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The SRO — a Much-Needed Housing Solution

The constant shrinkage of the SRO stock (the number of Single Room Occupancy rooms) in America is shameful, and for various historical reasons San Francisco has been particularly hard hit. Recently, Frances Saux wrote:

A 1979 study counted 26,884 SRO units in San Francisco, and those numbers were diminishing. By 2011, the number of residential units stood at 18,910. Those numbers have gone up slightly; in 2015, the city reported a total of 19,166 units, but that includes units that are no longer affordable to low-income residents. Of the Mission’s nearly 1,000 SRO units, 75 — or 8 percent — had become unaffordable for low-income residents by 2015.

Another source says that since the 1970s, more than a third of the city’s SRO stock has disappeared. Many bad things have happened to these buildings, like arson fires set by landlords who wanted to get rid of indigent tenants and build something new and expensive. The Mission SRO Collaborative formed to raise tenant awareness about that danger.

In 2012, a survey carried out buy a coalition of nonprofit agencies learned that “as many as half of SRO residents lived in buildings where there was no elevator, or one that wasn’t always accessible because it wasn’t always working.” Thousands of elderly and disabled tenants were stuck having to walk up and down many flights of stairs, or stay marooned in their rooms.

In 2014, an estimated 30,000 people lived in San Francisco’s SRO dwellings. In that same year a tourist guide, TripAdvisor.com, spoke quite frankly:

In many cities today, SROs are often associated with the homeless, sometimes with just plain bums. Local government, social service agencies, and parole authorities use these, quite frankly, to dump people who aren’t placeable elsewhere. Poor retired law-abiding people who can’t afford apartments may live near chronic street people, criminals, felony parolees, people recovering (either genuinely or supposedly) from substance abuse, the mentally ill, and others who can’t quite fit into the mainstream.

The literature went on to lament that families who can’t find other shelter often live with several people to a room in SRO establishments, and strongly implied that tourists would really be better off somewhere else. Which actually is a great idea. Stay away, tourists, and leave the poor people’s housing alone.

Elderly, low-income, and disabled tenants have always needed protection from rapacious property owners. In more recent years, SROs have been important for undocumented people. Landlords know how difficult it is to find a place. Tenants are unlikely to complain about leaks or bugs, or otherwise “make trouble” for a landlord when they face a very real risk of winding up homeless or worse.

It is hard to keep track of all the political and financial maneuvering that affects housing. In 1981, San Francisco passed Ordinance 41, whose object was to stop the loss of single residential units via conversion or demolition. Apparently the local ordinances around housing have loopholes that allow an SRO to renovate a room and raise the rent to whatever the market will bear.

And SROs have been renting out rooms via Airbnb, which has in fact been class-action sued by a group of tenants in the Tenderloin district. Obviously, when a property owner has access to wealthy tourists and visiting executives with expense accounts, why should they waste their time with tenants who receive government assistance?

Why indeed? Except for the crazy notion that humans should let human needs triumph over greed.

Reactions?

Source: “SF Mission residential hotels renovated for wealthier tenants,” MissionLocal.org, 08/19/17
Source: “San Francisco lawmakers pass SRO rental cap,” Curbed.com, 02/01/17
Source: “When is a ‘hotel’ not a HOTEL? — TA Guide to SROs,” Tripadvisor.com, 08/08/14
Photo by Daniel X. O’Neil on Visualhunt/CC BY

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Housing Solutions Shunned and Ignored

Ace Backwords, who has written extensively on homeless issues, used to live in a single-room occupancy building (SRO) in Berkeley, California. Although he employs an inelegant synonym, that’s what he’s talking about here:

If they want to solve the homeless problem, one of the first things they need to do is start building thousands and thousands of flophouses. Cheap, little rooms with a bed and a sink in them, and a bathroom down the hall. Unfortunately, they’re a dying breed: flophouses. In fact, a couple months after I moved out of the one on 2nd Street, the phone company bought the building, paid off all the tenants a thousand bucks each to “re-locate” and then turned it into one more bland corporate office building.

In his book Looking Up at the Bottom Line, House the Homeless co-founder and President Richard R. Troxell fondly remembers SROs, of which the country used to have several million. Sometimes, in special cases, a collection of units in a hotel-like structure can be more than just a place to live. Richard describes Garden Terrace, Austin’s last SRO facility with supportive housing, where 85 residents lived semi-independently, with food and case management provided, for a nominal amount of rent. At the time, he said, “It is considered transitional housing, but no one can afford the housing to transition into.”

Richard reminisces about the YMCA, which still rents out rooms in some cities, but they all seem to have different rules. In one place, the nightly fee is $50; in another, a year’s minimum lease is required; and so on. But in the old days, says Richard:

On a nightly basis, you could lay down your $5 or $10 and get a decent, clean room with a place to stash your things, get up to an alarm clock, go down the hall in the morning to a shared bathroom, and then head off to work — showered, shaved, refreshed and ready to put in a full day’s work. You could chase the American Dream… Today, the YMCAs do not exist in any significant number.

One after another, SRO buildings fall, sometimes with a great deal of commotion. Truth-out writers Toshio Meronek and Andrew Szeto interviewed long-time activist Charlie Fredrick about the tumultuous events in San Francisco in the 1970s:

As the city closed and demolished many of its SROs, the International Hotel — which housed almost 150 low-income Chinese and Filipino seniors — became a symbol for the war between real estate interests and activists. Years of protest eventually sparked a court battle over whether city funds should go to buying the “I”-Hotel and handing it over to tenants groups, with the seniors being publicly supported by a range of high-profile left activist groups… Ultimately, the tenants of the “I”-Hotel lost the fight.

In 2014, there were still more than 500 SROs in San Francisco. Meronek and Szeto wrote about the Altamont, a hotel in the Mission District. Most of its rooms were rented long-term by people helped financially by HUD. The rooms (normally 11’x14′) were described as “barely larger than the size of a prison cell” with shared bathrooms and kitchens.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. A very large number of people do not want to own houses or condos. They don’t want to shovel snow, mow a lawn, redecorate the foyer, or even cook meals from scratch. They just want to carry out the basic activities of life in a clean and no-hassle space where all the utilities function. Unfortunately, housing developers only want to build more McMansions and fancy condominiums with fireplaces and hand-clap light switches.

Reactions?

Source: “Don’t Look Back,” WordPress.com, 07/19/14
Source: “Looking Up at the Bottom Line,” Amazon.com
Source: “Single-Room Occupancy Buildings: Last Bastion of Affordable Housing in San Francisco?,” Truth-out.org, 11/15/14
Photo by WalterPro on Visualhunt/CC BY

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Fining the Destitute, and Other Crazy Notions

Currently, the House the Homeless home page shows a letter by founder and President Richard R. Troxell, explaining why he wrote an Amicus Brief with the intention of helping the situation in Austin. Many cities throughout the United States currently operate under rules that can only make homelessness worse.

As Richard points out, one factor that helped turn Ferguson, Missouri, into a battle zone in 2014 was a local economy based on money extorted from the people by hyper-zealous law enforcement. Americans who are the least able to afford additional debt are overcharged and over-convicted every day, to the detriment of honest and stable civic peace.

National Public Radio’s Joseph Shapiro recommends his network’s series, titled “Guilty and Charged“:

The series reported that nationwide, the costs of the justice system are billed increasingly to defendants and offenders, and that this creates harsher treatment of the poor. Because people with money can pay their hundreds or thousands of dollars in fines and fees right away they are usually done with the court system.

But in many places, people who live on the edge of solvency are subject to a daily effort to extract a constant flow of dollars from them. Shapiro wrote in another piece:

In 2013, the municipal court in Ferguson — a city of 21,135 people — issued 32,975 arrest warrants for nonviolent offenses, mostly driving violations.

Do we have rulings and protections in place to prevent what is, to all intents and purposes, the return of the medieval debtors prison? Of course we do, but when people are ordered to show up physically to make their monthly installment payments judges can do crazy stuff like order the courtroom locked, and then issue an arrest warrant for a person who was barred from entering.

Or maybe the person just lives too far away and can’t get a ride. Additionally, in Ferguson and places like it, the insanity is mixed in with a huge propensity toward racial profiling.

Land of the unfree

Throughout the U.S. there are many pockets like St. Louis County, with courts notorious for charging outrageous fines and fees. The more petty the crime, the better, because legal defense requires even more expenditure. Unless a person is charged with rape or murder putting up a defense is just added punishment.

Even an employed person can sink under the weight of even a small fine. When finances are precarious, the slightest extra demand can start a spiral of consequences, a vicious cycle of poverty and incarceration that eventually culminates in full-on homelessness.

Jails are full of citizens in pre-trial detention for all sorts of reasons, who are unable to raise bail. If they were employed before, they may not be when they get out, because meanwhile they have been fired for not showing up at work. If they were housed before, same deal. This crazy way of doing things creates homelessness.

Imagine the mulishly stubborn and mindless greed that a municipality must operate by, to take the extraordinary step of laying fines on people experiencing homelessness, who are quite likely to be destitute. They can’t pay, so they go to jail at the taxpayers’ expense, which negates the entire alleged reason for levying fines in the first place, which is to raise money to run the local government. It soon becomes glaringly obvious that the entire point of the exercise is only to punish Americans for being poor.

Criminal justice reform

The very obvious result of incarceration is that any family left on the outside might meanwhile disintegrate before the imprisoned member is released. With not much to live for, a person is likely to get in trouble again, and then politicians rant about the high recidivism rate.

This all plays into the related problem of people who are accused of crimes being coerced into pleading guilty just so they can get out. Statistically speaking, defendants who are held by the system before their trials are more likely to be sentenced, and apt to be handed a longer sentence. Whether a person shows up for court in a suit or a jumpsuit makes a big difference.

The Criminal Justice Reform Blog tells why current practices are so stupid:

For far too many poor people, bail is simply not an option and this plays into the hands of prosecutors who know that they have yet another bargaining chip to hold against the defendant. Court is far far from an even playing field in these situations.

People are stuck in jail before they’re even convicted of a crime all because they cannot afford to make bail. These people are not only costing states billions of dollars each year, but their plight wages lasting destruction upon the communities from which they come.

Reactions?

Source: “In Ferguson, Court Fines And Fees Fuel Anger,” NPR.org, 08/25/14
Source: “Bail Reform — No Get Out of Jail Free Cards — Beware Quick Fixes,” CJReform.info, 11/17/17
Photo credit: Johnny Silvercloud via Visualhunt/CC BY-SA

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Remembering the Departed

Sunday, November 19, is the day of this year’s Homeless Memorial Service. If you are in or near Austin, Texas, please go to Auditorium Shores, at South First and Riverside Drive (on the south side of Lady Bird Lake).

There is a story behind the annual event. In 1992, Austin was a smaller and much less cosmopolitan city, and not quite conscious of how many of its citizens were sleeping rough, or just minimally and occasionally sheltered. All that changed with the death of Diane Malloy.

House the Homeless founder Richard R. Troxell helped another man search for and recover her drowned body. In his book, Looking Up at the Bottom Line, Richard recalls how the tragedy led to the yearly Memorial tradition.

Bodies of water attract bodies of people

People experiencing homelessness meet their ends in various ways: fire; exposure to weather; violence; overdose; being hit by a vehicle. Some even have what are called “natural” deaths, although at an unnaturally young age. Considering the close quarters and lack of sanitation in camps and some shelters, it is amazing that there have not been more flareups of contagious diseases.

As it turns out, water is a very popular spot for the corpses of people no longer experiencing homelessness to be found. A person with no fixed address is quite likely to be discovered dead in or near an ocean, lake, river, pond, ditch, arroyo, or flood plain.

There are practical reasons. Many large and/or warm cities are located on coastlines, and they tend to contain a lot of people experiencing homelessness. Inland, wherever a wooded area hosts a lone camper or a settlement, water is likely to be nearby.

Interestingly, a watery death overtakes far fewer women than men, quite out of proportion to their numbers in the total population. A woman’s body found in water attracts media attention and public sympathy in a way that the drownings of men never quite manage to do. Austin is not the only city that was actually changed by one particular fatality.

In East Los Angeles, the faith-based Guadalupe Homeless Project Women’s Shelter exists because the body of 36-year-old Lorenza Arellano was found in the lake at a municipal park. Authorities said an overdose killed her, though how she got into the water was never explained. This was in 2014, and within the whole enormous geography of Los Angeles, there were only two women-only shelters. Arellano’s death was the catalyst that made the third one happen.

Another story

As a young woman with a genius-level IQ, Cara Nurmi showed infinite promise in her teen years. She studied ballet and photography, and was known as a singer and painter. Hurricane Katrina destroyed her home and all her artwork. During rebuilding, an electrical fire wiped out everything. When the man she loved died suddenly, Nurmi told her mother, “If I don’t have anything, I can’t lose anything,” and went off to hide in the world.

Nurmi’s life unraveled to the point of vagabondage in New Orleans, where she was known to everyone, including the police-run Homeless Assistance Unit, as a pleasant, playful woman with “wonderful energy.” Still, the 34-year-old had been through a rough decade. At some point she signed up for an inpatient alcohol detox program, and in August, a spot opened up.

Of course there was a last party with friends, under a wharf, and Nurmi jumped into the Mississippi River. It seems to have been a habit, and whoever else was there didn’t worry. Her body was found a few days later.

Journalist Richard A. Webster quoted Cara Nurmi’s mom:

I think with Katrina, they only counted the dead bodies, but there are other people who took a little longer to die.

Reactions?

Source: “Looking Up at the Bottom Line,” Amazon.com
Source: “A new shelter in East LA provides sanctuary for homeless women,” SCPR.org, 03/31/15
Source: “Homeless woman found in Mississippi River wavered between heaven and hell, friends say,” NOLA.com, 08/31/17
Image by House the Homeless

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Tiny Homes: The Problem Beneath the Problem

How many kinds of small, self-contained dwellings are there? Dozens, at least. Every day smart and compassionate people figure out how to transform just about anything into minimalist living quarters.

There are miniature geodesic domes, Conestoga huts, and Cardborigami collapsible, transportable shade structures. There are tiny houses made of hempcrete, which repels mold, rodents and insects; and hemp grows quickly and economically almost anywhere. There are not-so-tiny houses made from shipping containers.

A design website relates how University of Southern California architecture students invented shelters, including a combined shopping cart and tent. In response to one assignment, students…

[…] conceived a village consisting of modular units measuring 92 square feet (8.5 square metres). Some contain bedrooms, while others are combined to form bathroom facilities and communal rooms. The complex also is designed to have outdoor terraces and courtyards.

However, a report from a different publication brings up some troubling questions. For MercuryNews.com, Susan Abram describes one Homes for Hope unit as a “mini-modular home” that includes only bed, desk, and shelves. In other words, toilets, showers, and kitchens belong in other units, to be communally shared.

The writer comments on the highly portable rectangles:

Made of a steel frame with structural insulated panels and aluminum cladding, the units resemble camper shells, with sliding windows. They can be heated and cooled, and stacked to create a community on vacant lots for 30 people or less. Social services, a community space and bathroom facilities also could be provided with additional funding.

Let’s just pause for a moment and reflect on that sentence. “Bathroom facilities could also be provided.” Ya think? Abram explains the state law under which “emergency housing of no more than 30 beds can be opened in certain districts within a community” with no conditional use permit required.

Sounds like a stroll in the park, right? Wrong. She quotes some facts learned from project mentor Sofia Borges:

The next step is to get the units state certified so that the teams can begin mass production, Borges said. “If we get the unit itself pre-certified we don’t have to go through the permitting process each time we want to make more.”

That certification process, along other fees and licensing will cost $100,000. Individual units would cost about $25,000.

In what universe should the state be demanding a $100,000 bribe to okay such a simple item that could help so many people? The government presumably has a stake in housing the homeless. Why can’t it just give the green light? And $25,000 apiece, to make a cube with a bed, desk, and shelves in it? Really?

Endless creativity and originality are expended on turning out structures that are, in some cases, only a grade above cardboard boxes. Which is fine, because on a cold night, even a sheet of aluminum between you and the wind can make all the difference.

Based on rationales that range from baffling to incomprehensible, very few locales allow these minimalist solutions. The whole “tiny house” genre is riddled with restrictions, sanctions, ordinances, contradictions, and highly idiosyncratic rules — depending on the jurisdiction the project happens to lie in. In some places, a distinction is made between an actual dwelling and a “pod,” which might be a basic, no-frills box, and as long as it stays beneath a certain size, it’s allowed.

Dream pods

Two Januaries ago, Tucson, Arizona, was all in a tizzy over “dream pods,” basically plywood crates not much bigger than coffins, that activists constructed and brought downtown for people to live in. In March, after much controversy, orders were issued that they all had to go, along with every tent, lean-to, etc. Some of the dream pods were moved to the grounds of a church where they continued to be inhabited.

The problem beneath the problem is, literally, the rock-solid dilemma on which everything rests. It’s not that there aren’t enough housing units to live in, because there easily could be. There is plenty of encouragement for the recycling and repurposing of parts and materials. An enormous amount of ingenuity has been spent in designing units.

Among people experiencing homelessness and caring citizens, there is a great potential pool of volunteer labor. There is government money and private charity money — never as much as we might wish — but it is there, and obtainable by determined individuals and groups willing to do the work. But there is virtually nowhere to put tiny homes. Nobody wants shipping containers, or even storybook-cute mini-houses, anywhere near where they are.

Reactions?

Source: “California architecture students design shelters for LA’s growing homeless population,” Dezeen.com, 02/22/17
Source: “Can these small pods bring a big solution for California cities’ homeless crisis?,” MercuryNews.com, 10/13/17
Source: “‘Dream pods’ removed from Tucson homeless camp,” Tucson.com, 03/13/15
Photo credit: Laura LaVoie (wheezinggirl) via Visualhunt/CC BY

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Resistance, Advocacy, and Ambivalence in Maspeth

In Maspeth, which is part of Queens in New York City, a Holiday Inn became a homeless shelter. In April, some locals sued the mayor on technical grounds related to the building’s certificate of occupancy, but apparently an uneasy truce is now in effect.

But the permanent residents are vigilant. A woman filed a FOIA request (subsequently denied) for information on the shelter residents, particularly “employment information, last known addresses, reasons for their homelessness, drug use and length of stay.” In August, a headline read, “Cops say this couple has been breaking into Maspeth homes in broad daylight.” (Not the couple pictured on our page, by the way.)

According to the article on QNS.com:

Police have released images of a man and a woman responsible for a burglary pattern in Maspeth, hitting two homes within a span of three days in broad daylight…

In other words, the pair tried but failed to break into one house, and successfully broke into another and stole things, if that can be called a pattern. Obviously, some journalistic sensationalizing is in play, but, surprisingly, the local news sources are reticent about connecting crimes to the formerly homeless population. Strangely, a blog about local affairs never mentions the shelter at all.

Outside friction

A story from Gothamist is titled, “Ask A Native New Yorker: Is It Wrong To Hate Homeless People?” It quotes lively discussions between journalists, members of the affected community, and people who are neither. It illustrates, among other things, the proneness of trolls to deploy “straw man” arguments.

A person known as “Maspeth Sympathizer” wrote:

No one wants some 20 year old baby breeder and her litter of kids scrubbing off the good hardworking taxpayers.

However, the original Maspeth plan was to create a 110-bed shelter for adult families, defined as couples and families with children older than 18. Using rude and crude language, the same New Yorker voiced the frustrations felt by people who work hard to buy a piece of property with a house on it, and then find their communities playing host to people experiencing homelessness.

Nice middle-class neighborhoods are rare in the metropolis. They are populated by workers who “clean the streets, run the public transportation system, enforce the law, put out the fires, pick up the trash, teach our future and hold the doors open for the snobs who can’t be bothered.”

Clash of cultures

Critics say that people who live in shelters mess up their neighborhoods, and this is an understandable complaint. Parents whose kids play in the local park don’t want broken glass to suddenly start showing up. The obvious retort is that not all people experiencing homelessness are poorly socialized semi-barbarians who were raised in dumpsters with rats for pets.

The families in the shelter might have been traumatically transplanted from a nice middle-class community just like Maspeth. These days, almost no one in America is immune to the threat of homelessness.

A knee-jerk reaction would be to fence the park, limit the hours, convince the police to make a strong presence, or hire security guards. But it doesn’t have to be like that. What if community members went a bit out of their way for a while, and put in a little extra effort?

Local parents could spend more time at the park with their kids, getting healthy exercise and demonstrating by example how to treat a shared public space. Churches could create a welcoming atmosphere. A good-hearted intention to enfold newcomers, rather than repel them, could probably make a considerable difference in many instances.

Some kind of humane approach would certainly accomplish more good than the random pronouncement of blanket generalizations, like the following:

This homeless shelter in Maspeth, like all homeless shelters, is going ruin the neighborhood. There isn’t a neighborhood with a homeless shelter that hasn’t been ruined.

Gothamist publisher Jake Dobkin begs to differ, citing peaceful assimilation in several areas of NYC, both rich and poor. He suggests that what’s really going on is simple fear. Housed people live in terror of the prospect of homelessness, as well they should, because then they might be treated with the same scorn they pour on others now.

Dobkin diagnoses, and advises:

It’s much easier to believe that these people are sub-human trash, rather than just normal people who had the bad luck of being poor in an expensive city—because if you believed that, there’s nothing that could guarantee you’d never end up facing the same problem. Rather than pointing at the poor shelter residents, who are mainly the victims of bad luck and stratospherically-priced housing, you’d be better off directing your anger at the people who really have power in our city’s real estate market: the rich developers and the politicians whom they control.

A bigger picture

It is characteristic of the NIMBY mindset to believe that homeless shelters should only be for people who were rendered homeless in that exact locale. The woman who petitioned the government for personal information was hung up on a 2014 statistic that claimed only four homeless families in Maspeth, and wanted to prove that most of the shelter residents came from other places.

That is an absurdly local perspective. Looked at on a larger scale, out of 12,000 families in the NYC “system” only 135 families (or less than 2%) are from places other than New York City.

The disgruntled “Maspeth Sympathizer” notes that homeless families tend to consist of women and children, with the fathers always missing. Deeper thought and more compassion would promote the understanding that often these families are homeless precisely because the father was taken from them — often by legal action.

It is no secret that minority-group males are accused, convicted, and incarcerated in numbers that do not line up with statistical probability. In city and county jails and state and federal prisons, the black and Hispanic inmate count is wildly disproportionate to the corresponding demographics of the population as a whole. And besides, people in places like Maspeth resent being called racist, when they are merely anti-homeless.

Reactions?

Source: “‘Homeless Holiday Inn’ sparks lawsuit against mayor,” NYPost.com, 04/24/17
Source: “Cops say this couple has been breaking into Maspeth homes in broad daylight,” QNS.com, 08/22/17
Source: “Ask A Native New Yorker: Is It Wrong To Hate Homeless People?,” Gothamist.com, 09/09/16
Photo credit: Steve Baker via Visualhunt/CC BY-ND

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How to Become Homeless — Be Flooded Out

On September 25, the president tweeted, “Texas & Florida are doing great.” However, it seems that some areas are experiencing and expecting even more flooding. And desolation is widespread.

Many people are experiencing homelessness for the first time. For some it is only temporary (though not at all easy), but others will never be housed again. Among those who were already homeless, conditions are worse than ever.

In Austin, Nacodoches and Dallas, people are still taking shelter. The City of Orange set up a headquarters able to hold 250 cots.

Only three days ago, I overheard in real time a conversation about trying to help a young couple with children in Texas. In their normal living space, wet building materials were being removed, while new drywall and other necessary supplies were eagerly awaited. The family was living in their van parked outside, and dared not venture far.

If funds were to be sent to the bank, getting to the bank would be a problem for them, and besides, they were not even sure if the bank was open. And there was no mail service in their part of the city.

The flood drowned 80% of the Gulf Coast town of Dickinson, and half the homes were totaled. To give just one small example of the struggles documented by reporter Quint Forgey:

Many trash haulers have abandoned this community to work in Houston, 30 miles north, where the pay is better… “That’s our biggest challenge — getting the debris trucks in here and keeping them here,” said Ron Morales, Dickinson’s emergency management coordinator…

In 2015, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority interviewed more than 3,000 people experiencing homelessness (out of the estimated 44,300 in the entire county.) The agency was interested in what caused people to be unhoused. According to Authority:

For a fifth of those interviewed, it was primarily a matter of unemployment or finances. Seventy-nine said they were released from jail. Nearly 200 blamed a breakup or separation. Many cited multiple reasons from the list that interviewers read to them.

[…] Lost employment, lost everything by theft, lost Section 8 (federal housing assistance). Hurricane Katrina, fire and “God’s calling” were all cited too.

Often, disaster is one of the reasons, either alone or in conjunction with another misfortune. Ashlea Surles related the story of Jack, a 53-year-old man who lived in the woods in Mississippi. Once a wealthy businessman, he ran out of money paying for his wife’s cancer treatments, and she died anyway. Hurricane Katrina destroyed his house. He told the reporter, with confusing syntax, “Basically people that are homeless sometimes you’re just in the mold where they just don’t care.”

A year ago, Connellsville, Pennsylvania, and a neighboring town suffered severe damage, and it only took five inches of rain in a two-hour spell to cause the nightmare. “Flood leaves more than 50 families homeless in western Pa.,” the headline read. In a place with a population of around 7,500, that’s a pretty big slice of the demographic pie.

Around the same time, Louisiana was slammed with a “1,000-year flood,” in other words, the kind of freakish disaster that is statistically predicted to strike only once per millennium. (Obviously, someone didn’t get the memo.)

In some communities — Denham Springs, for instance — 90% of houses flooded, leaving their owners homeless.

According to FEMA rules, wrote reporter Andrea Gallo, “people in shelters who owned or rented property before the floods qualify for the agency’s transitional shelter assistance, which includes rental assistance, the shelter-at-home program and temporary mobile homes as a last resort.”

Even though people are entitled to help, you can’t rent a hotel room that doesn’t exist, and how many hotels are in rural Louisiana? Without transportation, how do you even go and look for a place to live?

For The Advocate, Gallo profiled a couple who had lived in Walker until their house was inundated by over five feet of water. Gerald and Cris Burkins were placed in one shelter, then another, unable to meet with family members including their daughter whose boyfriend had just died in an auto accident. They were left with nothing, and needed, at the very least, a car and an apartment.

At the height of the emergency, over 11,000 people were taken into Louisiana shelters, among them many who hadn’t been living in any particular place. While a lot of the people in this group may have received the benefit of a more gradual learning curve, flood victims have to very quickly come to terms with their calamitous displacement.

It must be interesting, for experienced homeless people, to see formerly housed neighbors hit with the reality of what having nothing is all about. Gallo says:

If there was ever novelty in living alongside strangers and not having control over what to eat, what to wear and where to go, it has long since worn off.

The reporter also interviewed a woman who had been only two years away from having her house mortgage paid off, suddenly made homeless with nothing but her two cats. Another woman hinted that individuals, such as landlords, could lapse into compassion fatigue:

When people did things for you in the beginning, it was “We want to help.” Now, it’s changed. We didn’t ask to be homeless.

*****

NOTE: Readers who missed the most recent post, “Flooding and Its Aftermath,” might wish to check out the part that begins, “What to do?”

Reactions?

Source: “Tent City offers temporary housing for evacuees,” OrangeLeader.com, 09/28/17
Source: “Texas Towns Crushed by Hurricane Harvey Struggle to Clean Up and Rebuild,” WSJ.com, 09/29/17
Source: “LA’s homeless, in their own words, on how it happened,” LATimes.com, 11/26/15
Source: “Hattiesburg men explain how they ended up homeless in a tent city,” WDAM.com, 2012
Source: “Flood leaves more than 50 families homeless in western Pa.,” WIFT.org, 08/31/16
Source: “Louisiana left stunned by damage from ‘1,000-year’ flood: ‘It just kept coming’,” TheGuardian.com, 08/16/16
Source: “‘We didn’t ask to be homeless’: 850 people remain in shelters, worry about being forgotten as others move on,” TheAdvocate.com, 09/09/16
Photo credit: Texas Military Department via Visualhunt/CC BY-ND

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Flooding and Its Aftermath

Late in May 2015, frequent Huffington Post contributor Arlene Nisson Lassin wrote about the Memorial Day flood in her area of Houston that affected about 4,000 houses, one of which belonged to her family. A series of posts described 99 varieties of pain — from the uncertainty of even being able to stay in the very community-oriented neighborhood, to leaving beloved objects by the curb to be hauled away.

For almost a year, the Lassins “flamped” (flood camped) in the bleak wreckage of their partially-deconstructed house, assessing the damage, studying the laws about rebuilding, filling out tons of paperwork, and not knowing the next step. Ultimately, word came down that the place would have to be bulldozed. They decided to keep the property and build a smaller, and more high-off-the-ground house.

During the construction, they rented a house elsewhere. In the midst of all this, the columnist gently suggested that sympathetic friends and readers might want to cool it with the bubbly consolation talk about a “blessing in disguise” and a “new adventure.”

It is an adventure through nightmarish expenses…
… red tape, documentation, and tireless sorting, packing, hauling and cleaning…
… living in a house that is broken down to studs, with some drywall dust, bleach, and musty odors thrown in…
… a weakened and compromised immune system due to multiple severe stressors coming all at once…
… only being able to sleep with the aid of sleeping pills…
… not having your brain fully attached and worrying you may get into a car accident because you are so zoned out with so many pressing details…
… the care taking and well being of my elderly parents…
… stepping out your front door and being hit in the face with piles and piles of remnants of all of your neighbors and friends homes, knowing that they are going through this same grief and trauma too.

By January of this year, the Lassins were settled in the newly built home. And then, only a few months later, at the end of August, came hurricane Harvey and water even more voluminous than last time. Thanks to the judiciously flood-conscious architecture, this particular family sustained little damage; but the neighborhood streets were again piled high with furniture and other material goods.

It sounds hellish, and bear in mind, these were wealthy people, with apparently fabulous insurance, who were never displaced all the way off the grid. They had the means to always be housed. They had copious amounts of possessions to start with, and were able to salvage some and replace others. For other Houston residents, the outcome was nowhere near so fortunate.

Renters, for instance. Many previous tenants will in future find it “virtually impossible” to rent, because they will have an eviction on their record. Red Painter wrote:

Sadly, under Texas law, rent must be paid on dwellings that are only deemed “damaged” and not completely uninhabitable. And you better believe landlords are going to fight tooth and nail to get a judge to agree that their units are just damaged, thereby ensuring that they can collect that rent… Some greedy landlords in the Houston area are demanding that their tenants pay September rent, even as most of them are homeless, living at shelters or with friends/family and after they have lost literally everything except what they could throw in a bag as they fled their homes.

In mid-September, reporter Grace White wrote:

There are 1,300 people in the George R. Brown Convention Center and 2,058 at NRG Center. However, there’s also a number you don’t see, the number of homeless who are blending in with flood evacuees.

In addition, the NRG center was preparing to receive 400 people who had been evacuated to Dallas and now needed to return to Houston. White interviewed Kristy Bell, mother of three children and already homeless before the flood, who said it was her impression that housed people who were flooded out were the top priority, while those who had previously been homeless were “being left hung out.”

A U.S. News headline summed up the situation: “Storm Pits Houston’s Homeless Against Newly Displaced.” Marilyn Brown of the Coalition for the Homeless described it as “People from above moving down into the apartments we were using to move up.” During the past five years, Houston had succeeded in finding housing for 11,000 people experiencing homelessness. Now, a huge number of them are back to square one.

What to do?

These words are from Richard R. Troxell, 20-year board member of the National Coalition for the Homeless, Director/Founder of House the Homeless, and CEO of the Universal Living Wage campaign:

In 1988, the U.S. Congress passed the McKinney Act (later known as the McKinney-Vento Act.) In that historic moment the U.S. Congress declared that homelessness was/is a crisis in this nation. It is estimated that at least three million people are experiencing homelessness every year. The federal/local government will not allow existing homeless folks (some who have been on the streets of America for up to two decades), to access the Harvey Hurricane shelters or get in line with them to get housing now. This is in spite of the fact that they have been homeless for years. This seems to be a case of the deserving vs the undeserving poor. This seems to be preferential treatment for the recently traumatized vs the long term, repeatedly traumatized. Look, even a third-grader knows you don’t line butt. Let our people in. House all God’s children!

Richard was asked to explore developing legislation on the very pressing issue of homelessness and disasters, and wrote down these ideas:

Whereas, in 1988, the U.S. Congress passed the McKinney Act to help people experiencing homelessness declaring that homelessness had reached a crisis level in this nation, and

Whereas, tens of thousands of people and families end up homeless on the streets of America every year, and

Whereas, due to the lack of affordable housing through traditional means, people continue to remain un-housed for many years, and

Whereas, periodic catastrophes and all forms of disasters render many families and individuals without housing, and

Whereas, the Federal Government through the Federal Emergency Management Agency FEMA, already activates tremendous amounts of resources to help people during these declared disasters,

Therefore be it resolved, that anyone, or any family, that presents themselves to be homeless within the impacted area should be able to avail themselves to all resources offered in all forms, including housing.

Reactions?

Source: “Post-Flood And Homeless — An Adventure Through Hell,” HuffingtonPost.com, 06/27/2015
Source: “Heartless Landlords In Houston Demand Rent From Homeless Evacuees,” CrooksAndLiars.com, 09/05/17
Source: “Thousands of evacuees, including homeless, still in shelters,” KHOU.com, 09/11/17
Source: “Storm Pits Houston’s Homeless Against Newly Displaced,” USNews.com, 09/02/17
Photo credit: (top) Chabad Lubavitch/Chabad.org; (bottom) Chabad Lubavitch/Chabad.org via Visualhunt/CC BY

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Training Wage or Hidden Injustice?

First, before getting into today’s topic, remember that next Tuesday is Bridge the Economic Gap Day, a day for action. Everything there is to say about this yearly tradition is contained in last year’s post, except that this time, it’s Tuesday, September 5, a week from today.

What is commensurate wage?

Since 2009, the federal hourly minimum wage has been $7.25, and the government has designated which workers it applies to. A whole separate area of law describes who can be paid less, and under what circumstances. There are two major exceptions to the requirement to pay minimum wage, and a person may fall under one or the other, or maybe even both.

It seems that the two can be mixed-and-matched, depending on the needs of the company that applies to be certified for the privilege of paying less. This is known as a commensurate wage, which has more dignity than “sub-minimum,” a word that could be termed meaningless, since “minimum” already means “least.”

One affected group are workers under 20 years old, who can be subject to a 90-day training period at $4.25 per hour. This is based on the idea that it will take them a while to get up to speed. During the probationary period, they will not only learn how to do the particular job, but will adapt to the mores of the workplace, such as timely arrival. When the probationary period ends, they will graduate to the ranks of regular employees. But more about this next week.

The federal rules

At the moment, the subject is disability. The Fair Labor Standards Act is enforced by the Wage-Hour Division (WHD) of the U.S. Department of Labor. For detail-oriented readers who want to follow up, the Field Operations Handbook is available online.

This excerpt is from section 64c00:

A subminimum wage is a wage paid a worker with a disability that is commensurate with that worker’s individual productivity as compared to the wage and productivity of experienced workers who do not have disabilities performing essentially the same type, quality, and quantity of work in the vicinity where the worker with a disability is employed.

Some examples of disabilities that may affect a worker’s earning or productive capacity include blindness, intellectual or developmental disability, mental retardation, cerebral palsy, alcoholism, drug addiction, and age.

Age alone is not considered a disability, but it is often concurrent with other disabling conditions. Disabilities range from mild to severe, in one or more of the following areas: “impairments in perception, conceptualization, language, memory, and control of attention, impulse, or motor function.”

The main thing to know is, an employer can pay a sub-minimum wage only when the disability impairs the person for the specific job. In other words, there would be no justification to pay a blind coffee-taster less.

For the employer, several rules apply. There are standards about work measurement and time studies and how the hourly commensurate rate should be calculated, and the company has to promise to reevaluate the job performance every six months or when the actual requirements of the job change.

The WHD civil servants are specially admonished about the importance of their oversight duties “because many of the workers with disabilities paid at sub-minimum wages have little knowledge of their rights under the various acts enforced by the WHD or may be unable to exercise them.”

Potential for mischief

Apparently, the three-months training period exception can be applied to disabled workers as well as those under 20. Some critics feel that, as a Washington state news editorial phrased it, 680 hours might be excessive:

That seems like a long time for a person to get the knack of a minimum-wage job, which by its very nature requires a relatively low level of skill. Would it really take a person 85 days (of eight-hour shifts) to learn a minimum-wage job?

In Seattle, these matters were hotly discussed when state and city minimum wages were adjusted. Washington’s Department of Labor & Industries had designated four sub-minimum wage categories, called “student learners,” “handicapped workers,” “adult learners,” and “student workers.”

Journalist Anna Minard wrote in her 2014 article:

The state has issued only five certificates in the last five years — four for individual handicapped adults, and one for student workers at a boarding school. But while the state program has been small, there’s no telling how many employers would apply for certificates with Seattle’s new higher wages — and how creatively they might try to interpret the existing but rarely used state codes. Opponents of training wages fear this could become a huge loophole for businesses to exploit.

One problem with the training period is that it encourages the unscrupulous employer to engage in an outright scam. Rather than retaining people at full pay, they might let them go when the probationary period is over, and hire a new batch of “trainees” at a discount. Michelle Chen wrote:

Advocates are also campaigning to stop federal subsidies for segregated sheltered workshops and “training” programs, where workers tend to languish indefinitely in jobs with virtually no redeeming educational value.

Please sign this petition!

House the Homeless hopes the reader, now armed with some background information, will take another step. The National Federation of the Blind is petitioning on behalf of all American workers with disabilities to end the Special Wage Certificates that allow the lower pay scale. The petition itself is a model of persuasive eloquence, and the points are worthy of consideration.

Reactions?

Source: “Field Operations Handbook,” DOL.gov, 09/21/16
Source: “Address flaws in bill creating ‘training wage’,” BellinghamHerald.com, 02/04/13
Source: “What’s the Deal with ‘Training Wages’?,” TheStranger.com, 05/28/14
Source: “People With Disabilities Aren’t Entitled to the Minimum Wage,” TheNation.com, 09/07/16
Image courtesy House the Homeless

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“Face of Homelessness” Journalism

leopard-blanket-homeless-person-sleepingHere is an electrifying sentence from a long-form piece by John Flynn and Matt Kramer:

During overnight storms last month, two homeless people died on City Hall property, elevating Sacramento’s humanitarian debate to a national level.

Later, Courtney Collins, daughter of one of the deceased men, testified before the city council:

I was terrified to find out about the very legal confiscation of blankets, sleeping bags and other sources of warmth and shelter for those living on the streets by the police… I have been unraveling truths so ugly, it feels impossible to go up against such a monstrous system.

This current and ongoing crisis in the state capitol of California was seen by Flynn and Kramer as a fitting occasion to tell the story of another homeless man, an activist who once spoke to a crowd from the steps of the Capitol building. This genre of news story is known as “putting a human face on” a tragedy — in this case, homelessness. The face they chose was that of Russell Bartholow, who is also deceased, although not one of those who died during the storm.

His history, like many others, should be a wake-up call for people who don’t believe that homelessness could ever be their fate. It is no exaggeration to say that millions of Americans are one paycheck away from living on the streets.

Russell Bartholow’s biography

The writers go back to their subject’s childhood, when he was the last of 60 foster children sheltered by Gertrude Bartholow, who legally adopted him. His niece Jessica remembers him as “beyond normally brilliant” in math and science.

In high school, the Native American youth was kicked in the head in a racially motivated incident. As House the Homeless readers well know, an astonishingly high proportion of people experiencing homelessness suffer from traumatic brain injury.

Bartholow spent some years as a single man, then married and had a son, then returned to his childhood home to care for his adopted mother and her husband. “But in 2000,” the writers say, “he was arrested for a drug-related offense.” The particular crime is not specified, but in general, this fact is another proof of the counterproductive nature of the War on Some Drugs and All Adults.

It was only serious enough to put him in jail for a month — during which his parents died and relatives sold the home. Once released, living with his wife and son was apparently no longer an option, and Bartholow began his 15-year residence beneath a bridge.

Flynn and Kramer wrote:

Like thousands of others in Sacramento County, once he found himself on the streets, he entered an alternate reality where the government couldn’t hear him; where those supposed to help instead focused on erasing his existence; and where the only permanent home the county offered him was in jail. It’s a system that feeds on absurdity, in which homelessness can cost more than a Midtown loft and survival is a crime.

Soliciting, panhandling and sleeping are some of the activities forbidden to unhoused citizens of Sacramento. Bartholow was cited 190 times, sometimes twice in one day, for these offenses, with the police often acting like inundating him with legal problems was all a big game. Technically, he owed more than $100,000 in fines.

The taxpayers paid to host him for more than 100 days in jail. His biography continues:

Though a full 132 of Russell’s cases were either dismissed or had their fines waived, there were other costs. Being in jail caused Russell to miss appointments to obtain government assistance, as part of eight attempts over 13 years to get money for which he qualified due to the lingering effects of the brain injury, which he believed contributed to paranoia and drug addiction. To pay for living expenses and fines, Russell turned to panhandling or selling flowers — which only led to more arrests.

The speech Bartholow gave in February of 2015 promoted the adoption of a Right to Rest Act, The No Sit/No Lie Ordinance and the Americans with Disabilities Act. But the effort failed, and many activities associated with homelessness remained criminalized, partly because politicians have a habit of ignoring the most basic truths about what is going on out there.

Reactions?

Source: “Sacramento’s $100,000 homeless man,” NewsReview.com, 02/16/17
Photo credit: Mick Baker via Visualhunt/CC BY-ND

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