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.
Last week, House the Homeless looked at public libraries and the difficulties that arise when the library becomes the default day shelter for people experiencing homelessness in a community.
Well, where are the homeless supposed to exist all day? As we have mentioned before, “Everybody’s gotta be someplace.”
Libraries have been stepping up to meet the challenge. From various parts of the country, we hear of public libraries that teach homeless people how to use computers, or print up cards with information on whatever services are available throughout the city. Some libraries respond by sending out a bookmobile, or providing a story hour at the local shelter. Some even let shelter addresses be used to get library cards. They start book clubs, show movies, or devote space to a social-services information center. In San Francisco, the library put a full-time social worker on the staff.
On the other hand, some libraries have taken extreme steps to change their physical environment in such a way as to discourage lingering. In one place, where people had been sitting or sleeping on the deep windowsills, they put up spiky iron railings.
A community might think it very important to educate library personnel in how to educate the homeless in the proper uses of library restrooms. Of course, no one wants their child to go in there and find some unfortunate street person stripped down and taking a sponge bath. But people do need to wash. That might be something that cities could devote more attention to.
Ironically, in the District of Columbia, from which our nation is governed, the public library’s “offensive body odor” policy was declared unconstitutional. Any such rule has to be enforced across the board, not just against people who appear to be homeless. Otherwise, it’s “poverty profiling.”
A couple of years back, plans for the renovation of the Madison, WI, Central Library sounded welcoming. Judy Keen wrote:
Accommodating the homeless is a key part of a $29.5 million redevelopment… Architect Jeffrey Scherer, who devised the Madison renovation plan, says incorporating the needs of the homeless is a recent trend. In Madison, seating will be rearranged to suit varying preferences of homeless patrons and restrooms will be moved within staff sightlines.
It wasn’t really explained how moving the restrooms so the staff can watch more closely is really an accommodation to the homeless. Anyway, the library’s brand new FAQ page asks, “Will the homeless still hang out at the new library?” The answer includes these items:
1. The architectural design for the new library eliminates the current outside open space by the main entrance on the northeast corner of the library (at N. Fairchild and W. Mifflin) where many homeless are known to congregate. That entire corner will be reclaimed by the new library.
2. The library will provide inside space for a variety of social service agencies that will help the homeless find more permanent housing, treatment, and work, making them less likely to remain homeless.
3. The library will offer programming for the homeless, such as book clubs and movie matinees, and require codes of conduct to address issues such as hygiene and behavior to prevent their presence from distracting or intimidating other patrons.
The Public Library Association maintains that libraries have a moral duty to help everyone participate fully in our democratic society, even the homeless and poor. They offer a wonderful educational page covering the legal implications of library rules, along with the ethical obligations that go along with a free society.
Amy Mars explains that it’s acceptable to regulate behavior and appearance, when those factors interfere with the rights of other patrons, and their ability to use the library. But the rule must be against the behavior, not the person, and equal enforcement is the key. Mars writes:
This means that if sleeping is prohibited, it cannot be enforced only against the homeless; it must be enforced against all patrons, including children, teenagers, the elderly, prominent community members, and so on.
And this brings up another point. Disruptive behavior is not always caused by inebriated miscreants. People suffering from epilepsy, schizophrenia, autism, Tourette syndrome, and other medical conditions can cause disruption, and so can the library’s most generous private donor, if she happens to have a heart attack while at a board meeting. Library staff members need to be trained to, at the very least, tell the difference between a situation needing an ambulance call and one needing a police call.
Mars quotes attorney Mary Minow, who drew up the handy “FEND” “best practices” guidelines:
First Amendment: Libraries must protect the right of free speech.
Equal Enforcement: Policies must be applied consistently.
Notice: All policies should be clearly posted or distributed.
Due Process: A well-defined appeals process must be available to patrons who challenge library policies.
Source: “Libraries welcome homeless to ‘community living rooms,’” USA TODAY, 12/13/10
Source: “Library Service to the Homeless,” PublicLibrariesOnline.org
Image by Internet Meme.
Austin, you beautiful, friendly, innovative, progressive, creative, marvelous metropolis, what is happening to you? Last year, House the Homeless asked the city to ease up on the “No Sit/No Lie” ordinance. The slogan was, “Don’t give Austin a black eye,” and a bunch of protesters showed up at the City Council meeting with symbolically bruised (by makeup) eye sockets.
To give a person, institution, or city a black eye means, traditionally, that something harms their character and reputation. Libel and slander are about false accusations. When we speak of somebody having a black eye, the connotation is of an accurate charge. Check out this definition:
What does ‘black eye’ mean? A mark of shame, a humiliating setback, as in
That there are enough homeless folks to need another shelter is a black eye for the administration.
We are not making this up. That example is given by Christine Ammer in the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms.
If refusing to allow people to sit down can give a city a black eye, what can a string of murders do? Since November, there have been at least six deaths of people experiencing homelessness that could be called suspicious. In July, there was a definite killing, this time of a man, but possibly linked to the death of Valerie Godoy in June. In the latest atrocity, the victim appears to have been fatally attacked as he slept. Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless comments:
It’s not safe out here for these people. They are vulnerable. We only have 700 beds for 4,000 homeless people in Austin. There are no-sit ordinances. Nobody can get any rest without getting a ticket.
Richard told The Statesman:
We just hope no one is preying on the homeless. They are already totally without almost everything but hope.
Kathy Ridings, Director of Social Services for Austin’s Salvation Army, says:
It’s a concern for everybody that our community be able to respond appropriately to the growing need of homeless women for shelter and housing resources. We don’t want anybody to be sleeping outside, but for some folks its a life-threatening issue.
A coalition of service providers is collaborating in an effort to increase the number of shelter beds for homeless women, and Ridings is co-chair of a subcommittee addressing the need for more resources. The other co-chair is Irit Umani, Executive Director of Trinity Center, which also serves the spiritual, emotional, and physical needs of people experiencing homelessness and poverty in Austin. Also involved are CAN and ECHO. The former is the Community Action Network, a partnership of government, nonprofit, private, and faith-based organizations that work together to enhance the social, health, educational, and economic well-being of Central Texas. ECHO is the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, a planning body whose literature says:
Working with 90 community members monthly from local non-profits, businesses and government, ECHO develops, prioritizes, and promotes strategies to prevent end homelessness.
On its homepage, the nonprofit group keeps a running total of how many people are helped. For instance, 1,095 Travis County children received some kind of service in the past week, and the number of shelter stays for women is 618, which presumably would be divided by seven nights to arrive at the actual number of homeless women who slept safely. For agencies that help, the situation is complicated by the fact that homeless women comprise two distinct populations: solo, and with children. Mothers with families need a lot of resources.
And safety is a crucial issue. Take a look at a city that is similar to Austin in many ways — Portland, Oregon. In the late 1980s, Portland developed a 12-point action plan and resolved that no one requesting shelter should be denied it. In 1988, an official report stated:
The emergency shelter system has capacity to handle those who need it. Anyone who wants emergency housing can now get it. No one is forced to sleep in the streets.
That was a shining moment in one city’s history, but good intentions could not keep up with reality. As of December 2011, Suzanne Stevens reported that the number of homeless families in Portland had increased by 29% since the previous year, requests for emergency shelter had increased by 15%, and 25% (or one-quarter) of those requesting shelter were turned away due to the lack of beds. Sheltered or not, here’s the point. Just a few days ago, Sarah Mirk of the Portland Mercury reported that:
[...] nearly 40 percent of homeless people in Portland report being the victim of an assault.
Austin and the future of women experiencing homelessness
In Austin, also just a few days ago, Andrea Ball wrote for The Statesman that violence is “a routine part of life on the streets.” What is being done? In the short term, the intention is to follow the model of cold weather shelters — in other words, to treat the current crisis as a life-threatening emergency, which it is. Efforts are being made to determine if more shelter capacity can somehow be wrung out of the existing system. The Salvation Army, Ridings says, is over capacity already, with people sleeping on mats on the floor.
One proposal is for a network of churches to provide a safe sleeping option. The aim is to have a trial program in place by the first of September, with the entry point being Trinity Episcopal Center. Vans will be needed to take participants to church shelters on a rotating basis, and much else will be needed as well.
As part of the short-term effort toward preservation of life, the House the Homeless Emergency Whistle Defense Program is distributing 1,000 tornado whistles with lanyards. The distress signal is to tweet three times, pause, tweet three more times, until, hopefully, the threat is scared away or help arrives. Hundreds of whistles have been distributed by Austin’s Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH), Caritas, and Trinity Episcopal Center. Alan Graham, president of Mobile Loaves and Fishes, offered on behalf of the organization to further carry out the distribution process. Here is what this amazing group does:
Going out onto city streets every night with our catering trucks, MLF serves food, basic clothing, hygiene products, etc. to our brothers and sisters living on or near the streets. We are proud to say that our trucks provide food and clothing and promote dignity to our homeless brothers and sisters in need 365 days a year.
Part of the intermediate plan might involve relocating women with children to the Salvation Army’s other shelter, which would open up 26 beds for single women at the downtown location. In the long term, a women’s emergency shelter is definitely needed, along with long-term supportive housing. At the invitation of chairman Tom Davis, a resolution on the subject is being presented to Austin’s Human Rights Commission. The activists are consulting with city council members and the office of the mayor, exploring the possibility of being allocated a portion of the affordable housing bond if it passes in November.
Here is the call to action: the petition for a women’s shelter already has, online and on paper, more than 3,500 signatures and it can always use more. Here is another call to action: listen for three tweets, pause, three tweets, which means somebody is in trouble, and go help. The Austin police have been consulted and seem willing to help in responding.
Incidentally, this is worth repeating about the Valerie Godoy murder: “A website for BMX enthusiasts mentioned the crime, and a very large number of respondents left comments ranging from cavalier and flippant to seriously, disturbingly ugly.” Is there a responsible adult out there who can reach these extreme biker kids and win them to the side of the angels? Maybe if Valerie Godoy had been armed with a distress whistle, the BMX park kids could have been heroes. What about you?
Source: “What does ‘black eye’ mean?,” YourDictionary.com
Source: “Police seek help in solving deaths of homeless people,” Statesman, 07/26/12
Source: “1988 Edition Preface: Progress Toward Breaking the Cycle of Homelessness,” PortlandOnline.com, 1988
Source: “No. of homeless Portland families up 29%,” Portland Business Journal, 12/15/11
Source: “Ugh. Two Arrested for Assaults of Homeless People,” Portland Mercury, 08/02/12
Source: “As slayings raise concerns, homeless Austinites agree violence is common,” Statesman.com, 08/04/12
Last time, House the Homeless blog looked at the situation of women veterans who somehow find themselves without any place to live, which is something for America to really hang its head in shame about. To make it worse, women vets are confronted by a different set of risks and needs than the ones that male vets have to contend with.
One of the female vets interviewed by Eric Tucker and Kristin M. Hall for the Associated Press fell into a pattern of heavy drinking because of the culture of her particular branch of service. A diabetic Navy veteran staying in a typical inner-city shelter had the hypodermic needles stolen, that she used for insulin injections. More than half of the programs that serve homeless women in general do not offer housing for children.
For CBN News, Charlene Israel learned:
A new report from the VA Office of the Inspector General found bedrooms and bathrooms in temporary VA shelters for vets with no locks, poorly lit hallways and women housed in facilities approved for men only… One female veteran and her 18-month-old son were placed in the same facility as a male veteran who was a registered sex offender.
But the news isn’t all bad. There is a special government office whose job is to assist veteran families that are experiencing homelessness who are at risk. Its name matches its description, Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF). Funding actually goes to private nonprofit groups and consumer co-ops, who provide services such as outreach, case management, and assistance in obtaining benefits from the Veterans Administration and other agencies.
The goal is to get these veteran families hooked up with health care, financial planning, viable transportation, child care for people looking for jobs or lucky enough to find them, help with their legal problems and, of course, help with getting a roof over their heads. As its literature describes, SSVF also authorizes its grantees to pass payment along to third parties like landlords, moving companies, and utilities, if it looks like the family will be able to start rowing its own boat pretty soon.
Jackie Campbell, a Navy reservist who knows what it’s like to be homeless, opened a transitional housing facility where the rent is as low as possible. The “Lady Vets Haven” has a Facebook page and describes itself thusly:
The home serves as a clean and safe environment for female veterans. Women are invited to stay as long as they need to and are offered a variety of services such as job counseling, group and individual counseling and spiritual encouragement.
Another place founded by a veteran whose personal experience included a spell of homelessness, is Final Salute in Fairfax, Virginia. Army Captain Jasmine Boothe came to the conclusion that “No one is really looking out for women veterans,” as she told reporter Kali Schumitz. Boothe, a single mother, was the victim of both Hurricane Katrina and cancer.
Schumitz tells us:
The biggest obstacle facing the thousands of homeless female veterans, as compared to male veterans, is most of the housing programs established for veterans do not allow children.
The large house is shared among five female veterans, some with children, at a cost of $65,000 per year. Surprisingly, there are only about 20 women on the waiting list for this “starting-over” situation. But maybe the administrators limit the waiting list, in order not to instill false hope in too many women who actually don’t have a chance of getting in any time soon.
Planning for the Webb House in Gary, Indiana, began back in 2009. There are other Webb Houses in nearby counties, but the one in Gary is actually a renovated apartment.
The facility was dedicated to local hero Jeanette Winters, the first female Marine fatality of the Afghanistan war. The staff of Webb House, Inc. works with the VA and Disabled American Veterans to aid with not only housing, but with the psychological needs of veterans. They even helped to establish a special veterans’ court for those whose scrapes with the law are complicated by PTSD or other problems particular to vets.
A very complete picture of federal services for those who served is found in a General Accounting Office report titled “Homeless Women Veterans: Actions Needed to Ensure Safe and Appropriate Housing,” available as a PDF download. But we must remember: Even if we search and find every female veteran and are able to provide the best of all of these services, if they end up in jobs that pay less than a living wage they will only end up swelling the ranks of the homeless.
All people experiencing homelessness are at risk for adverse events that housed people can’t even imagine. In Austin, the current important project is a shelter for women. Please learn more and do what you can, starting with this page.
Source: “More women vets are homeless, but housing scarce,” Boston.com, 04/08/12
Source: “Female Vets Fight Personal Wars of Homelessness, Abuse,” CBN.com, 05/29/12
Source: “Supportive Services for Veteran Families,” VA.gov, 2012
Source: “Final Salute offers housing to homeless female veterans,” The Washington Post, 05/15/12
Source: “Webb House, Inc. to participate in South Shore Air Show’s charity event ,” NWITimes, 06/22/12
Source: “Homeless Women Veterans: Actions Needed to Ensure Safe and Appropriate Housin,” (PDF), GAO.gov, December 2011
Image by MichiganMoves (Debra Drummond), used under its Creative Commons license.