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Veteran Makeover Confuses Homeless Issues

Jim WolfIn many ways and places, our veterans are being abused, while the public is bamboozled by the old magician’s trick of misdirection. When a major event is scheduled, an entire municipality might play “hide the homeless.” On an individual level, the media get all in a tizzy over whether one homeless New Yorker had boots or didn’t have boots before a police officer gave him some.

The latest cultural hiccup is a video made just in time for Veterans Day, in which homeless Army vet Jim Wolf gets a shave and a haircut. And a dye job. Also, he wears a suit. “Now he looks like someone on the cover of GQ,” filmmaker Rob Bliss told ABC News, and went on to say:

It’s more than just a haircut and clothing. To see yourself look like that is to see that potential. There are things inside implied by the way you look outside — stability and peace of mind.

Really? Males on active duty in the U.S. military are closely trimmed and clean-shaven. Do they all possess stability and peace of mind? If so, why do we hear so much about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? The video is based on the assumption that barbering is a panacea. If this were so, all of the thousands of homeless men who have been given complimentary shaves and haircuts by volunteers would be prosperous citizens by now.

The makeover video racked up 15 million YouTube views and inspired dozens of blog posts full of oohs and aahs. At the end of the slickly produced vignette, two screens of text explain that Wolf has taken control of his life and “is now scheduled to have his own housing and is attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for the first time ever.”

Smoke and Mirrors

As it turns out, “scheduled to have his own housing” was word waffling. When the video was made, Wolf had applied for veteran housing. How long that takes, and what a person does during the wait, is anybody’s guess. Meanwhile, the video raised $30,000 for Degage Ministries. And then a bad thing happened. BarstoolSports.com has its finger on the pulse of America, so let their headline tell the story and their writer Jmac sum it up:

“Dude From That Super Viral Homeless Makeover Video Got Arrested For Causing A Disturbance At Burger King”

Neat idea for sure, but this is the real world, folks. A new suit and haircut doesn’t guarantee that a dude is all of a sudden gonna turn his life around. This seems to happen a lot with stories like this. People only wanna discuss the happy theatrics of the whole thing, but they tend to ignore the facts.

For CNN News, Dorrine Mendoza interviewed Jim Wolf’s sister. Robin Thomas has hoped for many years that her brother would eventually exit the cycle of “depression, alcoholism, unresolved grief and chronic homelessness” in which he has been caught. Mendoza writes:

No one disputes Wolf has been arrested dozens and dozens of times, mostly for misdemeanors such as public intoxication. Thomas says her brother “lives in survival mode”…. She also admits that perhaps the video did not give Wolf the “glimpse into the future” that others had hoped. He did not view it as a life-changing event, Thomas says.

Though Degage Ministries put Jim Wolf and Rob Bliss in touch with each other, it’s not clear whether the film was originally conceptualized by the organization or the filmmaker. Someone made a bad decision when picking the person to be “made over.” Everybody is different, but whatever this particular fellow needs, it isn’t a shower of publicity. Jim Wolf might be a great candidate for a Housing First program — with zero fanfare — but he definitely was not ready for this failed experiment in superficial making-over.

Into the Wayback Machine

Another premise on which this project rests is a throwback to the 1960s, when acrimonious hair-length discussions between fathers and sons obscured the serious issues that activists sought to expose and repair. Is that what is happening here? Before Jim Wolf was arrested, Philip J. Reed — contravening popular opinion — wrote a piece titled, “Why I Hate This ‘Homeless Veteran Makeover’ Video, and Why You Should Too.” He calls it absurd, manipulative, offensive, exploitative, embarrassing and demeaning. Reed says:

What, exactly, is meant to be inspiring about this again? It’s the hollowest possible kind of “inspiration,” and it’s one that only works because it withholds the humanity…. But you shouldn’t feel inspired by anything that takes a serious, profound problem with the very core of the society in which you live, and presents it as trivial and easily overcome.

Wolf has a problem. That problem is the country he lives in. That problem is that country’s approach to dealing with the sick and the poor and the unemployed and the homeless. That problem is emphatically not going to be solved by a haircut, a shave, and a necktie. And yet this makeover video wants you to come away feeling that it is solved that way. Because that’s easy. That’s visual. And, what’s more, it’s easy on the eye.

This constant whitewashing of our problems is the problem.


Source: “Homeless Vet’s Makeover Turns His Life Around,” ABCNews.go.com, 11/08/13
Source: “Dude From That Super Viral Homeless Makeover Video Got Arrested For Causing A Disturbance At Burger King,” BarstoolSports.com, 11/21/13
Source: “Homeless vet in makeover video has long road ahead,” CNN.com, 11/19/13
Source: “Why I Hate This “Homeless Veteran Makeover” Video, and Why You Should Too,” NoiselessChatter.com, 11/09/13
Image by Rob Bliss

 

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And Still More Ways to Become Homeless

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

But here’s a sample:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

… And ended up homeless.

Ready for a laugh?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reactions?

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

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McDonald’s and the Living Wage

McDonald's Imgur

Tony Polombo is a columnist who, like Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless, believes that a living wage is not the same as a minimum wage. They won’t be the same until the minimum wage is such that anybody who puts in a 40-hour workweek can afford food; clothing; safe, decent, basic housing (including utilities); public transportation; and access to the emergency room. A living wage, as its name implies, is one that a family can actually live on, not merely subsist or exist.

Some say that raising the national minimum wage would cause companies to lay off workers, and then unemployment would only increase. To them, Polombo makes this interesting point which is imbued with a dark and terrible humor:

As the many workers who are now doing the work that two or more other workers used to do can tell you — employers in general are already hiring the least number of employees they can get away with.

He brings up arguments of a kind that, due to a shortage of common sense, are not often heard. Check this out:

The US already has de facto living wage laws in the form of government safety net programs such as Food Stamps, the Earned Income Tax Credit and Medicaid… But critics have (rightly, in my view) charged that government programs such as these are little more than corporate welfare…

You would think that the anti-government Tea Party types in Congress would want to eliminate much of the need for these government programs by making corporations pay their full share of a living wage…

Citizens who work for slightly more generous corporations all chip in via their income taxes. Then the government has money to help other workers who labor for the cheapskate corporations, so their employees can afford the necessities that ought to be covered by their paychecks but are not. Voila! Corporate welfare!

You can call it anything you want, but that doesn’t change the fact. Speaking of cheapskate companies, Polombo says:

The award for corporate chutzpah goes to McDonald’s who in a campaign aimed towards its workers, tries to convince them that it is possible to work a minimum wage McJob and still live comfortably — if only they would budget their money properly! They support this by a sample budget that apparently assumes a worker has a second job along with Food Stamps to pay for food and almost no expense for health insurance. Unbelievable!

Polombo is not the only journalist having a good time bashing McDonald’s and wondering, incidentally, what planet those people are from. For ThinkProgress.org, Annie-Rose Strasser gave the sample budget the once-over and called it “laughably inaccurate”:

Not only does the budget leave a spot open for ‘second job,’ it also gives wholly unreasonable estimates for employees’ costs: $20 a month for health care, $0 for heating, and $600 a month for rent. It does not include any budgeted money for food or clothing.

Actually, this would explain why no money is allotted for heating. A person with two jobs is never home to need the heat turned on, and can sleep wrapped in a Mylar space blanket which is available for quite a reasonable price at the surplus store, where they are sold for the convenience of mountain climbers who might get caught in blizzards. Strasser goes on to say:

For an uninsured person to independently buy health care, he or she must shell out on average $215 a month — just for an individual plan… If that person wants to eat, ‘moderate’ spending will run them $32 a week for themselves, and $867 a month to feed a family of four. And if a fast food worker is living in a city? Well, New York City rents just reached an average of $3,000 a month.

And here is a question. Considering that this phantom budget was concocted by McDonald’s with the help of Visa — what about credit card bills? Many Americans pay huge amounts of interest every month to credit card companies, and not always for luxuries and frivolities. And people, yes, even fast-food employees, have student loans to pay back. And where is the item for child care, for which anyone with one or more children and two jobs will at some point have to pay? Even a doting grandma needs a $20 tucked into her apron pocket every now and then.

But there is no point in nitpicking, when the basic assumption of the budget — that everybody should work two jobs — is so blatantly unacceptable. The only upside is that employees can, as comic Stephen Colbert suggests, go to both employers’ Christmas parties and surreptitiously fill their pockets with buffet food. That may get them through the holiday week, but what about the rest of the year? And how many McDonald’s executives work a second job? What planet are these people from, anyway?

Reactions?

Source: “A Living Wage for Americans,” The World According to Tony Polombo, 08/01/13
Source: “McDonalds Tells Workers To Budget By Getting A Second Job And Turning Off Their Heat,” ThinkProgress.org, 07/15/13
Image by Imgur.com.

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To Prevent Homelessness, Alleviate Veteran PTSD

Dr. PhilHouse the Homeless blog has been looking at the various ways in which veterans are denied their rights, a terrible situation which often results in homelessness and premature death. There are the enormously long waits before a case can be considered and acted upon. As we learned, workers in the Veterans Administration system have done disgraceful actions like shredding files.

Even when troubled vets are able to access the help they were guaranteed by the government, sometimes they sabotage their own treatment by not telling the whole truth about the extent of their symptoms (because they don’t want to be branded crazy) or by refusing to take their meds, for any number of reasons. Often, people who are mentally unbalanced don’t even realize how out of balance they are. This is part of the problem.

Activists put a lot of work into raising awareness, but sometimes the best intentions lead to trouble, as popular TV personality Dr. Phil (Phil McGraw) found out last spring. He aired a program designed to remind Americans that thousands of veterans, not only from Iraq and Afghanistan, but from Desert Storm and even the seemingly forgotten Vietnam conflict, are still suffering the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder on a daily basis.

A member of the public who entered the subsequent debate talked about how family members of PTSD victims “walk on egg shells,” always afraid they might say the wrong thing to the disturbed veteran who is their loved one. Dr. Phil encountered the media version of the same problem, making the very public mistake of titling this particular episode of his show, “From Heroes to Monsters?”

Despite the presence of a question mark, implying that the matter is not decided but is indeed under discussion, the host took heavy fire, with some elements of the veteran community demanding an apology. People called the episode’s title ignorant, unjustifiable, stigmatizing, insulting, and ratings-driven. On the other hand, the old Hollywood saying, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” might apply here. The well-publicized outrage served to get even more people talking about the issue.

Columnist Torrey Shannon, the wife of a 100% PTSD-rated combat veteran, was disappointed not only by the title, but by the advice given by Dr. Phil’s guest expert, Dr. Frank Lawlis, who wrote a book called The PTSD Breakthrough. He recommends chewing gum to relieve stress, though Shannon’s own internet research suggests that gum chewing is more likely to raise the person’s blood pressure and introduce artificial sweeteners of questionable value into the system.

Dr. Lawlis also recommends blue light bulbs, strong mouthwash, and colonic cleansing, none of which might be harmful in themselves, but which Shannon finds trivializing. She has little patience with the idea of yoga breathing exercises or participation in a drum circle, and is very upset by the suggestion of an ancient traditional method of self-healing, saying:

The book continues into dangerous territory by recommending a combat veteran with PTSD go on a vision quest, much like American Indians used to do. Vision quests require spending 7 days alone with no intake but water until a symbol appears in your consciousness.

However… such unconventional methods are also recommended by people who really, really do know what they are talking about, like Karl Marlantes, author of What It Is Like to Go to War, who believes that incorporating ritual and ceremony into a veteran’s return could truly make a difference. Many therapists are extremely impressed with the results obtained when PTSD victims are given the powerful psychedelic compound known as ayahuasca.

For a website called Healing Those Who Serve, Janice Arenofsky writes:

With the rise of psychological ailments among Iraq and Afghanistan War vets, military and VA hospitals have begun to rethink how they deal with this age-old scourge of war. Here is a rundown on six new methods of handling combat-related emotional trauma.

She proceeds to discuss acupuncture, meditation, music therapy, animal therapy, Emotional Freedom Technique, and Virtual Reality Treatment, all of which have been used by professionals. So, there is a lot going on in the PTSD recovery field of which Dr. Phil’s critics might not be aware.

Although Dr. Phil changed the controversial title of the episode before it was aired again, he remained adamant about the outrage he feels about the overall situation. According to the figures he found, for every battlefield death in the recent wars, there have been about 25 veteran suicides. Dr. Phil wrote for his online readers:

Some viewers expressed concern, and even disappointment, with the show’s original title… Our intent was to acknowledge the question so often cited in the media, not to make a statement, and to emphasize the severity of the pain and suffering our guests say they experience. I really wanted you to hear firsthand the effects that PTSD can have on war heroes and their families, and I’m grateful to our guests for being so candid and honest about their experiences.

One of Dr. Phil’s fans, by the way, in the comment section of his page offered information on The Soldiers Project, which the organization’s website describes like this:

We are a group of licensed mental health professionals who offer free psychological treatment to military service members (active duty, National Guard, Reserves and veterans) and their loved ones who have served or who expect to serve in the conflicts in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Source: “Regarding Dr. Phil’s ‘From Heroes to Monsters?’ Episode. Here’s Why America is Outraged, or Should Be!,” TorreyShannon.com, 04/21/12
Source: “Treating PTSD in Non-Traditional Ways,” HealingThoseWhoServe.org, 07/22/13
Source: “Heroes in Pain,” DrPhil.com, 04/25/12
Image by Keegan.

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Spotlight on Homeless Women Vets

War Zone Comfort ZoneLike many entertainers, comedian Greg Proops is anti-war but pro-soldier, and believes that a lot of Americans see no choice other than enlistment, because “the economy is so awful and I think that the underclass has to join the service to get three squares and some health care.” And nowadays, the underclass includes just about everybody. Now, what about when the soldiering is over and the person has to reestablish a life at home?

The performer wants his audiences to realize that when veterans are discharged, in many cases their troubles are just beginning. They expect the experience they have gained and the service they have rendered to count for something. Instead, they often find themselves hungry, sick, disabled, mentally confused, emotionally troubled, and experiencing homelessness.

The boring, preachy part

When Proops records shows in front of live audiences, each episode includes a “boring preachy part” where he launches a tirade against whatever current news item has stirred up his indignation. Actually, these rants are far from dull, and in his June 3 podcast he took the opportunity to point out that female veterans are the fastest-growing segment of the American homeless population. Proops was alerted to this dismaying fact by the documentary, War Zone/Comfort Zone, which is now available on YouTube.

For Memorial Day, filmmaker Lizzie Warren described her experience in the pages of Salon:

I followed the story of two women — one of them a Gold Star mother — who fight to establish Connecticut’s first transitional, supportive house for women veterans. The women and their allies faced neighborhood opposition in several towns, and establishing a home with fifteen beds for women veterans and their children took more than four years.

Four years! To get 15 women and kids into a house! There are thousands and thousands of homeless veterans out there, and more arriving every day. This rate of progress is unacceptable. Warren notes that:

Women veterans face a dense constellation of issues: low wages, a lack of childcare and family housing options, inadequate gender-specific services at the Veterans Administration and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from combat and Military Sexual Trauma.

A February New York Times article by Patricia Leigh Brown hit the same theme:

While male returnees become homeless largely because of substance abuse and mental illness, experts say that female veterans face those problems and more, including the search for family housing and an even harder time finding well-paying jobs.

We would add that a great number of vets suffer from the effects of PTSD, which is not the same as mental illness, being more preventable and more treatable. It is an enormous factor just the same.

At least 10% of the homeless veterans who are known to have spent nights in shelters are women. Transitional housing funded by Department of Veterans Affairs grants are mostly designed for single men, and 60% of them don’t allow children. Yet female veterans are much more likely than males to have custody of children.

California, here we come

Brown points out that a quarter of homeless women vets (and men too) are located in California. One out of every four homeless veterans lives there, yet as House the Homeless recently noted, California is a state whose bureaucracy has not yet caught up with the reporting requirements that were put in place to help the VA keep track of veteran suicides. This too is unacceptable.

Texas is another large state that is both rife with homeless veterans and behind in its statistical reporting. Journalists started noticing at least a couple of years ago that expanded services were needed, especially for women, especially for women with dependent children.

Alex Branch interviewed the director of Fort Worth’s nonprofit organization Grace After Fire. Kim Olson, a retired Air Force colonel, is tuned in to every nuance of the situation. Branch quotes Olson:

Almost all the facilities built to help homeless veterans are built around the male model. You don’t find them with child care, and playgrounds and common areas for women. We are going to need those kinds of places.

At the time when Branch did his research, the homeless veterans program administered by the VA in Fort Worth had housed 117 veterans, of which only 12 were women. He also took care to point out that although female veterans might be better educated than their civilian counterparts, their unemployment rate is twice as high because the skills they learned in the military do not carry over well into civilian life.

On this page, the Government Accountability Office offers a downloadable PDF document called “Actions Needed to Ensure Safe and Appropriate Housing” which addresses the needs of women vets.

Reactions?

Source: “No holidays or parades for homeless women veterans,” Salon, 05/27/13
Source: “Trauma Sets Female Veterans Adrift Back Home,” The New York Times, 02/28/13
Source: “Help hard to find for homeless female veterans,” Star-Telegram.com, 03/09/11
Image by Lizzie Warren.

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Austin Photographer Chronicles Homelessness

The DollarA friend of House the Homeless recommended looking up street photographer Pachi Tamer, who takes pictures of people experiencing homelessness and publishes them via Instagram, under the name of Cachafaz. The finest ones resemble the works of old European masters that hang in museums. It was inevitable to form that impression, even before looking up the next online source, which voiced a similar opinion:

These are portraits, some very powerful and with the dignity and grace of Renaissance religious paintings.

That was said by Josh Q, who also believes that Tamer ought to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize, and said so just last month. A little farther back in time, Tamer was interviewed by Derek Shanks, who ascertained that the photographer was born in Argentina and works at an advertising agency in Austin, TX, and asked about his history. Tamer answered:

I went to high school at ‘Hermanos Maristas,’ a Catholic private school in Pergamino. We used to go to very poor neighborhoods with our teachers to help people. We even built a school for them once. And also I learned to help people from my parents. My father was a doctor and he used to take care of people in need for free. My mom is a psychiatrist and at 72 years old she’s still helping people with their problems.

Hidden behind that simple biographical description is a powerful truth about the future and what needs to be done. Obviously, as a society, we need to provide a good education for as many children as possible. We need to promote as many living-wage-paying jobs as possible for parents, so their kids have the support system they need, to do well in school, so that when the time comes they in turn will find jobs that pay at least a living wage.

But this is not, as we commonly and superficially assume, only so these kids can live adequately themselves and not be a drain on the public budget. There is much more to it. Some of them will also be active in helping other people, and they need to acquire the skills and talents and motivation to do it.

Here is another quotation that Shanks captured from Pachi Tamer about the subjects of his photos:

I approach them with respect. I shake their hands. I sit on the street besides them. I share a cigarette with them. I ask them how they’re doing. Then I explain my project and sometimes show them a couple of other pictures. I listen to them. They trust me because I trust them.

Tamer has a side project, a crowdfunding effort called “One Dollar Dreams,” whose object is to get at least a few people something to make life worthwhile. One of the portraits that Shanks chose to show, as illustrative of the artist’s work, is the 18th of the series, where the subject was photographed at the Austin Resource Cen­ter for the Homeless (ARCH). This institution’s fate has has been a bone of contention lately. Many businesses and civic leaders would like to see all the services like ARCH and Caritas and the Salvation Army and Angel House and Austin Travis County Integral Care, moved right out of downtown.

If done properly and for the right reasons, it could be a good idea, and House the Homeless president Richard R. Troxell is willing to entertain it. One of the factors he mentioned to journalist Josh Rosenblatt is the Public Order Initiative, which along with the movement to move services out of town, proves how anxious the civic authorities are to relocate the people experiencing homelessness to somewhere else. The huge Waller Creek project aims to remake downtown Austin, and housed citizens don’t enjoy their celebratory nights out partying when they have to see destitute people in public places.

Reactions?

Source: “Pick of the Day: Pachi Tamer on Instagram,Inside Flipboard, 12/21/12
Source: ““I Just Want Everyone To Look Into Their Eyes And See Their Souls,” We Are JUXT, 12/16/11
Source: “Latest Homeless Initiative: Bust ‘Em?,” The Austin Chronicle, 10/12/12
Image by Pachi Tamer.

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Homelessness and Fame

Justin TimberlakeThanksgiving dinner at the Los Angeles Mission has attracted show business personalities for many years. They wear distinctive aprons and get their pictures taken, ladling out portions of food for people experiencing homelessness.

This year, under the direction of “Top Chef” winner Michael Voltaggio, the mission served up:

3,000 pounds of smoked turkey, 700 pounds of corn and maple stuffing, 80 gallons of gravy, and 800 pounds of vegetables in addition to twice-baked potatoes, spaghetti squash casserole and pumpkin pie.

Natural disasters always inspire celebrities to help the newly homeless. Large parts of America’s east coast are still struggling with the ruin brought by Hurricane Sandy. Alec Baldwin visited his old school, New York University, to raise the morale of students who were evacuated into a recreation center. Jerry Seinfeld and other comics will donate the proceeds of the Sandy Storm Relief Benefit (December 19) to people made homeless by the flooding.

AFC’s Drop-In Center — where kids living on the street could walk in and receive food, showers, clothing, medical care, housing referrals, employment assistance, HIV testing and treatment, and mental health and substance abuse services — was completely destroyed by Hurricane Sandy.

Those words from Tracie Egan Morrissey describe the fate of the innovative and essential Ali Forney Center, a place where lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth could feel at home. This project was so important to actor Bea Arthur that when she died, her will gave the AFC $300,000.

Bless their publicity-seeking hearts, celebrities are often involved with activism, and quite a few famous people have helped raise funds for many good causes, which is always appreciated. More importantly, celebrities help raise awareness, which is why there is nothing wrong with seeking publicity. Some very nice folks do it.

As an example, House the Homeless wants as many people as possible to wrap their heads around the concept of Discharge No One Into Homelessness, and then proceed to sign the petition, print out the petition, and tell friends, and so forth. That’s just how we roll.

As for the motives of the various celebrities, there is a temptation sometimes to be suspicious and judgmental. When Kim Kardashian shows up to serve meals at the LA Mission, is that exploitation, or what? For an entertainer who is just getting started, the whole public relations game is vital, and it’s always good to be known as a volunteer. At that point in a career, sponsoring a charity might be more beneficial for the calculating striver than for the organization they are helping.

When the person is truly famous, with a high name-recognition score, then the alliance does more good for the helping organization. It might be ambition or pure altruism, but whatever degree of influence a celebrity wields, if they are out there trying to use that influence for good, then more power to them.

Often, the publicity has nothing to do with activism in aid of a cause. For some reason, anytime celebrity connects with homelessness, it’s a story. Like that actor who bumped into a guy’s shopping cart, and the Interwebs can’t stop flapping their jaws about it.

One prominent media tizzy concerned a very famous actor and musician, who probably doesn’t deserve the blame. It looks like he got blindsided by a friend with not much class and too much time on his hands. What happened was, Justin Timberlake and his sweetheart Jessica Biel pitched a big fancy wedding in Italy. A guy who sells real estate went into the streets of Los Angeles and paid people experiencing homelessness to record various greetings to the couple, labeled as messages from “your Hollywood friends who couldn’t make it.”

Gawker got hold of the video and exposed it to the world, and the real estate guy unleashed his lawyers, who said it was a “private joke” and they had better cease and desist. Everybody had something to say about it, and TMZ interviewed one of the “actors,” who was paid $40, which isn’t bad for reading a few lines. But when the man found out that the whole episode had contributed to spoiling someone’s wedding, he felt that a trick had been played on him.

Justin Timberlake handled the situation as responsibly as a celebrity could, under the circumstances, and issued a handsome apology which said, in part:

I was always taught that we as people, no matter what your race, sex, or stature may be, are equal… As it pertains to this silly, unsavory video that was made as a joke and not in any way in mockery… I want to say that, on behalf of my friends, family, and associative knuckleheads, I am deeply sorry to anyone who was offended by the video. Again, it was something that I was not made aware of. But, I do understand the reaction and, by association, I am holding myself accountable.

Another recent apology was sent out into the world by comedian Tracy Morgan after a lot of people got mad at him for saying homophobic things during his standup comedy routine. Many professional entertainers make podcasts, whose archives now contain hours of debate about this particular issue. One side feels that nobody should ever say anything mean, bullying, homophobic, racist, or whatever. The other side says, basically, “You don’t get it. A lot of comics do material in character. Did anyone scold actor Carroll O’Connor for the lines he spoke as Archie Bunker in the classic series ‘All in the Family’? Of course not, because they got it.”

At any rate, Morgan visited the Ali Forney Center (before it was flooded) to raise his consciousness and relate to some homeless kids. He also issued a public statement:

While I am an equal opportunity jokester, and my friends know what is in my heart, even in a comedy club this clearly went too far and was not funny in any context.

TV actor Erin Moran has been in the news lately, not as an activist, but as the exact kind of trainwreck that media consumers hunger for. The former “Happy Days” star suffered foreclosure about a year ago and was evicted from her home a few months later. She and her husband (who is employed) moved to a trailer park, then to a series of down-scale hotels, and the public seems to be waiting, breath held, for the day when this unfortunate couple hits the streets.

Admittedly, Moran seems to have 99 problems in her personal life, but she’s not a veteran with PTSD or a youth who “aged out” of foster care. And neither are a lot of the other people who have no place to stay. This is the point made by Joel John Roberts, CEO of PATH, who also writes for The Huffington Post:

Celebrities who become homeless are an extreme version of the warning that ‘it could happen to anyone.’ Yes, homelessness could happen to you or me. If a celebrity can become homeless, then so can I… Something unexpected could happen — chronic illness with insufficient health insurance, losing a job, or developing mental health issues. Or we might just make foolish decisions. We could turn to substances to cope with depression, break the law in a moment of desperation, or gamble away our savings… I guess the only way to truly end homelessness for people, both rich and poor, is to help them address their personal issues and provide affordable housing.

Reactions?

Source: “LA Mission Serves Up 76th Annual Thanksgiving Dinner,” CBS Los Angeles, 11/21/12
Source: “Bea Arthur’s Favorite Charity, a Shelter for Homeless LGBT Youth … ,Jezebel, 11/05/12
Source: “World’s Worst Wedding Joke,” Salon, 10/26/12
Source: “Tracy Morgan visits homeless gay teenagers on apology tour,” DailyMail.co.uk, 06/18/11
Source: “Homeless Celebrities: ‘Happy Days’ to Homeless Days,” The Huffington Post, 10/03/12
Image by nikkiboom.

0

Economic Inequality and Homelessness

Urban Blight #3By now, everyone has heard of TED, the nonprofit foundation whose mission is to spread ideas. Originally, its speakers and audience were drawn from the realms of Technology, Entertainment, and Design. Now, TED draws from inspiration from every well:

Today, TED is best thought of as a global community. It’s a community welcoming people from every discipline and culture who seek a deeper understanding of the world.

TED’s yearly global conference in Edinburgh is one of the most significant events a person could hope to attend. The speakers whose “TED Talks” are offered for free online include “the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers,” who get to talk for no more than 18 minutes.

Richard Wilkinson’s speech only ran 16 minutes and 34 seconds, and he made a lot of good points in that time about how economic inequality harms societies. Does it make any sense at all that some of the wealthiest countries also have the greatest economic gaps between rich and poor?

Extensive research done by Wilkinson, who is emeritus professor of public health at the University of Nottingham, revealed an interesting corollary to his contention that more equal societies almost always fare better in a number of important ways. Some countries get along fine with redistribution of wealth, and some succeed because there is a smaller difference in the range of before-tax income. The thing is, he says:

[W]e conclude that it doesn’t much matter how you get your greater equality, as long as you get there somehow. We’ve got to constrain income, the bonus culture incomes at the top… [T]he take-home message though is that we can improve the real quality of human life by reducing the differences in incomes between us.

The studies were set up with carefully crafted parameters. The economic disparity between the rich and the poor was measured by taking the top 20% and the bottom 20%, and comparing them to find out exactly how much difference there is. Here’s what they came up with:

The more unequal countries are doing worse on all these kinds of social problems. It’s an extraordinarily close correlation.

We’re talking about all kinds of problems, certain of which are more pervasive at the lower end of the socio-economic ladder, all of them worse in the more unequal countries — not just a little bit worse, but anything from twice as common to 10 times as common. Wilkinson says:

What we’re looking at is general social disfunction related to inequality. It’s not just one or two things that go wrong, it’s most things.

Especially in the area of health and longevity, there is “a lot of difference between the poor and the rest of us,” according to Wilkinson. The research looks at life expectancy, infant mortality, homicide, teen birth rates, and many other indicators. Mental illness is one, including addiction to alcohol or hard drugs. Whole societies, Wilkinson says, have three times the mental illness rates as other societies, and it’s all tied up with economic inequality. Inequality has psychosocial effects:

More to do with feelings of superiority and inferiority, of being valued and devalued, respected and disrespected… The big change in our understanding of drivers of chronic health in the rich developed world is how important chronic stress from social sources is affecting the immune system, the cardiovascular system.

Psychosocial stress has the same detrimental effects on the human body and mind as any other kind of stress. Mental illness leads to homelessness, and homelessness leads to mental illness. Another vicious cycle is created by what Joel Dyer calls the “perpetual prisoner machine.” Where do homeless people come from? Sometimes, from prison. But that doesn’t mean they should be exiled forever. They’re not disposable people. And if a person never did time before, being homeless increases the likelihood of it, exponentially.

Wilkinson illustrates again and again how inequality affects not just the poor but the entire society. Although a closer approach to equality makes the most difference at the bottom, he points out, there are benefits at the top as well. Trust level is an interesting one. In the most unequal societies, only about 15% of the population feel that other people can be trusted. In the most equal societies, the number is more like 60%. In more equal societies, there is more community involvement, and that means making sure everybody is involved, who wants to be. Including people experiencing homelessness, who, if community is real, can and will be helped to escape that condition.

“How economic inequality harms societies” can also be reached via Universal Living Wage  (click on “What’s New” on the menu on the left).

Reactions?

Source: “About TED,” TED.com
Source: “Richard Wilkinson: How economic inequality harms societies,” dotSUB.com
Image by Jerry.

5

The Vulnerability of Homeless Women

biker in the woodsOn June 15, the corpse of Valerie Louise Godoy was found in a wooded area of Austin, Texas. At the age of 34, she was killed by “significant blunt force trauma,” not to the head, which might at least be quick, but to the body, which sounds like a miserable way to go.

Richard R. Troxell and House the Homeless find that last year (2011) the number of homeless deaths in Austin was 137. Only a small proportion of these deaths were from violence, but there is a school of thought which holds that homelessness itself is an act of violence. Words to that effect are permanently engraved at the site of Austin’s Homeless Memorial, where every autumn, caring people gather to pay tribute to the lost lives.

Each one of these people had a story, as Richard reminded us when interviewed by TV journalist Alana Rocha for YNN Fox (News 8). The video coverage included several of his remarks, including:

The thing about Valerie is, she was somebody’s sister, somebody’s daughter.

And so were they all — sisters and daughters, brothers and sons. Various news reports make a point of mentioning Valerie Godoy’s ordinary, relatively normal upbringing. She took part in high school theatricals; moved to New York for a while to study the culinary arts. She could be the girl next door. And this is exactly the point. People experiencing homelessness are not members of some alien species, separate from humanity. Most of them had ordinary, relatively normal lives. Unfortunately, these days, being a normal, ordinary American means being about one paycheck away from disaster.

Valerie Godoy was perhaps unusual in being homeless in the town where she grew up. It may seem strange that someone with local family should be living on the streets, but there are many reasons for adults to not live with their parents. Sometimes, relatives are unwilling to deal with the consequences of living with an addict who refuses treatment. There are compelling reasons why even family members with the biggest hearts in the world, might be unable to offer someone housing.

In fact, the government itself makes it difficult for people to help their homeless relatives and friends. If they receive Section 8 housing assistance, only the people originally authorized are allowed to live in a place. Did Granny’s apartment building burn down and she needs somewhere to stay? Too bad. A family might be willing to take in a stray person — but weighed against the risk of losing their own housing and finding themselves out on the street, they just don’t dare.

Valerie Godoy’s body was found in Duncan Park, aka the Ninth Street BMX trail, which accommodates offroad bicycle racing over difficult and challenging terrain. A website for BMX enthusiasts mentioned the crime, and a very large number of respondents left comments ranging from cavalier and flippant to seriously, disturbingly ugly. Their main concern seems to be that the park will be perceived as a menace to public safety and bulldozed so it can no longer be used for their particular brand of recreation.

Although the park is said to not be maintained by the city, Godoy’s body was found by a parks officer. KXAN reporter David Scott mentioned that the park is frequented by the homeless, “in part because a food truck stops there with hot meals.” Scott also called the murder a “bizarre” case, though he did not explain what was particularly bizarre about it. A police department spokesperson, Cpl. Anthony Hipolito, told YNN News:

It’s a pretty populated area. They run people out of here all the time…

The impression is given that, while the food truck may stop at the park, the authorities are not particularly hospitable to the people experiencing homelessness who go there to eat. Another member of the police force told a reporter it seemed like Godoy was not familiar with the area. The police may have gotten their information from the same person who commented at a website called LiarCatchers, stating that one or two days before the murder, he had overheard the victim asking someone how to get to Duncan Park.

According to one news report, Valerie Godoy was sighted shortly before her death sitting on a curb with another person who had not been seen around the park before. Was the killer a stranger to her? There is a reason for asking this question. According to a website that publishes “mug shots,” the victim was arrested for public intoxication on May 25. In the official photograph her face is cut and bruised [see video]. The picture used by other news outlets, after her death, is a digitally cleaned-up version of that photo, with the contusions and laceration removed. Who put them there? Who roughed up Valerie Godoy three weeks before she was brutally murdered?

According to a helpful website, Texas is second only to California in the number of women’s shelters encompassed by its borders. Texas has 195, nine of them in Austin. At first blush, that sounds great. When you break it down, the situation is more complicated and less rosy. It’s not clear which institutions are actually places with beds, and which are referral agencies. Two of the listings specifically mention domestic violence, and although women experiencing homelessness are often subject to violence from partners, the specialized nature of some establishments can make it hard to gain admission. One listing is not a shelter but a hotline. And so it goes.

Richard says:

Single women and single women with children continue to be the fastest growing segment of homelessness, not only in Austin but also in the nation. Women currently get turned away every day.

Obviously, the supply of help is not matching up with the need. Consequently Richard, House the Homeless, and all concerned friends are calling for the creation of the Valerie Godoy Women’s Shelter. The first step is to bring this matter to the attention of Austin’s city leaders by way of a petition, which can be found on this page. Please click over and sign!

Reactions?

Source: “Woman’s murder exposes Austin’s most vulnerable,” YNN.com, 06/20/12
Source: “Police call for help in murder case,” KXAN.com, 06/16/12
Source: “Police investigate suspicious death in Downtown Austin,” YNN.com, 06/15/12
Source: “Austin, Texas,” WomensShelters.org
Image by maczter, used under its Creative Commons license.

0

Income Inequality and Low-Paying Jobs

chartMany people have seen the chart shown here, which “went viral” not long ago. Now the site where it appears carries an afternote from Lisa Wade, who says:

Since posting this, I’ve discovered that the numbers do not accurately reflect the ratio of CEO vs. worker pay. I apologize for not vetting this more carefully.

What happened was, a website called PolitiFact discovered that the chart originated with three graduate students in 2005 who forgot to list sources for their data, which by now would be more than 10 years old anyway. Fair enough.

It appears that no official body keeps track of the comparative CEO/worker rates of compensation internationally, so that’s a dead end. But even without solid verification, PolitiFact admits:

We don’t doubt the chart’s underlying point that the ratio of CEO pay to worker pay is high in the United States, and is likely higher in our free-wheeling economy than it is in the historically more egalitarian nations of Europe.

They also warn that even in the best case, statistics can only be approximated, because of differences in surveying methods and subjective decisions like what counts as compensation. But the story really gets interesting when PolitiFact seeks out current numbers regarding the income inequality between the CEO of an American company and the average worker in that company.

Here is what they found:

The most recent chart from the Economic Policy Institute shows a ratio of 185 to 1 for 2009. According to the group’s calculations, the peak since the mid 1960s was almost 299 to 1… Meanwhile, the most recent ratio from the Institute for Policy Studies is also smaller — for 2010, it was 325 to 1. In previous years the ratio on two occasions has exceeded 475 to 1 — to be specific, 516 to 1 in 1999 and 525 to 1 in 2000.

So they imply that we should calm down about this income inequality thing, because it was worse in 2000. Sure, the pay differential was even more outrageous than the number shown on the chart, but this information “would be of questionable use to policy debates today.”

Who are they kidding? We’re supposed to shun this chart because it’s wrong — but it’s wrong in the wrong direction! When the big boss makes 525 times as much as the worker, that’s worse than the big boss making 475 times as much as the worker!

Maybe it’s true that the most conservative number is closest to being right. Maybe the average American CEO only makes 185 times as much as the worker, a number that PolitiFact says was “not generated by groups that might have an ideological interest in downplaying the gaps between rich and poor.” So we’re supposed to chill out and not be concerned about the fact that for every dollar a worker makes, the big boss makes $185 of them.

Eileen Appelbaum notes that there is a difference between the official national unemployment level of 12.7 million and the actual number of unemployed, which is 22.8 million, if you count people who have given up searching for work, and the part-time employed who would be working full-time if they could. She is suspicious of employers who claim to “have good jobs but can’t find workers with the right skills to fill them.” If such an urgent imbalance exists between supply and demand, she wonders, then why isn’t this reflected by a rise in pay for these jobs?

Appelbaum gives a summary of recent research about the aftermath of an economic recession. High-paying and low-paying jobs come back, but, she adds:

A new study attributes the jobless recoveries following recent recessions to such job polarization. The study’s authors argue that jobs in the middle of the skill and income distribution disappear during recessions and fail to come back during recoveries.

However, in some areas of the low-skill-and-income-sector, the job outlook is perking up. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, personal care and home health aides are the fastest growing categories of workers being sought.

Last week, House the Homeless discussed the “silver tsunami,” the demographic bulge of seniors and pre-seniors who will soon require the attention of many thousands of personal care aides and home health aides. They are honorable professions, but the pay scale is not tempting.

Since the financial reward is paltry, we had better hope that a whole lot of young people feel motivated to enter the caregiver business through their own natural good-heartedness. Where is all this good-heartedness going to come from? We’re raising a nation of kids whose families are fractured by homelessness, whose human ties are fragile and constantly broken by the necessity to move yet again.

These disadvantaged kids are proceeding to grow up into the very workforce that will be spoonfeeding oatmeal to the Baby Boom generation a few years from now. We’d better hope they learn about the milk of human kindness somewhere along the way.

Reactions?

Source: “Cross-National Comparison of Ratio of CEO to Worker Pay,” The Society Pages, 05/03/12
Source: “Viral Facebook post on CEO-worker pay ratio has obscure past,” PolitiFact, 10/10/11
Source: “Low-Wage Jobs to Blame for Slow Economic Recovery,” NationofChange, 04/10/12
Image of “Cross-National Comparison of Ratio of CEO to Worker Pay” is used under Fair Use: Reporting.

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