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How to Become Homeless… or Not

Prevent HomelessnessThis week is full of significant happenings. The whitepaper, “Prevent Homelessness at its Core — The Universal Living Wage (for dramatic business savings)” is available online, and printed copies are being sent out to the President, Vice President, state Governors, and members of Congress. The author is Richard R. Troxell, president of House the Homeless, which is headquartered in Austin, Texas.

One of the basic ideas this document embraces is that homelessness is way beyond just needing to be “dealt with,” it must be prevented. The great American philosopher Henry David Thoreau said, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” Hold that thought, because we will return to it.

Sue Watlov-Phillips, who authored the “Overview” section of the whitepaper, speaks of the media-nourished stereotype in which the lack of a place to live is a problem exclusively owned by the individuals who experience homelessness. This is reminiscent of the bad old days when the racial situation in the United States was characterized as “the Negro problem.”

Eventually, thanks to the actions of countless thousands of courageous people, the so-called Negro problem was correctly identified as a societal problem. Watlov-Phillips writes:

As long as we continue to blame people experiencing homelessness on their individual problems […] it allows us as a society to not address fundamental structural issues in our society that is creating and maintaining homelessness for millions of our people in this country and allows the general society to identify people experiencing homelessness as ‘those people’ instead of our people.

What are the roots of homelessness?

In other words, what are the roots of homelessness? They are embedded, Richard R. Troxell tells us, in two major trenches. One major crisis is that almost no one makes what could fairly be called a livable income any more. If that is not sufficiently obvious in our own lives, we can look to the media for such spectacles as the recent public relations disaster perpetrated by McDonald’s. The corporation’s suggested employee budget not only contained ridiculous expenditure figures, but took for granted that it’s normal for an American to hold down two jobs, just to live one life.

When a person is able to work, is paying them a living wage such a wild idea? When a person is not able to work because of disability, is improving the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) system such a crazy notion? Richard shows how these two things can happen, and illustrates the benefits to both business and taxpayers.

The other relentless contributor to homeless statistics is the ease with which people slip through the safety net, so thin and frayed as to be nonexistent in places. The whitepaper identifies several ways this rupture of the social fabric could be repaired so people stop falling into the abyss. Richard says:

The paper also looks at the concept/tenet: Discharge No One into Homelessness. This is the idea that at no time do we know as much about an individual as when they enter one of our Institutions… Therefore, we should begin to prepare for their eventual discharge into a safe housing environment, immediately.

In the recent past, House the Homeless has examined these institutions in depth, one by one. In a civilized country, the very notion of anyone being discharged from a hospital back onto the streets could make a grown man cry. Young people who already suffer from multiple disadvantages are released from the foster care system into oblivion. Far too many veterans, quite likely to be physically or mentally disabled, are denied the care that was promised them and that is owed them, and abandoned to their fates.

But that’s not all

Of course, there are many other routes to homelessness. An unbelievable number of Americans have lost their homes to the banks. It is worth noting that Sue Watlov-Phillips co-authored Foreclosure to Homelessness: The Forgotten Victims of the Subprime Crisis. In 1983, she founded Elim, the Minneapolis institution that focused on locating transitional housing in duplexes and apartments, rather than shelters. She is also a practicing psychologist, political activist and Board Member Emeritus of the National Coalition for the Homeless.

The other major participant in the creation of the whitepaper is Professor Edgar Cahn, who wrote the Preface. A very condensed version of his distinguished biography includes these phrases:

A graduate of the Yale law school […] started his career in government as special counsel and speechwriter for Attorney General Robert Kennedy… [F]ounded the Citizens Advocate Center… [F]ounded the Antioch School of Law… National Legal Services program… Time Dollar Youth Court…

Of the various genres of people experiencing homelessness, former prisoners are most difficult for the average housed American without a criminal record to sympathize with. But it doesn’t matter how anyone feels about it. The cold, hard fact is that America’s prison population has been artificially and outrageously inflated for the sake of corporate profit, and the more people are caught up in it, the worse everything is going to be for everybody.

Read all of  “Prevent Homelessness at its Core — The Universal Living Wage (for dramatic business savings)” or even just the Executive Summary… Tell everyone you meet that we must attack homelessness at its roots by preventing it! You can find the document in its entirety by clicking here or below.

 

Source: “Edgar S.Cahn, Ph.D., Father of Time Banking…,” EthicalMarkets.com

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How to Become Homeless: Get Out of Prison

Intersticio urbanoIn The Evil That Men Do, Stephen G. Michaud and Roy Hazelwood list the “[…] traits of the antisocial personality — lying, substance abuse, promiscuity, disdain for social norms, cruelty, use of aliases, lack of a fixed address…”

They define “lack of a fixed address” — in other words, homelessness —  as an antisocial personality trait, in and of itself. So do very many other authority figures and everyday citizens in our society. Is it any wonder that so often homelessness leads to a criminal record, just as a criminal record leads to homelessness?

It is a vicious cycle that, every year, larger numbers of people now find themselves trapped in. We seem to be heading for some nightmarish amalgam of the immense anarchistic societies that used to inhabit acres of slums in London and Paris, and the strange chaotic configurations of the urban cyberpunk future imagined by speculative fiction novelist William Gibson.

Far too many Americans spend their lives moving from correctional facilities to the streets and back again in an endless loop. Some are homeless because they are released from prison and have nowhere else to go. After a sentence of a year or two, it could happen that a person returns to an intact family situation. Finding a job might be almost impossible, but there is some chance that other family members will give a homecomer a place to stay and provide other forms of support, at least for a while. The save is tenuous, but not impossible.

Homecomers need another chance

How about a person who gets out after serving 25 years? How many friends and relatives have died in the meantime? Does anyone still even write? Are there children who have grown up and established their own lives, and would prefer not to associate with an ex-con?

What place is there for someone who has been incarcerated for a quarter of a century; who comprehends almost nothing about the modern world; who has no job skills; who probably could never get hired anyway because of his record; whose only acquaintances on the outside are likely to be former inmates like himself?

Now add to that scenario the very real possibility that the person might have been innocent in the first place. It happens all the time. We see how many people have gotten as far as death row, or even been executed for crimes they didn’t do. How many lesser sentences have resulted from wrongful convictions? It’s worth thinking about.

What if the person was grossly overcharged and/or over-convicted, for political, racial, or personal reasons, or because of a bad law that was later changed, leaving thousands of people serving time for actions that are no longer even crimes? These things happen often enough that to make any assumptions about any particular ex-con could be horribly unfair and only heap more injustice onto what they have already suffered.

True whether you like it or not

And there’s another thing. In his book The Perpetual Prisoner Machine, Joel Dyer says:

Research has found that the vast majority of Americans, over 70 percent of us, have committed at least one imprisonable offense such as illegal drug use, driving while intoxicated, shoplifting, and so forth at some point in our lives.

Deep in his or her heart, every American adult knows “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” It’s an old saying, and nowhere is it more applicable than when a free person compares himself or herself to a prison inmate. In many cases, the only difference between Joe Ex-Con and Mr. Upstanding Citizen is that Mr. Upstanding Citizen never got caught.

How many kiddie porn connoisseurs are running around loose, relative to the number of locked-up pervs? For each luckless nobody who was apprehended stealing a six-pack of beer, how many criminals in suits, responsible for stealing millions of dollars from hardworking Americans, are enjoying their illegal wealth without a care in the world, and looking down their noses at homeless ex-cons?

White Paper

And, leaving crime entirely aside, consider this:

Our nation’s prisons have become the de facto housing facilities for many of our nation’s mentally ill.

Those words are from “Homelessness Prevention: A National Economic Stimulus,” the white paper written by Richard R. Troxell, President of House the Homeless. People too messed up to stay on the safe side of the law, even when they have no intention of antisocial behavior, are likely to be sentenced and incarcerated. What happens when they get out — still mentally incapacitated, plus with a prison record?

And regular people who made an error in judgment, a bad decision, and got swept up into the corrections system — what happens when they are freed? “Parolees,” Richard reminds us, “are not eligible for federal housing or food stamps.” Plus, a homecomer might have picked up a case of TB or some other condition, courtesy of the abysmal health conditions in penal institutions. There is a lot more to this extremely detailed document, whose overall theme is how to ensure that no one is discharged into homelessness — not from prison or from any institution.

And don’t forget — On Labor Day (Monday, Sept 2) take your Universal Living Wage banner to your picnic, and on Tuesday, unfurl it again from a highway overpass (see example on this page) or in front of City Hall. Or join a protest at a local Walmart on Labor Day or the following Monday.

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Source: “The Evil That Men Do,” Amazon.com
Source: “The Perpetual Prisoner Machine,” Amazon.com
Image by Daquella manera (Daniel Lobo).

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How to Become Homeless: Age Out of Foster Care, Part 2

Homeless KidsLast week, House the Homeless mentioned the time when agencies in Massachusetts received a “planning grant” of $120,000 to “identify the causes of transition-age homelessness.” We would have told them for free. The cause of transition-age homelessness is: A lot of kids, when they leave the foster care system, don’t have livable incomes and, as a result, don’t have any place to live. Bada-bing!

John Chafee was a U.S. Senator from Rhode Island who sponsored legislation to help ex-foster kids. What does the John Chafee Foster Care Independence Program do for youth on their journey to self-sufficiency?

The program is intended to serve youth who are likely to remain in foster care until age 18, youth who, after attaining 16 years of age, have left foster care for kinship guardianship or adoption, and young adults ages 18-21 who have ‘aged out’ of the foster care system.

The Chafee Act also allowed for Medicaid coverage to be extended to age 21, at the discretion of each individual state, for youths emancipated from foster care. If the particular state wants to, it can use up to one-third of its funding to pay for room and board for emancipated youths between 18 and 21. The federal government supplies most of the cost and the state kicks in some.

On paper, this program met various needs on the road to independent adulthood — education, employment, housing, financial management, and “assured connections to caring adults for older youth in foster care.” In reality, some states gave the federal money back, rather than bothering to carry out the Chafee Act requirements. (Incidentally, speaking of money, a later adjustment raised from $1,000 to $10,000 the amount of savings a young person is allowed to have, and still receive help. One wonders how many emancipated foster kids struggle with a too-much-savings problem!)

Accountability

The government agencies in charge needed to know whether their efforts were actually doing any good. They wanted to know the outcomes, including “educational attainment, employment, avoidance of dependency, homelessness, non-marital childbirth, high-risk behaviors, and incarceration.” For several years, little was done to advance toward this goal. Apparently, nobody started keeping track, except the occasional oddball grad student or nonprofit foundation, so we don’t know much about the young lives at stake here. Finally in 2008, the states were ordered to start doing followups by October of 2010.

Meanwhile, the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative started to figure things out by paying attention to various studies of the quality of independent living programs and their results. Its April 2010 report made the excellent point that kids with families have a long grace period before they are expected to be full adults. If a young person is settled and independent by age 25, that’s considered good. Former foster kids, with a lot less going for them, are expected to pull themselves together and function as self-sufficient members of society at 18.

And some do, but this report does not find the success rate impressive:

In general, programs have been found to be ineffective in meeting the needs of young people in the areas of education and employment, economic well-being, housing, delinquency, pregnancy, and receipt of needed documentation.

Independent living programs were found to be “primarily checklists and involved classes for youth in foster care.” The paucity of implementation led the Government Accountability Office to take a peek. Its 2004 report wore a frowny face:

The GAO found gaps in the availability of mental health services, mentoring services, and securing safe and suitable housing, particularly in rural areas.

In response to the GAO survey, 49 states reported increased coordination with federal, state and local programs that could provide or supplement independent living services. In follow-up interviews with child welfare administrators, however, the GAO found that most were unaware of these services.

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

A University of Chicago study of kids in three states said:

In comparison with their peers, they are, on average, less likely to have a high school diploma, less likely to be pursuing higher education, less likely to be earning a living wage, more likely to have experienced economic hardships, more likely to have had a child outside of wedlock, and more likely to become involved with the criminal justice system.

Another study found that only about half of ex-foster kids had a high school diploma or equivalent. At age 21, only about a third had any college experience, and less than 2% of them ever finished college. And get this. If we ever needed proof that foster kids are emotionally deprived:

The Midwest Evaluation found that 71% of females aging out of foster care become pregnant before 21 compared to the 34% of the general population of females. Repeat pregnancies were common among females aging out of foster care… Half of the young men […] reported having gotten a female pregnant, compared to 19% in the comparison group…

Here’s a statistic that will knock your socks off: Former foster kids are 10 times as likely to have been arrested, since age 18, than young adults their age who were not foster kids. And, by the very nature of street life, and governmental neglect, and ingrained distrust of the establishment in any form, there is no way to even guess how many young people turned loose from the foster system are currently experiencing homelessness. Here comes an even more dizzying number:

… [A]llowing young people to age out of foster care to live on their own also has a significant fiscal impact on society in terms of educational outcomes, unplanned parenthood, and criminal justice system costs… Cutler Consulting has estimated that the cost of the outcome differences between young people aging out of foster care and the general population is nearly $5.7 billion for each annual cohort of young people leaving care.

Reactions?

Source: “Program Description,” HHS.gov, 06/28/12
Source: “Chafee Plus Ten: A Vision for the Next Decade,” Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, April 2010
Image by Todd Van Hoosear.

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McDonald’s and the Living Wage

McDonald's Imgur

Tony Polombo is a columnist who, like Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless, believes that a living wage is not the same as a minimum wage. They won’t be the same until the minimum wage is such that anybody who puts in a 40-hour workweek can afford food; clothing; safe, decent, basic housing (including utilities); public transportation; and access to the emergency room. A living wage, as its name implies, is one that a family can actually live on, not merely subsist or exist.

Some say that raising the national minimum wage would cause companies to lay off workers, and then unemployment would only increase. To them, Polombo makes this interesting point which is imbued with a dark and terrible humor:

As the many workers who are now doing the work that two or more other workers used to do can tell you — employers in general are already hiring the least number of employees they can get away with.

He brings up arguments of a kind that, due to a shortage of common sense, are not often heard. Check this out:

The US already has de facto living wage laws in the form of government safety net programs such as Food Stamps, the Earned Income Tax Credit and Medicaid… But critics have (rightly, in my view) charged that government programs such as these are little more than corporate welfare…

You would think that the anti-government Tea Party types in Congress would want to eliminate much of the need for these government programs by making corporations pay their full share of a living wage…

Citizens who work for slightly more generous corporations all chip in via their income taxes. Then the government has money to help other workers who labor for the cheapskate corporations, so their employees can afford the necessities that ought to be covered by their paychecks but are not. Voila! Corporate welfare!

You can call it anything you want, but that doesn’t change the fact. Speaking of cheapskate companies, Polombo says:

The award for corporate chutzpah goes to McDonald’s who in a campaign aimed towards its workers, tries to convince them that it is possible to work a minimum wage McJob and still live comfortably — if only they would budget their money properly! They support this by a sample budget that apparently assumes a worker has a second job along with Food Stamps to pay for food and almost no expense for health insurance. Unbelievable!

Polombo is not the only journalist having a good time bashing McDonald’s and wondering, incidentally, what planet those people are from. For ThinkProgress.org, Annie-Rose Strasser gave the sample budget the once-over and called it “laughably inaccurate”:

Not only does the budget leave a spot open for ‘second job,’ it also gives wholly unreasonable estimates for employees’ costs: $20 a month for health care, $0 for heating, and $600 a month for rent. It does not include any budgeted money for food or clothing.

Actually, this would explain why no money is allotted for heating. A person with two jobs is never home to need the heat turned on, and can sleep wrapped in a Mylar space blanket which is available for quite a reasonable price at the surplus store, where they are sold for the convenience of mountain climbers who might get caught in blizzards. Strasser goes on to say:

For an uninsured person to independently buy health care, he or she must shell out on average $215 a month — just for an individual plan… If that person wants to eat, ‘moderate’ spending will run them $32 a week for themselves, and $867 a month to feed a family of four. And if a fast food worker is living in a city? Well, New York City rents just reached an average of $3,000 a month.

And here is a question. Considering that this phantom budget was concocted by McDonald’s with the help of Visa — what about credit card bills? Many Americans pay huge amounts of interest every month to credit card companies, and not always for luxuries and frivolities. And people, yes, even fast-food employees, have student loans to pay back. And where is the item for child care, for which anyone with one or more children and two jobs will at some point have to pay? Even a doting grandma needs a $20 tucked into her apron pocket every now and then.

But there is no point in nitpicking, when the basic assumption of the budget — that everybody should work two jobs — is so blatantly unacceptable. The only upside is that employees can, as comic Stephen Colbert suggests, go to both employers’ Christmas parties and surreptitiously fill their pockets with buffet food. That may get them through the holiday week, but what about the rest of the year? And how many McDonald’s executives work a second job? What planet are these people from, anyway?

Reactions?

Source: “A Living Wage for Americans,” The World According to Tony Polombo, 08/01/13
Source: “McDonalds Tells Workers To Budget By Getting A Second Job And Turning Off Their Heat,” ThinkProgress.org, 07/15/13
Image by Imgur.com.

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Homeless Vets and Corruption, Part 3

Circuits VietnamA couple of weeks ago, House the Homeless blog talked about how the Veterans Administration (VA) arrived at an impasse where it could not even pretend to keep up with compensation claims. Documents were shredded, and requests for help ignored, resulting in immeasurable harm to veterans who are sick, disabled, unemployable, suicidal, potentially homeless, or actually on the streets.

How bad did the scandal get? In Texas, whose ruling politicians are traditionally loath to part with a dollar, the state even kicked in a few bucks to help the federal agency fund its payroll and get some claims processed.

The VA had its excuses, of course. Despite the fact that bosses collected bonuses (another scandal), the overall sluggish economy did not allow for the hiring of staff. Furthermore, the agency claimed that the problem could be traced to one of its very own accomplishments. Veterans were hearing about and applying for the available services in greater numbers, and the reason for this was that outreach programs had become so much more effective. The VA was doing its job too well!

Nice try, boys

Meanwhile, Agent Orange disability claims were mounting up, and the most egregious excuse of all was that the Veterans’ Administration didn’t see it coming. Really? Back in 1962, when the U.S. started dumping more than a dozen toxic defoliants onto Vietnam, the effects on human health were not a mystery. High school kids, if they knew which magazines to subscribe to, could read about what the herbicides used in that war would do to humans, including the troops on the ground in Southeast Asia. And the all-knowing military hierarchy didn’t know? That calls for a sarcastic eye-roll.

Stateside, Agent Orange had for some reason also been used extensively in Oregon, and in the ’70s a lot of dead babies were born there. That it caused liver damage and at least a couple of kinds of cancer was already known, and the Environmental Protection Agency banned the chemical for use in the United States. This information comes from a very thorough uncredited piece published by The U.S. Veteran Dispatch.

It doesn’t stop there. In 1979, Vietnam veteran Rep. Tom Daschle caused the National Veterans Task Force on Agent Orange to be created. Its mandate was to commission an extensive study of veterans who had been exposed. The writer says:

Over the next four years, the VA examined an estimated 200,000 veterans for medical problems they claimed stemmed from Agent Orange and other herbicides used in Vietnam. But many of those examined were dissatisfied with their examinations. They claimed the exams were done poorly and often in haste by unqualified medical personnel. Many veterans also claimed that the VA seemed to have a mind set to ignore or debunk Agent Orange connected [to] disability complaints.

The Centers for Disease Control spent $43 million trying to figure out what was going on, and screwed it up royally (according to the Institute of Medicine) by adopting a research method that excluded those veterans most likely to have been in contact with Agent Orange. A spokesperson for the Institute could imagine only two options — the study was either “monumentally bungled” or “politically rigged.”

Cassandra Anderson, writing for Infowars.com, came out in favor of “politically rigged,” alleging a cover-up in which the Environmental Protection Agency is also involved:

US courts have protected Monsanto and Dow Chemical from liability and criminal prosecution… President Reagans’s administration, in cahoots with the CDC, thwarted a $43 million Congressional Study of Agent Orange in 1987 to protect itself and its corporate pals Monsanto & Dow from accountability…

According to this theory, if the full truth got out it would not only bankrupt the herbicide makers, but would also negatively impact other industries including plastics, paper, and agriculture. And all the while, veterans were showing up with soft tissue sarcomas and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Since the government is pretty much untouchable, litigation must be aimed elsewhere, and vets filed a class-action lawsuit against Monsanto, Dow, and other manufacturers of Agent Orange. Apparently, they could have provided a defoliant that did the job without the horrible effects on humans, if only they had cared to take a little more time in the manufacturing process and relinquish a slight bit of profit.

Red flag disregarded

Now, check out this statement made by the assistant secretary of Health and Human Services, Dr. Edward Brandt, Jr., in the year this legal action started, 1982:

The early warning sign has gone up.

That was more than 30 years ago. Anyone who didn’t see the approaching wave of demand upon the VA system had their head someplace where heads aren’t supposed to be. The only wonder is that the deluge did not hit sooner. That lawsuit, by the way, was settled (for not nearly enough money once it was all divvied up) and the chemical manufacturers didn’t have to take any official blame. Anderson is not a fan of Judge Jack Weinstein, and believes he committed several offenses related to this lawsuit and similar ones:

Weinstein appointed attorneys to represent the veterans and then intimidated the attorneys into agreeing to a ‘nuisance’ settlement of $180 million — nowhere near enough money to cover the medical treatment of hundreds of thousands of injured vets.

In 2010, “automatic funding” of Agent Orange claims was instituted, which effectively transferred the liability to the U.S. taxpayers, who pay for the health care and hospitalization of affected veterans. Meanwhile, says Anderson:

The Veterans Administration claims they have no idea how many vets have been treated for Agent Orange injuries, or how much taxpayer money has been spent.

Reactions?

Source: “The Story of Agent Orange,” The U.S. Veteran Dispatch, Nov. 1990
Source: “White House, US Courts and EPA shaft Veterans to protect Monsanto,” Infowars.com, 02/08/12
Image by dancingqueen27.

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Homeless Veterans and Corruption, Part 2

iRaqIn “Homeless Veterans and Corruption,” House the Homeless looked at the unauthorized and improper shredding of documents pertinent to compensation cases. Also, there is the land that has been given to America’s veterans, and manipulated to benefit everyone but them.

In 2011, when the Occupy movement was making news, critics complained that they didn’t understand what Occupy stood for. Surprisingly, a major network brought at least one answer to public attention.

ABC quoted an Iraq veteran who had returned to that troubled country after serving his military hitch. Aaron Hughes, of Iraq Veterans Against the War, spoke on behalf of thousands of service members who want real change and not public relations hogwash. Hughes told the news team:

There is a massive disconnect between the larger society and U.S. service members. Right now we have high unemployment, homeless and suicide rates among veterans.

No part of that declaration is difficult to understand, and the situation has not improved since it was made. Typical of the irregularities going on at the time was a problem that overtook a nonprofit group in Charleston, S.C.

Renee Dudley reported on the legal difficulties faced by the head of a nonprofit organization, a homeless shelter for veterans in Charleston. Director Nancy Cook was paid $130,000 per year, and juicy benefits, to run the place, and tax auditors called her remuneration “unreasonable.” The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs told the press:

The audit also found that health insurance coverage for the shelter’s two paid employees […] was paid entirely by the veterans’ grants… Recently released bank statements show Cook used the account to pay for a hotel stay at Folly Beach, downtown dining and yoga lessons…

You have to wonder how many such scams go undetected, to the detriment of veterans in need. Other shady, sketchy things have been going on. Waco, TX, is a major processing hub for Veterans Administration paperwork. At one point in a vanished glorious past, Texas was processing compensation claims faster than anybody. But somehow, starting around 2007, there were five years when the backlog increased, while the head honcho, one Carl Lowe, collected $53,000 worth of bonuses before his 2011 retirement:

It’s reprehensible that they would even consider bonuses at all. It reflects what I consider a broken culture that doesn’t put the veterans first.

Those words were spoken by U.S. Representative Bill Flores, a Republican who hails from Waco. Ignoring the needs of veterans is not the only sign of a broken culture. The very concept of bonuses for government jobs is messed up. A worker who does a good job gets promoted, and gets a raise. A worker who does a lousy job stays in the same pay grade forever and makes less than the hard workers who are promoted. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to go? Isn’t that why the civil service already has a multi-leveled and finely-tuned seniority scale?

And most importantly, the taxpayers have already paid for the work to be done. The expectation exists that these government employees are going to do their best, for the citizens who are paying their salaries, and for the veterans who need their expertise in shoving paperwork through the pipeline. And because they are Americans. As government employees — just like soldiers, they are duty-bound to give it their all — just like soldiers. How did this creepy bonus idea even get started?

A wealth of bonuses

In the spring of this year, that story still had legs, partly because the Waco office processing time had increased even more drastically. Nearly 45,000 veterans’ claims waited for decisions from the Waco-based bureaucracy, each individual service member facing a wait of an average 440 days, or 150 days longer than the national average; and in case it escapes anyone’s attention, 440 days is substantially more than a year.

A piece by Jeremy Schwartz of the Austin American-Statesman was followed up by one from the newspaper’s Editorial Board. It quickly became clear that the people working on veterans benefits out of Waco were messing up in a noticeably major way. Nationwide, executive bonuses of nearly $3 million were given out in 2011, while the backlog of unprocessed claims increased, along with waiting times in each individual case of a veteran needing medical attention. The Editorial Board pointed out:

In most endeavors, pay bonuses are awarded for efficiency and effort above and beyond the basic requirements of the job…

Overall, nearly a million veteran claims were waiting to be looked at and acted upon, and all anybody knew was that some government desk jockeys were getting giant rewards — and the less work that got done, the bigger the rewards became. Despite the fact that Texas officials had kicked in an extra million and a half dollars of state money to create a “strike force” team to hire more actual claims processors, the 440-day wait time became standard.

Reactions?

Source: “U.S. Vets, Suffering From Unemployment and Homelessness, Support Occupy Protests,” ABCNews.com, 10/29/11
Source: “Nancy Cook focus of Veterans Affairs inquiry,” The Post and Courier, 06/17/11
Source: “VA fix requires more than promises,” MyStatesman.com, 05/02/13
Image by Ayah (Abajooka).

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Homeless Veterans and Corruption

Duty, Honor, Country -- BetrayalWhen contemplating the shabby treatment accorded to America’s veterans, the question is how far back to go. In 2008, Amanda Ruggeri reported for U.S. News & World Report on the shredder scandal, which began with an accidental discovery, when an employee of the Veterans Administration Inspector General’s office found discrepancies in Detroit.

Documents were in the shredder bin that should not have been. Death certificates had not been placed in the service members’ files. Compensation claim forms, and notices filed in disagreement of claim decisions, were also headed for destruction without any action having been taken on them.

At the time, there were 57 VA regional offices, and further investigation revealed that 41 of them had been shredding paperwork inappropriately — without its having been duplicated for the individual veterans’ files. And since the bins of papers intended for shredding are emptied once or twice per week, the 474 questioned documents found during the investigation represented only a small fraction of the potential suspected negligence.

At the time, the VA had a backlog of 800,000 claims waiting to be looked at, and the absence of one crucial document from any one of those files could result in a denial of compensation. Patrick Dunne, the VA Undersecretary for Benefits, told the press:

We can’t tolerate even one veteran’s piece of paper being missing. We’re taking action to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Thanks to the efforts of Rep. Bob Filner, head of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, on March 3, 2009, there was a congressional hearing that involved two VA subcommittees — Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, and Oversight and Investigations. The title of the 104-page PDF report is: “Document Tampering and Mishandling at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Joint Hearing.”

“Shreddergate”

The result was not heartening. Boiled down to the essentials by a blog called Veteranclaims’s Blog, the goings-on at Veterans Affairs regional offices (VAROs) included 16,000 mishandled documents at a single regional office. The writer mentions, and then quotes, the congressional report regarding:

[…] the ‘Amnesty’ programs which the VA has been operating for at least two years, where they offer amnesty to employees that have removed evidence from veterans claims if they return that illegally removed evidence. ‘During an amnesty period in July 2007 at VARO Detroit, VARO employees turned in almost 16,000 pieces of unprocessed mail including 700 claims and 2,700 medical records and/or pieces of medical information. The VARO determined that none of these claims or documents were in VBA information systems or associated claim files.’

The government’s press release outlining the results of the hearings also mentioned that over the previous 12 years, approximately 50,000 surviving spouses of veterans were denied benefits or, worse, billed for supposed overpayment of benefits by the Department of the Treasury, wanting its money back. All these were mistakes caused by the “VA’s mistaken interpretation of the law.”

If the government bureau in charge of these matters doesn’t even understand the rules under which it supposedly operates, how can anything work? No wonder vets have been waiting a year or more to hear about their claims, with the resulting problems leading to homelessness, or in too many cases, suicide.

More recent developments

A new documentary film, titled Duty, Honor, Country — BETRAYAL, was reviewed for NewsWithViews.com by attorney Rees Lloyd. A while back, House the Homeless mentioned the Los Angeles real estate ripoff, but according to filmmaker Bill Dumas, the scandal is a national disgrace. It’s all about “enhanced use” agreements or leases, which allow non-veteran business interests with good political connections to benefit from land that rightfully belongs to American veterans. Lloyd says:

These leases are for as long as 75 years, at prices far below market value, often nominal payments of ‘$1 a year,’ sometimes nothing at all. Worst of all: The Secretary of Veterans Affairs has the authority to give that land to the lessees entirely in the Secretary’s sole discretion, without Congressional action, if the Secretary decides the land is no longer needed for veterans.

This cozy arrangement has been blatantly exploited by people and organizations accused by the film. And in the case of the large tract of land in the middle of LA, it’s even more disgusting:

Many large dormitory-like buildings on the land which could be used for the homeless, are empty, unused, deteriorating because the VA refuses to maintain them, or build adequate new housing, or use the available land for temporary housing as new housing is built…

There are an estimated 20,000 homeless veterans in Los Angeles.

Reactions?

Source: “Military Veterans’ Benefit Claims Records Wrongly Headed for VA Shredders,” U.S. News & World Report, 10/31/08
Source: “VA gives amnesty to employees while Vets suffer,” Veteranclaims’s Blog, 03/06/09
Source: “New Film: VA “Betrays” Homeless Vets,” NewsWithViews.com, 05/14/13
Image by Bill Dumas.

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Homeless Veterans and Suicide

Sleeping bagIn Florida, at any given time, there are 10 or 12 homeless encampments in the general area of Tampa. The estimated 2,200 inhabitants include an estimated 170 veterans. Reporter Kevin Brady quotes Thomas Brown, who is an outreach coordinator for the organization Tampa Crossroads:

There’s a perception out there that homeless veterans are all drug addicts and alcoholics but that is not the way it is.

Brady also quotes a vet known as Ray, who returned from overseas to find that his second marriage had crumbled and he couldn’t get a job. Here is the part that pertains to suicide:

I volunteered for my second deployment for one reason: to die.

The InterAgency Council on Homelessness says there are more than 62,000 homeless veterans in the country. Depending on whose numbers you accept, between 13% and 25% of people experiencing homelessness in the America are veterans.

Whatever the percentage is now, the Veterans’ Affairs Office foresees that it will rise in the next four years, to where half the homeless will be vets. Among all known suicides, the VA guesses that about 22% of them are veterans. A lot of people are working on solutions to both the homelessness and the suicide rate.

Teresa Shumaker of the Mendocino Beacon interviewed the author of The Warrior’s Mantra, a book whose audience includes emergency services personnel. Roger Ruge is a former law enforcement officer who became a crisis intervention counselor. His method of teaching people to condition their minds and avoid post-traumatic stress involves positive affirmations and mantras.

Shumaker obtained this quotation from Ruge, about veteran suicides:

There is the stigma associated with [seeking help]. There is also this distrust and really long waiting period… Plus, [they] have the warrior mindset. The warrior mindset is, ‘I can take of myself.’ They don’t want to admit that there is a problem, because that is admitting there is a weakness… You have this culture of people who don’t want to seek help in the first place, and then a system that is broken, overwhelmed and can’t really help them… When you are having acute symptoms, you need help right now which is why the suicide rate is so high.

National Survey of Homeless Veterans

Interested parties can download a PDF report compiled by the National Survey of Homeless Veterans. The latest numbers available to work with were from 2011, so there will probably be an updated report soon. The 100,000 Homes campaign added up information gathered by volunteers in 47 communities, from more than 23,000 people experiencing homelessness.

They found that veterans tend to be older and to have been homeless longer than civilians. They are more likely to be sick, and more likely to have traumatic brain injury. This organic physical damage is different from, and may co-exist with, PTSD, which is psychological trauma.

The report compared the situations of homeless veterans who are hooked up with the system, and those who are not. Whatever help people are receiving doesn’t seem to make much difference in regard to their health, except that fewer homeless veterans have Hepatitis C than the non-veterans. The report says:

The data […] suggest that VA health benefits alone do not improve the health outcomes in question for veterans, nor do they help veterans escape homelessness more quickly.

Interestingly, there was no significant difference in length of time homeless between these two groups. Neither was there any significant difference in the health, jail, prison or other data…

Strangely, the report doesn’t contain the word “suicide.”

Reactions?

Source: “Missing In America – Homeless Veterans,” The Current, 05/30/13
Source: “Retired officer shares his knowledge on homelessness…,The Mendocino Beacon, 05/23/13
Source: “National Survey of Homeless Veterans, ” 100khomes.org
Image by fullyreclined (don toye).

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Veterans and Suicide, Part 2

vet“Wait, what?” — is one thing that you’re apt to exclaim, when you can’t believe what you just heard. For instance, on being told that it could take nearly two years for the VA to make a decision about treating her physical disability or psychological problem, a veteran might say, “Wait, what?” — and then probably a whole lot of rougher words.

Coming “back to the world,” a male veteran might learn that he is an expectant father, when that is a biological impossibility. A veteran of either sex might return to find that the promised sweetheart gave up on waiting, and hooked up with his or her best friend. Anybody can come back and face the grim reality that their step-parent got tired of storing their few possessions, and pitched everything — music, high school yearbooks, civilian clothes — in the dumpster.

Although the government is very optimistic about “transferable skills,” anecdotal evidence to the contrary seems to pop up all over the place. We previously mentioned Matt Farwell, whose 4.5 years of military service “provided plenty of skills with no legal application in the civilian world.”

Even with an eminently useful specialty, the returning vet may find protectionist policies that require training as if from the very beginning, in order to be certified. And whether veteran or not, many people these days have learned that a minimum-wage job does not provide a living wage.

The “Wait, what?” reaction kicks in frequently for returning veterans who discover a series of unpleasant surprises in a place that is not the America to which they dreamed of returning. Meanwhile, during all this turmoil, something else might be going on, as Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless suggests:

It is during that first year after discharge that the demons flood their minds and they relive over and over and over again the most horrific and unimaginable events of their lives.

Huge disconnect

If that isn’t enough to handle already, what if the person has a medical condition or an emotional breakdown? After initial contact with the VA system, the average wait, to resolve a first-time claim, is between 316 and 327 days. The latest figures finger Reno, NV, as the worst place, with an average time gap of 681 days. New York, at 642 days, is not far behind.

Normally, the things that tie a person to the world and prevent suicide are few and simple. A person wants to have the sense of belonging, and as if life has some purpose, or at the very least, to feel useful somehow. And the average person who isn’t a veteran probably avoids death and pain.

Now, the veteran. The average military member has formed very close ties to other members of the unit, especially in combat. Back in the USA, that sense of belonging is gone. Faced by unemployment or underemployment, especially if unable to find a place to live, a person is likely to feel useless. Live or die, it makes no difference to the world. And having gained a tolerance for pain and a close acquaintance with death, a person might lose inhibitions about those conditions. In a mental state like this, suicide looks like a viable alternative.

The real costs of war

Some are discarded and forgotten; some are simply beyond the point of being able to accept even the most generous and well-meaning help. Either way, veterans who take their own lives make up a big portion of the real cost of war, and it’s difficult to get a clear perception of just how many such lost souls there are. Turn the clock back five years, to a news item about the same bureaucrat who said “Suicide occurs just like cancer occurs”:

William Feeley, the Veterans Health Administration’s deputy undersecretary for health for operations and management, said in an April 9 deposition that VA did not have a metric to track suicides or attempts. He added that he could not recall a time since he took office in February 2006 when VA had conducted a quarterly review of suicides or attempts…

The VA started to focus on suicide prevention in 2007, but only through connection with its own hospitals and clinics. Statistics were not a huge concern. In 2010, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki asked for cooperation from the governors of every state in getting suicide data on veterans outside the Veterans Administration health care system. Problems with access to data contained in the National Death Index needed straightening out. VA records needed to be melded with those of the Department of Defense, and there were yet more numbers to obtain from the Veterans Crisis Line and Suicide Behavior Reports. The project is underway, but as we will see next time, the system hasn’t caught up yet.

(To be continued…)

Reactions?

Source: “Back in the World — Homeless Veterans,” HouseTheHomeless.org, 05/14/13
Source: “Over 600,000 veterans caught in messy bureaucracy awaiting pending claims,” NYDailyNews.com, 05/07/13
Source: “VA Official Says veterans’ suicides not reflection of agency negligence,” GovExec.com, 05/05/08
Source: “Department of Veterans Affairs Mental Health Services Suicide Prevention Program,” VA.cov, 2012
Image by weStreet (Werner Schutz).

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Veterans and Suicide

H StreetIn The New York Times earlier this month, Tara Parker-Pope summarized the data on suicide in America, as compiled by the Centers for Disease Control, and also sought confirmation from an expert that the number of people taking their own lives is vastly underreported.

What we do know is that “More people now die of suicide than in car accidents.” The first question that comes to mind is, how can statisticians treat those categories as separate? Surely, a proportion of auto accident fatalities are deliberate and successful attempts at self-extinction. There must be an overlap.

Anyway, the suicide rate has risen most among the “baby boomer” generation. A CDC official theorized, “There may be something about that group, and how they think about life issues and their life choices…”

Interestingly, the demographic includes Vietnam veterans and the widows and bereaved girlfriends of Vietnam casualties. Maybe that is the “something” that makes a difference. And the most popular means of suicide, overall, is by gunshot. Active duty military personnel and veterans of all ages are more likely to have access to, and knowledge of, firearms than the general population. Just sayin’.

Speaking of bureaucrats, remember when William Feeley, who was at the time an undersecretary at the Veterans Administration, said:

Suicide occurs just like cancer occurs.

But negligence on the part of the bureaucracy? Never happens, according to him. Still, two veterans’ groups sued the VA, claiming that the Mental Health Strategic Plan, supposedly adopted in 2004, was never implemented. The VA failed to follow through on providing immediate help for vets with PTSD and/or suicide risk. Shockingly, the Justice Department ruled there is “no such expectation” of a suicide prevention program or anything like it.

In the same year, journalist Joshua E. S. Phillips recalled what the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study had found out about post-traumatic stress disorder. The inner conflicts and moral and spiritual trauma experienced by veterans is perhaps worst among those who took part in “abusive violence” — defined as “torturing, wounding, or killing hostages or POWs.” The psychological consequences can be more serious than those resulting from combat violence.

Phillips wrote that informational piece as background for an American RadioWorks project he collaborated on with Michael Montgomery, titled “What Killed Sergeant Gray.” The 23-year-old had been in Iraq for a year, and apparently wanted to return there. But for some reason, he was found dead in the barracks and the event was declared by the Army to be accidental; it happened because the young man was trying to get high off some toxic chemical.

Maybe so. But it is known that Adam Gray had things on his mind. He and a small group of soldiers had opened fire on an Iraqi family, killing one parent and a little girl, to make sure they were not planting any bombs. He had also participated in detainee abuse. So who knows. One thing is for sure, there are an awful lot of equally troubling individual histories.

Around the same time, there was plenty of public attention for the story of James Blake Miller, the so-called “Marlboro Marine,” made world-famous by the photojournalism of Luis Sinco. Miller’s troubled and problematic road back to some semblance of normalcy put a human face on the abstraction of PTSD for many Americans who had previously ignored the problem.

In other news, Bob Ireland, mental health policy program director for the Department of Defense, reassured the public:

… [F]or the person who’s suffering, if they’re coming to the edge of suicide […] they always have a choice to engage in what the real issues are or not. And the support for them is there…

Meanwhile, increasing numbers of vets found that, actually, support was not there. The Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth didn’t give up. In 2011, reporter Jason Leopold tells us, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals declared that:

… [Y]ears of ‘unchecked incompetence’ at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) was directly responsible for an epidemic of suicides and lengthy delays in processing disability benefits for war veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)… Internal VA memos that surfaced during the trial showed VA officials were aware of and attempted to cover-up the fact that 18 veterans per day took their own lives and more than 1,000 veterans had attempted suicide per month…

Two years ago, the federal government settled a wrongful death lawsuit with the family of an Iraq war veteran who hung himself in his parents’ basement in June 2005 after being turned away by doctors at a VA hospital in Massachusetts where he sought help for PTSD.

That one case alone drained the taxpayers of $350,000 plus litigation costs. Wouldn’t it have been more economical to just treat the guy? Now, multiply that by 18 known and admitted veteran suicides per day — all potentially courtroom fodder. And the money is the least of it. What about the lives?

The director of emergency psychiatry at one VA hospital, Dr. Marcus Nemuth, said in a deposition that:

[…] he expected a high volume of post-traumatic stress disorder cases among veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.

That was more than six years ago. How come so few others, even now, have caught on to this obvious fact?

(To be continued…)

Reactions?

Source: “Suicide Rates Rise Sharply in U.S.,” The New York Times, 05/02/13
Source: “VA Official Says veterans’ suicides not reflection of agency negligence,” GovExec.com, 05/05/08
Source: “Inside the Mind of a Torturer,” PublicRadio.org, 10/18/08
Source: “What Killed Sergeant Gray,” PublicRadio.org, 01/10
Source: “Court Demands Mental Health Care Reform for Veterans,” Truth-Out.org, 05/13/11
Image by Daquella manera (Daniel Lobo).

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