybe a nicer pair of shoes, hygiene items and medicines that they can’t carry around every minute. They have documents, lists of phone numbers for services and other helpful contacts, and treasured family photos. They might even have money they’re saving up to try and rent a place to live. Carrying everything at all times isn’t safe. Last fall, Buffalo saw a marked increase in robberies of homeless people by street criminals, and it happens everywhere.

Many shelters have neither the space nor the desire to let people bring along all their stuff. The alternative is to find a safe spot, out in the big cruel world, to tuck a few things into a niche or an alcove or under a bush or up a tree in a park, and that is increasingly difficult. People’s belongings are seized if found “abandoned,” and often even if the person is right there on the spot. The Fourth Amendment is supposed to forbid this kind of thing, and judges have struck down such policies in Fresno, Los Angeles, Sacramento and Miami, but cities keep on doing it anyway. The ordinances that enable these warrantless seizures criminalize homelessness.

They never learn

At the end of 2014, Tucson AZ made the news when homeless organizers pushed back against the three-item rule. People were actually being arrested for owning more than a blanket, bedroll, and beverage. Activists struggled for four years before a U.S. District Judge finally granted an injunction to end this – which doesn’t mean it has ended. Early in 2015, Chicago was embroiled in a similar battle. For the Sun-Times, Mark Brown interviewed, among others, a Marine Corps veteran who had been deprived of everything he owned, four different times.

All homeless people are allowed to keep only “portable personal possessions” defined as a “sleeping bag or bedroll, not more than two coats, not more than two pairs of shoes or boots, not more than five blankets, and not more than three bags or suitcases, and such contents as may be contained in said bags or suitcases.”
In the winter months, they can have five more blankets and another sleeping bag.

Last summer, in preparation for a rock concert, Chicago authorities decreed that a neatly organized 20-tent settlement had to be moved from under a bridge, at least temporarily. Supposedly some kind of agreement was in place about sufficient notice, which may or may not have been given, depending on who tells the story. City workers started before the designated time, and threw away blankets, clothing, and other property, rather than store the items and notify people how to recover them, as had supposedly been agreed. The Department of Family and Support Services was supposed to be on hand to help relocate the people and their possessions, and showed up late when the city crews had already disposed of many things. Even when a Chicago Coalition for the Homeless lawyer showed up, the pillaging continued. Journalist Melissa Muto wrote,

Rene Heybach… told them they were in violation of the city agreement. But Heybach said that none of the workers she spoke to Tuesday had been properly trained in that protocol, and none of them, including the supervisor, had even heard of it.

What goes on in these cases? Every agency has telephones and computers. There is no excuse for such a lack of communication. Why is everything so confused and uncoordinated? The following month, Ethan Walker reported on the situation in Berkeley, CA. It was, ironically, at Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park that police seized from four homeless men everything except the clothes they stood up in. Allegedly the belongings were taken to a storage facility. According to homeless activist Mike Zint, the same scenario had been repeated hundreds of times in Berkeley, and more often than not, the seized property was destroyed rather than stored.

Zint said he has lost his property to the police seven times in four years. He said the police came, usually at night, and often cited him for breaking Penal Code 647e, which states that lodging in any place, public or private, without the permission of the owner is an act of disorderly conduct. The police then took his gear as evidence of his violation.

Activist Diane Kimes added,

The personal belongings which had value to their owners were immediately hauled off, while the garbage was left there to rot by the city. Obviously, this isn’t about keeping public space clean and safe–it’s about making life insupportable for those who have nothing…


Source: “Court: Confiscation rules at Tucson park unfair to homeless,” Tucson.com, 12/26/14
Source: “City agrees to be more respectful of homeless belongings,” SunTimes,com, 02/11/15
Source: “Mumford and Sons’ concert displaces homeless,” WBEZ.org, 06/19/15
Source: “Homeless in Berkeley must ‘rebuild’ after police remove property,” DailyCal.org, 07/08/15
Image by urbansnaps – kennymc




Costs of Resisting the Housing First Paradigm

Homeless street market

In the great Northwest, in Washington state, the Seattle University School of Law issued a report about the cost of criminalizing homelessness. Examining the municipal codes of 72 cities, they found twice as many anti-homeless ordinances as were on the books in 2000. Journalists Bryce Covert and Andrew Breiner summed it up like this:

Nearly 80 percent enacted ordinances prohibiting or limiting the ability to sit, stand, or sleep in public. Another three-quarters banned urination or defecation in public, although the report notes that “cities typically fail to provide sufficient access to reasonable alternatives such as 24-hour restrooms and hygiene centers.” And nearly two-thirds outlaw “aggressive panhandling, while 22 percent criminalize storing personal property in public.”

Criminalizing homelessness by outlawing the most unavoidable life functions like sleeping and urinating, has become a trend. In Venice, California, which used to be one of the freest places on earth, homeless people are routinely brutalized by the police for such offenses as “items placed on city beach” and “property outside of designated space.” Samuel Arrington, a mentally ill homeless man who was beaten and tazed by 8 LAPD officers and subsequently hospitalized, had brought a chair and an umbrella out onto the sand.

The plot thickened when Arrington told the press that the cops had assaulted him on multiple occasions because he once warned a prospective heroin customer to stay away from a certain undercover cop, and thwarted a sting operation. Of course Arrington sued the city for violation of his civil rights, as have hundreds of others. In 2012 the L.A. Times published a spreadsheet detailing the settlements the LAPD had been ordered to make over the preceding decade. The yearly totals were $12 million, $16 million, and other numbers in that range. Many cases centered around homeless people, and police brutality is only one of the causes for which a city might be sued.

The illustration on this page shows a homeless street market, a bare-bones operation favored by those who want to hold a garage sale but don’t have a garage. In many places, this is a highly illegal enterprise.

Austin, Texas, is a notable example of pushback against “quality of life” ordinances that do nothing for life’s quality when the accused is a person experiencing homelessness. In response to people being legally punished for just sitting around, Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless said something fraught with unintentional dark humor:

It is my belief that 100% of the people receiving these tickets were perceived to be homeless at the time of ticket issuance. I was only able to verify that 96% were experiencing homelessness at the time of the ticketing.

Getting back to Washington, the 5-year total spent by just two cities, Seattle and Spokane, to enforce homeless-persecuting statutes was almost $4 million. The number is just for civil infractions and doesn’t even begin to cover the criminal violations costs. Covert and Breiner wrote:

On the other hand, the report estimates that if the $3.7 million spent enforcing the ordinances were instead spent on housing for the homeless, it would save $2 million a year and more than $11 million over the course of five years.

Criminalizing Homelessness on the East Coast

To varying degrees, some cities are beginning to see value in the Housing First philosophy. In the opposite corner of America, down in Florida, the Daytona Beach News-Journal published a comprehensive article on that state’s homeless policies.

Volusia County Judge Belle Schumann researched 50 homeless people who have cost the county well over $12 million by being arrested multiple times —as many as 400 in one case, and more than 330 times in another. A jail diversion shelter to keep these individuals off the streets would cost approximately $13 per person, per day, as compared to the $65 per diem cost of keeping them in jail. Currently, the county has fewer than 100 shelter beds to serve its 5,000 homeless residents.


Source: “Washington’s War on the Visibly Poor: A Survey of Criminalizing Ordinances & Their Enforcement ,” SSRN.com, 05/06/15
Source: “Arresting Homeless People For Being Homeless Is Unbelievably Wasteful,” thinkprogress.org, 05/11/15
Source: “Venice homeless man sues LAPD, alleges excessive force during arrest,” LATimes.com, 05/19/15
Source: “Legal payouts in LAPD lawsuits,” LATimes.com, 01/22/12
Source: “Arresting, jailing homeless has cost Volusia taxpayers millions,”
news-journalonline.com, 11/23/13
Image by urbansnaps – kennymc


Looking Toward a Grim Future

Down on the Corner

RawStory.com just published a lengthy article titled “Older and sicker: How America’s homeless population has changed.”

The writer is Margot Kushel, Professor of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. California is always worth keeping an eye on, because what happens there tends to spread to the rest of the country. As always, House the Homeless recommends that interested parties read the entire work, but here some key points.

For starters, about 20% (or one in five) of all the people experiencing homelessness in America are in California, a state with an unprecedented water shortage and a proneness to wildfires – not a good combination, especially for people whose only kitchen may be a campfire. The El Niño weather event will have some benefits, but too much water in too short a time can never bring happy results. Mudslides cover the houses of celebrities and CEOs, and torrents drown people who sleep along riverbeds.

On any day of the year about half a million cold, overheated, or rain-soaked Americans have no place to call home. A lot of adrift people go to urban areas if they can, because that is where the services are. In California, housing costs are the highest of any state, and the major cities are frighteningly expensive even at the best of times. Oakland, always on the scruffier side, is where Dr. Kushel’s research team has tracked the lives of 350 homeless subjects since the summer of 2013. About people over 50, she says:

In the United States, more than 30 percent of renters and 23 percent of homeowners aged 50 and older spend more than half of their household income on rent. This makes it hard to pay for food and medicine, and puts them at high risk of becoming homeless.

And a lot of them do become homeless, just at the time of life when all the years of struggle are supposed to pay off. Many of the people in this study worked for decades at “low-skill, low-wage” jobs, barely able to keep up with present needs, but at least they had somewhere to live. Homelessness at any age is traumatic, but when a middle-aged person falls into it for the first time, the psychological trauma is considerable. In present-day America, half the people experiencing homelessness are over 50. What does this mean in practical terms? Kushel says:

When the homeless population was made up of a majority of younger adults, health care providers focused on treating substance use and mental health disorders, traumatic injuries and infections, many of which could be treated with short-term care. Now, with an older homeless population, health care providers have the difficult task of managing chronic diseases like diabetes and heart and lung disease. The point our study highlights is that the systems set up in the 1980s were not designed to serve an aging population.

About half of the older group are not new to homelessness, but have been in the wind for years, shuttling through the well-worn pathways that lead from shelter to jail to hospital to roadside camp to shelter to jail, on and on with endless variations but always the same old story. Their initiating traumas happened long ago, and their health situations have been deteriorating for years. Of the newer middle- and late-middle-aged homeless, Kushel says:

Their lives became derailed by job loss, illness, a new disability, the death of a loved one or an interaction with the criminal justice system.

Someone rooted in a stable lifestyle might be able to handle one of those tragedies, get through the difficulty, and make a recovery. But life-changing events tend to gang up on a person who is already in a vulnerable state. Troubles arrive in bunches, and the domino effect is alive and well. Once they hit the streets, the sick get sicker, and the previously healthy become sick.

A person who has a roof, electricity, and running water finds it difficult to deal with functional and/or cognitive impairments, multiple medications, special treatments like oxygen, strict dietary requirements, frequent medical appointments, and endless piles of hellish paperwork. For a homeless person, existing with an illness or disability is insanely difficult.

Homelessness shortens anyone’s life expectancy, and it’s not surprising that homeless old people “die at a rate four to five times what would be expected in the general population.” Dr. Kushel leaves us with a statement and two questions:

What policymakers and the general public need to recognize is that the homeless are aging faster than the general population in the U.S. This shift in the demographics has major implications for how municipalities and health care providers deal with homeless populations.

How do we adapt existing programs for homeless adults to meet the needs of an aging population?

And possibly even more intractable but fundamental: how do we stop older people from losing their homes?


Source: “Older and sicker: How America’s homeless population has changed
RawStory.com, 01/09/16
Image by Randy Sloan


Why Do Some Refuse Shelter?

homeless hungryAll year round, and especially during the annual or biannual count of people experiencing homelessness, outreach workers take on the job of informing people about their options. Maybe some street people don’t know that shelter is available, or what the requirements are. On the other side of the coin, some have had such negative experiences in shelters that they prefer to endure any other accommodations.

One school of thought that some people like to characterize as “tough love” but is more likely just callousness, holds that shelters are not supposed to be nice places. If the place is comfortable, lazy freeloaders will just stay forever. According to this world-view, the necessity to endure discomfort and indignity in a shelter is supposed to provide all the inspiration needed to encourage people to find a job and a home. If only it were that easy! If living under punitive conditions was all it took to turn people’s lives around and set them on the path to success, Skid Row would be full of millionaires.

Rules Are Rules…Which Can Be Bad for the Homeless

For housed people who don’t encounter these problems, it is tempting to go for the easy answer and think that shelter resistance stems from an unwillingness to follow the regulations. Certainly, there are individuals who prefer to live outside and stay inebriated rather than put up with a no-alcohol rule.

Unfortunately, strictures that sound reasonable on paper can be totally counterproductive for those who are fortunate enough to find work. What if the only shelter in the area closes down its sign-in process at 4:30 in the afternoon, and you have a job that ends at 5:00? What if it’s only a part-time gig, or even a full-time job at minimum wage? You still can’t afford to rent a place to live, and thanks to the sign-in time limit, you’re worse off than an unemployed homeless person because you’ll need to sleep outside. That’s “economic homelessness,” a situation in which far too many people find themselves.

A blogger known as “Moondustwriter” wrote about staying with her daughter in an apartment setup shared with another single mother:

This particular shelter didn’t have a soup kitchen. So on the two to maybe three hundred I would have a month, I would struggle to pay for food, basics (like clothes and toiletries) and transportation for two. Don’t get me wrong, I learned how to live on $300 a month but you don’t save any money to get your own place by living in a shelter.

If a person experiencing homelessness is lucky enough to have a job but works night shift, forget about the standard shelter. In some cities, if the weather is unbearably cold or hot, there may be a place where people can hang out during the day. But getting a proper sleep is out of the question.

Often, shelter “beds” are no more than mats on the floor. Sure, that’s probably better than frostbite, but keeping your fingers and toes can come at a high price, like catching tuberculosis from the person on the adjoining mat, or becoming infested with bedbugs, or being stepped on or vomited on by someone on the way to the toilet. There is a psychological price, too. A newly homeless person is in no position to be a snob, but life suddenly becomes full of people you would not consider for the role of bestie. Ted Heistman wrote:

It’s natural to seek rapport with the people you are hanging out with, but you want to avoid having dysfunction rub off on you too much. You don’t want to start thinking its normal to stink and be dirty and drunk or stoned all the time.

Balancing that disadvantage, some experienced people say that the motivated and upwardly bound homeless person will stand out. In a shelter, it’s possible that…

Only about 10 to 20% will be normal middle class type people that have found themselves in a bad situation. This is you. People will go out of their way to help you, even the other hard case homeless people might. So if you swallow your pride and accept the help, you may soon find yourself with a new place to live.


Source: “Homeless in America Creating More Tent Cities,” Financial -Market -News.com, 05/17/14
Source: “Shelters for the Homeless,” Moondustwriter.com, 02/18/14
Source: “How to be “Stealth” Homeless,” Disinfo.com, 10/25/12
Source: “7 Things No One Tells You About Being Homeless,” Cracked.com, 11/12/13
Image by Kenji Nakayama and Christopher Hope



How to Be of Active Service

northbound I-15Since 1989, Utah has maintained a Homeless Trust Fund, which raises money through contributions made by checking a box on state income tax forms. Most of the contributions are small—only one or two dollars. But they add up to a significant sum that is divvied up every year among various programs that serve the homeless.

That paragraph from The Deseret News describes a fund whose full name includes that of Pamela Atkinson, a longtime activist for the homeless, and advisor to the last three governors of Utah.

Some other states have similar affordable housing funds, which collect money in the same way, but Utah’s apparently has some extra features, like supporting nutrition and anti-addiction programs and even health care services. Homeless advocates would like to see more money dedicated to early intervention, preferring to help people before they actually lose everything and hit the streets.

Some speculate that publicity about the state’s success in reducing homelessness has actually backfired, and worry that potential donors don’t realize there are still people experiencing homelessness, or at risk. In 1990 the Homeless Trust Fund took in $300,000, but in 2014 it only collected less than one/sixth that amount ($48,000). Still, many people have been helped and are still being helped.

How to Do the Most Good in the World

Of course, Pamela Atkinson does a lot of other things, like organize a yearly Christmas dinner for people experiencing homelessness in Salt Lake City. In 2012, Devin Thorpe interviewed her for Forbes, and came away with what is for all practical purposes, a textbook authored by an effective and respected activist, on how to do the most good in the world. We won’t include all 13 principles, because the source article deserves to be read.

One thing that helps in any endeavor is to keep ego out of it. The idea is not to ride in like a savior on a white horse, but to empower the people whose lives are most affected by the change you are working for. Change needs to be owned by the people in whose daily lives the difference will manifest. This segues into the next principle: collaboration. It takes a whole lot of coordination and cooperation to get the ball rolling, and to gain momentum and bring a community project to the point of sustainability takes even more collaboration.

Of Pamela Atkinson in fundraising mode, Thorpe says:

When she hears “no,” she asks, “What can I do to help change your mind?” She offers to provide tours, introductions, whatever it will take to change a mind. Her approach has made her one of the most successful fundraisers in Utah.

Don’t burn bridges. Relationships need to be respected, and so do volunteers. For the organization that is being built, Atkinson recommends absolute transparency from day one. Anyone who gives time and energy should be able to know anything about the project. Perhaps the most important thing is to speak up, especially about injustice, because you never know how far your influence may reach. Thorpe says:

She’s learned that even when everyone in the room openly opposes her, she’ll often get private indications of support from people who are grateful for her leadership.

Source: “Check it: Pamela Atkinson Homeless Trust Fund donation option on state income tax form,” DeseretNews.com, 02/15/15
Source: “13 Lessons From A Great Social Entrepreneur, Pamela Atkinson,” Forbes.com, 09/23/12
Image by Garrett


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