Back in the 1960s, Berkeley, California, was the epicenter of the Free Speech Movement, and of vehement objection to the Vietnam war, as well as a mecca for women’s rights activism. The city’s radicals were always marching against things and occupying places, not to mention educating the public at every turn. Causes like People’s Park kept the atmosphere electric for decades.
Recently, Berkeley is having a resurgence of political ferment. (For interested observers in other parts of the country, local participants report on the ongoing hour-by-hour drama of the Berkeley street scene via a Facebook group called “First they came for the homeless.”)
As in so many other American cities, the cost of housing is simply out of reach for a large segment of the population. Homeless activist Mike Lee is running for mayor, on the platform of mutual aid and voluntary cooperation.
Many people experiencing homelessness also want to experience the democratic process, by voting, but they are often unable to. The fact that this is an election year adds greatly to the overall stress, and much energy has been put into voter registration efforts.
For Truthout, David Bacon has written a massive report covering these and other Berkeley issues. He recounts how, in October, a homeless community that had been camping on a grassy medium in the middle of a road were forcibly relocated, and not for the first time. The way the authorities habitually accomplish this is to roll up at 5:00 AM with a contingent of city vehicles, flanked by several police cars. Customarily, they fill their trucks with seized tents, bedrolls and other belongings.
On this particular occasion, some residents had the opportunity to send text messages to allies. The journalist quotes Mike Zint, one of the group’s leaders:
We went into delaying tactics while we got community support mobilized. That doesn’t stop them, but every time this happens we get more support. So they sat there in their trucks for the next six hours — a dozen city workers and a code compliance officer, all on overtime. They took seven cops off patrol. And in the end, after all the arguments, we only moved about 200 feet, across the street. And how much did that cost?
The politically motivated group demonstrates outside Impact HUB, where homeless services are centralized. Their intention is to force public debate and defend rights. One bone of contention is the shabby treatment doled out to the most vulnerable members of the community. From Dan McMullan, of the Disabled People Outside Project, the reporter learned how a wheelchair-bound woman was repeatedly denied help because she “didn’t fit the intake criteria.” How much worse off than homeless in a wheelchair does a person have to be?
This bunch is made up not of random rough sleepers, but of politically savvy people who have formed an intentional community. Bacon quotes Zint’s description of what has come to be known as the Poor Tour:
It’s a mobile occupation that can pop up anywhere. We’re exposing the fact that there is no solution — nothing but exposure for the homeless. And exposure is killing a lot of people.
One such casualty of the War on the Homeless was Roberto Benitas, who in late September was found dead in the doorway where he slept. McMullan, who writes for the newspaper Street Spirit, recruited a city council candidate to help organize a memorial. For additional commentary about that sad event, House the Homeless contacted Dan McMullan, who said:
I was touched the way the community came together to remember this man who went unnoticed amongst us for so long. Even in death it took a while for anyone to notice. A year ago there wouldn’t have been such a cross section of the community. Housing is on everyone’s mind and the wolf is heard in all quarters. Not one but two Native Americans showed up independently to play the flute. The spirit was strong and we all were together… [M]oved together… I went out and put together a protest… My own years of homelessness haunted my every thought and I had to placate the many ghosts that cry out in the bad weather. Do something… [A]nything.
Every now and then, House the Homeless explores the difficulties encountered by people who help the unhoused. “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished” related the story of how David Henderson, editor of Poverty Insights, bought a Greyhound bus ticket for someone else and encountered what he calls the Samaritan Tax, an $18 “gift ticket fee,” which can only be waived under very annoying and inconvenient circumstances.
Last summer we considered some “People Who Feed People” and their struggles with police, neighborhood organizations, zoning laws, and local health departments. Food trucks may be towed and fines may be levied. Municipal administrations have numerous ways to make the lives of givers miserable.
Last week, we looked at some of the pushback against tiny houses and the people who generously build and donate them.
All across America, volunteers give a whole lot of time and energy, and money they could be spending on themselves. Sometimes they work obsessively to keep old vehicles moving, so breakfasts can be delivered. They deprive themselves of sleep or even food, and go out in all kinds of weather.
Over the years, this kind of dedication takes its toll. But we’re not talking about gradual attrition of health. We’re talking about helpers of people experiencing homelessness, who have been deliberately killed.
Shoeless in Georgia, Clueless in New York
In April of 2014 Donnie Reed, the 40-year-old father of three children, was stabbed to death in Rancho Cucamonga parking lot. The California man was with some friends at a sports bar, and when it closed they ran into where some strangers were harassing a homeless man.
After Reed suggested that the antagonists knock it off, one of them stabbed him in the chest and stabbed Reed’s friend in the neck. (The friend survived.) Apparently the murder remains unsolved. Reed’s wife told journalist Melissa MacBride:
He’s not a fighter. He was trying to help somebody, and this is what happened to him for doing something he would have done for anybody.
Last fall in Atlanta, a 24-year-old National Guard sergeant who had served three tours of duty in Afghanistan was was shot to death near a homeless shelter where he had gone on a Sunday morning to donate shoes — something that he had done without incident on other occasions.
Attig Eminue, whose family relocated to the United States from Nigeria 15 years ago, was killed for no apparent reason. Crime Stoppers offered a reward, which was increased in the following month. The police believed that the shooter was a 21-year-old named Harold Dodson, who had already accumulated five felony convictions, but didn’t know where he was. Toward the end of October, Dodson was arrested, charged, and denied bail.
In June of this year, only a block from his home in the Bronx, a high school senior was stabbed in the chest several times. Carl Ducasse, who planned to become an attorney, will not be joining any profession, because someone begrudged the teenager’s donation of $2 to a shelter resident.
As the 17-year-old bled to death, the killer stole his phone and fled the scene. Eventually, another 17-year-old was arrested and held without bail while 500 people attended funeral masses for Ducasse.
Only two months ago, in another part of New York, the driver of a van belonging to an organization that helps homeless women and children was shot to death while a client (en route to fill out a housing application) was also in the vehicle. The tragedy caused the nonprofit Women in Need, Inc. (WIN) to keep its vehicles off the road for a while.
For reasons undisclosed to the public, police characterized the driver’s murder as the denouement of a “personal feud.” But since WIN provides, among other things, shelter for women who are fleeing domestic violence, the killing could certainly have been an act of revenge against a system that dares to steal a man’s chosen victim.
Source: “Good Samaritan dies trying to help homeless man in Rancho Cucamonga,” ABC7.com, 04/13/14
Source: “Police arrest Harold Dodson in murder of Army sergeant who was helping homeless shelter,” GeorgiaNewsday.com, 10/27/15
Source: “Teen Stabbed To Death After Someone Saw ‘Gift’ They Gave Homeless Man,” MadWorldNews.com, 06/20/16
Source: “Borough Park shooting: Driver of homeless service van killed, NYPD says,” amNY.com, 08/30/16
Photo credit: Hakon Siguroarson via Visualhunt/CC BY-SA
Among all the tactics used to make war on people experiencing homelessness, one of the most insidious is penalizing their allies. A while back, we published a post titled “Helping the Homeless: No Good Deed Goes Unpunished” and, more recently, one called “People Who Feed People.” Let’s look at what else has been going on in that area.
The title, “Canadian Cop Posing As Homeless Person Fines Guy For Giving Him Change,” pretty much says it all. In Regina, Saskatchewan, an undercover officer dressed as a homeless person with a cardboard sign lured a driver to give a contribution. To reach the window, the driver had to undo his seat belt. A second officer arrived on the scene, and ticketed him for not having his seat belt fastened, which resulted in a $175 fine.
Journalist Jake Kivanç describes how the police masquerade as panhandlers to entrap kind citizens, which is both exploitative and pathetic:
This is all part of an effort by Regina police and other municipalities to capture drivers committing traffic violations — which range from distracted driving to not wearing your seatbelt.
In the USA, a very large problem becomes clearer every day. There is no shortage of ideas about how to make self-contained small living quarters for people who presently live outside. Engineers, grad students, and even bright children have figured out how to make shelters out of everything from hempcrete to shipping containers. Every now and then an American breaks into the news by building noteworthy “tiny houses.”
We have not only the technology, but the materials, the volunteer labor, and the humanitarian incentive to build these things. After volunteers show the way, why can’t employable tiny-house inhabitants be employed to build more tiny houses? The answer appears to be, because no one wants these structures, anywhere. America is just one big Backyard with everybody saying “Not In Mine.”
For example, in St. Cloud, Minnesota, St. John’s Episcopal Church has on its property a tiny house, described as “a 132-square-foot shelter on wheels with electricity, water and heat.” The inhabitant was chosen by the St. Cloud Homeless Men’s Coalition, to live there in return for doing janitorial work.
Reporter Susan Du interviewed the church’s attorney, Robert Feigh, and learned that although there are no zoning ordinances about tiny houses, the city’s inspectors have tried every trick in the book to end this arrangement. St. John’s filed a federal lawsuit against St. Cloud, citing the Bill of Rights, the Religious Land Use Act and the Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000.
With the lawyerly ability to get both sides, Feigh said:
They see it as a vague potential problem if there were tiny houses all over the city, that that wouldn’t be good, and it probably wouldn’t be… The government cannot interfere with churches rendering to the poor on their own property. That’s what it amounts to.
In Dover, Delaware, another church is in the same kind of trouble, and being fined $100 a day, because a three-generation family lives in an RV out back. The woman in the middle generation is blind, pregnant, afflicted with an auto-immune condition, and only 21. Alexis Simms’ mother helps to care for her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter.
Pastor Aaron Appling of Victory Church said:
We want to stand up for her. Because there is nobody else to stand up for her.
The county is upset because the church property holds three camper trucks, but the church doesn’t have special approval to house a commercial recreational campground in an agricultural residential district, which would cost about $100,000 to achieve.
This is only the tip of the iceberg. The uncredited reporter describes the intrigue:
Earlier this year, the parish, in conjunction with the nonprofit Port Hope Delaware, began formulating plans for a Tiny Home Project in Dover. The village would consist of 15 tiny homes on four acres of land on the western half of Victory’s property…
The project ran into zoning issues with the county, as the land could be zoned for four residential homes, but the village would be considered high-density housing.
Neighbors were not impressed by the promise of background checks on applicants, or the fact that tenants would each pay $200 to $300 per month to live in the tiny houses. Reportedly, every residence in the vicinity had a “NO TINY HOUSES” sign in its yard. Neighbors talk about losing equity in their properties, but why not just stay there at the homestead, as they always planned to? The amount of profit that might be realized from a sale is a moot issue.
At a recent City Council meeting, Pastor Appling was accompanied by around 100 people experiencing homelessness and their advocates. Alexis Simms has been unable to find housing for her family through the channels provided by city and county. Speaking at a memorial vigil for three homeless men, she said:
It’s not just me that’s homeless. There’s thousands of us and we want help. We’re not contagious. We’re human people and we’re here.
Source: “Canadian Cop Posing As Homeless Person Fines Guy For Giving Him Change,” Vice.com, 06/10/16
Source: “St. Cloud wants to evict “gentle” homeless man from church’s tiny house,” CityPages.com, 08/30/16
Source: “Church faces daily $100 fine for housing homeless on its lot, battles with neighbors,” RT.com, 10/11/16
Photo credit (from top): Tammy Strobel via Visualhunt/CC BY; Jon Callas via Visualhunt/CC BY; Tammy Strobel via Visualhunt/CC BY
There are many versions of the starfish story. Here is one.
A man walking along a shore covered with washed-up, dying starfish notices a boy throwing them back into the ocean, one by one. The man says to the boy that there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish, and that he’ll never make a difference. As the boy throws a starfish back into the ocean, he says, “I just made a difference to that one.”
Almost three years ago several Denver-area news sources related how Joe Manzaneres, on his way to work as a real estate broker, drove past Chris Razec. A certified welder and forklift operator, Razec had fallen on hard times and was experiencing homelessness and displaying the typical cardboard sign.
The real estate broker returned with a different sign and paid Razec $25 a day to show it to the public instead. It read, “No need for your cash! I’m sponsored by Joe Manzaneres!” and gave the businessman’s contact information.
Subsequently, Manzaneres also helped out with clothes, haircut, cell phone, and resume creation. Unfortunately, we don’t know more about either the individual fate of Chris Razec or what happened with Joe Manzaneres’s idea of asking the mayor’s office and the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless to begin some type of one-on-one sponsorship program.
Also in Denver, Purple Door Coffee is an espresso shop that employs “teens and young adults who have been homeless and want to leave homelessness behind.” The interesting thing about their website is the page containing profiles of and interviews with the employees. It really radiates conviction that people’s lives are indeed changing.
From Dothan, Alabama, journalist Matt Elofson described a plan that might help a few people in a state that many consider, social policy-wise, to be very backward. He wrote:
Ken Tuck, the president of Love in Action International Ministries, said they’re planning to open the former Dakota Coffee Works cafe and make it a self-sustaining business by helping train homeless people to run the business…
Tuck grew up in the restaurant business… He said the coffee shop will serve breakfast and lunch. He also said the coffee shop will have a meeting room, and will include a stage for live entertainment and worship nights.
The goal is to provide job training and actual paying work for people experiencing homelessness. Ken and Martha Tuck plan to also teach such life skills as budget planning and how to handle a job interview. Meanwhile, they are holding yard sales, trying to raise at least $250,000 in startup funding.
If a business like this can find its footing, who knows how many people it might help? But it is never easy. A similar project began in 2014 in Fort Collins, Colorado, when RedTail Coffee joined with the city and a local not-for-profit organization to open a coffee shop inside the South Transit Center, a large and fancy new bus transportation hub.
The intention was to only hire people experiencing homelessness. Toward the end of 2015 one of the proprietors, Cailte Kelley, wrote:
We struggled but eventually we figured it out. The people we needed appeared, the opportunities appeared, and with no money, no experience, we put the pieces together…
We’re a small shop, run by my incredible sister-in-law Kelly, with 3 employees with a fourth about to be hired. Two of our employees have found permanent housing and are well on their way to piecing their lives back together.
The food and drink selections were varied and the prices reasonable, but somehow RedTail Coffee didn’t catch on. The transit hub lies well back from the main road, close to nothing but a recreational bike trail, and populated by folks waiting as long as an hour for their transfer buses. It seems like they would be a captive clientele.
But people who ride city buses often can’t spare even a couple of dollars for snacks. Bike trail users are trying to work off calories, not ingest them. And in that location, the little shop certainly was not a “destination.” Only a few months later, it closed without fanfare.
So these efforts have either helped a handful of people, or tried to, or hope to very soon. Sometimes that’s all a person can do, and there is nothing wrong with a small project. But some critics will try to float the idea that unpopular change should exclusively be made by individuals who care about that particular issue, and that those changes are not the responsibility of the country as a whole to endorse, support, or finance. This last paragraph by a writer named Rich Tafel reminds us that, magnanimous as they are, individual efforts are not enough, and need to be backed up by public programs and laws:
Real world problems usually result from a broken ecosystem, and solutions most often require some kind of change to the rules…
Starfish throwing, like charity, isn’t a bad thing, but it is not a solution. When we confuse charity and justice, we perpetuate injustice. True world change requires more of its leaders. We must have the courage to work within our complex systems to change the rules.
Source: “Denver real estate broker hires homeless to help them and his business,” WTKR.com, 01/03/14
Source: “Purple Door Blog,” PurpleDoorCoffee.com, August 2016
Source: “Homeless employees to operate ministry’s downtown Dothan coffee shop,”
Source: “The Greatest Thing I’ve Ever Done,” Opportunities-fc.com, 11/12/15
Source: “Social Entrepreneurs Must Stop Throwing Starfish,” Ssir.org, 03/20/12
Photo credit: Matt J Newman via Visualhunt/CC BY-SA
Last week, House the Homeless noted that, across America, some 3% of public school students are experiencing homelessness. Sometimes it seems like we mainly hear about happenings in New York and California, because they are the big states representing the East Coast and the West Coast, so they appear important. Today, we look at some news stories, all published within the past year, from states that don’t get as much attention.
This very recent one says it all in the headline: “There are 29,537 homeless kids in Arizona public schools.” Just for reference, the smallest-size football stadiums that Wikipedia bothers to list are 30,000-seaters, so these kids would just about fill one of those. Journalist Michael Hughes characterizes these children as…
[…] young outcasts who, through no fault of their own, have entered a world of motels, doubled-up quarters with relatives, a life on the streets or emergency shelter.
Also, before the recession, there were fewer than 20,000. The greedy and irresponsible financial tricksters who caused that meltdown have a lot to answer for, and the consequences of their misdeeds will linger for generations to come. Safe, affordable housing is the very bedrock necessary for an educated and conscious population.
While the Arizona homeless student total only increased by 50% since the recession, another state has seen a 100% increase. “Number enrolled in Arkansas schools doubles in 10 years,” the headline says. That may sound like an impressive rate of increase over a decade, but in the city of Lexington, Kentucky, it took only three years for the homeless student population to double.
A study by the Lexington Fair Housing Council determined, to no one’s surprise, that “elementary schools with the highest percentage of homeless students were ranked much lower in overall academic performance.” The Fayette County Schools Superintendent expressed disappointment that the Council’s report didn’t offer more answers, saying:
Speaking not as a superintendent, but as an individual who experienced housing insecurity and food insecurity as a child, I implore the council to look at the root causes of homelessness in our community and develop bold recommendations to create a safety net for our families and children.
However, the director of the Homeless Prevention and Intervention Office told the press that although he and the others in the homeless provider community had tried to meet with Superintendent Manny Caulk, “that meeting has not yet happened.” No doubt this same scenario of unscheduleable meetings is being played out all over the country in large cities and small towns.
Kentucky as a whole, incidentally, could fill another of those 30,000-seat football arenas with homeless students. But the state of Washington has them beat, with 35,000 enrolled in public schools, and as for how many others are wandering around, unbeknownst to authorities, that is anybody’s guess.
We have all heard of the McKinney-Vento Act and how much it is supposed to help. But…
Public schools in Kent get no money from McKinney-Vento because the available funds are distributed through a competitive grant process… That means the district spends “thousands and thousands” out of pocket for staff and transportation required by the act.
Just 24 of 295 school districts in Washington received McKinney-Vento money for a three-year period starting in 2013.
In Boston, Massachusetts, during this school year nearly 4,000 students are without homes. With the city’s average apartment rent at $2,300, this is not an astonishing outcome. Nor is it likely to change any time soon, unless serious action is taken.
Obviously, there are quite a few more states we didn’t even get to today. An important aspect to remember is, these tallies don’t even include “unaccompanied youth” who should be enrolled in school, but aren’t. They are mostly, as the old expression has it, “in the wind.” They are easily ignored now, but during the decades of adulthood that lie before them, far too many of those kids will give us reason to regret not looking out for them or taking better care of them.
Source: “There are 29537 homeless kids in Arizona public schools,” AZCentral.com, 09/04/16
Source: “Homeless kids fly under radar; number enrolled in Arkansas schools doubles in 10 years,” ArkansasOnline.com, 09/26/16
Source: “Student homelessness in Lexington nearly doubles over three years,” Kentucky.com,08/07/16
Source: “With 35,000 homeless youth in public schools, state lawmakers seek money to help,” SeattleTimes.com, 02/15/16
Source: “Nearly 4,000 students are homeless as start of school approaches,” WCVB.com, 08/15/16
Photo credit: K.W. Barrett via Visualhunt/CC BY
Many economic incentives exist that could inspire voters to greater efforts toward ending homelessness, if only they realized and understood the potential. Writing for the St. Cloud Times in Minnesota, Stephanie Dickrell analyzed some of advantages that our society could gain by taking a different approach to the plague of homelessness.
The main concern is with children, because growing up in chaos has a number of long-term effects on the body, mind and spirit. The bill comes due later, in terms of social service programs. The safety nets that America has put in place for disabled people and unemployable people and vulnerable people like children have never been more needed. Law enforcement costs don’t have to be so high, but they will continue to grow as long as police are occupied with the never-ending task of chasing street people from one vacant lot to the next.
Hospitals lose a ton of money treating indigent patients. It costs a lot to send firefighting equipment and personnel to take care of relatively minor matters, meanwhile endangering the homes and businesses they are meant to protect. The taxpayers shell out fortunes to keep people in jail who really don’t need to be there. The body politic is hemorrhaging money from every pore, when by merely taking the same amount and allotting it differently, it could avoid enormous expenditures down the road.
Dickrell gives this example:
If Central Minnesota programs can make nine homeless youth self-sufficient by age 20, they save the equivalent of one year’s spending on services for 151 homeless youth.
That sounds like a reasonable tradeoff. The math was done by Steven Foldes, a University of Minnesota economist, with the aim of discovering the “excess lifetime cost,” or the amount that a homeless kid can cost society between birth and death. Dickrell says:
He looked at a wide range of expenses: lost earnings, lost tax payments, public expenditures and victim costs for crime, welfare costs, public costs for health care, education and job training and public support of housing…
The lifetime excess cost to society will be about $93 million.
However, homeless population estimates are considered by experts to be low. Foldes estimates the costs may be about four times greater.
In contrast, look at what happens when a mother wants her boy (who loves school) to have a good education so he won’t grow up to be a burden on society. Remember Tanya McDowell, who was charged in 2011 with grand larceny and conspiracy to commit first-degree larceny, for registering her son at the wrong school? She took a plea bargain, but under the conditions set forth in something called the Alford Doctrine, meaning that the accused does not admit guilt, but does admit that she or he does not have what it would take to win the case.
McDowell was sentenced to five years in prison, which ran concurrently with another five-year sentence for an unrelated crime. Although regretting her participation in the other matter, she told the judge that, for trying to get her son a better education, she had no regrets.
Dr. Yvonne M. Vissing is an expert in the area of homeless children and youth, who works with the National Coalition for the Homeless. She founded the Center for Child Studies at Salem State University and wrote Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind: Homeless Children and Families in Small-Town America.
Dr. Vissing believes that policies and practices that marginalize, embarrass and stigmatize kids need to be changed. No children should be vulnerable to abuse, exploitation or neglect. The mindset dictating that some children are more worthy than others of care and help must be eliminated wherever it is found. Bureaucracies need to be called to account, and educational inequities must be cured. Parents must not be forced into positions where, at best, there might be two equally awful choices; where the question of the “best choice” isn’t even on the table.
House the Homeless urges everyone to watch the video “Kids 4 Kids Sake” and share it with the candidates who are running for president! In fact, please do what you can to bring it to the attention of all candidates for everything, anywhere. Share via social media, contact the candidates directly, and ask your friends to do the same.
Source: “Child homelessness can have long-term consequences,” SCTimes.com, 06/04/16
Source: “Homeless Mother Who Sent Six-Year-Old Son To Better School In The Wrong Town Sent To Prison For Five Years,” CounterCurrentNews.com, 09/04/16
Source: “Yvonne. M. Vissing,” SalemState.edu, undated
Source: “Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind: Homeless Children and Families in Small-Town America,” uky.edu, undated
Photo credit: Brad Flickinger via Visualhunt/CC BY
That’s short for Bridge the Economic Gap Day, which is September 6, a week from today. Here are words from the President of House the Homeless, Richard R. Troxell:
During his tenure, President Obama said that income inequality is the single most important issue of our time. But the actions of the administration and Congress have created a failed federal minimum wage that still clings to the archaic and pedestrian concept that “one size fits all” in a nation of a thousand-plus economies. Who hasn’t traveled? Who hasn’t found that a meal in Washington, D.C., is at least twice as much as one in Scranton, Pennsylvania, or the rent in Austin, Texas, is almost three times that of Harlington, Texas?
The failure of Congress to reasonably and timely raise the minimum wage even at its one-size- fits-all rate has caused major, heavily populated cities to independently raise their own minimum wage out of desperation. But these $15.00 per hour increases still fall way short of living wages in these major cities, and would put small business out of business in our smaller cities. And, soon enough, time and inflation will again erode the wage.
The answer is simple. We need to index the federal minimum wage to the local cost of housing. In this fashion, if a person puts in their 40 hours of work, they will be able to afford a basic rental property… No matter what that rent escalates to, or where it’s located. This makes sense for business as it stabilizes their minimum-wage workforce. This makes sense for the local construction industry (nationwide) that will get to construct housing for the 3.5 million people experiencing homelessness. And it makes sense for the homeless minimum-wage worker who can finally attain housing.
For these reasons, the theme of the this year’s Bridge the Economic Gap Day (when we get on our nation’s bridges and fly our banners for Living Wages) is: INDEX IT! Index the wage to the local cost of housing so that as a worker, I’m drawn back in off the dole to a life of satisfaction and accomplishment… So that I can again earn a fair wage for a fair day’s pay. INDEX IT! Index it so that as a worker I can experience the true meaning of the word “opportunity.” Then, as an American with a dream, I can combine the two.
Richard’s book, Looking Up at the Bottom Line, explores the idea of economic homelessness and how we can drastically reduce the level of taxpayer dependence on such supports as food stamps, TANF, general assistance, earned income tax credits, etc. At the same time, the book points the way to stimulate the local housing industry all across America while shoring up new business startups and ending economic homelessness for over 1,000,000 minimum-wage workers.
An interesting resource is this collection of charts, like the one titled, “The last two decades were great… if you were a CEO or owner. Not if you were anyone else.” To spend some minutes musing over them is to experience a disturbing array of revelations and emotions.
Remember how Seattle made big news by raising its minimum wage? The Seattle Minimum Wage Study Team issued a report in July, and Jared Bernstein reviewed it for The Washington Post. It examines the impact of the first stage of Seattle’s wage hike, which went into effect in April of 2015.
This raise was from $9.50 to $11. The second stage will occur in 2017, when businesses with 500 or more employees are scheduled to raise the minimum to $15. Small businesses don’t have to catch up with that until 2021.
There are a lot of details to take into consideration, but the outcomes are said to “fit comfortably into a view well understood by minimum-wage advocates and increasingly accepted by economists: most increases have their intended effect of lifting the pay of low-wage workers with little in the way of job losses.”
Bernstein explains his discomfort with the way in which Seattle’s advance has been covered by the press, and many other matters too. The 120 comments appended to the piece add more layers of nuance.
Source: “15 Mind-Blowing Facts About Wealth And Inequality In America,” BusinessInsider.com, undated
Source: “So far, the Seattle minimum-wage increase is doing what it’s supposed to do,” WashingtonPost.com, 08/10/16
Image by House the Homeless
Alert readers of House the Homeless blog have noticed that toilets have been a theme. We haven’t even gotten into showers or laundry, because there is so much to say about the most basic of sanitary facilities.
Latrines, and the means to wash hands after using them, are the building blocks of civilization. Toilets are a basic necessity and people experiencing homelessness need them.
Aside from the human suffering and indignity, and the menace to public health posed by a lack of toilets, there is another serious issue. In a societal/cultural/political absurdity that is indistinguishable from actual insanity, people are acquiring criminal records for public elimination when there is literally no other choice. Let’s take a close look at how one American city is working on the problem.
Last year, Miami, Florida, experienced a long period of civic unrest over toilets. Attempting to shame the Dade Homeless Trust into using some of its $55 million of public money for a public restroom project, Downtown Development Authority board member Jose Goyanes made a video titled “Homeless Urine & Feces in Miami May 2015.” The DDA also prepared an infographic — a map of the downtown area with little feces icons in appropriate places.
The unimpressed administrator wouldn’t even look at the presentation, and scolded Mr. Goyanes for assuming “that the Homeless Trust is responsible for anything and everything involving homeless individuals.” Ron Book, who has run the Trust since Hector was a pup, told reporters:
We are not going to be putting toilets or showers in downtown Miami… We’ve looked at this several times over the last 10 to 12 years and we are just not doing it.
These folks think I’m supposed to divert scarce resources and be on poop patrol and clean up after homeless folks. My priority is homes and getting people off the streets, not providing poop stations.
In Book’s world, a $55 million budget is “scarce resources.” Also amazing is that such a high-ranking official believes that people only do one thing in a restroom.
Book’s theory, which is no doubt eagerly adopted by officials in other cities, goes like this:
If I’m making it easier for them to be on the streets, then I’m making it more difficult for my outreach staff to coax chronic homeless people off of the streets.
Mainly, this view seems counterproductive. When the first thing a person has to do on arrival at a job interview is ask for directions to the restroom, what kind of a start is that? Maybe if people had some basic amenities to work with they wouldn’t need to depend on the Trust for additional help.
Meanwhile, because the lack of bathrooms might change some hardcore street people’s minds about turning themselves over for rehab or whatever, everybody else could just wear diapers. It came down to a big County Commission board meeting with merchants, local residents, representatives from the City, the Homeless Trust, and the DDA. Whether the meeting was attended by any people experiencing homelessness was not noted.
Mayor to the rescue
Apparently, the Commission could have compelled the Homeless Trust to pay, but that turned out not to be necessary, as Mayor Tomas Regalado dipped into a multi-million dollar discretionary fund and pulled out $500,000. The order was made for four portable toilets, described as “airplane bathrooms on wheels.” A truck brings them around to designated spots at 2 PM and takes them away at 9 PM. They are open for less than one-third of the day, which is better than nothing.
In mid-December, the mayor and the DDA were happy to report that after only two months, the pilot program had more than halved the number of human-feces complaints. By the six-month mark, the effort had reduced the piles of downtown feces by 57%. As a bonus, the program turns out to cost less than the budget anticipated, so funds will carry it through to October.
The success of the Pit Stops is attributed to having attendants on duty. Among other chores, the worker knocks on the door after five minutes of occupancy. One of these monitors told a reporter that the toilets are used not only by street people, but by police, bus drivers, and government workers.
A lot of elderly people live in Miami, and a lot of tourists visit the city. Surely they appreciate restrooms too. The DDA’s Ken Russell said:
What started off as an initiative for the homeless actually has sort of blossomed into a service for the full city, as well as a jobs program for the homeless.
So, a few jobs have been created, although the seven-hour daily shift inspires the question of whether anyone gets full-time benefits.
Last month, it was reported that Miami will invest in three permanent public toilets. Construction for the first one starts in October, with an opening date in December. The funding? The county, the city, and the DDA.
Source: “Video Of Feces Downtown Sparks New Fight Over Public Toilets For Homeless,” MiamiNewTimes, 05/13/15
Source: “Miami gets a taxpayer-funded homeless poop map,” WQAD.com, 05/16/15
Source: “Miami Installs Free Public Bathrooms For Homeless People,” HuffingtonPost.com, 12/29/15
Source: “Miami mayor offers to pay for roving downtown toilet program,” MiamiHerald.com, 06/18/15
Source: “Miami mayor: $500K porta potty program a success,” MiamiHerald.com, 12/11/15
Source: “Pilot Program Provides ‘Pit Stop’ For Miami’s Homeless,” CBSlocal.com, 07/18/16
Source: “Public Bathroom Project for the Homeless Will Become Permanent,” WLRN.org, 07/21/16
Photo credit: Phillip Pessar via Visualhunt/CC BY
A news article about events in Denver summarized the situation in many American cities:
Currently, urinating outside is an inevitability for people who are homeless, yet it exposes them to police citation and ticketing. What is more, when an individual fails to pay a citation, or appear in court for it, they become subject to arrest. Thus, simply fulfilling a basic human need ultimately results in arrest. This greatly stalls that individual’s ability to extricate her or himself from homelessness.
The title of a piece from TheDailyBeast.com stated the case even more succinctly: “Homeless People Have to Pee, Too. Find a Place for Them & Stop Complaining About It, You Monsters.”
It quotes Shawn Shafner of The Poop Project, who agrees that prosecuting people for public urination criminalizes homelessness.
People who get dogs and don’t take them out to pee — we call them abusers. Those dogs get taken away. But for people with Crohn’s (Disease) or colitis or IBS, or those who develop incontinence with old age, or even pregnant women who need that space— we don’t afford them those same privileges a lot of the time.
And then there’s food poisoning, always a risk among people who depend on discarded food. Research confirms that a large number of people experiencing homelessness also suffer from a multitude of medical problems including traumatic brain injury.
People are walking around out there who are not even sure what year it is or what planet they are on. It is unlikely that such deeply disconnected people will go far to line up at a single restroom that is only open during certain hours of the day.
Not using a toilet is wrong, but using one is, too. Last March, in Santa Monica, CA, a burglary was reported at an apartment building with an untenanted unit. Inside, police found a man who just wanted to use the bathroom of an empty apartment whose door, he said, he had found unlocked. He had even brought his own toilet paper roll. Arrested for trespassing, he was taken to jail and his bail amount was set at $5,500.
A little farther south, in Orange County, an elementary school located next to a park has apparently been troubled by years of intrusions by people who need the facilities. The reporters don’t mention anything about any proposals to set up a port-a-potty or washing facilities. However, the District Superintendent has promised that a fence will be built and police patrols will be increased. Farther north, in Berkeley, where public elimination is of course outlawed, activists discussed the idea of mass break-ins at municipal administration buildings — not to steal, vandalize, or take hostages, but simply to use the porcelain facilities.
In Tucson, where people could sleep on sidewalks but not on grass, fast food outlet manager Nathan Hauser characterized a downtown encampment as “counterproductive,” particularly because a nearby park, used as a restroom, was a blight and a burden on the taxpayers. He said:
We pay to maintain that grass. We pay to maintain that park so people can enjoy it and right now nobody can enjoy it.
He was talking about townspeople and visitors, of course, but chances are, the people who are forced into this kind of behavior don’t actually enjoy it either.
The perceived need for debate stalls a lot of projects, as local officials seem unable to get past the stage of mulling over the pros and cons of public conveniences. They say things like, “We don’t have a definitive yes or no response on this issue at this time. There are a lot of variables that need to be considered.” Bathrooms, they say, need to be maintained, monitored, and managed. (So do golf courses, but cities that have them don’t seem to suffer from paralysis of the will over that topic.)
Last year in Fort Wayne, Indiana, there was discussion over whether to keep a downtown park’s restroom open all the time, rather than just during civic events. The Parks Director reminded the public of the expense that would be incurred by cleaning and maintenance, and liability insurance, and constant police attention. Compassionate City Council candidate Rev. Terry Anderson called a press conference, and brilliantly chose for its location a railroad overpass that traditionally served as an open-air latrine.
Source: “Downtown Denver Public Toilet Inventory,” DHOL, 8/17/14
Source: “Homeless People Have to Pee, Too. Find a Place for Them & Stop Complaining About It, You Monsters,” TheDailyBeast.com, 07/19/15
Source: “Homeless man arrested for trespassing needed to use restroom (crime watch),” SMDP.com, 03/21/15
Source: “Parents Worried About Kids Safety as Homeless Use OC Elementary School Bathrooms,” NBCLosAngeles.com, 05/13/15
Source: “Berkeley City Council Approves Crackdown on Homeless, Prohibits Urination in Public,” NBCBayArea.com, 11/18/15
Source: “Downtown business says homeless camp brings problems despite city crackdown,” KVOA.com, 03/10/14
Source: “Lack of public toilets gives city’s homeless no place to ‘go’,” News-Sentinel.com, 10/17/15
Photo credit: Dave Conner via Visualhunt/CC BY
House the Homeless has been discussing the absurdity and the inhumanity of depriving people of toilets, and even worse, the insanity of criminalizing natural functions. The subject frequently comes up in the press. Earlier this week Daily Mail.com, always an enthusiastic purveyor of American showbiz news, published a whole series of photos from the making of an episode of the TV series “Girls.” Walking in the SoHo district of New York, star Lena Dunham reacts with consternation when she passes a squatting man.
In many American cities, this type of scene is all too frequently real. In San Francisco, web developer Jennifer Wong used a Department of Public Works database to create a map spotlighting all the locations from which six months worth of human waste complaints were reported by phone.
In places that have them, public restrooms are often locked at night. Bus terminals and train stations may be an option, but even if homeless people can slip in to use a toilet, such activities as sponge bathing, shaving, and sock washing are discouraged.
In Denver, Ray Lyall of Homeless Out Loud told a reporter:
There’s literally 10 restrooms that you can actually use without anybody saying anything to you… Most of those are only open during their hours of operation, so there are only two that are open 24/7.
In Austin, Texas, the subject has been a contentious one for years. Back in the autumn of 2009, journalist Marc Savlov explored some of the issues connected with the downtown presence of Caritas, the Salvation Army, and the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH) and found that…
Unfortunately, the location of all three major social services outreach groups — smack in the middle of the entertainment district and within a one-block radius of both a major liquor store and the long strip of rowdy, alcohol-fueled nightlife — has inevitably drawn fire from Sixth Street area merchants and stakeholders, pleading, “Not in our front yard.”
At the same time, plans were being made for an extensive downtown re-do centered around Waller Creek. Users of the Yelp website discussed it at length, and one person pointed out the irony of attempting to get rid of the homeless residents so the “post frat drunken tourist district” could flourish and, no doubt, create more homeless people, as both drinking and gambling have been known to have that exact result.
In 2011, the Waller Creek Conservancy announced an international competition for a master design plan. Members of the public commented that the area would still be a “giant alky toilet” and vowed that “the bums will have to be driven out.”
A local landowner named Carl Daywood told the press:
You can have all the dreams in the world of what Waller Creek is to be like, but it’s not going to happen if we don’t deal with the transient population. The City Council needs to step up to the plate and pass stronger laws and insist that the police enforce them and the judges back them up.
Two years later, nothing had been solved and the First United Methodist Church sent out a distress call. It was providing services for people experiencing homelessness, but because of the lack of public restrooms, the church property was acquiring an “overpowering” smell of urine. Because of the same lack, certain businesses take the brunt of the inconvenience, like chain coffee shops that are open when overnight shelters turn their patrons out into the streets.
One school of thought holds that all restrooms located in businesses should be available to anyone. This is unlikely to happen, because the NIMBY, or “Not In My Back Yard,” sentiment only becomes more intense with “Not In My Bathroom, Yo.”
A politician suggested that churches should take over bathroom duty. Imagine a future in which churches are both punished for feeding people, and at the same time pressured to provide access to their restrooms. The same guy recommended that people should pester whatever staff members are on duty at the shelter during its officially closed daytime hours.
House the Homeless President Richard R. Troxell works at ARCH, providing pro bono legal help for clients. If put in charge of the bodily functions problem, what would he do? He says:
First, as Toilet Czar I would encourage all the employers on famed 6th Street to act as Ambassadors, and to open up their facilities to all users regardless of gender, etc. And I would place portable toilets at park and trail heads and recreation areas.
Private citizens would have access through pay-as-you-use coin operation. Homeless individuals would acquire tokens from any of the shelters or service organizations upon request.
Then I would create automatic toilets that would have deep sink facilities and cell phone charging capabilities. These would be drawing cards to encourage people to leave the creek areas for washing and defecation purposes. There would be visibly open bottoms so users would be discouraged from inappropriate activity.
Periodically, the toilets would automatically lock to outside access at stated times. After 20 minutes, an internal flush system would hose down the facility three times a day.
We should seek funds from the Restaurant Association, the local Chamber of Commerce, Health and Human Services, the Municipality (the City of Austin), Parks and Recreation Department (and therefore the sporting goods industry), the federal government under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, and the Centers for Disease Control.
Source: “Human feces map finds San Francisco’s homeless,” NYPost.com, 01/02/15
Source: “Homeless America: ‘Everyone should be able to pee for free with dignity’,” AlJazeera.com, 08/29/14
Source: “Faces of Homelessness,” AustinChronicle.com, 10/09/09
Source: “Will the Waller Creek Development be the death of Red River music scene?,” Yelp.com, October 2009
Source: “Private conservancy outlines plan to rescue, revive Waller Creek,” Statesman, 04/27/11
Source: “Homeless need restrooms,” MyStatesman.com, 11/01/13
Photo credit: apple_lipsis via Visualhunt/CC BY