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The Cost of Prosecuting Homelessness

osceola_fl

Sometimes people have the most inane knee-jerk reactions to ideas. For instance, the idea of housing the homeless elicits howls of resistance — “Think how much money that would cost! It would be so expensive!” Well, O.K., let’s start by thinking about how much money goes into doing things the way they are currently done. This enlightening quote is from Elizabeth Dillard, executive director of the Homeless Resource Network in Columbus, Ohio:

Homelessness is about what happens in our emergency rooms. It’s about what happens in our jails, what happens with our fire and rescue, what happens when a building burns down because a person built a fire because he was cold.

Homelessness is about what happens in our libraries. A disgruntled San Franciscan recently warned his fellow citizens that since the Internet has made public libraries less relevant, the bureaucrats “scrambled around” to figure out what to do with libraries and decided to turn them into homeless outreach centers.

We live in a society that levies fines on people who obviously have no money, for the crime of having nowhere to live, and punishes them by providing a place to “live” that’s temporary, dangerous, and locked. Then we punish them further by putting marks on their record to guarantee they will never become employed, productive members of the community. Could anything be more absurd than the street-jail-street merry-go-round?

It’s worse than bad, it’s useless

Upon learning how Eureka, Calif., spent $13,000 to prosecute one person for sleeping in public, Arnie Klein, a retired deputy district attorney, called the judicial system a travesty. He elaborates:

The maximum penalty of six months in county jail or a $1,000 fine is a farce…. In no way will this prosecution prevent homeless people from camping on our public lands. Having 40 years’ experience on both sides of the table in the arena of criminal law, I would have recommended a more humane and cost-saving solution.

I do know for a fact … that money was expended to pay the judge, the bailiff, the court reporter, the jury, the defense attorney, and the prosecutor, as well as for the use of the courtroom, to pursue this fool’s errand.

On the other side of the country, in Orlando, Fla., public defender Bob Wesley had this to say:

Any time you have a court case, you’re going to have judge with a graduate degree, two lawyers there, bailiffs in the courtroom, court reporters — you’ve got to have a court, all to solve the problem.

From just south of Orlando, in Osceola County, Scott Keyes reported that, over the past 10 years, a grand total of $5 million has been spent on 37 individuals. Did this $5 million buy them houses fitted out with all the mod cons, and perhaps a swimming pool and a couple of servants? No, all it paid for was to put them in jail a bunch of times.

The charges were what are called “quality-of-life” offenses, which basically means it bums everybody out and ruins their day to see people snoring on the sidewalk. Never mind how the people experiencing homelessness feel about it — their lives don’t have any quality, and aren’t supposed to, because they screwed up by taking a wrong turn in life’s journey.

Some of the “bad choices” that have rendered people homeless include joining the military and coming back with a head injury; needing to escape from a spouse who turned abusive; working for a company that fires loyal employees the day before their pensions kick in; and accruing ruinous medical bills from being hit by an uninsured driver. Babies make the stupid choice of being born to homeless parents!

It’s worse than useless, it’s bad, and it’s costly!

Those 37 Osceola County homeless people piled up 1,230 arrests, resulting in 61,896 jail days at $80 per day, resulting in a cumulative price tag of $5,081,680. Keyes weighs the costs:

A far cheaper option than criminalizing and jailing the homeless is to provide them with permanent supportive housing. An average permanent supportive housing unit in Osceola County costs $9,602 per year, which includes $8,244 for rent and utility subsidies and $1,358 for a case manager (with a case load of 30 clients). In other words, each supported housing unit costs the county 40 percent less than what they’re currently paying to put homeless residents in jail.

For more on this question of costs, please see Richard R. Troxell’s Looking Up at the Bottom Line, pages 102 and 131.

Reactions?

Source: “Homelessness organizations look to house 100,000 by July,” Ledger-Enquirer.com, 01/12/14
Source: “Surprise! San Francisco Public Library Now a Homeless Shelter,” DailyPundit.com, 01/17/14
Source: “Hauling homeless into court a waste,” Times-Standard.com, 01/08/14
Source: “Arresting homeless people for sleeping outside costs taxpayers,” WFTV.com, 12/25/13
Source: “One County Spent Over $5 Million Jailing Homeless People Instead Of Giving
Them Homes,” ThinkProgress.org, 02/05/14
Image by ThinkProgress

 

 

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Unstable Housing Is Contemporary Slavery

the homeless problemAs in the days of Les Miserables, people who lack wealth or property tend to be marginalized, disenfranchised, and dehumanized. Last week — and nothing has changed since then — House the Homeless discussed how, in America, poverty and homelessness are no longer lifestyles experienced chiefly by members of minority groups. Sure, ancestry is a factor in human fate, but almost always, the ultimate measuring device is money.

Recently, Northern California’s “Armstrong & Getty” radio show included the on-air reading of an email from homeless activist Ace Backwords. Here is an excerpt:

I’ve also been homeless for about 10 years… I’ve worked and supported myself for most of my life, including while I was homeless, and rarely went to the free meals or used the social services…

You see only the most grotesque and obvious members of the homeless community… The ones you don’t notice are the millions of otherwise normal people who don’t look or act homeless (which is why you don’t notice them) but just happen to be homeless. This is especially true of the latest generation of homeless — the ones in their 20s and 30s. A good percentage of them, there’s nothing particularly ‘street’ about them. They’re just normal people who got priced out of the rental market or victimized by the economic downturn. I read somewhere that 50% of recent college graduates are unemployed. And a surprising number of them end up homeless.

Whatever the percentage, isn’t it kind of shocking that any percentage of college graduates are unemployed? When even the educated white folks start finding themselves in the bread line, the situation is serious!

We also talked last week about Richard R. Troxell’s reflections on the book Why We Can’t Wait, by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which was published in 1963 — almost 50 years, or half a century ago. Drawing a parallel between black Americans in the past and many people of all races in the present, Richard wrote:

… [W]ages can still be correctly characterized as slave wages as they are today even though they are set by the federal government itself. This is the case today with the federal minimum wage being set at so low a level that it leaves a full time worker firmly impoverished and unable to afford life’s basic necessities… Today, American business remains unwilling to relinquish what still amounts to a vast human reservoir of cheap labor paid at poverty wages that continues to economically enslave workers.

Part of the problem here is the “one size fits all” assumption on which the federal minimum wage is based. As Richard says, America is a nation of a thousand economies, at least. In different regions, the minimum wage needs to be different. The Universal Living Wage would go a long way toward rectifying matters.

Nicole Hudley of New America Media relates how California’s Homeless Youth Project (HYP) is trying to get a handle on the extent of the problem, as represented by raw numbers. To understand how they cope, the HYP also surveyed 200 young people, both black and white, on the streets of San Francisco. The researchers learned that while white kids are more apt to sign in at shelters, black kids are more likely to find makeshift solutions like sleeping on buses or in fast food restaurants.

Hudley writes:

The African American youth were 38 percent more likely to be placed in the foster care system by Child Protective Services than whites. African American young people were also more likely to attribute family conflict to temporary problems associated with such issues as finances or substance abuse. Whites, on the other hand, often viewed their family trouble as being permanent and irresolvable.

Perhaps this is why African American youths who succeed in eluding the foster system are less likely to call themselves homeless, because many of them manage to patch together a series of temporary semi-homes. They get more support from extended family and friends, often “couch-surfing” from one place to another and using their food stamp allotments to pay back the favor. While not, technically, the same as absolute homelessness, this mode of survival is certainly “unstable housing” and needs to be recognized as equally problematic.

The poor of all ethnic groups share in common the feedback loop between homelessness and jail and homelessness and jail, and so on. Using prisoners for slave labor is actually fine, according to the Constitution. It says so right there in the 13th Amendment, as “Jehu” reminds us. This writer also notes that anti-vagabond laws were often used in the previous century to collect black men from the streets so they could be forced to work on behalf of corporate interests for no pay.

Jehu quotes a political author named Carl V. Harris:

In 1906 the editor of the Birmingham News said: ‘Anyone visiting a Southern city or town must be impressed at witnessing the large number of loafing negroes… They can all get work, but they don’t want to work. The result is that they sooner or later get into mischief or commit crimes.’ The editor believed that such Negroes were ‘not only a menace to the public safety’ but also ‘to some extent a financial burden upon the taxpayers.’

Doesn’t that sound just like what is said of people experiencing homelessness in the present day? Unlike the American South of over a hundred years ago, where black people were demonized, we now have an entire country where anyone can be demonized, regardless of race, creed, or whatever. All they have to be is homeless. This is equality like never before — progress indeed. And yes, that was a sarcastic remark.

Reactions?

Source: “The Armstrong and Getty radio show,” Acid Heroes, 12/14/12
Source: “Homeless Black Youth Largely Invisible to Service Providers,” New America Media, 01/03/13
Source: “A critical examination of Kevin Carson’s Mutualism (Part One),” Gonzo Times, 06/09/11
Image by D.C. Atty.

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Some Things About Housing

Conestoga hutNews 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.

Reactions?

Source: “Huts for homeless,” The Register-Guard, 12/08/12
Image of Conestoga Hut by The Register-Guard.

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People Experiencing Homelessness Are Easy Targets

Homeless dudeAustin, TX, needs more shelter space for homeless women, and a petition gained enough signatures to have the idea added to a health and human services bond package that will soon be voted on. Journalist Jazmine Ulloa wrote:

Richard Troxell, founder of the advocacy group House the Homeless, said that list reached 3,700 names last month. In conjunction with an ad-hoc women’s task force, the group has presented a proposal to City Council to expand the women and children’s shelter in East Austin.

The need for additional facilities has been apparent for a many years, but what brought it to the forefront was the murder of Valerie Godoy in June. She was found in a park, beaten and unconscious, and died soon afterward. On October 1, the police announced that a 41-year-old man, Jeffrey Lee Howard, had been arrested and was being held on bail amounting to half a million dollars. They’re not saying much about either the motive or the evidence. Ulloa says:

Howard was not homeless but would utilize resources and frequent areas used by homeless people… Howard seemed to be new to the park and might have known Godoy but did not have a relationship with her…

With all the other problems that confront people experiencing homelessness, that’s another one — members of the larger community who hang around looking for prey, whether it’s a woman to rape or a man to hire for a “bum-fight” video or worse. In addition to Valerie Godoy, murder has been the goal of Austin predators at least two other times this year. In both those cases the victims were men. Every year there are homicides, and, in a larger sense, the deaths of many more homeless people might be viewed as slow murder performed by an uncaring society. Richard was also interviewed by Morgan Chesky of KVUR television news.

Here are a few random examples from the last couple of years in America. In Texas, a sex offender wanted to convince the police that he was dead, so he shot a homeless man in the head, put the body in the trunk of his car, and set it on fire. In California, Henrietta Sholl was found dead in a budget motel, forcibly smothered by a pillow. In Nebraska, three 17-year-olds punched and kicked William Morgan to death in a park. In Hawaii, Gordon Lindberg was beaten to death.

In San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, after two homicides and several different kind of attacks on people experiencing homelessness, the best solution the authorities could come up with was to toughen enforcement of the no-sleeping rule, and consider totally closing the park at night. That’s supposed to encourage homeless people to stop offering themselves up as tempting objects to be killed. Oddly enough, when someone is murdered inside a house, the city fathers don’t pass a law forbidding people to sleep in houses.

In Mississippi, James Anderson (who was black) was beaten by a gang of white kids who then ran over him with a pickup truck. In Florida, somebody killed Angel Gonzalez with an ax and claimed to have eaten his brain and an eyeball. In Colorado, John Carlos Martinez died soon after being found beaten in a park. In Illinois, Richard Gibbons was killed by a fire extinguisher that was dropped on him from the top of a parking structure. In New York, an attack on a homeless man was reported by Barry Paddock and Bill Hutchinson:

The violent lunchtime knifing […] was captured on a witness’s iPhone video camera and shows the incredible restraint cops took not blow the armed suspect away. About a dozen cops from the nearby 23rd Precinct station house rushed to the scene, drawing their weapons and ordered the suspect to drop his knife even as he continued to stab the victim… One cop eventually ended the standoff by grabbing the suspect by the back of his pants and dragging him off the victim.

Another newspaper reported this with a totally different slant, implying that the police were hoping the attacker would go ahead and finish off the homeless man. Reporters and members of the public all have their reasons for suspicion. Sometimes it seems to be open season on the homeless.

In November of last year, at a Chicago subway station, a youth attacked a homeless man and brought a friend along to videotape it for showing on a sleazy website. Last January, after homeless men were killed in the California cities of Placentia, Anaheim, and Yorba Linda, volunteer Guardian Angels from other parts of the state converged on Orange County to make night patrols. It’s insane, and the worst part is that so many of these hate crimes against the homeless are done by teenagers. In Fort Worth, TX, Robert Bradley was stabbed to death. Nearly a year later, three youths and two underage kids were taken into custody.

The day after that announcement made the news, two Indiana teens old enough to be named, along with two juveniles, were arrested for the strangling death of Marcus Golike. All four killer kids came from the same foster home. And how did they wind up there? If we look into their pasts, what desperate situations did their birth parents face? Why were they not able to house or hold onto their families?

Reactions?

Source: “Man arrested in death of homeless woman in June,” Statesman.com, 10/01/12
Source: “Latest Attack Re-Ignites Night Hours Debate For GG Park,” KTVU, 04/22/11
Source: “Horrific Harlem stabbing caught on video,” NYDailyNews.com, 10/17/11
Source: “Teens arrested in strangulation of homeless man,” SFGate.com, 06/29/12
Image by Kai Hendry.

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Activist Heroes of Homelessness

Homeless at the Art GalleryMany citizens and groups give enormous amounts of time and money, and even face the wrath of the law, to make sure that people experiencing homelessness have something to eat, and they deserve all the support they can get. Outside the realm of food, other goods and services are offered to street people by an array of organizations and maverick individuals.

In the Canadian city of Windsor, chiropractor Dean Tapak shows up once a week at the Windsor Essex Community Health Centre and treats low-income clients for free. He is affiliated with the Street Health, a program that provides showers, dental care, and other health-related services to about 4,000 people. Dr. Tapak personally helped more than 200 clients.

The California community of Los Gatos-Monte Sereno annually recognizes the police department’s Crisis Intervention Team, including an Officer of the Year. Last year, that honor went to Leo Coddington, a cop who takes the trouble to learn the names of the town’s homeless residents and figure out how to help them.

Coddington is particularly aware of the needs of homeless veterans, having graduated from West Point and spent 12 years in the army himself. After joining the police force, he took a 40-hour continuing education course in police interaction with vulnerable populations, and became part of the Santa Clara County Collaborative on Housing and Homeless Issues. Journalist Sheila Sanchez interestingly points out that Coddington is a “housing first” kind of guy, who believes the most effective way to help is to get people under a roof first, then address their mental disability, post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction, or alcoholism.

The same attitude of meeting people where they are, without expectations or judgment, is shared by another man who does similar work in Los Angeles and credits the philosophy of TV personality Oprah Winfrey as his inspiration. Unlike the police officer, Troy Eric Isaac is not bankrolled by taxpayers, but by a philanthropist who supplies the funds that Isaac uses to help the homeless.

Journalist Kevin Ferguson describes Isaac is “sort of freelance homeless advocate” who walks around the inner city looking for need and figuring out how to meet it. For one, the answer might be to sit with the person and sing a song. For another, it might be to make phone calls every day checking on the availability of a room with a long waiting list.

There are also philanthropists in the Canadian city of Vancouver where, in this case, the donors allocated $30 million of their fortune to the homeless, under conditions so particular that the local law had to be changed to accommodate them. Namely, if the city could figure out how to put an existing facility back into working order, the anonymous couple’s gift would be structured in such a way as to take care of the annual operating costs without the need for further government support.

The old Taylor Manor was originally built as a home for the elderly, but has not been used for that purpose for at least a decade. The renovation will take about two years and at least $14 million of public funds and corporate donations, and will eventually house 56 (no longer) street people with “complex mental issues.” Reporter Jeff Lee tells us that Vancouver’s homeless population almost doubled in a year, and quotes Prof. Kerry Jang of the University of British Columbia:

Many of our staff have been out there and we see the suffering every single day. And every day I feel hopeless because what can we do? We put [people] into hospital for a while and they are let back out on the street again with no hope. It is just a revolving door, a revolving door, a revolving door.

At St. Colette Church in Livonia, Michigan, a group has a dual-purpose ministry. Mainly, for people experiencing homelessness in Detroit, they crochet or knit sleeping mats to serve as insulation from the cold and damp of the ground. Secondarily, they make the mats from “plarn,” which is plastic yarn made from cut-up retail shopping bags. It takes as many as 700 bags to make each sleeping mat, so that’s a lot of recycling. About 40 parishioners have signed up, of whom about half turn up at any given weekly meeting. Reportedly, a Chicago church has actually published a DVD with full instructions on how to make these mats.

Throughout America, thousands of faith-based groups, from venerable giants like St. Vincent de Paul to the little mat-knitting club, work to help the homeless. Perhaps wanting some favorable press too, a number of Austinites founded their own group with the motto, “Toiletries and more, under the freeway — without the preaching,” and a homepage that misspells “sporadic.” Their website lists the specific items they distribute: toothbrushes and toothpaste, soap, shampoo, TP, hand sanitizer, disposable shavers, socks, gloves, granola, and bottled water.

Water is also distributed by ThirstAid of Maricopa County, Arizona, through a program that has been very successful in the past years. The heat there is brutal, and the water saves lives. Before the end of September, they reckon they will find the money for, and give out, 500,000 bottles of water. Half a million — man, that’s a lot of plastic bottles headed for the landfill, and it raises a question. Could this be done in a greener way? Couldn’t people, instead, be given canteens or camping-style water bottles, and provided with sources of clean drinking water from which to refill them? Just asking.

But, getting back to Austin, the exigency of events made the Emergency Whistle Defense Program one of the most important stories in the Texas capital. The ability to produce a loud distress call empowers a person experiencing homelessness alone in the night, or any time. The program is giving away whistles and teaching the signal — three blasts, and pause before repeating if necessary. The distribution of “thunder whistles” has been covered extensively by local television, including stories by radio stations NPR and KLBJ, News 8-YNN, KEYE-TV, and KVUE-News 24.

They all interviewed House the Homeless President Richard R. Troxell on the value of such noise as a deterrent to violence. Omar Lewis of KXAN-News 36 also interviewed Vincent Godoy, father of Valerie Godoy, murdered in Austin in June. FOX 7 TV‘s Derrick Mitcham said:

According to the Austin Police Department, violent crimes against the homeless population make up 38 percent of all violent crimes downtown.

Nope, it is not too late to sign the new women’s shelter petition!

Reactions?

Source: “Homeless helped by chiropractor,” The Windsor Star, 02/25/12
Source: “Town Cop Recognized for Work With Homeless,” Los Gatos, CA Patch, 03/29/11
Source: “Helping the homeless any way he can,” SCPR.org, 01/13/12
Source: “Anonymous wealthy couple’s $30-million gift to help homeless in Vancouver,” The Vancouver Sun, 06/29/12
Source: “Parishioners make sleeping mats for homeless from plastic bags,” Hometownlife.com, 08/05/12
Source: “Atheists Helping the Homeless,” AtheistsHelpingtheHomeless.org
Source: “ThirstAid: Human Services Campus Water Drive,” Cassaz.org, 06/11/12
Source: “Sounding alarm on violence on homeless,” KXAN.com, 08/06/12
Source: “Advocacy group to help homeless blow whistle on crime,” MyFoxAustin.com, 08/06/12
Image by quinet (Thomas Quine), used under its Creative Commons license.

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Women Veterans Experiencing Homelessness

Vietnam Women's MemorialIn January of this year, it was widely reported that in the 2006-2010 period, the number of female veterans experiencing homelessness had more than doubled. The jump was from 1,380 to 3,328. One thing to remember about this number is, it doesn’t count the female vets in shelters. But a shelter is for emergency and transition, not for permanent residence. Technically, those women are homeless too.

And, of course, the number only includes individuals who had actual contact with the VA. Nobody knows how many are constrained, by inner or outer circumstances, from asking the government for anything. It is a truism of the field of social work, that the people who most need help are often the last ones to seek it.

The numbers that express the need are difficult to gather accurately, and there is always a time lag between conditions when the count is made and the day when the results are collated and published. It is even said (by the General Accounting Office, or GAO) that the true picture is difficult to assess because of a lack of coordination between the VA and the department of Housing and Urban Development. A PDF file of the GAO’s December 2011 report, “Homeless Women Veterans,” is downloadable here.

A recent New York Times editorial said:

Lack of information is part of the problem. The report said that neither the V.A. nor the Department of Housing and Urban Development collects sufficiently detailed information about homeless female veterans, making it harder to plan effective programs, allocate money and track progress.

There are two sides to that particular problem, of course. Those named activities all come under the heading of “bureaucracy,” more layers of it, and more money going for offices, computers, software, clerks, and paper clips. Meaning, ultimately, less money for the actual troops on the ground — the military veterans who can’t find a place to sleep in their native land.

The administration/action ratio of any nonprofit corporation is what people want to know before they donate to it. If the organization is paying more than 50% of its income to keep itself running, a red flag goes up. Hopefully, some government bureaucracy is keeping an eye on other government bureaucracies, making sure they adhere to some kind of standard.

The same editorial describes the discouraging parts of the December document and another:

The report found that the V.A. sometimes failed to refer homeless women to short-term housing while they waited for housing vouchers. It noted that the agency lacked safety standards for shelter providers, even though many women said they feared sexual harassment and assault. And some shelters discriminated against homeless mothers by limiting the age or number of children they take.

A report in March by the V.A. inspector general echoed these concerns, saying some shelters lacked basic protections like working locks and separate floors for men and women. The V.A.’s inattention to safety and privacy is especially troubling because rates of sexual trauma and domestic violence tend to be high among homeless female veterans.

Experts see many reasons for the increase in female veteran homelessness: the general unraveling of the social safety net, the outsourcing of jobs overseas, the gentrification of central urban areas with the consequent loss of affordable housing. Add to that the increase of domestic violence. As Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless, a Vietnam veteran himself, phrases it:

Female veterans face all the same economic challenges as the men AND so much more… The level of sexual abuse for women in the military is appalling. So these women potentially have one cause for PTSD even before their life unravels and they end up on the streets.

That’s a big problem, and one that nobody much wants to face. There are women veterans who not only endured sexual abuse while in service, but also suffered from the indifference or hostility of the military establishment when they tried to get justice. If such a woman later becomes homeless, it’s easy to see why she would be reluctant to approach the government for help.

Women veterans face a different set of risks and needs than male vets, and it’s all part of a larger issue. Whether they are former military personnel or perpetual civilians, homeless women are even more vulnerable than homeless men. We were reminded again of this in June, when Valerie Godoy was murdered in Texas. The people of Austin have responded by proposing the creation of a new and much-needed women’s shelter. Please sign the petition!

Reactions?

Source: “Homeless Women Veterans” (PDF), GAO.gov, December 2011
Source: “Homelessness Among Female Veterans,” The New York Times, 04/17/12
Image by cliff1066, used under its Creative Commons license.

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Austin’s Great Opportunity

Austin Morning on Ladybird LakePartly because it is in a state of creative revival, Austin, TX, is in a special, perhaps a unique, position to show the world how a city can end homelessness. We referred to the plan created by Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless. Now his latest published work is in the March issue of The Progressive Populist, and it’s called “Restore opportunity with a Living Wage.”

What makes Austin so wonderful? A place can be remarkable for a while, then become ordinary. Despite many changes over the years, Austin somehow still retains the cachet of cool. When a writer of Michael Ventura’s caliber makes a place home, you know it’s got something going for it. There are countless excellent visual artists and all kinds of other creative people in and around Austin, and, of course, the legendary music scene.

The music history of Austin is nothing short of awesome, in the original, non-cliche sense of the word. From the long-gone Armadillo World Headquarters to the amazing SXSW festival, those factors and a thousand more have made it the music capital of the Southwest, and a world-class music town.

There is another Richard, whose last name is Florida. His book, The Rise of the Creative Class, chose only two places as examples of the top-level creative city, one across the Atlantic (Dublin, Ireland) and one in the USA, namely, Austin. Florida goes into great detail about how Austin exerted itself to “build the kind of habitat required to compete and win in the Creative Age.” In his view, the three legs on which Austin’s superiority rest are the cultural scene, the high-tech industrial (nerd) sector, and the music scene. He writes:

Austin includes traditional nerdistan developments to the north, lifestyle centers for cycling and outdoor activities, and a revitalizing university/downtown community centered on vibrant Sixth Street, the warehouse district, and the music scene.

In researching his book, Florida spoke with several people for whom relocating to or staying in Austin was the most important factor when they made a job decision. One informant said:

I can have a life in Austin.

Back in the autumn of 2009, journalist Marc Savlov interviewed people experiencing homelessness, who are as likely as housed people to be the victims of street crime. If predators are among the homeless, other street people are the easiest prey to catch. Some interviewees expressed regret that hardcore boozers and addicts give everybody a bad name. An informant known as J. D. said:

One thing that would really help decrease the numbers of homeless in Austin is if the city could try to raise public awareness of the fact that there’s a difference between ‘crackheads and alcoholics’ and ‘homeless people.’

Austin struggles with the same issues as any other city, because the homeless are everywhere. Sometimes the reactions are illogical. Savlov says:

Tackling the homelessness issue while trying to find a way to improve quality of life for everybody — housed and houseless alike — is tantamount, as virtually everyone interviewed for this article can attest, to saddling a Hydra.

The journalist explored some of the issues that plague the city, and talked about the Great Streets Program, described as:

… an urban redevelopment effort that would include widening of sidewalks for cafe-style dining, abundant shade-producing trees lining the streets, and a higher concentration of mixed-use retail space alongside existing bars and music venues… While not specifically an anti-crime measure, Great Streets brings in more people at leisure — and a higher number of people is a natural deterrent to crimes of opportunity.

With all due respect, something is left out here. The implication is that crime is only prevented when “people at leisure,” i.e., housed people who are relaxing from their jobs, are out and about. But the homeless occupy urban spaces too. Having them around, as some of the ears and eyes making up that “natural deterrent to crimes,” can’t be such a bad thing.

Cities are shared with the homeless, whether the housed people like the situation or not. In the profound words of a bumper sticker, “It is what it is.” And starting from there, it can change if we change some of our ways of thinking about it.

Ace Backwords points out, in Surviving on the Streets, that street people perform the valuable service of utilizing some of the material goods that would otherwise go to the landfill. By recycling some of the detritus of a wasteful society, the homeless help to reduce our collective guilt over squandering the earth’s resources. Backwords makes another point:

The nocturnal life… can be seen as a public service that we perform to help alleviate the crowdedness of city life. We’ve volunteered to go on the night shift…

Another thing Richard Florida said is, members of the Creative Class choose Austin because:

What they look for in communities are abundant high-quality amenities and experiences, an openness to diversity of all kinds, and above all else the opportunity to validate their identities as creative people.

So, let’s think about high-quality amenities, not just for the folks lucky enough to be employed in high-tech jobs, but for everybody. Openness to diversity means just that, and some of the diverse kinds of people to be found in this city, like any other, are people experiencing homelessness.

Now, here’s the biggie. All the creative people of Austin have a splendid opportunity to validate their creative identities by figuring out this homeless situation in such a way that it will set a shining example to the rest of the world, as the city has already done in so many other ways. If any place is up to the challenge, Austin is.

Reactions?

Source: “How to end homelessness in Austin: A plan,” CultureMap Austin, 02/08/12
Source: “Restore Opportunity with a Living Wage,” Populist.com, 03/01/12
Source: “Overview,” CreativeClass.com, 2004
Source: “Faces of Homelessness,” The Austin Chronicle, 10/09/09
Image by StuSeeger (Stuart Seeger), used under its Creative Commons license.

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Even the Best Band-Aid Is No Cure

DormitorioLast week, Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless accepted the invitation from Austin’s CultureMap to contribute to a special editorial series called “Imagine Austin’s Future.” The best thing to do is just read “How to end homelessness in Austin: A plan” in Richard’s own words. His theme is:

My vision for Austin is a community without homelessness.

There are about 4,000 people experiencing homelessness in Austin now, and that includes plenty of women and kids. Also, there are just over 600 emergency shelter beds. As a wise man once said, “You do the math.”

At a rough estimate, it sounds like there’s a place for only one out of six: 1/6th, more or less, give or take. Yes, the emergency shelter beds that exist are very excellent, but here’s the bottom line. Society has to come up with either (a) a way to create more beds or (b), shocking as the idea may seem, a way to bring the homelessness statistics way, way down — by creating conditions where there are not so many people experiencing homelessness. Maybe not even any.

Until then, House the Homeless continues to set aside a month every Autumn to raise money for thermal underwear, which is better than no shelter at all. Austin’s Thermal Underwear Drive happens in November, right after the annual memorial service for those who have died on the streets, both recently and in all the preceding years.

Of course, Austin isn’t the only city ever to hold a collection drive for winter gear. But it may be the most dedicated. This year, $20,000 in donations bought 3,500 items of clothing to keep people warm. Well, warm-ish. Warmer than they would have been without these welcome additions to their wardrobes.

Now, think about this. Suppose you’re a person experiencing homelessness, and you receive a set of thermal long-johns. You need to strip down to your skivvies in order to put on the new stuff. And it would be extra nice to have a wash in the process. Where can a homeless person do that? In surprisingly few places.

Okay, suppose you’re lucky enough to have a shelter bed for the night, and even the opportunity to catch a shower. So you sleep in your thermal underwear and get up the next day and go outside, and guess what? It’s a little bit too hot to be wearing a layer of insulation all day, outdoors. But, say, the shelter is closed during the day. Where can you go to take off your clothes, remove the thermal underwear, stow it in your pack, and get dressed again? Probably nowhere. Even in a seemingly remote place, there’s always the danger of an observer or a camera, and then you get arrested for indecent exposure.

When the afternoon turns really hot, suppose you can find a place to remove the underlayer. A few hours later, you have to find somewhere to strip down again and get into the warm clothes. This means taking off your shoes and removing the outer layers; preferably in a secluded and not-too-cold place. You have to set down the pack and other belongings, and, of course, a state of undress always puts a person at a disadvantage. In other words, just to prepare for the cold night, you would have to put yourself in an extremely vulnerable situation.

But cheer up, there is an alternative. You can resign yourself to just wearing the thermal underwear all the time, even throughout a warm winter day. It’s extremely uncomfortable to roast in too many clothes, especially if your day includes a long walk to some office to fill out some papers. Of course, you will perspire, and suffer the consequences of offending the noses of the housed citizens who have access to toilets and showers any time they wish.

The message here is, YES, it is a great and important thing to help by providing winter underwear! We will all keep on doing it! But it helps to bear this in mind: Thermal underwear is not a solution. It’s a band-aid for a gaping wound in the body of society. There’s still a bunch of people out there in the cold! Nobody who is reading this needs to be reminded — it’s not enough to give to the Thermal Underwear Drive, and then forget about the homeless until next November.

Remember the part about creating a city and a world where few or no people would experience homelessness? If you haven’t done so already, please see Richard’s solution. His article is titled “How to end homelessness in Austin” for a reason.

Reactions?

Source: “How to end homelessness in Austin: A plan,” CultureMap.com, 02/08/12
Image by Daquella manera (Daniel Lobo), used under its Creative Commons license.

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Looking Back at 2011

Providence HomelessAmongst the year’s news research, one of the more interesting comments from the public to be discovered came from “pdquick,” who worked in the streets for years as a paramedic, and later as a doctor in a program for people experiencing homelessness. This person was reacting to a video clip about San Francisco‘s sit-lie ordinance, and to unkind remarks by other commentators:

If people could overcome addictions with a snap of the fingers, they wouldn’t be addictions, they would just be bad habits… You have no idea the barriers to housing — internal and external — that people face. We have a whole set of policies in place, from draconian drug laws, to public housing policies that essentially make evictees permanently homeless, that stand in the way. Then we put people into buildings where drug dealers knock on the doors all night trying to get you to buy drugs. These are collections of people whose mental illnesses often don’t mesh with each other at all. Then when they ‘fail’ in housing, we send them back to the streets with less stability and less chance at housing than they had before.

The organization Faith Advocates for Jobs, in the winter issue of its newsletter, named Looking Up at the Bottom Line as a “Books of Note” recommendation. This is, of course, the book we see over on the right-hand side of the page, written by Richard R. Troxell, and it is the place to find out how the Universal Living Wage can help you, me, and everybody.

For The Libertarian Alliance (a think tank headquartered in Britain), Kevin Carson wrote a lengthy and well-considered piece on Looking Up at the Bottom Line.

In July, when Austin’s city government announced the sale of a dozen subsidized homes, KUT News reporter Nathan Bernier interviewed Richard. The good news is, the construction of these houses was part of an ongoing program which had already put 30 families into houses. The bad news is, despite the city’s administering nearly 2,000 low-income units, and managing the Section 8 voucher program which affects 5,000 units, both programs have waiting lists numbering in the hundreds of applicants. Richard says,

Most of our ‘affordable housing’ programs have nothing to do with homelessness… We’re talking about people who don’t have anything, and don’t qualify for anything.

Instead, he thinks better results could be obtained by creating a living-wage jobs program that would help homeless people work their way off the street. While roughly half of the people experiencing homelessness in Austin (and the nation) are so disabled they cannot work, the other half are capable of working and indeed want to work. Meanwhile, House the Homeless has been kept extremely busy dealing with the citywide restructuring of funding for all social services that caused the Salvation Army, the Children’s Shelter, and Legal Aid to lose city funding.

John Joel Roberts, of PovertyInsights.org, cited Richard’s book in The Huffington Post article, relating its message to his own locale of Los Angeles:

… [T]he average rent for a one-bedroom apartment, as of May 2011, is $1,315 per month. Many housing experts believe that in order for a person to be able to pay for housed-living (such as food, utilities, transportation and clothing), a person should not pay more than one-third of his monthly income toward rent. That means in Los Angeles, the homeless man standing near the freeway needs to earn $22.76 per hour to afford the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment… Minimum wage in Los Angeles, however, is only $8 per hour. A person earning this rate could barely pay his rent, and would have nothing for food, utilities or anything else. In other words, he would be sitting in an empty apartment, darkened because of no electricity, and hungry because of not enough income to buy food.

If it makes sense to you that a person working 40 hours a week should be able to afford a roof over his or her head other than a bridge, then the Universal Living Wage makes sense too. Every member of Congress and every state Governor have been sent a copy of Looking Up at the Bottom Line. So has the President. Why not write or email them? Tell them that Troxell’s idea will stabilize small businesses, stimulate the housing industry and the economy generally, end economic homelessness for over one million minimum-wage workers, and prevent it for all 10.1 minimum-wage workers, including our returning veterans.

Reactions?

Source: “Homeless React to Sit/Lie,” MissionLocal.org, 11/11/10
Source: “Richard R. Troxell. Looking Up at the Bottom Line: The Struggle for the Living Wage,” The Libertarian Alliance: Blog, 04/27/11
Source: “City Selling 12 Subsidized Homes For $110,000 Each,” KUT News, 07/05/11
Source: “Unlivable Wages Mean Unlivable Conditions,” The Huffington Post, 06/09/11
Image by jdn (Jack Newton), used under its Creative Commons license.

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Why the Homeless Protected Class Resolution?

HomelessAs a document that people were eager to sign, the American Declaration of Independence was pretty successful. One of the reasons might have been its massive list of the wrongs done to the colonists by England’s king. By the time you get to the end, you’re like, “Where do I sign up?”

In just the same way, the Homeless Protected Class Resolution (HPCR) provides an exhaustive list of the horrendous conditions faced by people experiencing homelessness in the USA.

Speaking of signing, HPCR author Richard R. Troxell points out that the United States itself has signed on to a United Nations document known as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This document says that every member of society has…

… a right to basic economic, social, and cultural entitlements, that every [nation] state should recognize, serve, and protect, of which food, clothing, medical care, and housing are definitive components of the right to a minimum standard of living and dignity…

“Universal” means everybody. If every member of society has a right to these things, where are they? How can they be made real? At the very least, we can refrain from persecuting people for being homeless, which is just as ugly as persecuting them for their color or religion, or sexual preference, or any other arbitrary and hateful reason.

A child or a disabled person is vulnerable compared to a healthy adult. Children and the disabled have extra consideration extended to them, in a sane society, and those who prey on them may reap extra penalties. A homeless person is vulnerable compared to a housed person, but just because someone is an easy target doesn’t mean they exist to be prey for aggressive criminals. We really must banish the dangerous belief that street people are fair game.

The idea here is that the homeless, as a class, need their civil rights to be legally protected in a special way because they make particular tempting targets. Nobody is looking to give the indigent homeless population jewels and furs, or the keys to Fort Knox. What we endorse is the right of people to live without being busted for Breathing While Homeless. That is not, we think, too much to ask. Or expect.

People who live nowhere are not easy to count, but, on any given night, here, in America, there are about 760,000 of them. One excellent reason to refrain from persecuting them is that, increasingly, “them” is “us.” The indigent homeless population are veterans and the mentally ill, and teenagers, and single mothers with their kids, and even entire nuclear families, complete with fathers — a sign of very severe economic conditions.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about homelessness in America today is the large number of people who are totally stunned by the turn their lives have taken. People who did everything right, worked hard, and led decent lives are finding themselves on the street and simply not believing it. It’s not smart for any of us to tolerate the persecution of a group that we ourselves might suddenly become a member of.

The HPCR contains another list, of things that the indigent homeless population, the class of people experiencing homelessness, needs to be protected from:

■ Laws against sleeping, sitting, and lying down in public
■ Laws that restrict them from being provided food
■ Acts or laws interfering with their right to travel
■ Wages that are so low that they are denied access to housing
■ Laws or practices that disregard their rights of ownership and protections for their personal belongings
■ Being made targets of hate crimes
■ Being characterized and treated as non-citizens

Please take this opportunity to become familiar with the entire Homeless Protected Class Resolution and sign up.

Reactions?

Source: “Homeless Protected Class Resolution,”House the Homeless
Image by runran, used under its Creative Commons license.

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