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Counting the Homeless Not So Simple

Homeless in IndyIn the realm of homelessness, there is always more than plenty of regrettable news to talk about. For instance, the newest fad is people thinking it’s cute to take a “selfie” photo with somebody in the background sleeping on the sidewalk. Let’s just dismiss that trend as beneath contempt and get back to the count of people experiencing homelessness in America. House the Homeless has looked at several different aspects of it.

Confusion arises from the fact that there are really two different counts. Responsible for both is the local Continuum of Care, comprising the state and local governments and other government agencies concerned with housing, as well as private nonprofits and community mental health associations (i.e., public nonprofits). From them, every year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development demands an annual Point-in-Time count
of everybody in emergency shelters, transitional housing and Safe Havens on a single night.

In addition, every other (odd-numbered) year, the Continuum of Care in each place is responsible for counting the unsheltered. Confusion arises over who is sheltered and who is not. Ivy Farguheson, reporting on the situation in Indiana, puts it like this:

The count defines homelessness in a different manner than school corporations or social service agencies. That definition also changes from time to time. In the past, those sleeping on couches or staying temporarily in rooms of friends and family members could be counted as homeless and still are by Indiana’s school corporations and almost all local nonprofits. Now, those individuals and families are not counted as homeless under the HUD definition. Those court-ordered to substance abuse programs such as some men at the Muncie Mission or others paying small fees for housing, including many women at the YWCA of Muncie, can no longer be included in the numbers.

It seems like this could cause a lot of logistical problems. For instance, the CoC administrators also have to report to the appropriate federal agencies how many rooms or beds their facilities contain, so the government knows what resources there already are in a geographical area that’s asking for more money. So the bed has to be reported as existing. And the person occupying it is counted as “sheltered” even though it’s meant to be the most temporary of accommodations. Meanwhile, that person is not being counted amount the unsheltered, or true homeless. Depending on how the numbers are presented, it can look like more beds are available than actually are, or it can look like fewer people are totally unsheltered than actually are.

So much depends on this job being done accurately and conscientiously. Taking a census is, after all, the vital first step toward directing federal funds to the right places. But social policy reporter Mikel Livingston brings to light something most people have probably never thought about:

The number of homeless as determined by the count is not directly related to the federal dollars an agency or community receives. In other words, it’s nothing like public school funding, in which a certain number of students translates into a certain number of dollars. Instead, the count is one of many requirements for those entities to be eligible to apply for funding.

Livingston writes about Tippecanoe County, also coincidentally in Indiana, and about federal policy, which results in the homeless being “severely” undercounted. He mentions some of the many glaring contradictions. In his own state, the 2013 homeless total was down slightly from the 2012 number. But he gives examples to show that “the number of homeless clients who went through just one local shelter hints at a much larger population,” concluding:

There are several things the Point-in-Time survey is good for…. But judging the overall size of Tippecanoe County’s homeless population isn’t one of them.

[I]n Indianapolis and surrounding Marion County, 1,599 homeless people were identified during the 2013 Point-in-Time survey. But an accompanying study from the Indiana University Policy Institute and the Coalition for Homelessness Intervention & Prevention estimated that between 4,800 and 8,000 people experienced homelessness during the year.

The sad fact is that House the Homeless could fill its pages with anomalies and discrepancies related to the Point-in-Time count until the next one rolls around. We remember the great advocate Mitch Snyder, who once made the suggestion that the homeless could be counted just fine, once they had been brought inside. What a great solution! Meanwhile we look forward to the day when the phrase “homeless count” causes people to scratch their heads with incomprehension, because there will be no people experiencing homelessness.

Reactions?

Source: “ ‘Counting’ the homeless: Official numbers don’t tell the story,” TheStarPress.com, 01/30/14
Source: “Homeless ‘Point-In-Time’ snapshot falls short,” jconline.com, 02/02/14
Image by Valerie Everett

 

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Long Island Counts Its Homeless

Marines March in 2011ABT, the company hired by the government to count the homeless, collects data from the winter Point in Time surveys and puts it through a process called “imputing,” which basically means making a wild-ass guess with the assistance of some electronic device. ABT has developed at least 10 different ways of “imputing,” but no matter how it’s done, the company needs reliable numbers to start with, and that commodity seems to be in short supply. The methodology is far from being an exact science.

In regard to last year’s reported decrease in veteran homelessness, journalist Joe Pappalardo got some answers from ABT project director Alvaro Cortes and highlighted the part that critics had trouble with:

Even though HUD used different methods to tally homeless vets in 2010 and 2011, it compared the two years to produce the 12 percent drop.

That decrease might have been what Cortes calls “an artifact of changing methodologies.” Or was it what Pappalardo calls “an artifact of murky statistics”? For the purpose of receiving federal aid, how are the people experiencing homelessness counted? Statistician David Marker was designated by the American Statistical Association to answer questions from the press, and Pappalardo reported on their communication:

‘The biggest weakness of the 2010 numbers is that almost half of the localities didn’t collect any information, so in these communities the 2009 numbers were reused,’ Marker says. For this reason he prefers to use more reliable statistics generated in 2009. Comparing 2009 stats with those of 2011, Marker sees an 11 percent drop in veteran homelessness, with overall homelessness going down only 1 percent over the same time.

The journalist also contacted Greta Guarton, executive director of the Nassau-Suffolk Coalition for the Homeless, which covers Long Island. At the time, it seemed to Guarton that ending veteran homelessness was at the top of a lot of people’s lists in Washington but, she said, “no one really knows how many homeless veterans there even are.” At the time of that interview, in January of 2012, she had not seen any decrease, getting more calls from homeless veterans than ever.

Last month in Nassau and Suffolk counties, as in many other parts of the nation, volunteers braved sub-freezing temperatures as they searched for non-sheltered people. Because more than a foot of snow fell in the area, only half the expected volunteers came out. On the other hand, midwinter counting has one advantage — the visibility of footprints leading to buildings where people take refuge. Timothy Bolger learned this by following Guarton around as she shouted questions at various abandoned houses.

But when footprints are evident, the people inside often decline to make their presence known, for any number of reasons. If they happen to be undocumented immigrants, there is no upside for them. They are not eligible for emergency housing or anything else, and could end up being deported. As the reporter eloquently phrases it, “the margin of error for polling such a transient group is incalculable.”

As for Long Island’s homeless veteran population, Bolger learned that mental illness and substance abuse are still significant problems. But help has arrived in the form of Services for the Underserved, a New York-based nonprofit vet group that set up a branch on Long Island this year and formed alliances with local veteran groups.

This may or may not enhance the accuracy of the next count. People who live in their cars, for instance, are very hard to keep track of. People in jail or in psychiatric or rehab facilities are not counted, even though many of them would have no place to call home if released — and despite the fact that these people are under government supervision, their statistics are not made available to the curious. Bolger goes on to say:

Suffolk officials report a more than 62-percent increase in individuals seeking temporary housing assistance over the past five years….

LI’s homeless coalition reports a 42-percent hike in sheltered people in the county from ’09 to ’12….

The population of people who are homeless on LI is by estimates up 18 percent in the five years following the 2008 Wall Street crash that caused the Great Recession….

Guarton expects the stats for LI’s unsheltered to be lower than reality.

Reactions?

Source: “How Does Washington D.C. Count America’s Homeless Vets?” PopularMechanics.com, 01/19/12
Source: “Homeless: More People Live on the Streets Amid Arctic Blasts than Stats Show,” LongIslandPress.com, 02/01/14
Image by MarineCorps NewYork

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The Biennial Homeless Tally

Homeless Person - Sunny UmbrellaThe Department of Housing and Urban Development requires a biennial census of people experiencing homelessness. How is it carried out? Last time around, Popular Mechanics magazine offered this explanation:

In the third week of January every other year, thousands of volunteers across the country fan out for one night to count the homeless on the streets. These snapshots, called Point in Time (PIT) counts, are the only nationwide metric available to gauge the country’s homeless people living outside of shelters. Homeless aid groups, called Continuums of Care (CoC) in federal lingo, are responsible for these counts.

The object is to tally up, within a 24-hour period, both the sheltered and the rough sleepers. The unsheltered condition also includes living in an abandoned building, tent or car. Volunteers come from churches, agencies, organizations, temporary shelters, bad-weather shelters and other aid groups. The volunteers are out there slogging around in below-zero weather, concentrating on areas where the homeless are known to congregate. Ironically, these gathering places are called “hot spots.”

But it seems that on a winter night, any homeless person with access to a shed, culvert, stairwell, or any other possible hidey-hole would be there, and pretty much undetectable. This counting method has been questioned for other reasons, too. A family of six might be crammed into a relative’s unheated garage, which is certainly not a home, but the count would miss them. It would also miss a teenager sleeping on some adult’s fold-out sofa.

Training

In Stroudsburg, Penn., churches have been facilitating “first experiences” where volunteers are urged to mingle with the homeless people who are there to eat. It’s a warm-up exercise to help volunteers get over the awkwardness of meeting people they might be nervous about. In practice sessions, volunteers ask one another survey questions; in theory, each survey takes about five minutes.

Out on the actual streets, nobody has to answer any questions. But it’s important for more than one reason. The information can help to procure funds, and it can also influence how society perceives the unhoused. For instance, the last count of Monroe County’s homeless indicated that “[m]ore than half were disabled, one in three were U.S. military veterans and less than one out of 10 had ever been incarcerated.”

So, with at least half of those individuals, there is no point in hissing “just get a job.” They probably can’t — they’re disabled. Of course, some disabled people are capable of doing some jobs with total competence. But with so many able-bodied workers unable to find jobs, what chance do the disabled have?

At any rate, the various jurisdictions can’t apply for HUD funds unless they turn in the numbers. The problem is, what with one thing and another, counting is far from an exact science. In 2013, HUD said homelessness was down by 3.7%, while the Conference of Mayors said it had risen 4% — a nearly 8% difference, amounting to a significant margin of error. We hear that homelessness has decreased in the nation or in a state, but reports keep coming in from various cities that show worrisome local increases.

Many municipalities also count the homeless in the off-years that are not federally required, and many encounter unpleasant surprises. To pick a random example, the area encompassed by Escambia and Santa Rosa counties in northwest Florida found that its 2013 school year ended with more than 3,000 students homeless. In the same territory, 168 homeless military veterans were counted.

And this is where things get interesting. More next time.

Reactions?

Source: “How Does Washington D.C. Count America’s Homeless Vets?” PopularMechanics.com, 01/19/12
Source: “Homeless count of unsheltered sets fed. funding,” PoconoRecord.com, 01/22/14
Source: “2014 Point-In-Time Homeless Survey Underway,” WUWF.org, 01/22/14
Image by Colin Davis

 

 

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Money Talks — About Homelessness

Hopeless“Money talks, and bull**** walks.” Everybody knows that old saying. Hard cash can get you anything; a mouthful of hot air, not so much. If you believe in something, place your bet — otherwise, hit the road, Jack.

The maxim has another, more subtle layer of meaning. Sometimes the numbers add up to irrefutable fiscal facts, to the point where any sane person or society will see that money obviously must be spent on things like Housing First programs. Sometimes the arguments against spending it in such a way are a mixture of outdated, unsubstantiated ideas and emotional objections. In other words, BS.

As things stand, a lot of money is spent in counterproductive ways, which means wasted. Look at Orlando, Fla., where the Healthcare Center for the Homeless started keeping track of how many people are brought up on charges that might as well read “Breathing While Homeless.” Six months’ research by outreach specialist Brad Sefter found at least 465 such arrests. Then a local television station made inquiries:

WFTV found out Orlando police and the Orange County Jail don’t track the number of arrests for sleeping outside, so there’s no way to tell how much it’s costing taxpayers.

Wait, what? Shouldn’t the reasons for all arrests be part of the public record? Is it now acceptable in America to jail large numbers of people and not even note the reason for posterity? The reporter sought out an individual case:

Ronald Hines, a homeless man living in Orlando, said his crime of sleeping in the wrong place sent him on a downward spiral. “I got arrested for sleeping on the streets,” he said. “I went to jail, they gave me a court cost. A court cost I could not pay because I wasn’t working.” Hines was arrested again a short time later for the unpaid fine.

Eventually, it took a county judge’s access and willingness to do a records search, to find that “homeless arrests are costing that county millions.” This is typical of many cities throughout the land, and an example of how money talks — and it’s saying, This is stupid. There has to be a better way.

This doesn’t even touch on the disturbing subject of people who break the law on purpose, in order to have a place to stay, even if that place has steel bars. What does money say? Find another way. Because this way doesn’t only hurt the individual and mess up his chance to ever pull it together. It harms Mr. and Mrs. Taxpayer. Aren’t there better uses for public funds? Schools? Recreational facilities to prevent childhood obesity? Libraries?

Speaking of which, House the Homeless has focused before on the impact of homelessness absorbed by public libraries. Here is an update from the current issue of The Atlantic, specifically an excerpt from American Psychosis: How the Federal Government Destroyed the Mental Illness Treatment System, by E. Fuller Torrey, MD:

Many libraries have become day centers for mentally ill people who are homeless or living in board-and-care homes. A 2009 survey of 124 public libraries, randomly selected from all parts of the United States, asked about “patrons who appear to have serious psychiatric disorders.” The librarians reported that such individuals had “disturbed or otherwise affected the use of the library” in 92 percent of the libraries and “assaulted library staff members” in 28 percent. Eighty-five percent of the libraries had had to call the police because of the behavior of such patrons.

All that law enforcement costs a bundle of cash. The vicious cycle of jail-street-jail may be an effective employment program for cops, guards and court clerks, but it is the worst solution yet. It becomes more clear every day that communities can save an enormous amount by facing homelessness head-on and creating places for people to live. There is no room for feelings about the people who need to be housed, or judgment about why they need to be housed, or any of that noise. All that stuff is BS that needs to take a walk. When it becomes apparent that a pervasive problem can be handled better, with fewer tax dollars spent, money is talking at the top of its lungs, and money is the voice that needs to be heard.

Reactions?

Source: “Arresting homeless people for sleeping outside costs taxpayers,” WFTV.com, 12/25/13
Source: “Libraries Are the New Homeless Shelters,” TheAtlantic.com, 12/22/13
Image by Just Add Light

 

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Let’s Talk Dollars

Sydney LightsIf Taxpayer is your middle name, and if your city or state contains any people experiencing homelessness, you might want to know about some interesting strategies that have been tried over the past couple of years. The stories originate in different places, but they have two things in common: saving tax dollars and improving the lives of the homeless.

The beauty of it is, the steps these cities have taken and the gains they have reaped are outcomes that anyone can get on board with. No matter where a taxpayer resides on the political spectrum, or what opinions might be privately held about the ultimate causes and cures of homelessness, every dues-paying citizen in her or his right mind wants to reduce municipal expenses and save tax dollars.

Let’s pause for a brief disclaimer. The taxpayer addressed here is the homeowner, the apartment tenant, the business owner — anyone whose life is stable and who feels proprietary about the area’s future. It’s a convenient label for the purposes of this discussion.

But we don’t mean to imply that homeless people don’t pay taxes. No, no, no. Everyone pays sales tax for items they buy. More significantly, an astonishing number of homeless people are actually employed and still can’t afford a place to live. Imagine that! It’s called economic homelessness. Yet taxes are withheld from their paychecks, just like anybody else’s.

O Canada

In 2012, Benjamin Gillies published an online piece about a Canadian Homelessness Research Network report. The story was titled “Giving the homeless a place to live costs less than providing shelters and emergency services.” The title could not have been more explicit, and the bottom line is this:

There is now hard data to show funding emergency services, shelters, and day programs is just not as cost-effective as providing homeless citizens with a place to live and the social supports to help them stay there.

Gillies goes on to give a streamlined version of the report:

What author Stephen Gaetz makes clear is that calculating the cost of homelessness must not only account for shelters or soup kitchens, but also peripheral services, such as health care and the justice system, that homeless people come into contact with more frequently than society at large. As they are often poorly nourished, unable to engage in adequate sanitation practices, and live in settings where exposure to communicable disease is high…

In addition, 40 per cent of this population suffers from mental health issues. As a result, they are hospitalized five times more often than the general public during any given year, usually for longer periods.

In Toronto, how much did a month in a hospital cost? Almost $11,000. How much did a month in a shelter bed cost? Almost $2,000. Now, brace yourself for the knockout punch:

Putting a roof over that same person’s head, either with rent supplements or social housing, would require just $701 or $199.92, respectively. In fact, a similar study conducted in British Columbia discovered that province’s homeless population currently costs the public system $55,000 per person per year, but if every homeless person were instead provided with adequate housing and supports, they would require just $37,000 — saving the province $211 million annually.

What American state would not like to save a couple hundred million a year? Plus, being housed has the semi-magical power of keeping people pretty much out of the hands of the criminal justice system. At the very least, they’re not being arrested for public sleeping!

The southern hemisphere

From Australia, news came of the Michael Project, “a three-year initiative to provide homeless men with quick access to a range of support, including dental and mental health services, personal grooming and hygiene, education and personal fitness.”

In hard-cash terms, even after the Michael Project costs were paid, this initiative saved the public purse $3,600 a year for each homeless person it helped. The project actually aided several thousand men during that time, but in the city of Sydney, 106 individuals were carefully tracked and followed up on, to see how their lives worked out. The findings?

Over the course of the year the money spent by governments on services such as ambulances, emergency department care, court and police costs dropped by an average of $8446 for each person…. [O]ver that period they were far less likely to go to hospital for emergency help, relied less on government-funded emergency accommodation, were more likely to find work and were much more likely to find long-term housing.

Reactions?

Source: “Giving the homeless a place to live costs less than providing shelters and emergency services,” TheStar.com, 10/15/12
Source: “Helping homeless ‘saves $3600 per person’ ,”HeraldSun.com, 04/17/12
Image by Flying Cloud

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More on Austin’s 2013

Austin (mural)The capital of Texas is such a happening place, and exemplary in so many ways, and of course the home of House the Homeless. Though the organization’s concerns are national in scope, it’s only natural for this blog to concentrate on Austin now and then, and not everything would fit in last week’s edition. In fact it won’t all fit here either, but what a year it’s been! 2013 started out with the traditional HtH Thermal Underwear Drive, which reminds us that another one is underway!

The South by Southwest festival is huge in Austin, and in 2012 a marketing ploy involving homeless people stirred up a lot of controversy. An ad agency hired people from ARCH (Austin Resource Center for the Homeless) to walk around and sell access to mobile wifi hotspots. According to a spokesperson from Front Steps, the group which currently administers ARCH, 11 of the 13 participants are now housed.

What SXSW offered homeless workers in 2013 was the expansion of a small but ambitious program from one ice cream vending cart last year to four vending carts this year. Mark Horvath reported:

Today I was invited to a training and started to talk to a few of the homeless vendors. To my surprise, they are not living in a shelter. All of them are sleeping outside. To me, that makes this program even so much cooler. See, often opportunities like this go to sheltered homeless. Providing a social enterprise for street homeless people takes a lot of trust on everyone’s part. That trust alone may be better at restoring a life than the money these vending carts will generate.

The spring saw a return of Austin’s Public Order initiative, whose stated object is to curb violent crime in the downtown area using the services of undercover police officers. When interviewed by Fox News, House the Homeless founder Richard R. Troxell said:

It’s clearly a coincidence, but it’s a coincidence that keeps occurring every time we have another event, whether it’s South by Southwest or we have Formula 1 or whatever…. It’s ludicrous to even suggest that there’s even a connection between public solicitation and violent crime.

The Austin police have been breaking up an average of two temporary settlements per week in the Barton Creek Greenbelt, cheered on by headlines such as “Homeless Camps Lurking in Austin Parks” (from KEYETV) and promising, “One camp at a time, APD will continue to keep the parks safe making sure your hike is just that.”

In September, upwards of 400 homeless advocates gathered in Austin for the Texas Conference on Ending Homelessness. In conjunction with the event, Pat LaMarche wrote about an interesting organization called Art from the Streets, through which homeless artists have been selling artwork for 20 years. Here is an interesting side note on how obstacles are constantly erected on the path to getting everybody housed:

HUD regulations changed this year. They now require that agencies prove their clients don’t have anywhere to live. Luckily, Art on the Streets doesn’t receive HUD funding and the participating artists don’t have to jump the often out of reach administrative hoop of proving a negative in order to participate.

The group Mobile Loaves and Fishes is in the process of creating what one local business owner called “the very first ‘yes, in my backyard’ project!” although, being 10 miles outside Austin, it’s technically in Webberville’s backyard. At any rate, the backyard “sits on a 27-acre master-planned community and will provide affordable, sustainable housing for approximately 200 chronically homeless disabled people in Central Texas.”

The plan is for a gated community made up of tiny storybook houses and tents and mobile homes, each with a garden around it. There will also be a community garden, a medical facility, an interfaith chapel, an outdoor movie theater and a woodworking shop. The residents will pay low rent from their disability benefits, and House the Homeless is poised to help them through the red tape of the system. Meanwhile both agencies, and others, are concerned with helping homeless Austinites through yet another unexpectedly cold winter.

In March, Richard R. Troxell announced an ambitious project. Andrea Ball wrote:

Troxell, 62, is crafting a piece he calls “The Homecoming,” a life-sized statue depicting a scene between a homeless Vietnam veteran, his young daughter and a “bag lady,” as Troxell calls her. The idea, he said, is to present an emotional snapshot of life on the streets. Ultimately, he’d like to see the work displayed somewhere in Austin…. It will take a lot of money to make the project happen, probably $200,000, Troxell said. He hopes to raise the cash through donations and sales of 12-inch replicas of the sculpture.

If realized, the sculpture will take up a 17-by-8-foot space in the park near the Lady Bird Hike and Bike Trail, where the Homeless Memorial service is held each autumn. In the ensuing months, there was controversy. Ed Morrissey wrote:

Art, however, has a lasting impact and message, one that might well provoke enough attention and concern to prompt more public but hopefully private efforts to reduce homelessness and poverty for a much longer time. That is why art and culture matters, why it is … upstream of politics, and why engagement with it is crucial for public policy and development. If Austin has the cash to do this without soaking taxpayers or shorting services (which is a big if), it’s not an irrational option.

Sculptor Timothy P. Schmalz has taken an interest in the project and believes it can be completed for around half the original estimate, or about $100,000. In November, Schmalz visited Rome, where he presented to Pope Francis his sculpture depicting Jesus as a figure asleep on a park bench.

Two weeks ago, Pope Francis blessed another statue by Schmalz at about the same time Schmalz and Richard signed a contract to sculpt Troxell’s statue of homelessness. And one last thing: the Pope was named Time‘s Man of the Year in part for his efforts to shape thinking about the world’s poor.

Reactions?

Source: “Homeless Who Participated in SXSW Wi-Fi Stunt Now Have Housing ,” ABCNews.go.com, 03/13/13
Source: “At SXSW Helping Homeless People Is Delicious With Street Treats,” HuffingtonPost,com, 03/10/13
Source: “Is APD’s initiative targeting crime or the homeless?,” MyFoxAustin.com, 03/04/13
Source: “Homeless Advocates Cooperating: It’s an Art Form,” HuffingtonPost,com, 09/27/13
Source: “Homeless To Be Housed In Tiny House Village In Austin,” Samuel-Warde.com, 11/20/13
Source: “Homelessness memorialized: Advocate making statue to depict life …,” Statesman.com, 03/02/13
Source: “Should Austin spend $175K on statue honoring homeless … or on the homeless?,” Hotair.com, 08/29/13
Source: “’Homeless Jesus’ sculpture presented to Pope Francis,” News.va, 11.20/13
Image by Woody Hibbard

 

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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

 

2

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.

0

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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