“Bridge” is a loaded word in the homeless community, because for so many people it is the definition of home (as in living beneath a bridge). Sometimes, a communal meal or a church service may take place under a bridge, but the picture is still grim. Several years ago, House the Homeless opened up the meaning of bridge to include the highway overpass, and redefined a bridge as a podium, a pulpit, a stage, a platform, a grandstand. The bridge became the medium through which America learned of the Universal Living Wage.
The economic gap can be bridged, and one of the most practical and sensible ways to begin is through the Universal Living Wage, through recognition that the minimum wage should be tied to local conditions. The dramatic and inspiring story of how Bridge the Economic Gap Day started is all there in Richard R. Troxell’s book, Looking Up at the Bottom Line.
What follows is only a brief summary of a story packed with drama. Someone ought to buy the film rights and make a movie. The picture on this page, taken at one of several Austin action sites, is from the book. Richard is on the left, and the exuberant woman next to him is Eve Adams, who was 100 years old at the time.
For four years, volunteers tirelessly worked to spread the ULW idea and collect endorsements from organizations throughout the country. In 2005, the time seemed right for the first ULW National Day of Action. The chosen date was “Labor Day Plus 1” (which this year falls on September 8—today.) Richard’s goal was to have at least one Bridge Action in every state, so his plan concentrated on width. The Call for Leadership went out. Richard says:
I explained that Bridge the Economic Gap Day would be a great local/national organizing event that would require very little work on their part. We would send our endorsers and participants blank press releases in which they could tout their own organizations and their own local living wage issues. On top of that, we offered to send them the banner for free, and encouraged them to fly their own organizational banner.
Three weeks into the effort, there were commitments from 39 Bridge Captains in 32 states. Donations paid for banners, postage, hardware, and other necessities. The first banner order was optimistic but not splashy. The supplier, J.D. Moore, graciously lowered the price for the second round of banner orders, and lowered it again for the third batch. In the book, Richard discusses his press strategy, and the last-minute need for several hundred dollars for media, and how a more-than-generous donation from his friend and advisor Tom Holmes saved the day. The people who did the phone work each faced unique struggles in their personal lives, but somehow it all got done. The day came when each and every state had at least one Bridge Captain.
Of course, complications emerged, such as the 22,000 refugees from Hurricane Katrina who arrived in Austin, requiring the earnest attention of House the Homeless and every other organization of its kind. Some of those displaced survivors helped to represent the ULW on five of the city’s bridges. Police department guidelines were carefully observed. It was, by the way, 120 degrees in Austin that day. Some participating groups were:
- Saint Edwards Universal Living Wage Warriors
- University of Texas School of Social Worker students
- Americorps VISTA volunteers
- Gray Panthers
- Casa Marienella
The Bridge Actions generated media attention and, more importantly, new allies and connections for House the Homeless and the ULW idea. After that first Bridge the Economic Gap action, the participants gathered at a park where Mobile Loaves and Fishes fed everybody. Richard says:
We shared hot dogs, cold drinks, bridge stories, and our dreams for a kinder, gentler world where economic justice is the norm, not the exception. I closed with a few thoughts and the observation that all across the nation, folks just like us had been on bridges, sharing similar experiences, and the same dream. It felt good.
Bonus Capsulized History of the Universal Living Wage:
Katie McCaskey’s timeline on the House the Homeless News Page
“Three Rich Treasury Secretaries Laugh It Up Over Income Inequality”
Source: “Looking Up at the Bottom Line
Image by House the Homeless
One of the traditions of House the Homeless (founded in 1989) is the survey through which people experiencing homelessness in Austin, Texas, can go on record about various matters that affect their lives. The questions were composed by the organization’s president and founder, Richard R. Troxell, who is also Director of Legal Aid for the Homeless.
This year’s topic, presented at the annual Thermal Underwear Distribution Party, was “Protect and Serve,” and concerned interactions with the police. One word instantly springs to mind when describing the results: appalling.
277 participants, averaging 45 years of age, answered the questions, with about four times as many males as females responding. A lot of mistreatment is the petty kind of stuff that housed people rarely encounter, like being told to “move along” when in a public place. Then, there is another tier of harassment, revealed in answer to the question, “Did you ever get a ticket, go to court, then be told your ticket is not in the system yet and you would have to return?”
The Community Court system is supposed to be an improvement on the old way of handling minor crime, but in far too many cases, as Richard notes, it “actually hinders their ability to change their condition of being homeless.” Here is how he puts it:
We have been told that people have often had to return to the court multiple times before a ticket is reported to the court. If a person is unable to coordinate their response with the submittal of the ticket, then it will “go to warrant.” This will result in the arrest of the individual for what was otherwise only a class C ticket, equivalent to a parking ticket.
When you don’t have a car or a telephone or a computer; when there is no secure place to store your belongings; when you don’t have the right clothes or accessories to protect yourself from the weather; when you don’t know where your next meal will come from or where you will sleep that night; when you are physically disabled or suffering from mental illness— EVERYTHING is enormously difficult.
So, what does the system do? Too often, it responds by demanding that you show up somewhere that is hard to get to, dragging everything you own along because there is no safe place to leave it. You have to walk a long way, or wait for transportation that you might be unable to pay for—and don’t even think about trying to break the law against hitch-hiking. You have to get there on time, regardless of how hot or cold it is outside, or how much pain you may be having.
It Gets Worse
And then, too often, the system says you have to come back because, through no fault of your own, the system isn’t ready for you. Or it punishes you for not knowing you were supposed to show up, or insists on your attendance at some place far from the nearest food source and at the wrong time of day to make it back in time to eat or even worse, to sign up for a bed. And if you have one or more children to worry about, everything is exponentially more demanding.
It’s as if the system is deliberately and maliciously designed to crush the spirit and drain the last ounce of energy and hope from a person—and Austin is a model city, better than a lot of other American cities by many orders of magnitude. Imagine what hellish places some of them must be! Austin’s No Sit/No Lie ordinance is shining example of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act—and yet, even that hard-won, monumental victory has not succeeded in compelling the police to always do the right thing.
The Protect and Serve Survey results were sent, along with a cover letter written by Richard R. Troxell, to Austin’s City Manager, Police Chief, Mayor, Mayor Pro Tem, City Council members, Public Safety commissioners, Human Rights commissioners, and to the National Coalition for the Homeless— and future posts will have more to say about it.
Image by Picture 084
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.
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
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.
Austin, 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?
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.
Many 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!
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.
In 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!
Partly 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.
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.
Last 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.