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“Housing Not Handcuffs” Paints a Grim Picture

homeless-campWe recommend our own newsletter’s succinct description of the report on the criminalization of homelessness, recently released by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. Of this effort, House the Homeless President Richard R. Troxell says:

Advocates from around the country are uniting to expose and defeat the criminalization of homelessness that creates devastating barriers preventing people from getting living wage jobs and affordable housing that would enable them to escape homelessness.

The creators of this report, titled “Housing Not Handcuffs,” gathered information from 187 American cities and learned that nearly half of them prohibit sitting or lying down in public. In other words, the person experiencing homelessness is expected to stay on her or his feet at all times.

But that is not sufficient, because standing still is also forbidden, under the verbiage of loitering, loafing, or vagrancy. If one wants to stay legal, a mere upright stance is not enough. For a street person, the only acceptable option is to remain in motion at all times.

And even that is not a satisfactory concession to public demand, because walking can be done only in certain geographical areas. Now, you might think that someone who owns a car or van could escape this problem by spending as much time as possible sitting inside of it, out of everyone’s way. But living in a vehicle is forbidden in 39% of the cities that were surveyed.

Of course there are settlements all over these cities, and the “move along” philosophy applies to groups of people, as well as to individuals. The way that cities choose to deal with camps is to cause them to uproot and relocate with senseless frequency. Maybe the basic logic is fairness to the housed people — to give each neighborhood some relief, for a while, from the unsightly, disturbing, and scary specter of people who not only failed to grab the brass ring, but couldn’t even find the merry-go-round.

Commenting on recent developments in Berkeley, Ace Backwords tells House the Homeless:

The homeless scene is always in a state of flux. It changes day to day, month to month, year to year. But the basic game seems to stay the same. One week the cops will be crunching you for one thing. The next week its OK to do that but they’re crunching you for something else. One week is OK to hang out on one side of the sidewalk. The next week they kick us off that side and say we gotta hang out on the other side. And the next week they reverse it again. Round and round it goes.

The crime of “breathing while homeless” isn’t on the books in those exact words, but it might as well be. By deeming a large segment of the national population to be guilty of it, municipalities have virtually created a huge crime wave.

Here are just three of the many key findings from “Housing Not Handcuffs”:

    Despite a lack of affordable housing and shelter space, many cities have chosen to criminally or civilly punish people living on the street for doing what any human being must do to survive.
    Local governments are engaged in problematic enforcement of these laws.
    Local governments are banishing homeless people from public places through use of “move on” orders and trespass warnings.

At the end of this page is a list of five previous posts on the “breathing while homeless” concept. For NBC in Berkeley, Stephanie Chuang and Shawn Murphy had this to say about California’s particularly aggressive anti-homeless ordinances:

Such an approach ends up being costly, as police and incarceration resources are marshaled to deal with the citations. Simply offering services and housing, on the other hand, has been found to save far more money. The federal government has also taken steps recently that indicates it considers the approach of criminalizing homelessness to be unconstitutional and will withhold federal funding from those places that engage in it. 

It is the local city governments (at the behest of the local businesses) that have passed the criminalization laws. This puts our municipalities in direct conflict with the Federal government. Specifically, the Department of Justice has echoed Mr. Troxell and other homeless advocates starting with Michael Stoops, National Coalition for the Homeless, who decry these laws and tag them as barriers to ending homelessness. At the same time, the Federal government is simultaneously providing our cities millions of dollars to fight a seeming by never ending battle to end homelessness.

“Guilty of Breathing While Homeless”
“Breathing While Homeless — in the News Again”
“Breathing While Homeless — More Illegal Than Ever”
“Breathing While Homeless Still a Crime”
“The Crime of Breathing While Homeless”

Source: “Housing Not Handcuffs: Ending the Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities,” NLCHP.org, November 2016
Source: “Berkeley City Council Approves Crackdown on Homeless, Prohibits Urination in Public,” NBCBayArea.com, 11/18/15
Image credit: Michael Coghlan (mikecogh) via Visualhunt/CC BY-SA

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Tax Day Hurts

taxesThere are a thousand different reasons for it, but the bottom line is, income tax is a huge issue for almost everyone. For more than 15 years, House the Homeless has promoted the annual “Tax Day Action!” on April 15.

This year, as always, the HtH family will take part in protests at Post Offices throughout America. Richard R. Troxell, the organization’s president, explains the rationale:

Workers have been forced in ever-increasing numbers to depend on food stamps, general assistance, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Congress intended these to be emergency, stop-gap measures. Instead, many businesses use government support to save on basic payroll. This is creating an ever-increasing burden on the taxpayer.

What happens when businesses take unfair advantage of the tattered few remaining shreds of the social safety net? Children don’t have proper nourishment and are unable to get the most out of their schooling. Families can’t afford rent, and wind up living in garages, basements, vans and, in the worst-case scenarios, in shelters or constantly-harassed homeless camps.

Learn more about the Universal Living Wage concept and what to do about it. Meanwhile, let’s look at some specific issues connected with how the refusal to end homelessness impacts the taxpayer.

Whether a service is paid for by local, state or federal taxes, all taxes come from the same source: us. The government, per se, does not have any money. At the municipal, state, or federal level, the government has no money except what we hand over to it in the form of income tax, property tax, sales tax, and so forth.

Sure, the government takes in a little something from the few remaining corporations that deign to pay taxes, but how do those businesses make up what they consider to be their rightful profits? Again, they get it from us.

What happens when a business, large or small, does not pay employees fairly or adequately? Every taxpayer chips in to pay for food stamps, medical care, and other necessities for those employees and their families. There are all kinds of less obvious costs, especially when people are unable to pay to live under a roof, and experience homelessness. Taxpayers finance the building of shelters or, more likely, the repurposing of old buildings to become shelters.

Police are kept busy chasing unhoused people from one makeshift settlement to another, and arresting them for minor crimes, and who pays to keep them in jail? We all do. The mission of the police, supposedly, is to serve and protect the citizens. That mission has been perverted into serving and protecting only property owners, while making life miserable for those who need protection the most, the people who have lost almost everything and really don’t need to be served any more grief.

Courts systems waste their time and our money assessing fines that will never be paid, for rinky-dink offenses like loitering. Another thing that courts do, occasionally, is to award damages to people who have been harmed by over-zealous policing. People whose possessions have been destroyed by police sometime band together, find willing legal representation, and sue cities for damages.

It’s never an easy battle, but hospitals that dump patients on Skid Row have been fined – and one way or another, the person who ends up paying the bill is the ordinary taxpayer. The families of homeless people killed by the police have been awarded damages. Allowing homelessness to continue in America damages everyone.

Tax Day always hurts, but when the panic and the cussing are over, it is totally worth sitting down to have a good hard think, about exactly who is paying for what, and why.

Reactions?

Photo credit: efile989 via VisualHunt.com/CC BY-SA

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The Challenge of Homeless Children

homeless-children-sleeping

House the Homeless has spoken about the urgency of telling potential presidential candidates what we think is important. Keeping families together is maximally important.

It has long been obvious that one person working a minimum wage job can barely support herself or himself. With kids, the situation becomes desperate. When a person is called upon to do two different things at the same time, like hold a job and be the sole parent, the awful stress of trying to do the impossible has a bad effect on health and mental stability. Even if there are two parents, if one has a low-paying job and the other takes care of the kids, they are teetering on the edge of homelessness if not homeless already.

The number of families living in garages and basements is larger than official statistics would indicate. But in recent years, even if both parents work, or one parent holds two jobs, in many places they still can’t afford a place to live that includes such amenities as running water, electricity, outdoor space for kids to play, or indoor space for them to do school assignments.

The flyover states

Too often, a cruel Catch-22 comes into play. There are plenty of places in the United States where the rent is relatively low. Unfortunately, such a place is unlikely to offer the luxury of employment. Journalist Alexis Rosado quotes experts from Volunteers of America and Homeless Angels, to the effect that, although most people don’t realize it, families with children make up a huge proportion of the homeless population. This is certainly true in middle America.

Just last week, WLNS in Lansing, Michigan, profiled a family that has been experiencing homelessness for about two years since the father lost his job and couldn’t find another. Lansing only has two facilities where families can stay together, and then only for a short time. A lot of other cities don’t even have that much.

Audacious programs

Kids in tumultuous situations are prone to physical, emotional, social, and developmental problems, or all four kinds at once. In Oakland, CA, the Center for the Vulnerable Child (CVC) focuses on children whose lives are impacted by homelessness, family disruption (often a polite way of saying that a parent is locked up), abuse, neglect, violence, poverty, and other chaotic influences. Cheryl Zlotnick published a book titled Children Living in Transition, which describes the organization’s focus:

[…] this text recommends strategies for delivering mental health and intensive case-management services that maintain family integrity and stability.
[…] this volume outlines culturally sensitive practices to engage families that feel disrespected by the assistance of helping professionals or betrayed by their forgotten promises. Chapters discuss the Center’s staffers’ attempt to trace the influence of power, privilege, and beliefs on their education and their approach to treatment.

The CVC offers developmental screening, education in parenting, therapy for both individuals and families, and case management. It is connected with many programs that serve niche demographics, like foster kids who need medical care, or children who seem likely to fail out of kindergarten, so clients can be referred to numerous consulting specialists.

In nearby San Francisco, the Homeless Youth Alliance works with a very different group – youth designated as “unaccompanied,” who are either alienated from their families or who have aged out of foster care and never had families. They are encouraged to be more than the passive recipients of services. There is a neighborhood beautification crew that increases pride and earns good will, and the opportunity is always open to work as an outreach counselor.

Funded mostly by foundations and private donors, the HYA encourages people to accept challenge and be the change they want to see in the world. To potential supporters, executive director Mary Howe issues a refreshingly honest call to action:

We want your money, your talent, your support and, more than anything, your ability to utilize your own voice to educate people of the root causes of poverty, homelessness, drug use and mental health challenges… Don’t just sit on your ass and complain about the state of things—stand up, do something and get involved in your community.

Circling back to our first paragraph, House the Homeless would like to remind everybody that now is an excellent time to get involved by raising our voices about what needs to be done on a national level. Any pubic figure who aspires to leadership should be hearing from us, and not just that we want more and better homeless shelters. No, we want improvement in all the circumstances and conditions that lead to homelessness, which are conveniently listed on the page titled “Mission: School the Candidates.”

Source: “Homeless family sees flaws in the system,” WLNS.com, 02/19/16
Source: “Children Living in Transition,” Columbia.edu, 2014
Source: “Create to Destroy! Homeless Youth Alliance,” MaximumRocknRoll.com, 10/22/13
Photo credit: Blemished Paradise via Visual hunt/CC BY-SA

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Mission: School the Candidates

kids-4-kids-sake

The National Coalition for the Homeless is sending out a call to action:

Join us in asking each candidate what they will do to create affordable and accessible housing for all!

Whoever winds up running for President need to be urgently reminded that nothing is more important than ending the national disgrace of American homelessness. On the NCH’s “2016 Presidential Campaign” page, just hit the “How to contact the candidates” tab to access what looks like a pretty up-to-date list, except that Martin O’Malley has dropped out (which may be updated by the time our page is published).

Bernie Sanders seems to be pretty well informed about all the issues that contribute to homelessness, and he is particularly tuned-in to the urgency of housing homeless veterans. Still, if you are “feeling the Bern,” it can’t hurt to encourage him to actually talk about solving the issue of homelessness for all people while on the campaign trail.

This helpful page supplies snail-mail addresses. Remember, in our electronic age, when someone takes the time to write an actual letter on paper, fold it into an envelope and stick on a stamp, that action is pretty impressive. Sending a physical piece of mail means getting a lot of bang for the half-a-buck.

Also, a lot of these prominent individuals have Twitter accounts and Facebook pages and heaven only knows what else. Speak to them through the social media of your choice. Send them a link to this video, which was produced by House the Homeless at Austin’s beautiful Homeless Memorial.

Send them a series of Tweets, Facebook messages, etc., containing that link and one of the messages read by these children. For your copy-and-paste convenience, here they all are:

  • “Income inequality… Homelessness: worst possible outcome”
  • “School can be hard… Sleeping on a park bench is harder.”
  • “Help them! Don’t arrest them!”
  • “Homes, not handcuffs”
  • “Mommies and daddies need a living wage.”
  • “Kids need a roof over their heads, not a bridge!”
  • “What’s wrong and what’s right? Kids say: housing is a human right!”
  • “My friend’s doggie needs a home — and so does she.”

Also, on that page you have the opportunity to refresh your knowledge of the root causes of homelessness, which will make your communications with public figures more effective.

If you want to say something more substantial than “End homelessness!” — find talking points on the NCH “Issues” page.

The issues fall under several main categories. Pick the one you know or care most about, or read up on the one you’d like to learn more about. Then tell all the potential candidates what you think. Or pick one candidate, and send separate messages regarding all of these issues. What are they?

  • Housing
  • Employment and Income
  • Health
  • Family Homelessness
  • Elder Homelessness
  • Youth Homelessness
  • Veteran Homelessness
  • Criminalization of Homelessness
  • LGBT Homelessness
  • Trauma Informed Care

Also on the “Issues” page are links for anyone who wants to donate, organize, advocate, volunteer, or request a speaker.

Our goal is to use the 2016 presidential election process to make the issue of homelessness a political priority so that the next President will put our nation on track to fixing the affordable housing crisis and ending homelessness in America.

Let’s do this!

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The Criminalization of Ownership

Cart and CarsHere we are in America, where private property rights are sacred, except for the people who own the least. The general housed public has a strange double-standard attitude. Upright citizens who are unable to pack for a weekend without incurring baggage overweight charges, are scornful of people experiencing homelessness who dare to keep a few belongings.

People with an overdose of righteousness get all bent out of shape because homeless people have cell phones. Has no one noticed that the pay phones are all gone? How is a person supposed to make appointments with helpful agencies, or contact prospective employers, or even call the police or fire department to report an emergency?

Say you’re a homeless person who was lucky enough to score a good, warm coat that fits and has all its buttons. What do you do when warm weather comes? Keep wearing it, and suffer the discomfort of being too warm? And be branded mentally incompetent, because wearing clothes inappropriate for the weather is a sign of schizophrenia? Or carry the coat around all summer, in addition to your bedroll and backpack?

Not in my back yard

In an online forum, you might find a message from an average homeowner who has discovered a cache of someone’s belongings on his property. He has a certain amount of compassion, and wants to be a good guy. Others reply with warnings that the bundle might contain drugs, a weapon, stolen goods, or something else that could get the homeowner in trouble. It might contain a blanket infested with bedbugs. There is a notion (spread by the firefighters in at least one city) that a homeless person, rather than simply abandoning unwanted belongings, prefers to burn them – and nobody wants a fire out by the garage.

There is another downside. Suppose a kind-hearted property owner allows someone to stash belongings. What about the neighbors or the occasionally patrolling cops? When trying to access his or her own stuff, that homeless person could be arrested for trespassing, or even summarily shot. But stuff needs to be somewhere.

Necessities of life

People have blankets, clothing, maybe a nicer pair of shoes, hygiene items and medicines that they can’t carry around every minute. They have documents, lists of phone numbers for services and other helpful contacts, and treasured family photos. They might even have money they’re saving up to try and rent a place to live. Carrying everything at all times isn’t safe. Last fall, Buffalo saw a marked increase in robberies of homeless people by street criminals, and it happens everywhere.

Many shelters have neither the space nor the desire to let people bring along all their stuff. The alternative is to find a safe spot, out in the big cruel world, to tuck a few things into a niche or an alcove or under a bush or up a tree in a park, and that is increasingly difficult. People’s belongings are seized if found “abandoned,” and often even if the person is right there on the spot. The Fourth Amendment is supposed to forbid this kind of thing, and judges have struck down such policies in Fresno, Los Angeles, Sacramento and Miami, but cities keep on doing it anyway. The ordinances that enable these warrantless seizures criminalize homelessness.

They never learn

At the end of 2014, Tucson AZ made the news when homeless organizers pushed back against the three-item rule. People were actually being arrested for owning more than a blanket, bedroll, and beverage. Activists struggled for four years before a U.S. District Judge finally granted an injunction to end this – which doesn’t mean it has ended. Early in 2015, Chicago was embroiled in a similar battle. For the Sun-Times, Mark Brown interviewed, among others, a Marine Corps veteran who had been deprived of everything he owned, four different times.

All homeless people are allowed to keep only “portable personal possessions” defined as a “sleeping bag or bedroll, not more than two coats, not more than two pairs of shoes or boots, not more than five blankets, and not more than three bags or suitcases, and such contents as may be contained in said bags or suitcases.”
In the winter months, they can have five more blankets and another sleeping bag.

Last summer, in preparation for a rock concert, Chicago authorities decreed that a neatly organized 20-tent settlement had to be moved from under a bridge, at least temporarily. Supposedly some kind of agreement was in place about sufficient notice, which may or may not have been given, depending on who tells the story. City workers started before the designated time, and threw away blankets, clothing, and other property, rather than store the items and notify people how to recover them, as had supposedly been agreed. The Department of Family and Support Services was supposed to be on hand to help relocate the people and their possessions, and showed up late when the city crews had already disposed of many things. Even when a Chicago Coalition for the Homeless lawyer showed up, the pillaging continued. Journalist Melissa Muto wrote,

Rene Heybach… told them they were in violation of the city agreement. But Heybach said that none of the workers she spoke to Tuesday had been properly trained in that protocol, and none of them, including the supervisor, had even heard of it.

What goes on in these cases? Every agency has telephones and computers. There is no excuse for such a lack of communication. Why is everything so confused and uncoordinated? The following month, Ethan Walker reported on the situation in Berkeley, CA. It was, ironically, at Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park that police seized from four homeless men everything except the clothes they stood up in. Allegedly the belongings were taken to a storage facility. According to homeless activist Mike Zint, the same scenario had been repeated hundreds of times in Berkeley, and more often than not, the seized property was destroyed rather than stored.

Zint said he has lost his property to the police seven times in four years. He said the police came, usually at night, and often cited him for breaking Penal Code 647e, which states that lodging in any place, public or private, without the permission of the owner is an act of disorderly conduct. The police then took his gear as evidence of his violation.

Activist Diane Kimes added,

The personal belongings which had value to their owners were immediately hauled off, while the garbage was left there to rot by the city. Obviously, this isn’t about keeping public space clean and safe–it’s about making life insupportable for those who have nothing…

Reactions?

Source: “Court: Confiscation rules at Tucson park unfair to homeless,” Tucson.com, 12/26/14
Source: “City agrees to be more respectful of homeless belongings,” SunTimes,com, 02/11/15
Source: “Mumford and Sons’ concert displaces homeless,” WBEZ.org, 06/19/15
Source: “Homeless in Berkeley must ‘rebuild’ after police remove property,” DailyCal.org, 07/08/15
Image by urbansnaps – kennymc

 

 

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How to Become Homeless: Live in One of LA’s Nine Hot Neighborhoods

AirB&B300dpiLos Angeles holds the distinction both of having the highest percentage of renters of any American city, and of being, for renters, the least affordable American city. Since the USA is freedom-based, landlords are bitter when not allowed to wring every possible dime out of their properties. The issue of rent control has always been fiercely contested in LA. Hillel Aron explains:

If a landlord’s unit falls under the Los Angeles rent stabilization ordinance (meaning all apartment units built before 1978) landlords are prohibited from raising the rent above a certain amount, and these buildings can only be torn down or taken off the market in certain circumstances.

Since 1982, the Mello Act has been in place, ostensibly preventing landowners from converting residential units for commercial use. But somehow it happens anyway. Leading up to the 1984 Summer Olympics, poor people all over the city were displaced for the sake of wealthy visitors. This happens, Mark Lipman says, when…

Laws are ignored, process is circumvented, zoning is changed, exceptions are made, and enforcement is non-existent, when it favors the land speculator….

More recently, the advent of Airbnb and similar enterprises really threw gasoline on the fire. In March, the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy released a study showing that more than 7,000 rental units had disappeared from the city’s traditional rental market for use as short-term rentals or what some call “underground hotels.”

Of course, the people in favor of permitting unregulated, short-term renting talk about how much it helps the average tenant of a house or apartment, because they can sublet a spare bedroom to a traveler and make a bundle. Homeowners can benefit even more. Theoretically, a homeowner can rent out his place for a couple of weeks and earn enough to pay for his own vacation, plus a couple of months’ mortgage payments.

In theory, it all sounds delightful, but in practice, the situation is quite different. While Airbnb claims that 80% of the 4,500 amateur innkeepers in LA are “primary residents” of the spaces they offer, opponents tell a different tale. They say the overwhelming majority of Airbnb listings originate from professional companies that specialize in managing numerous short-term-rental units.

The Nine LA Gold Mines

In Los Angeles, more than 70% of Airbnb profits emanate from just nine neighborhoods, of which the beachfront community of Venice is one. An astonishing 12.5% of all the rental units in Venice are now rented out through Airbnb. One sad example is the venerable Waldorf, where Charlie Chaplin used to occupy the penthouse. Among the consequences is a reduced quality of life for the tenants who are being encouraged to leave. Adrian Glick Kudler writes:

The owner has been changing units over to Airbnbs as soon as they become vacant and residents “have felt increasingly unwelcome in their homes [and] believe their landlord is no longer performing basic maintenance on their apartment because they are not as profitable as the tourist-serving units.”

Judith Goldman of Keep Neighborhoods First told LA Weekly that neighborhood residents are being harassed and intimidated into leaving, and when possible, outright evicted. She characterizes the rise of Airbnb as not home sharing, but home snatching. Elena Popp of Eviction Defense Network told a reporter, “Venice is a nightmare.” The Weekly says:

According to Airbnb’s website, the average Venice rental goes for under $200 a night—for a weeknight. Weekends average around $225. The most expensive places go for more than $1,000 nightly.

No wonder Airbnb spends $100,000 per year to lobby City Hall office-holders! Writing for the Free Venice Beachhead, Mark Lipman indicts the Council District 11 office, which apparently is in the habit of changing zoning rules and issuing permits without the required public input. Consequently, in the 3-square-mile Venice Coastal Zone, more 1,200 units have dropped out of the regular rental market. Lipman says:

This is having a devastating effect on our community, exacerbating homelessness and driving the price of rent through the roof.

Venice has always had a large and flagrantly visible homeless population and now, with this Airbnb takeover, it is growing even larger. In many American cities, Lipman notes, there is a “drastic ramping up of criminalization of status.” In Venice, this happens to the point where he sees the municipal government as both creating homelessness and making it as miserable as possible.

This area of the city is policed by LAPD’s Pacific Division, which by its own admission spends four fifths of its energy and resources dealing with people experiencing homelessness. In the main, that means harassing people for doing things that people have to do, like sit and sleep. (During one era of Venice history, a mentally disturbed young man spent his days walking in circles in a particular spot on the boardwalk. Tough as his life was, at least “Circles” never got a ticket for sitting or sleeping.) It costs $62,000 to keep a person in jail for a year in LA. Lipman says:

That’s a lot of money, to pay a lot of police salaries…money we wouldn’t have to spend—police we wouldn’t need on the streets—if we simply provided the basic services that our communities have been demanding for well over a decade.

Obviously, corporate shell companies and foreign investors, and the prison guards’ powerful union, are in need of some policing, but as usual, all the law enforcement attention is focused on the poor and the homeless.

The short-term rental business is both a direct and an indirect cause of homelessness. In light of this, Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless suggests that cities take regulatory action that would create a contributory pool into which Airbnb and similar enterprises would donate a small amount, perhaps 2%, of their profits for the benefit of people experiencing homelessness.

Furthermore, we urge you to contact your local government officials and state legislators.

Reactions?

Source: “Airbnb Is Making Things Worse For L.A. Renters, Report Says,” LAWeekly.com, 03/06/15
Source: “Why Venice Beach is Ground Zero For the Airbnb Backlash.” LAWeekly.com, 08/19/15
Source: “Follow the Money – The Political Will of Creating Homelessness.” FreeVenice.org, September 2015
Source: “Airbnb and other short-term rentals worsen housing shortage, critics say,” LATimes.com, 03/11/15
Source: “The Nine Neighborhoods That Make All the Airbnb Money in LA,” curbed.com, 03/11/15
Image by http://www.jonwolff.net/ with permission

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Breathing While Homeless – in the News Again

Where do they all belongTo speak of the crime of “Breathing While Homeless” is no joke any more—not that it ever was. In the late 1880s, singly and in groups, thousands of jobless, impoverished people roamed the countryside. The homeless wanderers were called tramps, and in Wisconsin Death Trip, Michael Lesy quotes a local newspaper’s report on what happened when 250 tramps approached the settlement. “They were marched to the river, made to wash themselves, given something to eat, and rushed out of town.” That can be looked at as an unconscionable violation of Americans’ rights, or as a relatively benign intervention.

On the other hand, what were the untold stories? Scores of people were herded to the river and—what? Made to strip down and wash their clothes by pounding them with rocks? Or were they forced to just wade into the river in what they wore, regardless of the ambient temperature, their state of health, the precious identity papers and photos they might have held onto…There is a lot we don’t know. At least the tramps were fed, but again, we don’t know exactly what that means.

Anyway, such an incident could provide opportunity for many kinds of abuse and even assault. It would not occur to the news editor to mention it, because everyone would assume it was business as usual. Nothing to see here, folks, so move on. Does our romanticized view of the country’s past throw a rosy glow over atrocities?

The point is that America has never rewarded those who just can’t make it. Adding insult to injury, the people who most despise the homeless are, often, the very ones who caused the dire and desperate financial conditions against which the rest of us struggle. Because the misery is so widespread, many journalists have done stories about its manifold aspects. In so many places it is either de jure or de facto illegal to sit, sleep, eat, or eliminate. But people have to do those things. This is the basis of the currently controversial Bell v. City of Boise legal case. A judge once said you can’t punish people for what people can’t help doing. The Justice Department, which appears to have sat mute on this question for a couple of decades, has decided to take an interest. Change may come. Only last month, Alan Pyke wrote:

Any community that makes homelessness illegal may soon find it harder to obtain Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funding for building shelters and staffing outreach positions.

The criminalization of homelessness enriches certain industries and provides better employment opportunities for certain workers (like police and prison guards). For a person experiencing homelessness, every encounter with law enforcement is potentially lethal. When a community legislates against non-violent non-crimes like sitting on the sidewalk, the frequency of interaction goes up, and so does the fatality rate. Listen to what Allen Arthur said, also last month:

Nearly a third of those living in New York City homeless shelters are employed—at jobs that obviously don’t pay them enough to afford rent….Around 12 percent of homeless are veterans –their job deified when wartime profits call, but left for dead in the streets when their usefulness is exhausted…Both politically and economically, for the ruling class, the problem is more profitable than the solution.

Arthur has a great deal more to say, and does it clearly. He points out that 18 million housing units are empty in the United States. Some critics would wander off into the woods, arguing the exact amount of theoretically liveable space, or why it shouldn’t be lived in anyway. This writer breaks it down for us in terms of exactly who has benefited from the impoverished and homeless condition in which so many Americans find themselves. We can’t say “jobless” because today’s homeless and inadequately housed people are unlike those displaced people who entered and exited a Wisconsin town so long ago. Today, many of the people experiencing homelessness are working, and even working full-time. Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless says:

For me, the issue is simple. If someone is prevented from pursuing a basic act of survival, then the fault lies with the entity that is disrupting the individual’s ability to survive unimpeded, be it another individual, a government, a system or a community.

Thanks to Richard and many, many other hard-working and highly-principled people, the city of Austin has been, in some areas, a pioneer. Please do visit “No Sit/No Lie: Troxell’s Testimony,” or one of our several other posts about this hot-button topic.

Reactions?

Source: “ Wisconsin Death Trip”
Source: “Local Officials Have Pushed To Criminalize Homelessness For Years. The Feds Are Starting To Push Back,” ThinkProgress.org, 08/18/15
Source: “Homelessness is the crime, not the homeless,” SocialistWorker.org, 08/09/15
Image by Christiaan Triebert

 

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The Roots of Bell v. City of Boise

iPhone 5cIn Colorado Springs, the mayor is working hard to change an existing ordinance (which forbids anyone to lie down anywhere) so it will criminalize sitting down anywhere in the city. In San Francisco, the mayor doesn’t care whether people experiencing homelessness are sitting, lying, standing straight up, or kneeling in prayer. Whatever their posture, he vows to chase them all out of there before the Super Bowl. Currently, one-third of American cities have laws against sleeping outside. Last week, House the Homeless talked about the “statement of interest” filed by the Department of Justice regarding a current case brought by Idaho Legal Aid Services and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

At the core of this topic is the question of whether anti-camping ordinances are constitutional or not. It is a “currently unsettled area of the law” about which various courts disagree. That is what Bell v. City of Boise is about, and the outcome will have massive policy implications throughout the system.

This started 9 years ago, with a Los Angeles ordinance under which people experiencing homelessness could be arrested for sleeping on the street even when no shelter beds were available. Since there were twice as many homeless people as shelter beds, this meant that, on any given night, half the homeless population of LA was vulnerable to arrest.

Jones v. City of Los Angeles

The ACLU and the National Lawyers Guild filed suit against the City of Los Angeles. Judge Kim M. Wardlaw of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered that the draconian ordinance should no longer be enforced, stating:

The Eighth Amendment prohibits the City from punishing involuntary sitting, lying, or sleeping on public sidewalks that is an unavoidable consequence of being human and homeless without shelter in the City of Los Angeles.

At the time, there was great rejoicing. Mark Rosenbaum, the ACLU attorney who had argued the case, called Judge Wardlaw’s decision “the most significant judicial opinion involving homelessness in the history of the nation.” Sadly, it didn’t turn out that way. But thanks to more recent developments such as Bell v. City of Boise, that bold prediction might still come true.

A year and a half after Judge Wardlaw’s ruling, Los Angeles and the ACLU finally quit arguing about what would happen next, and reached an agreement that no one was really happy with—in other words, a workable compromise. As long as they stayed 10 feet away from entrances and driveways, homeless people could sleep on city streets between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. But the police could start enforcing the no-lying ordinance again as soon as the city built 1,250 units of supportive housing. Not shelter beds, but actual places where a person could settle in and get help to set her or his life on track.

And, says journalist Evan George, they went on to quibble about whether housing units that were already in the process of construction would count. The police department complained about “shelter-resistant” street people who refused to claim available beds. A law professor did a study and found “a median of just four shelter beds available on a given night when the LAPD was counting more than 1,000 people sleeping on the street.” Homeless advocates pointed out that, even if there had been enough shelter beds, it’s not the same thing as supportive permanent housing.

Several years later, when street people were allowed to return to a physically cleaned-up Skid Row, Councilman Bill Rosendahl was called upon by his constituents to explain the situation:

On October 15, 2007, the City entered into a legally binding settlement, agreeing not to enforce the law prohibiting sleeping on the streets, between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. until it builds 1,250 units of permanent supportive housing. The City entered this agreement after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals…found that the law against sleeping on the streets amounted to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the 8th Amendment…,

In the words of Evan George, these were the consequences:

By agreeing to the settlement, the ACLU has given up any claim of using the Ninth Circuit court ruling as precedent for future lawsuits. However…attorneys for the homeless may still cite the decision in future lawsuits.

In other words, even though Judge Wardlaw’s ruling was vacated, the reasoning behind it was sound, and valid enough to use in Bell v. City of Boise, which is why the Justice Department recently wrote:

The statement of interest advocates for the application of the analysis set forth in Jones v. City of Los Angeles, a Ninth Circuit decision that was subsequently vacated pursuant to a settlement. In Jones, the court considered whether the city of Los Angeles provided sufficient shelter space to accommodate the homeless population. The court found that, on nights when individuals are unable to secure shelter space, enforcement of anti-camping ordinances violated their constitutional rights.

Reactions?

Source: “ACLU of Southern California Wins Historic Victory in Homeless Rights Case,” ACLU.org, 04/14/06
Source: “City, ACLU Settle Street Sleeping Case,” LADowntownNews.com, 10/15/07
Source: “Skid Row Homeless Say LAPD Is Trying to Bully Them off Their Freshly Cleaned Turf,” LAWeekly.com, 06/22/12
Source: “Justice Department Files Brief to Address the Criminalization of Homelessness.” Justice.gov, 08/06/15
Image by Sascha Kohlmann

 

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Will Nationwide Change Start in Idaho?

APD 2

Faceless force: police officers strut between Austin’s homeless shelter and Salvation Army building.

On August 6, something interesting and potentially very significant happened. A federal court case filed in the District of Idaho in 2009 is just now being considered, and the Department of Justice filed a “statement of interest” based on the premise that people experiencing homelessness are being unconstitutionally punished for sleeping in public places, even when no shelter beds or any other alternatives are available to them.

The case, titled Bell v. City of Boise et al., was brought by several homeless plaintiffs who were convicted of violating a Boise ordinance that forbids “camping” in public. In this instance, camping does not mean setting up a tent and a barbecue pit and a gravity shower and a volleyball net. It means sleeping, an activity that every human being has to engage in, which means the law makes as much sense as convicting people for breathing.

The Justice Department calls sleeping “conduct that is a universal and unavoidable consequence of being human,” and references the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which says that Americans should not be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. In effect, anti-camping ordinances criminalize people for being homeless. These days, it is certainly not unusual, but it is undeniably cruel.

Who Are the Criminals?

The parties responsible for the economic meltdown have not spent a single night in jail, or for that matter, a single night sleeping behind a dumpster. The parties responsible for starting and perpetuating wars for the further obscene enrichment of billionaires have not attended a single Veterans Stand Down looking for a toothbrush or a pair of socks. Yet thousands of Americans have acquired criminal records because they have to sleep someplace, and thousands more live in daily fear of being punished as criminals because of the human physiological imperative known as sleep. Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, wrote:

Criminally prosecuting those individuals for something as innocent as sleeping, when they have no safe, legal place to go, violates their constitutional rights…Needlessly pushing homeless individuals into the criminal justice system does nothing to break the cycle of poverty or prevent homelessness in the future. Instead, it imposes further burdens on scarce judicial and correctional resources, and it can have long-lasting and devastating effects on individuals’ lives.

The lawsuit that is finally getting its day in court was originally filed by Idaho Legal Aid Services and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP), which issued a report last year announcing the result of a three-year survey that gathered information from 187 American cities. They found that 34 percent (a solid one-third) of these municipalities have laws that ban public camping (also known as sleeping). Almost half—43 percent—prohibit sleeping in vehicles, which is about as senseless as a law can be. Who in their right mind believes that sleeping in a vehicle is worse, for either the homeless person or the general public, than the other alternatives?

Criminalizing Homelessness

As of last year, the agencies responsible for counting people experiencing homelessness came up with 153,000 to represent the number of unsheltered homeless people in the United States on any night of the year. In the main, these unsheltered sleepers are Americans. Some are very young children, whose chances of actually learning anything in school are gravely reduced. Some are teens, who are at risk for more kinds of damage than the average housed person can even imagine. Some are fathers with intense and undeserved feelings of personal failure. Some are mothers whose desperation occasionally makes sordid headlines.

Some are women escaped from domestic situations so violently abusive that even the streets seem like a better deal. Some are mentally ill people for whom the world is a vast unrelenting puzzle. Some are sick and disabled people who would barely be able to take care of themselves even indoors, much less out in the wild. Some are veterans who made a good-faith bargain with the government that was only kept on one side. Some are elderly people who worked hard all their lives and ended up with less than nothing.

And we call ourselves the greatest country on earth.

(…more on this court case next time…)


Source: “Justice Department Files Brief to Address the Criminalization of Homelessness,” Justice.gov, 08/06/15
Source: “It’s unconstitutional to ban the homeless from sleeping outside, the federal government says,” WashingtonPost.com, 08/13/15
Image by Richard R. Troxell

 

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Minimum Wage Matters

Walmart business strategyThat’s exactly what the bosses want! They want us fighting over who has the bigger pile of crumbs so we don’t realize they made off with almost the whole damn cake.

Jens Rushing wrote those words, as part of a larger message that could be condensed even further into the popular warning, “Check yourself before you wreck yourself.” In writing his manifesto, Rushing’s aim was to implore workers to wake up and stop complaining about other workers getting a raise. Someone in his own field, for instance, could easily feel resentment about a fry-basket jockey making the same hourly wage as a paramedic. Rushing and his colleagues are highly trained, extremely competent, and responsible for life-and-death decisions. But he asks everybody to stop and analyze the situation.

Among professional comics, one school of thought divides humor into “punching up” and “punching down.” Some consider it improper to make jokes at the expense of anyone who is perceived as less fortunate than the comic and the current audience. Only the powerful can be attacked: only punching up is cool.

But the corporate CEOs and politicians who own everything hope for the opposite. They want us all to punch down. They want us to form warring clans along every possible divisive line—gender and race being the most obvious, but also American-born or newly arrived; white-collar or blue-collar; tech-savvy or future-shocked; housed or experiencing homelessness. Sometimes it seems that we peasants of the “99%” enjoy finding or inventing any reason to fight amongst ourselves. Meanwhile, the Big Bosses are delighted because all the strife diverts our attention from their machinations. As Rushing says:

Why are you angry about fast food workers making two bucks more an hour when your CEO makes four hundred TIMES what you do?

On the subject of bosses that keep the whole damn cake, could there be a more perfect example than Walmart? The CEO makes more than a 1,000 times what the average “associate” makes. And the family that owns a large portion of the company? The six wealthiest members hold more wealth than the combined entire bottom 40 percent of Americans. Four of the Waltons are worth more than $30 billion apiece. Last year, the Walmart shareholders made $7.2 billion.

Walmart is America’s largest private sector employer, and if it were a country, it would have the 26th largest economy in the world. It has 2.2 million employees, which is more than the population of Houston, TX. Just because 25 people apply for every job opening, Walmart feels justified in practicing piracy. People who specialize in figuring out these things say that Walmart could pay workers $14.89 per hour without needing to raise prices. Of course, the notion that the family or the stockholders might take less of the pie is too unlikely to even consider.

But wait—there are even more shameful numbers. Apparently, each store costs the taxpayers more than $900,000 per year in public assistance for its employees. Out of all employers, Walmart is the one where the largest number of workers and their families use taxpayer-funded health insurance programs.  And what about that shady, dicey, sketchy merry-go-round where almost 20 percent of the food stamps in America are redeemed at Walmart AND, coincidentally, a huge percentage of the employees need food stamps to survive. In the comment section of a Walmart-busting website, a worker wrote:

When I started, they actually have a routine to sign you up for Food Stamps and all government assistance during the orientation process. Which is really messed up to take a job to get you away from Government assistance, only part of their plan is to help you get it… I was disgusted at the fact it was part of their written orientation.

Please read the House the Homeless document, “The Fight for $15!” and learn about the Universal Living Wage formula. Universal Living Wage also has a Facebook page. As Jens Rushing said:

Look, if any job is going to take up someone’s life, it deserves a living wage.

Reactions?

Source: “Paramedic Shares Awesome Facebook Post About Minimum Wage Increase,” good.is, 08/03/15
Source: “14 Facts About Wal-Mart That Will Blow Your Mind,” BusinessInsider.com, 06/06/14
Source: “19 Facts That Show Just How Massive Walmart Really Is.” buzzfeed.com, 06/06/14
Source: “Top Reasons the Walton Family and Walmart are NOT “Job Creators”,” walmart1percent.org, March 2014
Image by Mike Licht

 

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