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A Tale of Two Parks

sacramento-ca-state-house-buildingThe statehouse in Sacramento, California (pictured), is surrounded by a 40-acre park, one of the luckiest parks in the world because, for over two decades, caring for it was the obsession of a chronically homeless man named Randall Koroush.

Journalist Cynthia Hubert wrote:

He picked up fallen camellia blossoms, oak tree branches and palm fronds. He raked leaves from the steps and sidewalk. He polished iron gates and swept dirt from bathroom floors. No one paid Koroush for his work.

He would arrive first thing in the morning and spend 10 or 12 hours making sure the park stayed free of litter. He always wore a clean white t-shirt tucked into jeans, and never accepted any offer of food or drink. His habitual lunch was a cup of instant ramen noodles.

The park administration allowed him to store his belongings in an old greenhouse, but he slept under a bridge or behind a church. With people, he would respond politely, but not chat. Sometimes he talked to himself or to a person who wasn’t present, but then, don’t we all?

Mike Nielson, a General Services supervisor who knew Koroush for most of his time at the park, said, “He wanted to do right by this place. He wanted it to look good.” A police officer described him as having “dignity and purpose.” Although visitors sometimes reported him as a suspicious person, all the law enforcers who patrol the park on bicycles and horses looked out for him. They knew that Koroush was the son of a California Highway Patrol retiree and brother of a current CHP employee. The family acknowledges how kindly their son was treated.

Escape from history

Not many people knew that, back in the day, Koroush had never been very good at holding a job. He had been a hard drug addict, though at the time of his death at age 56 he hadn’t used in more than 10 years. As a child, Koroush wanted to be a forest ranger. His “poor choices” ruled that out, but dedicating himself to a park was the next best thing. That is his mother’s theory, and it is as good as any other.

Hubert wrote, “Koroush had four siblings and parents who loved him and tried and failed on many occasions to get him inside.” He did laundry and had the occasional meal with his folks, but getting back to the park was his number one priority.

The reporter goes on to say:

According to police and relatives, he walked into Sutter General Hospital on Feb. 1, toting his belongings, struggling to breathe and with cuts and bruises on his face. He died at UC Davis Medical Center a few days later.

There were pre-existing medical problems, but the patient had also had apparently been assaulted. However, with no reliable evidence, the police did not institute a homicide investigation. Although his death was a great loss to Sacramento, Randall Koroush was a rare and special case. In the entire country there are probably very few cities, capitol or otherwise, where a person in his situation would be treated with such leniency.

Los Angeles

The other park story is also from California. “Skid Row” is a term that can send shivers down the spine. In Los Angeles, Skid Row means 10,000 people in tenements and welfare hotels and tents, in about a 50 square block area that is constantly squeezed by encroaching development. This evolving community has little in common with the Downtown and Historic Cultural neighborhood councils that claim it. Activists are trying to break away and form a discrete Skid Row neighborhood council.

A few years back, there were state-level budget cuts, and the area’s only two public parks almost lost their funding. The city took over to provide enough support to pay for the upkeep of San Julian and Gladys. Members of the public also contribute their time and energy, and one of the most noticeable has been A.J. Martin.

For LAWeekly.com, Mindy Farabee told his story, which she casts as an example of “the redemptive power of just showing up for your community everyday.” The journalist wrote:

His gig at the park allows him “to give, to help, to be a part of something,” he explains. “It’s helping me stay solid, it’s helping me stay firm, it’s helping me personally stay secure instead of lost in a lot of misery and a lot of torture and a lot of pain.”

In an unofficial capacity, Martin takes care of Gladys Park. He makes sure the restrooms are in order, and issues brooms to other helpers, who may be marginally functional at best, yet do a conscientious job of sweeping and tidying.

The manager of an adjacent hotel says, “Things run smoothly with him around.” This is no small feat, because a lot goes on there. Health fairs for the local street people and free clinics for their pets set up in the park. A New Orleans-style jazz band makes events festive. There are sports teams for kids and, as might be expected, it is where faith-based groups bring food.
Gladys Park hosts annual two-day art festival organized by the Los Angeles Poverty Department, the collective whose slogan is “Walk the Talk.”

An important function

The journalist follows Martin through an evening as he closes the park to get ready for a meeting of the solidly established local branch of AA. Farabee says:

At 7 p.m., A.J. opens the gates again and the Drifters and their fellow travelers file in, like a walking Bukowski poem… Some come from as far as Malibu, Orange County and Whittier to remind themselves where they came from or where they could end up.

It is AA policy to serve freely, but this group passes the hat to provide Martin with a small stipend. When the meeting ends at 8:30 p.m., he locks up the park again, this time from the outside, and sleeps on a nearby sidewalk.

As of the most recent news mention, less than a year ago, he was still a fixture. Also, last summer, new water fountains were installed outside the gates of both Skid Row parks.

Reactions?

Source: “He cared for a huge park for free while sleeping under a bridge. His death is a mystery,” NewsObserver.com, 02/19/17
Source: “The Homeless Man Who Runs a Park,” LAWeekly.com, 08/14/14
Source: “Skid Row Gets New, Much-Needed Drinking Fountains,” Curbed.com, 06/29/16
Photo credit: Mark Goebel (Sangre-La.com) via Visualhunt/CC BY

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Odd Jobs

recycling-cans-in-bagsRecently, House the Homeless looked at the situation in Washington, D.C., where shady contractors pit people experiencing homelessness against evictees (i.e., the newly homeless), and it’s ugly.

In any city, there are bound to be a few jobs specially allotted to, or created by, those who are out of options. The viability of a career in recycling depends on local ordinances; access to a buyer; having a way to store and transport the merchandise; and other factors.

California’s recycling rules have been in effect for almost 30 years, and for many street people, their only income derives from bottles and cans. In San Francisco, a person might make between $15 and $35 per day, depending on good weather, good health, and good luck in not having their haul stolen by competitors. There used to be 30 redemption sites and now are only two, very close to each other geographically, so people in any other part of the city have a hard time.

Waste management expert Martin Medina estimates that about 1% of the earth’s urban dwellers (about 15 million people altogether) live by harvesting society’s castaway materials. In some places their activities are, of course, criminalized.

For CommonDreams.org, Jack Chang wrote a respectful tribute to the trash pickers of the world:

Every day, they rescue hundreds of thousands of tons of material from streets and trash dumps that get reprocessed into all kinds of products. That not only cuts back on the resources used by industries but also lightens the load on dumps that are quickly reaching capacity.

“Urban Tactics; Nabbing the Elusive Nickel” by Saki Knafo is a still very relevant description of the world of “canners” in New York City a decade ago.

Hired feet

In 2012, for The Huffinton Post, Arthur Delaney described the activities of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council of Carpenters which hired the homeless in Washington, D.C., for $8.50 an hour, to carry picket signs and raise their voices in chants. Critics decried a “cynical use of homeless people to do this dirty work.” The union seemed out of patience with anyone who questioned this hiring practice. Its members were busy at their jobs, and besides, the method had already been deployed in seven other cities.

From one of them, only the previous year, Joel Gehrke had reported this story:

In Grand Rapids, Mich., the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters has started protesting companies that hire a local non-union carpentry firm, Ritsema Associates. Where does the union get its picketers? It hires them from a homeless shelter that is supported by Ritsema Associates.

So it gets very complicated and, as temp jobs go, picketing is in a whole different class from trash recovery. People experiencing homelessness also have been employed to count other people experiencing homelessness.

Some entrepreneurial individuals carve out highly idiosyncratic paths. Remember when Ted Williams, the “man with the golden voice,” was rediscovered and became for a short while an outsider celebrity? His former tent-mate offered Williams’s leftover cardboard signs for sale on eBay.

Reactions?

Source: “How Homeless Recyclers Make a Living Redeeming Recyclables,” PBS.org, 05/13/16
Source: “Scorned Trash Pickers Become Global Environmental Force,” CommonDreams.org, 03/25/08
Source: “Urban Tactics; Nabbing the Elusive Nickel,” NYTimes.com, 07/09/06
Source: “Paid To Protest, Some Homeless Almost Make A Living,” HuffingtonPost.com, 11/24/12
Source: “Union hires homeless picketers — and it gets better,” SFExaminer.com, 02/17/11
Source: “Homeless Count or Are Counted,” LATimes.com, 01/27/05
Image: Otterman56 (Ed)

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Entering the World of Protected Work

iowa-city-downtown

Downtown Iowa City

In Iowa City, Iowa, Shelter House helps hundreds of people every year, not only with a place to stay, but with job training and placement. Participants in case management have opportunities to work toward job readiness and employability.

The on-premise computer lab offers workshops in basic computer skills, as well as guidance in applying for housing and food assistance. The job and housing databases are packed with information, and help is available to create a resume.

There are two internal employment services. Fresh Starts is the professional janitorial service, whose workers are employed by area businesses. In the Culinary Starts paid internship program, people learn kitchen and culinary vocabulary, recipe manipulation, menu production, how to use kitchen equipment, and much more.

The website says:

Successful participants will become Servsafe certified and equipped to work in a variety of food service and restaurant settings. The proceeds from our contracted and catered meals go directly towards the food production program and Shelter House’s mission of helping people move beyond homelessness.

In the nation’s capitol, the Transitional Housing Programs for Men who are Homeless are administered by the D.C. Coalition for the Homeless. Six houses of different sizes are home to between 12 and 100 men in various stages of readiness to enter the working world. Some concentrate more on basic supportive services and life skills to prepare for self-sufficiency.

One is the Emery Work Bed Program, described as…

[…] specifically tailored to the needs of homeless men who are employed or in job training… The primary objective is to assist men in sustaining employment and moving into permanent housing. Program participants must be willing to accept case management services, meet with case management staff weekly and develop and follow an Individualized Service Plan.

Eastway Behavioral Healthcare is a private nonprofit mental health agency in Montgomery County, Ohio. In an unprecedented partnership with the county’s homeless service providers and their federal HUD funding, Hope Housing was created.

Eastway’s Laura Ferrell says:

You can’t find a job, you can’t become a productive member of society, you can’t make sure you get all of your medications and keep all of your doctor’s appointments if you don’t know which doorway you might be able to sleep in tonight.

Director Kathy Lind told journalist Thomas Gnau that most of the clients have “a lot of barriers, like mental health or substance abuse, criminal records.” Nevertheless, the time between referral and placement has been as short as 45 minutes. When the residents are ready to go out on their own, the Eastway staff reports, remarkably, “no shortage of landlords who have been willing to work with the program.”

The compassion and conviction are rooted in a hard-headed awareness that helping people get on their feet is a bargain compared to the expenses they could potentially rack up in the form of ER visits, hospitalizations, jail rent, or even such contingencies as winning a lawsuit against the city for one of the injuries that people experiencing homelessness often suffer at the hands of law enforcement.

Hope Housing operates under the “Housing First” model, and, in three years, 48 people have gotten their lives on track and found permanent housing, so it must be doing something right.

Reactions?

Source: “Job Training,” ShelterHouseIowa.org, undated
Source: “Transitional Housing Programs for Men who are Homeless,” DCCFH.org, undated
Source: “Program helps get homeless off streets, into jobs,” MyDaytonDailyNews,com,12/26/16
Photo credit: Alan Light via Visualhunt/CC BY

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Homeless by the Numbers

capitol-building-lit-at-nightThe 2016 national homeless count was about 550,000, and indicated that one out of five people experiencing homelessness resides in either New York or Los Angeles. California contains 28% of all the homeless people in America.

Five states account for half the homeless, and they are California, New York, Florida, Texas, and Washington. The statistics get confusing, because some cities are lumped in along with their entire counties, like Seattle/King County and Los Angeles City/County.

In quoting the 2016 count of King County’s homeless people (10,677), Ashley Archibald says the number “deceives in its apparent precision.” There is no intentional deception, and the challenge is the same pretty much everywhere.

More importantly, even counts of housed people produce fuzzy numbers. Archibald breaks it down for Real Change News:

Humans are pesky creatures, constantly moving, losing census forms or simply not bothering to fill them out at all. Statisticians rely on projections rather than hard counts to calculate the number and location of people. In the end it’s an extremely well-informed, highly mathematical guess.

Because the count is so important to federal funding, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority has stepped up its efforts to locate people so they can be added to the tally. Nationwide, about 20 counties conduct a separate youth count, which applies to people under 25 years of age.

The great Northwest

Here is one description of Seattle/King County’s new system:

The Count Us In method will utilize different data collection methods for the full range of homelessness count activities. The count will include a street count of people living unsheltered, those living in sheltered or transitional housing, a qualitative survey of people experiencing homelessness and specialized approaches to count people living in vehicles…

The numbers to be released will be the findings on homeless youth, vehicle residents, chronic homelessness and other specialized populations.

For Seattle Weekly, Joe Bernstein describes the current year’s activities from a perspective that housed people don’t hear very often:

Early Friday morning, volunteers and paid staff across King County will try to count the street homeless like me.

He describes the complicated yet conscientious history of doing these counts in Seattle and environs, leading up to why and how the new approach of working with the nonprofit Applied Survey Research was adopted for this year:

ASR brags that HUD considers its method a “best practice,” and it has two features Seattle hasn’t seen before: covering whole counties […] and doing so with teams of two volunteers and a currently or recently homeless “guide,” paid for his or her time.

Bernstein goes on to explain why certain results will occur, like difficulty in comparing new information with past data, because, unlike before, the new method divides up reporting areas by census tract. An overall numerical increase is also likely, and not only because a larger area is being covered. The homeless “guides” presumably have insider knowledge about where people tuck themselves away out of sight.

As a person experiencing homelessness himself, Bernstein offers the following insights:

Street counts normally happen at night because many homeless people sleep then, and fewer housed people are around to confuse things. Still, counters are at huge disadvantages. Volunteers across the country often don’t try to count people in cars or tents accurately, don’t enter squats or shacks, don’t wake anyone up, may not even ask those awake “Are you homeless?”, and can hardly guess how many people are couch-surfing.

Perhaps the best way to think about the counts is as a floor, a minimum. Shelter counts are pretty reliable, and street counts reliably underestimate. (This is why the feds want January counts — they want the highest sheltered percentage they can get.)

This year’s number will probably be bigger, maybe much bigger, but there’s a silver lining: It’ll probably be less of an underestimate of the real, even scarier, number.

Hot Springs, Arkansas, receives less attention than a lot of other places. The United Way-recruited volunteers are not allowed to work at night. The only two categories are sheltered and unsheltered. Occupying a vehicle, or squatting in a house with no running water, counts as unsheltered.

In the past year, the unsheltered total has more than doubled, and the overall total rose by 40%. In Hot Springs, the very large majority of people experiencing homelessness are single males.

Sue Legal of Ouachita Children’s Center told a reporter that this year’s higher count doesn’t necessarily mean an increase in the actual number of homeless people, but does reflect the benefits of pleasant weather and a bigger volunteer team. Even so, she believes that many people living in concealed rural camps were not counted.

Shoutout to Washington/District of Columbia, which is in fifth place. The capitol of the United States of America, the most powerful and morally superior nation on earth, has a homeless population of at least 8,350, smaller than only four other American cities.

Reactions?

Source: “The U.S. Cities With The Largest Homeless Populations [Infographic],” Forbes.com, 11/25/16
Source: “Counting in the dark,” RealChangeNews.ort, 01/25/17
Source: “Counting America’s hidden homeless,” AlJazeera.com, 01/31/17
Source: “New homeless counting system starting this year,” MapleValleyReporter.com, 02/03/17
Source: “Homeless count shows increase of unsheltered,” Hotsr.com, 02/10/17
Photo credit: Tony Brooks (yeahbouyee) via Visualhunt/CC BY

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Individuals Making a Difference

homeless-sleeping-by-bookstoreLast week, House the Homeless considered the activities of Pastor Kelly Boyd of Eugene, Oregon, who brings together givers and people who need things. By running for city council, he combines the faith-based approach with the political approach.

In some states of the union, earnest people have a better chance to thrive among progressive-minded neighbors. In other locales, a different social climate produces different results.

There is a growing tendency to criminalize, or at least seriously impede, grassroots activism and individual efforts. It’s as if the government has a split personality, and wants to both ignore the root causes of homelessness, and at the same time own and control everything about homelessness.

The same mindset prompts humans to murder their domestic partners who want to leave. “If I can’t have you, nobody else can either.” The government seems to be saying, “I can’t or won’t do very much for you, but I’m going to make sure nobody else will, either.”

A great philosopher once said that what every person really wants is to make a difference. All over America, individuals are trying to do that in the area of homeless relief. At the same time, penalizing the helpers has become a thing.

One ongoing story happens in Madison, Wisconsin. Brenda Konkel, executive director of the Tenant Resource Center, used to let as many as six people sleep on the porch of the home she shares with Robert Bloch. The couple also fitted out the porch with a dozen locker-room-style storage units for their guests to use.

The city threatened to fine them $300 a day. Journalist Pat Schneider wrote of Konkel, who used to be a city council member:

She worked with members of Occupy Madison a couple of years ago as they tried without success to get city approval to erect a homeless encampment and was instrumental in the group’s success in getting zoning approval for a village of “tiny houses” now under construction on the city’s east side.

Robert Bloch told the reporter that there had only been one police visit to the porch-sleepers, when an ambulance had to be called for a medical emergency. He also said, “The system is not working.”

The homeowners were granted time extensions, but were warned again two months later to clear the porch. The absence of sleepers was not enough, the city wanted the lockers gone too. This was not the activist’s only battle over storage. Tony Galli wrote:

Konkel says the problem of finding places to store the valuables of people who are homeless was highlighted this week, when county facility staff members removed more two dozen large plastic bags of belongings from Madison city hall. Konkel and other advocates for the homeless returned the bags to city hall, and facility officials say they will allow them to remain stacked on the building’s porch, as long as they are not unattended.

Another Konkel effort is toward establishing a day center to meet the needs of people experiencing homelessness. A location has been proposed but, not surprisingly, someone challenged it in court.

A local blogger uses cruel labels and accuses Konkel of being anti-police.This is apparently because she contradicts the mayor’s claims that the city needs somewhere between 13 and 361 additional police officers. She used to sit on the Police Staffing committee, before the department banned anyone, including City Council members, from collaborating on those decisions. Brenda Konkel is still an activist, advocate, and writer about homelessness in Madison.

Reactions?

Source: “Brenda Konkel could be fined for allowing homeless to sleep on her porch,” Madison.com, 09/18/14
Source: “Advocate’s lockers for the homeless must go,” WKOW.com, 11/14/14
Source: “We need 13-361 New Police Officers?,” ForwardLookout.com, 01/05/17
Source: “Tonight! Evictions & Homelessnes,” ForwardLookout.com, 01/10/17
Photo credit: John Benson (ibm4381) via Visualhunt/ CC BY

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Back to the Grassroots in Eugene, Oregon

eugene-oregonOne school of thought believes that funneling all help, and all the helped, through official channels should be the only permissible route. In some places, that philosophy goes even further, to a conviction that anyone who says, “No, thank you” to a solution the government insists on, becomes totally undeserving of help from any source.

Some, like Kelly Boyd of Eugene, Oregon, want to see the giving spirit flourish at the most grassroots, person-to-person level. Soon after moving to town, he filled the bed of his pickup truck with clothes and blankets, and attached to the tailgate a sign that said, “Get One, Give One.”

It wasn’t long before the Ordinance Enforcement Office left a business card and a warning. Anthony Kustura reported:

The note said Boyd must stop putting things in the back of the truck because he is in violation of city code.

The City says Boyd is creating a “liveability impact” and that neighbors complained about finding trash in the street.

Four months later, Boyd was running (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) for a City Council seat. He told local TV station KMTR that aside from the “Get One, Give One” truck, other individual efforts were being squelched. His number-one issue is homelessness, of which he says city officials take an “archaic view.”

Boyd advocates a more organic approach, encouraging citizens to individually help each other. He is sensitive to the fact that many people experiencing homelessness do not want to call on official resources — for what they consider good and sufficient reasons — and their opinions about the matter ought to be respected.

Also, he wants the city to keep a more careful eye on things like cost overruns for public projects, but is not against taxing or spending:

Instead of having boutique taxes to take care of various needs, go ahead and build a groundswell of increased jobs, increased pay, so that there is a greater tax base in our area so that there is a constant resource and income for our city budget.

This facet of Boyd’s platform is interesting because it resonates with the success story of Oklahoma City, whose mayor convinced it to pass an across-the-board sales tax, and a strong case can be made that this move actually blossomed into citywide revitalization.  As always, things are relative and situational. For instance, while a groundswell of increased jobs might sound attractive, many cities have found to their regret that letting a prison or a pollution-producing industry move in can have its drawbacks.

And yet, there is always a tradeoff. The City of Eugene said that people in the neighborhood complained about the trash left behind after the freebie truck’s visits. This is speculation, but it seems as if a person who provides such a service would, could, and should tidy up the area, and especially, would be able to recruit a helper or two in this task.

Boyd and his wife do their volunteer work inspired by their “greater calling, that the needs of all should be met.” In other words, it is a faith-based effort, and people with church-going backgrounds are well accustomed to the idea of helping out with the setup and the cleanup at communal activities.

Making it official

Presumably, this type of logistical methodology is what a City Council with a Boyd-like mindset could approve. They could make ordinances saying, “Go ahead and have your event, and take video with your cell phone of the cleanup process, and of the pristine area when you’re done. Then, shoot some footage of the volunteer crew dropping off the trash at the City’s designated spot.”

Looked at from another angle, in most cities, neighborhoods have things like block parties and coordinated garage sales. Parades, mob shopping days, sports events, and a lot of other happenings tend to leave behind debris. In some college towns, entire neighborhoods successfully impersonate slums. Depending on who causes it, a certain amount of urban mess is accepted. Somehow, everyone lives to party another day.

Also, it seems like a certain amount of selective reinforcement goes on, regarding outdoor group activities, which is all part of the criminalization of homelessness. For the authorities to suppress and even outlaw grassroots activism is counterproductive on many levels.

Reactions?

Source: “City tells man to stop placing items in truck for homeless to take,” NBC16.com, 01/28/16
Source: “Meet the candidate: Kelly Boyd runs for Eugene City Council Ward 1,” NBC16.com, 04/02/16
Source: “A City Refurbished for Health,” Childhood Obesity News, 01/20/17
Photo credit: eddiecoyote via Visualhunt/ CC BY

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A School, and a Church, Helping

college-campus

Every now and then a story crosses the screen that is really different. “Why a Seattle Homeless Camp was Invited to University of Washington” — see what we mean? Seattle is that West Coast city where rain falls 150 days a year. On any given rainy night, about 4,500 people are sleeping outside, and not to roast marshmallows and swap ghost stories. (Close to 3,000 are in transitional housing, and more than 3,000 in shelters.)

A bunch of people live in Tent City 3, a community that resettles every three months in a different area (including two previous college campuses). This is not an ideal solution for anyone, but when frequent uprooting is done in an orderly way, it can take a lot of stress off both the housed and the unhoused. One way or another, Tent City 3 has survived as an entity for 15 years.

As described by the reporters, the residents seem hyper-aware of the need to be role models and proud representatives of the homeless population. Shamar Waters and Jon Schuppe wrote:

A large portion of the residents are older and disabled, but many others have regular jobs and help keep the camp running. The camps feature communal areas, including kitchens and showers, depending on the availability of electricity and running water.

The 10,000-square-foot encampment will spend one-fourth of the year in a campus parking lot because the kids asked for it. Students in eight different academic disciplines will be able to claim credit for participating in studies and activities involving people experiencing homelessness. About 100 students pitched in with the move-in chores.

The story doesn’t say whether any students objected, based on the parking space scarcity. But even that would be a learning experience, wouldn’t it? Imagine having to park the car (your parents probably bought) a bit farther from class. Compared to having nowhere to live, that is a negligible inconvenience, and a lot of kids would never admit being bothered by it. Imagine having to walk for a considerable distance, out in the weather, to get where you need to go. That’s the everyday reality for people experiencing homelessness.

In addition to the officially recognized educational benefits of interacting with tent-dwelling nomads, there are bound to be unofficial ones. Like when kids realize that if they don’t actively work toward some kind of reform to the college loan system, they could easily end up living in tents too.

Elsewhere

The state of Texas is often perceived as hostile to any number of diverse populations, but Brownwood disproves the stereotype. Just southwest of Dallas-Fort Worth, the city of about 20,000 is the county seat, and the features in and around it include Howard Payne University, a branch of the Texas State Technical College, a state park, a state juvenile correctional complex, a regional airport, and a U.S. Army training camp.

Actor Bob Denver came from Brownwood, and so did legendary burlesque queen Candy Barr, and an impressive list of other people who have made a mark on the world. Perhaps the biggest celebrity is New Beginnings Church, which for 10 years has functioned as the city’s only shelter.

Pastor Kelly Crenshaw says:

Sometimes people just need a day or two or a week or two to get on their feet. Sometimes they just need a little bit of time, once they get lost, to figure out what their next step is…

There are also long-term guests. From the larger community, food bank donations are received, along with blankets, scarves, and other items, which is generous in a place where the median household income is maybe $33,000.

***

Recommended: “The Year in Review,” from House the Homeless

Also recommended: House the Homeless President Richard R. Troxell is interviewed by KXAN television journalist Kevin Schwaller in “Advocacy group to examine ‘criminalization of homelessness’

Reactions?

Source: “Why a Seattle Homeless Camp was Invited To University of Washington,” NBCNews.com, 12/21/16
Source: “Church Acts as Homeless Shelter in Brownwood,” BigCountryHomepage.com, 12/30/16
Photo credit: Joe Wolf (JoeInSouthernCA) via Visualhunt/CC BY-ND

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Winter Holidays

resting-marinesWe will not attempt to pluck at the reader’s heartstrings with reminders of how many children in America are having a lousy winter holiday season, with no chimney for Santa to descend, or any cultural equivalent of that gift-expectancy concept. Why not make the holidays a big deal? Because the plight of the homeless is not just a seasonal accessory, like nutmeg. Rotten things happen to people every day of the year.

But let’s start with some good news. “It was the right thing to do.” People think that a lot, and sometimes they are correct. John Stewart, San Francisco’s chief judge, explained to the press how it is time to stop locking people up for their inability to pay fines, especially for crimes connected with the fact that they are experiencing homelessness.

Whitney Webb introduces the story by noting that…

In cities around the country, the homeless are frequently criminalized, as are those who offer them food and other forms of human kindness…

Many of these arrest warrants were for so-called “quality of life” crimes, which include sleeping on sidewalks or public places, urinating in public, and public drunkenness…

San Francisco Superior Court judges stopped issuing arrest warrants for these “quality of life” crimes. Not only that, but the judges also threw out over 66,000 arrest warrants…

The police union objected, of course. Without crime they would be out of a job. Lucky for them (if not for us), there is little danger of a crime shortage. The main problem is, fines are assessed against people who do these “quality of life” crimes. If the fines are not paid, the people are jailed, which costs the city money, and what’s the point? In some places, the authorities smarten up and spend the money on portable toilets instead.

Webb says:

Though the city’s judges have shown great compassion in dismissing the cases against the city’s homeless, it will take much more for the problem of the San Francisco’s epidemic of homelessness to disappear.

By way of contrast, here are some brief highlights from a story told in great detail by Emily Green for StreetRoots.org. It took place in Portland, Oregon. Jackie, as she is pseudonymously known, has muscular dystrophy and receives disability checks, and is on several affordable-housing waiting lists.

In the area known as Old Town, she saw a man charging his cellphone from an outlet on a decorative planter, and joined him. They both were accused of third-degree theft, a Class C misdemeanor. Jackie’s Public Defender calls this move “another example of resources wasted for frivolous offenses.” Green writes:

According to the Electrical Research Institute, it costs about 25 cents a year to charge the average mobile phone. If the phone in this scenario had gone from zero charge to full charge, the cost would have amounted to mere fractions of a penny.

But it’s the principle of the thing, right? Stealing is stealing, right?

Do we want to go down that path? Do we want to return to the grotesque days when stealing bread could get your hand cut off? If Jackie were convicted of theft, it would be assumed by anyone who knew about it that she had snatched a purse or shoplifted. Even if a kind person were interested enough to ask what the crime had been, would they really believe anyone could be prosecuted for taking a tiny fraction of a cent’s worth of electricity?

Even worse, Jackie would have to go back and revise all those housing applications and check the “yes” box on the criminal history question. Her case went to Community Court, where she missed her arraignment, which resulted in a bench warrant. When Jackie surrendered, she was briefly booked into jail.

No, she’s not the perfect defendant, but the reader is taken through the unbelievable complications of a situation that just gets worse and worse. Jackie used to work in social services, and even sometimes with the police, but she has a different impression of them now.

One question that comes to mind is, before kindly providing indigent people with cellphones, did any government bureaucrat think for one second about how those indigent people would go about filling their phones with electrical power?

Why doesn’t some altruist figure out how to donate this incredibly cheap service of phone-charging? Does anyone really believe that a few cents worth of free electricity will encourage others to embrace the homeless lifestyle? It’s as if they’re afraid kids would hear about such a generous perk and say, “That’s the life for me!”

Reactions?

Source: “San Francisco Judges Dismiss 66000 Arrest Warrants Against The Homeless,” MintpressNews.com, 12/12/16
Source: “Homeless phone-charging ‘thief’ wanted security,” Streetroots.org, 03/06/15
Photo credit: Randy Robertson via Visualhunt/CC BY

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The Anti-Good Samaritan Bill

vintage-photograph-buildingThis spring in St. Louis, Missouri, an alderman proposed a bill that would effectively criminalize the unlicensed giving of anything to homeless people. Such items as blankets and bottled water could only be distributed if the giver had a vending license.

Reverend Larry Rice, of the city’s New Life Evangelical Center (NLEC), called this the Anti-Good Samaritan Bill, saying:

It’s wrong. It’s a fraud the way they’re going at this. People are hurting and they should not penalize, nor criminalize, either the homeless or those who want to help the homeless.

NLEC was founded in 1972, its first home the trailer where Rev. and Mrs. Rice lived. Later, it occupied a Victorian fixer-upper, and featured a coffeehouse, guitar music, and puppet shows. It also nurtured the people Rice called “the hurting and the homeless.” When the couple’s first child was due to be born any day, they learned about adversity firsthand:

When Penny went to the clinic to see about her rash and her swollen legs, they wouldn’t accept her because I didn’t make a regular income.

Before long, the NLEC offered not only emergency housing, but help hotlines, free clothing stores, counseling services, a youth center, classes, a leadership training program, and two publications, and did outreach work with penal institutions, hospitals, and the like. They were able to buy the old YWCA on Locust Street, the five-story building in which the Center still resides (pictured on this page.)

In the ensuing 40 years, increasing downtown gentrification has made the NLEC’s presence undesirable. Apparently a bar called Blood & Sand is particularly resentful. Developers, investors, and speculators see the Mission as standing between them and their own mission of gaining greater wealth. But ironically, for many of the neighbors it would be silly to say “Not in my backyard” because technically the area has been the NLEC’s backyard since 1976.

Generally, 50 or so people would actually live at the center, which presented a problem because the occupancy permit was for only 32 beds. Authorities claim that as many as 300 street people sleep there at night, and Rice admits to around 200. The city tried to close the NLEC in the spring of 2015, with the mission’s attorneys arguing that the city must not be allowed to repress the carrying out of religious duties.

Another attempt

Last month, another effort was made to displace the NLEC. The city’s Department of Human Services spokesperson Eddie Roth explained to reporter Elliott Davis that the institution is close to the public library, a children’s park, and a school attended by least 500 teenagers. Even though police conduct surveillance of the area from parked cars for 16 hours a day, the Mission’s presence is seen as posing unacceptable dangers.

Roth said all the city’s other “dozens of facilities” conduct their affairs in a way that is respectful to their neighbors. What he characterizes as a lack of respect is the way NLEC donors hold up traffic while dropping off loads of clothes and food, especially on Saturday mornings.

Meanwhile, an online petition objecting to Bill 66, the “Anti- Good Samaritan Law,” garnered 1,500 supporters. The measure was supposed to have been voted on in September, but the official government web page mentions no activity beyond the first reading in May.

The attempted November shutdown of NLEC did not happen. Plans were made for the Thanksgiving dinner that feeds around 400 people each year, prepared and served by 100 or so volunteers, who also give out free clothes. The police were ordered to prevent donations from being dropped off for the Thanksgiving dinner and clothing distribution.

City spokesperson Roth also charged that the NLEC acts as a magnet to draw homeless people from the entire region into central St. Louis where they are given shelter for a month and then turned loose on the streets, increasing the burden on the city’s other homeless services.

We close with a few cogent points made by Bill McClellan in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

Officials have asked members of the St. Louis Homeless Services Network if they could pick up the slack if the city were to close Rice’s New Life Evangelistic Center. The answer has been, no, we could not pick up the slack.

Rice […] provides an indispensable service, and he does so without public money.

If you’re a homeless man and you call the city’s Homeless Hotline […] you will likely be directed to New Life. Yes, the city regularly refers people to the shelter it has voted to close.

Reactions?

Source: “Proposed bill would require a permit before giving to homeless,” KMOV.com, 07/06/16
Source: “Chapter 4 — Building the New Community,” NewLifeEvangelisticCenter.org, undated
Source: “Police stop donations in front of St. Louis homeless shelter on Thanksgiving,” Fox2now.com, 11/28/16
Source: “McClellan: City’s Vote to Close Shelter Was a Gift for Rice,” Questia.com, 12/28/14
Image by NLEC

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“Housing Not Handcuffs” Paints a Grim Picture

homeless-campWe recommend our own newsletter’s succinct description of the report on the criminalization of homelessness, recently released by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. Of this effort, House the Homeless President Richard R. Troxell says:

Advocates from around the country are uniting to expose and defeat the criminalization of homelessness that creates devastating barriers preventing people from getting living wage jobs and affordable housing that would enable them to escape homelessness.

The creators of this report, titled “Housing Not Handcuffs,” gathered information from 187 American cities and learned that nearly half of them prohibit sitting or lying down in public. In other words, the person experiencing homelessness is expected to stay on her or his feet at all times.

But that is not sufficient, because standing still is also forbidden, under the verbiage of loitering, loafing, or vagrancy. If one wants to stay legal, a mere upright stance is not enough. For a street person, the only acceptable option is to remain in motion at all times.

And even that is not a satisfactory concession to public demand, because walking can be done only in certain geographical areas. Now, you might think that someone who owns a car or van could escape this problem by spending as much time as possible sitting inside of it, out of everyone’s way. But living in a vehicle is forbidden in 39% of the cities that were surveyed.

Of course there are settlements all over these cities, and the “move along” philosophy applies to groups of people, as well as to individuals. The way that cities choose to deal with camps is to cause them to uproot and relocate with senseless frequency. Maybe the basic logic is fairness to the housed people — to give each neighborhood some relief, for a while, from the unsightly, disturbing, and scary specter of people who not only failed to grab the brass ring, but couldn’t even find the merry-go-round.

Commenting on recent developments in Berkeley, Ace Backwords tells House the Homeless:

The homeless scene is always in a state of flux. It changes day to day, month to month, year to year. But the basic game seems to stay the same. One week the cops will be crunching you for one thing. The next week its OK to do that but they’re crunching you for something else. One week is OK to hang out on one side of the sidewalk. The next week they kick us off that side and say we gotta hang out on the other side. And the next week they reverse it again. Round and round it goes.

The crime of “breathing while homeless” isn’t on the books in those exact words, but it might as well be. By deeming a large segment of the national population to be guilty of it, municipalities have virtually created a huge crime wave.

Here are just three of the many key findings from “Housing Not Handcuffs”:

    Despite a lack of affordable housing and shelter space, many cities have chosen to criminally or civilly punish people living on the street for doing what any human being must do to survive.
    Local governments are engaged in problematic enforcement of these laws.
    Local governments are banishing homeless people from public places through use of “move on” orders and trespass warnings.

At the end of this page is a list of five previous posts on the “breathing while homeless” concept. For NBC in Berkeley, Stephanie Chuang and Shawn Murphy had this to say about California’s particularly aggressive anti-homeless ordinances:

Such an approach ends up being costly, as police and incarceration resources are marshaled to deal with the citations. Simply offering services and housing, on the other hand, has been found to save far more money. The federal government has also taken steps recently that indicates it considers the approach of criminalizing homelessness to be unconstitutional and will withhold federal funding from those places that engage in it. 

It is the local city governments (at the behest of the local businesses) that have passed the criminalization laws. This puts our municipalities in direct conflict with the Federal government. Specifically, the Department of Justice has echoed Mr. Troxell and other homeless advocates starting with Michael Stoops, National Coalition for the Homeless, who decry these laws and tag them as barriers to ending homelessness. At the same time, the Federal government is simultaneously providing our cities millions of dollars to fight a seeming by never ending battle to end homelessness.

“Guilty of Breathing While Homeless”
“Breathing While Homeless — in the News Again”
“Breathing While Homeless — More Illegal Than Ever”
“Breathing While Homeless Still a Crime”
“The Crime of Breathing While Homeless”

Source: “Housing Not Handcuffs: Ending the Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities,” NLCHP.org, November 2016
Source: “Berkeley City Council Approves Crackdown on Homeless, Prohibits Urination in Public,” NBCBayArea.com, 11/18/15
Image credit: Michael Coghlan (mikecogh) via Visualhunt/CC BY-SA

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