Yes, the title of this post is a sarcastic joke, because the increasing propensity of cities to criminalize homelessness is anything but fine. If it were not so deadly serious, the insanity of trying to wipe out poverty by punishing it with monetary penalties would be hilarious.
Just last month, in the Italian the town of Bordighera, the mayor demonstrated his understanding of how foolish it is to fine the homeless. Instead, he announced that anyone caught giving money to a beggar would be fined.
House the Homeless mentioned the fellow in the Canadian city of Montreal who owes the equivalent of $18,000 in homeless fees. The London borough of Hackney announced its intention to fine the homeless between (the British equivalent of) $142 and $1,420 for such offenses as sleeping outside and panhandling. More than 65,000 signed a petition objecting to the idea, and the Hackney Council backed off.
There are plenty of similarly grotesque examples in America, where the following incidents have happened in recent history.
In San Antonio, Texas, chef Joan Cheever, who owns a commercially licensed food truck, was warned that she could no longer deliver food to the homeless in her personal truck, which apparently is necessary because it is not practical to park the larger food truck in some locations. The bureaucracy decided that she could only hand out industrially packaged food from the smaller truck, rather than the nourishing gourmet meals that she cooked.
After receiving the first ticket that fined her $2,000, she continued to serve food in the accustomed way and told reporter Stefanie Tuder:
I’m not going to settle and I’m not going to pay the fine and I’m not going to stop. They can come out every Tuesday and write me up a ticket and we’ll just start collecting them.
By the way, House the Homeless President Richard R. Troxell has called defiant chef Joan Cheever his hero.
In a Florida town where a 90-year-old veteran and two ministers were feeding people experiencing homelessness, a new law was passed that would fine them up to $500 and possibly send them to jail, and the veteran was arrested twice in one week.
In Kansas City, Missouri, charitable organizations can run afoul of the law by providing food or other services within 500 feet of a park or within 1,000 feet of a school.
Aside from food providers, people determined to help in other ways are penalized. In Portland, Oregon, a property owner was fined for allowing an impromptu community called “Right 2 Dream Too” to exist on his empty lot.
In Temecula, California, the only full-time homeless shelter was told it had to close within a month, and Jeff Horseman reported that Project TOUCH already been fined more than $2,000 and faced further penalties of $1,000 a day.
In Madison, Wisconsin, a couple set up lockers on their front porch so people experiencing homelessness could store their belongings. Sometimes, people even slept on the porch.
The neighbors complained, and the generous couple were threatened with daily $300 fines. Scott Keyes reported:
People being threatened or assessed with fines for helping the homeless is becoming a trend recently. Earlier this year, a Florida couple was fined $746 for feeding homeless people, while a Birmingham pastor was prevented from doing so because he didn’t have a $500 permit. Even church groups based in St. Louis and Raleigh have been blocked and threatened with arrest for handing out meals to their homeless neighbors.
In McMinnville, Oregon, a church that started by serving coffee and snacks began letting people camp outside at night, and was threatened with fines for the violation of zoning ordinances. In this case, a compromise was reached: Tents would no longer be allowed, but people could stay overnight on the property in sleeping bags.
Source: “This town will fine you for giving money to homeless people,” WashingtonPost.com, 03/18/16
Source: “Hackney confirms it will not be fining homeless people,” localgov,co.uk, 06/08/15
Source: “San Antonio, Texas, Chef Fights City Fine to Feed the Homeless,” Yahoo.com, 04/22/15
Source: “90-Year-Old WW2 Veteran and Two Clergymen Face 60 Days in Jail for Feeding the Homeless in Florida,” LibertyBlitzkrieg.com, 11/05/14
Source: “How helping the homeless could get you in trouble in Missouri,” fox4kc.com, 12/19/14
Source: “Portland homeless camp faces closure,” DailyTidings.com, 02/01/12
Source: “Temecula homeless shelter has 30 days to close, avoid fines,” PE.com, 05/14/11
Source: “Church Could Face Fine for Allowing Homeless Congregation to Stay on Property,” texomashomepage.com, 03/17/15
Source: “Couple Who Let Homeless People Sleep On Their Porch Threatened With Daily Fine,” ThinkProgress.org, 09/19/14
Photo credit: thelesleyshow via Visualhunt/CC BY
For those who live on the streets, it is a common experience to be blamed, scorned, scolded, fined, or even jailed for the de facto crime of Breathing While Homeless.
Our northern neighbor Canada does not always set a good example. Toronto has been a very tough place for some time.
In 2012, things were so bad they were holding Homeless Memorials not just yearly, but every month. One of those remembered was Louis Quinn, who died owing the city as much as $30,000 because of the almost daily tickets he was issued for panhandling and encumbering a sidewalk.
Of course he wasn’t the only one. Research showed the insane but unsurprising fact that handing out such tickets used up a million dollars worth of police labor time each year. There were millions of dollars worth of unpaid fines, and the city recouped some spare change by selling the debt to collection agencies, who were then highly incentivized to cause even more grief in the lives of people experiencing homelessness.
John Bonnar wrote:
If they don’t pay up it goes against their credit rating. Then if they do manage to make it back on their feet, their negative credit rating rating could prevent them from obtaining a credit card, renting an apartment, leasing a car or even acquiring a cell phone contract.
Apparently, matters on the Canadian front have not improved. This enlightening paragraph was written earlier this month by Patrick Lejtenyi for Vice.com:
It’s no secret that Montreal cops have monthly ticket quotas to meet. The police admitted as much two years ago… Those quotas are being met in large part by handing them out to the homeless, even with the knowledge that the fines will likely never be paid.
Isabelle Raffestin, coordinator of the Droit Devant legal clinic, told the reporter about a typical case, in which a middle-aged man, ill in both body and mind, owed the government the equivalent of $18,000 USD in fines that stemmed from his homeless condition. Another source mentioned knowing several young people who had made some progress toward getting their lives on track, but who had been dragged back into penury, and even imprisoned, because of the fines levied on them for doing things that housed people have no need or reason to do, or at least tend to get away with.
The good news is that Montreal has a municipal court program where the possibility exists of convincing the public prosecutor to extend amnesty and tear up the tickets. But is that the best solution? Lejtenyi writes:
Those who have lived on the streets and gone through the legal system say the homeless in Montreal are caught in a weird echo-chamber of the city’s making. They are well-served when they want to access social services, programs, and legal aid — but they wouldn’t need them if they weren’t made such easy targets for police in the first place.
It begins to sound as if homelessness is just a gigantic job-creation program for civil servants. In America, House the Homeless has mentioned the ever-increasing number of “sweeps” that take place in cities where enormous resources are used to move people experiencing homelessness from one place to another, invariably losing stability, and possessions, along the way.
One sorry example is Denver, Colorado, where police have become increasingly aggressive and brutal. Meanwhile, over the past three years the city’s police department has spent upward of $1.3 million on its media relations department.
A statement from their boss said their duties include:
[…] handling phone calls and interview requests from the media 24/7, organizing press conferences, writing press releases, producing podcasts, internal communication, safety campaigns, projects with other city agencies, promoting department events, plus many other tasks.
Including, no doubt, plenty of spin and lots of damage control. Apparently it has not occurred to the city that better police training and more humane policies might obviate the need for costly public relations efforts. Meanwhile, even worse stories are out there. In Orlando, Florida, last year, a public defender made news:
Robert Wesley wants to put an end to low value arrests with high court fines, which he said hurts the homeless and is a burden on taxpayers because of the cost incurred during the cases that the defendants ultimately can’t pay.
Wesley told journalist Stewart Moore about a particular case where a man dying in a hospice had to be guarded by police at all times, at ridiculous cost to the taxpayers. Technically, he was under arrest for not paying homeless fines.
Source: “Homeless people racking up thousands in fines under Safe Streets Act,” Rabble.ca, 09/13/12
Source: “Why Did Canada Fine This Homeless Man $80,000?,” Vice.com, 03/01/16
Source: “Denver Police defend spending more than $1.3 million over three years on public relations,” TheDenverChannel.com, 02/16/16
Source: “Local public defender calls for stop to homeless arrests, fines,” WESH.com, 08/11/15
Photo credit: wantmorepuppies via Visualhunt/CC BY
Last week we mentioned a fellow whose dentures were stolen by the authorities in their quest to “clean up” San Francisco for a gigantic sports event. Oscar McKinney has other problems too, like a couple of dozen citations for loitering, sleeping, and just generally Breathing While Homeless.
In that legendary city, law enforcement is relentless against homeless people who are “engaged in necessary, life-sustaining activities.” According to ThinkProgress.org:
There are 23 city codes criminalizing things like standing or resting in public, sleeping in public places and cars, and panhandling… Police issued nearly 23,000 citations for violations of these codes between 2006 and 2014.
This game has many variations. For a Change.org page that has not been archived, “Slumjack Homeless” once described being ticketed for sleeping on a sidewalk:
Now I’ll have to go to court (more costly and wastefully time consuming than you can imagine, requiring going all the way to another city to do so) where they typically then impose fines (far more “expensive” in this predicament than you might realize) which can also be “paid” via “community service” […] which means working, unpaid, for perhaps 30 hours or so. Free slave labor, really, and from people that STILL can’t sleep or live anywhere.
In nearby Marin County in 2011, Legal Aid attorney Maura Prendiville took a look at the stats, which at the time reported approximately 5,000 people in the county experiencing homelessness or extremely precarious living situations. Even though there was no shelter space, people were ticketed for sleeping outdoors, and for numerous petty infractions.
Activists created a pilot program with the goal of helping people avoid, rather than accrue, criminal records. The community court would have the option of referring defendants to substance abuse programs and other mental health services. Here too, people could “work off” their fines with the judge’s permission.
CBS news quoted Rick Buquia, who described they cycle of court appearances, volunteer work, and jail that had become his life. The reporter wrote:
He has been homeless for three years and is facing a $1,000 ticket he simply cannot afford to pay.
In Looking Up at the Bottom Line, House the Homeless President Richard R. Troxell narrates the beginnings of the battle for sanity in Austin that later, after years of work, resulted in some relatively humane rules. Under a proposed ordinance, sleeping rough would be a criminal offense with a fine of up to $500. People would get tickets they couldn’t pay for, and then be locked up and emerge with criminal records.
The city had only a few hundred shelter beds and a homeless population of several thousand, so how was this supposed to work? Richard wrote:
To some, the idea was ludicrous, for if the homeless had $500.00 surely they would opt to sleep somewhere other than under a bridge. For others, the homeless were merely being asked to pay their “debt to society” for their crime of sleeping in public… These people would then be returned to the streets, still without jobs, or still without jobs paying living wages. They would still have no access to affordable housing, and the only continuity in their lives was that they were assured of being arrested again… and again.
Source: “‘They’re Herding Us Like Cattle’: How San Francisco’s Homeless and the City Are Paying Dearly for Superbowl 50,” Alternet.org, 01/28/16
Source: “San Francisco Clears Out Homeless Ahead Of The Super Bowl,” ThinkProgress.org, 02/03/16
Source: “Why I Choose Streets Over Shelter,” Change.org, 06/03/09
Source: “Community Court Gives Fresh Start To Marin County Homeless,” CBSlocal.com, 05/13/11
Source: “Looking Up at the Bottom Line,” Amazon.com
Photo credit: kenteegardin via Visual hunt/CC BY-SA
Readers will remember the Open Letter to the City of Austin, written by the President and CEO of House the Homeless, Richard R. Troxell. (Scroll down the page past more recent events such as Amplify Austin, the Traumatic Brain Injury Survey Report, Kids 4 Kids Sake, the Thermal Underwear Party, the Homeless Sunrise Memorial Service, the Veterans’ Day Parade, and Bridge the Economic Gap Day. Look for the Department of Justice seal, and you’re there.)
The letter was widely circulated and published, not only to the officials and bureaucrats of Austin, Texas, but to like-minded organizations and to the press. This was in August of last year, more than six months ago, and the problems outlined in the text have only become worse since then.
All over America, even people with jobs can’t afford to pay for roofs over their heads. All over America, laws are in place that criminalize the most basic and necessary human activities, and “Quality of Life” ordinances take into consideration only the quality of housed people’s lives.
Everywhere, “sweeps” and “cleanups” take from people experiencing homeless even the precarious communities they form in vacant lots and under highways. The constant message is, “Move on, get out of here, go somewhere else.” But where?
Less than a week ago, this news came from Colorado:
Today, March 8th, the City Officials of Denver under Mayor Hancock used an “order of removal” ordinance to enable Public Works to decide what is an “encumbrance.” They used this “law” to force everyone out of the area and take away people’s tarps, blankets, and other belongings… Roughly 75 people were displaced from the places they have called home — many of whom for many months or even years. There is no legal option for almost anyone for where to go to.
As far back as last August Ed Lee, the mayor of San Francisco, California, told the press that the homeless would have to leave before Super Bowl time came around. By November, people experiencing homelessness were being pushed out of downtown.
In a city with an estimated 7,000 homeless residents, it is not easy to get them all out of sight so that tourists won’t be bummed out by their presence. City workers “herded” as many people as possible to a new place under a freeway. Typical was a fellow named Oscar McKinney, whose situation was described by journalist Evelyn Nieves:
City workers had removed his possessions right in front of him, he said, including all his identification papers. “They even got my teeth,” he said, displaying a wry, hollow smile. If they come around again, he said, he has no idea where he’ll go.
Meanwhile, the Super Bowl organizers were making sure that no homeless people would get fancy ideas about benefiting from the upcoming city-wide party. No free events would be accessible to them, because no one carrying a tent or a sleeping bag would be allowed to enter.
Sam Dodge, the mayor’s homeless czar, offered a typically callous statement to The Wall Street Journal reporter Stu Woo:
He said the homeless could likely retrieve confiscated belongings at city storage.
In “The Criminalization of Ownership,” House the Homeless has examined that particular fairytale. Another instance of unintentional humor arose after the football festival was over, as expressed in this headline from The Guardian: “Homeless ordered to vacate camp they were pressured into before Super Bowl.”
People who had previously existed in the areas most needed for the celebrations had been moved, in some cases, to shelters, but many were forcibly guided to the underside of a highway overpass. Three weeks after the big game, the public health department wanted them out of there within 72 hours of when the eviction order was issued, largely because of accumulated human waste and general trash.
Did the city not provide portable toilets or dumpsters? Apparently not. A statement from the director of health, Barbara Garcia, said:
Conditions where multiple tents are congregated have become unsafe. People are living without access to running water, bathrooms, trash disposal or safe heating or cooking facilities.
The solution that seemed good to the city authorities was make the people go find some other location without running water, bathrooms, trash disposal, or safe heating or cooking facilities.
Source: “City Sweeps People Without Homes from All the Blocks by Lawrence/Broadway/Park Ave,” wraaphome.org, 03/09/16
Source: “‘They’re Herding Us Like Cattle’: How San Francisco’s Homeless and the City Are Paying Dearly for Superbowl 50,” Alternet.org, 01/28/16
Source: “The Vanishing Homeless of Super Bowl 50,” WSJ.com, 02/02/16
Source: “Homeless ordered to vacate camp they were pressured into before Super Bowl,” TheGuardian.com, 02/25/16
Emma Whitford related the harrowing story of a rainy night in East Harlem where several homeless people huddled beneath a protruding section of a building. City Parks Dept. workers showed up, along with some police officers.
According to participants, the people were not even given a chance to go out into the rain before the authorities began to load their belongings into a sanitation truck. In some cases, the police and/or city workers even shoved people to the ground and seized things that they held. The writer described the treatment of Anthony Rainey, a former Marine homeless since 1971:
Rainey says that most of his possessions were taken that morning as well—everything but an electronic benefit transfer card and credit card that happened to be in his pocket. Rainey lost his Veterans ID card, which he uses to ride public transportation free of charge and purchase clothing wholesale, plus family photographs, his birth certificate, hospital records, sweatshirts and jackets, and the CDs and chargers that he sells on the street.
Whitford also quoted Floyd Parks:
I grabbed my cart and was trying to get my stuff out, and the [officer]… just took my stuff and threw it in the [truck], and just crushed it up. And I said, ‘Yo, I got personal property.’ They said, ‘Too bad.’
Apparently, the same kind of gratuitous, random confiscation happens on a regular basis all over America. Of course, no one wants piles of junk everywhere. But reasonable measures can be taken to keep a city looking neat, without seizing people’s documents, or the things they are holding. In that New York incident, there was not even pretense of storing possessions to be picked up later. It went straight to the trash compacter.
Somewhere in Middle America
For a while, some of the people experiencing homelessness in Madison WI had been storing belongings in a supervised area at the Social Justice Center, but more space was needed downtown. The front steps of the City-County building took up some of the slack, an untenable situation that was never meant to last.
Last spring, city workers put up two enclosures across the street from there, out back of the Municipal Building, which took up part of the parking lot and probably annoyed some citizens for that reason alone. The doorless “chain-link boxes” were not equipped with shelves or dividers of any kind, so things were just bundled in there any which way. There were tarps across the top, but the sides were wide open to the weather. There was no supervision or security, so items were stolen and their owners were upset.
The authorities contended that advocates for the homeless had promised to look after the storage area. They charged that people were using the space for illegal and immoral activities, and closed the minimalistic wire shed at the end of July. Dean Mosiman wrote,
Belongings were to be removed from the facility by 2 p.m. Wednesday, with the city considering anything remaining as lost property and collected and bagged by city staff and stored off site for up to 45 days. Items that are worth less than $50, hazardous, perishable or with no sentimental, medical or legal value could be disposed immediately.
That sounds pretty reasonable, but veterans of America’s streets have learned that items do not always arrive at destinations named by city workers. Several other issues arose, and it was pointed out that a firm agreement should have been made, and thoroughly understood by both sides, before the project was undertaken.
A great public relations opportunity was lost in Madison, and a lot of potential good will was squandered, that might otherwise have accrued to both sides. Imagine what might have happened if a capable organizer with a few devoted colleagues had been in the right place at the right time. It could have been a model project, illustrating how responsible people can be, even when they are not housed, and proving that they deserve to have fair treatment and jobs and places to sleep and all that good stuff. Just like, you know, regular people.
Richard R. Troxell, co-founder of House the Homeless, suggests that “The best way to avoid the criminalization of people experiencing homelessness, and these kinds of abuses, is simply to house them.” On the way to that goal, the Wisconsin State Journal‘s Chris Rickert asks,
It’s hard not to wonder: If city officials can’t work with the homeless and their advocates on something so seemingly simple, how are they going to work together on more pressing needs — such as more shelter space, housing and mental health and substance abuse treatment?
Source: “Video: NYPD Destroyed Birth Certificates, Medication, IDs In East Harlem Homeless Raid,” Gothamist.com. 10/13/15
Source: “Madison closes storage area for homeless belongings,” madison.com, 07/22/15
Source: “Chris Rickert: No hindsight needed to identify problems with homeless’ storage space,
Image by bopswave
In the great Northwest, in Washington state, the Seattle University School of Law issued a report about the cost of criminalizing homelessness. Examining the municipal codes of 72 cities, they found twice as many anti-homeless ordinances as were on the books in 2000. Journalists Bryce Covert and Andrew Breiner summed it up like this:
Nearly 80 percent enacted ordinances prohibiting or limiting the ability to sit, stand, or sleep in public. Another three-quarters banned urination or defecation in public, although the report notes that “cities typically fail to provide sufficient access to reasonable alternatives such as 24-hour restrooms and hygiene centers.” And nearly two-thirds outlaw “aggressive panhandling, while 22 percent criminalize storing personal property in public.”
Criminalizing homelessness by outlawing the most unavoidable life functions like sleeping and urinating, has become a trend. In Venice, California, which used to be one of the freest places on earth, homeless people are routinely brutalized by the police for such offenses as “items placed on city beach” and “property outside of designated space.” Samuel Arrington, a mentally ill homeless man who was beaten and tazed by 8 LAPD officers and subsequently hospitalized, had brought a chair and an umbrella out onto the sand.
The plot thickened when Arrington told the press that the cops had assaulted him on multiple occasions because he once warned a prospective heroin customer to stay away from a certain undercover cop, and thwarted a sting operation. Of course Arrington sued the city for violation of his civil rights, as have hundreds of others. In 2012 the L.A. Times published a spreadsheet detailing the settlements the LAPD had been ordered to make over the preceding decade. The yearly totals were $12 million, $16 million, and other numbers in that range. Many cases centered around homeless people, and police brutality is only one of the causes for which a city might be sued.
The illustration on this page shows a homeless street market, a bare-bones operation favored by those who want to hold a garage sale but don’t have a garage. In many places, this is a highly illegal enterprise.
Austin, Texas, is a notable example of pushback against “quality of life” ordinances that do nothing for life’s quality when the accused is a person experiencing homelessness. In response to people being legally punished for just sitting around, Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless said something fraught with unintentional dark humor:
It is my belief that 100% of the people receiving these tickets were perceived to be homeless at the time of ticket issuance. I was only able to verify that 96% were experiencing homelessness at the time of the ticketing.
Getting back to Washington, the 5-year total spent by just two cities, Seattle and Spokane, to enforce homeless-persecuting statutes was almost $4 million. The number is just for civil infractions and doesn’t even begin to cover the criminal violations costs. Covert and Breiner wrote:
On the other hand, the report estimates that if the $3.7 million spent enforcing the ordinances were instead spent on housing for the homeless, it would save $2 million a year and more than $11 million over the course of five years.
Criminalizing Homelessness on the East Coast
To varying degrees, some cities are beginning to see value in the Housing First philosophy. In the opposite corner of America, down in Florida, the Daytona Beach News-Journal published a comprehensive article on that state’s homeless policies.
Volusia County Judge Belle Schumann researched 50 homeless people who have cost the county well over $12 million by being arrested multiple times —as many as 400 in one case, and more than 330 times in another. A jail diversion shelter to keep these individuals off the streets would cost approximately $13 per person, per day, as compared to the $65 per diem cost of keeping them in jail. Currently, the county has fewer than 100 shelter beds to serve its 5,000 homeless residents.
Source: “Washington’s War on the Visibly Poor: A Survey of Criminalizing Ordinances & Their Enforcement ,” SSRN.com, 05/06/15
Source: “Arresting Homeless People For Being Homeless Is Unbelievably Wasteful,” thinkprogress.org, 05/11/15
Source: “Venice homeless man sues LAPD, alleges excessive force during arrest,” LATimes.com, 05/19/15
Source: “Legal payouts in LAPD lawsuits,” LATimes.com, 01/22/12
Source: “Arresting, jailing homeless has cost Volusia taxpayers millions,”
Image by urbansnaps – kennymc
Unlike many others to whom the description is sloppily applied, boxing champion Manny Pacquiao truly is a “living legend.” After his father ate his dog, the 12-year-old boy left home to live in the streets and sleep in a cardboard box. He started boxing professionally at 14 and became the only eight-division world champion, “Fighter of the Decade,” and the world’s second highest-paid athlete. He also sings, acts, and plays and coaches basketball.
Earlier this month Pacquiao, who is now also a member of the Philippine House of Representatives, gave 150 houses to people who needed them. He spent well over half a million dollars of his own money to build Pacquiao Village, but this is only one-fourth of the intended scope of the project, which includes 600 new homes. Pacquiao (predicted by many to be future president of the Philippines) told the recipients:
Give thanks to God for what you have received today. It’s a gift from Him. He’s just using me to help you. Take good care of this property and don’t sell it.
Giving to Squatters in the United Kingdom
In the United Kingdom two sports figures, Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs, have been involved in a complicated drama concerning Manchester’s old Stock Exchange, which they bought with the intention of remodeling it into a luxury hotel.
In October, the property was occupied by about 30 squatters, and the new owners agreed that they could stay on the ground floor until the renovation work begins in early 2016. Neville even paid for electricians and plumbers to make the building safely habitable in the meantime, and arranged for full meals to be delivered to the residents three times a week.
But then apparently the original group would not allow other, rowdier homeless activists to join them, and windows were broken, and there were numerous police calls. Things settled down, and Neville and Giggs arranged with local authorities to go in with support services including help for mental health and addiction issues, and aid in finding more permanent accommodations.
Giving in San Bernardino
Kim Carter of San Bernardino, Calif., was elected by CNN viewers as one of the year’s Top 10 Heroes, an honor that comes with a $10,000 award to help further the work of the nonprofit group she started. Journalist Ryan Hagen writes:
Time for Change Foundation has helped close to 800 women since 2002, with a mission to empower disenfranchised low-income women and families by building leadership through evidence-based programs and housing to create self-sufficiency and thriving communities.
It includes case-management services in a drug-free environment, an emergency shelter, transitional housing, financial education and money management classes, independent living skills, family reunification, leadership development and parenting education.
Carter has also been responsible for the creation of a low-income housing project for people who would otherwise probably be homeless.
Meanwhile, Helping the Homeless in Wichita
In Wichita, Kan., Alan Kailer provides help with another of life’s necessities—transportation. After 35 years as a big-city corporate attorney, he retired and pedaled across America with his wife on a bicycle built for two. Out of necessity, he became a competent repairer of bikes, a skill that he now employs one morning a week at the local homeless shelter. Arriving in a minivan stocked with tools and donated parts, he fixes bikes and, more importantly, teaches people to do maintenance and repairs on their own.
Don’t let another year go by without reading Looking Up at the Bottom Line by Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless!
Source: “Manny Pacquiao gives away 150 houses to homeless families in Saranggani,” KickerDaily.com, 12/15/15
Source: “Gary Neville signs deal to offer support to homeless people living in Stock Exchange building,” ManchesterEveningNews.co.uk, 11/03/15
Source: “Kim Carter, of San Bernardino, chosen as top 10 CNN Hero.” SBSun.com, 10/08/15
Source: “Wichita man offers help, tools and a willing ear for homeless cyclists.” kansas.com, 07/05/15
Image by Michael Howard
Earlier this month, two major American cities announced jobs programs. In Los Angeles, city services have been deteriorating since the global economic disaster of 2008. Trees don’t get trimmed, which is not just an aesthetic issue but a safety issue. Streets don’t get cleaned, and in fact many other tasks remain undone, impacting both the appearance and functionality of the city. Public demand for the return of various services has become a sore point.
To alleviate these problems and to provide jobs, the city created the Workforce Restoration Program. Its goal for the 2017-18 fiscal year is to hire 5,000 full-time city workers. Mayor Eric Garcetti has issued a request for all city departments to prepare reports on their hiring needs. Who will be hired? Journalist Dakota Smith quoted Jackie Goldberg, a member of the California Assempbly and former City Councilwoman:
We have targeted groups…which are the homeless, which are veterans, which are people who have had gang affiliations.
The meaning is clear if the context is known, and the administration is certainly wise to concentrate on these underserved groups, but…“targeted”? Surely there must be a more friendly and positive way for agencies to describe their attempts to help certain demographics. Who wants to be a target? Smith includes a couple of sentence that seem to hint that reality might not live up to the hype:
It’s expected those groups will make up just a percentage of the applicants selected to work for the city…While adding 5,000 employees is the goal, it’s unclear how many workers will actually be hired, because the ultimate figure will depend on how many employees leave city jobs.
Albuquerque Turning Around, Perhaps
Albuquerque, New Mexico, has earned a dark reputation because of the extreme brutality of its police force, whose violence often (in the traditional sense of the word) targets people experiencing homelessness and the mentally ill. Proportionately, the city’s police have fatally shot more citizens than the New York City police. Partly because of intervention by the Justice Department, Albuquerque is trying to become kinder and gentler. Writer Fernanda Santos describes one change:
Training in crisis intervention has become a requirement for police cadets, who must try to find their way out of staged real-life scenarios—encounters with distressed drug addicts, rape victims or suicidal war veterans—without pulling out their guns.
The police department says that the “aggressive panhandling” ordinance is rarely enforced. Another innovation is the city’s effort to influence drivers. Money should not be handed out through car windows to supplicants at intersections, but donated instead to the fund for cleaning up the city. Those dollars fund food and shelter for the workers, and equally important, their daily pay.
The concept here is to hire the homeless, but not to imitate the habits of private staffing agencies that exploit day laborers by keeping a large share of their earnings. Of course, temp workers want to keep all the money that comes from the employers. But surely the agency needs to make something, if it is to pay for an office and someone to answer the phone, and especially if it is to vet the employers and make sure they are safe and fair. The only people who can afford to run such an enterprise for free are nonprofits or the government.
Of course if the government runs it, it’s not really free, because it’s on the taxpayers’ dime. Still, aside from HeadStart programs for kids, a temporary employment agency is one of the more benign and useful ways a taxpayers’ dime could be spent. As House the Homeless has said before, many people experiencing homelessness are able and willing to work. (In fact, many of them work full time and are still homeless—but that is another topic.)
Albuquerque’s Plan to Hire the Homeless
Using the same time-honored technique as the crew bosses who roll up and choose day laborers from the group of hopefuls in the Home Depot parking lot, a city employee takes a van out and picks up 10 people and delivers them to the site of a clean-up. The shift is only five or six hours and workers make $9 an hour plus lunch. This happens twice a week, so one person could make about $50 per week, or $100 if fortunate enough to be chosen on both days.
$50,000 has been allocated for this program, in city funds, just about enough to cover the paychecks, if not the lunches and the other city services needed to pick up the gathered trash and so forth. It is slightly grim that these teams clean up homeless campsites that have been broken up, so a person might even be working in a place he formerly called home. Mayor Richard J. Berry is optimistic, telling the reporter:
Fines and jail time don’t solve anything. If we can get your confidence up a little, get a few dollars in your pocket, get you stabilized to the point where you want to reach out for services, whether the mental health services or substance abuse services—that’s the upward spiral that I’m looking for.
Since the program started in September, five workers have reportedly found steady jobs. On the downside, the police department has not yet revised its use-of-force directive.
Source: “LA wants to hire homeless, former gang members, veterans
Source: “Albuquerque, Revising Approach Toward the Homeless, Offers Them Jobs
Image by Aaron Alexander
A state and some cities have declared a state of emergency. Traditionally, such a designation would come after a natural disaster, but this time, the reason is homelessness. It doesn’t mean they get federal money— not unless the federal government itself declared the emergency—but the move does enable the release of local funds and the loosening of rules. For instance, permits for building affordable housing can be issued more quickly—although why this process could not have been expedited all along is a mystery. For PewTrusts.org, Rebecca Beitsch wrote:
Many cities and states, even those that have declared states of emergency, are investing more in long-term affordable housing, whether by constructing new housing or spending more money on existing programs to help people stay in private housing. Those programs offer various types of affordable housing and rapid rehousing, including subsidized units, security deposit assistance and permanent supportive housing. In many cases, tenants pay 30 percent of their income in rent and may even be matched with nearby caseworkers who help them stay in housing and connect to services.
Regarding Hawaii, ThinkProgress.com spun the situation this way: “After Destroying Homeless Camps, Hawaii Declares State of Emergency on Homelessness.” The authorities in Hawaii and elsewhere are notorious for not only raiding camps, but destroying the possessions of people just trying to live.
In October, when the proclamation was made, the state’s 1.4 million people included at least 5,000 people experiencing homelessness, with an estimated 2,000 of them unsheltered. To complicate the situation, Hawaii’s homeless seem particularly reluctant to go into shelters. Nevertheless, the governor’s decision released $1.3 million from the state’s general fund and was said to provide more shelter options for families that want to remain united.
States of Emergency in Northwest Cities
Portland plans to do more than just throw money at the problem. There is talk of adjusting restrictive land-use and zoning rules, which appear to have delayed the deployment of approximately $60 million that was already available from the federal government under other affordable housing programs. Beitsch reports that developers who take part in those building projects “must keep rent at an affordable level for 60 years before charging market rates,” and what entrepreneur wants to sign off on that?
Portland also looks forward to an additional $1 million per year that will be used for affordable housing, with the revenue coming from tax on Airbnb facilities.
In Seattle, 3,000 public school children are known to be homeless, and 45 impoverished people have died in the streets during the past year. The sale of some city property should bring in more than $5 million and King County is kicking in $2 million.
At the very least, Seattle plans to add 150 shelter beds, but there is talk of attacking the root causes of chronic homelessness by providing more PTSD counselors for veterans and more addiction treatment options. The city also plans to press for federal funding via FEMA or any other possible agency.
L.A. Fails to Address Homelessness
Los Angeles is estimated to have nearly 18,000 unsheltered homeless people and again, as in Hawaii, many find life on the streets more bearable than the shelters, particularly if they are administered by religious organizations. Los Angeles plans to spend at least $100 million in the coming year and journalist Bruce Covert says of Mayor Eric Garcetti:
He also called for shelters to stay open 24 hours a day during the rainy season, for winter shelter availability to be extended by two months, and for an increase in access to storage, bathrooms, showers, laundry, and other services.
But more than two months after the idea of declaring a state of emergency was floated, Los Angeles has not yet actually acted on its publicized intention. Some call this stalling; others call it judicious consideration of all the possible remedies. Is the City Council dragging its feet, or are all parties doing their best to plan wisely? Meanwhile, people experiencing homelessness in L.A. are facing more numerous and tougher ordinances than ever before, amounting to the criminalization of homelessness.
Only two weeks ago, Gary Blasi wrote for the LA Times:
Last week, the City Council decided to make it a crime for a homeless person to refuse to break down a tent on a sidewalk at 6 a.m., or to put the same tent up before 9 p.m., even in a pouring rain. If a federal judge does not block that rule, the mayor could [do so]…The mayor could open unused city buildings or enter into short-term leases for private buildings to provide shelter for the homeless to sleep and keep some of their belongings…The mayor could help people stay alive in the shelters they have made for themselves…City agencies could provide pallets or other means of getting them off the ground, and tents and tarps that do not leak in a heavy storm.
Supposedly, the talk of emergency declaration draws attention to the problem and inspires a sense of urgency which will help to obtain resources and lubricate a creaky bureaucracy. So, talk, talk, talk—and then, nothing. Is it any wonder that many critics hear just another variation on the same old political bloviation? But Maria Foscarinis of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty sees hope in the various actions, telling Bruce Covert:
I think the declarations are right. Declaring that homelessness is an emergency is calling a crisis by its rightful name…I think it’s totally appropriate and very important to recognize it as such, and in fact it’s long overdue.
Source: “Cities, States Turn To Emergency Declarations To Tackle Homeless Crisis,” pewtrusts.org, 11/11/15
Source: “After Destroying Homeless Camps, Hawaii Declares State Of Emergency On
Homelessness,” ThinkProgress.org, 10/19/15
Source: “Murray: Loss of life warrants homeless emergency declaration,” MyNorthwest.com, 11/03/15
Source: “The Situation Facing Los Angeles And Portland Homeless Populations Is An
Emergency,” ThinkProgress.org, 09/30/15
Source: “Preparing to declare a ‘local emergency’ could save LA’s homeless people when El Niño rains hit,” LATimes.com, 11/23/15
Image by Tom Fortunato