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.


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



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.


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



Will Nationwide Change Start in Idaho?


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



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.


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



Hidden Costs of Homelessness

Day 3When calculating the civic price of homelessness, communities think about how much it costs to build and maintain shelters; to staff agencies that match available housing and jobs with people experiencing homelessness; and to pay landlords and motel owners for housing that is meant to be transitional. If the community is enlightened, it even factors in the costs of hospitalizing and jailing people who would not need to be in either facility in the first place, if they had somewhere to live.

But there are other, seldom-mentioned categories of expense that taxpayers often don’t even realize have become part of their financial liability. Less than a year ago in Denver, Amy Goodman reported on what has been called an “historic police brutality case”:

Marvin Booker was a homeless street preacher from a prominent family of Southern preachers. In 2010, he was killed by deputies in the booking room of the Denver jail.

It was all on video. The coroner ruled a homicide, the sheriff’s department personnel went totally unpunished, and the citizens of Colorado were handed a bill for $4.65 million to pay compensation and damages to Booker’s family. On the other side of the country, a court told New York City to pay $2.25 million to the mother of a man who was left to die in an oven-like cell at Riker’s Island.

When a hospital does something wrong, the cost of making it right may not come from the tax coffers, but community members pay just the same, as every subsequent patient contributes to cover the deficit. In Southern California, local reporter Sarah Parvini noted:

Over the course of a decade, former patients have been found on Skid Row in hospital gowns or wearing hospital ID bracelets around their wrists. A case of a paraplegic man found crawling with a colostomy bag spurred public outrage and led to investigations as well as criminal charges.

One Los Angeles hospital was fined $200,000 in civil penalties for discharging a patient to nowhere. Sure, they kindly gave the sick homeless person a ride downtown, but still a court took a dim view of such heartless “dumping.” Another local hospital that habitually dropped off patients on Skid Row was ordered to pay $500,000 to homeless service providers, and one suspects that money will not come from the hospital’s profits, but on the backs of future patients.

Also in Los Angeles, the County-USC Medical Center mishandled a homeless woman’s labor and delivery process, resulting in the birth of a severely disabled child who needs institutional care. The story is full of heartbreaking details, not the least of which is a $7.5 million settlement that will come from the pockets of other Californians.

LA’s Skid Row has become less convenient for “patient dumping” for another reason. The city would like to push everyone out of the area, and attempted to start a diaspora by implementing a very aggressive policing program. When a lawsuit was filed by several long-term street people, the power structure agreed to suspend the overnight police sweeps until the city could build 1,250 permanent housing units, which are a long way from becoming reality. Meanwhile, the city (taxpayers) paid for $725,000 worth of the civil rights attorneys’ professional time.

In Dallas, eight years of litigation ended with the city agreeing to pay a quarter million dollars to two organizations with whose feeding of homeless people it had interfered. The story says:

Of the settlement, $166,666.66 will go to Big Heart Ministries and Rip Parker Memorial Homeless Ministry and $83,333.34 will go to the lawyers from National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty who represented the plaintiffs.

Legal representation costs an awful lot, and cities are paying for prosecutors to go after the violent criminals who beat and kill homeless people, and for their public defenders. The bills for hate crimes land in everyone’s mailboxes. Another incidental budget item is the cost of constantly re-arresting offenders for not reporting to the authorities where they live, because they don’t live anywhere. And the cost of putting out fires that are started accidentally by homeless people trying to cook or just to avoid freezing. Really, listing all these miscellaneous expenses could become a full-time job, and they are all expenses that would not exist if everyone had a place to live.


Source: “In Historic Police Brutality Case, Family of Homeless Denver Pastor Killed
in Custody Awarded $4.6M,” Democracynow.org, 10/17/14
Source: “L.A.’s Homeless Patient Dumping Law Leads to $500,000 Settlement With Hospital,” KCET.org, 05/29/14
Source: “Formerly Homeless Woman Awarded Medical Malpractice Settlement Against L.A. Hospital,” LegalExaminer.com, 11/07/13
Source: “City to Pay $250000 Settlement to Homeless Support Groups,” DallasObserver.com,12/08/14
Image by David Shankbone


People Who Feed People

Near Windward Ave., Venice BeachA few days ago it was announced that in Knoxville, Tenn., a teen group is passing out something that people need even more than food—drinking water. They are participating in the Win Our World program, which only lasts for a week, but, with any luck, plants the seeds of the “pay it forward” notion in young minds.

Feeding the homeless is in the news a lot these days, especially when cities outlaw practice, as many seem to be doing. The results are lawsuits, adverse publicity, and huge expense. And those are only the stories that make the news. A variety of methods are used to discourage generous, caring people from trying to help others. Of course, those methods don’t always work.

Venice, Calif., has had a long and troubled history as a hotbed of homelessness. A couple of years back, an anonymous donor gave money to the Whole Foods store at a major intersection to host a weekly homeless breakfast program. Neighboring homeowners and tenants were not consulted beforehand, and did not want strangers to tromping through their yards on Sunday mornings, leaving trash and worse.

The locals were already burned out on the idea of feeding the homeless because of another food program operating a block away. There was vigorous debate, and after holding the event out back of its store the first time, Whole Foods began setting up its operation near the beach instead. A year later the program was still in effect at the alternate location, with complaints still rolling in for various reasons.

Not long afterward, in Pasadena Calif., Union Station Homeless Services expected to feed 5,000 at its annual Thanksgiving bash. Local residents had been sharing home-cooked meals with the homeless for 37 years—the same dishes they made for their families. Cooks would pop an extra tray of stuffing in the oven, or stir an extra quart of cranberry sauce, and deliver the surplus to a central location. According to the group’s CEO, Rabbi Marvin Gross, nobody had ever been sick.

Nevertheless, over the years, none of the homemade meals had been prepared in approved locations. When November 2013 rolled around, the Health Department stepped in and put its foot down. Going forward, helpers could only donate store-bought food (which in this fairy-tale scenario is totally, dependably safe and wholesome.) Undaunted, the charity took advantage of the opportunity to promote an approved location, and encouraged its supporters to donate pies obtained from a Los Angeles bakery owned by Mental Health America, which employs people with mental illnesses.

Feeding the Homeless Throughout the Country

A few months later, in New Orleans, Sister Beth Mouch delivered food to the St. Jude Community Center to prepare a meal for 200 people experiencing homelessness. She found a towing service preparing to remove her truck, without even a written ticket from the parking police. Though her vehicle was not even hooked up to the tow truck yet, and she was ready to drive away, the nun was not allowed to leave. Her truck was towed, and she had to pay a fine to recover it. Apparently, this was not the first time that Community Center volunteers had suffered such petty harassment in their efforts to nourish the hungry.

Around the same time, in Salem, Mass., a young convenience store clerk (whose own history included half a year of living in her car) gave a homeless man a small cup of coffee and was fired for it.Once word got out, Ava Lins received other job offers and soon posted on Facebook that she was working for Citizens for Adequate Housing. That story had a happy ending, but every time someone is retaliated against for trying to help, even on such a very small scale, it sends a bad message and teaches a bad lesson.

To offset those grim examples, a story appeared in the same week about a New Jersey couple, Mark and Anna Landgrebe, who were in their 23rd year of driving their minibus into Manhattan every Saturday night to deliver food and clothing to people in need. All over the country, alone or working together, good-hearted people are pushing back against the increasingly oppressive legal climate. Let’s hope that more people look for ways to contribute.

Source: “Teens give water to Knoxville homeless,” WATE.com, 06/23/15
Source: “Whole Foods: Free Meals for the Homeless on Sundays!,” Yovenice.com, 03/24/12
Source: “No more home-cooked donations at Thanksgiving meal for Pasadena homeless,” scpr.org, 11/26/13
Source: “Nun’s truck towed while delivering food to homeless,” TheCelebrityCafe.com, 3/23/14
Source: “7-11 Clerk Says She Was Fired For Giving Freezing Homeless Man A $1 Cup Of
Coffee,” ThinkProgress,org, 03/19/14
Source: “This Family Has Been Feeding the Homeless Every Weekend for 22 Years, and
They Have No …,” lansing.shine.fm, 03/24/14
Image by Ryan Vaarsi


The Exploitation that Turned Out Not to Be



Last fall, Will Hobson wrote about one of the most extensive homeless programs in Tampa, Florida, and its connection to large public sports events:

For years, New Beginnings founder and CEO Tom Atchison has sent his unpaid homeless labor crews to work at Tampa Bay Rays, Lightning and Bucs games, the Daytona 500 and the Florida State Fair. For their shelter, he’s had homeless people work in construction, landscaping, telemarketing, moving, painting, even grant-writing.

At any given time, the program serves around 100 men, women, and young adults, many of whom are veterans. Many are also recovering addicts and alcoholics, and Atchison places great importance on work therapy. But the Tampa Bay Times, which undertook an investigation, believed that exploitation of the homeless was underway. Drug and alcohol recovery programs often supervise their residents’ financial lives because that way, it is harder to relapse. But Atchison was also accused of appropriating the residents’ Social Security payments and SNAP benefits, even when the total was more than what they owed the program for their housing and food.

Along with renting out the New Beginnings residents to other companies, Atchison has also started landscaping and telemarketing companies. Legally, each person is supposed to make $7.25 per hour, the federal minimum wage, but according to labor attorneys consulted by the Times, this did not appear to be the case. Hobson’s article compared it to an earlier case in New York State in which a federal judge made a program pay $800,000 in withheld wages to its former employees.

A Fresh Start For New Beginnings, With Proper Wages

By the second week of December, it was announced that the Buccaneers, Lightning, and Rays had all ended their relationship with the inadequately paid workers. Various media outlets flung around terms like indentured servitude and slave labor. Sources the Tampa Bay Times called “homeless advocates” might actually have been disgruntled n’er-do-wells. If someone was ejected from the program for breaking the no-substance pledge and other rules, “going to the media” would be a weapon of revenge.

At the same time, some residents were interviewed who had no complaints and said the program had saved their lives. Just before Christmas, the Tampa Bay Times published an eloquent letter by Brandon Jones that summed up the view held by defenders of New Beginnings and its founder.

Let me see if I have this straight. Pastor Tom Atchison of New Beginnings takes in drug addicts, criminals and sex offenders—basically the unemployable dregs of society whom no other institution will care for—and gives them free room and board, and probably clothing too.

In return he asks the men to pay for their costly care by working a few hours a week at jobs in the community for (at most) pocket money. Nobody is compelled to stay at his homeless shelter and as I understand it nobody is prevented from finding additional employment to earn a few dollars if they so choose. And while in Atchison’s care they are gaining basic job skills, and building a record of steady employment and sobriety that can help them to return to normal society.

At the end of the month a different newspaper, the Tampa Tribune, announced what seemed to be a win-win resolution of the problem, with the old contracting company (Aramark) out of the picture, a new company called All Team Staffing in the driver’s seat, and an even greater number of New Beginnings residents employed, under improved terms. There is more work to do because the new contract includes not just selling concessions, but cleanup after the sporting events. Mike Salinero reported:

The Rev. Tom Atchison, the Pentecostal preacher who founded New Beginnings, said the arrangement through All Team Staffing is better than the Aramark contract because the workers get paychecks with taxes and Social Security taken out.

In March of this year, the Tampa Tribune carried a piece by the New Beginnings leader, Tom Atchison. This is definitely worth reading in its entirety, but here are the main points:

New Beginnings has survived but has had to cut a lot of services because of the loss of income caused by the bogus articles. We will continue to rebuild our services as the truth continues to surface.

After the careful and extensive examination of the financial records of New Beginnings and the interviews of several employees and clients, federal investigators concluded that there were no violations of record keeping or labor laws.

New Beginnings makes no apologies for requiring clients to pay a part of their expenses by working. We want to teach them a work ethic and not to depend on the government and others to support them.

People who hit the streets, with intractable substance use problems, are often not angels. It would be foolish to pretend otherwise. Such difficult people tend to want everything handed to them, and react badly to rules like “work or move out”—an attitude that could account for the troubles that originally set them on the path to a last-resort rehab center. Everyone deserves a second chance, but people who answer the call to be in the second-chance business are allowed, on behalf of society as a whole, to set boundaries and enact real consequences.

Source: “Tampa homeless program uses unpaid, destitute residents as steady labor force, revenue source,” TampaBay.com, 11/29/14
Source: “Letters: Good work at New Beginnings is being punished,” TampaBay.com, 12/19/14
Source: “New Beginnings’ clients working at RayJay again after federal probe,” TBO.com, 12/29/14
Source: “The truth about New Beginnings of Tampa,” TPB.com, 03/28/15
Image by Walter



Homelessness and Houses

Abandoned houseDozens 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


Homelessness and Pointless Identity Theft

Occupy Austin ArrestsPaperwork 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



How to Become Homeless: Work for the Wrong Company

Starbucks -- better than some

Starbucks — better than some

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

Pages ... 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11