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When Homelessness Is Criminalized

homeless-man-on-a-benchFor Alternet.org, Ebony Slaughter-Johnson wrote:

In communities all over the country, police are strongly incentivized — by federal grant conditions and local budgetary constraints alike — to make arrests and issue fines as frequently as possible.

After such a truth-bomb of a first sentence, all the rest is just details — the kinds of details that pile up relentlessly, day after day, in some parts of the country, until an outlaw life looks better than nothing. But, too often, young people are implicated in crimes they never put an ounce of intention or awareness into. A person can wind up in prison for loaning their car to a friend.

The poor are systematically hit with fines and penalties that make their survival even more precarious. In 2013, in Ferguson, Missouri, the courts “released more arrest warrants than there were people.”

The notorious, enormously protested 2015 death of Sandra Bland in Prairie View, Texas, was found to be part of a similar scheme. States with no personal income tax, of which Texas is one, are particularly vulnerable to piracy in uniform.

It is all part of a system that, as Slaughter-Johnson says, “creates poverty with one hand while violently punishing it with the other.” She relates the appalling story of Alton Sterling, a homeless man killed by police in Baton Rouge, LA. People experiencing homelessness are hit hardest of all, especially in neighborhoods that are mostly African-American. The much-touted solution of mass incarceration has solved nothing.

Communities in crisis

Remember when Sarasota, Florida, arrested Darren Kersey for charging his cell phone in a public picnic shelter in a city park? This led to a night in jail, a charge of Utilities Theft, and a $500 bail bond. It costs about 25¢ per year to charge a cell phone, so that seems a bit extreme. The likelihood that a person experiencing homelessness could post bail, or pay any fine, was vanishingly small.

In 2015, there was a similar cell-phone case in Portland, Oregon, generally perceived as a liberal and left-leaning town. A man and a woman (who identified herself as “Jackie”), both experiencing homelessness, were accused of third-degree theft for charging their phones from “an outlet on a sidewalk planter box in Old Town.”

This is the type of outlet that powers the extravagant holiday light displays in cities across America, spending a chunk of taxpayers’ money for decorations for people to enjoy. Why a city would begrudge homeless people the fraction of a cent’s worth of electricity needed to charge a phone is a mystery indeed.

Reporter Emily Green mentioned the foolishness of wasting public resources on such a trifling “offense” especially when, as in this case, the time and energy of four uniformed officers are utilized. She also pointed out the serious consequences that could accrue:

Jackie has never been convicted of a crime. If this charge led to a conviction, it would mean the difference between checking “no” or “yes” to questions about criminal history on a job or housing application.

Jackie’s case was destined for Community Court, but when TechDirt.com followed up the story, reporting that the accused had lost the citation and consequently missed her court date. She turned herself in and was jailed.

The following month, Alternet.org reported that Jackie had refused a plea bargain because of the damage it could do to her future chances of housing and employment, and said that “eventually, the theft charge was dropped.”

Back in Florida

Let’s get back to the fate of Florida’s accused electricity thief, Darren Kersey. A sane judge threw the case out. The ACLU’s Michael Barfield told the press:

We have been monitoring the efforts to root the homeless out of the parks, and have several actions planned against the city. So much happens on a daily basis, it’s hard to keep up with it. Every day there’s something new.

Barfield is a former jailhouse lawyer who, because of his criminal record, is not permitted to become an attorney. The law allows him to practice as a paralegal, which he does enthusiastically, defending so many unpopular causes that surely a movie will be made about his life some day. In the whole country, he is one of the more flamboyant public figures involved with homeless issues. As a not-quite lawyer, he is in a position similar to that of many not-quite-reporters.

The great news-gatherers and news-dispensers of the past and present deserve infinite respect. Still, there has probably never been a time when citizen journalism flourished more ornately or more effectively. The general public may never hear of the contributions made to justice by their fellow Americans whose energy is directed according to Motivation 3.0, the formulation articulated by Daniel Pink as a combination of autonomy, purpose, and mastery.

Few people will ever know how much any story was enriched by amateur sleuthing and bureaucrat-bothering, contributed by ordinary folks who aspire to be the difference they want to see in the world.

Reactions?

Source: “The Criminalization of Black Homelessness,” AlterNet.org, 12/06/16
Source: “Homeless man jailed after charging cell phone,” OrlandoSentinal.com, 11/13/12
Source: “Homeless phone-charging “thief” wanted security,” StreetRoots.org, 03/06/15
Source: “Portland Police Bravely Defend Public From Homeless Woman Looking To Charge Her Cell Phone,” TechDirt.com, 03/19/15
Source: “Jailed for Charging a Cell Phone? 7 Cruelest Instances of Class Warfare in America,”
AlterNet.org, 04/08/15
Photo credit: Pedro Ribeiro Simoes (pedrosimoes7) via Visualhunt/ CC BY

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Interesting Housing Ideas

penn-ave-washington-dcThis week we turn from regretting the current housing situation to exploring a couple of intriguing ideas. For CityLab.com, Kriston Capps articulated one of America’s frequently-asked questions:

There’s vacant property everywhere, and there are homeless people everywhere. So why the hell don’t we use that property to house the homeless?

The answer may lie in the somewhat obscure Title V, part of 1987’s McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, the same legislation that demanded education for children experiencing homelessness. Title V says that property no longer wanted by the federal government can and should be given to states, cities and nonprofits, for housing and relevant needed services.

The long and winding road that must be traveled to do this is described by Capps in exquisite detail which is briefly encapsulated here. Although Title V is “a shockingly sensible way to tap into a vast amount of property sitting unused in American cities,” the process sounds excruciating, so challenging, in fact, that in 2003, almost 1,000 orphan federal properties deemed as homeless shelter-suitable were on the roster — yet only 17 applications were made.

How it starts

The Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) gathers information on properties that Uncle Sam is done with. Their availability is made known to interested parties, and homeless-related causes are at an advantage. Before the government can sell or otherwise convey a property, it has to be offered first to an organization dedicated to alleviating homelessness.

Although HUD does the publicity, application must be made via the Dept. of Health and Human Services. Capps wrote:

To receive final approval from HHS, an applicant would need to demonstrate not just expertise but also a financing plan to convert the building or property. (Title V commits no funds to homeless services.) That could be difficult for an applicant to demonstrate on a tight turn-around of just 90 days… Agencies frequently fail to comply with Title V, and there have been consistent congressional efforts to bypass it.

Still, despite difficulties, it is being done. In Los Angeles, the Salvation Army used Title V to create the Bell Shelter. San Francisco is working on a similar plan to build two structures with an overall 250 housing units. In Washington, D.C., the process is underway to turn a former federal warehouse into a combination of permanent supportive housing for seniors and transitional services facility.

Capps wrote:

Title V has created some 500 emergency shelters, transitional housing facilities, nonprofit offices, and other spaces using about 900 acres of federal land across 30 states and D.C.

Last December, recognizing the shortcomings of the original legislation, Congress passed some more laws to fix it. Available properties are now listed online, and the application process is easier. Permanent supportive housing is now allowed. If a local government, faith-based organization or housing nonprofit wants to turn an old federal building into a shelter, apparently zoning laws and the objections of neighborhood associations can be ignored.

Can they work together?

Truth-Out.org recently published a piece by Christa Hillstrom that focuses on how locally owned businesses thrive when organized as co-operatives. Could these two concepts meld together? Could a housing co-op meet the requirements to get a big, formerly federal building? Word on the street is that the headquarters of the FBI (pictured) might soon be available. As Capps reminds us, any organization that can turn it into a homeless shelter gets first dibs.

Reactions?

Source: “The Unsung Government Program That Gives Federal Property to the Homeless,” CityLab.com, April 2017
Photo credit: kmf164 via Visualhunt/CC BY-SA

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A Few Things About Rent

min-wage-state-mapGeorge Orwell, author of 1984 and Animal Farm, published another book 80 years ago called The Road to Wigan Pier, about the terrible conditions in England just after the Great Depression. What does it remind you of?

In the industrial areas the mere difficulty of getting hold of a house is one of the worst aggravations of poverty. It means that people will put up with anything — any hole and corner slum, any misery of bugs and rotting floors and cracking walls, any extortion of skinflint landlords and blackmailing agents — simply to get a roof over their heads.

Most of the people I talked to had given up the idea of ever getting a decent habitation again. They were all out of work, and a job and a house seemed to them about equally remote and impossible. Some hardly seemed to care; others realized quite clearly in what misery they were living.

It reminds us of the situation in parts of America today, where more and more economically stressed people are competing for fewer and fewer affordable rentals. Remember our posts about Airbnb as it manifests in Los Angeles and San Francisco?

More happened. The short-term rental broker sued the city of San Francisco and here’s the crazy part: Airbnb had participated in writing the law it sued about, one that “capped short-term rentals at 90 days in addition to requiring renters to register.” Doesn’t sound so unreasonable, does it?

Airbnb soon reversed its stance, and claimed that the law violates not only the First Amendment free speech right, it also violates the federal Communications Decency Act. Gizmodo’s Angela Chen explains exactly how, along with other complicated circumstances, and also why the mayors of 10 big cities met to figure out what to do about Airbnb.

Airbnb is also accused in other contexts as being exclusively white-privileged. Proponents call it homesharing, to make it sound all warm and fuzzy, because who would want to come out against homesharing?

But these domiciles are not being freely shared with newly-evicted families, no, they are being rented at unbelievably elevated prices to people who already have at least one home. Property owners can make so much more money renting to a never-ending series of vacationers than to, for instance, a nice family looking for stable situation to raise a couple of kids in.

Not inspiring of optimism

Meanwhile, who wouldn’t want to know about a rental ripoff even more disgusting than Airbnb? Rentberry, described as “a cross between Craigslist and eBay, wants to expand from 10 to 1,000 U.S. cities. Basically, from the highest bidders’ pool, landlords can choose the prospective tenant who makes the best impression.

Supposedly, it will even lower rents in some parts of the country. This prediction is partly based on an outlandish-sounding claim that there is an oversupply of apartments in America:

[…] if it takes off and becomes the new standard for renting apartments… landlords will have the control.

[…] the ease of having background checks already complete and the possibility of higher rents than expected could prove enticing.

And Rentberry isn’t the only one to see the potential in this business model. Competitors like Biddwell are also coming up, ensuring that this idea won’t live or die with just one startup.

The following notes were taken by your correspondent who went undercover to a seminar for Colorado landlords, presented by a nationally acclaimed consultant. This was around 20 years ago — in the good old days:

He gave them advice on what he called a powerful control tool. “Do not give yearly leases. By keeping the tenants on a month-to month lease, you can get rid of them in ten days instead of thirty.”

Discussing three-day eviction, he exclaimed, “This is fabulous stuff, fabulous. For crying out loud, use it!”

renters-income-chart

Simple Charts Are the Best Charts

… Such as this one from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Much of their raw data, incidentally, comes from the decennial census, and here are some facts about that:

The census is one of the most impressive attempts any country makes to count its own people, a crucial building block for the world’s largest economy…

The census affects every corner of America, determining where hundreds of billions of federal dollars flow annually, where businesses open new stores and which states gain — or lose — seats in the House of Representatives in 2020 reapportionment.

The bad news, as delivered by Danny Vinik, is that the nation’s ability to carry out its next national census appears to be threatened. How this can particularly affect the expenditure of $500 billion dollars in such areas as housing, based on the American Community Survey, is explained in chilling detail by ScienceMag.org.

More posts concerning rent and other closely related topics:

  1. Living on the Shifting Sands of Affordability
  2. Minimum Wage and the Rental Market
  3. Economic Homelessness, Rent, and Deadened Memories
  4. The Fight for $15!
  5. Does Tyrone Poole Have the Rental Housing Answer?
  6. Ending and Preventing Economic Homelessness
  7. The Universal Living Wage
  8. Economic Homelessness in New York: One Man’s Story

Reactions?

Source: “The Road to Wigan Pier,” George Orwell
Source: “Airbnb Sues San Francisco Over Law It Helped Draft,” Gizmodo.com, 06/28/16
Source: “Bidding Website Rentberry May Be the Startup of Your Nightmares,” Gizmodo.com, 04/02/17
Source: “Trump’s Threat to the 2020 Census,” Politico.com, 04/09/17
Source: “Scientists fear pending attack on federal statistics collection,” ScienceMag.org, 01/03/17
Image sources: Fair use (top), CBPP

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A Tale of Two Parks

sacramento-ca-state-house-buildingThe statehouse in Sacramento, California (pictured), is surrounded by a 40-acre park, one of the luckiest parks in the world because, for over two decades, caring for it was the obsession of a chronically homeless man named Randall Koroush.

Journalist Cynthia Hubert wrote:

He picked up fallen camellia blossoms, oak tree branches and palm fronds. He raked leaves from the steps and sidewalk. He polished iron gates and swept dirt from bathroom floors. No one paid Koroush for his work.

He would arrive first thing in the morning and spend 10 or 12 hours making sure the park stayed free of litter. He always wore a clean white t-shirt tucked into jeans, and never accepted any offer of food or drink. His habitual lunch was a cup of instant ramen noodles.

The park administration allowed him to store his belongings in an old greenhouse, but he slept under a bridge or behind a church. With people, he would respond politely, but not chat. Sometimes he talked to himself or to a person who wasn’t present, but then, don’t we all?

Mike Nielson, a General Services supervisor who knew Koroush for most of his time at the park, said, “He wanted to do right by this place. He wanted it to look good.” A police officer described him as having “dignity and purpose.” Although visitors sometimes reported him as a suspicious person, all the law enforcers who patrol the park on bicycles and horses looked out for him. They knew that Koroush was the son of a California Highway Patrol retiree and brother of a current CHP employee. The family acknowledges how kindly their son was treated.

Escape from history

Not many people knew that, back in the day, Koroush had never been very good at holding a job. He had been a hard drug addict, though at the time of his death at age 56 he hadn’t used in more than 10 years. As a child, Koroush wanted to be a forest ranger. His “poor choices” ruled that out, but dedicating himself to a park was the next best thing. That is his mother’s theory, and it is as good as any other.

Hubert wrote, “Koroush had four siblings and parents who loved him and tried and failed on many occasions to get him inside.” He did laundry and had the occasional meal with his folks, but getting back to the park was his number one priority.

The reporter goes on to say:

According to police and relatives, he walked into Sutter General Hospital on Feb. 1, toting his belongings, struggling to breathe and with cuts and bruises on his face. He died at UC Davis Medical Center a few days later.

There were pre-existing medical problems, but the patient had also had apparently been assaulted. However, with no reliable evidence, the police did not institute a homicide investigation. Although his death was a great loss to Sacramento, Randall Koroush was a rare and special case. In the entire country there are probably very few cities, capitol or otherwise, where a person in his situation would be treated with such leniency.

Los Angeles

The other park story is also from California. “Skid Row” is a term that can send shivers down the spine. In Los Angeles, Skid Row means 10,000 people in tenements and welfare hotels and tents, in about a 50 square block area that is constantly squeezed by encroaching development. This evolving community has little in common with the Downtown and Historic Cultural neighborhood councils that claim it. Activists are trying to break away and form a discrete Skid Row neighborhood council.

A few years back, there were state-level budget cuts, and the area’s only two public parks almost lost their funding. The city took over to provide enough support to pay for the upkeep of San Julian and Gladys. Members of the public also contribute their time and energy, and one of the most noticeable has been A.J. Martin.

For LAWeekly.com, Mindy Farabee told his story, which she casts as an example of “the redemptive power of just showing up for your community everyday.” The journalist wrote:

His gig at the park allows him “to give, to help, to be a part of something,” he explains. “It’s helping me stay solid, it’s helping me stay firm, it’s helping me personally stay secure instead of lost in a lot of misery and a lot of torture and a lot of pain.”

In an unofficial capacity, Martin takes care of Gladys Park. He makes sure the restrooms are in order, and issues brooms to other helpers, who may be marginally functional at best, yet do a conscientious job of sweeping and tidying.

The manager of an adjacent hotel says, “Things run smoothly with him around.” This is no small feat, because a lot goes on there. Health fairs for the local street people and free clinics for their pets set up in the park. A New Orleans-style jazz band makes events festive. There are sports teams for kids and, as might be expected, it is where faith-based groups bring food.
Gladys Park hosts annual two-day art festival organized by the Los Angeles Poverty Department, the collective whose slogan is “Walk the Talk.”

An important function

The journalist follows Martin through an evening as he closes the park to get ready for a meeting of the solidly established local branch of AA. Farabee says:

At 7 p.m., A.J. opens the gates again and the Drifters and their fellow travelers file in, like a walking Bukowski poem… Some come from as far as Malibu, Orange County and Whittier to remind themselves where they came from or where they could end up.

It is AA policy to serve freely, but this group passes the hat to provide Martin with a small stipend. When the meeting ends at 8:30 p.m., he locks up the park again, this time from the outside, and sleeps on a nearby sidewalk.

As of the most recent news mention, less than a year ago, he was still a fixture. Also, last summer, new water fountains were installed outside the gates of both Skid Row parks.

Reactions?

Source: “He cared for a huge park for free while sleeping under a bridge. His death is a mystery,” NewsObserver.com, 02/19/17
Source: “The Homeless Man Who Runs a Park,” LAWeekly.com, 08/14/14
Source: “Skid Row Gets New, Much-Needed Drinking Fountains,” Curbed.com, 06/29/16
Photo credit: Mark Goebel (Sangre-La.com) via Visualhunt/CC BY

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Odd Jobs

recycling-cans-in-bagsRecently, House the Homeless looked at the situation in Washington, D.C., where shady contractors pit people experiencing homelessness against evictees (i.e., the newly homeless), and it’s ugly.

In any city, there are bound to be a few jobs specially allotted to, or created by, those who are out of options. The viability of a career in recycling depends on local ordinances; access to a buyer; having a way to store and transport the merchandise; and other factors.

California’s recycling rules have been in effect for almost 30 years, and for many street people, their only income derives from bottles and cans. In San Francisco, a person might make between $15 and $35 per day, depending on good weather, good health, and good luck in not having their haul stolen by competitors. There used to be 30 redemption sites and now are only two, very close to each other geographically, so people in any other part of the city have a hard time.

Waste management expert Martin Medina estimates that about 1% of the earth’s urban dwellers (about 15 million people altogether) live by harvesting society’s castaway materials. In some places their activities are, of course, criminalized.

For CommonDreams.org, Jack Chang wrote a respectful tribute to the trash pickers of the world:

Every day, they rescue hundreds of thousands of tons of material from streets and trash dumps that get reprocessed into all kinds of products. That not only cuts back on the resources used by industries but also lightens the load on dumps that are quickly reaching capacity.

“Urban Tactics; Nabbing the Elusive Nickel” by Saki Knafo is a still very relevant description of the world of “canners” in New York City a decade ago.

Hired feet

In 2012, for The Huffinton Post, Arthur Delaney described the activities of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council of Carpenters which hired the homeless in Washington, D.C., for $8.50 an hour, to carry picket signs and raise their voices in chants. Critics decried a “cynical use of homeless people to do this dirty work.” The union seemed out of patience with anyone who questioned this hiring practice. Its members were busy at their jobs, and besides, the method had already been deployed in seven other cities.

From one of them, only the previous year, Joel Gehrke had reported this story:

In Grand Rapids, Mich., the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters has started protesting companies that hire a local non-union carpentry firm, Ritsema Associates. Where does the union get its picketers? It hires them from a homeless shelter that is supported by Ritsema Associates.

So it gets very complicated and, as temp jobs go, picketing is in a whole different class from trash recovery. People experiencing homelessness also have been employed to count other people experiencing homelessness.

Some entrepreneurial individuals carve out highly idiosyncratic paths. Remember when Ted Williams, the “man with the golden voice,” was rediscovered and became for a short while an outsider celebrity? His former tent-mate offered Williams’s leftover cardboard signs for sale on eBay.

Reactions?

Source: “How Homeless Recyclers Make a Living Redeeming Recyclables,” PBS.org, 05/13/16
Source: “Scorned Trash Pickers Become Global Environmental Force,” CommonDreams.org, 03/25/08
Source: “Urban Tactics; Nabbing the Elusive Nickel,” NYTimes.com, 07/09/06
Source: “Paid To Protest, Some Homeless Almost Make A Living,” HuffingtonPost.com, 11/24/12
Source: “Union hires homeless picketers — and it gets better,” SFExaminer.com, 02/17/11
Source: “Homeless Count or Are Counted,” LATimes.com, 01/27/05
Image: Otterman56 (Ed)

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Entering the World of Protected Work

iowa-city-downtown

Downtown Iowa City

In Iowa City, Iowa, Shelter House helps hundreds of people every year, not only with a place to stay, but with job training and placement. Participants in case management have opportunities to work toward job readiness and employability.

The on-premise computer lab offers workshops in basic computer skills, as well as guidance in applying for housing and food assistance. The job and housing databases are packed with information, and help is available to create a resume.

There are two internal employment services. Fresh Starts is the professional janitorial service, whose workers are employed by area businesses. In the Culinary Starts paid internship program, people learn kitchen and culinary vocabulary, recipe manipulation, menu production, how to use kitchen equipment, and much more.

The website says:

Successful participants will become Servsafe certified and equipped to work in a variety of food service and restaurant settings. The proceeds from our contracted and catered meals go directly towards the food production program and Shelter House’s mission of helping people move beyond homelessness.

In the nation’s capitol, the Transitional Housing Programs for Men who are Homeless are administered by the D.C. Coalition for the Homeless. Six houses of different sizes are home to between 12 and 100 men in various stages of readiness to enter the working world. Some concentrate more on basic supportive services and life skills to prepare for self-sufficiency.

One is the Emery Work Bed Program, described as…

[…] specifically tailored to the needs of homeless men who are employed or in job training… The primary objective is to assist men in sustaining employment and moving into permanent housing. Program participants must be willing to accept case management services, meet with case management staff weekly and develop and follow an Individualized Service Plan.

Eastway Behavioral Healthcare is a private nonprofit mental health agency in Montgomery County, Ohio. In an unprecedented partnership with the county’s homeless service providers and their federal HUD funding, Hope Housing was created.

Eastway’s Laura Ferrell says:

You can’t find a job, you can’t become a productive member of society, you can’t make sure you get all of your medications and keep all of your doctor’s appointments if you don’t know which doorway you might be able to sleep in tonight.

Director Kathy Lind told journalist Thomas Gnau that most of the clients have “a lot of barriers, like mental health or substance abuse, criminal records.” Nevertheless, the time between referral and placement has been as short as 45 minutes. When the residents are ready to go out on their own, the Eastway staff reports, remarkably, “no shortage of landlords who have been willing to work with the program.”

The compassion and conviction are rooted in a hard-headed awareness that helping people get on their feet is a bargain compared to the expenses they could potentially rack up in the form of ER visits, hospitalizations, jail rent, or even such contingencies as winning a lawsuit against the city for one of the injuries that people experiencing homelessness often suffer at the hands of law enforcement.

Hope Housing operates under the “Housing First” model, and, in three years, 48 people have gotten their lives on track and found permanent housing, so it must be doing something right.

Reactions?

Source: “Job Training,” ShelterHouseIowa.org, undated
Source: “Transitional Housing Programs for Men who are Homeless,” DCCFH.org, undated
Source: “Program helps get homeless off streets, into jobs,” MyDaytonDailyNews,com,12/26/16
Photo credit: Alan Light via Visualhunt/CC BY

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Homeless by the Numbers

capitol-building-lit-at-nightThe 2016 national homeless count was about 550,000, and indicated that one out of five people experiencing homelessness resides in either New York or Los Angeles. California contains 28% of all the homeless people in America.

Five states account for half the homeless, and they are California, New York, Florida, Texas, and Washington. The statistics get confusing, because some cities are lumped in along with their entire counties, like Seattle/King County and Los Angeles City/County.

In quoting the 2016 count of King County’s homeless people (10,677), Ashley Archibald says the number “deceives in its apparent precision.” There is no intentional deception, and the challenge is the same pretty much everywhere.

More importantly, even counts of housed people produce fuzzy numbers. Archibald breaks it down for Real Change News:

Humans are pesky creatures, constantly moving, losing census forms or simply not bothering to fill them out at all. Statisticians rely on projections rather than hard counts to calculate the number and location of people. In the end it’s an extremely well-informed, highly mathematical guess.

Because the count is so important to federal funding, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority has stepped up its efforts to locate people so they can be added to the tally. Nationwide, about 20 counties conduct a separate youth count, which applies to people under 25 years of age.

The great Northwest

Here is one description of Seattle/King County’s new system:

The Count Us In method will utilize different data collection methods for the full range of homelessness count activities. The count will include a street count of people living unsheltered, those living in sheltered or transitional housing, a qualitative survey of people experiencing homelessness and specialized approaches to count people living in vehicles…

The numbers to be released will be the findings on homeless youth, vehicle residents, chronic homelessness and other specialized populations.

For Seattle Weekly, Joe Bernstein describes the current year’s activities from a perspective that housed people don’t hear very often:

Early Friday morning, volunteers and paid staff across King County will try to count the street homeless like me.

He describes the complicated yet conscientious history of doing these counts in Seattle and environs, leading up to why and how the new approach of working with the nonprofit Applied Survey Research was adopted for this year:

ASR brags that HUD considers its method a “best practice,” and it has two features Seattle hasn’t seen before: covering whole counties […] and doing so with teams of two volunteers and a currently or recently homeless “guide,” paid for his or her time.

Bernstein goes on to explain why certain results will occur, like difficulty in comparing new information with past data, because, unlike before, the new method divides up reporting areas by census tract. An overall numerical increase is also likely, and not only because a larger area is being covered. The homeless “guides” presumably have insider knowledge about where people tuck themselves away out of sight.

As a person experiencing homelessness himself, Bernstein offers the following insights:

Street counts normally happen at night because many homeless people sleep then, and fewer housed people are around to confuse things. Still, counters are at huge disadvantages. Volunteers across the country often don’t try to count people in cars or tents accurately, don’t enter squats or shacks, don’t wake anyone up, may not even ask those awake “Are you homeless?”, and can hardly guess how many people are couch-surfing.

Perhaps the best way to think about the counts is as a floor, a minimum. Shelter counts are pretty reliable, and street counts reliably underestimate. (This is why the feds want January counts — they want the highest sheltered percentage they can get.)

This year’s number will probably be bigger, maybe much bigger, but there’s a silver lining: It’ll probably be less of an underestimate of the real, even scarier, number.

Hot Springs, Arkansas, receives less attention than a lot of other places. The United Way-recruited volunteers are not allowed to work at night. The only two categories are sheltered and unsheltered. Occupying a vehicle, or squatting in a house with no running water, counts as unsheltered.

In the past year, the unsheltered total has more than doubled, and the overall total rose by 40%. In Hot Springs, the very large majority of people experiencing homelessness are single males.

Sue Legal of Ouachita Children’s Center told a reporter that this year’s higher count doesn’t necessarily mean an increase in the actual number of homeless people, but does reflect the benefits of pleasant weather and a bigger volunteer team. Even so, she believes that many people living in concealed rural camps were not counted.

Shoutout to Washington/District of Columbia, which is in fifth place. The capitol of the United States of America, the most powerful and morally superior nation on earth, has a homeless population of at least 8,350, smaller than only four other American cities.

Reactions?

Source: “The U.S. Cities With The Largest Homeless Populations [Infographic],” Forbes.com, 11/25/16
Source: “Counting in the dark,” RealChangeNews.ort, 01/25/17
Source: “Counting America’s hidden homeless,” AlJazeera.com, 01/31/17
Source: “New homeless counting system starting this year,” MapleValleyReporter.com, 02/03/17
Source: “Homeless count shows increase of unsheltered,” Hotsr.com, 02/10/17
Photo credit: Tony Brooks (yeahbouyee) via Visualhunt/CC BY

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Individuals Making a Difference

homeless-sleeping-by-bookstoreLast week, House the Homeless considered the activities of Pastor Kelly Boyd of Eugene, Oregon, who brings together givers and people who need things. By running for city council, he combines the faith-based approach with the political approach.

In some states of the union, earnest people have a better chance to thrive among progressive-minded neighbors. In other locales, a different social climate produces different results.

There is a growing tendency to criminalize, or at least seriously impede, grassroots activism and individual efforts. It’s as if the government has a split personality, and wants to both ignore the root causes of homelessness, and at the same time own and control everything about homelessness.

The same mindset prompts humans to murder their domestic partners who want to leave. “If I can’t have you, nobody else can either.” The government seems to be saying, “I can’t or won’t do very much for you, but I’m going to make sure nobody else will, either.”

A great philosopher once said that what every person really wants is to make a difference. All over America, individuals are trying to do that in the area of homeless relief. At the same time, penalizing the helpers has become a thing.

One ongoing story happens in Madison, Wisconsin. Brenda Konkel, executive director of the Tenant Resource Center, used to let as many as six people sleep on the porch of the home she shares with Robert Bloch. The couple also fitted out the porch with a dozen locker-room-style storage units for their guests to use.

The city threatened to fine them $300 a day. Journalist Pat Schneider wrote of Konkel, who used to be a city council member:

She worked with members of Occupy Madison a couple of years ago as they tried without success to get city approval to erect a homeless encampment and was instrumental in the group’s success in getting zoning approval for a village of “tiny houses” now under construction on the city’s east side.

Robert Bloch told the reporter that there had only been one police visit to the porch-sleepers, when an ambulance had to be called for a medical emergency. He also said, “The system is not working.”

The homeowners were granted time extensions, but were warned again two months later to clear the porch. The absence of sleepers was not enough, the city wanted the lockers gone too. This was not the activist’s only battle over storage. Tony Galli wrote:

Konkel says the problem of finding places to store the valuables of people who are homeless was highlighted this week, when county facility staff members removed more two dozen large plastic bags of belongings from Madison city hall. Konkel and other advocates for the homeless returned the bags to city hall, and facility officials say they will allow them to remain stacked on the building’s porch, as long as they are not unattended.

Another Konkel effort is toward establishing a day center to meet the needs of people experiencing homelessness. A location has been proposed but, not surprisingly, someone challenged it in court.

A local blogger uses cruel labels and accuses Konkel of being anti-police.This is apparently because she contradicts the mayor’s claims that the city needs somewhere between 13 and 361 additional police officers. She used to sit on the Police Staffing committee, before the department banned anyone, including City Council members, from collaborating on those decisions. Brenda Konkel is still an activist, advocate, and writer about homelessness in Madison.

Reactions?

Source: “Brenda Konkel could be fined for allowing homeless to sleep on her porch,” Madison.com, 09/18/14
Source: “Advocate’s lockers for the homeless must go,” WKOW.com, 11/14/14
Source: “We need 13-361 New Police Officers?,” ForwardLookout.com, 01/05/17
Source: “Tonight! Evictions & Homelessnes,” ForwardLookout.com, 01/10/17
Photo credit: John Benson (ibm4381) via Visualhunt/ CC BY

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Back to the Grassroots in Eugene, Oregon

eugene-oregonOne school of thought believes that funneling all help, and all the helped, through official channels should be the only permissible route. In some places, that philosophy goes even further, to a conviction that anyone who says, “No, thank you” to a solution the government insists on, becomes totally undeserving of help from any source.

Some, like Kelly Boyd of Eugene, Oregon, want to see the giving spirit flourish at the most grassroots, person-to-person level. Soon after moving to town, he filled the bed of his pickup truck with clothes and blankets, and attached to the tailgate a sign that said, “Get One, Give One.”

It wasn’t long before the Ordinance Enforcement Office left a business card and a warning. Anthony Kustura reported:

The note said Boyd must stop putting things in the back of the truck because he is in violation of city code.

The City says Boyd is creating a “liveability impact” and that neighbors complained about finding trash in the street.

Four months later, Boyd was running (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) for a City Council seat. He told local TV station KMTR that aside from the “Get One, Give One” truck, other individual efforts were being squelched. His number-one issue is homelessness, of which he says city officials take an “archaic view.”

Boyd advocates a more organic approach, encouraging citizens to individually help each other. He is sensitive to the fact that many people experiencing homelessness do not want to call on official resources — for what they consider good and sufficient reasons — and their opinions about the matter ought to be respected.

Also, he wants the city to keep a more careful eye on things like cost overruns for public projects, but is not against taxing or spending:

Instead of having boutique taxes to take care of various needs, go ahead and build a groundswell of increased jobs, increased pay, so that there is a greater tax base in our area so that there is a constant resource and income for our city budget.

This facet of Boyd’s platform is interesting because it resonates with the success story of Oklahoma City, whose mayor convinced it to pass an across-the-board sales tax, and a strong case can be made that this move actually blossomed into citywide revitalization.  As always, things are relative and situational. For instance, while a groundswell of increased jobs might sound attractive, many cities have found to their regret that letting a prison or a pollution-producing industry move in can have its drawbacks.

And yet, there is always a tradeoff. The City of Eugene said that people in the neighborhood complained about the trash left behind after the freebie truck’s visits. This is speculation, but it seems as if a person who provides such a service would, could, and should tidy up the area, and especially, would be able to recruit a helper or two in this task.

Boyd and his wife do their volunteer work inspired by their “greater calling, that the needs of all should be met.” In other words, it is a faith-based effort, and people with church-going backgrounds are well accustomed to the idea of helping out with the setup and the cleanup at communal activities.

Making it official

Presumably, this type of logistical methodology is what a City Council with a Boyd-like mindset could approve. They could make ordinances saying, “Go ahead and have your event, and take video with your cell phone of the cleanup process, and of the pristine area when you’re done. Then, shoot some footage of the volunteer crew dropping off the trash at the City’s designated spot.”

Looked at from another angle, in most cities, neighborhoods have things like block parties and coordinated garage sales. Parades, mob shopping days, sports events, and a lot of other happenings tend to leave behind debris. In some college towns, entire neighborhoods successfully impersonate slums. Depending on who causes it, a certain amount of urban mess is accepted. Somehow, everyone lives to party another day.

Also, it seems like a certain amount of selective reinforcement goes on, regarding outdoor group activities, which is all part of the criminalization of homelessness. For the authorities to suppress and even outlaw grassroots activism is counterproductive on many levels.

Reactions?

Source: “City tells man to stop placing items in truck for homeless to take,” NBC16.com, 01/28/16
Source: “Meet the candidate: Kelly Boyd runs for Eugene City Council Ward 1,” NBC16.com, 04/02/16
Source: “A City Refurbished for Health,” Childhood Obesity News, 01/20/17
Photo credit: eddiecoyote via Visualhunt/ CC BY

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A School, and a Church, Helping

college-campus

Every now and then a story crosses the screen that is really different. “Why a Seattle Homeless Camp was Invited to University of Washington” — see what we mean? Seattle is that West Coast city where rain falls 150 days a year. On any given rainy night, about 4,500 people are sleeping outside, and not to roast marshmallows and swap ghost stories. (Close to 3,000 are in transitional housing, and more than 3,000 in shelters.)

A bunch of people live in Tent City 3, a community that resettles every three months in a different area (including two previous college campuses). This is not an ideal solution for anyone, but when frequent uprooting is done in an orderly way, it can take a lot of stress off both the housed and the unhoused. One way or another, Tent City 3 has survived as an entity for 15 years.

As described by the reporters, the residents seem hyper-aware of the need to be role models and proud representatives of the homeless population. Shamar Waters and Jon Schuppe wrote:

A large portion of the residents are older and disabled, but many others have regular jobs and help keep the camp running. The camps feature communal areas, including kitchens and showers, depending on the availability of electricity and running water.

The 10,000-square-foot encampment will spend one-fourth of the year in a campus parking lot because the kids asked for it. Students in eight different academic disciplines will be able to claim credit for participating in studies and activities involving people experiencing homelessness. About 100 students pitched in with the move-in chores.

The story doesn’t say whether any students objected, based on the parking space scarcity. But even that would be a learning experience, wouldn’t it? Imagine having to park the car (your parents probably bought) a bit farther from class. Compared to having nowhere to live, that is a negligible inconvenience, and a lot of kids would never admit being bothered by it. Imagine having to walk for a considerable distance, out in the weather, to get where you need to go. That’s the everyday reality for people experiencing homelessness.

In addition to the officially recognized educational benefits of interacting with tent-dwelling nomads, there are bound to be unofficial ones. Like when kids realize that if they don’t actively work toward some kind of reform to the college loan system, they could easily end up living in tents too.

Elsewhere

The state of Texas is often perceived as hostile to any number of diverse populations, but Brownwood disproves the stereotype. Just southwest of Dallas-Fort Worth, the city of about 20,000 is the county seat, and the features in and around it include Howard Payne University, a branch of the Texas State Technical College, a state park, a state juvenile correctional complex, a regional airport, and a U.S. Army training camp.

Actor Bob Denver came from Brownwood, and so did legendary burlesque queen Candy Barr, and an impressive list of other people who have made a mark on the world. Perhaps the biggest celebrity is New Beginnings Church, which for 10 years has functioned as the city’s only shelter.

Pastor Kelly Crenshaw says:

Sometimes people just need a day or two or a week or two to get on their feet. Sometimes they just need a little bit of time, once they get lost, to figure out what their next step is…

There are also long-term guests. From the larger community, food bank donations are received, along with blankets, scarves, and other items, which is generous in a place where the median household income is maybe $33,000.

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Recommended: “The Year in Review,” from House the Homeless

Also recommended: House the Homeless President Richard R. Troxell is interviewed by KXAN television journalist Kevin Schwaller in “Advocacy group to examine ‘criminalization of homelessness’

Reactions?

Source: “Why a Seattle Homeless Camp was Invited To University of Washington,” NBCNews.com, 12/21/16
Source: “Church Acts as Homeless Shelter in Brownwood,” BigCountryHomepage.com, 12/30/16
Photo credit: Joe Wolf (JoeInSouthernCA) via Visualhunt/CC BY-ND

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