“If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair,” went the refrain of a once-popular song. California was Shangri-la, a land of magic and hope, the preferred destination for the abandoned and disaffected youth of our entire nation.
These days, it’s a good place for homeless teens and young adults to steer clear of. With facilities stretched to their limits, helping organizations work harder than before, trying to accomplish more with ever-shrinking budgets. Housed people fall prey to compassion fatigue, and there is a steady increase in laws designed to make life unpleasant for the peasant.
Currently, the golden state contains more homeless youth than any other state, and they are more likely to be unsheltered than in most other states. Among the nation’s cities as rated by their “mean streets,” California has three of the top ten spots.
The last two decades have seen the creation of numerous restrictive ordinances, and over the past five years, the pace of anti-homeless legislation has picked up, according to Shahera Hyatt and Jessica Reed, the credited authors of “Adding Insult to Injury: The Criminalization of Homelessness and Its Effects on Youth.” Though only two names are on the cover, this 16-page report utilized all the resources of the California Homeless Youth Project, with help from the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.
Things Are Tough for Unaccompanied Youth
Many of the offenses that people experiencing homelessness are charged with have nothing to do with age. They may be forbidden to sit, stand, rest, or sleep in public places; or to set up a tent or lean-to shack anywhere. They may not be allowed to ask for contributions or sort through trash receptacles for food or recyclable materials. Organizations that want to serve them food may be told they are not allowed to give away so much as a sandwich.
Then there is another layer of legal difficulty known as selective enforcement, when homeless people are not allowed to do things that are apparently okay for others. The most well-known example is sidewalk camping. People who wait in line all night to buy concert tickets or the latest model phone are allowed to set up tents or sack out in sleeping bags while homeless people, of course, would be breaking the law.
The things that unaccompanied youth most often get in trouble for are, the report says, “sleeping in public or private spaces at night, or sitting in public space during the day.” The other big problem is traveling to places where help is available. Kids often sneak rides on public transportation and get nailed for theft of services.
Then there is the problem of “status offenses,” or things that are illegal for a person under 18 to do unless a court has previously deemed her or him an “emancipated minor.” Curfew violations get kids in trouble while not affecting adults. Kids are supposed to be enrolled in school until a certain age, and not showing up makes them truant. Truancy is a crime even for the homeless. Young people have been locked up for that crime, which makes no sense whatsoever. Incarcerating a kid for skipping school has got to be one of the most irrational government actions ever. The report says:
Homeless students are much better served by community-based organizations, which have been shown to be more developmentally appropriate, cost effective, and humane than the juvenile justice system.
For an adult, running away from home may not always be the wisest choice, and can even cause problems to multiply, but at least it isn’t illegal in and of itself. But for a minor (which in California means under 18), mere existence is a status offense, because kids that age are not supposed to be anywhere else except under their family roof. Here is what the authors say:
Youth who run away do so for their own survival, often fleeing their homes due to abuse, extreme poverty, and/or rejection of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity and expression. Yet in many jurisdictions, runaway youth may be apprehended by law enforcement and returned to their home of origin, even if that home is dysfunctional and/or abusive.
Source: “Adding Insult to Injury: The Criminalization of Homelessness and Its Effects on Youth.
Image by Senia L
Are anti-camping ordinances constitutional? This question has lain dormant with occasional ominous tremors like those that precede an earthquake. It is a question with the potential to change the landscape literally, figuratively, and extensively. There was a big rumble in 2006, when Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Kim M. Wardlaw made what seemed like a groundbreaking legal decision that turned out not to be. We discussed why Jones v. City of Los Angeles kind of fizzled out.
But recently, the Ninth Circuit case became a factor to be reckoned with when the federal government turned its attention to Bell v. City of Boise, a case brought by Idaho Legal Aid Services and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. The Justice Department’s “statement of interest” quoted Judge Wardlaw, who said:
The Eighth Amendment prohibits the City from punishing involuntary sitting, lying, or sleeping on public sidewalks that is an unavoidable consequence of being human and homeless without shelter in the City of Los Angeles.
Here is the same news event, presented from the vantage point of a different mindset. The NY Post‘s Betsy McCaughey believes that living on the street is not acceptable. About that, we agree—but the meaning we assign to the words is vastly different. We would like clean, safe and affordable living conditions for all humans. McCaughey seems to wish that large segments of the population could somehow magically be made to disappear.
When a homeless advocate says that people should not be punished for their status, McCaughey characterizes that basic human decency as a “wacky ideology.” In our view, if people have no choice but to live on the streets, they should at least be legally protected.
McCaughey, on the other hand, is all about criminalizing survival, and sees the Justice Department’s interest in the Iowa case as the Obama administration “siding with vagrants against local governments.” We wish we could tell you the upcoming quotation was found in The Onion or some other satirical publication, but alas, we cannot. The outraged McCaughey says of people experiencing homelessness:
Their insistence on street living punishes the rest of us. We have to endure the heart-wrenching sights of human beings in rags lying on sidewalks.
Jones v. City of Los Angeles was vacated because of a compromise deal, but the analysis provided by Judge Kim M. Wardlaw was solid, which is why it is being called upon in Bell v. City of Boise. Writing for Slate.com, Mark Joseph Stern mentions other cases that influence the judiciary’s thinking in this matter. Robinson v. California and Powell v. Texas were both ruled on by the nation’s Supreme Court. Stern says:
In Robinson the court struck down a California statute that criminalized addiction—not just use or possession—of narcotics. California, the justices explained, could outlaw the conduct of drug use, but it could not criminalize the status of being addicted to drugs. Powell dealt with a similar law, one that criminalized public intoxication in Texas.
Since homelessness is a status, not a conduct, it seems reasonable to assume that the Supreme Court would also say that the Constitution forbids cities to arrest people for sleeping rough when shelters are full. Stern doubts that Bell v. City of Boise will reach that far, but it might slow down or partially reverse the criminalization of homelessness. Even if it doesn’t go to the Supreme Court, the lower-level resolution of Bell v. City of Boise will create a precedent that can be called upon in similar cases elsewhere, for better or worse. Stern adds:
It’s quite depressing to see the DOJ defend homeless people’s right to sleep by analogizing them to drug addicts and alcoholics. But its brief is really an indication of just how profoundly America has failed its homeless communities.
Source: “Team Obama’s fight to keep the homeless living on the streets,” NYPost.com, 08/18/15
Source: “Justice Department Tells Cities to Stop Criminalizing Homelessness,” slate.com, 08/14/15
Image by Albert Ter Harmsel
“Como Se Dice ‘Not It’?” is a prime example of why the public radio series This American Life is famous. A chance meeting with a street person led Chicago newspaper editor Adriana Cardona to uncover an astonishing story that leaves numerous questions to be considered before rendering judgment. Cardona’s approach to the story is beautifully even-handed, and we hope that our summation of the basic points will inspire the reader to go for the full experience and listen to the episode.
Through her casual conversation with a homeless man, the editor learned that heroin addicts are regularly shipped from Puerto Rico to Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and cities in New Jersey, Florida, South Carolina, and Wisconsin. In each destination they are taken to places that on-air host Ira Glass describes as “flop houses open 24 hours a day with group therapy going till late at night, sometimes 10 or 13 hours straight.”
Cardona found 14 branches of this rehab outfit in Chicago alone, and became most familiar with a branch called Segunda Vida (Second Life). Other facilities have such names as El Grito Desesperado (The Desperate Scream) and El Ultimo Paso (The Last Step). They all operate under the auspices of the Puerto Rican organization De Vuelta a la Vida (Return to Life). In the United States, the organization flies under the banner of Alcoholics Anonymous, but AA disowns them, and indeed their methods are unorthodox. Glass says:
The therapy was really just basically like AA meetings led by former addicts who did very un-AA things like yell at them and berate them. When the guys would go through detox, because there was no medicine or methadone or professional staff, they were sometimes given folk remedies, like an onion to bite on, or alcohol would be poured in their belly buttons.
When Cardona showed up at Segunda Vida, she encountered tough men, allergic to microphones and cameras, who claimed there was nobody in charge and therefore nobody she could speak with. The gatekeepers handled all requests from anyone, about anything, with a recommendation to “come back in a few days.” Her persistence finally won a meeting with one of the group’s founders. Efren Moreno confirmed every negative thing that Cardona had heard about the organization, but he did not seem exploitative or evil. Her impression was of…
… someone who wanted to be part of the solution, that he wanted to bring services to those who were not able to get rehab services out there… But at the same time—and he even said—each group has its own rules. And because there is no oversight, it’s really hard to know what are those other groups doing.
In a Chicago facility, an addict gets free room and board for three months, and then is charged $50 to $75 a week, which still includes meals. At some branches, residents are encouraged to sign up for food stamps and contribute their allotments to the kitchen that feeds everybody. This bit of mandatory socialism, while probably not legal, is far from outrageous. Moreno would prefer to get by with no government assistance at all. A recovering addict himself, he claims to really help junkies kick their habits, and says anyone who quits the program is a weak individual who didn’t really want to get better. Apparently that is a large category, because one of Cardona’s co-researchers found, in Chicago alone, 93 men who had quit the program.
Addicts Off the Grid
When Cardona visited Puerto Rico, she was met with astonishment that anyone should question or doubt this successful narcotics rehabilitation program. De Vuelta a la Vida is no secret to municipal authorities or to Puerto Rico’s governor. Glass says:
It’s run by the state police. They help drug addicts get food, clothing, hygiene, and other services on the island. But also, they arrange for lots of them to fly off the island to these unlicensed programs in the United States.
Of course, none of the Puerto Rican bureaucrats knew that the rehab centers are unlicensed. In every place where De Vuelta a la Vida has established outposts, they seem to operate totally under the radar. According to any city records or public health department or professional registration bureau or licensing agency, officially they don’t exist.
What Does De Vuelta a la Vida Have to Do With Homelessness?
Puerto Rican addicts are recruited dishonestly, lured by a fantasy of gleaming premises, plenty of doctors and nurses, and even a swimming pool. In return for a one-way ticket to a mythical luxury rehab center, they sign a waiver that absolves the Puerto Rican government of any further responsibility for them. If they ever want to return, they have to figure it out for themselves. When the men arrive stateside, they lose what little benefits were available in their homeland, including HIV meds and methadone.
Even a successfully cleaned-up Puerto Rican immigrant is unlikely to find work, and will probably end up on the street or, at best, in a shelter. For those who quit the program, life is grim. Unable to speak the language, and still in need of opiates every day, they have to survive brutal winters in a place very unlike the tropical island of their birth.
For these penniless men, going home is an impossible dream. Family members have suffered already from abuse of their trust, and will ignore any plea for help, even with a fancy story about being stranded in America. Also, Segunda Vida and the other centers tend to hang onto identity documents, as Cardona learned by trying to help a newly-arrived HIV-positive addict who had quit the program almost immediately and lived, like so many others, in Chicago’s streets.
Source: “Not It!,” ThisAmericanLife.org, 04/10/15
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The illustration on this page is, like so many internet memes, an oversimplification. Socially conscious commentators like to point out that there are enough empty properties that each homeless person in America could have anywhere between 6 and 22 of them. Of course an exact number would be impossible to obtain, because it all depends on how you define “available” and “homeless” and a whole bunch of other variables. But the stark truth is that while hundreds of thousands of people have no place to call home, an astonishing amount of livable indoor space is empty.
About a year and a half ago, a website asked for comments on this particular 6-to-22 house claim, and collected some numbers and some sources (or possible sources) from which the numbers were derived. Those behind the site didn’t reach a definitive answer.
Philadelphia contains about 40,000 abandoned houses, lots and commercial buildings, and Detroit between 50,000 and 60,000. Why can’t at least some of those empty buildings have people in them? Why are perfectly viable buildings torn down? Why can’t people be allowed to squat or homestead in abandoned spaces? What kind of twisted logic says they are better off with no shelter than with substandard, even code-violating shelter?
Using Abandoned Housing Fairly
But then you have to look at the basic fairness of the thing. Say there’s a house where the people had to give up and move out because although they tried hard, they couldn’t pay the mortgage. If this house could somehow be used to house the homeless, is it fair that someone should get to live there who never even tried to pay a mortgage? Obviously, something is wrong with that picture.
And what about the family who originally tried to buy the house? Do they move into a different place that was foreclosed on because they are now homeless and it’s empty? Does the whole society turn into a vast game of musical chairs? We have to find a way to cope with the basic insanity of so many empty buildings and so many unhoused humans. In August of 2013, Daniel G. J. of StoryLeak.com wrote:
There are still over 14 million homes sitting empty in the United States…The worst-hit city is Las Vegas, which still has 40,481 vacant single family homes, 5,137 empty townhomes, and 16,542 empty condominiums.
In the same year, the point-in-time count found 7,355 people experiencing homelessness in Southern Nevada. And don’t forget, Las Vegas is the place with hundreds of miles of flood tunnels underneath it, where at least 300 people are said to live.
Less than 6 months ago, Alana Semuels reported for The Atlantic that Baltimore, Md., held 16,000 vacant homes, and that a group had formed to try and make them into affordable, permanent housing for the city’s currently homeless residents. She wrote:
A minimum-wage worker in Maryland would have to work 138 hours a week to afford a two-bedroom unit…Baltimore closed the waiting list for Section 8 Housing vouchers eleven years ago.
Housing Our Neighbors, part of the Housing Is a Human Right Roundtable, is made up of labor activists, homeowners, and homeless people…They say the data will show there are far more vacant homes in Baltimore than the city has previously acknowledged, and they argue that those homes should be turned into affordable housing.
The goal here is to create a nonprofit community land trust, a legal construct that “takes the “market” part out of the housing market, allowing people to buy homes but restricting their resale value in order to make them affordable for the next buyer.” Hopefully, it shouldn’t be hard to get started, since “out of the 300 homes the Roundtable has surveyed, about 80 are owned by the city.” Semuels says this method has worked in Austin, Texas; Albany, Georgia; and Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Source: “Are there enough unused houses in America for each homeless person to have six?,” Stackexchange.com, 11/10/13
Source: “Philadelphia Raises Stakes With Plan to Reverse Blight.” NYTimes.com, 08/22/13
Source: “Recovery? US Has Enough Empty Houses to Hold Population of Britain.” StoryLeak.com, 08/06/13
Source: “Inside Las Vegas’ Underground Homeless Community,” PhoenixNewTimes.com, 04/07/14
Source: “Can Homeless People Move Into Baltimore’s Abandoned Houses?,” TheAtlantic.com, 10/20/14
Image by the Internet
Emily Topper, writing for The Gargoyle at Flagler College, examined the process of obtaining an I.D. in Florida, and found a system rigged against people experiencing homelessness
This rigged system is repeated in many localities throughout the U.S. Topper spoke with Mark Samson, a Community Resource Officer, who said:
In order to get a Social Security card, they need to have some type of ID card. But in order to get that, they must have the Social Security card.
This is a classic Catch-22 situation, and the damage it does can not be overstated. There may be scattered exceptions, but in most places a person needs I.D. to open a bank account, cash a check, apply for a job, or rent a Post Office box. The laws have even been tightened to prevent someone with no proof of a permanent physical address from using a private mailbox facility. Is the insanity of that sinking in? The person who most needs it, because of having no place to actually live, cannot obtain a mailing address.
The days of anonymous Greyhound Bus journeys are over, because a photo I.D. must be presented even if the ticket is paid for in cash. Without I.D., a person can’t rent a hotel or motel room (or even, as a recent widely publicized case demonstrated, occupy a room paid for by kind strangers.)
A person in need of any kind of government assistance, whether it be food stamps, medical treatment, or disability benefits, is ineligible without I.D. And good luck getting into a temporary shelter. Sure, whoever runs the shelter needs to protect guests from violent criminals and sexual predators. But the policy, as it stands, also puts vulnerable people at risk by leaving them on the streets with the violent criminals and sexual predators.
A Typical Story
Topper relates the story of Vincent Youngberg of St. Augustine. During a recent incarceration, his vehicle registration had expired and a ticket went unpaid, so the car was impounded. After being released from prison, Youngberg learned that getting the car back would require I.D., which in turn would require a Social Security card, birth certificate, and two proofs of residency. And money for the towing and storage fees, of course. Before he could get any of this together, the impoundment contractor sold the car along with its contents—including the birth certificate that Youngberg needed to prove his existence.
Requesting a replacement birth certificate is a red-tape-intensive job that involves the ability to fill out forms, a payment to the bureaucracy, a usable mailing address, and a long, long wait while the state in question takes weeks or months to process the application. It amounts to such a grueling ordeal that some specialist agency workers and volunteers do nothing but help people acquire the paperwork to validate their lives. Homeless advocates in St. Augustine work with a couple of substitutes which, though inadequate, are “better than nothing.” Beth Kuhn, a caseworker at the St. Francis House, told the reporter:
If [the homeless] were treated at Flagler Hospital, they can ask for a face-sheet from the records office there. This sheet is accepted at the Social Security office, and they will give you a printout… valid enough to get a real state ID. Once you have that, you can go back and get a real Social Security card.
Not exactly a miracle of accommodation, but better than the alternative. Topper says a person leaving prison receives a practically useless paper with a picture and booking information, and quotes Vincent Youngberg:
It never expires, but no one except law enforcement accepts it. I don’t understand it. I was fingerprinted when I was released from prison. Why can’t they use those fingerprints? Why can’t they just give me a photo I.D.? Even if it was a temporary one for 90 days, just so I could get something.
Is the irony sufficiently glaring? The fingerprints of former inmates are in the system, along with their complete histories, their facial biometrics, and probably their DNA. The government was sufficiently convinced of their identities, letting them serve the sentences. Shouldn’t they at least come out of prison with viable identification?
Source: “Homeless struggle to obtain IDs, Social Security cards in Florida,” Flagler.edu, 10/25/13
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One of the traditions of House the Homeless (founded in 1989) is the survey through which people experiencing homelessness in Austin, Texas, can go on record about various matters that affect their lives. The questions were composed by the organization’s president and founder, Richard R. Troxell, who is also Director of Legal Aid for the Homeless.
This year’s topic, presented at the annual Thermal Underwear Distribution Party, was “Protect and Serve,” and concerned interactions with the police. One word instantly springs to mind when describing the results: appalling.
277 participants, averaging 45 years of age, answered the questions, with about four times as many males as females responding. A lot of mistreatment is the petty kind of stuff that housed people rarely encounter, like being told to “move along” when in a public place. Then, there is another tier of harassment, revealed in answer to the question, “Did you ever get a ticket, go to court, then be told your ticket is not in the system yet and you would have to return?”
The Community Court system is supposed to be an improvement on the old way of handling minor crime, but in far too many cases, as Richard notes, it “actually hinders their ability to change their condition of being homeless.” Here is how he puts it:
We have been told that people have often had to return to the court multiple times before a ticket is reported to the court. If a person is unable to coordinate their response with the submittal of the ticket, then it will “go to warrant.” This will result in the arrest of the individual for what was otherwise only a class C ticket, equivalent to a parking ticket.
When you don’t have a car or a telephone or a computer; when there is no secure place to store your belongings; when you don’t have the right clothes or accessories to protect yourself from the weather; when you don’t know where your next meal will come from or where you will sleep that night; when you are physically disabled or suffering from mental illness— EVERYTHING is enormously difficult.
So, what does the system do? Too often, it responds by demanding that you show up somewhere that is hard to get to, dragging everything you own along because there is no safe place to leave it. You have to walk a long way, or wait for transportation that you might be unable to pay for—and don’t even think about trying to break the law against hitch-hiking. You have to get there on time, regardless of how hot or cold it is outside, or how much pain you may be having.
It Gets Worse
And then, too often, the system says you have to come back because, through no fault of your own, the system isn’t ready for you. Or it punishes you for not knowing you were supposed to show up, or insists on your attendance at some place far from the nearest food source and at the wrong time of day to make it back in time to eat or even worse, to sign up for a bed. And if you have one or more children to worry about, everything is exponentially more demanding.
It’s as if the system is deliberately and maliciously designed to crush the spirit and drain the last ounce of energy and hope from a person—and Austin is a model city, better than a lot of other American cities by many orders of magnitude. Imagine what hellish places some of them must be! Austin’s No Sit/No Lie ordinance is shining example of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act—and yet, even that hard-won, monumental victory has not succeeded in compelling the police to always do the right thing.
The Protect and Serve Survey results were sent, along with a cover letter written by Richard R. Troxell, to Austin’s City Manager, Police Chief, Mayor, Mayor Pro Tem, City Council members, Public Safety commissioners, Human Rights commissioners, and to the National Coalition for the Homeless— and future posts will have more to say about it.
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Every now and then, a news story appears that promises this or that kind of housing for a certain number of homeless veterans in a certain place. The project is announced with great fanfare, but the inevitable snags and push-backs get less publicity. Sometimes, the public is lulled by reports that action will be taken on an issue, and forgets to follow up to see if anything actually got done.
In St. Louis, Missouri, in January, the local point-in-time count identified 1,328 people experiencing homelessness, of whom 151 were military veterans. Among them, 100 were already in transitional housing. In July, the remaining 51 moved into apartments thanks to Operation:Reveille. A contemporary news report said,
Based on the veteran’s needs, he or she will receive services that include housing assistance, employment opportunities, intense case management, substance abuse treatment, health and mental health treatment, transportation, food, financial counseling and related social services.
Each vet would have a list of community resources, a bus pass, a peer-support member, and a case manager to tie it all together. It all sounds great, right? St. Louis congratulated itself in glowing terms:
The City’s Department of Human Services will develop a system of service that ensures a veteran never again sleeps on the streets in the City of St. Louis or in an emergency shelter….The City of St. Louis is positioned to become the first city in the country to end homelessness among military veterans.
A few months later, in October, Jesse Bogan reported for Stripes on the outcome of the program. The veterans had moved in to their new apartments believing that all their needs would be met for up to a year, if necessary. The ultimate goal, of course, was self-sufficiency, and by this time 13 residents had jobs and others were interviewing with prospective employers.
But there were problems. The power was turned off in three vets’ apartments, and five more had received final warnings of imminent disconnection. They were under the impression that the nonprofit agency providing case management, Gateway 180, would pay the electricity bills, but this turned out not to be so. Gateway 180 said it passed the bills along to the city, which was supposed to pay out of the federal funding. According to the city government website,
Operation:Reveille is funded primarily with $750,000 of existing Emergency Solutions Grants Program funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Additional funds from other local, private and federal sources will also be used.
But somehow the bills were not paid. Operation:Reveille lists 21 partner organizations, which is almost one organization for every 2 individuals receiving help. Maybe the broth was spoiled by the multiplicity of chefs in the kitchen, but apparently the city reneged on its financial responsibility agreements and, in the words of Gateway 180’s executive director Kathleen Heinz Beach, the collaboration became “a contractual nightmare.” Bogan reported:
Gateway wasn’t responsible to pay bills for the veterans, rather provide mental health assessments and case management. But the first month’s rent wasn’t being paid. Landlords were getting antsy, Beach said, so Gateway 180 finally stepped in to pay it. She said the city later reimbursed her agency for August and September rent.
One particular Operation:Reveille tenant had moved in already owing the electric company $500 from non-payment of services in the past, and the rule for such a contingency was either non-existent or misunderstood by the case workers. Why wasn’t the protocol for this and many other situations clearly spelled out? And why, right from the start, did the city drag its feet on meeting its obligations?
Gateway 180 said it would continue to pay some bills, but that doing so would reduce the total benefit for each vet, so its financial duty to the program would run out before year’s end.
The Odd Man Out
Only one of the 51 Operation:Reveille veterans had actually seen combat, and he was being ejected from the program for falling asleep with food on the stove and starting a fire. Yes, this antisocial behavior endangers others. But isn’t the totally out-of-touch, incompetent individual exactly the person who needs help most? There is no word on whether he returned to the street or was placed in some institution with more supervision.
There is, however, news of a 44-unit apartment building involved in Operation:Reveille, which is currently on the real estate market. Would it be too cynical to wonder if it was it bought as an investment and fixed up with taxpayers’ money? The notice says:
Great Apartment Complex that has been completely renovated… The owner has begun bringing in a lot of Veterans through multiple subsidized programs, such as VASH, Operation Reveille, St Patrick’s Center, & US Vets. Property is being SOLD “As Is.”
Source: “Operation: Reveille,” stlouis-mo.gov,July 31, 2014
Source: “Highly publicized homeless veterans housing program hits snags,” Stripes.com, October 2, 2014
Image by Paul Sableman