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Robin Williams, Paul Walker, and Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin

Let’s talk about something nice for a change — like how a beloved show business figure quietly carried out his own plan for making the world a better place. When comedian and actor Robin Williams died last month, some of the media coverage concerned his activism on behalf of people experiencing homelessness.

Many still remember Comic Relief, a 12-year series of concerts that raised $50 million for programs benefitting people in dire need. In 1986, Whoopi Goldberg, Billy Crystal, and Robin Williams were the original hosts. Brian Lord wrote about Williams:

He actually had a requirement that for every single event or film he did, the company hiring him also had to hire a certain number of homeless people and put them to work…. I’m sure that on his own time and with his own money, he was working with these people in need, but he’d also decided to use his clout as an entertainer to make sure that production companies and event planners also learned the value of giving people a chance to work their way back.

The journalist also expressed the hope that the companies concerned had continued to hire people experiencing homelessness to work on other projects after their connection with Williams ended.

Documentary

Actor Paul Walker, who died last winter, is said to have received hate mail because of a 2009 film project called Shelter. The documentary was a collaboration between Walker, his old friend Brandon Birtell, and social worker Ken Williams. During their college years in California, Walker and Birtell both were homeless for periods of time, actually sleeping in cars and living on the streets. Regarding Shelter, Nick Manai explains:

They centered their efforts on detailing the daily lives of four homeless people they befriended…. three women and one old blind man. All four were being helped by Ken Williams’ social service team, but were still sleeping in tough places that were tortuously rugged.

The very wealthy coastal town of Santa Barbara was ideal for an exploration of homelessness, not only because Walker and Birtell had been homeless students there, but because of the extreme income gap between the richest residents and the poorest. While making Shelter, Walker was also shooting a major motion picture called Fast & Furious, on location in Brazil. His dedication to the indie project was such that he commuted back and forth by plane. Reporter Ivy Jacobson says of Shelter, “The film wasn’t large enough to make it to big screen, but it’s still being shown in classrooms all over the country and making an impact.”

Happy Birthday, Little Tramp

A hundred years ago, in 1914, Charlie Chaplin created the Little Tramp, the cinema’s quintessential homeless character, not from artistic fantasy but from his own life experience. When this amazing actor and director was only 2 years old, he and his mother and brother were abandoned by the elder Chaplin. As a young lad, Charlie spent time in the workhouse. After their overstressed mother was committed to an insane asylum, the boys became street performers. Paul Whitington writes:

Until Chaplin came along, homeless people were almost invariably portrayed in film as vagabonds, drunks and villains…. [The Tramp was] the most beloved cultural icon on the planet for more than a decade: the plucky loser who refuses to believe that the world is as cruel a place as it seems.

Reactions?

Source: “Robin Williams Required Everyone Who Hired Him to Put Homeless People to Work,” aattp.org, 08/23/14
Source: “A Little Known Robin Williams Story,” BrianLord.org, 08/12/14
Source: “Paul Walker Was Homeless in College: Sent Hate Mail for ‘Shelter’ Movie,” guardianlv.com,12/09/13
Source: “Paul Walker Was Once Homeless: How He Learned Compassion,” HollywoodLife.com, 12/09/13
Source: “Charlie Chaplin stumbled on his most famous creation, the Tramp, a week after making his Hollywood debut,” independent.ie, 08/31/14
Image by Insomnia Cured Here

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Overpaid Execs and Destitute Moms

executive overcompensationLast time, House the Homeless considered the inability of small shareholders to influence corporate policy, including executive pay packages. In related news, the Economic Policy Institute gave some statistics about American companies during a chosen time period, 1978 to 2011. During those 33 years, the report says, the compensation received by CEOs “increased more than 725 percent.”

In other words, some of those top executives were making 6 or 7 or 8 times as much as they would have 33 years earlier. The typical worker’s pay increased 5.7 percent over the same time period. The difference between 725% and 5.7% is so ludicrous, you have to wonder if the EPI did the math right.

In 1965, the report says, a CEO was paid about 20 times as much as a worker. In 2011, a CEO was walking away with 231 times as much as a typical employee. Corporate America is permitted to decree that one hour of one Person A’s life is worth hundreds of times as much as one hour of Person B’s life.

In a recent Fortune article, Eleanor Bloxham discussed the ideal CEO-to-average worker pay ratio, which in a sane world would be more like 20-to-1 than 231-to-1. Richard R. Troxell is also quoted in this article, and it was not the first time Bloxham had turned to the president of House the Homeless for authoritative information about homeless issues.

She is deeply concerned with how inequality affects the soundness of the whole social fabric, saying,

Inequality invites us to examine long-held beliefs and the real poverty of greed. It asks us to not only put our brains to work but also to raise our emotional IQs, to challenge ourselves to feel what it is like to walk in other people’s shoes.

Footnote on Foster Care

As a family defense lawyer, Gaylynn Burroughs has known many parents accused of child neglect. One case concerned a young mother named Lisa who called social services because the building’s landlord ignored the raw sewage leaking into her apartment. When a caseworker visited, she asked for a place in a family shelter. Instead, the caseworker took her children away. Adding insult to injury, the system treated Lisa like a criminal, making her take parenting classes, have a mental health evaluation, sign up for therapy, and show up for random urine testing. As for requiring the landlord to make repairs, or finding her and her kids a better place to live, the bureaucracy did nothing.

Mary Ratcliff, an online commenter, wrote that in San Francisco children were routinely taken from parents who lived in dilapidated housing, even when the landlords responsible for the unlivable conditions were the local, state, or federal governments. Burroughs quoted Dorothy Roberts, Stanford University law professor and author of Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare, who states that poor families are 20 times more likely than wealthier families to have dealings with the child welfare system, and that poverty is the main reason why children are sent to foster homes.

Race is a big part of the picture, since black families are four times as likely to be poor. Fifteen percent of American children are black, but 34 percent of the children in foster care are black. But, says Roberts,  caseworker reports make it personal, accusing parents of neglect because their children don’t have adequate food, clothes, education, medical care, or even decent shelter, when the root problem is simple destitution. Going back to the question we asked in a previous post — “Are homeless parents paranoid?” — the answer is “No.” Roberts said:

One thing most women in the United States do not worry about is the possibility of the state removing children from their care. For a sizable subset of women, though — especially poor black mothers [...] — that possibility is very real.

Reactions?

Source: “CEO Pay and the Top 1%,” epi.org, 05/02/12.
Source: “Inequality in the U.S.: Are We Making Any Progress?Fortune.com, 08/04/14.
Source: “Too Poor to Parent?MsMagazine.com, Spring 2008.
Image by Tax Credits.

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Over-the-Top Income Inequality

Income Inequality

When discussing the disparity between big boss pay and average worker pay, the first thing the defenders want us to know is that if top executives let their enormous paychecks be divided among the workers, each piece of the pie would be quite small.

Walmart has a million hourly employees, and 475,000 of them make more than $25,000 per year. For the purpose of this exercise, Danielle Kurtzleben leaves out those upper-tier employees. The other 525,000 workers make less. The CEO, C. Douglas McMillon, makes $25.6 million annually. If he turned over $20 million for distribution among those 525,000 employees, they would each gain only $38 per year.

When cited by industry apologists (which Kurtzleben definitely is not, by the way), examples like this are supposed to convince us to stop picking on the business world’s poor, abused CEOs. But why shouldn’t we encourage such sharing? Even if it is only $38 extra, the workers need it more than Mr. McMillon does. When a family survives on food stamps, every little bit helps. And just think what such a gesture would do for morale and public relations!

Could something like that happen?

Actually, something like that could happen, and very recently it did. At Kentucky State University, interim President Raymond Burse made news by volunteering for a $90,000 pay cut so that 24 low-income employees could have a raise. It will boost their pay rate from $7.25 to $10.25 per hour (and the institution promises to continue paying the higher wage for those positions in the future). This is a very generous example for anyone in an executive position to set, though not a totally unprecedented one.

For the Christian Science Monitor, Hayley Fox notes that at Virginia’s Hampton University, President William Harvey refused a portion, amounting to more than $1 million, of his executive compensation so that low-wage workers could be paid more. No doubt there are other examples of highly paid yet ethically aware earners trying to compensate for the system’s unfairness. Maybe this trend pioneered in academia will spread to other businesses.

But let’s get back to those who see nothing wrong with the huge discrepancy between our society’s most generously and most stingily rewarded employees. They would have us believe that everything is made right by the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) — which Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless calls the biggest scam ever perpetrated against America’s working poor.

First, you jump through the bureaucratic hoops of the application process to get back your own money that you should have had all along. And a crisis requiring money does not wait for our schedule or the government’s convenience. Mainly, the EITC is “chump change” in comparison with — and an unsatisfactory substitute for — a Living Wage that affords a family the basic necessities of life. Richard says:

Business has shifted their financial responsibility of paying a “fair wage for a fair day’s work” onto the backs of the taxpayers of America. The Federal Government has allowed the businesses of America to shirk their responsibility to pay fair minimum wages. Instead of paying what their work is worth, businesses hide behind the pitifully small tax supported stipend that leaves core American workers dirt poor and often subject to homelessness.

We will talk more about income inequality next time, but let’s just mention a few of the reasons why it is bad for the entire country. First, it’s different from general, all-encompassing poverty. Many people who grew up in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, have said they had no consciousness of being poor because everyone was equally destitute, and there was no basis for comparison. Nowadays, all who live in poverty are acutely conscious of exactly what the rich own and spend.

Historically, the consequences of extreme wealth disparity are crippling debt, a reduced standard of wellness, and economic stagnation for many individuals who had hoped and expected to better their circumstances. There is even research from the field of evolutionary psychology to show that when the difference between the highest incomes and the lowest is vast, the murder rate increases. Throughout the economy, general health and growth are negatively affected and homelessness is rampant. The processes of democracy suffer, and the political system is dangerously destabilized as the poor realize how devotedly the government serves the wealthy few. Unlike generalized and widespread poverty, an outrageous degree of inequality is very obvious. People can’t help noticing, and they don’t like what they see.

Source: “What if Walmart’s CEO took a pay cut for his workers?” Vox.com, 08/06/14
Source: “College president takes a $90,000 pay cut to give low-wage workers a raise,” CSMonitor.com, 08/15/14
Source: “CEO Of One Of The World’s Largest Banks: Income Inequality Is ‘Destabilizing,’ ThinkProgress.org, 06/13/14
Image by mSeattle

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Money Talks — About Homelessness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reactions?

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

 

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Why Do Some Homeless People Shun Shelters?

Homeless ShelterThousands of heroic Americans have worked tirelessly to establish shelters, find the money to keep them going, staff them at the correct level, observe all applicable laws, and perform an unbelievable number of diverse tasks. As a result, some of the people experiencing homelessness are allowed to spend days or nights under a roof, some of the time, in some places. For both its providers and its guests, shelter space is hard-won.

So then, why would street people avoid shelters? Because not everyone shares the same hierarchy of needs, and a homeless person might have priorities that conflict with the seemingly obvious. It’s very hard to tell helpers that what they offer does not solve everything and might even make an individual’s situation worse. Change.org published the views of a person writing under the name SlumJack Homeless, who reminds us that we don’t live in a one-size-fits-all world. As he expresses it, “The ONLY thing that ‘the homeless’ have in common is that we don’t have homes.”

Check-in time might be as early as 5 p.m., and if you leave, someone else gets the bed. Depending on the rules, or the disposition of the staff, it might mean permanent banishment. The rules were established to help people with substance-abuse problems avoid the temptations of the dark streets. But this also eliminates the possibility of, for instance, an evening AA program. In Boulder, Colo., journalist Josie Raymond once interviewed shelter director Joy Eckstine, who said:

I’ve talked to people who literally had to choose between going to their 12-Step meetings and going to the shelter…. A lot of shelters don’t let you use your own alarm clock or provide an early enough wake-up call.

This is an area where one standard definitely is not optimal for everyone. Shelter guests, including the young, the old and the disabled, are ejected back into the streets as early as 5 AM, when nothing is open and there is nothing to do and nowhere to go. But men who walk to some distant day-laborers’ pick-up point might need to get up even earlier.

The “economic homeless” are people who work, maybe even full-time, and still can’t afford housing — but the shelter system can’t accommodate them. If you finish work at 11 PM, the shelter is full and locked down. If you get off work at 7 AM, the place with the beds is closed all day. It’s ironic that the working poor get the worst deal in this respect. Rules that curb the bad habits of the most troublesome guests can be unbearably authoritarian for the productive stranger to this scene, who just wants a normal life back. For SlumJack Homeless, evening is a time to hang in coffeeshops, read the bulletin boards, talk with people who might know of work, and hook up with the free wifi to do research and look for opportunities. He says:

Those of us that show up in the best shape and even with distinct potentials to succeed in getting back OUT of the jam are driven further into it by the shelters existing and their demands and impositions and limitations… while these operations are demonstrably designed to keep the worst cases from their own demise …they also thereby become real liabilities for the more functional among us…

SlumJack compares signing in to a shelter with volunteering for jail, because you’re going to spend a lot of time in close proximity to people you want nothing to do with. When time is a person’s only asset, much better use can be made of it than spending an evening trapped in a shelter, even if it means sleeping outside.

The Good, the Bad and the Worse

The average shelter doesn’t let a person bring in many possessions and lacks secure outdoor space, so if you have a bike or a cart it might disappear overnight. These rules are understandable too. The less stuff that comes through the door, the less opportunity for smuggling in contraband or unintentionally spreading a bedbug infestation. If you didn’t come in with bedbugs, you might leave with some hiding in your clothes. And any belongings you’re allowed to bring in might attract the attention of a thief who makes a mental note to find you alone outside tomorrow.

Everyone is coughing and sneezing, and you will probably catch something. If you prefer to cover your baldness with a hat, you might be yelled at in front of a church group that an employee is leading through on a tour. You might be in line next to a guy carrying a rusty but live hand grenade, as once happened in Santa Cruz, Calif.

ABC40 reporter Dianna Maguire recently visited a women’s shelter in Massachusetts and reported on how they eat dinner, have their bags and personal items searched, do housekeeping chores, take mandatory showers, and finally are issued bedding to make up their bunks. One of the guests told her, “You’ve got to pretty much hold onto your stuff, lock up your stuff, or sleep with it.” At a shelter, you might resent being bossed around by another homeless person who was deputized to maintain order. Kevin Barbieux, a writer on homeless issues, says:

What usually happens is that the “security guard” takes advantage of his position and engages in inappropriate behavior himself…. And the administrators, wishing to be supportive of their “program people” will summarily side with their program people…

In March, the City Rescue Mission in New Castle, Penn., got in trouble for turning away a blind man and his guide dog. Because of the Fair Housing Act, service animals are supposed to be allowed. But not pets. The no-pets rule discourages many street people from ever seeking shelter. Is that fair? On the other hand, is it fair that people who are allergic or phobic should have to spend the night cooped up with other people’s animals?

The Change.org page we mentioned (no longer available with the comments) included in the comments section a long, heartbreakingly detailed description by “K K” who told of the intense horror of living in various shelters with her three children. And yes, very bad things happen to kids in even the most well-intentioned places. But sexual predation is not limited to residents. One man commented about staying at a church shelter where women were “violated by the pastor.” This is depressing enough, but to really see a lid blown off, read Renee Miller’s “I Went Undercover at a Homeless Shelter — You Wouldn’t Believe the Shocking Abuses I Found There.”

A while back, there was a National Transgender Discrimination Survey that covered 6,560 people. The homeless survey participants spoke of being denied access to a shelter, or of being forced to live as the wrong gender — for instance, if legally male, they have to stay in a male shelter no matter what. A quarter of the respondents had been physically attacked and/or sexually assaulted by fellow residents or staff members.

It’s painful to know these things, and to see how the earnest efforts of caring citizens can go awry. But it does help to understand and be compassionate when needy people refuse help. Dennis Culhane, who studied the Philadelphia shelter system, wrote, “Anyone who ever has to stay in a shelter involuntarily knows that all you think about is how to make sure you never come back.”

Reactions?

Source: “Why I Choose Streets Over Shelter,” Change.org, 06/03/09
Source: “Why Many Homeless People Choose Streets Over Shelters,” Tonic.com, 12/02/10
Source: “WWII grenade found at homeless shelter, transient arrested,” MercuryNews.com, 08/01/11
Source: “Homeless: Life in the Shelter,” WGGB.com, 11/27/13
Source: “The Homeless Guy: A Big Problem At Homeless Shelters,” Blogspot.com, 09/24/11
Source: “For Transgender Homeless, Choice Of Shelter Can Prevent Violence …,” CityLimits.org, 12/06/2010
Source: “Theories, Predictions and Diagnoses,” Google Books
Image by Jeremy Miles

 

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Veteran Abuse

Audie L MurphyIt’s perfectly possible to be anti-war, or against a particular war, and still be pro-veteran. The government made a contract with these Americans. Yet a lot of returning veterans have not received and are not receiving what they are entitled to, because the government does not live up to its contractual obligation. It’s that simple.

In many cases, the federal government is not doing its job. In others, a state government falls short of fulfilling its purpose. On October 26, Jeremy Schwartz of the Austin American-Statesman blew the lid off a situation that affects more than 43,000 veterans in Bell County, Texas, which incidentally is the location of Fort Hood. A state law enacted in 1985 says that in any county where the population is over 200,000, there should be a full-time veterans service officer. Schwartz explains how the system is supposed to work:

While federal VA workers process claims, state, county and local veterans service officers play a crucial role in preparing what are increasingly complex disability claims for conditions such as traumatic brain injury. Officials say well-trained service officers can speed the process by submitting what they call “fully developed” claims, which include all the necessary medical and military records, making them easier to process.

Yet in Bell County, there is no full-time veterans service officer.

Of the 23 counties over 200,000, only Bell and Lubbock counties do not employ such officers, though Lubbock funds clerical staff to support a state officer, according to the Texas Veterans Commission.

The requirement is voluntary for smaller counties, but many have also hired at least part-time county veterans service officers, especially in recent years as service members have flooded home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Since 1996, Schwartz writes, the task of liaising with veterans in Bell County has fallen on a volunteer, Jim Endicott. Although he is a former Veterans Administration general counsel, he only works part-time. Other volunteers and state employees help with the workload, but they can’t keep up, and volunteers are not required to take the annual training that the state requires for veterans services officers hired by counties. This is important, the writer points out, because the VA rules change constantly. If the workers are not familiar with the rules, how can they help vets successfully submit “fully developed” claims?

The troops on the ground

The veterans line up as early as 2 o’clock in the morning in hopes of being seen. (The question springs to mind, why not use an appointment system?) Frustrated by the inefficiency in their own locality, some journey to the designated offices in adjoining counties. Schwartz learned that in the past two years, more than a thousand local veterans who had signed in at the Temple office gave up and left before being seen. Bell County has issued 12,000 disabled-veteran license plates, a figure that hints at the extent of the problem.

Nevertheless, according to unnamed Bell County bureaucrats, complaints are few, even from veterans’ groups which presumably wield some influence. Jon Burrows, a Bell County judge, told the reporter that “there hasn’t been a need to hire a full-time county veterans service officer.” But he may be mistaken. The people on the job struggle under heavy caseloads. Schwartz says:

At one point last year, the VA’s Waco Regional Office, which serves veterans in Bell County and Central Texas, had the nation’s longest wait time for claims processing. Today, the average wait time to process a claim is 464 days in Waco — and 14,605 of the more than 26,000 pending cases have been sitting at least 125 days.

At last

Finally, in mid-November, the Bell County commissioners decided at their weekly meeting to add to their website a section containing information for veterans, to open up a phone line for questions from veterans, and to find office space for the veterans service officer who will be hired before the new year.

Issues still exist: a shortage of trained personnel, and of training for existing personnel, as well as the perceived need for a “one-stop shop” to make life a bit easier for disabled veterans and for people with other socioeconomic problems, such as being denied food stamps. Judge Burrows still maintains that the commissioners never even knew there were any unmet needs.

Jim Endicott, the volunteer liaison officer mentioned above, made the astonishing statement that he only sees “five or six veterans a year,” reports Alex Wukman of FME News Service. Mostly, Endicott just provides “referral and outreach” — in other words, connecting veterans with personnel at the Texas Veterans Commission.

****

Note: War Hero Audie Murphy, though a Texan, was neither born nor buried in Bell County. Still, his story is very much worth knowing.

Reactions?

Source: “Despite state law, Bell County doesn’t employ veteran service officer“, Mystatesman.com, 10/26/13
Source: “Bell County to hire veterans service officer,” KDHNews.com, 11/13/13
Image by dbking

 

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Happening Now: War on the Poor

War on the Poor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learn at a glance

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

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

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More on Homeless Veterans and Corruption, Cont.

Pills and boozeWe left off with how the Veterans Administration dragged its feet — in the face of scientific evidence, dire need, and special legislation — on the issue of damage done to U.S. Military personnel by Agent Orange. If thousands of disability claims had to be honored, the health care costs would be enormous. Subsequent to Senator Daschle’s exposure of fraud in the investigation, such groups as the Vietnam Veterans of America and the American Legion accused the government of a massive coverup.

In 1990, the House Government Operations Committee released a report charging that the Reagan administration had purposely controlled and obstructed the Agent Orange study three years earlier. According to the U.S. Veteran Dispatch:

The White House compromised the independence of the CDC [Centers for Disease Control] and undermined the study by controlling crucial decisions and guiding the course of research at the same time it had secretly taken a legal position to resist demands to compensate victims of Agent Orange exposure…

To veterans with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, or their surviving dependents, the VA was ordered to pay compensation. This financial liability is on the U.S. taxpayers, rather than the war profiteers who made the defoliant. And even if the government had admitted to using the wrong sort of chemical, or to not using it in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendations, so what? The only money the government has comes from the taxpayers, who would still end up footing the bill.

An interesting question

Between the end of the Vietnam war in 1975, and the 2010 “automatic funding” of Agent Orange claims, 35 years elapsed. During those years, how many homeless veterans were created or affected by illnesses that Agent Orange caused? With a sickness they couldn’t get treatment for, how many tried to cope on their own with pain and stress, and developed addictions? Impossible to know, but any number would be too many.

And, speaking of addiction, before judging a homeless vet for being a junkie, we might take a minute to think about how the monkey got onto that person’s back, and who put it there. Earlier this year, a very disturbing piece of investigative journalism by Richard A. Friedman appeared in The New York Times. He says frontline troops in Iraq and Afghanistan were fed generous amounts of “sedatives, stimulants and mood stabilizers.” He points out that, although combat troop levels in those places were reduced since 2008, the years from 2005 to 2011 saw a nearly 700% increase in pharmaceutical prescriptions.

In other words, for every service member in a combat zone who was given psychoactive drugs in, say, 2006, more than six times as many were on these meds in, say, 2010. In addition to the aforementioned categories, the pills include plenty of antipsychotics, which are the treatment of choice for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, even though knowledgeable experts are not convinced of their effectiveness against that condition. But the military prescribes these substances to service members, not only post-trauma, but literally in the midst of the trauma, i.e., in combat. Friedman writes:

We have no idea whether it’s effective — or safe — to use antipsychotic drugs on a continuing basis to treat war-related stress or to numb or sedate those affected by it.

As if that weren’t bad enough, one of the possible side effects is tardive dyskinesia, which is not a disease in itself, but a movement disorder with many possible causes. Alan Wilson worked as a laborer for 25 years, and his doctor believes he got tardive dyskinesia from a flu shot. His daughter’s “About” narrative and updates are horrifying, and Ashley Wilson makes the point that if she had not been there to take him in, her father would now be homeless.

What, you may ask, is our point? Here it is: An excellent reason for familiarizing oneself with tardive dyskinesia is to stretch the compassion muscle. On the street or at the soup kitchen, that weirdly behaving person might not be a shiftless drunk or a burned-out crackhead. He or she might be a regular American with a solid work history, who was struck by a terrifying medical crisis. He or she might be a veteran who was overdosed with anti-psychotic meds. Just a thought.

Source: “The Story of Agent Orange,” November 1990
Source: “Wars on Drugs,” The New York Times, 04/06/13
Source: “Alan Wilson — Tardive Dyskinesia,” YouTube.com, 09/22/09
Image by Thunderchild7.

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More on Homeless Veterans and Corruption

The Vietnam Veterans MemorialWith several posts already covering corruption as it impacts homeless veterans,  wouldn’t you think the subject would be exhausted? Apparently not. Let’s recap and then catch up.

In 1962, in Southeast Asia, the U.S. Military implemented Operation Ranch Hand, which sprayed herbicides to defoliate the area so there would be fewer places for the enemy to hide. Nobody even knows how much herbicide was involved. For Agent Orange alone, somewhere between 12 and 20 million gallons is the best guess.

Damaged veterans who tried to sue Monsanto were out of luck, partly because the company claimed that the military used the defoliant in Vietnam at “six to 25 times the rate suggested by the manufacturer,” so it wasn’t their fault. The military claimed it didn’t know how damaging the chemicals would be, either to the people of Vietnam whose hearts and minds they were supposedly trying to win, or to the American servicemen and servicewomen deployed there, and nothing can lessen the infamy of that untruth.

This information comes from a very long and detailed report published by the U.S. Veteran Dispatch, which says:

There are strong indications that not only were military officials aware as early as 1967 of the limited effectiveness of chemical defoliation, they knew of potential long-term health risks of frequent spraying and sought to keep that information from the public by managing news reports.

What’s the point of all this history? Tonight, there are Vietnam veterans in alleys and shelter beds who never were able to hold a job or pull themselves together, because of health conditions resulting from Agent Orange exposure for which they were unable to get any help.

Task force

In 1979 the National Veterans Task Force on Agent Orange was created, and charged with discovering just how many vets had been exposed. The Centers for Disease Control spent $43 million tax dollars on that project and ended up with results that the Institute of Medicine characterized as either “monumentally bungled” or “politically rigged.” All along, the occasional veteran had tried to sue the government for medical problems resulting from Agent Orange, but they were always blocked by something called the Feres Doctrine, which basically says no one can sue the government for anything that happens to them in the service.

In 1984, a new law required the Veterans Administration to get to work on establishing compensation standards for both soft tissue sarcoma (frequently associated with Agent Orange exposure) and atomic radiation damage. The VA did not, as the saying goes, get the memo. The agency that was created to help veterans continued to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to Agent Orange exposure claims.

Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Jr. was among the officers whose direct orders had caused Agent Orange to be sprayed. His son, also a Vietnam veteran, became fatally ill with Hodgkin’s disease and lymphoma and Zumwalt got on the case. He said the government “intentionally manipulated or withheld compelling information on the adverse health effects.” When this grieving, high-ranking father charged the government with denying justice to veterans, things began to happen.

Authority speaks

Military scientist Dr. James Clary was one of the team that initially green-lighted Agent Orange. These lines are from a letter he wrote in 1988 to answer congressional questions:

We were aware of the potential for damage due to dioxin contamination in the herbicide. We were even aware that the ‘military’ formulation had a higher dioxin concentration than the ‘civilian’ version… However, because the material was to be used on the ‘enemy,’ none of us were overly concerned. We never considered a scenario in which our own personnel would become contaminated with the herbicide.

Wait, what? Hel-lo! Duh! And every other colloquial expression of utter dumbfoundment. Say that again? How could they not have noticed that the grunts — tens of thousands of them — were crawling around down on the ground, just like the Viet Cong? Here is what else Dr. Clary said:

And, if we had, we would have expected our own government to give assistance to veterans so contaminated.

Hah! Might as well expect assistance from the Tooth Fairy or a genie in a bottle. And then along came Tom Daschle, a senator from South Dakota, who cast all kinds of aspersions on the 1984 report about Operation Ranch Hand and the birth defects afflicting the children of service members who had encountered Agent Orange. An earlier version of the document showed certain results, but then there was monkey business, and Sen. Daschle said:

The Air Force deleted these findings from the final report at the suggestion of a Ranch Hand Advisory Committee set up by the White House Agent Orange Working Group.

Plus, there were two different versions of the minutes of the meeting in which that pressure was applied. Daschle called foul. The U.S. Veteran Dispatch says:

Part of the fraud appears to have been perpetrated by the Monsanto Corp., which produces a number of chemicals containing dioxin. Monsanto knowingly rigged test results of employees who had been exposed to dioxin to make the effects of it appear far less than it actually was… This type of fraud appears to have been perpetrated regularly in connection with Agent Orange research…

(To be continued…)

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Source: “The Story of Agent Orange,” November 1990
Image by Ben Schumin.

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How to Become Homeless: Age Out of Foster Care, Part 3

please lend a handIn Part 2 of this discussion, House the Homeless blog traced progress in the quality of support offered to youth who “age out” of foster care. Members of this group are very much at risk for experiencing homelessness, and even short-term homelessness can have devastating effects on a young person.

Apparently, unless some kind of intervention scoops a kid up off the streets quickly, the prognosis worsens dramatically. There seems to be an interval of opportunity, a window that, once closed, is very difficult to reopen.

In 2004, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) scrutinized the situation in an attempt to measure the effectiveness of various programs and check up on how vigorously various plans were being carried out. Quoting ourselves:

The accountability agency identified the lack of uniformity in the states’ information-gathering that made them unable to coordinate with each other and with the federal government to combine their numbers and make any sense out of things. Academia supplied some of the missing answers, which involved ‘extremely poor outcomes’ and even ‘dismal outcomes’ for large numbers of young people.

Along with sloppy compliance, the GAO also found “gaps in the availability of mental health services, mentoring services, and securing safe and suitable housing, particularly in rural areas.” In 2008, the states were told to follow up on kids set loose from the system to see what kind of “outcomes” or lives they were having, and to start doing it by October of 2010.

Compliance, of a sort

When did the first National Youth in Transition Database report see the light of day? In late 2012, meaning that so far, there has only been one national annual report on how these programs are working out, and its information is centered on 2011. The basic number the compilers worked with was 98,561 — the total of youth and young adults who received at least one independent living service. About half were in the 14-17 age group, which means they were probably still officially in foster care; and half were in the 18-21 age group, which means they were probably not under the court’s jurisdiction any more.

About 17,000 17-year-olds answered a survey about their “outcomes,” which is kind of a misleading term in this case, because they hadn’t “aged out” yet. A total of 93% of this group were going to school. The same percentage said they had at least one adult available for advice or emotional support. About one in five had some kind of job experience, which is broadly defined to include training programs and unpaid internships. Among the foster kids in this demographic, only 6% had been homeless at some point. And guess what — more than one-third of these still-in-the-system kids had experienced incarceration.

Making their way in the world

The National Resource Center for Youth Development keeps track of every state, so it is worth taking a microscopic look at one state, California, because it has big numbers and is often the pioneer in social movements. This report is less currant than the 2012 federal one — it harks back to 2009 — but it is more detailed and gives some idea of the situation.

Eighteen was the maximum age for youth in foster care to be funded by the state, except in certain particular cases. If they were still in high school and going to graduate before turning 19. Or if they were in college, which might be difficult, because the state provides no waiver of tuition for foster kids. Or if they were incapable of activities or had other barriers to employment, or if, conversely, they were working 80-hour weeks (in other words, holding down two full-time jobs). If any of these conditions were fulfilled, the law allowed them to remain in the system until age 21, and also to continue receiving Medi-Cal benefits.

Sounds pretty good, right? So why, in 2011, in the great progressive state of California, in the city of San Francisco, was there a bitter fight over something called the Cow Hollow housing project? The proposal was to buy a former “boutique tourist hotel” with 30 rooms and turn it into a housing project for 24 young people. Opponents claimed that 24 people was too many, according to the current zoning ordinance. (If so, how did that 30-room hotel operate?)

Matthew S. Bajko reported:

The development is being vehemently opposed by some nearby neighbors and merchants, whose concerns range from seeing property values plummet to whether the site is an appropriate location for at-risk youth. They point to the fact that nearby is the Bridge Hotel, a magnet for criminal activity that the city attorney’s office targeted last year for numerous code violations.

The Supervisor of the district, Mark Farrell, called the area “fraught with a lot of risk.” Meanwhile, a resident of the area wrote an open letter to the city’s politicians:

The Chestnut Street area is and has always been family friendly with little or no drunkenness or rowdiness and any changes to this would be most undesirable.

Do you see what they did? They argued it both ways. The area is both too rowdy for the tender sensibilities of former foster kids at risk of homelessness, AND too civilized to tolerate the presence of former foster kids at risk of homelessness. The area is too dangerous for older teenagers, yet so prime that the plummeting of property values is a dreaded possibility. The young people who need a place to live are characterized as both too threatened, and too threatening, and the whole thing is just a lousy idea, so please go do it in somebody else’s backyard.

Indeed, Supervisor Farrell suggested selling the property and using the money to buy another parcel somewhere outside his district. It’s not clear whether the Cow Hollow project is still in the appeal process, or the organizations gave up. In 2012, a similar establishment for the same clientele opened in the Tenderloin district. The main service providers concerned with the project were the Community Housing Partnership and Larkin Street Youth Services. Bajko quotes Larkin Street’s executive director, Sherilyn Adams, as saying:

I think that likely some of those concerns are based on not knowing or understanding the issues about youth in the foster care system or on the streets who are or were homeless… These are young people we are all responsible for ensuring have opportunities as full members of society.

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Source: “First Report from National Youth in Transition Database,” Alliance1.org, 10/26/12
Source: “California,” NRCYD.ou.edu
Source: “Youth housing project causes uproar,” ebar.com, 07/14/11
Image by aprilzosia.

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