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The Exploitation that Turned Out Not to Be

Tampa

Tampa

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
Image by Walter

 

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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.

Reactions?

Source: “Not It!,” ThisAmericanLife.org, 04/10/15
Image by BluEyedA73

 

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All the Empty Houses

vacant homesThe illustration on this page is, like so many internet memes, an oversimplification. Socially conscious commentators like to point out that there are enough empty properties that each homeless person in America could have anywhere between 6 and 22 of them. Of course an exact number would be impossible to obtain, because it all depends on how you define “available” and “homeless” and a whole bunch of other variables. But the stark truth is that while hundreds of thousands of people have no place to call home, an astonishing amount of livable indoor space is empty.

About a year and a half ago, a website asked for comments on this particular 6-to-22 house claim, and collected some numbers and some sources (or possible sources) from which the numbers were derived. Those behind the site didn’t reach a definitive answer.

Philadelphia contains about 40,000 abandoned houses, lots and commercial buildings, and Detroit between 50,000 and 60,000. Why can’t at least some of those empty buildings have people in them? Why are perfectly viable buildings torn down? Why can’t people be allowed to squat or homestead in abandoned spaces? What kind of twisted logic says they are better off with no shelter than with substandard, even code-violating shelter?

Using Abandoned Housing Fairly

But then you have to look at the basic fairness of the thing. Say there’s a house where the people had to give up and move out because although they tried hard, they couldn’t pay the mortgage. If this house could somehow be used to house the homeless, is it fair that someone should get to live there who never even tried to pay a mortgage? Obviously, something is wrong with that picture.

And what about the family who originally tried to buy the house? Do they move into a different place that was foreclosed on because they are now homeless and it’s empty? Does the whole society turn into a vast game of musical chairs? We have to find a way to cope with the basic insanity of so many empty buildings and so many unhoused humans. In August of 2013, Daniel G. J. of StoryLeak.com wrote:

There are still over 14 million homes sitting empty in the United States…The worst-hit city is Las Vegas, which still has 40,481 vacant single family homes, 5,137 empty townhomes, and 16,542 empty condominiums.

In the same year, the point-in-time count found 7,355 people experiencing homelessness in Southern Nevada. And don’t forget, Las Vegas is the place with hundreds of miles of flood tunnels underneath it, where at least 300 people are said to live.

Less than 6 months ago, Alana Semuels reported for The Atlantic that Baltimore, Md., held 16,000 vacant homes, and that a group had formed to try and make them into affordable, permanent housing for the city’s currently homeless residents. She wrote:

A minimum-wage worker in Maryland would have to work 138 hours a week to afford a two-bedroom unit…Baltimore closed the waiting list for Section 8 Housing vouchers eleven years ago.

Housing Our Neighbors, part of the Housing Is a Human Right Roundtable, is made up of labor activists, homeowners, and homeless people…They say the data will show there are far more vacant homes in Baltimore than the city has previously acknowledged, and they argue that those homes should be turned into affordable housing.

The goal here is to create a nonprofit community land trust, a legal construct that “takes the “market” part out of the housing market, allowing people to buy homes but restricting their resale value in order to make them affordable for the next buyer.” Hopefully, it shouldn’t be hard to get started, since “out of the 300 homes the Roundtable has surveyed, about 80 are owned by the city.” Semuels says this method has worked in Austin, Texas; Albany, Georgia; and Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Reactions?

Source: “Are there enough unused houses in America for each homeless person to have six?,” Stackexchange.com, 11/10/13
Source: “Philadelphia Raises Stakes With Plan to Reverse Blight.” NYTimes.com, 08/22/13
Source: “Recovery? US Has Enough Empty Houses to Hold Population of Britain.” StoryLeak.com, 08/06/13
Source: “Inside Las Vegas’ Underground Homeless Community,” PhoenixNewTimes.com, 04/07/14
Source: “Can Homeless People Move Into Baltimore’s Abandoned Houses?,” TheAtlantic.com, 10/20/14
Image by the Internet

 

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Homelessness and the Obliteration of Personhood

Fun With I.D. Badges, Part 2Emily Topper, writing for The Gargoyle at Flagler College, examined the process of obtaining an I.D. in Florida, and found a system rigged against people experiencing homelessness

This rigged system is repeated in many localities throughout the U.S. Topper spoke with Mark Samson, a Community Resource Officer, who said:

In order to get a Social Security card, they need to have some type of ID card. But in order to get that, they must have the Social Security card.

This is a classic Catch-22 situation, and the damage it does can not be overstated. There may be scattered exceptions, but in most places a person needs I.D. to open a bank account, cash a check, apply for a job, or rent a Post Office box. The laws have even been tightened to prevent someone with no proof of a permanent physical address from using a private mailbox facility. Is the insanity of that sinking in? The person who most needs it, because of having no place to actually live, cannot obtain a mailing address.

The days of anonymous Greyhound Bus journeys are over, because a photo I.D. must be presented even if the ticket is paid for in cash. Without I.D., a person can’t rent a hotel or motel room (or even, as a recent widely publicized case demonstrated, occupy a room paid for by kind strangers.)

A person in need of any kind of government assistance, whether it be food stamps, medical treatment, or disability benefits, is ineligible without I.D. And good luck getting into a temporary shelter. Sure, whoever runs the shelter needs to protect guests from violent criminals and sexual predators. But the policy, as it stands, also puts vulnerable people at risk by leaving them on the streets with the violent criminals and sexual predators.

A Typical Story

Topper relates the story of Vincent Youngberg of St. Augustine. During a recent incarceration, his vehicle registration had expired and a ticket went unpaid, so the car was impounded. After being released from prison, Youngberg learned that getting the car back would require I.D., which in turn would require a Social Security card, birth certificate, and two proofs of residency. And money for the towing and storage fees, of course. Before he could get any of this together, the impoundment contractor sold the car along with its contents—including the birth certificate that Youngberg needed to prove his existence.

Requesting a replacement birth certificate is a red-tape-intensive job that involves the ability to fill out forms, a payment to the bureaucracy, a usable mailing address, and a long, long wait while the state in question takes weeks or months to process the application. It amounts to such a grueling ordeal that some specialist agency workers and volunteers do nothing but help people acquire the paperwork to validate their lives. Homeless advocates in St. Augustine work with a couple of substitutes which, though inadequate, are “better than nothing.” Beth Kuhn, a caseworker at the St. Francis House, told the reporter:

If [the homeless] were treated at Flagler Hospital, they can ask for a face-sheet from the records office there. This sheet is accepted at the Social Security office, and they will give you a printout… valid enough to get a real state ID. Once you have that, you can go back and get a real Social Security card.

Not exactly a miracle of accommodation, but better than the alternative. Topper says a person leaving prison receives a practically useless paper with a picture and booking information, and quotes Vincent Youngberg:

It never expires, but no one except law enforcement accepts it. I don’t understand it. I was fingerprinted when I was released from prison. Why can’t they use those fingerprints? Why can’t they just give me a photo I.D.? Even if it was a temporary one for 90 days, just so I could get something.

Is the irony sufficiently glaring? The fingerprints of former inmates are in the system, along with their complete histories, their facial biometrics, and probably their DNA. The government was sufficiently convinced of their identities, letting them serve the sentences. Shouldn’t they at least come out of prison with viable identification?

Reactions?

Source: “Homeless struggle to obtain IDs, Social Security cards in Florida,” Flagler.edu, 10/25/13
Image by brykmantra

 

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Austin’s Protect and Serve Survey

picture 084One of the traditions of House the Homeless (founded in 1989) is the survey through which people experiencing homelessness in Austin, Texas, can go on record about various matters that affect their lives. The questions were composed by the organization’s president and founder, Richard R. Troxell, who is also Director of Legal Aid for the Homeless.

This year’s topic, presented at the annual Thermal Underwear Distribution Party, was “Protect and Serve,” and concerned interactions with the police. One word instantly springs to mind when describing the results: appalling.

277 participants, averaging 45 years of age, answered the questions, with about four times as many males as females responding. A lot of mistreatment is the petty kind of stuff that housed people rarely encounter, like being told to “move along” when in a public place. Then, there is another tier of harassment, revealed in answer to the question, “Did you ever get a ticket, go to court, then be told your ticket is not in the system yet and you would have to return?”

The Community Court system is supposed to be an improvement on the old way of handling minor crime, but in far too many cases, as Richard notes, it “actually hinders their ability to change their condition of being homeless.” Here is how he puts it:

We have been told that people have often had to return to the court multiple times before a ticket is reported to the court. If a person is unable to coordinate their response with the submittal of the ticket, then it will “go to warrant.” This will result in the arrest of the individual for what was otherwise only a class C ticket, equivalent to a parking ticket.

When you don’t have a car or a telephone or a computer; when there is no secure place to store your belongings; when you don’t have the right clothes or accessories to protect yourself from the weather; when you don’t know where your next meal will come from or where you will sleep that night; when you are physically disabled or suffering from mental illness— EVERYTHING is enormously difficult.

So, what does the system do? Too often, it responds by demanding that you show up somewhere that is hard to get to, dragging everything you own along because there is no safe place to leave it. You have to walk a long way, or wait for transportation that you might be unable to pay for—and don’t even think about trying to break the law against hitch-hiking. You have to get there on time, regardless of how hot or cold it is outside, or how much pain you may be having.

It Gets Worse

And then, too often, the system says you have to come back because, through no fault of your own, the system isn’t ready for you. Or it punishes you for not knowing you were supposed to show up, or insists on your attendance at some place far from the nearest food source and at the wrong time of day to make it back in time to eat or even worse, to sign up for a bed. And if you have one or more children to worry about, everything is exponentially more demanding.

It’s as if the system is deliberately and maliciously designed to crush the spirit and drain the last ounce of energy and hope from a person—and Austin is a model city, better than a lot of other American cities by many orders of magnitude. Imagine what hellish places some of them must be! Austin’s No Sit/No Lie ordinance is shining example of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act—and yet, even that hard-won, monumental victory has not succeeded in compelling the police to always do the right thing.

The Protect and Serve Survey results were sent, along with a cover letter written by Richard R. Troxell, to Austin’s City Manager, Police Chief, Mayor, Mayor Pro Tem, City Council members, Public Safety commissioners, Human Rights commissioners, and to the National Coalition for the Homeless— and future posts will have more to say about it.


Image by Picture 084

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When Veteran Rescue Does Not Go According to Plan

Veterans' ResidenceEvery now and then, a news story appears that promises this or that kind of housing for a certain number of homeless veterans in a certain place. The project is announced with great fanfare, but the inevitable snags and push-backs get less publicity. Sometimes, the public is lulled by reports that action will be taken on an issue, and forgets to follow up to see if anything actually got done.

In St. Louis, Missouri, in January, the local point-in-time count identified 1,328 people experiencing homelessness, of whom 151 were military veterans. Among them, 100 were already in transitional housing. In July, the remaining 51 moved into apartments thanks to Operation:Reveille. A contemporary news report said,

Based on the veteran’s needs, he or she will receive services that include housing assistance, employment opportunities, intense case management, substance abuse treatment, health and mental health treatment, transportation, food, financial counseling and related social services.

Each vet would have a list of community resources, a bus pass, a peer-support member, and a case manager to tie it all together. It all sounds great, right? St. Louis congratulated itself in glowing terms:

The City’s Department of Human Services will develop a system of service that ensures a veteran never again sleeps on the streets in the City of St. Louis or in an emergency shelter….The City of St. Louis is positioned to become the first city in the country to end homelessness among military veterans.

A few months later, in October, Jesse Bogan reported for Stripes on the outcome of the program. The veterans had moved in to their new apartments believing that all their needs would be met for up to a year, if necessary. The ultimate goal, of course, was self-sufficiency, and by this time 13 residents had jobs and others were interviewing with prospective employers.

The Letdown

But there were problems. The power was turned off in three vets’ apartments, and five more had received final warnings of imminent disconnection. They were under the impression that the nonprofit agency providing case management, Gateway 180, would pay the electricity bills, but this turned out not to be so. Gateway 180 said it passed the bills along to the city, which was supposed to pay out of the federal funding. According to the city government website,

Operation:Reveille is funded primarily with $750,000 of existing Emergency Solutions Grants Program funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Additional funds from other local, private and federal sources will also be used.

But somehow the bills were not paid. Operation:Reveille lists 21 partner organizations, which is almost one organization for every 2 individuals receiving help. Maybe the broth was spoiled by the multiplicity of chefs in the kitchen, but apparently the city reneged on its financial responsibility agreements and, in the words of Gateway 180’s executive director Kathleen Heinz Beach, the collaboration became “a contractual nightmare.” Bogan reported:

Gateway wasn’t responsible to pay bills for the veterans, rather provide mental health assessments and case management. But the first month’s rent wasn’t being paid. Landlords were getting antsy, Beach said, so Gateway 180 finally stepped in to pay it. She said the city later reimbursed her agency for August and September rent.

One particular Operation:Reveille tenant had moved in already owing the electric company $500 from non-payment of services in the past, and the rule for such a contingency was either non-existent or misunderstood by the case workers. Why wasn’t the protocol for this and many other situations clearly spelled out? And why, right from the start, did the city drag its feet on meeting its obligations?

Gateway 180 said it would continue to pay some bills, but that doing so would reduce the total benefit for each vet, so its financial duty to the program would run out before year’s end.

The Odd Man Out

Only one of the 51 Operation:Reveille veterans had actually seen combat, and he was being ejected from the program for falling asleep with food on the stove and starting a fire. Yes, this antisocial behavior endangers others. But isn’t the totally out-of-touch, incompetent individual exactly the person who needs help most? There is no word on whether he returned to the street or was placed in some institution with more supervision.

There is, however, news of a 44-unit apartment building involved in Operation:Reveille, which is currently on the real estate market. Would it be too cynical to wonder if it was it bought as an investment and fixed up with taxpayers’ money? The notice says:

Great Apartment Complex that has been completely renovated… The owner has begun bringing in a lot of Veterans through multiple subsidized programs, such as VASH, Operation Reveille, St Patrick’s Center, & US Vets. Property is being SOLD “As Is.”


Source: “Operation: Reveille,” stlouis-mo.gov,July 31, 2014
Source: “Highly publicized homeless veterans housing program hits snags,” Stripes.com, October 2, 2014
Image by Paul Sableman

 

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Another Look at Washington, D.C.

[map showing enrollment of homeless kids in D.C. schools]

Each city has its own particular culture and problems, and it’s instructive to pick one out for a closer look. Part of the uniqueness of the homelessness picture in Washington, D.C., is that it is America’s capital. To some observers this implies that whatever the government does ought to happen there more efficiently, more sanely, and more humanely than anywhere else. Otherwise, how can it claim to be a “capital”? The word comes from Latin, and relates to the head. If the head is sick, how can any other part of the body be well?

Kathryn Baer provides a really stunning breakdown of all the latest numbers, and none of them are good. She mentions the most recent one-night count of people experiencing homelessness in the District of Columbia:

On a night late last January, 1,231 families in the District were in an emergency shelter or transitional housing. This represents a one-year increase of about 25.2% — and a mind-boggling increase of 109.7% over 2008.

At this one point in time, 2,236 children were homeless and with parents or other caretakers.

Washington, D.C., is surrounded by the six of the 10 richest counties in the the nation — for instance, Fairfax County. There, the count found 1,534 homeless individuals, one-third of them children. Young students from Capitol Hill Montessori participated in a program, run by a government agency and the National Geographic Society, designed to “use geographic information systems and local data to bring light to social causes.”  Using data from the education department, they created a map illustrating how many homeless students are enrolled in each D.C.-area school.

At the beginning of this year, Washington recreation centers were repurposed as family shelters, but few parents feel safe in them, and fears over children’s safety have sparked rebellious attitudes. Azmat Khan wrote:

Seventy-nine homeless families are currently suing the city over the makeshift conditions, and on Monday, a D.C. Superior Court Judge ordered the city to immediately provide more private rooms for families as the class-action lawsuit plays out.

After a series of welfare motels and horrible apartments from which they were frequently evicted, 8-year-old Relisha Rudd lived with her mother and brothers in the shelter that used to be D.C.’s General Hospital. Shamika Young allowed her daughter to leave the premises with a trusted family friend, and it was probably a fatal decision. Relisha’s fate is still unknown, but the margin for hope is between slim and nonexistent.

Her disappearance can’t be blamed on the shelter administration. It’s not a prison, and those who suggest that the authorities perform bed checks, or take other intrusive measures, are misguided. Even homeless parents are entitled to some dignity, and the degree of surveillance necessary to prevent a similar occurrence would be unconscionable.

On the other hand

However… there is absolutely no doubt that Relisha hated the shelter, described as a “grim place with bedbugs and no playground.” A Washington Post piece by Theresa Vargas, Emma Brown, Lynh Bui and Peter Hermann paints a sordid picture and gives a definite impression that the repulsiveness of the venue was as much a factor as anything else in Relisha’s disappearance. Relatives said she would pretend to have asthma attacks in order to spend time at their homes. Teachers and staff described her reluctance to leave at the end of the school day.

Why didn’t some family member step up? For one thing, if a family receiving housing assistance wants to take in a relative, they have to negotiate forbidding and complicated Section 8 red tape. And maybe Relisha’s mother would not have agreed anyway. One Post commenter wrote:

I’ve seen first-hand my own parents’ hands tied by “the system” when trying to take care of a family member child whose parent(s) effectively abdicate responsibility via abuse/neglect. There’s virtually nothing you can do until that parent legally releases them to your care or until the children are forcibly removed by the overworked, overburdened, underpaid, understaffed ‘system.’

The article also points to the self-perpetuating nature of such an unstable existence:

Shamika Young … also lived in shelters as a child. She was 6 years old when she entered Virginia’s foster-care system, where she bounced between homes until the age of 18, relatives said. About a year later, she had Relisha.

Critics can’t help asking why an unmarried teen in such a precarious situation would have a baby. There are many answers, including the decreasing availability of abortion. People with more empathy understand that maybe the father promised a home and stability. Maybe the young woman just wanted somebody in her life to love her — and a baby is the one person guaranteed to do that, instinctively and automatically. Personal issues aside, it is crystal clear that allowing so many kids to grow up in shelters and foster homes is beneficial to no one, and certainly not to society as a whole.

Reactions?

Source: “Over 25 Percent Increase in Homeless DC Families, Annual Count Finds,” PovertyAndPolicy.wordpress.com, 05/15/14
Source: “More Than 1500 Reported Homeless in Fairfax County” greateralexandria.patch.com, 05/23/12
Source: “Where do DC homeless students go to school? These tween hackers can show you!” MiddleChildInDC.wordpress.com, 05/04/14
Source: “Are We Doing Enough to Protect Homeless Children?” AlJazeera.com, 03/27/14
Source: “Before Relisha Rudd went missing, the 8-year-old longed to escape DC’s homeless shelter,” WashingtonPost.com, 04/05/14
Image by ArcGIS.com

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Head Trauma, Homelessness, and Crazy

elderly homeless woman

Scientists studied men from a homeless shelter in Toronto to discover each person’s history of head injuries. They interviewed the participants (ages 27 to 81) using the standardized Brain Injury Screening Questionnaire. The team’s own report said:

Demographic information and detailed histories of brain injuries were obtained. Participants with positive and negative screening results were compared…. A positive screening result was significantly associated with a lifetime history of arrest or mental illness and a parental history of substance abuse.

Almost half of the participants had suffered traumatic brain injury (TBI), which can even lead to seizures. Among them, these numbers relating to the precipitating incident were recorded:
— assault, 66%
— sports or recreation, 44%
— vehicle accident, 42%
— fall, 42%

Since those percentages add up to well over 100%, obviously many individuals have fallen prey to more than one head injury. Usually, the first time was in childhood, possibly as a result of being raised by parents who were substance abusers, which showed up as a positive correlation. In men who were under 40, the most prevalent cause of neurotrauma was falling because of alcohol or drug blackouts. For those over 40, sadly, assault was the most common cause. The researchers also found that 87% of the injuries happened before the participants became homeless.

Corroboration

That research team was led by Jane Topolovec-Vranic, Ph.D., a clinical researcher in the Neuroscience Research Program of St. Michael’s Hospital. Meanwhile, another research project was in progress — the Health and Housing in Transition Study, conducted by Dr. Stephen Hwang of the Centre for Research on Inner City Health. Dr. Hwang collected data not only in Toronto but in Vancouver and Ottawa as well. Among his subjects, the incidence of TBI was seven times higher than in the general population.

An attorney who represents accident victims wrote:

[T]he victims of traumatic brain injuries so often have the potential to suffer longer than almost any other group. TBI victims frequently experience problems such as loss of memory, loss of cognitive function, physical impairment and personality changes or disorders. In simple terms, a person who suffers a traumatic brain injury may never be the same after the accident…. While a TBI may result in serious problems, the problems are almost always made worse if the victim cannot afford good medical care.

In Austin, Texas, House the Homeless conducted a health survey of 501 participants, which revealed that 83 had suffered a brain injury; 45 had experienced at least one seizure; 70 had a history of panic attacks; 175 reported themselves as mentally ill; and 330 said they sometimes need to stop and rest before they can continue walking to a destination.

Richard R. Troxell fought for years to exempt disabled people, including those with TBI, from being charged a $500 fine under Austin’s No Sit/No Lie ordinance. With disability credentials, a homeless person is allowed to sit for 30 minutes to recover strength, and in extreme weather (over 100 degrees) any homeless person is permitted the grace of being able to sit or lie for a while. House the Homeless got the new rules written into the Police Procedures Manual and published small laminated versions of the rules for distribution to people experiencing homelessness.

This may sound like a trivial issue, but think again, and answer the Bonus Question: Which is more crazy — a homeless person with TBI, or a city that has spent over a quarter of a million dollars to prosecute one individual for violating a No Sit/No Lie ordinance? From Los Angeles comes the ludicrous story of how 59-year-old Ann Moody has been arrested 59 times and spent a total of 15 months in jail, mostly for sitting. The Los Angeles Times quoted Moody: “We’re human beings, not to be pushed around like cattle. We have a right to be stationary.”

Reactions?

Source: “Traumatic brain injury among men in an urban homeless shelter: observational study of rates and mechanisms of injury,” CMAJOpen.ca, 04/25/14
Source: “Almost half of homeless men had traumatic brain injury in their lifetime,“ ScienceDaily.com, 04/25/14
Source: “Homeless Men Have High TBI Rates,” May 2014
Source: “Homeless Grandmother Arrested 59 Times for Sitting on Sidewalk,” DemocraticUnderground.com, 05/02/14
Image by Alex

1

What Else Is Salt Lake City Doing for the Homeless?

Salt Lake

Last time, House the Homeless looked at how things are working out in Salt Lake City, Utah. Getting every military veteran off the street is a big priority there, as both the city and the state want to continue to lead the way toward the Veterans Administration’s goal of eliminating veteran homelessness by next year.

Freedom Landing is owned and administered by the municipal Housing Authority. The 110-unit transitional housing facility provides not only a roof but several case managers to help individuals focus on stability and re-entry into both the job market and society in general. At any given time, close to half the residents are already employed and preparing to launch out on their own.

The veterans who live in the repurposed hotel contribute to their rent, and the VA pays part of it. It appears that meals are catered in, but up until a year ago, the only way for a resident to prepare food was to keep an electric skillet or rice-cooker in his or her room. Last March, an underutilized TV room was remodeled into the Freedom Diner and stocked with food donated by the Mormon Church.

Two stoves were installed, one of them wheelchair-accessible, as are some of the tables and counters. People who like to cook are welcome to, not only for themselves but for sharing as well. The idea is to reduce isolation, provide a hangout for morning coffee drinking, and generally foster a sense of camaraderie.

Dentistry

Just two months ago, the Fourth Street Clinic announced its expansion plans, including a dental care center for the homeless, which hopefully will be fully functional by the end of 2015. The Salt Lake Tribune reported:

Dental care has been a major service gap for uninsured Utahns, as decayed or missing teeth erode self-confidence, contribute to unemployment and perpetuate homelessness…. Oral health care will be fully integrated into Fourth Street Clinic’s primary care services and delivered by a combination of paid staff, students, and volunteers. Fourth Street Clinic is currently engaged in a broad-based community fundraising campaign to raise the $450,000 needed to annually operate the dental clinic.

LGBT Youth

Salt Lake Tribune reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack wrote earlier this week about the Family Acceptance Project, designed to alleviate the isolation and despair experienced by teens and young adults who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. 

Research led by Caitlin Ryan of San Francisco State University has shown that in any given year more than 5,000 young people experience homelessness in Utah. About 40% of them are LGBT, mostly from homes characterized as socially and religiously conservative. The Mormon Church is collaborating with other churches and organizations to prevent homelessness among young people by educating families and urging them not to react judgmentally to the news that a teenager is gay, bisexual, or transgender.

‘Support Salt Lake Street News Vendors, Not Panhandlers’

The slogan quoted above refers to the Salt Lake City Mission’s newspaper vending program which was launched last fall to help hundreds of people experiencing homelessness to make honest money as independent marketing agents of the Street Newspaper. The available information is confusing. Reader comments to the Salt Lake Tribune story about the program included this one: “I thought I’d get writing and news from the local homeless population but instead I read nationally syndicated opinions.”

Apparently this was not a true launch but a revival of an earlier version of the publication. The Mission’s website includes issues dated from May/June 2010 up until February 2012, with no indication of what happened between then and last October. But back in the early days, there was plenty of local material. Volume 1 Number 1 contained such stories as “Life of a Katrina Evacuee” and “Dying Boy’s Last Wish is to Help Homeless,” and the rest of the pages were all pretty much about street life. Sadly, less than two years later, almost every page included a “your ad could be here” type of space filler. May the newest incarnation of the Street Newspaper prove more successful for all involved.

Reactions?

Source: “New ‘diner’ will help Utah’s homeless veterans share a meal,” SLTrib.com, 03/04/13
Source: “Clinic opening to fill dental-care gaps for homeless,” SLTrib.com, 01/18/14
Source: “New program aims to prevent suicide, homelessness in LGBT Mormon youth,” SLTrib.com, 03/14/14
Source: “Homeless sell “Street Newspaper” rather than panhandling,” SLTrib.com, 10/02/13
Source: “Salt Lake Street News,” SaltLakeCityMission.org
Image by Garrett

0

Dollars and Sense in Salt Lake City

Where We Sleep

Salt Lake City, Utah, has boarded the Housing First train in a very promising way. To calculate how economical the solution is, the founders contrasted the cost of housing people in apartments with the cost of incarcerating them and the cost of emergency room treatment for all the various illnesses and injuries that can befall a person who lives on the streets. Cory Doctorow writes:

The “Housing First” program’s goal was to end chronic homelessness in Utah within 10 years. Through 2012, it had helped reduce the 2,000 people in that category when it began by 74 percent. Lloyd Pendleton, director of Utah’s Homeless Task Force, said the state is on track to meet its goal by 2015, and become the first state in the nation to do so.

2015! That’s next year! Salt Lake’s commitment to the Housing First ideal began to flower back in 2005, when research showed that the state spent $16,670 a year on jailing and/or providing emergency medical services for each chronically homeless individual. These were people who had experienced homelessness for an average of 25 years.

On the other hand, it would cost the taxpayers only $11,000 per capita and per annum to provide not only an apartment but the attention of a caseworker. We couldn’t find a suitable graphic for Salt Lake City, but the chart on this page illustrates the same type of comparison for Los Angeles in a 2008 study. The revolutionary part of the Housing First plan is to attach no strings. People are offered the resources and encouragement to make positive changes, but the deal is unconditional.

Mayor Ralph Becker announced in January that Salt Lake City had “ended veterans’ homelessness” except for eight individuals who did not want homes but who were still being contacted by social workers in hopes that they would change their minds.

There may be some confusion, however. Not all homeless vets are in the “chronic homeless” category, which is defined as experiencing homelessness for at least a year or four times within three years while coping with a disability. Indeed, some online comments reacting to an MSNBC story indicate that either miscommunication or misunderstanding is in effect.

One commenter’s veteran son ended up living in a truck because he did not receive the help he was entitled to, a situation the commenter blamed on caseworker incompetence. A cab driver wrote in to offer a specialized tour of the city to “anyone who wants to see the real situation.” Another commenter served up a description that by no means resembles “no strings attached”:

Salt Lake & Phoenix have thousands of homeless veterans on the streets; and the veterans they are calling ‘HOUSED’ are in prison-like & all-controlling insane asylum complexes, where the veterans are baby-sat 24/7 & threatened with being thrown to the streets if they have ONE BEER while watching a football game!

Still, there is no doubt that many, many people experiencing homelessness have been helped. But despite all the good news, conditions are not idyllic in Utah’s capital city.

Only a few weeks before the mayor’s speech, Marjorie Cortez, writing for Deseret News, reported that in the previous year only five new units of permanent supportive housing had been added, and no transitional housing units. She interviewed Matt Minkevitch, who serves as executive director of private nonprofit social service agency The Road Home, about food insecurity and learned that during that year emergency food requests had increased by 15%.

In December, the city bureaucracy flexed its muscles and reminded distributors of food to the homeless of the necessity for papers, including a “free expression” permit, a waste management permit, and a food-safety temporary event permit from the Health Department, which must be in hand at least a couple weeks before the event. On the surface, they seem easy enough to get and not outlandishly expensive. Yet this has created big problems for The Road Home. After interviewing the organization’s community relations director, Celeste Eggert, journalist Amy McDonald reported:

A bill that passed the House and awaits final action in the Senate would exempt volunteers from the requirement to have a food handler’s permit to dish out meals to the homeless…. When the homeless shelter and aid organization learned of the health rules and informed volunteer groups, it lost 39 volunteer groups. As a result, the organization missed out on an estimated 5,850 donated meals…. Eggert says the organization’s winter-overflow shelter in Midvale received no donated meals in January and February.

The ironic thing is, 30 years of volunteer food preparation have not resulted in one instance of food poisoning or the finding of foreign objects in any meals.

Reactions?

Source: “Fighting homelessness by giving homeless people houses,” BoingBoing.net, 01/22/14
Source: “Second American City Ends Chronic Homelessness Among Veterans,” ThinkProgress.org, 01/06/14
Source: “Salt Lake City joins Phoenix in ending veteran homelessness,” MSNBC.com, 01/06/14
Source: “Report: Salt Lake City’s homelessness efforts making gains but food needs still unmet,” DeseretNews.com, 12/12/13
Source: “SLC city officials: Must have a permit to hand out food to the homeless,” 4Utah.com, 12/24/2013
Source: “Food safety rules block thousands of meals to homeless in SLC,” SLTrib.com, 03/11/14
Image by Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority

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