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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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Possessions Inspire Strong Emotions

carts-stacked-in-supermarketIn May of 2015, there were two remarkably similar incidents, one in Fort Collins, Colorado, at the nonprofit Sister Mary Alice Murphy Center for Hope. On the premises was a storage pod filled with the belongings of 58 people experiencing homelessness. Also operating from the Center was an organization called Serve 6.8, whose director one day gave the staff the afternoon off, and had the contents of the storage pod taken to the landfill.

As it turned out, some of the belongings had apparently been permanently abandoned by their owners. But 22 people had signed storage agreements that should have still been in force, and their losses included medical documents, family photos, and other irreplaceable items. The local newspaper was unable to shed much light on what happened and why. “Internal miscommunication” was the cited cause.

Journalist Sarah Jane Kyle reported that “Serve 6.8 and Murphy Center staff are drafting a written procedure for handling homeless persons’ property.” It was a classic case of closing the barn door after the horse had already bolted. Apparently, no one said why such a procedure did not already exist or why, if it did, it was not followed.

Meanwhile, in another state

A week later in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, four men who had been staying at the Water Street Mission were very upset because their belongings, along with the property of “dozens of other people,” were allegedly thrown into a dumpster. They announced their intention of going through the dumpster to get their stuff back, but were threatened with arrest. Among the items were a winter coat given to one of the men by his mother, boots needed for a construction job, prescription antibiotics, and a winter jacket.

But the story has another side. Colleen Elmer, the Mission’s vice president of programs, told a reporter that the four men had been asked to leave the Mission because of (unspecified) misbehavior, and furthermore their bags had not been placed in a dumpster but were still on the premises. The men were given the opportunity to return the following day to recover their belongings, which two of the four actually did.

The actual events may never have been truly sorted out, but the news story stimulated a batch of lively online comments. A particularly interesting one, signed Dan Pate, said:

I lived and worked there for almost a year and they do (or did in the past) just toss belongings of residence of the shelter with or with out warning not caring who it belong to or what is in the bags. I’ve been ordered to throw away peoples belonging into the dumpster and many of those times i wasnt allowed to mention it to any 1 and to call for a intern if people went into the dumpsters and the police have come to deal with them diving into them its messed up…

… And another state

Hawaii’s media once carried a photograph of a man attacking, with a sledgehammer, the possessions of people experiencing homelessness. Journalist Scott Keyes identified this rash individual as five-term State Representative Tom Brower and added:

Noting that he’s “disgusted” with homeless people, Brower told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser about his own personal brand of “justice”: “If I see shopping carts that I can’t identify, I will destroy them so they can’t be pushed on the streets.”

The paragraph contains a red flag or two. Those shopping carts are not actually the property of homeless people, but of the grocery stores from which they were borrowed. Such carts generally are clearly branded, and the claim that none could be identified is ludicrous.

To recap: An elected official did not arrange for the return of these items to their rightful owners, the supermarket chains. Instead, he destroyed (by his own count) approximately 30 carts. Whether or not the wreckage was left lying around on the streets was not reported.

Reactions?

Source: “Fort Collins nonprofit dumps homeless people’s property,” Coloradoan.com, 05/06/15
Source: “Homeless men said Water Street tossed their belongings; Mission denies claim,” LancasterOnline.com, 05/15/15
Source: “State Rep. Uses Sledgehammer To Destroy Homeless People’s Possessions,” ThinkProgress.org, 11/19/13
Photo credit: Polycart via Visualhunt/CC BY

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Fourth Amendment Still in Effect

homeless-camp-near-highwayDifficult as it often is to believe, the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has not yet been annulled and is still in effect. It goes like this:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated…

Some professionals make entires careers out of debating such questions as whether this only applies to people who have houses. In the street (or as we now say, on the ground, as if America were a vast battlefield), people experiencing homelessness may technically be protected by the law, but have few de facto rights. The term “property” itself is more often used with reference to real estate, and who does or does not have a right to be present within borders of that territory.

Much less often does anyone contemplate the meaning of “property” when it applies to the personal belongings of people who only have what they can carry. Yet authorities relish the chance to confiscate and destroy these possessions. 

Some cities have a policy that seized possessions must be stored for a certain amount of time, but it rarely happens. Often, the stolen items are very difficult or impossible to replace.

Enterprising reporters find the individual tales of victimization, and each one describes things that just shouldn’t be happening in America. For Mother Jones, Laura Smith collected such stories from around the country.

Regrettable examples

A Los Angeles woman whose tent and blanket were seized contracted pneumonia, was hospitalized, and sued the city. In Denver, police were told not to take bedding and camping gear during the cold months, but when April 1 rolled around, it was open season again. Seattle has been the scene of much contention because when “sweeps” are planned people are not given proper notice and their personal property is not respected.

In San Francisco, the storage rules are ignored and the California Department of Transportation has been sued for stealing tents, bedding, stoves, and other items. It is even tough to survive in Honolulu. Smith writes:

In a survey of homeless residents by the Department of Urban Planning at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, nearly 60 percent reported losing personal identification, 40 percent lost tents, and 21 percent lost medicine in sweeps.

Any housed citizen who has ever lost a wallet or purse, or experienced a burglary or fire, knows what a hassle it is to replace documents. For a person experiencing homelessness, without a phone, address, or checking account, the loss of ID is catastrophic.

Smith spoke with Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, and learned that seizure and destruction of personal property happens all over the country. Smith writes:

Belongings are often seized under anti-camping laws or laws that prohibit sleeping in public — part of a larger trend of what Foscarinis calls “the criminalization of homelessness.” Earlier this year, her organization released a study tracking the phenomenon in 187 cities.

In Reno, Nevada, the local shelters were full, and Robert Wynters lived under a bridge. He carefully stashed his few extra clothes, hygiene supplies, personal papers, and bicycle to go out and look for work, and returned to find everything gone. This happened not once, but three times in a six-month period.

In each case, inquiries at the sheriff’s office the very next day were futile, because each time he was told that his property had been destroyed. In April of 2015, he filed a civil rights lawsuit against the sheriff’s department.

In July, the Washoe County Board of Commissioners approved a $14,000 settlement for Wynters and his attorney, and resolved to adopt some better procedures for the removal and storage of personal property from campsites. Every now and then, somebody wins.

With the help of organizations or lawyers willing to do pro bono work, once in a while a plaintiff is heard and compensated. Of course in these cases, society loses, because the monetary awards are paid for by the taxpayers, who would probably much prefer that good practices had been in effect sooner.

Reactions?

Source: “Denver Isn’t the Only City Seizing Homeless People’s Gear,” MotherJones.com, 12/16/16
Source: “Reno accused of illegally seizing property of homeless,” NevadaAppeal.com, 04/17/15
Source: “Board of County Commissioners Washoe County, Nevada,” WashoeCounty.us, 07/28/15
Photo credit: Joe Green (Divine in the Daily) via Visualhunt/CC BY-ND

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When Homelessness Is Criminalized

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

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

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

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

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

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

Communities in crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back in Florida

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

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

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

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

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

Reactions?

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

1

Interesting Housing Ideas

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

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

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

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

How it starts

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

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

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

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

Capps wrote:

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

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

Can they work together?

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

Reactions?

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

0

A Few Things About Rent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not inspiring of optimism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

renters-income-chart

Simple Charts Are the Best Charts

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

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

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

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

More posts concerning rent and other closely related topics:

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

Reactions?

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

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