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Austin and the Homeless in 2013

AustinHouse the Homeless is a powerful presence in Austin, Texas. The nonprofit organization and its president, Richard R. Troxell, are constantly at the forefront of the effort to help everyone have a good and productive life. Richard holds the invincible belief that America could end homelessness within its borders, and the only thing standing in the way is the lack of political will to do so.

As always, at the top of the list is the need for a living wage indexed to the local cost of housing, one that covers (at very least) the necessities of shelter, food and clothing. He is convinced of the necessity to change two federal standards, the minimum wage and Supplemental Security Income — which means businesses taking care of the people who work, and SSI taking care of people who can’t work.

On the local level, plenty of progress could be made right now by adopting the policy of “Discharge No One into Homelessness,” which would apply to every institution — the military, hospitals, the foster care system, the prison system and so on — and ensure that no one leaving any of those places would be ejected into the streets.

House the Homeless released the report entitled “Prevent Homelessness at Its Core: 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness, Restore Human Dignity and Save Business and Taxpayers $ Millions!” This White Paper was sent to the President and First Lady, all the members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, and many governors, Cabinet members and other influential people.

Additionally, when funding is acquired, the plan is to send it to every mayor in the country. They are the ones responsible for building shelters in their towns, and making laws that apply to people experiencing homelessness. They are the ones who have to deal with their local hospital emergency rooms being filled with homeless people who have no health care alternative. Hopefully, individual mayors will petition the Conference of Mayors to do something, and the Conference of Mayors will petition Congress for relief in the cities. If only 14 mayors (just 1% of their number) would speak up, that would make a significant difference.

Speaking up

Richard has been a staunch voice every time a journalist needs perspective on such things as an apparent hate crime or a renewed effort by the city to make the lives of homeless  people more miserable. Recently, he wrote:

Our nation is relying on an all-volunteer military to protect the people of this nation and maintain the stability of the entire planet. We have failed to protect the protectors. In so doing, we have disgraced our nation and failed our Veterans who have selflessly sacrificed everything to ensure our freedom. House the Homeless calls for a full scale Congressional investigation into all allegations of mismanagement, abuse and neglect. The entire VA Disability program needs to be investigated by the United States Attorney General and placed in Special Receivership.

Strong words! Why would he say that? Among other things, remember the gigantic backlog in processing all veterans’ disability claims? If not, please review “Homelessness and the Disabled American Veterans Agenda.” Recently, we looked at the situation in Austin, thanks in part to the journalistic enterprise of Jeremy Schwartz of the Austin American-Statesman, which resulted in Bell County hiring a veterans services officer decades after the law required it. Why did it take a national scandal to implement this?

Reactions?

Image by Señor Codo

 

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Memorial – Why Do the Homeless Die?

House the Homeless Memorial TreeAustin’s annual Homeless Memorial Sunrise Service is coming up on the 17th at 6:57 a.m. It will be held at Auditorium Shores, at South First and Riverside Drive (on the south side of Lady Bird Lake). For people anywhere in the area, that’s the important thing to know, so it’s right here at the top. The custom is for someone to read the names of all the homeless people who died in Austin in the past year. Last year 156 names were read.

Other cities with hearts hold similar events, of course, and there are poverty-related deaths in every large city. People who live on the streets, in makeshift camps and even in official shelters are vulnerable in so many ways. Malnutrition is almost a certainty, and starvation a possibility. Lack of food is considered the least newsworthy cause of death and suffering on the streets, with violent deaths and assaults attracting far more attention. For instance, Young Lee, co-founder of the Pinkberry frozen yogurt company, could be sentenced to as many as seven years for brutally beating a homeless man with a tire iron in Los Angeles. Allegedly, Lee also tried to intimidate witnesses. Depending on who tells the story, there may have been provocation, but the violence was certainly not unavoidable.

A recent headline reads, “It Is Illegal To Feed The Homeless In Cities All Over The United States.” What happened in Raleigh, N.C., this August when members of the Love Wins organization attempted to continue their years-long practice of bringing breakfast sandwiches and coffee to hungry people? An uncredited author relates the story:

On that morning three officers from Raleigh Police Department prevented us from doing our work, for the first time ever. An officer said, quite bluntly, that if we attempted to distribute food, we would be arrested.

Our partnering church brought 100 sausage biscuits and large amounts of coffee. We asked the officers for permission to disperse the biscuits to the over 70 people who had lined up, waiting to eat. They said no. I had to face those who were waiting and tell them that I could not feed them, or I would be arrested.

In Denver, a charming law “makes it illegal for anyone to sleep or sit and cover themselves against the elements with anything except their clothing.” The presence of a blanket turns the offense into unauthorized camping, punishable by a fine or up to a year in jail. Flagstaff, Ariz., made news when an undercover police officer with nothing better to do than harass the homeless arrested a 77-year-old woman who asked for bus money. As the Love Wins writer points out, more than 50 large cities in America now have anti-camping and/or anti-food sharing laws.

Sometimes the goal appears to be to get the homeless people to go away. Apparently the heartless politicians that are passing these laws believe that if the homeless can’t get any more free food and if they keep getting thrown into prison for “illegal camping” they will eventually decide to go somewhere else where they won’t be hassled so much.

In Boise, Idaho, the American Civil Liberties Union is engaged in a federal lawsuit, “arguing that the city’s recently-passed anti-panhandling ordinance was in violation of the First Amendment…” While the the mayor’s office characterizes the law as “carefully crafted to prevent aggressive solicitation while still ensuring the protection of all citizens’ right to free speech,” ACLU board member Erika Birch disagrees:

The ordinance criminalizes certain speech and expression and specifically restricts words that a person can use in the City of Boise, particularly in the downtown core area. It goes too far and violates constitutionally [protected] speech.

The venerable organization has also succeeded in having Michigan’s anti-begging law, which has been in place for 85 years, declared unconstitutional. TakePart.com adds:

Just this year, the ACLU sued on behalf of homeless men and women opposing begging bans in Indianapolis, Indiana and Worcester, Massachusetts, among other cities, also as violations of free speech and peacefully soliciting money in public. The ACLU of Colorado sued the city of Colorado Springs last November, and an injunction was granted to stop their downtown panhandling ban until it was repealed in March.

The city council of Columbia, S.C., got off on the wrong foot earlier this fall by unanimously voting that people experiencing homelessness should be collected and sequestered in a 240-bed camp outside of town. They would be unable to leave without permission, and the place didn’t even have cooking facilities when this ambitious plan was set to begin. If they didn’t want to go there, the alternative would be jail. But even the police, who would be responsible for the rounding up and guarding, backed away from implementation. The interim police chief, Ruben Santiago, stated:

Homelessness is not a crime. We can’t just take people to somewhere they don’t want to go. I can’t do that. I won’t do that.

So the new plan is to give people a van ride to the shelter and let them stay as long as a week, voluntarily, while workers try to sort out how they can best be helped. The city also promises to install public restrooms and trash cans, and to institute a homeless court.

Hart Island

Bonus Homeless Death Trivia

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan, writing for Gizmodo, reported on a place whose existence is little known: a tiny island in New York City called Hart Island, “the largest publicly funded cemetery in the world.” In this modern-day potter’s field, there is one deceased person for every eight currently living New Yorkers. Their number is pretty darn close to a million, and a lot of them died homeless.

Currently run by the Department of Corrections, the mass graveyard is closed to the public and infamous for lousy record-keeping. If you were wondering whether prisoners bury the dead, the answer is yes. They do the final honors, presumably with the awareness that they will likely end up in this very same mass grave. A criminal record is practically a guarantee of lifelong unemployment. Furthermore, even working stiffs can’t afford places to live. A lot of both kinds of people end up homeless, so you do the math.

As a warning, the grim assignment is ineffective. No matter how sincerely a prisoner might intend to change his ways, the topography of society rarely permits a new start down a different path. Everyone chosen for this work detail has an excellent chance of winding up at the other end of a Hart Island shovel.

Reactions?

Source: “Pinkberry Co-Founder Convicted of Beating Homeless Man With Tire Iron,” Gawker.com, 11/08/13
Source: “It Is Illegal To Feed The Homeless In Cities All Over The United States,” JewsNews.co.il, 11/08/13
Source: “Urban Camping Ticket Issued to Woman for Trying to Stay Warm,” denverhomelessoutloud.org, 11/02/13
Source: “ACLU Sues City of Boise Over Anti-Panhandling Ordinance,” BoiseWeekly.com, 11/04/13
Source: “The Crime of Poverty: Some Homeless People Face Arrest for Asking for Help,” TakePart.com, 10/09/13
Source: “Columbia, South Carolina Rescinds Decision To Criminalize Homelessness,” HuffingtonPost.com, 09/09/13
Source: “What We Found at Hart Island, The Largest Mass Grave Site In the U.S.,” Gizmodo.com, 11/07/13
Image by David Trawin

 

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Happening Now: War on the Poor

War on the Poor

Today, problems aren’t solved, they’re attacked. Like the War on Poverty. Remember that? I’m happy to report that it’s finally over. The poor people have all surrendered.
– Swami Beyondananda

Yes, there used to be a thing called the War on Poverty, declared by a president named Lyndon B. Johnson. Although opinions about it differ, still, the War on Poverty was preferable to what we have now — the War on the Poor.

It’s not even an undeclared war, it’s right out there in the open. In different communities, the authorities come at it in different ways, sometimes direct, but often tangential, which is more difficult for homeless advocates to deal with. House the Homeless blog has reported extensively on the No-Sit, No-Lie Ordinance in its home city of Austin, Texas, and on similar measures in other places.

In a recent article for TakePart.com, Solvej Schou expressed concern that peaceful begging, just asking for food or money with no aggression involved, is increasingly being criminalized by anti-panhandling and anti-solicitation laws now in effect in nearly 200 American cities.

Alley Valkyrie, an activist in Eugene, Oregon, received a criminal trespass citation for touching a planter box outside a restaurant and made national news by publicizing the incident as an example of how selective enforcement can make life miserable for people experiencing homelessness. Also, Eugene has something called an “exclusion law” whereby a judge can ban from the city center people accused, but not even yet convicted, of certain crimes. This prevents folks in need from accessing services, and basically from even existing in the designated area, even though they are not officially guilty of anything.

Things are still hot in Miami, Florida, where just last month a federal judge heard ACLU attorneys argue against modification of the Pottinger Settlement Agreement, a piece of legislation peculiar to Miami. Around 15 years ago, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the city on behalf of all its people experienceing homelessness. The organization’s website says:

The landmark settlement — won after a decade of litigation involving two trials, two appeals, and nearly two years of mediation — protects homeless individuals from being harassed or arrested by law enforcement for the purpose of driving them from public areas.

Law Professor Stephen Schnably, who has been involved with this matter all along, adds:

Transforming downtown into a constitution-free zone for homeless people is a Faustian bargain with no payoff. Eviscerating the Pottinger protections — what the City is effectively seeking — would do nothing to make downtown more vibrant. All it would do is strip homeless people of the basic human and constitutional right not to be arrested or have their property destroyed just for being homeless.

Also last month, Memphis, TN, looked bad when a program called Room in the Inn, which provides one night of shelter for several individuals, was forbidden at a Methodist church in a neighborhood called Evergreen which had planned to participate. In order to have overnight guests, you see, a church must own at least five acres of property. In Spartanburg, SC, a church made itself look bad by refusing help from local atheists who wanted to volunteer at its soup kitchen. The atheists responded by deciding instead to distribute packets of health and grooming aids from a location across the street.

In Anaheim, CA, the city council went full speed ahead with the unanimous passing of an ordinance which “imposes a ban on camping in parks and other public spaces while allowing for the confiscation of property deemed abandoned.” In practical terms this means that the belongings of people experiencing homelessness can be seized and destroyed by the police while the owner is eating, showering, or using a restroom.

That battle has already been fought and won in Los Angeles, where the Ninth Circuit court decided that stealing such property violates the victims’ 4th and 14th Amendment rights, but Anaheim is going for it anyway. Even at the best of times, less than half of the city’s people experiencing homelessness can fit into the local shelter, but that does not stop Anaheim from attempting to make public sleeping a crime.

Learn at a glance

For an instantaneous education in the current state of homelessness, please consult the infographic.”Gimme Shelter: Homeless in America,” curated by Roslyn Willson. As would reasonably be expected in this genre, the facts are presented in visually elegant terms. The presentation format is especially journalist-friendly, with everything repeated in plain text, making it easy for a reporter or blogger to quote something. Well played, Ms. Willson! The same technique is shared by another infographic, “The War Against the Homeless,” so please check out both of them and see what you’ve been missing.

Source: “The Crime of Poverty: Some Homeless People Face Arrest for Asking for Help,” TakePart.com, 10/09/13
Source: “Activists: trespass tickets aimed at homeless,” KVAL.com, 03/10/12
Source: “ACLU of Florida Defends Historic Agreement Protecting Miami’s Homeless from Police Harassment in Federal Court,” ACLUFL.org, 10/23/13
Source: “City code stops certain churches from housing the homeless,” WMCTV.com, 10/25/13
Source: “Christianity makes monsters of people, part two: atheists banned from helping the homeless,” Freethinker.co.uk, 10/27/13
Source: “ACLU: Anaheim’s Anti-Homeless Crackdown Legally “Disingenuous’,” OCWeekly.com, 10/28/13
Image by Occupy.

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The Year in Homeless Veteran Housing, Part 3

Homeless Vet @ Ferry BuildingLet’s see, where did we leave off? With the Veterans Administration finally fixing up some derelict buildings on bitterly-contested land in the middle of Los Angeles. Elsewhere in the sprawling metropolis, an apartment complex is under construction, meant to house chronically homeless disabled vets age 62 and over.

This is happening in Boyle Heights, a heavily ethnic and very low-income area bordered by Chinatown, Downtown, and East LA. Astonishingly, the neighborhood contains “opponents of affordable housing” who stalled the project in the typical ways and for the typical reasons.

Gloria Angelina Castillo described the objectors’ point of view:

They oppose such projects because they do not give priority to local residents and because they exclude undocumented immigrants in the mostly Latino community, while bringing in the homeless from other parts of the city. They in turn draw their homeless associates to loiter in the area. Residents worry that the chronically homeless suffer from mental illness…

We’re only talking about 32 one-bedroom units, and tenants probably too tired and broken to get up to much mischief, or even to entertain much company. Besides, there will be support, such as on-site case management and mental health services. The two main groups involved are the East LA Community Corporation (ELACC) and New Directions for Veterans, Inc., with additional help from the LA County Department of Military Affairs, Department of Veteran Affairs, the East L YMCA, and Behavioral Health Services.

The intentions are honorable, but this is not quite yet a success story, because the facility is expected to be complete in a year, and who knows what could happen between now and then. As this is being written, the government is in paralysis, and quite a few projects and people are suffering already.

As House the Homeless has mentioned before, a homeless woman veteran can be a special problematic case. For instance, one or more dependent children may be experiencing homelessness along with her. But there are other, less obvious reasons. Reporter Susan Abram learned from Michelle Wildy of the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System:

Many women, when we initially outreach to them, may not even identify themselves as veterans. They still think of that stereotype of a man coming back from war.

There are also vets of both sexes who assume that to be eligible for any benefits at all, they would have to be a “lifer” with a 20-year career behind them. Wildy is part of an outreach team that spends time in Hollywood and the beach communities of Venice and Santa Monica looking for female veterans in danger of being left behind, who need to know they have earned the same care and benefits as men. A typical team consists of a social worker, a psychiatrist, a nurse practitioner, and a formerly homeless veteran.

The formation of such teams was spurred by the realization that the greater Los Angeles area contained around 1,000 homeless women vets. Since their inception, 3,000 homeless veterans have been housed, of whom 10% were women, which means roughly 300 out of the identified 1,000. Of the national scene, Abram says:

With some federal funds from the Obama administration’s ‘Opening Doors’ initiative, the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) Program has given projects like Wildy’s a boost in finding housing and assistance to homeless veterans.

This year, the HUD-VASH program received $75 million in federal funding to continue to offer rental assistance from HUD with case management and clinical services provided by the VA.

In all, 58,140 vouchers have been awarded since 2008 and 43,371 formerly homeless veterans are in homes of their own across the country because of HUD-VASH, federal officials have said.

Last month, a Los Angeles Daily News editorial brought up what they call a “national embarrassment”and characterize as the government’s ineffectiveness in the face of such extensive veteran homelessness. It’s not so much a general criticism as a problem with one particular matter. The newspaper wants the governor, Jerry Brown, to sign something called AB 639. The result would be an opportunity in the upcoming June 2014 elections for voters to signify approval of redirecting and repurposing $600 million in funds that are just sitting around doing nothing.

From where did this money come? According to LA Daily News:

In 2008, California voters passed a $900 million bond for veterans’ home loans. Those funds, administered by the state’s Veterans Affairs Department, have gone practically untouched because would-be veteran homeowners picked up loans with better interest rates on the open market. Meantime, nearly half of $500 million from a similar 2000 voter-approved bond measure is still unspent. That’s more than a billion dollars meant to help homeless vets but sitting idle.

Never mind reserving it for mortgages, let’s use it to build or create or find housing for homeless veterans who need places to live right now, along with health services and job services — supportive care — to help them get back on their feet. This is what the authors of the piece want. To bolster their argument, they reference:

[...] a report by the Economic Roundtable and the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority that estimates a homeless person living in a place where they can access supportive services costs the public 79 percent less than they do on the streets.

Okay, ready for some good news? Jaime Henry-White has some from Atlanta, Georgia, a city that appears to have figured out a few things, inspired by the federal “Opening Doors” initiative. The most recent survey counted some 6,000 people experiencing homelessness in metro Atalanta, and since the state ranked second in homeless veterans, an program that helps the homeless will include a lot of vets.

Better yet, the city’s “Unsheltered No More” program is also on board with the “housing first” concept. Check this out:

The city is well on its way to meeting its goal of finding homes for 800 people this year, with already more than 700 in homes… Atlanta housed more homeless veterans than any other city participating in the nationwide challenge while also speeding up placement process by one-third… The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing voucher program provides rental assistance, case management and clinical services for homeless veterans through the departments and community-based outreach… Recent analysis from Atlanta’s local housing authority found that veterans permanently housed through the HUD-VASH voucher program had an average retention rate of 95 percent.

Way to go, Atlanta! May you continue to excel, and may other cities benefit from your fine example!

Reactions?

Source: “Chronically Homeless Vets to Get Homes in Boyle Heights,” EGPNews, 10/03/13
Source: “LA program targets homeless women vets,” LA Daily News, 09/29/13
Source: “A billion in unspent aid isn’t helping homeless vets: Editorial,” LA Daily News, 09/24/13
Source: “Atlanta logs dramatic turnaround in homelessness,” TwinCities.com, 09/29/13
Image by Vera Yu and David Lee.

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The Year in Homeless Veteran Housing, Part 2

The Year in Homeless Veteran Housing, Part 2

The Department of Veterans Affairs aims to end veteran homelessness by 2015, and one of the tools to do this job is the voucher system administered by the Veterans Affairs Supporting Housing Program (VASH) and Housing and Urban Development (HUD). California journalist Debra Gruszecki writes:

Riverside County Supervisors Jeff Stone and John Tavaglione challenged housing staff though a ‘Valor Initiative’ to find permanent homes for 135 veterans within 100 days… ‘We ended up housing 140,’ said Carrie Harmon, a specialist with the Housing Authority of Riverside County… Within the pool of 140 veterans, 110 are in apartments or single-family homes. The rest are in permanent supportive housing centers.

In and around Los Angeles, landlords are collecting $4.2 million per year in rental subsidies. The tenants themselves pay reduced amounts. For instance, a Navy vet featured in Gruszecki’s story is only liable for $286 of his own rent per month. A military aircraft mechanic, he had intended to make a career of it, but suffered a knee injury and combat PTSD during a tour of duty in Iraq.

Back in the States, he lost the woman he had been in a relationship with, and was prevented from contacting his kids. He met up with street drugs, and lost the car he had been living in. After attaining sobriety and maintaining it for seven months, he was chosen by the program for housing and help with the rent.

But it’s not just about money. Gruszecki says the program is:

[...] in partnership with agencies that include US Vets, Roy’s Desert Resource Center, Jewish Family Services, Coachella Valley Rescue Mission, Department of Mental Health, Valley Restart Center, Lighthouse Social Service Centers and the Southern California Veterans Alliance…

One result of this social-service backup system is that, in case of problems, a landlord has someone besides a possibly unstable tenant to deal with.

For better or worse, California is a thought leader. Things start there and spread. What happens in California is important because it’s huge, with around 16,500 homeless veterans, about half of them in the southern part of the state where Los Angeles is. Over the years there has been fierce debate over the land and facilities in the middle of LA, that are supposed to belong to America’s veterans.

One of the contested issues has been the fate of some 60-year-old buildings belonging to the Sepulveda Ambulatory Care Center, that were damaged in a 1994 earthquake and closed down. Christina Villacorte writes:

Over the last decade, several community organizations, neighborhood councils, and government officials opposed the project, including Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Sherman Oaks, because developers did not initially plan to offer the units exclusively to homeless veterans, and were also open to having tenants that were not yet clean or sober…

The 400-square-foot units are designated for veterans who had lived on the streets and tried to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder and other injuries by abusing drugs or alcohol, but have since embraced sobriety.

So the “housing first” principle lost out in this project. Anyway, the properties have been rehabilitated by the nonprofit housing developer A Community of Friends and another nonprofit, New Directions for Veterans. The complex, which opened a few weeks ago, is described as a “permanent supportive housing facility for formerly homeless, disabled and low-income military veterans.” Residents pay no more than 30% of their income, or up to $435 monthly, and the tax funds allotted to veterans take care of the rest.

The development includes 147 studio apartments, each of which cost $320,000 to create. It seems like a lot of money for 400 square feet, which is, like, 20′ by 20′. Many homes in Los Angeles have closets bigger than that. Of course there are also common areas, the price of which must be averaged in, but it still seems like quite a price tag. There are places where $320,000 could buy a decent house with a yard and garage. Maybe the necessity for earthquake-proofing explains the extraordinary cost per unit.

(To be continued…)

Reactions?

Source: “Homeless Veterans: 140 housed in 100 days,” pe.com, 09/25/13
Source: “Once homeless vets now have a place to call their own,” DailyNews.com, 09/27/13
Image by Boston Public Library.

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The Year in Homeless Veteran Housing

vacant housesIn April, the Associated Press reported that Operation Stand Down Rhode Island opened six service-enriched homes for veterans. In May, Fran Daniel reported on the plans in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to rehabilitate a set of apartments, mostly for military veterans. In Forsyth County, there was already a 24-bed transitional housing program that allowed up to two years residency for homeless vets working to get back on their feet.

The apartment remodeling project represented a branching-out on the part of Whole Man Ministries, which maintained a church, a food bank, a clothing bank, a computer lab, an after-school program for kids, and a mentoring programs for prisoners, but had never before attempted to house the homeless. The organization bought two duplexes that had been scheduled for demolition and began fixing them up to create four apartments, one equipped for handicap access.

Help was solicited from local carpenters, plumbers, and businesses. The city’s director of community and business development, Ritchie Brooks, voiced to the press concerns felt by many local residents:

Generally if you can get volunteers and have some good supervision or a good contractor, you can make it through the rehab pretty successfully. But after that rehab, it’s the management portion that would still be of a concern — being able to adequately do that so that it’s not going to be a burden or have some negative impact on the community.

In June, Habitat for Humanity began an initiative called Veterans Build and took over the National Mall in the nation’s capital to build seven house frames which would later be moved to local sites and finished. The same week, C. Andrew McCawley, CEO of Boston’s New England Center for Homeless Veterans, wrote for publication about his own state, which contained an estimated 1,200 homeless vets at any give time, and the national scene:

The country is now more than halfway into a dedicated five-year campaign to end veterans’ homelessness, and a 20 percent reduction has been achieved nationwide, with select states, such as Massachusetts, demonstrating even greater progress. The state’s plan is a comprehensive strategy and course of action with the explicit goal of ending veterans’ homelessness in Massachusetts by the end of 2015.

Massachusetts has broken its goal down into four main areas:

Implement a housing strategy to re-house and stabilize veterans who become homeless
Ensure veterans who are most at risk of homelessness remain housed to prevent homelessness
Increase access to benefits and resources for veterans through greater intervention
Align and integrate federal, state, and community resources to support veterans through effective partnerships.

In the same month, news came from Florida that the Lee County Homeless Coalition got together with other agencies to do something about chronically homeless veterans, in other words, the individuals who had been on the streets for the longest time, chalking up bills in emergency rooms because of their medical conditions including addiction. First, the needlessly complicated local housing voucher system was streamlined. But here is the important part:

Coalition members are referring all veteran clients to Veteran Affairs outreach. Permanent housing options are being identified using a Housing First approach centered on providing people experiencing homelessness with housing as quickly as possible, then providing services as needed.

Housing First a winning idea

In city after city, the idea is slowly catching on that plenty of taxpayer money can be saved by identifying the most needy and service-intensive people and getting them help. With “housing first,” expenses are markedly reduced, and there is more money left over to distribute among other housing efforts.

Perhaps the most egregious example was seen in Fresno, California, where a man died in January who had called for an ambulance on a daily or sometimes twice-daily basis for almost a year, accruing hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of charges. If he had been placed in services-enriched housing, the taxpayers and the hospital would both be in better financial shape.

The “housing first” principle was illustrated to the citizens of Saskatoon, in Canada’s Saskatchewan Province, where a study concentrating on 23 chronically homeless individuals showed that their care was costing $2.8 million per year, divided between emergency room visits, psychiatric hospital visits, ambulance trips, overnight detox visits, and jail stays. Knowledge that $2 million could be saved by providing services-enriched housing for just this small number inspired United Way to turn its efforts in the “housing first” direction.

(To be continued…)

Reactions?

Source: “Local nonprofit organization to rehab apartments for homeless veterans,” Winston-Salem Journal, 05/12/13
Source: “Habitat for Humanity building homes for homeless vets on National Mall,” MyFoxDC.com, 06/02/13
Source: “Ending homelessness for veterans,” Boston.com, 06/03/13
Source: “Help for homeless veterans : 50 homes in 100 days,” WinkNews.com, 06/12/13
Source: “Housing 23 homeless saves taxpayers $2M,” TheStarPhoenix.com, 06/14/13
Image by unknown.

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And Still More Ways to Become Homeless

Homeless (green)Songwriters Lou and Peter Berryman wrote a song in 2004 whose message is, unfortunately, still spot-on today. The lyrics suggest an astonishing number of ways to become homeless, and really the best idea would be to go to this page and marvel over the whole list. (It’s the first item in the “Comments” section.)

But here’s a sample:

One runaway truck, one slip in the muck
One stretch of bad luck: Homelessness
One family feud, one litigious old prude
One long bad mood: Homelessness
One toaster too hot, one investment that’s not
One tiny blood clot: Homelessness

Earlier this month, Mark and Sharon Ames and their three daughters moved from a cramped apartment into a rental house they had found via Craigslist, in a community near Los Angeles. They paid the $2,000 move-in stake and signed a lease. Then, wrote Kennedy Ryan of KTLA5:

On Wednesday, a woman identifying herself as the real property manager showed up at the home with a police officer and told them they had to leave immediately because they were trespassing.

The officer gave the Ames family less than an hour to vacate and stood over them while they gathered their possessions. They signed into a motel, and KTLA5 kindly published their electronic contact information in case anyone was inspired to help.

Eleanor Goldberg of The Huffington Post picked up the story and added even more disheartening details. The real landlord gratuitously had the family’s van towed, and as anyone who has ever gone through the hassle and expense of reclaiming a vehicle from the California police knows, that alone can ruin your entire month.

The scam artist found the Ames couple easy to fleece, because they both face extra challenges in dealing with life. Mark is an amputee with a prosthetic leg, and Sharon is a PTSD-disabled veteran. Ironically, Mark has done volunteer service with an organization that helps the homeless. Through their own difficulties and life experience, they understand that things can’t always be done in the conventional way:

They fell for the scam in part, Mark said, because the fake landlord preyed on their vulnerabilities. She told them that a major car accident had left her disabled and unable to talk on the phone. The two dealt with the paperwork completely through email…

… And ended up homeless.

Ready for a laugh?

For comic relief, here is a quote from the archives of writer Heather Murdock:

A Rwandan government program to stop people living in thatched houses as part of a plan to alleviate poverty left hundreds of Batwa Pygmy families homeless…

But that kind of stuff only happens in “developing” third-world countries, not in an enlightened and progressive place like the United States. Right?

Remember Hurricane Katrina, and all the people it made homeless, and how some of them were loaned FEMA trailers to live in? By December of 2010, there were still 221 of these trailers in New Orleans, still occupied by people who as yet, for whatever reasons, had no other place to live. City officials called them a blight, and warned the residents to get out or pay heavy fines amounting to $500 per day. The following month, Julianne Hing reported:

The trailers were never designed to be permanent housing. Many who stayed in them years after the storm stuck around not out of choice; they had nowhere else to go. For many in New Orleans, such remains the case today… With these final FEMA eviction notices, [Mayor] Landrieu sends the message that he’s determined to beautify the city, if not address housing accessibility issues for people who most need help.

Hing quoted Lance Hill of the Southern Institute for Education and Research:

The blight eradication program, if not done correctly, can become a poor-person eradication program.

It wasn’t until a year later that the last trailer left New Orleans. In the meantime, another story came from the beleaguered city, of an employed 58-year-old woman named Barbara Gabriel who had lived in a Housing Authority apartment since 1975. Her errant nephew was arrested for selling drugs, and gave her address to the police. So the Housing Authority prepared to throw her out. Blair S. Walker reported:

‘I did not give him permission to use my address,’ says Gabriel… ‘He doesn’t live with me and he is not on my lease.’ Gabriel had been targeted under a ‘one strike and you’re out’ policy established by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1996. ‘One strike’ allows housing authorities to evict tenants following one drug-related offense.

Even if the legal tenant knew nothing about it and had nothing to do with it. So remember the chilling refrain of the Berrymans’ song:

And don’t forget, it’s sad but true
Next time around it could be you

Reactions?

Source: “A portrait of Connecticut’s homeless,” Courant.com, 02/09/11
Source: “Family of 5 Homeless After Craigslist Rental Scam,” KTLA.com, 09/03/13
Source: “Vet with PTSD, Amputee Husband and Their 3 Kids Homeless,” The Huffington Post, 09/13/13
Source: “Rwandan Government Program to End Thatched Housing Leaves Pygmies Homeless,” Bloomberg.com, 05/31/11
Source: “New Orleans Dumps FEMA Trailers — and Maybe the People in Them,” Truth-Out.org, 01/04/11
Source: “Eviction Threat, for No Reason,” AARP.org, 09/01/10
Image by Bart Everson.

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Heroes on the Homeless Front

Homeless man in my basementTwenty years ago, Dr. Roseanna Means looked around Boston and didn’t much care for what she saw – homeless women on the streets. She started volunteering at homeless health clinics, and in 1998 started her own nonprofit, Women of Means, which now encompasses a team of 16 volunteer doctors who collectively chalk up 10,000 professional visits per year with women experiencing homelessness.

For CBS News, Elaine Quijano learned what inspired such activism. Dr. Means told the reporter:

When I see these women, I see this could be me, it could be you, It could it could be any one of us, because there’s nobody that goes through life without having any problems. My own personal life, I’ve been through cancer, I lost a child, I’ve been through divorce, I have steel knees — I’ve been through lots of personal things in my life.

Last year, the same news agency profiled another Massachusetts medic, Dr. Jessie Gaeta of Quincy. This success story, reported by Seth Doane, merits close attention from other cities. Working in the emergency room at the Boston Medical Center made one thing very clear to Dr. Gaeta — for many homeless patients, it was a “revolving door.” She is quoted here:

It wasn’t until I had just a couple of patients housed that I saw this turnaround in their health. Basically I was seeing that if I could write a prescription for keys to an apartment that that was going to do more to improve the health of the patient sitting in front me than the prescription I can write for anything else.

In 2006, Dr. Gaeta got state funding for the program known as “Home and Healthy For Good,” which espouses the “housing first” principle, i.e., first get the person under a roof and between some walls, then bring on the counseling, substance abuse programs, and other measures (a model embraced by House the Homeless at its inception in 1989, as may be guessed from the name).

Here’s what happened in Massachusetts, and watch out, because this part will knock your socks off:

The program has helped reduce homelessness by 63 percent in Quincy and has also cut medical costs for formerly homeless people by more than two-thirds.

‘It was astonishing that a year into this project, we saw such a decrease in medical costs, that we could basically more than afford to pay for the housing,’ said Gaeta.

The “Housing First” philosophy is based on the concept of meeting people where they are, and the reason it works is because where they are is really the only place at which people can be met, no matter how fervently opponents might wish it were otherwise. We hear it again, from Ken Stevens of Waterville, Maine, who says:

My mission is meeting people at their point of need.

The North East Dream Center is where it happens, we are told by journalist Amy Calder. Volunteers pick up or drop off donations for the food warehouse. “Unemployable” people experiencing homelessness and ex-convicts are set to work making furniture and learning skills. Clothes and counseling are also available. The furniture sales help pay for gas to get more donated food so Stevens and his crew can deliver it to food pantries, soup kitchens, and senior citizens all over the surrounding area.

Now Stevens, with the help of Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce president Kimberly N. Lindlof and other supporters, is raising money for a larger space where these activities can continue with the addition of more ambitious plans. Calder writes:

A big part of the plan is to launch a manufacturing incubator that would provide administrative support and space for 20 startup businesses, as well as jobs and training for people, including those who are ‘unemployable.’

When asked if he has formal training to run such an enterprise, Stevens answers:

Yes. I got trained by the best — God’s spirit.

Reactions?

Source: “Boston doctor’s kindness helps save homeless,” CBS News, 04/23/13
Source: “Mass. doctor’s prescription for homelessness,” CBS News, 02/23/12
Source: “From homeless and hopeless to vital link in the food pantry chain,” KJOnline.com, 03/24/13
Image by Matt Lemon.

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KFC Says, Get a Job — LOL!

Kentucky Fried ChickenLast June, this Question & Answer appeared in the online forum ExpertLaw.com:

Question:

Is it legal for an employer to deny employment to an individual who they consider otherwise qualified, if it is discovered that the individual currently lives in a homeless shelter?

Short answer: yes. Neither federal anti-discrimination laws nor most state anti-discrimination laws preclude disparate treatment/employment discrimination against individuals residing in a homeless shelter. (ESteele, Senior Member)

A few weeks ago, in Tupelo, MS, after months of job-hunting, Eunice Jasica found work and seemed to be on track for the next phase of life — saving up to move out of the Salvation Army lodge. But when she reported for her first day on the job, fast-food franchise owner Chesley Ruff withdrew the offer of employment “due to lack of residence and transportation.”

Say what? Then, a couple of days later, the manager backpedaled and said his refusal to honor the hire was really because Ms. Jasica had no experience in the difficult and demanding field of fast-food preparation. Plus, he doubted that the 59-year-old woman could lift the 40-pound boxes in which the food arrives. So never mind, no job after all.

Adding insult to injury, he implied that the job applicant had misunderstood and was delusional about having been hired in the first place. This shabby treatment is legal according to both the great state of Mississippi and the Kentucky Fried Chicken corporation. Reporter Emily Le Coz writes:

KFC operates more than 5,200 restaurants nationwide and follows all applicable employment laws, but its independent franchisees make their own hiring decisions, said KFC Corp. spokesman Rick Maynard.

Mississippi is an at-will employment state. That means the employer or employee can terminate the relationship at any time for any reason as long as it doesn’t violate anti-discrimination statutes based on factors like race, age, color, religion, sex, national origin or disability.

In Tupelo, Maj. Sue Dorman of the Salvation Army was shocked, possibly because this didn’t fit with Mr. Ruff’s customary behavior. He had previously hired a man who was not only homeless but a former convict, who had done very well in the business, and whose success story had been featured in a newspaper. The same manager had also hired other Salvation Army residents in the past. Dorman called Ruff, who told it is not company policy to hire people who don’t have stable housing or transportation, which made it sound more like a corporate-level matter.

And indeed, when The Huffington Post made inquiries, Ruff had nothing to say, but referred questions to the chicken vendor’s head of media relations, Rick Maynard, who emailed:

KFC Corporation believes in a culture of respect toward all people, and we abide by all applicable employment laws. The restaurant in Tupelo is operated by an independent franchisee who shares our beliefs, but is responsible for making hiring decisions for the restaurant he owns.

So this was starting to resemble what is colloquially called a runaround. Meanwhile, the Huffington Post story garnered well over 1,000 comments from all over the map, both geographically and philosophically. Typical is the response of “EarthMonkey07,” who wrote:

So now in order to even get a job, you can’t appear to need it in any way? You need to already be employed (since the statistics say they won’t hire you if you’re already unemployed), housed (since they won’t hire you without an address), with transportation (they won’t hire you if you don’t have a vehicle) AND have a bank account (because they won’t hire you if you can’t do direct deposit). This is getting crazy.

Exactly. And the craziness is not exclusive to the USA. A report from a prominent organization in Great Britain, St. Mungo’s, revealed that two out of three homeless job seekers had been rejected for employment because of their homeless condition. Half had found the lack of a mailing address to be an obstacle, and two out of three lacked the appropriate clothing, tools or equipment for the jobs they applied for. Universally, even those who are lucky (or adept at hiding their true circumstances) find that the low-paying jobs they land do not come near to providing enough for housing anyway.

The really imposing feature of the St. Mungo’s report was the contrast between 1986 figures, showing that 83% of the homeless people surveyed then had some kind of paid employment, and their 2005 numbers, which revealed only 5% of their homeless clients holding jobs.

Meanwhile, because of the publicity surrounding this debacle, Ms. Jasica received several other job offers and was “tentatively hired” by On Time Transportation to drive Medicare and Medicaid patients to their doctors’ appointments. While this promises a happy ending for her particular story, many other homeless people throughout the country are not so fortunate.

Not surprisingly, House the Homeless has been involved in this struggle for years. Its Homeless Employment Survey of 2007 inspired the state of California to conduct a similar survey in 2009. Here is House the Homeless co-founder Richard R. Troxell’s candid response to Eunice Jasica’s plight:

Very sad. I for one am outraged! So while the Puritan Work Ethic remains intact for someone who has lost all of their worldly possessions, the compassion, empathy and love for one’s fellow human being has dissipated like water on the sidewalk. Shame on that franchise and shame on KFC for allowing this act of inhumanity to occur in their name. It’s only a matter of time before people will no longer accept this kind of treatment. Then what? There are 3.5 million people experiencing homelessness again this year.

In the Sacramento survey, 70% of the respondents identified the reason for their homeless condition as economic, 87% wanted to work and felt they were able to, and 42% identified their homelessness as the most significant barrier to working. Lack of transportation, as always, plays a big part in the employment equation. One of the recommendations resulting from this survey was:

Expand mail, email and voicemail services: We recommend universal coverage of a mailing address, email and voicemail services for homeless people to dramatically increase their chances for employment.

This excellent idea is, of course, one of the things that objectors are currently complaining about. They are against any plans that are put forward to provide cell phones to the homeless, because why should street people get fancy technology for free? And so it goes…

Reactions?

Source: “Q & A,” ExpertLaw.com, 06/06/12
Source: “Woman fired for being homeless,” ClarionLedger,com, 03/21/13
Source: “Eunice Jasica Claims KFC Franchise Reneged Job Offer…,The Huffington Post, 03/28/13
Source: “Hard Work for Homeless People,” samhsa.gov, 2005
Source: “Homeless Employment Report: Findings and Recommendations,” National Coalition for the Homeless, August 2009
Image by Joe Schlabotnik.

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Counting the Homeless in Austin

Jeff BridgesTo satisfy the federal requirement for the information that is needed to fairly distribute available funding, the people experiencing homelessness are counted every year. House the Homeless blog has taken an extended look at the “how” of the annual point-in-time count, which could be described as “different strokes for different folks.”

In a way, it’s good that communities can use different techniques, because if somebody discovers how to do it right, they can share that information. Just imagine, if one city could figure out how to correct the numerous flaws, and create a process that is humane, safe, dignified, and productive of justifiable results. If a community could demonstrate a good common-sense approach, their procedure would no doubt be gratefully adopted all across America.

In Texas, during the stipulated time period this January, 300 Austinites under the auspices of ECHO (Ending Community Homelessness Coalition) fanned out to enumerate the unhoused. At the beginning of February, a newspaper report stated that the number of homeless people in Travis County had decreased by 39% since 2008.

For the Austin American-Statesman, Andrea Ball learned that in the field of homelessness alleviation, despite favorable statistics, workers “on the ground” are sometimes unable to discern much improvement. Many advocates, like Alan Graham of Mobile Loaves and Fishes, question the usefulness of the annual count, saying it’s a faulty measure. He pointed out that conditions on the appointed count day may vary wildly from one year to the next. Success is influenced not only by the meteorological weather but by the law enforcement climate, which may at any particular time “crack down” in ways that drive the chronic homeless further into hiding.

In the original reportage there was some confusion about daily and weekly figures relating to shelter admissions in Austin. Apparently, the total of homeless people, inside and outside, amounted to less than the number of people who use the inside shelter in a single day. Much depends on these numbers, we are reminded by Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless.

Richard was invited to share his thoughts with radio station KLBJ-FM, and in preparation wrote out his thoughts, some of which are rather caustic:

Excellent news! The number of people experiencing homelessness has been dramatically reduced in Austin by 39% since 2008! Or so you think if you believe the front page headlines in The Austin American Statesman. It is not until you read the 3rd page of the story that you learn that the 2012 count of the homeless (2,121) in the woods, streets, and shelters was less than the actual daily number of people served in the shelters alone (between 2,650 and 2,750 on a daily basis).

Richard also asks how much sense it makes to count people at dusk or in the dark of night. He also finds the 24-hour concept to be flawed, and fears that trying to get it done all in one day is counterproductive. He writes:

Why don’t we count them over a two week period? Because the federal government is afraid of a possible multiple survey responses by homeless folks. The same people might fill out the questionnaire more than once, and skew the numbers. For starters, this assumes that anybody is willing to do it more than once. Do we really think that homeless folks will rush to complete multiple forms? They probably don’t even like doing it once. And the result is, the numbers are skewed even more.

We could best count the folks experiencing homelessness by asking Willie Nelson to throw a bash. We’d get the city of Austin to cordon off a part of Zilker park, suspend the No Camping Ordinance and the No Sit/No Lie Ordinance, and hold a three-day love fest called ‘Everybody Counts.’ We could count and survey the homeless to our hearts’ content. We’d get the highest head count ever, and bring more federal dollars to Austin than ever before.

This homeless count process that has been used since 2000 has always been flawed, dangerous, and foolish. But now the flaw is glaring and staring us all in the face, on the front page of our paper, and on the Internet, and if you think HUD is going to accept these results then you have another think coming. On the other hand, if HUD does accept these results then we’re all in bigger trouble than I think.

With the federal government setting the minimum wage at $7.25 per hour, rendering more and more people homeless every day, do we really think we are decreasing the tsunami which is homelessness at the rate of 39% since 2008? How in the name of common sense is that possible?

The homeless community nationwide remembers advocate, activist, and hunger striker Mitch Snyder with great respect. In the face of controversy about the numbers he had cited, Snyder once remarked that the homeless can best be counted once they have been brought inside.

What could hasten that day? Please proceed to the Universal Living Wage

Reactions?

Source: “Travis County Homelessness,” Statesman.com, 02/04/13

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