There are always interesting ways to describe a dire situation, especially such a multi-faceted one as the nation’s affordable housing shortage. For example, in America today, more than 11 million households are giving more than half of their incomes for rent. It is an outrageous proportion, but they are among the lucky ones, to even have the opportunity of paying through the nose to keep their families sheltered.
The federal government can allocate funds and give vouchers to people experiencing homelessness, but it can’t make landlords accept those vouchers and rent them apartments. How could Washington alleviate that situation? Can the federal government educate and inspire landlords? This is an area where the “Act Locally” precept really matters.
People are out there trying to provide temporary shelter and permanent housing. A lot of the resistance manifests itself in zoning laws and other ordinances that are definitely a local concern. Activists need education and empowerment to challenge obstructive and regressive practices in their own cities.
February’s House the Homeless newsletter included an assessment of Ben Carson’s intentions as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and we send good wishes his way. Meanwhile, we look at what one individual has accomplished.
A housing hero
Due to a serious injury and devastating medical costs, young Tyrone Poole found himself homeless in Portland, Oregon. He faced a tight rental market, and every application he submitted required a fee of $30 or even $50. (In some places, crooked managers skim even more, or dishonest aggregators of classified ads sell lists of rentals that are weeks out of date.) The application fee is an ugly custom that should never have become established. People in search of housing are vulnerable, possibly new in town, and beset by many expenses. The cost of processing applications should be built into the landlord’s overall cost of doing business.
Poole saw the need for a service that would help people who don’t look like a very good bet as tenants. His goal was to connect them with property owners willing to rent to someone with an eviction history, or who carries the “felon” label, or to someone with nothing but a government rent voucher in their hand. An early attempt at collecting the necessary information and publishing it as a book did not work out because things changed too fast.
Poole started a different business, made it a success, sold it, and returned to the problem of matching needy people with available rental units and whatever assistance they might qualify for. By now, technology had advanced to where it was possible to create a website that could keep up with changes in real time.
A team of like-minded people joined Poole, who told reporter Andrew Scot Bolsinger:
They believe that I have actually created a market-driven solution to address the homeless problem nationwide. This is something that is funded by consumers and companies, that will never need government grants or donations or assistance in any way once launched.
The dream was for NoAppFee.com to became a “one-stop shopping website, where a single fee connects them to a range of landlords who will accept them.” Landlords paid a fee to list their properties, and the creators tried to amass additional funding through crowdsourcing, but that effort didn’t work. Determined to carry on, Poole told the reporter:
If this project is successful, I will be able to give this rental platform to every single nonprofit organization in America that provides housing assistance. Families will be able to get the keys to a new home as fast as the same day they walked into the shelter or housing program. The extent of their homelessness could be as short as a few hours when it used to be months.
Only last month Laura Bliss, a writer for CityLab.com, caught up with Poole’s project, whose ambitions have expanded to serving renters at every income level. Bliss writes:
A lender at a local bank introduced Poole to Portland’s economic development agency, which was launching a funding contest for civic-minded start-ups by entrepreneurs of color. Poole, who is black, entered in 2014 and won, gaining serious financial backing, free office space, and a host of tech-industry connections.
He signed up eight small management companies to beta-test the new version of NoAppFee.com, which keeps the promise implied by its name by refunding to prospective tenants their initial $35 fee (which pays for a credit and background check) once their first month’s rent has been paid. By the time the first month had passed, the site had 1,700 registered users but had run out of rental units and had to refund a lot of sign-up fees.
In Portland, 14,000 affordable housing units are overseen by the Portland Housing Bureau (PHB). The turnover rate is only about 25% per year, so in any given year there may be 3,500 openings. Yet somewhere around 80,000 local households qualify for these affordable housing slots.
PHB looked for a way to streamline its operations. Policy manager Matthew Tschabold told the reporter:
Someone seeking housing would regularly have to contact 10 to 20 organizations on a weekly basis to find out about vacancies. It was a big burden for people who are already low-income and struggling to live and work in our community.
The Housing Bureau won a cash grant that enabled it to hire Poole’s company, and they are working together to build a .gov website around NoAppFee’s software. Hopefully, it will launch within the year, and, at the same time, the general market version is being retooled. There is much more to know about this innovative program, which can be found on its Facebook page.
Source: “Once Homeless Entrepreneur Now Pairs High Risk Renters With Landlords,” YourBlackWorld.net, 04/10/14
Source: “A Portland Start-Up Is Smashing Barriers to Affordable Housing,” CityLab.com, 01/27/17
Image by Oregon Entrepreneurs Network
Every now and then a story crosses the screen that is really different. “Why a Seattle Homeless Camp was Invited to University of Washington” — see what we mean? Seattle is that West Coast city where rain falls 150 days a year. On any given rainy night, about 4,500 people are sleeping outside, and not to roast marshmallows and swap ghost stories. (Close to 3,000 are in transitional housing, and more than 3,000 in shelters.)
A bunch of people live in Tent City 3, a community that resettles every three months in a different area (including two previous college campuses). This is not an ideal solution for anyone, but when frequent uprooting is done in an orderly way, it can take a lot of stress off both the housed and the unhoused. One way or another, Tent City 3 has survived as an entity for 15 years.
As described by the reporters, the residents seem hyper-aware of the need to be role models and proud representatives of the homeless population. Shamar Waters and Jon Schuppe wrote:
A large portion of the residents are older and disabled, but many others have regular jobs and help keep the camp running. The camps feature communal areas, including kitchens and showers, depending on the availability of electricity and running water.
The 10,000-square-foot encampment will spend one-fourth of the year in a campus parking lot because the kids asked for it. Students in eight different academic disciplines will be able to claim credit for participating in studies and activities involving people experiencing homelessness. About 100 students pitched in with the move-in chores.
The story doesn’t say whether any students objected, based on the parking space scarcity. But even that would be a learning experience, wouldn’t it? Imagine having to park the car (your parents probably bought) a bit farther from class. Compared to having nowhere to live, that is a negligible inconvenience, and a lot of kids would never admit being bothered by it. Imagine having to walk for a considerable distance, out in the weather, to get where you need to go. That’s the everyday reality for people experiencing homelessness.
In addition to the officially recognized educational benefits of interacting with tent-dwelling nomads, there are bound to be unofficial ones. Like when kids realize that if they don’t actively work toward some kind of reform to the college loan system, they could easily end up living in tents too.
The state of Texas is often perceived as hostile to any number of diverse populations, but Brownwood disproves the stereotype. Just southwest of Dallas-Fort Worth, the city of about 20,000 is the county seat, and the features in and around it include Howard Payne University, a branch of the Texas State Technical College, a state park, a state juvenile correctional complex, a regional airport, and a U.S. Army training camp.
Actor Bob Denver came from Brownwood, and so did legendary burlesque queen Candy Barr, and an impressive list of other people who have made a mark on the world. Perhaps the biggest celebrity is New Beginnings Church, which for 10 years has functioned as the city’s only shelter.
Pastor Kelly Crenshaw says:
Sometimes people just need a day or two or a week or two to get on their feet. Sometimes they just need a little bit of time, once they get lost, to figure out what their next step is…
There are also long-term guests. From the larger community, food bank donations are received, along with blankets, scarves, and other items, which is generous in a place where the median household income is maybe $33,000.
Recommended: “The Year in Review,” from House the Homeless
Also recommended: House the Homeless President Richard R. Troxell is interviewed by KXAN television journalist Kevin Schwaller in “Advocacy group to examine ‘criminalization of homelessness’”
Source: “Why a Seattle Homeless Camp was Invited To University of Washington,” NBCNews.com, 12/21/16
Source: “Church Acts as Homeless Shelter in Brownwood,” BigCountryHomepage.com, 12/30/16
Photo credit: Joe Wolf (JoeInSouthernCA) via Visualhunt/CC BY-ND
Alert readers of House the Homeless blog have noticed that toilets have been a theme. We haven’t even gotten into showers or laundry, because there is so much to say about the most basic of sanitary facilities.
Latrines, and the means to wash hands after using them, are the building blocks of civilization. Toilets are a basic necessity and people experiencing homelessness need them.
Aside from the human suffering and indignity, and the menace to public health posed by a lack of toilets, there is another serious issue. In a societal/cultural/political absurdity that is indistinguishable from actual insanity, people are acquiring criminal records for public elimination when there is literally no other choice. Let’s take a close look at how one American city is working on the problem.
Last year, Miami, Florida, experienced a long period of civic unrest over toilets. Attempting to shame the Dade Homeless Trust into using some of its $55 million of public money for a public restroom project, Downtown Development Authority board member Jose Goyanes made a video titled “Homeless Urine & Feces in Miami May 2015.” The DDA also prepared an infographic — a map of the downtown area with little feces icons in appropriate places.
The unimpressed administrator wouldn’t even look at the presentation, and scolded Mr. Goyanes for assuming “that the Homeless Trust is responsible for anything and everything involving homeless individuals.” Ron Book, who has run the Trust since Hector was a pup, told reporters:
We are not going to be putting toilets or showers in downtown Miami… We’ve looked at this several times over the last 10 to 12 years and we are just not doing it.
These folks think I’m supposed to divert scarce resources and be on poop patrol and clean up after homeless folks. My priority is homes and getting people off the streets, not providing poop stations.
In Book’s world, a $55 million budget is “scarce resources.” Also amazing is that such a high-ranking official believes that people only do one thing in a restroom.
Book’s theory, which is no doubt eagerly adopted by officials in other cities, goes like this:
If I’m making it easier for them to be on the streets, then I’m making it more difficult for my outreach staff to coax chronic homeless people off of the streets.
Mainly, this view seems counterproductive. When the first thing a person has to do on arrival at a job interview is ask for directions to the restroom, what kind of a start is that? Maybe if people had some basic amenities to work with they wouldn’t need to depend on the Trust for additional help.
Meanwhile, because the lack of bathrooms might change some hardcore street people’s minds about turning themselves over for rehab or whatever, everybody else could just wear diapers. It came down to a big County Commission board meeting with merchants, local residents, representatives from the City, the Homeless Trust, and the DDA. Whether the meeting was attended by any people experiencing homelessness was not noted.
Mayor to the rescue
Apparently, the Commission could have compelled the Homeless Trust to pay, but that turned out not to be necessary, as Mayor Tomas Regalado dipped into a multi-million dollar discretionary fund and pulled out $500,000. The order was made for four portable toilets, described as “airplane bathrooms on wheels.” A truck brings them around to designated spots at 2 PM and takes them away at 9 PM. They are open for less than one-third of the day, which is better than nothing.
In mid-December, the mayor and the DDA were happy to report that after only two months, the pilot program had more than halved the number of human-feces complaints. By the six-month mark, the effort had reduced the piles of downtown feces by 57%. As a bonus, the program turns out to cost less than the budget anticipated, so funds will carry it through to October.
The success of the Pit Stops is attributed to having attendants on duty. Among other chores, the worker knocks on the door after five minutes of occupancy. One of these monitors told a reporter that the toilets are used not only by street people, but by police, bus drivers, and government workers.
A lot of elderly people live in Miami, and a lot of tourists visit the city. Surely they appreciate restrooms too. The DDA’s Ken Russell said:
What started off as an initiative for the homeless actually has sort of blossomed into a service for the full city, as well as a jobs program for the homeless.
So, a few jobs have been created, although the seven-hour daily shift inspires the question of whether anyone gets full-time benefits.
Last month, it was reported that Miami will invest in three permanent public toilets. Construction for the first one starts in October, with an opening date in December. The funding? The county, the city, and the DDA.
Source: “Video Of Feces Downtown Sparks New Fight Over Public Toilets For Homeless,” MiamiNewTimes, 05/13/15
Source: “Miami gets a taxpayer-funded homeless poop map,” WQAD.com, 05/16/15
Source: “Miami Installs Free Public Bathrooms For Homeless People,” HuffingtonPost.com, 12/29/15
Source: “Miami mayor offers to pay for roving downtown toilet program,” MiamiHerald.com, 06/18/15
Source: “Miami mayor: $500K porta potty program a success,” MiamiHerald.com, 12/11/15
Source: “Pilot Program Provides ‘Pit Stop’ For Miami’s Homeless,” CBSlocal.com, 07/18/16
Source: “Public Bathroom Project for the Homeless Will Become Permanent,” WLRN.org, 07/21/16
Photo credit: Phillip Pessar via Visualhunt/CC BY
A recent House the Homeless post outlined the poor management of the construction of a new hospital that has brought the Veterans Administration into the news. This affects all veterans, including those experiencing homelessness, and health care is especially important to those who are at risk of becoming homeless because they are unable to work or, in many cases, adjust to society.
Today we look at another side of Denver, a more positive side, which is particularly apt because House the Homeless President Richard R. Troxell recently attended a National Coalition for the Homeless conference in the city. He also took part in a gathering aimed at organizing a national movement to address the growing criminalization of the homeless through limitations on public eating, sleeping, going to the bathroom, and other basic functions.
While in Denver, Richard visited one of the many facilities that the Coalition for the Homeless has created, the beautiful Stout Street Health Center, shown above. The Center offers dental, vision, and behavioral services, along with a wide array of basic health services. Help is available to those enrolling in Medicaid. New patients are seen four mornings per week, and existing patients can get same-day appointments. It has its own pharmacy, and offers such thoughtful amenities as bicycle locks for patients don’t have their own, but need to secure their bikes while being seen. In addition,
The Coalition operates a mobile medical clinic that makes scheduled stops at homeless shelters and drop-in centers in Denver and at Colfax Avenue motels that have become a shelter of last resort for families.
Supportive Housing for the Homeless
The same capacious building contains the Renaissance Stout Street Lofts, consisting of 78 housing units, which in this location are one and two-bedroom apartments with on-site property managers and social workers. The brochure says:
The Lofts blend supportive housing units for chronically homeless individuals, families, and youth… Amenities include on-site laundry facilities, a community room with a common kitchen and outdoor courtyard, a computer room, elevator access, video surveillance systems, and secured electronic access with underground parking.
Also nearby and adjacent to the Health Center are the Renaissance Off Broadway Lofts, with 81 units varying from studio apartments to even a few 3-bedroom apartments, open since 2001 and billed as “the first newly-constructed, affordable rental lofts project in Denver’s history.” Half the units are occupied by formerly homeless tenants and the rest by people who work downtown but can’t afford the high central city rents. And of course, on-site case management and support services are available to residents who need this help.
These are only two of the many properties described in the brochure that have been built or re-purposed to house the homeless in Denver. Some of the principles behind these residences are nearness to transportation, safety, environmentally friendly features that reduce energy costs, accessibility for the disabled, and nearby employment opportunities. Thanks to these numerous and well-planned facilities, the city experiences:
…significant savings in municipal costs resulting from fewer emergency room visits, inpatient hospital stays, detox visits and days in jail…Services such as counseling, life skills training, financial literacy and employment assistance contribute to housing stability for those that once were homeless.
Behind Denver’s Success: John Parvensky
The scene in Denver is of course attributable to the hard work and dedication of hundreds of individuals who have devoted themselves over the last 30 years to helping and housing the homeless. Particularly noteworthy are the contributions of John Parvensky, who has served as President of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless since 1986 (and is President of the Board of Directors of the National Coalition for the Homeless). He supervises more than 500 employees and administers more than 40 programs that each year help around 15,000 people experiencing homelessness. We close with a few more selected excerpts from Mr. Parvensky’s extensive biographical notes:
He has also spearheaded the production of 16 distinct, integrated housing developments that combine high-quality housing for homeless individuals and families with affordable units for community residents with lower incomes, resulting in homes for 2,300 households… He earned a 2010 Housing Colorado! Eagle Award for his long-standing work to expand affordable housing in the state…Mr. Parvensky was also chosen by his peers to receive the 2010 People’s Choice Award, an honor awarded by housing professionals in the private sector, government and non-profit arenas. In April 2012, he received the 2012 Be More Award from Rocky Mountain PBS for his outstanding, innovative leadership and direction in social justice benefiting the entire community.
Source: “Stout Street Health Center Services,” ColoradoCoalition.org, undated
Source: “No Place Like home,” coloradocoalition.org, undated
Source: “John Parvensky Bio,” ColoradoCoalition.org
Image by Colorado Coalition for the Homeless
America is full of empty houses, a circumstance that House the Homeless
has been exploring to figure out why people can’t live in them. A Cleveland, Ohio, man took that question from theory to reality when he began to practice urban homesteading six years ago. Mr. Hayes is, by all reports, a model neighbor who maintains the small abandoned house in which he lives as well as possible, considering that he is not allowed either water or power.
He gets around these strictures by paying a neighbor to use some electricity via an extension cord, and collects rainwater to filter for drinking and to fill the toilet tank. A disability check covers his modest living expenses and those of his two dogs. The building’s owner is not even a real person, but a corporate entity of whom reporter Mark Naymik says:
The company, whose leaders are nearly impossible to track down, owes tens of thousands in back taxes and penalties on its properties. The company owes $27,000 alone on the house Mr. Hayes is living in.
But Mr. Hayes pays property taxes, and keeps the place neat, and helps an elderly neighbor. He asked a city council member:
Would you, please, introduce an amendment to the ordinance so that qualified people may put to good use properties that are verifiably abandoned?
Why is there not such a law in every city across the country? Curious journalist Matt Lemas took the question a step farther and explored the notion of letting people live in the 77,000 empty buildings owned by the U.S. Government. In contrast to Mr. Hayes’s minimalist dwelling, many of these places even have electrical service. That’s right—regulations keep the power on to satisfy “safety requirements” for the structures, while actual humans live unsafely outside in the dark and cold. In fact, the upkeep for empty government-owned buildings costs taxpayers $1.7 billion per year.
The Philadelphia Stabilization Program
House the Homeless is not Richard R. Troxell’s first project. He has been involved in many other programs and initiatives to improve the lives of people experiencing homelessness. In the 1980s he lived in a Philadelphia neighborhood where a 55-block area held 110 abandoned houses, the overwhelming majority of which were built from stone or brick.
The first step of his group’s master plan was to prevent further deterioration by securing doors and windows with plywood to keep the weather out. They negotiated a deal with the union to have the roofs repaired, and put sturdy Lexan in the windows. Crews gutted the interiors, businesses donated paint, and kids recruited from the anti-graffiti program painted the exterior trim. The result would be a sturdy structure with the soft parts stripped down and prepped. Richard recalls:
A local bank agreed to offer a mortgage with rehab and wrap-around loans so the buyers could purchase the shells and have money to rehabilitate them.
His group kept the lawns mowed and transformed vacant lots into community gardens. They opened talks with city authorities and HUD, looking for support from the Community Development Block Grant program so potential homeowners with the fixer-upper mindset could afford mortgages and rehabilitation loans.
Progress was moving along nicely when the drug epidemic hit. The Philadelphia neighborhood, like many others all across the country, became a war zone, and the group realized that it had to move quickly to stabilize the neighborhood as it was rapidly being turned into fortified crack houses. Charged with the impossible responsibility to fully, completely, and permanently pacify the neighborhood, the rehabilitation group found that financial government support was about to be pulled. A further response by the fast-thinking neighbors enabled them to go forward with their stabilization plan.
Absent the crack epidemic, the basic plan was solid. At the time, the United Nations was researching best practices as part of the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless. Richard was urged to submit the plan, under the name of “Permanent Housing of Homeless People in Philadelphia,” and received special recognition for it.
The whole story is in his book, Looking Up at the Bottom Line, along with many other fascinating and instructive episodes.
Source: “Homeless man pays property taxes after moving into abandoned Cleveland home to fulfill homesteading dream,” Cleveland.com, 02/20/14
Source: “Could We House the Homeless in America’s 77000 Empty Government Buildings?,” RYOT.org, 2014
Image by w.marsh
The homepage of Lava Mae is a model of classic simplicity and clarity. “Mobile showers for the homeless,” it says, and lists the vital information front and center. On Wednesdays the San Francisco hygiene bus is parked at a women’s center; on Thursdays and Fridays at a venue in the fabled Tenderloin district; and on Saturdays at a resource center in the historic Mission district.
The bus has two bathrooms, with a sink, toilet, and shower in each. People sign up ahead of time for ten minute slots, and are assured a private and safe bathing experience. Lava Mae is a pun on the Spanish for “wash me,” and the official motto is “Delivering dignity, one shower at a time.” Founder Doniece Sandoval once told a reporter:
The United Nations states that access to clean water is a basic human right, but for many residents in our city, that is clearly not a reality. This is about restoring some of their dignity.
This was back in 2013, when Sandoval was working on design basics and figuring out where to get the money to turn her vision into reality. Her vision came from a street incident, when she walked past a young homeless woman who lamented out loud that she would never be clean again.
At the time, the Lava Mae crew reckoned it would cost as much as $100,000 to retrofit a single bus. San Francisco Municipal Transit donated one of its retired vehicles and committed to follow up with more if the pilot project worked out.
Lava Mae’s Origins
By year’s end, at least ten organizations were lending their support. (Currently, the Partners page lists quite a few more businesses and agencies who help in some way. The social networking site Twitter, for instance, donated laptop computers for the staff.)
An online crowdfunding campaign that aimed to raise $75,000 only made $58,000, but more donations came from other sources. At that time, the yearly budget was anticipated to be more than $300,000, and it was estimated that a top-performing bus could handle 500 showers a day. The opening date was projected as March 2014, and with astonishing optimism the group hoped to have four buses remodeled and operative by then, an ambition that sadly did not come true. The timetable had to be adjusted too, with the opening month moved to June.
Thanks to her day job in public relations, Sandoval had developed immense skill working with the media, as shown by the extensive collection of news articles featured on the Lava Mae site. Wired, Huffington Post, Al Jazeera, Washington Post, Newsweek, and Fast Company are only a few of the publications where stories appeared.
Started by Private Citizens
The words “started by private citizens” appear in the organization’s biography, and that concept is of primary importance. Sandoval and the other creators of Lava Mae are just regular people, and they want other regular people to understand how much is possible when problems are met with originality and determination. At the same time, they are eager to share their knowledge with anyone who is interested. The website says:
We’ve been contacted by groups and individuals across the globe – from Singapore to Sao Paulo, LA to Atlanta – who want to create a Lava Mae for their community.
We’re here to help. Our business plan, budget, best pracitces and insights are there for the asking. Let’s create a mobile revolution!
Source: “New Startup Hopes To Create Homeless Showers In Repurposed Muni Buses ,
Source: “Nonprofit Retrofits Buses as Mobile Showers for the Homeless,” TriplePundit.com, 10/18/13
Image by Lava Mae
In a four-year period, the county of Arlington, Virginia, figured out how to house 100 families and about 300 chronically homeless adults, while at the same time saving the taxpayers a ton of money. In that neck of the woods, it costs about $45,000 a year for someone to “bounce between shelters, jail and hospital emergency rooms” as compared to $22,000 a year it takes to put them under a roof. As the saying goes, it’s a no-brainer. “Housing First” is the wave of the future.
People experiencing homelessness often have problems that contributed to their becoming homeless. But the Housing First philosophy says that in order to fix those other problems, they need a place to live as a base to work from. While detox programs and other facilities are available, and the pursuit of health is encouraged, imperfection is allowed. Even addicts, alcoholics, and the mentally ill are eligible for housing. For the Washington Post, Patricia Sullivan reports:
Arlington has a master spreadsheet that lists homeless individuals by name. The spreadsheet includes whether the people want housing, what health problems they have, their income sources and anything that might help or hinder their search for a home … One person takes responsibility for each name on the spreadsheet. They go line by line, brainstorming about which public and private treatment programs and funding can be tapped to help each homeless person.
The technique starts with data from the annual homeless count and more significantly, from “carefully cultivated contacts,” including staff at shelters and food distribution centers. The task force that meets monthly includes social services personnel from the county, health specialists, and advocates.
From Kathleen Sibert, who directs A-SPAN (Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network), the journalist learned the importance of “breaking down the silos,” which means ignoring agency divisions to draw on the expertise of everyone present, even if the needy individual does not directly qualify for benefits or aid from their particular agency.
One of the most important services is help with ID issues. After years or decades on the streets, documenting the fact that you exist can be a nightmare, and re-entry into society requires paperwork. 95 percent of the people helped over the last 4 years are said to be still in place. Some landed in jail, some were evicted, and some even found better places to live.
Reportedly, the method followed in Arlington is scalable, and could work in much larger cities. Like Washington, D.C., perhaps, which is right down the road, and said to be “operating in crisis mode.” Apparently D.C. had a strong “Housing First” culture a couple of mayoral administrations back. Then things started to slip, but are now predicted to improve.
A lot of the problems homeless people have are the result of being homeless. They don’t want to be without ID, but sometimes stuff gets stolen. They don’t want to be hygienically challenged, but there is no place to wash up. They don’t want to lose teeth, but dentistry is a luxury beyond their wildest dreams. An awful lot of homeless people, once they have a place to live and a job, are indistinguishable from you or me. That’s because you and I, if we are like most Americans, are just a paycheck or two away from having the bottom drop out and seeing our worlds collapse.
Source: “Arlington’s no-silos approach has housed hundreds of chronically homeless adults,” WashingtonPost.com, 01/31/15
Source: “Bowser administration says DC ‘operating in crisis mode’ on homeless issue.” WashingtonPost.com, 01/30/15
Image by Cliff
If Taxpayer is your middle name, and if your city or state contains any people experiencing homelessness, you might want to know about some interesting strategies that have been tried over the past couple of years. The stories originate in different places, but they have two things in common: saving tax dollars and improving the lives of the homeless.
The beauty of it is, the steps these cities have taken and the gains they have reaped are outcomes that anyone can get on board with. No matter where a taxpayer resides on the political spectrum, or what opinions might be privately held about the ultimate causes and cures of homelessness, every dues-paying citizen in her or his right mind wants to reduce municipal expenses and save tax dollars.
Let’s pause for a brief disclaimer. The taxpayer addressed here is the homeowner, the apartment tenant, the business owner — anyone whose life is stable and who feels proprietary about the area’s future. It’s a convenient label for the purposes of this discussion.
But we don’t mean to imply that homeless people don’t pay taxes. No, no, no. Everyone pays sales tax for items they buy. More significantly, an astonishing number of homeless people are actually employed and still can’t afford a place to live. Imagine that! It’s called economic homelessness. Yet taxes are withheld from their paychecks, just like anybody else’s.
In 2012, Benjamin Gillies published an online piece about a Canadian Homelessness Research Network report. The story was titled “Giving the homeless a place to live costs less than providing shelters and emergency services.” The title could not have been more explicit, and the bottom line is this:
There is now hard data to show funding emergency services, shelters, and day programs is just not as cost-effective as providing homeless citizens with a place to live and the social supports to help them stay there.
Gillies goes on to give a streamlined version of the report:
What author Stephen Gaetz makes clear is that calculating the cost of homelessness must not only account for shelters or soup kitchens, but also peripheral services, such as health care and the justice system, that homeless people come into contact with more frequently than society at large. As they are often poorly nourished, unable to engage in adequate sanitation practices, and live in settings where exposure to communicable disease is high…
In addition, 40 per cent of this population suffers from mental health issues. As a result, they are hospitalized five times more often than the general public during any given year, usually for longer periods.
In Toronto, how much did a month in a hospital cost? Almost $11,000. How much did a month in a shelter bed cost? Almost $2,000. Now, brace yourself for the knockout punch:
Putting a roof over that same person’s head, either with rent supplements or social housing, would require just $701 or $199.92, respectively. In fact, a similar study conducted in British Columbia discovered that province’s homeless population currently costs the public system $55,000 per person per year, but if every homeless person were instead provided with adequate housing and supports, they would require just $37,000 — saving the province $211 million annually.
What American state would not like to save a couple hundred million a year? Plus, being housed has the semi-magical power of keeping people pretty much out of the hands of the criminal justice system. At the very least, they’re not being arrested for public sleeping!
The southern hemisphere
From Australia, news came of the Michael Project, “a three-year initiative to provide homeless men with quick access to a range of support, including dental and mental health services, personal grooming and hygiene, education and personal fitness.”
In hard-cash terms, even after the Michael Project costs were paid, this initiative saved the public purse $3,600 a year for each homeless person it helped. The project actually aided several thousand men during that time, but in the city of Sydney, 106 individuals were carefully tracked and followed up on, to see how their lives worked out. The findings?
Over the course of the year the money spent by governments on services such as ambulances, emergency department care, court and police costs dropped by an average of $8446 for each person…. [O]ver that period they were far less likely to go to hospital for emergency help, relied less on government-funded emergency accommodation, were more likely to find work and were much more likely to find long-term housing.
Source: “Giving the homeless a place to live costs less than providing shelters and emergency services,” TheStar.com, 10/15/12
Source: “Helping homeless ‘saves $3600 per person’ ,”HeraldSun.com, 04/17/12
Image by Flying Cloud
Here’s the thing about heroes in the struggle to end homelessness. They are everywhere. It seems as if more and more people are stepping up to do a little something. And as for long-term committers, people who have devoted their entire lives to helping the homeless, it seems like they are more generously recognized than ever before, thanks to a vigilant press.
The paradox is that for many people who are oriented toward humanitarian service, recognition is at the very bottom of their personal priority list. Here are brief descriptions of just a few of the people who are changing America, one generous deed at a time.
Phoenix, Ariz. — “Formerly homeless salon owner gives back with sleeping bag drive” — the headline says it all. Now in its seventh year, the sleeping bag drive is run by Tad Caldwell on behalf of Central Arizona Shelter Services, which each year serves 10,000 people experiencing homelessness.
Pasco, Fla. — 5th-grader Caileigh Sheldon won a singing contest and a $1000 prize. She and her mom bought duffel bags and survival items to put inside them. Reporter Daylina Miller captured this quotation from Caileigh:
‘There’s a lady always by herself, and she pushes this stroller around all day and is always getting sunburned, so I felt really bad for her. There’s a son and his mom, and the mom has no legs, and the son pushes two wheelchairs around, one full of stuff and the one with his mom in it. I feel really bad for them because they don’t have much, and I feel like I do have stuff — so why not give to others?’
San Bernardino, Calif. — Ana Perez is known as the “Green-Eyed Angel.” She picks up donated items for people experiencing homelessness and drops them off where needed. Once a week, Perez and her friend Christine Vasquez make breakfast burritos to distribute, and they’ve been doing this for five years. She recently won an award that will allow her to set up a mobile shower truck, because this is something her street friends really, really want.
Hoover, Ala. — More than 20 years ago, Ronald Sellers lived in a Birmingham mission. He later became a successful businessman and with his wife (now deceased) started a Christmas giveaway about 10 years ago. In his garage, a volunteer team helps prepare gifts of hats, socks and even toys. Sellers himself makes the rounds, only instead going down chimneys, he goes under bridges to where the recipients are. One of his sayings is, “If we could just change one person’s life, it makes all the difference in the world.”
Palo Alto, Calif. — Recently, House the Homeless honored some of the helpers who died in the past year, but that post didn’t include Gloria Bush, another selfless giver. During her productive years, Bush was a Head Start teacher, hospice volunteer and home-health nursing aide who worked tirelessly on behalf of the mentally ill and developmentally disabled.
Tragically, in her 50s, Bush was struck by a mental illness whose nature caused her to shun her daughter and avoid others who wanted to help. Unable to work, she became a resident of the streets. Food Closet volunteer Martha Shirk relates a small but telling detail of her daily life:
We tried repeatedly to interest her in a variety of shoes that would have provided more protection than the flip flops she wore year-round. A couple of weeks ago, one of her flip flops broke, and she walked around on one bare foot for awhile until some of us brought in new flip flops for her.
The story is well worth close study. The authorities no longer capture people with mental illness and force treatment upon them, and the lack of facilities and resources wouldn’t allow for so much institutionalization anyway. But when people are not competent, their untrammeled freedom poses a threat to themselves and to society in general.
At any rate, Gloria Bush died at age 72, of exposure to cold, in a public park in the extremely wealthy part of the country known as Silicon Valley. One online commenter noted that the area’s well-known philanthropists have been pretty good about doing things for “the young and able, smart and chic” and asked if they could find a way to extend a helping hand to the mentally ill destitute. Another commenter wrote angrily:
What actually killed Ms Bush, aside from California’s choice to cut taxes by closing the state hospital system that sheltered unfortunates like her, is the no-nap bar… Our city government has been installing these on public benches for the past decade to prevent homeless from sleeping lying down on our precious outdoor benches. This bar forced Ms Bush to sleep on the ground, which pulled the warmth from her body far more efficiently than the layer of air under that bench could have.
Dallas — Willie Baronet teaches creative advertising at Southern Methodist University and buys signs from people experiencing homelessness. Kelly Gilliland reported for the campus newspaper:
While driving, if Baronet sees a homeless person on the side of the road, he will offer to buy his or her sign, letting them name their price. In return, he will also replenish them with a blank cardboard slate and a marker to create a new advertisement…. Baronet has videotaped and saved recordings of 70-75 of these interactions…. [T]he more he’s interacted with people and the more signs he’s collected, he has had so many interesting conversations with these people, and heard so many great stories.
Most interesting is the part about Baronet’s own personal reasons for initiating this highly individualistic form of activism.
Source: “Formerly homeless salon owner gives back with sleeping bag drive,” AZFamily.com, 12/06/13
Source: “Pasco 11-year-old spends prize money on homeless ,” TBO.com, 06/15/13
Source: “Ana Perez – Story #24,” 5hourenergy.com, 12/18/13
Source: “Once homeless, now donating and volunteering,” ABC3340.com, 12/23/13
Source: “Deceased homeless woman devoted herself to others’ care,” PaloAltoOnline.com, 12/24/13
Source: “SMU professor turns homeless sign collection into creative project,” SMUDailyCampus, 03/23/13
Image by Kulfoto.com
Last time, House the Homeless paid respect to several people who made life better for people experiencing homelessness, and who passed away recently. Fortunately, many such heroes are still alive and at work among us.
In mid-2012, Ray Castellani served his one millionth sandwich to residents of Skid Row in Los Angeles, under the auspices of the nonprofit group he founded in 1987. For many years, Castellani was tethered to this life mission by empathy cultivated by three aspects of his own earlier years: as a military veteran, a recovering alcoholic and an occasional Skid Row homeless person himself. When the former Marine started to make a good living from painting houses and from the occasional acting job, he was prompted by spiritual convictions to give back.
During the years when the Frontline Foundation operated at its peak, it made and served more than 6,000 meals every month. In 1990, when the group’s truck was stolen, that well-publicized crime brought an outpouring of generosity from the community. In 1995, Castellani was summoned to Washington to receive the President’s Service Award, which is the most significant prize a volunteer can get.
Ups and downs
With the economic recession, donors cut down their giving significantly, and the foundation had to close its Van Nuys facility. But the day was saved by a generous donation from a storage company, so despite financial setbacks (and two heart attacks), Castellani continued to deliver as much food as he could, as often as he could, to the inhabitants of L.A.’s scruffiest district.
As recently as March of 2013, he was still active at age 80, and friends organized a celebrity golf tournament to raise money for Frontline Foundation. The photo depicts one of the birthdays he celebrated, with a little help from his friends, on Skid Row. Daily News writer Susan Abram describes another occasion when the longtime activist was interviewed:
On a recent day at his home, Castellani said he was awaiting a volunteer to bring him some ingredients for the sandwiches, likely hundreds of them, he’ll serve on Skid Row today. He’ll have tuna fish, peanut butter, and egg salad sandwiches, along with some chips and candies. He likes to give the homeless a choice, he said, because they have so few.
In Dallas, David “the SoupMan” Timothy has been serving the homeless for ten years. An interview with KERA News reporters Courtney Collins and Rick Holter revealed that Timothy’s own childhood was blighted by food insecurity. He pointed out that hunger is hard enough to deal with, but the really painful part is when a person doesn’t know when or if there will ever be anything to eat again.
Normally the SoupMobile sets up near a city park, but on Christmas Eve, Timothy hosts a gala at a downtown hotel. For this special occasion, as many as 2,500 volunteers help out with an event that creates a special holiday for 500 people experiencing homelessness. There is a huge banquet, with gifts of new clothes and other necessities, and the guests stay overnight so that “when they wake up on Christmas morning, it’s in a warm, safe bed.” Of course this haven is only temporary, but the following week Timothy and the SoupMobile are back on the streets again along with the disenfranchised poor. He told the news team:
Every day when we feed the homeless, not just feeding their stomachs, but we feel like in a very powerful way that we’re feeding their souls with some hope and some caring and some love and compassion. And we just think that makes a real long-lasting difference.
Tomy Bewick, a man with a reputation as one of Toronto’s best slam poets, demonstrates that Canadians also have compassion. Several years ago he established an annual grassroots initiative called Straight to the Streets, which collects winter clothing for distribution to people experiencing homelessness. Workers also buy or put together “survival kits” containing socks, gloves, scarves, hygiene products, water bottles and other useful items. Writer KJ Mullins makes an interesting point about the event:
Giving to others may seem like the main focus of Straight to the Streets but it’s not. It’s taking the time to interact with another person. For many of the volunteers it was the first time that they had a true respectful conversation with someone living on the streets. Those conversations help to change lives. The lives changed are those of the volunteers who finish the day wanting to do more.
Straight to the Streets shows that one man’s decision to make a difference does just that… Once a person can see that they, a single person, can make a difference in the world they want to continue helping others. It’s a never ending circle of good.
Source: “Ray Castellani serves up his one millionth sandwich to homeless,” DailyNews.com, 05/12/12
Source: “The SoupMan On Making Christmas Bright For 500 Homeless Men, Women and Children,” KERANews.org, 12/24/13
Source: “Op-Ed: One man’s vision — Straight to the homeless of Toronto,” DigitalJournal.com, 12/16/12
Image by Frontline Foundation