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!


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



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.


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



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.


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



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.


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


How to Become Homeless: Live in One of LA’s Nine Hot Neighborhoods

AirB&B300dpiLos Angeles holds the distinction both of having the highest percentage of renters of any American city, and of being, for renters, the least affordable American city. Since the USA is freedom-based, landlords are bitter when not allowed to wring every possible dime out of their properties. The issue of rent control has always been fiercely contested in LA. Hillel Aron explains:

If a landlord’s unit falls under the Los Angeles rent stabilization ordinance (meaning all apartment units built before 1978) landlords are prohibited from raising the rent above a certain amount, and these buildings can only be torn down or taken off the market in certain circumstances.

Since 1982, the Mello Act has been in place, ostensibly preventing landowners from converting residential units for commercial use. But somehow it happens anyway. Leading up to the 1984 Summer Olympics, poor people all over the city were displaced for the sake of wealthy visitors. This happens, Mark Lipman says, when…

Laws are ignored, process is circumvented, zoning is changed, exceptions are made, and enforcement is non-existent, when it favors the land speculator….

More recently, the advent of Airbnb and similar enterprises really threw gasoline on the fire. In March, the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy released a study showing that more than 7,000 rental units had disappeared from the city’s traditional rental market for use as short-term rentals or what some call “underground hotels.”

Of course, the people in favor of permitting unregulated, short-term renting talk about how much it helps the average tenant of a house or apartment, because they can sublet a spare bedroom to a traveler and make a bundle. Homeowners can benefit even more. Theoretically, a homeowner can rent out his place for a couple of weeks and earn enough to pay for his own vacation, plus a couple of months’ mortgage payments.

In theory, it all sounds delightful, but in practice, the situation is quite different. While Airbnb claims that 80% of the 4,500 amateur innkeepers in LA are “primary residents” of the spaces they offer, opponents tell a different tale. They say the overwhelming majority of Airbnb listings originate from professional companies that specialize in managing numerous short-term-rental units.

The Nine LA Gold Mines

In Los Angeles, more than 70% of Airbnb profits emanate from just nine neighborhoods, of which the beachfront community of Venice is one. An astonishing 12.5% of all the rental units in Venice are now rented out through Airbnb. One sad example is the venerable Waldorf, where Charlie Chaplin used to occupy the penthouse. Among the consequences is a reduced quality of life for the tenants who are being encouraged to leave. Adrian Glick Kudler writes:

The owner has been changing units over to Airbnbs as soon as they become vacant and residents “have felt increasingly unwelcome in their homes [and] believe their landlord is no longer performing basic maintenance on their apartment because they are not as profitable as the tourist-serving units.”

Judith Goldman of Keep Neighborhoods First told LA Weekly that neighborhood residents are being harassed and intimidated into leaving, and when possible, outright evicted. She characterizes the rise of Airbnb as not home sharing, but home snatching. Elena Popp of Eviction Defense Network told a reporter, “Venice is a nightmare.” The Weekly says:

According to Airbnb’s website, the average Venice rental goes for under $200 a night—for a weeknight. Weekends average around $225. The most expensive places go for more than $1,000 nightly.

No wonder Airbnb spends $100,000 per year to lobby City Hall office-holders! Writing for the Free Venice Beachhead, Mark Lipman indicts the Council District 11 office, which apparently is in the habit of changing zoning rules and issuing permits without the required public input. Consequently, in the 3-square-mile Venice Coastal Zone, more 1,200 units have dropped out of the regular rental market. Lipman says:

This is having a devastating effect on our community, exacerbating homelessness and driving the price of rent through the roof.

Venice has always had a large and flagrantly visible homeless population and now, with this Airbnb takeover, it is growing even larger. In many American cities, Lipman notes, there is a “drastic ramping up of criminalization of status.” In Venice, this happens to the point where he sees the municipal government as both creating homelessness and making it as miserable as possible.

This area of the city is policed by LAPD’s Pacific Division, which by its own admission spends four fifths of its energy and resources dealing with people experiencing homelessness. In the main, that means harassing people for doing things that people have to do, like sit and sleep. (During one era of Venice history, a mentally disturbed young man spent his days walking in circles in a particular spot on the boardwalk. Tough as his life was, at least “Circles” never got a ticket for sitting or sleeping.) It costs $62,000 to keep a person in jail for a year in LA. Lipman says:

That’s a lot of money, to pay a lot of police salaries…money we wouldn’t have to spend—police we wouldn’t need on the streets—if we simply provided the basic services that our communities have been demanding for well over a decade.

Obviously, corporate shell companies and foreign investors, and the prison guards’ powerful union, are in need of some policing, but as usual, all the law enforcement attention is focused on the poor and the homeless.

The short-term rental business is both a direct and an indirect cause of homelessness. In light of this, Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless suggests that cities take regulatory action that would create a contributory pool into which Airbnb and similar enterprises would donate a small amount, perhaps 2%, of their profits for the benefit of people experiencing homelessness.

Furthermore, we urge you to contact your local government officials and state legislators.


Source: “Airbnb Is Making Things Worse For L.A. Renters, Report Says,” LAWeekly.com, 03/06/15
Source: “Why Venice Beach is Ground Zero For the Airbnb Backlash.” LAWeekly.com, 08/19/15
Source: “Follow the Money – The Political Will of Creating Homelessness.” FreeVenice.org, September 2015
Source: “Airbnb and other short-term rentals worsen housing shortage, critics say,” LATimes.com, 03/11/15
Source: “The Nine Neighborhoods That Make All the Airbnb Money in LA,” curbed.com, 03/11/15
Image by http://www.jonwolff.net/ with permission


Unaccompanied Youth in California

the kids aren't alright“If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair,” went the refrain of a once-popular song. California was Shangri-la, a land of magic and hope, the preferred destination for the abandoned and disaffected youth of our entire nation.

These days, it’s a good place for homeless teens and young adults to steer clear of. With facilities stretched to their limits, helping organizations work harder than before, trying to accomplish more with ever-shrinking budgets. Housed people fall prey to compassion fatigue, and there is a steady increase in laws designed to make life unpleasant for the peasant.

Currently, the golden state contains more homeless youth than any other state, and they are more likely to be unsheltered than in most other states. Among the nation’s cities as rated by their “mean streets,” California has three of the top ten spots.

The last two decades have seen the creation of numerous restrictive ordinances, and over the past five years, the pace of anti-homeless legislation has picked up, according to Shahera Hyatt and Jessica Reed, the credited authors of “Adding Insult to Injury: The Criminalization of Homelessness and Its Effects on Youth.” Though only two names are on the cover, this 16-page report utilized all the resources of the California Homeless Youth Project, with help from the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.

Things Are Tough for Unaccompanied Youth

Many of the offenses that people experiencing homelessness are charged with have nothing to do with age. They may be forbidden to sit, stand, rest, or sleep in public places; or to set up a tent or lean-to shack anywhere. They may not be allowed to ask for contributions or sort through trash receptacles for food or recyclable materials. Organizations that want to serve them food may be told they are not allowed to give away so much as a sandwich.

Then there is another layer of legal difficulty known as selective enforcement, when homeless people are not allowed to do things that are apparently okay for others. The most well-known example is sidewalk camping. People who wait in line all night to buy concert tickets or the latest model phone are allowed to set up tents or sack out in sleeping bags while homeless people, of course, would be breaking the law.

The things that unaccompanied youth most often get in trouble for are, the report says, “sleeping in public or private spaces at night, or sitting in public space during the day.” The other big problem is traveling to places where help is available. Kids often sneak rides on public transportation and get nailed for theft of services.

Age-Related Crimes

Then there is the problem of “status offenses,” or things that are illegal for a person under 18 to do unless a court has previously deemed her or him an “emancipated minor.” Curfew violations get kids in trouble while not affecting adults. Kids are supposed to be enrolled in school until a certain age, and not showing up makes them truant. Truancy is a crime even for the homeless. Young people have been locked up for that crime, which makes no sense whatsoever. Incarcerating a kid for skipping school has got to be one of the most irrational government actions ever. The report says:

Homeless students are much better served by community-based organizations, which have been shown to be more developmentally appropriate, cost effective, and humane than the juvenile justice system.

For an adult, running away from home may not always be the wisest choice, and can even cause problems to multiply, but at least it isn’t illegal in and of itself. But for a minor (which in California means under 18), mere existence is a status offense, because kids that age are not supposed to be anywhere else except under their family roof. Here is what the authors say:

Youth who run away do so for their own survival, often fleeing their homes due to abuse, extreme poverty, and/or rejection of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity and expression. Yet in many jurisdictions, runaway youth may be apprehended by law enforcement and returned to their home of origin, even if that home is dysfunctional and/or abusive.


Source: “Adding Insult to Injury: The Criminalization of Homelessness and Its Effects on Youth.
September 2015
Image by Senia L


Bell v. City of Boise – History and Implications

Homeless in Jerusalem

Homeless in Jerusalem

Are anti-camping ordinances constitutional? This question has lain dormant with occasional ominous tremors like those that precede an earthquake. It is a question with the potential to change the landscape literally, figuratively, and extensively. There was a big rumble in 2006, when Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Kim M. Wardlaw made what seemed like a groundbreaking legal decision that turned out not to be. We discussed why Jones v. City of Los Angeles kind of fizzled out.

But recently, the Ninth Circuit case became a factor to be reckoned with when the federal government turned its attention to Bell v. City of Boise, a case brought by Idaho Legal Aid Services and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. The Justice Department’s “statement of interest” quoted Judge Wardlaw, who said:

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.

Here is the same news event, presented from the vantage point of a different mindset. The NY Post‘s Betsy McCaughey believes that living on the street is not acceptable. About that, we agree—but the meaning we assign to the words is vastly different. We would like clean, safe and affordable living conditions for all humans. McCaughey seems to wish that large segments of the population could somehow magically be made to disappear.

When a homeless advocate says that people should not be punished for their status, McCaughey characterizes that basic human decency as a “wacky ideology.” In our view, if people have no choice but to live on the streets, they should at least be legally protected.

McCaughey, on the other hand, is all about criminalizing survival, and sees the Justice Department’s interest in the Iowa case as the Obama administration “siding with vagrants against local governments.” We wish we could tell you the upcoming quotation was found in The Onion or some other satirical publication, but alas, we cannot. The outraged McCaughey says of people experiencing homelessness:

Their insistence on street living punishes the rest of us. We have to endure the heart-wrenching sights of human beings in rags lying on sidewalks.

Jones v. City of Los Angeles was vacated because of a compromise deal, but the analysis provided by Judge Kim M. Wardlaw was solid, which is why it is being called upon in Bell v. City of Boise. Writing for Slate.com, Mark Joseph Stern mentions other cases that influence the judiciary’s thinking in this matter. Robinson v. California and Powell v. Texas were both ruled on by the nation’s Supreme Court. Stern says:

In Robinson the court struck down a California statute that criminalized addiction—not just use or possession—of narcotics. California, the justices explained, could outlaw the conduct of drug use, but it could not criminalize the status of being addicted to drugs. Powell dealt with a similar law, one that criminalized public intoxication in Texas.

Since homelessness is a status, not a conduct, it seems reasonable to assume that the Supreme Court would also say that the Constitution forbids cities to arrest people for sleeping rough when shelters are full. Stern doubts that Bell v. City of Boise will reach that far, but it might slow down or partially reverse the criminalization of homelessness. Even if it doesn’t go to the Supreme Court, the lower-level resolution of Bell v. City of Boise will create a precedent that can be called upon in similar cases elsewhere, for better or worse. Stern adds:

It’s quite depressing to see the DOJ defend homeless people’s right to sleep by analogizing them to drug addicts and alcoholics. But its brief is really an indication of just how profoundly America has failed its homeless communities.

Source: “Team Obama’s fight to keep the homeless living on the streets,” NYPost.com, 08/18/15
Source: “Justice Department Tells Cities to Stop Criminalizing Homelessness,” slate.com, 08/14/15
Image by Albert Ter Harmsel


The Roots of Bell v. City of Boise

iPhone 5cIn Colorado Springs, the mayor is working hard to change an existing ordinance (which forbids anyone to lie down anywhere) so it will criminalize sitting down anywhere in the city. In San Francisco, the mayor doesn’t care whether people experiencing homelessness are sitting, lying, standing straight up, or kneeling in prayer. Whatever their posture, he vows to chase them all out of there before the Super Bowl. Currently, one-third of American cities have laws against sleeping outside. Last week, House the Homeless talked about the “statement of interest” filed by the Department of Justice regarding a current case brought by Idaho Legal Aid Services and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

At the core of this topic is the question of whether anti-camping ordinances are constitutional or not. It is a “currently unsettled area of the law” about which various courts disagree. That is what Bell v. City of Boise is about, and the outcome will have massive policy implications throughout the system.

This started 9 years ago, with a Los Angeles ordinance under which people experiencing homelessness could be arrested for sleeping on the street even when no shelter beds were available. Since there were twice as many homeless people as shelter beds, this meant that, on any given night, half the homeless population of LA was vulnerable to arrest.

Jones v. City of Los Angeles

The ACLU and the National Lawyers Guild filed suit against the City of Los Angeles. Judge Kim M. Wardlaw of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered that the draconian ordinance should no longer be enforced, stating:

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.

At the time, there was great rejoicing. Mark Rosenbaum, the ACLU attorney who had argued the case, called Judge Wardlaw’s decision “the most significant judicial opinion involving homelessness in the history of the nation.” Sadly, it didn’t turn out that way. But thanks to more recent developments such as Bell v. City of Boise, that bold prediction might still come true.

A year and a half after Judge Wardlaw’s ruling, Los Angeles and the ACLU finally quit arguing about what would happen next, and reached an agreement that no one was really happy with—in other words, a workable compromise. As long as they stayed 10 feet away from entrances and driveways, homeless people could sleep on city streets between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. But the police could start enforcing the no-lying ordinance again as soon as the city built 1,250 units of supportive housing. Not shelter beds, but actual places where a person could settle in and get help to set her or his life on track.

And, says journalist Evan George, they went on to quibble about whether housing units that were already in the process of construction would count. The police department complained about “shelter-resistant” street people who refused to claim available beds. A law professor did a study and found “a median of just four shelter beds available on a given night when the LAPD was counting more than 1,000 people sleeping on the street.” Homeless advocates pointed out that, even if there had been enough shelter beds, it’s not the same thing as supportive permanent housing.

Several years later, when street people were allowed to return to a physically cleaned-up Skid Row, Councilman Bill Rosendahl was called upon by his constituents to explain the situation:

On October 15, 2007, the City entered into a legally binding settlement, agreeing not to enforce the law prohibiting sleeping on the streets, between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. until it builds 1,250 units of permanent supportive housing. The City entered this agreement after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals…found that the law against sleeping on the streets amounted to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the 8th Amendment…,

In the words of Evan George, these were the consequences:

By agreeing to the settlement, the ACLU has given up any claim of using the Ninth Circuit court ruling as precedent for future lawsuits. However…attorneys for the homeless may still cite the decision in future lawsuits.

In other words, even though Judge Wardlaw’s ruling was vacated, the reasoning behind it was sound, and valid enough to use in Bell v. City of Boise, which is why the Justice Department recently wrote:

The statement of interest advocates for the application of the analysis set forth in Jones v. City of Los Angeles, a Ninth Circuit decision that was subsequently vacated pursuant to a settlement. In Jones, the court considered whether the city of Los Angeles provided sufficient shelter space to accommodate the homeless population. The court found that, on nights when individuals are unable to secure shelter space, enforcement of anti-camping ordinances violated their constitutional rights.


Source: “ACLU of Southern California Wins Historic Victory in Homeless Rights Case,” ACLU.org, 04/14/06
Source: “City, ACLU Settle Street Sleeping Case,” LADowntownNews.com, 10/15/07
Source: “Skid Row Homeless Say LAPD Is Trying to Bully Them off Their Freshly Cleaned Turf,” LAWeekly.com, 06/22/12
Source: “Justice Department Files Brief to Address the Criminalization of Homelessness.” Justice.gov, 08/06/15
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The Exploitation that Turned Out Not to Be



Last fall, Will Hobson wrote about one of the most extensive homeless programs in Tampa, Florida, and its connection to large public sports events:

For years, New Beginnings founder and CEO Tom Atchison has sent his unpaid homeless labor crews to work at Tampa Bay Rays, Lightning and Bucs games, the Daytona 500 and the Florida State Fair. For their shelter, he’s had homeless people work in construction, landscaping, telemarketing, moving, painting, even grant-writing.

At any given time, the program serves around 100 men, women, and young adults, many of whom are veterans. Many are also recovering addicts and alcoholics, and Atchison places great importance on work therapy. But the Tampa Bay Times, which undertook an investigation, believed that exploitation of the homeless was underway. Drug and alcohol recovery programs often supervise their residents’ financial lives because that way, it is harder to relapse. But Atchison was also accused of appropriating the residents’ Social Security payments and SNAP benefits, even when the total was more than what they owed the program for their housing and food.

Along with renting out the New Beginnings residents to other companies, Atchison has also started landscaping and telemarketing companies. Legally, each person is supposed to make $7.25 per hour, the federal minimum wage, but according to labor attorneys consulted by the Times, this did not appear to be the case. Hobson’s article compared it to an earlier case in New York State in which a federal judge made a program pay $800,000 in withheld wages to its former employees.

A Fresh Start For New Beginnings, With Proper Wages

By the second week of December, it was announced that the Buccaneers, Lightning, and Rays had all ended their relationship with the inadequately paid workers. Various media outlets flung around terms like indentured servitude and slave labor. Sources the Tampa Bay Times called “homeless advocates” might actually have been disgruntled n’er-do-wells. If someone was ejected from the program for breaking the no-substance pledge and other rules, “going to the media” would be a weapon of revenge.

At the same time, some residents were interviewed who had no complaints and said the program had saved their lives. Just before Christmas, the Tampa Bay Times published an eloquent letter by Brandon Jones that summed up the view held by defenders of New Beginnings and its founder.

Let me see if I have this straight. Pastor Tom Atchison of New Beginnings takes in drug addicts, criminals and sex offenders—basically the unemployable dregs of society whom no other institution will care for—and gives them free room and board, and probably clothing too.

In return he asks the men to pay for their costly care by working a few hours a week at jobs in the community for (at most) pocket money. Nobody is compelled to stay at his homeless shelter and as I understand it nobody is prevented from finding additional employment to earn a few dollars if they so choose. And while in Atchison’s care they are gaining basic job skills, and building a record of steady employment and sobriety that can help them to return to normal society.

At the end of the month a different newspaper, the Tampa Tribune, announced what seemed to be a win-win resolution of the problem, with the old contracting company (Aramark) out of the picture, a new company called All Team Staffing in the driver’s seat, and an even greater number of New Beginnings residents employed, under improved terms. There is more work to do because the new contract includes not just selling concessions, but cleanup after the sporting events. Mike Salinero reported:

The Rev. Tom Atchison, the Pentecostal preacher who founded New Beginnings, said the arrangement through All Team Staffing is better than the Aramark contract because the workers get paychecks with taxes and Social Security taken out.

In March of this year, the Tampa Tribune carried a piece by the New Beginnings leader, Tom Atchison. This is definitely worth reading in its entirety, but here are the main points:

New Beginnings has survived but has had to cut a lot of services because of the loss of income caused by the bogus articles. We will continue to rebuild our services as the truth continues to surface.

After the careful and extensive examination of the financial records of New Beginnings and the interviews of several employees and clients, federal investigators concluded that there were no violations of record keeping or labor laws.

New Beginnings makes no apologies for requiring clients to pay a part of their expenses by working. We want to teach them a work ethic and not to depend on the government and others to support them.

People who hit the streets, with intractable substance use problems, are often not angels. It would be foolish to pretend otherwise. Such difficult people tend to want everything handed to them, and react badly to rules like “work or move out”—an attitude that could account for the troubles that originally set them on the path to a last-resort rehab center. Everyone deserves a second chance, but people who answer the call to be in the second-chance business are allowed, on behalf of society as a whole, to set boundaries and enact real consequences.

Source: “Tampa homeless program uses unpaid, destitute residents as steady labor force, revenue source,” TampaBay.com, 11/29/14
Source: “Letters: Good work at New Beginnings is being punished,” TampaBay.com, 12/19/14
Source: “New Beginnings’ clients working at RayJay again after federal probe,” TBO.com, 12/29/14
Source: “The truth about New Beginnings of Tampa,” TPB.com, 03/28/15
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How to Become Homeless: Be a Puerto Rican Addict

Winter on My Street“Como Se Dice ‘Not It’?” is a prime example of why the public radio series This American Life is famous. A chance meeting with a street person led Chicago newspaper editor Adriana Cardona to uncover an astonishing story that leaves numerous questions to be considered before rendering judgment. Cardona’s approach to the story is beautifully even-handed, and we hope that our summation of the basic points will inspire the reader to go for the full experience and listen to the episode.

Through her casual conversation with a homeless man, the editor learned that heroin addicts are regularly shipped from Puerto Rico to Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and cities in New Jersey, Florida, South Carolina, and Wisconsin. In each destination they are taken to places that on-air host Ira Glass describes as “flop houses open 24 hours a day with group therapy going till late at night, sometimes 10 or 13 hours straight.”

Cardona found 14 branches of this rehab outfit in Chicago alone, and became most familiar with a branch called Segunda Vida (Second Life). Other facilities have such names as El Grito Desesperado (The Desperate Scream) and El Ultimo Paso (The Last Step). They all operate under the auspices of the Puerto Rican organization De Vuelta a la Vida (Return to Life). In the United States, the organization flies under the banner of Alcoholics Anonymous, but AA disowns them, and indeed their methods are unorthodox. Glass says:

The therapy was really just basically like AA meetings led by former addicts who did very un-AA things like yell at them and berate them. When the guys would go through detox, because there was no medicine or methadone or professional staff, they were sometimes given folk remedies, like an onion to bite on, or alcohol would be poured in their belly buttons.

When Cardona showed up at Segunda Vida, she encountered tough men, allergic to microphones and cameras, who claimed there was nobody in charge and therefore nobody she could speak with. The gatekeepers handled all requests from anyone, about anything, with a recommendation to “come back in a few days.” Her persistence finally won a meeting with one of the group’s founders. Efren Moreno confirmed every negative thing that Cardona had heard about the organization, but he did not seem exploitative or evil. Her impression was of…

… someone who wanted to be part of the solution, that he wanted to bring services to those who were not able to get rehab services out there… But at the same time—and he even said—each group has its own rules. And because there is no oversight, it’s really hard to know what are those other groups doing.

In a Chicago facility, an addict gets free room and board for three months, and then is charged $50 to $75 a week, which still includes meals. At some branches, residents are encouraged to sign up for food stamps and contribute their allotments to the kitchen that feeds everybody. This bit of mandatory socialism, while probably not legal, is far from outrageous. Moreno would prefer to get by with no government assistance at all. A recovering addict himself, he claims to really help junkies kick their habits, and says anyone who quits the program is a weak individual who didn’t really want to get better. Apparently that is a large category, because one of Cardona’s co-researchers found, in Chicago alone, 93 men who had quit the program.

Addicts Off the Grid

When Cardona visited Puerto Rico, she was met with astonishment that anyone should question or doubt this successful narcotics rehabilitation program. De Vuelta a la Vida is no secret to municipal authorities or to Puerto Rico’s governor. Glass says:

It’s run by the state police. They help drug addicts get food, clothing, hygiene, and other services on the island. But also, they arrange for lots of them to fly off the island to these unlicensed programs in the United States.

Of course, none of the Puerto Rican bureaucrats knew that the rehab centers are unlicensed. In every place where De Vuelta a la Vida has established outposts, they seem to operate totally under the radar. According to any city records or public health department or professional registration bureau or licensing agency, officially they don’t exist.

What Does De Vuelta a la Vida Have to Do With Homelessness?

Puerto Rican addicts are recruited dishonestly, lured by a fantasy of gleaming premises, plenty of doctors and nurses, and even a swimming pool. In return for a one-way ticket to a mythical luxury rehab center, they sign a waiver that absolves the Puerto Rican government of any further responsibility for them. If they ever want to return, they have to figure it out for themselves. When the men arrive stateside, they lose what little benefits were available in their homeland, including HIV meds and methadone.

Even a successfully cleaned-up Puerto Rican immigrant is unlikely to find work, and will probably end up on the street or, at best, in a shelter. For those who quit the program, life is grim. Unable to speak the language, and still in need of opiates every day, they have to survive brutal winters in a place very unlike the tropical island of their birth.

For these penniless men, going home is an impossible dream. Family members have suffered already from abuse of their trust, and will ignore any plea for help, even with a fancy story about being stranded in America. Also, Segunda Vida and the other centers tend to hang onto identity documents, as Cardona learned by trying to help a newly-arrived HIV-positive addict who had quit the program almost immediately and lived, like so many others, in Chicago’s streets.


Source: “Not It!,” ThisAmericanLife.org, 04/10/15
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