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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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Richer Rich, Poorer Poor, and PSC

Pepper Spray CopHouse the Homeless looked at the Associated Press journalist Hope Yen’s report on the recent Pew survey about attitudes concerning class in the United States. It turned out to be so interesting, there’s more to say about it.

Increasing poverty and “stubbornly high unemployment” are mentioned, societal conditions that are no longer fresh news to anyone. We have seen months of Occupy movement activities, including in many places the welcoming into the ranks of people experiencing homelessness.

The media have been full of photos of peaceful demonstrators being struck, stunned, sprayed, and otherwise brutalized. The impression such pictures give is that the members of America’s police forces are desperate to keep their jobs. The police seem to be so panicked by the thought of unemployment, they are willing to drop the charade of protecting the people, to become the tools of an elite class that does not even have their best interests in mind. Afraid of losing their security, of becoming broke and powerless, they are overtaken by a primal urge to attack the thing they fear becoming.

Oddly, what really struck a public nerve was not an instance of out-of-control violence, but the iconic photo of protesters sitting peacefully on the ground, being pepper-sprayed by a UC Davis cop. His perfectly casual attitude of “business as usual” is far more insulting and frightening than a display of temper. Going about his job with all the composure of a gardener watering flowers, Pepper Spray Cop (PSC) became an Internet meme.

Hundreds of adaptations were generated by creative people with graphics software, and Tumblr has a great collection. The PSC on this page has been separated from its original context and touched up, for the convenience of anyone inspired to do some PSC art.

Hope Yen quoted one of the survey analysts from the Pew Research Center, Richard Morin, who sees “a growing public awareness of underlying shifts in the distribution of wealth in American society.” In 2005, the top 10% of the population held 49% of the wealth. By 2009, the top 10% held 56% of the wealth. Meanwhile, almost half the people in America are in a condition of poverty, and no matter how generous and caring they might be, a great many Americans are simply not in a position to help those who are in the worst condition of all, the actually homeless and out on the streets or packed in shelters.

Yet, incredibly, Reason magazine’s Veronique de Rugy, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center, seems to think everything is okay because “income mobility is actually alive and well in the United States of America.” She interviewed a University of Chicago economist named Steven Kaplan, whose main point seems to be that, whoever the top 1% were in 1990, they were not the same individuals as the top 1% in 2000, and so on. Things get churned around, and there is plenty of “income mobility.”

In other words, some people get rich but don’t stay that way, and some people who were not wealthy become wealthy. It’s as if, because different people take turns in the poverty sector, that somehow makes everything okay.

Yen quotes Scott Winship, from the Brookings Institute, who talks about other measures of economic distribution. He says:

These accounts generally conflate disappointing growth in men’s earnings with growth in household income, which has been impressive. Growth in women’s earnings has also been impressive…

We’ve got scholars claiming that the average household has a higher income than at some point back in history. Big whoop! Even if the average family income is higher, it’s achieved at the cost of both parents working. Two adults have to work, if they can find work, to maintain a household economic standard that, in the past, could have been attained with only one adult working. This is not progress.

Yen asks the rhetorical question: “So why are people still sleeping outside in protest?” A better question is, why are so many people still sleeping outside because they don’t have anyplace else to sleep? If things are so economically rosy, why are thousands of Americans still homeless? Maybe because we don’t yet have the Universal Living Wage, which promises to end homelessness for over 1,000,000 minimum-wage workers, and prevent economic homelessness for all 10.1 million minimum-wage workers.

But what about economic charts and graphs? Glad you asked. Here are some magnificent ones, gathered by various sources and presented by Business Insider. The charts have such titles as:

The gap between the top 1% and everyone else hasn’t been this bad since the Roaring Twenties.

Half of America has 2.5% of the wealth.

The last two decades were great… if you were a CEO or owner. Not if you were anyone else.

Despite the myth of social mobility, poor Americans have a SLIM CHANCE of rising to the upper middle class

In introducing the charts, Gus Lubin says,

The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. Cliché, sure, but it’s also more true than at any time since the Gilded Age… The poor are getting poorer, wages are falling behind inflation, and social mobility is at an all-time low.

Reactions?

Source: “Conflict between rich, poor strongest in 24 years,” Statesman.com, 01/11/12
Source: “For Richer and for Poorer,” Reason.com, 02/12
Source: “15 Mind-Blowing Facts About Wealth And Inequality In America,” Business Insider, 04/09/10
Image by DonkeyHotey, used under its Creative Commons license.

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Media, Homeless Reality, and the Universal Living Wage

Rogerbstillz VideoIn 1.05-minute video “Homeless Guy gets Paid with Square,” an entrepreneurial fellow holds a sign that says, “Too lazy to work, too dum to hustel.” That’s possible. It might not go over in Lawrence, KS, but in a place like Santa Monica, CA, where both the panhandlers and the public are more laid-back, people will pay to be entertained, even by self-deprecating irony in a street person’s pitch.

The really unusual thing is, this guy’s cardboard sign is decorated with decals representing the major credit card companies. Reviewing the video, Courtney Boyd Myers says,

Homeless guy Mark aka ‘Madwhite’ is raking in a lot more dough now that he accepts Square, Visa, MasterCard or DiscoverCard transactions. In fact, he’s making 4 times what he normally makes… Once he has your information, he’ll email you to let you know what corners he’ll be frequenting next… Watch Mark discuss his mobile payment transactions below in this nearly unbelievable video…

Okay, the reason why it’s “nearly unbelievable” is because it shouldn’t be believed. It’s a fake, a satire perhaps, or just a thought experiment. But who could be blamed for being taken in, even for a minute? Why not? The world gets stranger every day. Sometimes it’s difficult to separate the real from The Onion or the political theater of the Yes Men.

At Rogerbstillz’s Blog, the maker of the video writes about the first time somebody used an iPhone to let him pay by credit card, and how it inspired his imagination, for better or worse:

Now I’m sure we have all been approached by a homeless person asking for change and we tell them ‘I don’t have any change/cash on me’ well what if they replied I accept credit cards lol What would your reply be?

The maker of the video hopes this will “go viral.” It’s obviously a plug for a mobile phone application that can accept credit card payments, and there’s nothing wrong with that, in and of itself. The software is real, and is said to be a convenience for sellers at farmers’ markets and many others.

Humor can sometimes be a redeeming virtue in media whose underlying assumptions we don’t really care for, but the video clip isn’t exactly funny. As a comment from “rictandag” points out,

it demeans homeless people and underappreciates greatly how mobile payments already are being used in the ‘developing world’ for social good.

Speaking of the demand for such a service, “rictandag” says,

For developing nations where access to other media has been limited, mobile is the great enabler… mobile is and will be their only access to the Internet and all the services that folk in the developed world now take for granted such as online banking, money transfer, email, up-to-date weather and news, commodity prices, commerce, government services.

These things are also true of the inner city homeless colonies and peripheral encampments in America. Another thing can be said too — no matter how helpful this technology may be to the homeless in our own country or to others throughout the world, it’s still dealing with the results of poverty and homelessness.

House the Homeless is interested in addressing the causes. The Universal Living Wage (UWL) intends to adjust the federal minimum wage and index it to the local cost of housing, throughout the nation. When properly adjusted, the ULW should ensure that anyone who works a 40-hour week can afford basic rental housing, and that means safe and decent as well as affordable, and includes utilities too. Of course, once the rent is paid, they should also be able to afford clothing and food. That’s what the Universal Living Wage is all about.

Reactions?

Source: “Homeless Guy Makes More Money Using Square and Mobile Payments,” The Next Web, 09/30/11
Source: “Homeless Gets Paid With Square/Box,” Rogerbstillz’s Blog, 09/28/11
Screen capture of Rogerbstillz Video is used under Fair Use: Reporting.

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Three Cities and Scott Bransford, Part 1

Tent city SacramentoTwo years ago, the print publication High Country News published a long and detailed story by Scott Bransford, concentrating on tent cities in three American cities. Fresno, California, was rated by the Brookings Institution (a public policy institute, or think tank) in 2005 as the poorest American city. At the time when this piece was written, Fresno was estimated to contain about 2,000 people experiencing homelessness, of whom about 40% were said to have been incarcerated at some point.

Seeing a statistic like that, don’t you wonder how many of those incarcerations were a direct result of homelessness? Society and its laws have created a diabolical revolving door. What a futile exercise of power it is, to throw people in jail for vagrancy and then point the finger and say, “Look how many of those homeless people have criminal records!”

In his classic article, Bransford interviewed some of the 200-or-so people camping on Union Pacific Railroad land in the midst of Fresno, in a “squatter village” known as Taco Flat or Little Tijuana. He wrote,

Just to the south, under a freeway overpass, there’s another camp of roughly equal size called New Jack City where most of the residents are black. Even more makeshift dwellings are scattered throughout the neighborhood nearby.

The reporter named “tough-love social policies” and heedless real estate speculation as the main factors that have knocked people out of their jobs and homes. Humans don’t always make the best choices, and even if they are paragons of individual and social behavior, they can still be brought low by illness, disability, flood, fire, misguided financial investments, and a thousand other misfortunes.

Bransford suggests that the United States take a look at the rest of the world, where he contends that the “predominant mode of city-making” is from the ground up, with cities that develop out of slums. He says,

Informal urbanism, characterized by unauthorized occupation of land, makeshift construction, and lack of public utilities, is how many burgeoning nations meet their housing needs. It thrives in places like Fresno, where poverty is endemic and there is a wide gap between rich and poor.

As in Sacramento and Portland, the dispossessed people of Fresno won a lawsuit a few years back. They filed suit against their city and state, for destroying their property in a series of “sweeps.” The city and state were told to pay $2.3 million for damages. Yes, that is a good thing. It’s wonderful that the people experiencing homelessness also experienced some justice for a change.

But think how much good that money might have done if it had been used earlier, and in a different way. If that green energy had been spent some other way, maybe those particular people would not have been camping out, being vulnerable to having everything taken from them by the police. Maybe they would have had jobs and/or places to live.

Money is green energy, so this is reminiscent of words written in another context, but with a parallel meaning, by Richard R. Troxell:

Clearly, homelessness has taken root in America. It is very sad when we spend such energy to deal with the evils of homelessness instead of creating pathways to end it.

Nowadays, Fresno is one of the hot spots extensively covered by New America Media, or NAM, an organization with connections to more than 3,000 ethnic media. The young, a similarly “invisible community,” are NAM’s other important constituency. Prime example: Rebecca Plevin’s “Young and Homeless.”

We recently talked about Ontario, California, in relation to the irrational stupidity of police “sweeps.” But there is plenty more to say about Portland, Oregon. That will be coming up next.

Reactions?

Source: “Camping for their lives,” Utne.com, 2009
Image by Peta-de-Aztlan, used under its Creative Commons license.

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Homelessness, Foster Kids, and Michele Bachmann

Michele BachmannAccording to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, in September of 2009 (the last date for which statistics have been compiled), 423,773 American children were in foster care. That’s nearly half a million: Not such a large number these days when applied to dollars, but a very large number indeed when it’s children we’re talking about.

Kids in foster care are in an ambiguous situation, not actually homeless (PDF), but not in their own permanent homes, either. For about half of all the foster kids, the stated “case goal” is reunification with their families, a goal much more easily met if their families are lucky enough to have homes.

Although some are placed with relatives, about half of the children in foster care at any given time are with non-relatives. It seems that about half the total number of children remain in foster care for less than a year. Presumably, the family situation improves, and they are able to return.

Of course, a small percentage of kids “age out” of foster care each year, and their circumstances are often dire. Of the system’s graduates, only about half also graduate from high school. Only one in 50 goes on to earn a college degree.

It is estimated that a quarter of the teenagers too old for foster care are now homeless, and a third receive public assistance. Half are unemployed, and more than 4/5ths become parents at an age when they are not equipped for it, and without the means to prevent their children from joining a cycle of poverty, neglect, and even abuse.

Recently, all the members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, all the state governors, and the president received copies of Looking Up at the Bottom Line. An enthusiastic reply came from Michele Bachmann, who represents the 6th congressional district of Minnesota, and hopes to be the next Republican president.

Bachmann’s political activism is said to have originated with her experience as a 23-time foster parent. Sheryl Gay Stolberg explained in The New York Times, saying,

… [I]t was her role as a mother, both to her biological children and to her adolescent foster daughters, that spurred her to seek public office.

The state allowed a family to take care of up to three foster children at a time, and the Bachmanns specialized in teenage girls with eating disorders. The Bachmann biological children were home-schooled or went to private Christian schools, but foster children must attend public schools, and Michele Bachmann became politically active through wanting to influence how the schools are run.

Stolberg says,

By the late 1990s… Mrs. Bachmann was upset by the education her foster children were getting in public school. Teachers gave them ‘little special attention,’ and many were ‘placed in lower-level classes, as if they were not expected to succeed,’ she told a House subcommittee in 2007.

Benjy Sarlin takes the story a bit further, noting that Bachmann, at the same time,

… [P]itched her own legislation that would allow states to use vouchers to move foster children into private or home schools, injecting a hot-button partisan issue into the mix of what had been a mostly apolitical process.

Kathleen Strottman, executive director of the bi-partisan, nonprofit Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, is extremely appreciative of Bachmann’s advocacy for the organization, saying,

She’s been very helpful in speaking about what drew her to become a foster parent and using that for state and local recruiting efforts.

Although many of Bachmann’s ideas are frightening to those who fear the total disintegration of the social safety net, her sincerity and charisma cannot be doubted.

Reactions?

Source: “Foster Care Statistics 2009” (PDF), ChildWelfare.gov, 05/11
Source: “Roots of Bachmann’s Ambition Began at Home,” The New York Times, 06/21/11
Source: “Michele Bachmann’s Foster Care Contradiction,” TPMDC, 07/06/11
Image by Gage Skidmore, used under its Creative Commons license.

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Creating Homelessness in the Antelope Valley, Part 2

Phonehenge West - Schiro

The story titled “L.A. County’s Private Property War,” by the L.A. Weekly‘s Mars Melnicoff, goes into extensive detail about how the ruggedly independent settlers and longtime landowners of California’s Antelope Valley are being cleared out. About five years ago, they noticed an increase in the selective enforcement of zoning rules and building codes, along with general hassling and harassment.

When they got together and compared notes, they realized that something dark, insidious, and deliberate is going on. Paranoia? Doesn’t look like it. Looks like a major land grab, pure and simple, for the benefit of developers with big ideas. The likelihood of this is clear to attorney Robert McNamara of the Institute for Justice, who is quoted:

That certainly does happen. We have seen zoning enforcement that can be explained by nothing else.

Besides, the longest-serving member of the county Board of Supervisors has already revealed his plans for the area on his website. Unfortunately, the place is within commuting distance of Los Angeles. It’s a hardscrabble existence for the “desert rats,” but with them out of the way, corporate investment in amenities could turn the area into… anything.

One after another, families and individuals are being manipulated into leaving, through penalties for victimless misdemeanors and code violations. It doesn’t matter that a community is destroyed. It doesn’t matter how many people are losing what they had worked for all their lives, or how many local businesses go under. Somebody wants them out of there.

Melnicoff says,

Tough code enforcement has been ramped up in these unincorporated areas of L.A. County, leaving the iconoclasts who chose to live in distant sectors of the Antelope Valley frightened, confused and livid. They point the finger at the Board of Supervisors’ Nuisance Abatement Teams, known as NAT, instituted in 2006…

The NAT crew makes first contact armed, and clad in bulletproof vests — an entire team of Sheriff’s deputies, health inspectors, District Attorney’s investigators, zoning officers, inspectors from Building and Safety, and animal control personnel. (Speaking of which, the same kind of multi-agency, heavily armed contingent is sent out against 85-year-old grannies with too many cats. That’s just how they do things in L.A. County.)

The head of the NAT maintains that the safety of his teams is more important than the convenience of someone in an “unknown structure.” Oscar Castaneda, pastor of a historic church in one of the area’s few towns, knows about this. After 22 years of peace and quiet, he was ordered one day to “freeze” in front of his home, out in the middle of nowhere.

An elderly woman in a similarly remote spot exited her cabin to find it surrounded by combatants in body armor, with guns drawn. These crews show up and tell people they are living on their land illegally, and threaten them with liens and bulldozers. People have been jailed for trespassing on their own land. Most of those affected can’t afford lawyers and can’t afford to hire helpers for the wrecking work. People who thought they were safely retired are forced to dismantle their own homes board by board and nail by nail.

Melnicoff says,

Some residents believe that county Nuisance Abatement Teams order the more modest compliance actions first, such as weed-clearing, then build up to ordering residents to remove their homes, saving the county from paying for costly cleanup once a dweller with little financial means is pushed out.

Their methods are effective. The reporter tells of an “off-the-grid family living atop a 4,000-foot mountain,” just trying to be left alone and care for their mentally disabled adult son. The Kirpsies were prosecuted as criminals, in violation for their old trailer homes and scrap-metal recycle heaps. They only avoided prison by agreeing to totally clear the land and move to another state. There’s one family gotten rid of. They had somewhere to go, but others don’t.

Zoning official Oscar Gomez ought to have his own stand-up comedy act. He told Melnicoff that horrid things like sheds and trailers “bring the property value down.” Wait, what? The stakeholders are the people who currently own their land, and who built homes planning to stay there forever and never sell anyway. Why is the county making the “property value” its problem? Why is the county blathering on about “safety,” as if homelessness will somehow be “safer” than even the most ramshackle dwelling?

Kevin Scanlon’s five-minute videotape introduces a few of the people and homes referenced in the article. And treat yourself to Devin Schiro’s enchanting video portrait of Phonehenge West, an architectural marvel 20 years in the making. Many believe it should be preserved like the Watts Towers, the Winchester Mystery House, and other examples of American folk art.

Schiro invites viewers to:

… join a growing community of people who protest what we consider the senseless persecution of a man whose only ‘offense’ is taking a stand on behalf of beauty, creativity, and the inalienable right of free expression.

It is heartbreaking to hear retired phone technician Kim Fahey recount his relationship with the authorities. Fahey became the national media face of this struggle because of the remarkable desert structure, which is being demolished despite the fact that he deliberately built it to exceed the code requirements.

He lost his five-year court fight last month, and has already been jailed and bailed out, and then hospitalized for a medical problem exacerbated by all the stress. He could end up serving seven years in prison, for building a house. On his land alone, there are several people facing homelessness.

Fahey told the reporter,

The story is more important than me, because they are doing this to thousands of people. I’m just trying to bring it to the forefront.

Reactions?

Source: “L.A. County’s Private Property War,” LAWeekly.com, 06/23/11
Source: “L.A. County’s Private Property War (VIDEO),” LAWeekly, 06/23/11
Screen capture of Phonehenge West by Devin Schiro, used with permission.

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Chronicling Homelessness: Mark Horvath

Mark Horvath - Gnomedex 2009There are three kinds of “first-person” accounts of homelessness, the first being, of course, narratives that originate with the authentic homeless. They tell their own stories and the stories of other street people their lives have intersected with, which is almost the same thing. It’s a kind of autobiography-by-proxy, and, a lot of times, it’s the first, last, and the only time these stories have been told, because we are speakers for the dead.

An example of this type of writer is Ace Backwords. Another, not surprisingly, is Richard R. Troxell. His Looking Up At the Bottom Line is not just an explanation of the Universal Living Wage, and not just a manual on how to change the world nonviolently and with style. Interspersed among the campaigns and triumphs are many stories of individual people who are experiencing homelessness.

The second category, which we see a lot of, is objective reportage from both professional and citizen journalists, and other allies who work on behalf of the homeless to tell their stories.

Then, there are journalists and allies who experience homelessness themselves, in a voluntary and temporary way. Why? As an exercise in empathy, a personal learning experience, or an instrument of spiritual growth. These quests usually originate from sincere intention, to raise awareness, to raise funds, or just to be writing about something significant rather than trivial. In any case, for such adventurers, the project is not complete until they report back to their housed peers, sharing anecdotes and insights.

Impersonation has always been a powerful tool in the writer’s arsenal. In the early 1960s, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and many others had written firsthand accounts of the African-American experience. But attention really fastened on the subject after the publication of Black Like Me. The author was John Howard Griffin, a white man who had disguised himself and passed as a member of the group then called Negro. It may not be fair or reasonable, but when a Caucasian related his “first-person” account of being black, other Caucasians paid attention.

There are different opinions about simulated homelessness. To make a project out of visiting that world is kind of like boarding a pirate ship at a theme park. It might be very realistic, but it’s not real. People who seriously have no choice about homelessness can be forgiven for encouraging these “tourists” to go and find another hobby. But no matter how anybody feels about it, experimental homelessness does garner press attention, whether the participants are church youth groups or individuals with a literary purpose in mind.

Mark Horvath has covered every possible category or genre of writing about homelessness, and shows no sign of stopping any time soon. Let us quote from Adam Polaski’s very thorough profile of Horvath:

He’s the founder of a website called InvisiblePeople.tv, where he publishes unedited videos of homeless people talking about their lives. He’s also the founder of a website called We Are Visible, a community and tutorial resource that empowers homeless people to set up their own free social media accounts to tell their own story.

As a public speaker, Horvath is both versatile and energizing. Polaski describes him as a cause-marketing expert, who started out wanting to be a professional musician, somehow wound up as a television executive instead, and then lost it all when addiction became the driving force of his life. Anybody could have seen that coming — just another Hollywood Boulevard junkie.

Sixteen years ago, Horvath attained sobriety. In a recent and fascinating article, the man himself describes the turnaround:

I am one of the lucky ones. I got out of street homelessness rather quickly. But it took eight years of living in a church program before I had a normal life and was no longer homeless.

He saved up, got an apartment and better jobs, and eventually left Los Angeles and climbed back up as far as the middle class, with a three-bedroom house in Missouri. But a few years ago, work dried up, as it has for so many of us. Horvath was living off credit cards when a job offer came, a really good one, so he went back to LA. Three months later, the company underwent massive downsizing and Horvath was once again unemployed, only now with even more bills than ever. The house back in Missouri didn’t sell, even though he was willing to take a tremendous loss just to be disencumbered of it.

Horvath speaks of the…

… wonderful people who helped me get through that dark time. Several helped pay my rent. New Hope, a church lead by Charles Lee, gave me food cards. And many of you took me out to eat. It is nothing short of a miracle that I didn’t end up back on the streets during that time.

And that was the crisis to which he responded by starting InvisiblePeople.tv. Polaski describes Horvath’s primary mission as “to make a name for the homeless and heighten awareness about the conditions of homeless people in the United States.” Polaski says,

So far, people perceive InvisiblePeople.tv and We Are Visible as positive online movements to raise awareness about complicated social issues. Horvath has become such a well-known advocate that his voice can make some serious waves… He’s driven around the country three times visiting homeless communities, filming footage and amassing insane amounts of knowledge about the housing crisis in the United States.

Now, here is the most recent plot twist. Mark Horvath will soon be technically homeless again, this time voluntarily. With another extensive (and generously supported) InvisiblePeople.tv road trip coming up, it doesn’t make sense to keep an apartment. The furniture is going to newly-housed families, and the homeless advocate is hitting the road until November, and leaving things open-ended after that. It’s a courageous way to proceed.

Reactions?

Source: “Mark Horvath: Shattering the ‘Self-Made Man’ Myth,” GoodMenProject, 05/06/11
Source: “Facing My Biggest Fear: Homeless In 30 Days!,” HardlyNormal.com, 05/29/11
Image by Randy Stewart, used under its Creative Commons license.

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HomeAid Live – a Social Media Event

HomeAid

HomeAid is scheduled for November 11 and 12, during the National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. It is a virtual happening, very Earth-friendly. (And besides, everybody is too broke to travel. If any spare change is lurking between the couch cushions, better to donate it to the cause than spend it on gas.) David Mathison, CEO and co-host of Be The Media, says:

This will be a truly green event. Since everything is online, there is no place to fly or drive, no trees to cut down for posters or tickets, and minimal waste: there’s almost no damage to the environment.

Parts of it will come, courtesy of YouTube live streaming video, from the Apollo Theater in New York and also from Nashville, Tennessee, and many other places. The event’s publicity literature says,

Celebrities, artists, and performers from across the country are contributing exclusive video content that will be streamed on the HomeAid.net website… Many artists plan to hold live ‘house parties’ right from their homes, streamed via webcam… Fans will have many ways to participate, from uploading their own videos to spreading the word on social media sites, and even downloading mobile applications for the iPhone or Android.

And house parties! The whole point here is to share the experience with friends. Participation guarantees a global audience for the performers and the video artists. Regular people can participate just as much by helping spread the word and encourage others to join in. And have a party! In terms of sheer unprecedented numbers, HomeAid will probably become known as the Woodstock of the Internet.

HomeAid is also a national nonprofit organization that has, over the last 20 years, helped 100,000 people get back on their feet. What they do is, build and maintain shelters where homeless families and individuals can regain their dignity and reconstruct their lives. Currently, there are 20 chapters in 14 states.

The most recent addition to the crew is Ken Kragen, who put together the immensely successful We Are the World, as well as Net Aid and Hands Across America. The CEO of HomeAid is Jeffrey Slavin, who is understandably jazzed about the prospect of this event, which is still in the planning stages, and still looking for sponsors and for suggestions on more ways to be even more spectacular. Slavin says,

Because the event takes place online, anyone can watch it from anywhere in the world, and anyone can donate to the cause.

Never has an event been so easy to get involved with, for either an organization or an individual. That’s why the graphic on this page is the first image from their Sponsor Deck, which is pretty much what you’d see if you were in a conference room for a presentation. If you would like a Sponsor Deck of your very own, please go to the Sponsor Page and fill out the form. After receiving the Sponsor Deck, you will be equipped with an immense amount of detail about every aspect of the project and exactly how to become involved.

Here are four more online ways to connect with HomeAid:

The Website
Facebook
Twitter
YouTube
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Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless has been (again) a guest on BlogTalkRadio, interviewed by Zane Safrit. He is the host of a long-running show on small-business success, business innovation, and the economy. Richard and Zane first met in February to discuss Richard’s new book, Looking Up at the Bottom Line: The Struggle for the Living Wage. Zane was so surprised at finding common ground with someone advocating a major increase in the entry-level wages that he has invited Richard back to further discuss the economics of the living wage.

After a brief update on House the Homeless‘ campaign against Austin’s “No Sit/No Lie” ordinance, Richard and Zane talk about the working homeless in the United States: those who hold minimum-wage jobs but can’t afford minimum housing. What would happen if these millions of workers got a raise? A massive economic boom, as the least among us are able to buy the products generated by a consumer society.

For information on how to prevent homelessness before it even happens, please learn more about the Universal Living Wage, the plan that can end homelessness for over 1,000,000 minimum-wage workers and prevent economic homelessness for all of 10.1 million minimum-wage workers.

Reactions?

Source: “HomeAid: A Virtual Event to Benefit America’s Homeless,” HomeAid.net, 01/11/11
Source: “Richard Troxell: Author Looking Up at the Bottomline, Part 2,” BlogTalkRadio.com, 05/04/11
Image from HomeAid, used under Fair Use: Reporting.

2

Homeless is Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose

Homeless HoarderIn Houston, Texas, a pair of documentarians roamed the streets to connect with people experiencing homelessness.
They had one specific purpose in mind: to learn what possessions people hold onto when everything else has to be jettisoned. The writer is John Nova Lomax, the photographer is Daniel Kramer, and their first discovery was old news:

It practically goes without saying, but the homeless are everywhere downtown — they throng San Jacinto Street pretty much from southern Midtown all the way to Buffalo Bayou and beyond, they are all around the vicinity of the downtown library, and many of them line the bayou’s banks at Allen’s Landing, and many others make their homes near the courthouse complex.

It comes as no surprise that photos are the most cherished of portable items, because they are certainly among the most portable of cherished items. One man kept a photo of his daughter in her official high school graduation robe, and he’s proud to relate that she went on to college. Another kept an Army beret to memorialize his veteran father. One depended on his laptop computer.

A very practical fellow named his bedroll as his favorite possession, and his second was a small pocketknife. He told the documentary team, “I ain’t had to cut nobody yet or nothin’ like that…” At the other end of the spectrum, some street people find comfort in a rosary or a New Testament. One person’s treasured item had been a Bible, but it went missing. Another had owned a John 3:16 medal, but it was gone. (The verse is, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”)

One man said his prized possession was his own heart, because it held his love of Jesus. Of course, the interviewees talked about other matters too, such as how they ended up on the streets. When a trained electrician with 18 years experience can’t find work, something is seriously awry with society. By the way, if it’s ever been in your mind to give one small, quick, no-strings-attached present to a homeless person, Lomax has a suggestion. Apparently, a cheap transistor radio with headphones and a lanyard for suspending it around a person’s neck can be bought for about $6. It’s a small thing, but the kind of gift that really does keep on giving.

Small things are really all you can have if you’re homeless. What does a person even do with a jacket on a warm day? Wear it or carry it. Because you’re going to need it at night. But what about high summer, when it’s hot as Hades all night long? You sure don’t want to keep a jacket with you all the time. What about when winter comes? A jacket will sure come in handy then. But what the hell are you supposed to do with it in the meantime?

Maybe you’re lucky enough to own a suitcase or duffel bag or even a nice big camping-style backpack. It’s a place to keep stuff, but then you need a place to keep it. Or lug it around everywhere — to the soup kitchen, to the free clinic. To the job counseling office, and if you’re lucky enough to get some kind of interview, then where do you leave your stuff? Carrying a duffel around says “homeless” to the world, it’s a much a sign of pariah status as the bells that lepers used to wear.

When a city has a No Camping ordinance — what city does not these days? — the law very likely forbids not only fire-making, cooking, setting up a tent, and sleeping, but “storing personal belongings.” That’s right, thou shalt not leave thy stuff anywhere.

At Change.org, SlumJack Homeless discusses his method of dealing with possessions, which is a bicycle with an attached trailer. It’s better than a shopping cart, but still precludes a lot of activities. The problem of material goods is one of the reasons why he prefers the streets to the shelters, because there is no provision for the safety of belongings.

Now, it’s easy to understand why a shelter doesn’t want all these various conglomerations of stuff on the premises. For one thing, bedbugs are a continuing and terrible problem. The more items that are allowed through the door, the more likelihood of infestation, which of course can only be bad for any shelter residents who aren’t yet carrying bedbugs around. SlumJack Homeless says,

This forces people to a ridiculous minimum of belongings… one of the factors that actually contributes to perpetuating a person’s homeless predicament. Also, you DON’T want other people at shelters to see what you DO own and have. There are many thieves that will then know what you’re carrying around with you, many of whom you WILL run across later… at night, alone, etc.

Let’s just short-circuit this problem by bringing into reality the Universal Living Wage, which can end homelessness for over 1,000,000 minimum-wage workers, and prevent economic homelessness for all 10.1 million minimum wage workers. Then people can keep their stuff in their own place, and close and lock the door. Sounds like a plan!

Reactions?

Source: “Prized Possessions — Homeless in Houston share their most important objects,” Houston Press, 01/20/11
Source: “Why I Choose Streets Over Shelter,” Change.org, 06/03/09
Image by Richard Masoner, used under its Creative Commons license.

0

Shozna: One Homeless Person Redeemed, Several Million to Go

Shozna in gown by RaishmaIn Britain, the recent marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton was attended by a formerly homeless young woman who has one of the trademarks of celebrity: a single name, and it is Shozna.

Last fall, an organization called Centrepoint held a fundraiser where Shozna told her story and related how Centrepoint helped her to escape homelessness. Prince William calmed her nervousness before the speech, and blew everyone’s mind by hugging her after it. In the course of planning for the royal wedding, a hundred “Golden Ticket” invitations were extended, with William inviting representatives from all his favorite charities, while Kate invited folks from her parents’ village. Keri Sutherland of the Sunday Mirror reports,

Shozna’s struggle began when, while training in childcare, she had a stroke and needed a heart operation. Shortly afterwards she left home, staying with relatives and friends until her council referred her to homeless charity Centrepoint. Shozna, who asked us to withhold her last name, said: “I moved into Centrepoint housing in July. It was difficult, but luckily I’ve pulled through.”

Shozna was raised in East London, and Fay Schlesinger tells us how the enthusiastic student with career plans suffered a stroke at age 18 and became half-paralyzed. Months of medical treatment, surgery, and rehab followed. The reasons for Shozna’s subsequent break with her family are not told, but we do know she lived in a hostel and then a homeless shelter. Eventually, she moved to a council flat, which is what they call government-subsidized housing in Britain. (For an exercise in broadening the mental horizons, check out the comments of various British subjects at the blog London Muslim.) As far as Shozna’s future, the lingering effects of her heart problem and the stroke have eliminated some possibilities, but she now hopes to get into retail and work her way up to store manager.

For the great event, Shozna was accoutered by Warren Holmes (hair), Armand Beasley (makeup), Irresistible Headdresses (fascinator), Kyles Collection (jewelry), Jimmy Choo (shoes), and of course Raishma of London (dress.) Couturier Raishma describes the excitement from her perspective

I decided to go for a 50s style prom dress in a block colour scheme of papaya orange and red to give the look a modern take for 2011. I designed an embroidered border with delicate silk roses and hand beading to be positioned on her neckline… I then started worrying about the complete look… I styled Shozna from head to toe for the Big Day…

For the ceremony, the young woman’s escort was Centrepoint chief Seyi Obakin. The London Tonight crew filmed not just Shozna at the wedding, but the entire preparation procedure, one of the world’s most thorough and glittering makeovers. Question: At what point did the ITV network enter the picture? Because, surely, the royal couple did not expect Shozna to show up wearing something from the Oxfam charity shop.

On the one hand, thanks to this sequence of events, the word “homeless” has reached the ears of more people, and that’s a beautiful thing. On the other hand, it’s so easy to cheer for a lovely young woman, and to want to turn her into a fairy-tale princess. But one Cinderella is not enough. How nice it would be if we could see that all homeless women need the resources to take care of themselves and present their best faces to the world.

This includes the girls who become sloppy fat from soup-kitchen diets, which tend to be heavy on the starch; and the mothers whose hair has fallen out from anxiety as they experience homelessness with a passel of kids to worry about. It includes the women who have lost teeth through violence, poor nutrition, or lack of the most elementary facilities for self-care. Also, the abused, the tattooed, and yes, even the alcoholic and addicted.

In our own land of America, the Universal Living Wage can end homelessness for over 1,000,000 minimum-wage workers, and prevent economic homelessness for ten million minimum wage workers. Including a heck of a lot of women.

Reactions?

Source: “Royal wedding: Woman who was once homeless tells of joy at personal invite,” Sunday Mirror, 04/17/11
Source: “From homeless shelters to a front row seat,” Daily Mail, 04/17/11
Source: “Shozna the homeless Muslim Royal Wedding girl,” London Muslim, 04/18/11
Source: “Dressing Shozna from Centre Point Charity for the Royal Wedding,” Raishma.co, 05/03/11
Image of Shozna in gown by Raishma used under Fair Use: Reporting.

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