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People Experiencing Homelessness are Stripped of Everything

A homeless woman

Emma Whitford related the harrowing story of a rainy night in East Harlem where several homeless people huddled beneath a protruding section of a building. City Parks Dept. workers showed up, along with some police officers.

According to participants, the people were not even given a chance to go out into the rain before the authorities began to load their belongings into a sanitation truck. In some cases, the police and/or city workers even shoved people to the ground and seized things that they held. The writer described the treatment of Anthony Rainey, a former Marine homeless since 1971:

Rainey says that most of his possessions were taken that morning as well—everything but an electronic benefit transfer card and credit card that happened to be in his pocket. Rainey lost his Veterans ID card, which he uses to ride public transportation free of charge and purchase clothing wholesale, plus family photographs, his birth certificate, hospital records, sweatshirts and jackets, and the CDs and chargers that he sells on the street.

Whitford also quoted Floyd Parks:

I grabbed my cart and was trying to get my stuff out, and the [officer]… just took my stuff and threw it in the [truck], and just crushed it up. And I said, ‘Yo, I got personal property.’ They said, ‘Too bad.’

Apparently, the same kind of gratuitous, random confiscation happens on a regular basis all over America. Of course, no one wants piles of junk everywhere. But reasonable measures can be taken to keep a city looking neat, without seizing people’s documents, or the things they are holding. In that New York incident, there was not even pretense of storing possessions to be picked up later. It went straight to the trash compacter.

Somewhere in Middle America

For a while, some of the people experiencing homelessness in Madison WI had been storing belongings in a supervised area at the Social Justice Center, but more space was needed downtown. The front steps of the City-County building took up some of the slack, an untenable situation that was never meant to last.

Last spring, city workers put up two enclosures across the street from there, out back of the Municipal Building, which took up part of the parking lot and probably annoyed some citizens for that reason alone. The doorless “chain-link boxes” were not equipped with shelves or dividers of any kind, so things were just bundled in there any which way. There were tarps across the top, but the sides were wide open to the weather. There was no supervision or security, so items were stolen and their owners were upset.

The authorities contended that advocates for the homeless had promised to look after the storage area. They charged that people were using the space for illegal and immoral activities, and closed the minimalistic wire shed at the end of July. Dean Mosiman wrote,

Belongings were to be removed from the facility by 2 p.m. Wednesday, with the city considering anything remaining as lost property and collected and bagged by city staff and stored off site for up to 45 days. Items that are worth less than $50, hazardous, perishable or with no sentimental, medical or legal value could be disposed immediately.

That sounds pretty reasonable, but veterans of America’s streets have learned that items do not always arrive at destinations named by city workers. Several other issues arose, and it was pointed out that a firm agreement should have been made, and thoroughly understood by both sides, before the project was undertaken.

A great public relations opportunity was lost in Madison, and a lot of potential good will was squandered, that might otherwise have accrued to both sides. Imagine what might have happened if a capable organizer with a few devoted colleagues had been in the right place at the right time. It could have been a model project, illustrating how responsible people can be, even when they are not housed, and proving that they deserve to have fair treatment and jobs and places to sleep and all that good stuff. Just like, you know, regular people.

Richard R. Troxell, co-founder of House the Homeless, suggests that “The best way to avoid the criminalization of people experiencing homelessness, and these kinds of abuses, is simply to house them.” On the way to that goal, the Wisconsin State Journal‘s Chris Rickert asks,

It’s hard not to wonder: If city officials can’t work with the homeless and their advocates on something so seemingly simple, how are they going to work together on more pressing needs — such as more shelter space, housing and mental health and substance abuse treatment?

Reactions?

Source: “Video: NYPD Destroyed Birth Certificates, Medication, IDs In East Harlem Homeless Raid,” Gothamist.com. 10/13/15
Source: “Madison closes storage area for homeless belongings,” madison.com, 07/22/15
Source: “Chris Rickert: No hindsight needed to identify problems with homeless’ storage space,
Madison.com, 08/09/15
Image by bopswave

 

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The Criminalization of Ownership

Cart and CarsHere we are in America, where private property rights are sacred, except for the people who own the least. The general housed public has a strange double-standard attitude. Upright citizens who are unable to pack for a weekend without incurring baggage overweight charges, are scornful of people experiencing homelessness who dare to keep a few belongings.

People with an overdose of righteousness get all bent out of shape because homeless people have cell phones. Has no one noticed that the pay phones are all gone? How is a person supposed to make appointments with helpful agencies, or contact prospective employers, or even call the police or fire department to report an emergency?

Say you’re a homeless person who was lucky enough to score a good, warm coat that fits and has all its buttons. What do you do when warm weather comes? Keep wearing it, and suffer the discomfort of being too warm? And be branded mentally incompetent, because wearing clothes inappropriate for the weather is a sign of schizophrenia? Or carry the coat around all summer, in addition to your bedroll and backpack?

Not in my back yard

In an online forum, you might find a message from an average homeowner who has discovered a cache of someone’s belongings on his property. He has a certain amount of compassion, and wants to be a good guy. Others reply with warnings that the bundle might contain drugs, a weapon, stolen goods, or something else that could get the homeowner in trouble. It might contain a blanket infested with bedbugs. There is a notion (spread by the firefighters in at least one city) that a homeless person, rather than simply abandoning unwanted belongings, prefers to burn them – and nobody wants a fire out by the garage.

There is another downside. Suppose a kind-hearted property owner allows someone to stash belongings. What about the neighbors or the occasionally patrolling cops? When trying to access his or her own stuff, that homeless person could be arrested for trespassing, or even summarily shot. But stuff needs to be somewhere.

Necessities of life

People have blankets, clothing, maybe a nicer pair of shoes, hygiene items and medicines that they can’t carry around every minute. They have documents, lists of phone numbers for services and other helpful contacts, and treasured family photos. They might even have money they’re saving up to try and rent a place to live. Carrying everything at all times isn’t safe. Last fall, Buffalo saw a marked increase in robberies of homeless people by street criminals, and it happens everywhere.

Many shelters have neither the space nor the desire to let people bring along all their stuff. The alternative is to find a safe spot, out in the big cruel world, to tuck a few things into a niche or an alcove or under a bush or up a tree in a park, and that is increasingly difficult. People’s belongings are seized if found “abandoned,” and often even if the person is right there on the spot. The Fourth Amendment is supposed to forbid this kind of thing, and judges have struck down such policies in Fresno, Los Angeles, Sacramento and Miami, but cities keep on doing it anyway. The ordinances that enable these warrantless seizures criminalize homelessness.

They never learn

At the end of 2014, Tucson AZ made the news when homeless organizers pushed back against the three-item rule. People were actually being arrested for owning more than a blanket, bedroll, and beverage. Activists struggled for four years before a U.S. District Judge finally granted an injunction to end this – which doesn’t mean it has ended. Early in 2015, Chicago was embroiled in a similar battle. For the Sun-Times, Mark Brown interviewed, among others, a Marine Corps veteran who had been deprived of everything he owned, four different times.

All homeless people are allowed to keep only “portable personal possessions” defined as a “sleeping bag or bedroll, not more than two coats, not more than two pairs of shoes or boots, not more than five blankets, and not more than three bags or suitcases, and such contents as may be contained in said bags or suitcases.”
In the winter months, they can have five more blankets and another sleeping bag.

Last summer, in preparation for a rock concert, Chicago authorities decreed that a neatly organized 20-tent settlement had to be moved from under a bridge, at least temporarily. Supposedly some kind of agreement was in place about sufficient notice, which may or may not have been given, depending on who tells the story. City workers started before the designated time, and threw away blankets, clothing, and other property, rather than store the items and notify people how to recover them, as had supposedly been agreed. The Department of Family and Support Services was supposed to be on hand to help relocate the people and their possessions, and showed up late when the city crews had already disposed of many things. Even when a Chicago Coalition for the Homeless lawyer showed up, the pillaging continued. Journalist Melissa Muto wrote,

Rene Heybach… told them they were in violation of the city agreement. But Heybach said that none of the workers she spoke to Tuesday had been properly trained in that protocol, and none of them, including the supervisor, had even heard of it.

What goes on in these cases? Every agency has telephones and computers. There is no excuse for such a lack of communication. Why is everything so confused and uncoordinated? The following month, Ethan Walker reported on the situation in Berkeley, CA. It was, ironically, at Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park that police seized from four homeless men everything except the clothes they stood up in. Allegedly the belongings were taken to a storage facility. According to homeless activist Mike Zint, the same scenario had been repeated hundreds of times in Berkeley, and more often than not, the seized property was destroyed rather than stored.

Zint said he has lost his property to the police seven times in four years. He said the police came, usually at night, and often cited him for breaking Penal Code 647e, which states that lodging in any place, public or private, without the permission of the owner is an act of disorderly conduct. The police then took his gear as evidence of his violation.

Activist Diane Kimes added,

The personal belongings which had value to their owners were immediately hauled off, while the garbage was left there to rot by the city. Obviously, this isn’t about keeping public space clean and safe–it’s about making life insupportable for those who have nothing…

Reactions?

Source: “Court: Confiscation rules at Tucson park unfair to homeless,” Tucson.com, 12/26/14
Source: “City agrees to be more respectful of homeless belongings,” SunTimes,com, 02/11/15
Source: “Mumford and Sons’ concert displaces homeless,” WBEZ.org, 06/19/15
Source: “Homeless in Berkeley must ‘rebuild’ after police remove property,” DailyCal.org, 07/08/15
Image by urbansnaps – kennymc

 

 

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Costs of Resisting the Housing First Paradigm

Homeless street market

In the great Northwest, in Washington state, the Seattle University School of Law issued a report about the cost of criminalizing homelessness. Examining the municipal codes of 72 cities, they found twice as many anti-homeless ordinances as were on the books in 2000. Journalists Bryce Covert and Andrew Breiner summed it up like this:

Nearly 80 percent enacted ordinances prohibiting or limiting the ability to sit, stand, or sleep in public. Another three-quarters banned urination or defecation in public, although the report notes that “cities typically fail to provide sufficient access to reasonable alternatives such as 24-hour restrooms and hygiene centers.” And nearly two-thirds outlaw “aggressive panhandling, while 22 percent criminalize storing personal property in public.”

Criminalizing homelessness by outlawing the most unavoidable life functions like sleeping and urinating, has become a trend. In Venice, California, which used to be one of the freest places on earth, homeless people are routinely brutalized by the police for such offenses as “items placed on city beach” and “property outside of designated space.” Samuel Arrington, a mentally ill homeless man who was beaten and tazed by 8 LAPD officers and subsequently hospitalized, had brought a chair and an umbrella out onto the sand.

The plot thickened when Arrington told the press that the cops had assaulted him on multiple occasions because he once warned a prospective heroin customer to stay away from a certain undercover cop, and thwarted a sting operation. Of course Arrington sued the city for violation of his civil rights, as have hundreds of others. In 2012 the L.A. Times published a spreadsheet detailing the settlements the LAPD had been ordered to make over the preceding decade. The yearly totals were $12 million, $16 million, and other numbers in that range. Many cases centered around homeless people, and police brutality is only one of the causes for which a city might be sued.

The illustration on this page shows a homeless street market, a bare-bones operation favored by those who want to hold a garage sale but don’t have a garage. In many places, this is a highly illegal enterprise.

Austin, Texas, is a notable example of pushback against “quality of life” ordinances that do nothing for life’s quality when the accused is a person experiencing homelessness. In response to people being legally punished for just sitting around, Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless said something fraught with unintentional dark humor:

It is my belief that 100% of the people receiving these tickets were perceived to be homeless at the time of ticket issuance. I was only able to verify that 96% were experiencing homelessness at the time of the ticketing.

Getting back to Washington, the 5-year total spent by just two cities, Seattle and Spokane, to enforce homeless-persecuting statutes was almost $4 million. The number is just for civil infractions and doesn’t even begin to cover the criminal violations costs. Covert and Breiner wrote:

On the other hand, the report estimates that if the $3.7 million spent enforcing the ordinances were instead spent on housing for the homeless, it would save $2 million a year and more than $11 million over the course of five years.

Criminalizing Homelessness on the East Coast

To varying degrees, some cities are beginning to see value in the Housing First philosophy. In the opposite corner of America, down in Florida, the Daytona Beach News-Journal published a comprehensive article on that state’s homeless policies.

Volusia County Judge Belle Schumann researched 50 homeless people who have cost the county well over $12 million by being arrested multiple times —as many as 400 in one case, and more than 330 times in another. A jail diversion shelter to keep these individuals off the streets would cost approximately $13 per person, per day, as compared to the $65 per diem cost of keeping them in jail. Currently, the county has fewer than 100 shelter beds to serve its 5,000 homeless residents.

Reactions?

Source: “Washington’s War on the Visibly Poor: A Survey of Criminalizing Ordinances & Their Enforcement ,” SSRN.com, 05/06/15
Source: “Arresting Homeless People For Being Homeless Is Unbelievably Wasteful,” thinkprogress.org, 05/11/15
Source: “Venice homeless man sues LAPD, alleges excessive force during arrest,” LATimes.com, 05/19/15
Source: “Legal payouts in LAPD lawsuits,” LATimes.com, 01/22/12
Source: “Arresting, jailing homeless has cost Volusia taxpayers millions,”
news-journalonline.com, 11/23/13
Image by urbansnaps – kennymc

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People Who Give

Manny Pacquiao

Manny Pacquiao

Unlike many others to whom the description is sloppily applied, boxing champion Manny Pacquiao truly is a “living legend.” After his father ate his dog, the 12-year-old boy left home to live in the streets and sleep in a cardboard box. He started boxing professionally at 14 and became the only eight-division world champion, “Fighter of the Decade,” and the world’s second highest-paid athlete. He also sings, acts, and plays and coaches basketball.

Earlier this month Pacquiao, who is now also a member of the Philippine House of Representatives, gave 150 houses to people who needed them. He spent well over half a million dollars of his own money to build Pacquiao Village, but this is only one-fourth of the intended scope of the project, which includes 600 new homes. Pacquiao (predicted by many to be future president of the Philippines) told the recipients:

Give thanks to God for what you have received today. It’s a gift from Him. He’s just using me to help you. Take good care of this property and don’t sell it.

Giving to Squatters in the United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom two sports figures, Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs, have been involved in a complicated drama concerning Manchester’s old Stock Exchange, which they bought with the intention of remodeling it into a luxury hotel.

In October, the property was occupied by about 30 squatters, and the new owners agreed that they could stay on the ground floor until the renovation work begins in early 2016. Neville even paid for electricians and plumbers to make the building safely habitable in the meantime, and arranged for full meals to be delivered to the residents three times a week.

But then apparently the original group would not allow other, rowdier homeless activists to join them, and windows were broken, and there were numerous police calls. Things settled down, and Neville and Giggs arranged with local authorities to go in with support services including help for mental health and addiction issues, and aid in finding more permanent accommodations.

Giving in San Bernardino

Kim Carter of San Bernardino, Calif., was elected by CNN viewers as one of the year’s Top 10 Heroes, an honor that comes with a $10,000 award to help further the work of the nonprofit group she started. Journalist Ryan Hagen writes:

Time for Change Foundation has helped close to 800 women since 2002, with a mission to empower disenfranchised low-income women and families by building leadership through evidence-based programs and housing to create self-sufficiency and thriving communities.

It includes case-management services in a drug-free environment, an emergency shelter, transitional housing, financial education and money management classes, independent living skills, family reunification, leadership development and parenting education.

Carter has also been responsible for the creation of a low-income housing project for people who would otherwise probably be homeless.

Meanwhile, Helping the Homeless in Wichita

In Wichita, Kan., Alan Kailer provides help with another of life’s necessities—transportation. After 35 years as a big-city corporate attorney, he retired and pedaled across America with his wife on a bicycle built for two. Out of necessity, he became a competent repairer of bikes, a skill that he now employs one morning a week at the local homeless shelter. Arriving in a minivan stocked with tools and donated parts, he fixes bikes and, more importantly, teaches people to do maintenance and repairs on their own.

P.S.

Don’t let another year go by without reading Looking Up at the Bottom Line by Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless!

Reactions?

Source: “Manny Pacquiao gives away 150 houses to homeless families in Saranggani,” KickerDaily.com, 12/15/15
Source: “Gary Neville signs deal to offer support to homeless people living in Stock Exchange building,” ManchesterEveningNews.co.uk, 11/03/15
Source: “Kim Carter, of San Bernardino, chosen as top 10 CNN Hero.” SBSun.com, 10/08/15
Source: “Wichita man offers help, tools and a willing ear for homeless cyclists.” kansas.com, 07/05/15
Image by Michael Howard

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Cities Create Jobs

CompassionEarlier this month, two major American cities announced jobs programs. In Los Angeles, city services have been deteriorating since the global economic disaster of 2008. Trees don’t get trimmed, which is not just an aesthetic issue but a safety issue. Streets don’t get cleaned, and in fact many other tasks remain undone, impacting both the appearance and functionality of the city. Public demand for the return of various services has become a sore point.

To alleviate these problems and to provide jobs, the city created the Workforce Restoration Program. Its goal for the 2017-18 fiscal year is to hire 5,000 full-time city workers. Mayor Eric Garcetti has issued a request for all city departments to prepare reports on their hiring needs. Who will be hired? Journalist Dakota Smith quoted Jackie Goldberg, a member of the California Assempbly and former City Councilwoman:

We have targeted groups…which are the homeless, which are veterans, which are people who have had gang affiliations.

The meaning is clear if the context is known, and the administration is certainly wise to concentrate on these underserved groups, but…“targeted”? Surely there must be a more friendly and positive way for agencies to describe their attempts to help certain demographics. Who wants to be a target? Smith includes a couple of sentence that seem to hint that reality might not live up to the hype:

It’s expected those groups will make up just a percentage of the applicants selected to work for the city…While adding 5,000 employees is the goal, it’s unclear how many workers will actually be hired, because the ultimate figure will depend on how many employees leave city jobs.

Albuquerque Turning Around, Perhaps

Albuquerque, New Mexico, has earned a dark reputation because of the extreme brutality of its police force, whose violence often (in the traditional sense of the word) targets people experiencing homelessness and the mentally ill. Proportionately, the city’s police have fatally shot more citizens than the New York City police. Partly because of intervention by the Justice Department, Albuquerque is trying to become kinder and gentler. Writer Fernanda Santos describes one change:

Training in crisis intervention has become a requirement for police cadets, who must try to find their way out of staged real-life scenarios—encounters with distressed drug addicts, rape victims or suicidal war veterans—without pulling out their guns.

The police department says that the “aggressive panhandling” ordinance is rarely enforced. Another innovation is the city’s effort to influence drivers. Money should not be handed out through car windows to supplicants at intersections, but donated instead to the fund for cleaning up the city. Those dollars fund food and shelter for the workers, and equally important, their daily pay.

The concept here is to hire the homeless, but not to imitate the habits of private staffing agencies that exploit day laborers by keeping a large share of their earnings. Of course, temp workers want to keep all the money that comes from the employers. But surely the agency needs to make something, if it is to pay for an office and someone to answer the phone, and especially if it is to vet the employers and make sure they are safe and fair. The only people who can afford to run such an enterprise for free are nonprofits or the government.

Of course if the government runs it, it’s not really free, because it’s on the taxpayers’ dime. Still, aside from HeadStart programs for kids, a temporary employment agency is one of the more benign and useful ways a taxpayers’ dime could be spent. As House the Homeless has said before, many people experiencing homelessness are able and willing to work. (In fact, many of them work full time and are still homeless—but that is another topic.)

Albuquerque’s Plan to Hire the Homeless

Using the same time-honored technique as the crew bosses who roll up and choose day laborers from the group of hopefuls in the Home Depot parking lot, a city employee takes a van out and picks up 10 people and delivers them to the site of a clean-up. The shift is only five or six hours and workers make $9 an hour plus lunch. This happens twice a week, so one person could make about $50 per week, or $100 if fortunate enough to be chosen on both days.

$50,000 has been allocated for this program, in city funds, just about enough to cover the paychecks, if not the lunches and the other city services needed to pick up the gathered trash and so forth. It is slightly grim that these teams clean up homeless campsites that have been broken up, so a person might even be working in a place he formerly called home. Mayor Richard J. Berry is optimistic, telling the reporter:

Fines and jail time don’t solve anything. If we can get your confidence up a little, get a few dollars in your pocket, get you stabilized to the point where you want to reach out for services, whether the mental health services or substance abuse services—that’s the upward spiral that I’m looking for.

Since the program started in September, five workers have reportedly found steady jobs. On the downside, the police department has not yet revised its use-of-force directive.


Source: “LA wants to hire homeless, former gang members, veterans
DailyNews.com, 12/07/15
Source: “Albuquerque, Revising Approach Toward the Homeless, Offers Them Jobs
NYTimes.com, 12/07/15
Image by Aaron Alexander

 

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States of Emergency – or Not

Homeless  AmericanaA state and some cities have declared a state of emergency. Traditionally, such a designation would come after a natural disaster, but this time, the reason is homelessness. It doesn’t mean they get federal money— not unless the federal government itself declared the emergency—but the move does enable the release of local funds and the loosening of rules. For instance, permits for building affordable housing can be issued more quickly—although why this process could not have been expedited all along is a mystery. For PewTrusts.org, Rebecca Beitsch wrote:

Many cities and states, even those that have declared states of emergency, are investing more in long-term affordable housing, whether by constructing new housing or spending more money on existing programs to help people stay in private housing. Those programs offer various types of affordable housing and rapid rehousing, including subsidized units, security deposit assistance and permanent supportive housing. In many cases, tenants pay 30 percent of their income in rent and may even be matched with nearby caseworkers who help them stay in housing and connect to services.

Regarding Hawaii, ThinkProgress.com spun the situation this way: “After Destroying Homeless Camps, Hawaii Declares State of Emergency on Homelessness.” The authorities in Hawaii and elsewhere are notorious for not only raiding camps, but destroying the possessions of people just trying to live.

In October, when the proclamation was made, the state’s 1.4 million people included at least 5,000 people experiencing homelessness, with an estimated 2,000 of them unsheltered. To complicate the situation, Hawaii’s homeless seem particularly reluctant to go into shelters. Nevertheless, the governor’s decision released $1.3 million from the state’s general fund and was said to provide more shelter options for families that want to remain united.

States of Emergency in Northwest Cities

Portland plans to do more than just throw money at the problem. There is talk of adjusting restrictive land-use and zoning rules, which appear to have delayed the deployment of approximately $60 million that was already available from the federal government under other affordable housing programs. Beitsch reports that developers who take part in those building projects “must keep rent at an affordable level for 60 years before charging market rates,” and what entrepreneur wants to sign off on that?

Portland also looks forward to an additional $1 million per year that will be used for affordable housing, with the revenue coming from tax on Airbnb facilities.

In Seattle, 3,000 public school children are known to be homeless, and 45 impoverished people have died in the streets during the past year. The sale of some city property should bring in more than $5 million and King County is kicking in $2 million.

At the very least, Seattle plans to add 150 shelter beds, but there is talk of attacking the root causes of chronic homelessness by providing more PTSD counselors for veterans and more addiction treatment options. The city also plans to press for federal funding via FEMA or any other possible agency.

 L.A. Fails to Address Homelessness

Los Angeles is estimated to have nearly 18,000 unsheltered homeless people and again, as in Hawaii, many find life on the streets more bearable than the shelters, particularly if they are administered by religious organizations. Los Angeles plans to spend at least $100 million in the coming year and journalist Bruce Covert says of Mayor Eric Garcetti:

He also called for shelters to stay open 24 hours a day during the rainy season, for winter shelter availability to be extended by two months, and for an increase in access to storage, bathrooms, showers, laundry, and other services.

But more than two months after the idea of declaring a state of emergency was floated, Los Angeles has not yet actually acted on its publicized intention. Some call this stalling; others call it judicious consideration of all the possible remedies. Is the City Council dragging its feet, or are all parties doing their best to plan wisely? Meanwhile, people experiencing homelessness in L.A. are facing more numerous and tougher ordinances than ever before, amounting to the criminalization of homelessness.

Only two weeks ago, Gary Blasi wrote for the LA Times:

Last week, the City Council decided to make it a crime for a homeless person to refuse to break down a tent on a sidewalk at 6 a.m., or to put the same tent up before 9 p.m., even in a pouring rain. If a federal judge does not block that rule, the mayor could [do so]…The mayor could open unused city buildings or enter into short-term leases for private buildings to provide shelter for the homeless to sleep and keep some of their belongings…The mayor could help people stay alive in the shelters they have made for themselves…City agencies could provide pallets or other means of getting them off the ground, and tents and tarps that do not leak in a heavy storm.

Supposedly, the talk of emergency declaration draws attention to the problem and inspires a sense of urgency which will help to obtain resources and lubricate a creaky bureaucracy. So, talk, talk, talk—and then, nothing. Is it any wonder that many critics hear just another variation on the same old political bloviation? But Maria Foscarinis of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty sees hope in the various actions, telling Bruce Covert:

I think the declarations are right. Declaring that homelessness is an emergency is calling a crisis by its rightful name…I think it’s totally appropriate and very important to recognize it as such, and in fact it’s long overdue.


Source: “Cities, States Turn To Emergency Declarations To Tackle Homeless Crisis,” pewtrusts.org, 11/11/15
Source: “After Destroying Homeless Camps, Hawaii Declares State Of Emergency On
Homelessness,” ThinkProgress.org, 10/19/15
Source: “Murray: Loss of life warrants homeless emergency declaration,” MyNorthwest.com, 11/03/15
Source: “The Situation Facing Los Angeles And Portland Homeless Populations Is An
Emergency,” ThinkProgress.org, 09/30/15
Source: “Preparing to declare a ‘local emergency’ could save LA’s homeless people when El Niño rains hit,” LATimes.com, 11/23/15
Image by Tom Fortunato

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Life and Death in Homeless Austin

UtahOn Sunday, November 15, the Homeless Sunrise Memorial Service took place in Austin, TX. It was the 23rd annual service, and 171 names were read, names of people who died in poverty in the city from October 2014 to the same month of this year. Anyone can learn more about it from the House the Homeless homepage, but the most important reason to go to that page now is to find out how to donate to the Thermal Underwear Drive, a major initiative that also takes place every year in Austin.

The annual memorial is perfectly fitting, and so is the annual National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week (this year, it was November 15-21). The downside of annual events, however, is that the space between them lets matters slip from the forefront of our consciousness the rest of the time.

At some point, the realization has to strike: every day, people die in poverty. Every day, people are hungry. Every day, people shiver with cold or gasp from heat stroke. Every day, people know the embarrassment of not having a safe place to take a dump, or having anything to wipe with. Every day, people suffer the humiliation of letting themselves be treated like human garbage, because they know that the smallest increment of assertiveness could have unthinkably terrible consequences.

Baby, It’s a Wild World

Although most people experiencing homelessness are peaceful, their rejection of violence makes their lives on the streets even more dangerous. People who want nothing more than to be left alone are hurt every day by the relatively small number of predators who are also homeless. Or they are hurt by housed people who see them as the enemy. Or they run afoul of the law, with varying degrees of trauma.

Austin American-Statesman writer James Barragan tells the story of a man whose transition into homelessness and eventual premature and needless death began with the death of his mother. Before following the rest of his tragic steps, one is tempted to ask (as someone from another country or another planet might), “Why wasn’t grief counseling available to him? Or if it was, what prevented him from taking the opportunity?” Could our society do a better job of helping people cope with the horrors of life, so the first step on a self-destructive path will not be taken?

In this particular case, the man who wound up homeless and dead had been troubled all his life by the knowledge that he was adopted. Sometimes, even the most loving adoptive parents can’t fill the void that results from a child’s awareness of having been abandoned. So many stressors break up families or prevent them from ever forming in the first place. Could our society do more to alleviate those pressures? The reporter spoke with relatives and friends of other homeless people who had died. A criminal record is a real handicap, and a very easy thing to acquire. Could our society thrive with fewer laws and fewer of its citizens behind bars? It quite probably could.

House the Homeless, since its inception in 1989, has always felt that Housing First is the best approach…hence the organization’s name. Through Housing First, people are able to stop street abuse that includes violence, rape, and quality-of-life ordinances that criminalize homelessness and act as barriers to escaping homelessness.

Barragan talks about the Housing First concept:

Once housed, the theory goes, the groups can help people tackle their other problems. But often, the general public thinks homelessness is an unsolvable problem and that those experiencing it have done it to themselves by not working hard enough or drinking or drugging themselves into ruin.

A brand-new report from the Associated Press does little to change such perceptions, saying:

An examination of deaths among the homeless in the Austin region show they’re dying of homicide, suicide and accidents at a rate much higher than the general population…While 86 percent of Travis County residents die of natural causes, only 29 percent of the homeless included in the analysis did, according to the report.

In 49% of the fatalities, alcohol “played a role” and in 36%, drugs “were a factor”—but some of these were the same people. In other words, in many cases alcohol and other drugs were both contributing factors. But in others, substances played no role.

The AP interviewed House the Homeless founder Richard R. Troxell, who was particularly articulate about the 11% of homeless deaths that occurred within a few days of the deceased being discharged from a jail or hospital. For more about that, see our archived post, “No ‘Discharge to Nowhere’.”

We also recommend James Barragan’s “Shining a light on a vulnerable population,” and the Austin American-Statesman‘s splendidly interactive map.

And please, don’t forget the Thermal Underwear Drive!

Reactions?

Source: “A humanizing look behind the numbers of homeless deaths in Austin.” MyStatesman.com, 11/15/15
Source: “Report: Homicide, violence claim high number of homeless.” Star-Telegram.com, 11/15/15
Image by Jobs with Justice

 

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Housing for Veterans Challenge is Being Met

Veterans Day with Mayor Steve Adler

Veterans Day with Mayor Steve Adler

For American cities that want to learn from the success of others, Austin is a place to watch. The Texas capitol tries hard and does a lot of wonderful things, setting a very worthy example. As we noted last week, Mayor Steve Adler is putting tremendous energy into meeting the goal of housing all Austin veterans by the end of the year. Earlier this month he told KVUE how 82 vets have already been housed, with “several dozen additional homes that are lined up at this point that we are in the process of filling.”

The TV station also interviewed Gus Villegas, president of the Austin Apartment Association. He encourages landlords to make units available and let ECHO do the rest. In strictly economic terms, there is not much incentive. The vacancy rate is tiny, with many qualified candidates vying for each space. Austin landlords are accustomed to being choosy, and to commanding high rents.

The federal vouchers available to house homeless veterans are insufficient, and the mayor was happy to announce that $375,000 in donations have been made to help cover the difference. Because everything is in their favor, the landlords who make units available are to be congratulated. All the more so, if they give a break on the rent.

The mayor’s program to house veterans was among several local initiatives mentioned recently by the editorial board of the Austin American-Statesman, which also added:

Last year, social outreach ministry Mobile Loaves & Fishes opened its doors to an innovative concept to take homeless people off of Austin street: a microvillage… And since 2010, the city of Austin’s Roof Over Austin campaign has successfully created 350 units of housing for homeless individuals within existing and new development projects. But more units are needed at a much quicker pace.

Focusing in on House the Homeless! Inc., two of the organization’s most recent activities were marching in the Veterans Day Parade, and hosting the Homeless Memorial. This ceremony of remembrance happens every year right around Veterans Day and the whole city is invited. The advance notice said:

It is always a Sunrise Service to suggest a New Day…This year we will read over 160 names of people who have died in abject poverty in Austin this past year. Mayor Steve Adler will be the Keynote Speaker and Deann Renee will up lift us with song.

Nationally, between 2014 and 2015 the Department of Housing and Urban Development counts about 2,000 veterans as having been removed from the homeless roster. But the big picture is not improving as quickly as everyone had hoped. The administration’s optimistic vision of totally ending veteran homelessness by the start of the new year may instead be “many years away.” However, encouraging signs abound. For MilitaryTimes.com, Leo Shane III wrote:

The annual point-in-time count, conducted in January, shows there are about 48,000 homeless veterans across the country. That’s down from the 50,000 in the January 2014 count, but a smaller drop than the 5,000 veterans taken off the streets in each of the previous three years.

Since the latest count was conducted in January, officials in a number of major metropolitan areas—including Houston, Las Vegas, New Orleans and Salt Lake City—have announced they have “effectively” ended veterans homelessness by putting in place enough assistance programs and shelters to quickly house any veterans in financial distress…On Veterans Day, Virginia officials announced theirs had become the first state to end veterans homelessness statewide.

Uber and Lyft Offer Rides for Veterans

An interesting announcement was made by companies Uber and Lyft. Both companies are aware that veterans attempting to return to the work force might have a hard time getting to job interviews. Even worse, having found employment, they might find it next to impossible to travel to and from their jobs. Few cities have truly great bus systems, and even under the best circumstances, bus lines don’t run everywhere and often don’t take night shift workers into account. According to a government press release:

Both companies have committed to donating free rides to veterans—to be administered by the employment counselors who work with them every week.

Some details of how this will work are not clear. For instance, it is doubtful that all homeless people, even if they are employed veterans, have smartphones with which to summon drivers. The Huffington Post goes into a bit more detail by suggesting that Lyft will donate “thousands of rides” and Uber will be giving away about 10,000 free rides. There was also an opportunity, on Veterans Day, for the public to donate $5 toward the cost of Uber’s program—although it is a mystery why such contributions would only be accepted on one day of the year.

Reactions?

Source: “Austin initiative to end veteran homelessness approaching goal date,” KVUE.com, 11/05/15
Source: “Updated policies, more homes needed to protect Austin’s homeless,” MyStatesman.com, 11/14/15
Source: “Homeless veterans number decreased only slightly last year,” MilitaryTimes,com, 11/13/15
Source: “Joining Forces to Help Veterans Transition,” whitehouse.gov, 11/10/15
Source: “Uber And Lyft Offer Homeless Vets Free Rides To Job Interviews,” huffingtonpost.com, 11/10/15
Image by the Challenger

 

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Veterans Day in Austin, 2015

Veterans Day with Mayor Steve Adler, who has pledged to end veteran homelessness in Austin, Texas by December 31st, 2015.

Veterans Day with Mayor Steve Adler, who has pledged to end veteran homelessness in Austin, Texas by December 31st, 2015.

Back in August, Austin mayor Steve Adler announced an ambitious plan to end veteran homelessness in the city by tomorrow (Veterans Day 2015). The first thing to understand is that finding viable permanent housing for all people in that situation would be impossible. Mostly, the goal here is temporary housing for all. A first step, but by no means a final one.

Donations For Homeless Housing

Before long, the news came out: “Austin Board of REALTORS® donates $15,000 to house Austin’s homeless veterans.” But an attentive reading of the press release discloses that it was actually the National Association of REALTORS® who made the generous grant. What the local Austin Board of REALTORS® Foundation did was donate $5,000 to a fund for such expenses as housing repairs (though it does seem that should be the landlord’s responsibility anyway). The literature says:

The Housing Our Heroes Initiative is part of the national Mayor’s Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness. Austin’s effort involves a coalition of Austin landlords, business leaders and service providers, who are working together to provide stable housing, extensive support services and temporary financial assistance to Austin’s homeless veterans.

It was announced that “seven leases have been executed on REALTOR®-managed properties to date, and additional units have been committed to this purpose.” Although every bit of help is appreciated, seven units doesn’t make much of a dent in the number of homeless vets.

Journalist Kayla Stewart questioned the director of ECHO (Ending Community Homelessness Coalition) who made some cogent points. For one thing, between January and August, the number of homeless veterans in Austin appears to have doubled to around 500. Stewart says:

While about half are housed, property owners tend to be reluctant to rent to veterans.

The reluctance to rent to veterans is saddening. In the past, Texas has been perceived as holding military veterans in high esteem. Maybe the state has changed a lot, or maybe it’s just that Austin is its own place. Maybe it’s simply that a saturation point has been reached.

By ECHO’s count, the percentage of Austin homeless people who are veterans is higher than the national average—around 20%. They add:

Veterans are not only more likely to become homeless, but are also more likely to stay on the streets longer than the average homeless person. And within that group, yet another group is overrepresented: almost 50% of homeless Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans are African-American.

These facts are found in a substantial and impressive Austin Chronicle piece by Kahron Spearman that recapitulates a ton of important backstory and enumerates in exhaustive detail the obstacles faced by many veterans. Another factor in the crisis is that the housing program “ceiling” is $800 per month, which presumably means a landlord cannot ask more. Still, that seems like an awful lot for a single person.

Obstacles to Housing Veterans

But Megan Podowski of Caritas explains: the city’s rental units are 98% occupied, and landlords are in a position to demand that prospective tenants present impeccable credentials. Many veterans, especially those who struggle with personal demons and service-inflicted disabilities, have gaps in their residence histories and may have been late with their rent on occasion. And indeed, Spearman goes on to say:

The majority of homeless veterans are male, suffer from mental illness or recurring disorders, [and] abuse drugs and/or alcohol.

What so many folks really need is supportive housing, with full-bore and hard-core Housing First philosophy behind it. But Austin is doing the best it can with the resources at hand. Also quoted is Tu Giang of Front Steps:

We take veterans based on a vulnerability scale…Once we complete intake, that individual gets with a case manager [and is assessed for current needs]. We’ve really ramped up our resources, with a lot of aggressive and concerted outreach.

As such projects will do, this one ran into problems. As of mid-October, 100 housing units were still being sought, and the goal date was moved to December 31, 2015. Mayor Adler’s three-pronged call to action includes his request to spread the word via social media. At the Housing Heroes website (which still publicizes the old deadline) a person can house a veteran, donate, sign up for the email newsletter, and write to a member of the mayor’s staff.

Finding the Homeless

Other parts of the overall plan continue uninterrupted. On October 16, representing Legal Aid for the Homeless and House the Homeless, Richard R. Troxell participated in a two-hour training session, led by the mayor’s aide Earl Jones. The following day, the various teams spent three morning hours in outreach to veterans experiencing homelessness. Richard says:

As we located homeless folks, we offered Veterans information about Coordinated Assessment and offered them a Pathway out of homelessness. We also offered immediate shelter and a reserved shelter bed at Austin’s Resource Center for the Homeless, ARCH. For uninterested veterans, but those in desperate need, we offered 45 days of transitional housing in a local motel when we would provide other service like health care, supportive housing, Legal Aid, etc.

The volunteers also distributed Plastic Resource Pocket Guides from House the Homeless. Overall, it was a successful outreach effort. Much more information is available from ECHO, a recommended destination for those who want more details and especially for those who want to help. December 31 is approaching fast.

Reactions?

Source: “Austin Board of REALTORS® donates $15,000 to house Austin’s homeless veterans,” NewsRadioKLBJ.com, 09/16/15
Source: “Mayor’s Plans to End Veteran Homelessness Halted,” patch.com, 10/12/15
Source: “Collateral Damage,” AustinChronicle.com, 07/17/15
Image by Sly Majid, Office of the Mayor

 

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Bell v. City of Boise Lives On, Kind Of

fallen leavesRecently, House the Homeless discussed Bell v. City of Boise and its importance. Quick review: More than a decade ago, Los Angeles was sued over its severe anti-homeless ordinances. The outcome was awaited with great interest. If the city lost, then conditions would improve for people on the street.

If the city won, then the case would be appealed to the Supreme Court, which might engender some real fireworks. If it came to challenging the constitutionality of “breathing while homeless” laws, the American landscape could change radically. In due time, Judge Kim M. Wardlaw laid down words that would look good engraved in stone:

The Eighth Amendment prohibits the City from punishing involuntary sitting, lying, or sleeping on public sidewalks that is an unavoidable consequence of being human and homeless without shelter in the City of Los Angeles.

The U.S. Constitution may not be perfect, but it’s the best tool we have for securing liberty and justice for all. Judge Wardlaw coupled that basic fact with the realization that everybody’s got to be someplace, and while they’re there, they just might need to sit down, or even lie down and sleep. For people experiencing homelessness all across America, things were looking up. But the aftermath dragged on, and optimism was quenched when, subsequent to a compromise agreement, the judgment was vacated.

But Judge Wardlaw’s words were not forgotten. More recently, when Boise, Idaho, was sued for similar reasons, the Justice Department stepped in (critics would say “interfered”) by filing a statement of interest. It is the federal bureaucracy’s way of putting the city on notice—“We will be keeping an eye on you.” In its official communication, the Justice Department quoted Judge Wardlaw’s words, and the whole issue started to pick up momentum again.

Boise’s Version of the Truth

Associated Press writer Samantha Wright noted the total number of people charged with public camping in each of four consecutive years, ranging from 12 in 2012 to 293 in 2015. That is more than a 24-fold increase. To put it another way, for every one person cited with public camping in 2012, 24 were cited in 2015. To put it yet another way, that is 24 times as many. Clearly, some kind of escalation has taken place.

Yet, soon after the Justice Department declared its concern, the City of Boise reacted by saying they had gotten the wrong end of the stick. Wright explained:

The Department says it is opposing the Boise law that makes it a crime for homeless people to sleep or camp in public places because it unconstitutionally punishes them for being homeless. But city spokesman Mike Journee says the law was changed and police can no longer give tickets for camping if homeless shelters are full. And if there is room at a shelter, police will try to convince people to go there…The suit was originally brought by seven homeless people in 2009 who were cited under the law, even though there was no room for them at local shelters.

But two months later, it became obvious that the constitutionality of forbidding people to sleep would not see its day in court. Judge Ronald E. Bush of the U.S. District Court dismissed the lawsuit. He and the other Boise officials hold that the only people who have been punished for sleeping outside had refused to procure a shelter bed. In this version of reality, if no shelter space is available, the police don’t bother anybody.

The Future for Anti-Homeless Laws

Eric Tars is an attorney for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, representing the plaintiffs. He told journalist Frankie Barnhill that one reason the suit was dismissed was that “all but two of the plaintiffs are no longer homeless, so they don’t have a fear of being arrested for camping in public.” Which is ridiculous, because what about all the other people who are, currently, homeless? Besides, just letting time go by is a reprehensible way to run a legal case. Stall long enough, and everybody’s dead.

The director of the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project, Sara Rankin, warned other cities not to become over-confident about their own anti-homeless laws, saying:

Cities would be very ill-advised to interpret the Bell v. Boise case as carte blanche to enact broad anti-camping ordinances. The reason for that is the decision in Bell v. Boise was not rendered on the merits.

Clearly, this issue will keep popping up over and over in different cities until somebody makes a definitive ruling that is an irresistible call to action. In the meantime, anyone who cares about housing or otherwise helping the homeless could start by learning just what the laws are in her or his own city. It might be enlightening.

Reactions?

Source: “City Weighs In On DOJ Criticism Of Boise Homeless Camping Law,” boisestatepublicradio.org, 08/07/15
Source: “Advocacy Group Responds To Dismissal Of Boise Homeless Case,” boisestatepublicradio.org, 10/01/15
Source: “Boise Homeless Case Dismissed, What Happens Next?,” boisestatepublicradio.org, 10/02/15
Image by Thomas Quine

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