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
House the Homeless is a powerful presence in Austin, Texas. The nonprofit organization and its president, Richard R. Troxell, are constantly at the forefront of the effort to help everyone have a good and productive life. Richard holds the invincible belief that America could end homelessness within its borders, and the only thing standing in the way is the lack of political will to do so.
As always, at the top of the list is the need for a living wage indexed to the local cost of housing, one that covers (at very least) the necessities of shelter, food and clothing. He is convinced of the necessity to change two federal standards, the minimum wage and Supplemental Security Income — which means businesses taking care of the people who work, and SSI taking care of people who can’t work.
On the local level, plenty of progress could be made right now by adopting the policy of “Discharge No One into Homelessness,” which would apply to every institution — the military, hospitals, the foster care system, the prison system and so on — and ensure that no one leaving any of those places would be ejected into the streets.
House the Homeless released the report entitled “Prevent Homelessness at Its Core: 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness, Restore Human Dignity and Save Business and Taxpayers $ Millions!” This White Paper was sent to the President and First Lady, all the members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, and many governors, Cabinet members and other influential people.
Additionally, when funding is acquired, the plan is to send it to every mayor in the country. They are the ones responsible for building shelters in their towns, and making laws that apply to people experiencing homelessness. They are the ones who have to deal with their local hospital emergency rooms being filled with homeless people who have no health care alternative. Hopefully, individual mayors will petition the Conference of Mayors to do something, and the Conference of Mayors will petition Congress for relief in the cities. If only 14 mayors (just 1% of their number) would speak up, that would make a significant difference.
Richard has been a staunch voice every time a journalist needs perspective on such things as an apparent hate crime or a renewed effort by the city to make the lives of homeless people more miserable. Recently, he wrote:
Our nation is relying on an all-volunteer military to protect the people of this nation and maintain the stability of the entire planet. We have failed to protect the protectors. In so doing, we have disgraced our nation and failed our Veterans who have selflessly sacrificed everything to ensure our freedom. House the Homeless calls for a full scale Congressional investigation into all allegations of mismanagement, abuse and neglect. The entire VA Disability program needs to be investigated by the United States Attorney General and placed in Special Receivership.
Strong words! Why would he say that? Among other things, remember the gigantic backlog in processing all veterans’ disability claims? If not, please review “Homelessness and the Disabled American Veterans Agenda.” Recently, we looked at the situation in Austin, thanks in part to the journalistic enterprise of Jeremy Schwartz of the Austin American-Statesman, which resulted in Bell County hiring a veterans services officer decades after the law required it. Why did it take a national scandal to implement this?
Image by Señor Codo
Let’s see, where did we leave off? With the Veterans Administration finally fixing up some derelict buildings on bitterly-contested land in the middle of Los Angeles. Elsewhere in the sprawling metropolis, an apartment complex is under construction, meant to house chronically homeless disabled vets age 62 and over.
This is happening in Boyle Heights, a heavily ethnic and very low-income area bordered by Chinatown, Downtown, and East LA. Astonishingly, the neighborhood contains “opponents of affordable housing” who stalled the project in the typical ways and for the typical reasons.
Gloria Angelina Castillo described the objectors’ point of view:
They oppose such projects because they do not give priority to local residents and because they exclude undocumented immigrants in the mostly Latino community, while bringing in the homeless from other parts of the city. They in turn draw their homeless associates to loiter in the area. Residents worry that the chronically homeless suffer from mental illness…
We’re only talking about 32 one-bedroom units, and tenants probably too tired and broken to get up to much mischief, or even to entertain much company. Besides, there will be support, such as on-site case management and mental health services. The two main groups involved are the East LA Community Corporation (ELACC) and New Directions for Veterans, Inc., with additional help from the LA County Department of Military Affairs, Department of Veteran Affairs, the East L YMCA, and Behavioral Health Services.
The intentions are honorable, but this is not quite yet a success story, because the facility is expected to be complete in a year, and who knows what could happen between now and then. As this is being written, the government is in paralysis, and quite a few projects and people are suffering already.
As House the Homeless has mentioned before, a homeless woman veteran can be a special problematic case. For instance, one or more dependent children may be experiencing homelessness along with her. But there are other, less obvious reasons. Reporter Susan Abram learned from Michelle Wildy of the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System:
Many women, when we initially outreach to them, may not even identify themselves as veterans. They still think of that stereotype of a man coming back from war.
There are also vets of both sexes who assume that to be eligible for any benefits at all, they would have to be a “lifer” with a 20-year career behind them. Wildy is part of an outreach team that spends time in Hollywood and the beach communities of Venice and Santa Monica looking for female veterans in danger of being left behind, who need to know they have earned the same care and benefits as men. A typical team consists of a social worker, a psychiatrist, a nurse practitioner, and a formerly homeless veteran.
The formation of such teams was spurred by the realization that the greater Los Angeles area contained around 1,000 homeless women vets. Since their inception, 3,000 homeless veterans have been housed, of whom 10% were women, which means roughly 300 out of the identified 1,000. Of the national scene, Abram says:
With some federal funds from the Obama administration’s ‘Opening Doors’ initiative, the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) Program has given projects like Wildy’s a boost in finding housing and assistance to homeless veterans.
This year, the HUD-VASH program received $75 million in federal funding to continue to offer rental assistance from HUD with case management and clinical services provided by the VA.
In all, 58,140 vouchers have been awarded since 2008 and 43,371 formerly homeless veterans are in homes of their own across the country because of HUD-VASH, federal officials have said.
Last month, a Los Angeles Daily News editorial brought up what they call a “national embarrassment”and characterize as the government’s ineffectiveness in the face of such extensive veteran homelessness. It’s not so much a general criticism as a problem with one particular matter. The newspaper wants the governor, Jerry Brown, to sign something called AB 639. The result would be an opportunity in the upcoming June 2014 elections for voters to signify approval of redirecting and repurposing $600 million in funds that are just sitting around doing nothing.
From where did this money come? According to LA Daily News:
In 2008, California voters passed a $900 million bond for veterans’ home loans. Those funds, administered by the state’s Veterans Affairs Department, have gone practically untouched because would-be veteran homeowners picked up loans with better interest rates on the open market. Meantime, nearly half of $500 million from a similar 2000 voter-approved bond measure is still unspent. That’s more than a billion dollars meant to help homeless vets but sitting idle.
Never mind reserving it for mortgages, let’s use it to build or create or find housing for homeless veterans who need places to live right now, along with health services and job services — supportive care — to help them get back on their feet. This is what the authors of the piece want. To bolster their argument, they reference:
[…] a report by the Economic Roundtable and the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority that estimates a homeless person living in a place where they can access supportive services costs the public 79 percent less than they do on the streets.
Okay, ready for some good news? Jaime Henry-White has some from Atlanta, Georgia, a city that appears to have figured out a few things, inspired by the federal “Opening Doors” initiative. The most recent survey counted some 6,000 people experiencing homelessness in metro Atalanta, and since the state ranked second in homeless veterans, an program that helps the homeless will include a lot of vets.
Better yet, the city’s “Unsheltered No More” program is also on board with the “housing first” concept. Check this out:
The city is well on its way to meeting its goal of finding homes for 800 people this year, with already more than 700 in homes… Atlanta housed more homeless veterans than any other city participating in the nationwide challenge while also speeding up placement process by one-third… The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing voucher program provides rental assistance, case management and clinical services for homeless veterans through the departments and community-based outreach… Recent analysis from Atlanta’s local housing authority found that veterans permanently housed through the HUD-VASH voucher program had an average retention rate of 95 percent.
Way to go, Atlanta! May you continue to excel, and may other cities benefit from your fine example!
Source: “Chronically Homeless Vets to Get Homes in Boyle Heights,” EGPNews, 10/03/13
Source: “LA program targets homeless women vets,” LA Daily News, 09/29/13
Source: “A billion in unspent aid isn’t helping homeless vets: Editorial,” LA Daily News, 09/24/13
Source: “Atlanta logs dramatic turnaround in homelessness,” TwinCities.com, 09/29/13
Image by Vera Yu and David Lee.
Twenty years ago, Dr. Roseanna Means looked around Boston and didn’t much care for what she saw — homeless women on the streets. She started volunteering at homeless health clinics, and in 1998 started her own nonprofit, Women of Means, which now encompasses a team of 16 volunteer doctors who collectively chalk up 10,000 professional visits per year with women experiencing homelessness.
For CBS News, Elaine Quijano learned what inspired such activism. Dr. Means told the reporter:
When I see these women, I see this could be me, it could be you, It could it could be any one of us, because there’s nobody that goes through life without having any problems. My own personal life, I’ve been through cancer, I lost a child, I’ve been through divorce, I have steel knees — I’ve been through lots of personal things in my life.
Last year, the same news agency profiled another Massachusetts medic, Dr. Jessie Gaeta of Quincy. This success story, reported by Seth Doane, merits close attention from other cities. Working in the emergency room at the Boston Medical Center made one thing very clear to Dr. Gaeta — for many homeless patients, it was a “revolving door.” She is quoted here:
It wasn’t until I had just a couple of patients housed that I saw this turnaround in their health. Basically I was seeing that if I could write a prescription for keys to an apartment that that was going to do more to improve the health of the patient sitting in front me than the prescription I can write for anything else.
In 2006, Dr. Gaeta got state funding for the program known as “Home and Healthy For Good,” which espouses the “housing first” principle, i.e., first get the person under a roof and between some walls, then bring on the counseling, substance abuse programs, and other measures (a model embraced by House the Homeless at its inception in 1989, as may be guessed from the name).
Here’s what happened in Massachusetts, and watch out, because this part will knock your socks off:
The program has helped reduce homelessness by 63 percent in Quincy and has also cut medical costs for formerly homeless people by more than two-thirds.
‘It was astonishing that a year into this project, we saw such a decrease in medical costs, that we could basically more than afford to pay for the housing,’ said Gaeta.
The “Housing First” philosophy is based on the concept of meeting people where they are, and the reason it works is because where they are is really the only place at which people can be met, no matter how fervently opponents might wish it were otherwise. We hear it again, from Ken Stevens of Waterville, Maine, who says:
My mission is meeting people at their point of need.
The North East Dream Center is where it happens, we are told by journalist Amy Calder. Volunteers pick up or drop off donations for the food warehouse. “Unemployable” people experiencing homelessness and ex-convicts are set to work making furniture and learning skills. Clothes and counseling are also available. The furniture sales help pay for gas to get more donated food so Stevens and his crew can deliver it to food pantries, soup kitchens, and senior citizens all over the surrounding area.
Now Stevens, with the help of Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce president Kimberly N. Lindlof and other supporters, is raising money for a larger space where these activities can continue with the addition of more ambitious plans. Calder writes:
A big part of the plan is to launch a manufacturing incubator that would provide administrative support and space for 20 startup businesses, as well as jobs and training for people, including those who are ‘unemployable.’
When asked if he has formal training to run such an enterprise, Stevens answers:
Yes. I got trained by the best — God’s spirit.
Source: “Boston doctor’s kindness helps save homeless,” CBS News, 04/23/13
Source: “Mass. doctor’s prescription for homelessness,” CBS News, 02/23/12
Source: “From homeless and hopeless to vital link in the food pantry chain,” KJOnline.com, 03/24/13
Image by Matt Lemon.
News comes from Oregon that Erik de Buhr has designed a “Conestoga hut” that would provide shelter for people who don’t have any. That is, of course, if the city of Eugene decides to allot any piece of ground to contain them. The city council has been studying this issue for months, and apparently has not even progressed as far as checking to see how Conestoga huts fit in with the state’s building code.
Governments everywhere invoke the magic word “safety” when refusing to allow new housing solutions. They hold onto a quaint belief that it is more salubrious for people to sleep under bushes than in tents, shacks, shipping containers, or whatever. Any architecture student knows there are a hundred ways to create cheap shelters, using recycled materials and engineered to include at least some level of civilized existence. Inventing mini-shelters is not the problem. The problem is no place for them to be.
It seems a bit strange that effort is being put into building a better hut, at a time when there are empty buildings all over the landscape. Some groups are trying to make squatting acceptable, but that movement is losing traction even in Great Britain where it has long been an entrenched way of life.
Yes, it’s all very complicated, and the first question that occurs is, if anybody were to live in a foreclosed house, why not the people who were trying to buy it in the first place instead of some other homeless people? It’s all very complicated, but the bottom line is, thousands of people are homeless and thousands of buildings are empty. If America is as smart as it thinks it is, it needs to figure out a way to fix that.
In Austin, TX, the last elections included a $78 million housing bond which was defeated by a close 49-51% vote, despite the efforts of a very competent team. However, Prop. 17 passed, which will expand the available space in temporary shelters for women and children. Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless says:
We had realized that this was a responsible group of free thinkers who were likely to vote once informed, and vote they did.
The difference might lie in the way the women’s shelter issue was framed. In the public mind, it was associated with an actual person, Valerie Godoy, who was murdered while sleeping out in the open. The idea of permanent affordable housing might need the same kind of public relations. Maybe at this very moment there is an activist in Austin wondering what to do next. Maybe this is the project — to find a way of personalizing the need for housing, by concentrating on individuals. Humanize the story, one human at a time, for as long as it takes. For examples, see Invisible People, Underheard in New York, and numerous others.
Permanent housing — wouldn’t it create jobs? Couldn’t it even create a few jobs for people experiencing homelessness? Sure, there are a lot of homeless people who have some kind of paid work, but still can’t afford to live anyplace. And others are just plain unemployed. There is a reputable university in Austin. Couldn’t it think up a spectacularly innovative way to bring back a housing initiative that would do something good for the homeless, the housed, the business owners, the tourists — in short, everybody? And earn more renown for itself of course, for creating a win-win-win-win-win situation.
For many reasons, Austin has a unique opportunity to show every other American city how it ought to be done. In many ways, Austin has already charted the course. For example, Richard mentions this year’s Foundation Communities’ Annual Fund Raiser, which put a human face on the organization’s work, and not just one but many faces:
They showed videos of beautiful and affordable housing that Walter Moreau and his wonderful team have already brought to Austin. They brought out men, women and children whom they had helped. The individuals told their stories and told how getting their home had changed their lives.
Moreau’s accomplishments are further detailed on the Foundation Communities page, headed by its motto, “Creating housing where families succeed in Austin and North Texas.” When the organization won an award for Best Affordable Housing Intervention last year, this is the reason given by the “Best of Austin Critics”:
Foundation Communities creates housing for low-income folks through a holistic philosophy that includes literacy training, financial coaching, afterschool care, and counseling. This whole supportive web of services helps families stabilize, survive, and kiss the bad times goodbye.
Source: “Huts for homeless,” The Register-Guard, 12/08/12
Image of Conestoga Hut by The Register-Guard.