Posted on March 24, 2015 by Pat Hartman
Dozens of news stories show up daily in answer to the alert term “homeless.” Every now and then, one comes along that incorporates such classic elements that it would make the perfect case study for interstellar sociologists to puzzle over. Visualize a teacher from another planet, standing in front of a class full of students, trying to explain the strange ways of Earth.
Suppose that teacher picks a random a news story originating in Washington Township, a 23-square mile area that encompasses 7 communities in Gloucester County in southern New Jersey. Conscientiously, the teacher has looked up some background information. Last year, Gloucester County’s point-in-time count found 585 homeless people (and these counts are generally understood to be on the low side because of the “hidden homeless” factor). Strangely, entering the word “homeless” into the search box at Washington Township’s official website fails to return any result.
Make no mistake, Gloucester County seems to have quite a lot going on in the way of food pantries and so forth. But life is hard for the unemployed and the underemployed. Preparing for class, the teacher finds an article written by Samantha Melamed, who quotes an official saying that the county gets about 1,900 Section 8 vouchers from the federal government, while 8,000 people are on the waiting list for them. In temporal terms, that usually works out to a wait of about 4 years for affordable housing. In other words, a family that applied for subsidized housing back in 2011 when Melamed’s piece was published might just now be accepted. She notes:
Part of the problem is that cheap housing in our region is staggeringly hard to come by.
Yet, throughout that same region, houses sit empty—which is the subject of the current news item chosen by the alien teacher to make some points about human illogic on our weird planet. Its title is “Gloucester County cracks down on abandoned homes.” Zeroing in on a typical property, the reporter writes:
Weeks’ worth of wet newspapers are piled in the driveway…Trash cans and debris are stacked along a fence, and vines hang from the empty brown house’s gutters…The dwelling is among more than 370 vacant properties in the municipality and 3,000 in Gloucester County…
In other words, here’s a county with an official homeless count of 585 bodies, and 3,000 empty dwellings. What is wrong with the Earth inhabitants that they can’t figure something out? Even a neighboring “fast-growing” community called Woolwich holds 51 abandoned properties within its borders, and the news piece says:
Last year, the township experienced a “big uptick” in foreclosures and homeowners walking away from houses.
Here, the teacher from another planet might point out how the Earthlings keep saying their latest financial crisis happened in 2008, while evidence like this shows it is obviously still going on. Who do they think they’re kidding? Residents are upset because the banks don’t take care of foreclosed properties, so the grass grows hip-high and the buildings decay, lowering the market value of inhabited houses. One question the alien students might ask is, “Obviously, these Earthlings planned to establish long-term residence in this place. Since their intent is to stay, why do they care about the current market value? In fact, if the property is valued lower, doesn’t that mean they pay a lower tax?”
Meanwhile, an official notes that neglect and the resulting blight create “a significant quality-of-life impact.” But at the same time, the Earthlings are totally oblivious to the “quality-of-life impact” on the people who have no roof over their heads, while perfectly usable buildings sit empty. How can they sit back and be comfortable with this ridiculous waste of resources?
Registries are created with databases to keep track of who owns “abandoned” buildings, so the owners can (theoretically) be forced to pay for upkeep. More often, the best outcome is that a house will decay quickly, so it can be labeled “unsafe for human occupancy” and demolished, which is cheaper than paying for a landscaping crew year after year. Across America, how many houses are truly unsafe and unsalvageable, and how many viable buildings are arbitrarily labeled that way because it is the necessary bureaucratic step toward forcing the owner to tear them down?
Of course there is more to be said on this subject, and House the Homeless will be back to say more next time.
Source: “Far From Home,” SouthJerseyMagazine.com, March 2011
Source: “Gloucester County cracks down on abandoned homes,” TheDailyJournal.com, 03/21/15
Image by David Berry
Posted on March 10, 2015 by Pat Hartman
Paperwork has never been more important. Identification is necessary to open a bank account, cash a check, apply for a job, get a mailbox, rent a room, get food stamps and other benefits, sleep in a shelter, or even to board the Greyhound and leave town. In a city where the public library has computers, the privilege of using one to check email or search job listings will probably require I.D.
Almost everyone has had some kind of I.D. at one time or another, but on the streets, material objects come and go. Possessions are all too easily lost or stolen. Many of the people experiencing homelessness also struggle with mental health issues, PTSD, symptoms of head trauma, advanced age, and/or chronic pain. They are constantly being uprooted and “moved on.” Many facilities that serve the homeless do not allow belongings to be brought inside. Backpacks fall into rivers or are swept away by flash floods.
A Treacherous World for the Homeless
A person might stash a few belongings in a seemingly safe place, like the rough sleeper who left his blanket and pack in the electricity cupboard behind a church. He returned to find that another street person had dragged his things out and set them on fire— the sixth time in just a year that similar destruction had happened to him. Or it might be an over-zealous municipal crew, enforcing a city ordinance, that burns a homeless person’s possessions or pitches them into a truck bound for the landfill. Cleanup missions and “sweeps” carried out at camps can affect the inhabitants’ lives with apocalyptic fury.
To replace a birth certificate costs money and requires an address where the hard copy can be sent. Even a successful request can take as long as four months to be fulfilled, and that is only the first step. Acquiring a Social Security card can take weeks, and the Department of Motor Vehicles, where even non-driving I.D. cards originate, can present additional difficulties and delays. To acquire I.D. requires proof of residency and a legal address—the very things a person needs the I.D. in order to get. The process can be so Kafkaesque that some advocates spend all their volunteer time helping people with just that one problem.
Protect and Serve
Then, after jumping through all the bureaucratic hoops, imagine having your I.D. confiscated by an officer of the law—a person who has sworn to serve and protect citizens, including people experiencing homelessness. Richard R. Troxell, president of House the Homeless in Austin, Texas says:
All social services in Austin require photo identification. To be left without photo identification only acts as an additional barrier to escaping homelessness.
That is a polite understatement. Stealing and deliberately destroying a person’s identification does not only cause massive inconvenience and hardship, it can be a de facto death sentence. This terrifying act of personal annihilation can and does happen much too frequently, all across the country. It can result from a casual police encounter, and there are reports—even from such beautiful and smiling states as Hawaii—of I.D. being thrown away when a homeless person goes to jail.
In Austin, House the Homeless held its 14th Annual Thermal Underwear Distribution Party on January 1, 2015. As always, the attendees were invited to participate in a survey, which this year 277 people did. The average age of survey respondents was 45; their average time spent homeless was about 9.5 years; their average time in Austin just over 6 years. This year’s topic was interactions with the police.
Have you ever had your ID taken by police and not returned?
Yes: 92 No: 183
Approximately 1/3rd of all people surveyed had their identification permanently taken from them by the police.
A similar question concerned other possessions, such as backpacks, bags, bedrolls, clothing items, and so forth, any of which might hold papers and other personal valuables:
Have you ever had your things taken by police without giving you a receipt and the name of a contact person to get your things back?
Yes: 125 No: 152
Almost half the folks answering the question reported improper impounding practices conducted by officers of the Austin Police department.
Is it even necessary to point out how wrong thievery is when perpetrated by the very people who are supposed to be better than average, who are held up as examples of (as the old saying had it) Truth, Justice, and the American Way? We leave with a few words from Lisa Burrell, a social worker who helps the homeless:
It’s not uncommon for people to lose their possessions…The reaction I see in them is very similar to people who have been burgled and had their possessions taken. The loss is hard and it’s very deep.
Source: “Homeless man’s bag torched near Horsham church,” WSCountyTimes,co.uk, 07/21/14
Image by Ann Harkness
Posted on September 23, 2014 by Pat Hartman
Jodi Kantor wrote a story for The New York Times that is epic, empathetic, and closely related to homelessness.
One of her sources and subjects was a 22-year-old barista, Jannette Navarro, who supports herself and her 4-year-old son. Kantor describes the situation:
Newly off public assistance, she was just a few credits shy of an associate degree in business and talked of getting a master’s degree…. Her take-home pay rarely topped $400 to $500 every two weeks; since starting in November, she had set aside $900 toward a car….
Along with virtually every major retail and restaurant chain, Starbucks relies on software that choreographs workers in precise, intricate ballets, using sales patterns and other data to determine which of its 130,000 baristas are needed in its thousands of locations and exactly when…. Scheduling is now a powerful tool to bolster profits, allowing businesses to cut labor costs with a few keystrokes.
This Kronos program does not have a humane bone in its body, and Navarro was unable to make any plans more than three days ahead — a dire situation when child care is a constant preoccupation. A worker could speak up, of course, and ask for special treatment, and be a pain in the manager’s posterior. This happens not just at Starbucks but everywhere: a low-level employee who makes waves by asking for a schedule change might reap unexpected consequences, like having her overall hours cut. Whether intentionally punitive or not, stuff happens.
The poor are always being admonished to better themselves via education, but even one night of school per week is impossible if you never know when you will have to work. Uncertain, unpredictable hours can play hell with a family’s budget. It can affect access to preschool and day care opportunities. It gets worse, as Kantor points out:
Child care and policy experts worry that the entire apparatus for helping poor families is being strained by unpredictable work schedules, preventing parents from committing to regular drop-off times or answering standard questions on subsidy forms and applications for aid: ‘How many hours do you work?’ and ‘What do you earn?’
To give credit where it’s due, Starbucks provides health care and other benefits that count for a lot, setting an example that more companies should imitate. In response to the publicity, Starbucks says it will try to do better in the area of erratic and capricious scheduling. Other media noticed this story. On Slate’s DoubleX Gabfest podcast, Jessica Winter said:
These businesses … have offloaded a lot of the natural risk of doing business onto families. So instead of Starbucks, this enormous and rich and incredibly successful enterprise, absorbing the risk of occasionally having an extra barista or two on duty, you have Jannette Navarro risking her child care arrangements, and her relationships, and her home, and her sanity, in order to keep a $9-an-hour job.
Here is Winter’s message for companies that strive to do better:
You create happy, healthy consumers who have more time to go to the mall and have more time to use their disposable income…. I have never understood that divide of how you’re almost destroying part of your consumer base in order to chase maximum profits.
Most single mothers are in such unstable circumstances, one wrong move can bring the whole house of cards tumbling down. When life is so precarious, a seemingly little thing like a schedule change can be the pebble in the pond, with effects that radiate outward in every direction. A lucky family will wind up camping in a relative’s basement, a friend’s dining room, a camper parked in somebody’s driveway, or a garage with no water or electricity. An unlucky family will find itself in a shelter or on the street.
Your responses and feedback are welcome!
Source: “Working Anything but 9 to 5,” NYTimes.com, 08/13/14
Source: “DoubleX Gabfest: The Daddy’s Little Princess Edition,” Slate.com, 08/21/14
Image by Nick Richards
Posted on September 9, 2014 by Pat Hartman
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.
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.
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
Posted on September 2, 2014 by Pat Hartman
Last 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.
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.
Posted on August 19, 2014 by Pat Hartman
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
Posted on January 21, 2014 by Pat Hartman
“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.
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
Posted on December 3, 2013 by Pat Hartman
Thousands 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.”
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
Posted on November 19, 2013 by Pat Hartman
It’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.
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.
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
Posted on November 5, 2013 by Pat Hartman
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.